Aberlour tasting at The Whisky Exchange

Another month, another interesting tasting at The Whisky Exchange. The main difference this time is that I was actually able to attend rather than gallivanting around in places that weren’t the deepest depths of Vinopolis (which seems to get bigger every time I visit). This month it was the turn of Aberlour, with the tasting led by Phil Huckle, the Chivas brand ambassador who did the Chivas tasting I attended earlier this month.

Aberlour is a Speyside whisky famed for its heavy use of sherry barrels, using them for complete maturation rather than just finishes. Unlike the way that Macallan traditionally operated they do also use bourbon barrels and their standard expressions are 50/50 mixes of bourbon and sherry cask matured whiskies, but there’s still a lot more sherry here than you will often see. The distillery was founded in 1879 by James Fleming, who became well known in Aberlour for his philanthropy, investing heavily in the local community and helping to build up the area. However, this fame was only after his death, as his involvement with his various was made under strict secrecy. The village of Aberlour seems to be more fully known as Charlestown of Aberlour, although the first bit seems to be generally missed out these days, and sits between Grantown and Elgin, in the heart of Speyside. The distillery is part of the Pernod-Ricard portfolio (hence Phil doing the tasting) and while not that well known in the UK is one of the top selling whiskies in the world, topping the charts in the biggest single malt market in the world – France.


First on the tasting mat we had a whisky unavailable in the UK – the Aberlour 10yr old Sherry Cask, a 100% sherry matured whisky that is on sale in France. On the nose it had red fruit, salt and some woody hazelnuts. To taste it was quite different with a caramel sweetness and oak, digestive biscuits, wax and a hint of mint. Water killed a lot of the sweetness, brought out more of the wood and softened some of it into vanilla. A nice sherried Speyside with a lot of the traditional flavours of the region and a distinctive edge to the nose that I am still trying to describe – almost bbq sauce and cold grilled chicken, but not quite…

Next up we had the regular Aberlour 10yr, 50/50 sherry and bourbon casks, and a good way of seeing how the bourbon cask matured whisky affects the sherried whisky. On the nose it was sweeter than the last, with more light sugar, as well as the sherrylike dried fruit. It also had the distinctive bbq chicken smell that I mentioned before, nuts and a chunk of damp sherry barrel. To taste there was waxed wood obscuring some of the fruit and a soft spiciness. There was also a perfumed flavour not unlike Mr Sheen but, to quote Anna, in a good way. Water added creaminess and bitter oak while dropping a lot of the perfume and starting sweetness, but pushing some dried fruit to the finish. A rounded dram that definitely improves on the raw sherry cask by bringing in some of the lighter bourbon barrel influence.

Next was the Aberlour 12yr, another 50/50 mix with a noticeably deeper bronzey gold hue. On the nose it was quite different to the earlier ones, with a savoury edge, sour cherries and an underlying meatiness. To taste it was quite creamy leading to sweet berries, spice and a woody finish. It also had a cooling menthol flavour that dried the edges of the tongue. Water made it chewier with more cream, vanilla, woody spice, dried fruit and a dry stony ‘granite’ flavour. Definitely developed from the 10yr, there’s quite a bit more complexity to this one and a drop of water really opens it up.

We then moved on to what Phil predicted would be the star of the night, even if not his personal favourite – The A’bunadh. Meaning ‘origin’ in gaelic, it is a no age statement whisky (although generally made up of 8-15 year old whiskies with occasional younger additions) designed with the idea of recreating a victorian style – fully sherried due to the non-availability of bourbon casks in those times. It’s unchillfiltered and contains no caramel, the first of which, at least, is not true about the rest of the range, and is released in small batches, each numbered, which vary in flavour – we tried batch 30, the most recent one, which has just started hitting the shelves. On the nose there was the regular distinctive Aberlour-ness, although not quite so pronounced as usual, masked by sherried fruit, glace cherries and creamy creme brulee. In the mouth it was oily and exploded with nutmeg. Once you got over that (and there was a lot of nutmeg) there was honey and a long spicy finish, with more nutmeg. Water, and it can take a lot, calmed things down a bit, bringing out chocolate on the nose and a chocolate milkshake creaminess to the body. There was more fruit and spice as well as a tannic woody finish. In the middle it quite reminded me of lardy cake, which reminds me – I need to find a supplier of lardy cake… Phil was right – this was definitely the star of the show for me, especially as I can grab it at my local (posh) supermarket.

Next was the Aberlour 16yr, continuing the standard range with a slightly darker colour and evolution of flavour. On the nose it had the normal bbq chicken woodiness but it was very light, with much more in the way of grapes, caraway, red fruit and a hint of butteriness – like something a lot closer to new make spirit than something that’s been in the barrel for a decade and a half. To taste it was very creamy, with sweet vanilla complimented by bitter wood, red grapes and mint, with a tannic finish. Water brought out vanilla to go with the cream, a lemony zing and cinnamon. Not what I expected at all, a much lighter flavoured and more zingy dram.

The last on the mat was the Aberlour 18yr, a deep reddy gold dram that almost rivalled the darkness of the A’bunadh. On the nose it had fruit, heavy cream, prickly spice and the bbq chickeny wood that I now expected. To taste it was quite soft, with creamy wood and a dry toasted wood finish. The middle was filled with apples and pears with cinnamon, along with the toasted finish it was almost like drinking apple pie. Water knocked out the complexity very quickly, giving rise to icing sugar sweetness, vanilla wood and leaving a touch of apple. Phil’s favourite of the evening and well appreciated by many in the room, this was interesting but a bit light for my, by this time, rather deadened palate. Definitely one to try again.

As a special treat Phil also managed to dig up a couple of more rare whiskies to round off the night, first of which was an Aberlour 23yr old single bourbon cask bottling, distilled in 1985 and one of the single casks that you can pick up at the distillery itself (although this one is probably now finished). On the nose this was light with apples, cream and freshly cut oak trees. To taste it was creamy with more apples, wood, vanilla and some hints of spice and nuts – like a very light fruit cake. Water seemed to intensify things, with it becoming apple pie and cream, with a cereal hint pointing to pastry. It was still very lightly flavoured and a hint of citrus helped it along to a woody finish. A beautiful light dram and one that you can imagine taming some of the sherry punch of the 10yr sherry cask and A’bunadh into something more approaching the regular house style.

Last of the evening was a cask sample of 26 year old sherry cask, at cask strength. Being only a small sample there wasn’t quite enough to go round, leading to a quiz with correctly called out answers earning a generous dram. Fortunately my attendance and remembering things from the earlier Chivas Regal tasting helped out, with my correctly identified home city of the Chivas brothers grocery store (Aberdeen) winning me a slug of deep golden spirit. On the nose it was quite overpowering with toffee apples and sulphorous wood, and tasting it was an eye-watering experience with the alcoholic strength backed up with strong flavours of caramel, toast and wood. It was powerfully tannic, taking your breath away and leaving the tongue drying, but it also had quite a hollow taste, with almost everything happening on the front, back and edges of the tongue, with a gap in the center. Water, and as expected it could take a lot, calmed things down, bringing out leather, salt, caramel and softer tannins, with a hint of rubber running down the middle. An interesting whisky but one that shows more what using a sherry cask for too long can do rather than one that you’ll want to drink a lot of.

An interesting tasting, despite my not being won over by the regular range. Finally having got a taste of the A’bunadh I can see why it was recommended as an alternative to the now increasingly scarce Yamazaki Sherry Cask that I served at my last whisky tasting – it has the rich sherried flavours, but also more wood than the Yamazaki, which becomes interesting when you add water. I also saw quite how far into the more overpowering ends of the flavour spectrum things can go, with the 26 year old cask sample being too much for even my sherry loving tastes, blasting through my fatigued palate and definitely ending my chances of tasting anything else – the comment I made about it on connosr was that it was like “being hit in the face with an oar after rowing over a lake of sherry”. However, I suspect a bottle of the A’bunadh will be appearing on my shelf soon enough.

Aberlour 10yr Sherry Cask
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 40%. Available in France.

Aberlour 10
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 40%. ~£20, available in Waitrose.

Aberlour 12
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 40%.

A’bunadh batch 30.
Speyside sherry cask single malt whisky. No age statement (approx 8-15).
59.8%. ~£35, available from Waitrose.

Aberlour 16
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 40%. ~£40

Aberlour 18
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 40%. ~£45

Aberlour 23year old single bourbon cask
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 47.6%. ~£125, available from the distillery (although this specific barrel has probably run out)

Aberlour 26year old single sherry cask
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, ~60%. Not commercially available

Glenmorangie Tasting @ The Whisky Exchange with Annabel Meikle

I don’t make many new year’s resolutions, but I decided this year that I needed to go to more booze tastings. After last week’s Talisker evening I managed to pick up a couple of tickets to The Whisky Exchange‘s first tasting of the year – a celebration of Glenmorangie, with Annabel Meikle, their inhouse sensory expert. It was held above TWE’s shop in Vinopolis and after a swiftie (of Schlenkerla Weizen) in The Rake I met up with Anna, whisky buddy extraordinaire, and repaired to the venue.

Whisky1We were confronted with 6 glasses laid out before us and before we dug into them a bottle of Glenmorangie new spirit was passed around – whisky that was too young to be called whisky yet. I’ve only tried new spirit once before, having grabbed a couple of miniatures of Kilchoman which had been in wood for a week, and this was notably different. I’ve described the Kilchoman as tasting like a cross between cattle feed and death, with a creamy silage taste and peaty kick – I rather like it, although not more than a tiny dribble at a time.  The Glenmorangie barely resembled it – barely peated and never in wood, it had a clean crisp taste with a very light hint of peachy fruit. It tasted like a nice aquavit, drying and cooling on the tongue with a slightly malty aftertaste. Straight out of the freezer I suspect it would cause me great injury and from the large slugs that some of the other attendees were pouring the note I made of ‘MANY DEAD. SEND AMBULANCES’ was not that much of a jump in imagination.

As the bottle circulated Annabel introduced us to the distillery, including the work to increase capacity that has gone on there since my visit in 2004, and moved us quickly to the first whisky of the night – the Glenmorangie 10yr old. This used to be one of my favourite whiskies in the days before I discovered a love of peat, but I’ve not tried it for a while. Annabel explained how the flavour has been changed over the last few years, gradually altering the proportions of whiskies from new and second fill barrels until they got to the second fill heavy mix they have today. On the nose it was quite dry and biscuity, with soft fruit and caramel. This continued in the mouth with some nuttiness appearing, leading to short finish. Water brought out wood on the nose and sweetened the flavour, adding more woody vanilla and, after some prompting from our host, some coconut. It was quite a pleasant whisky, with some of the thick sweetness that I like, although quite restrained.

The second whisky was the Astar, the beginning of their range of more modern whiskies. Matured in designer casks, made from specially selected slow dried trees, after they’d been used to produce Jack Daniels (that last part, at least, a common theme in whisky making). I was quite interested to taste this one, as I’m quite sceptical when I hear of what seems to me to be too much attention to detail. It was similar on the nose to the 10yr old, but with less caramel, more wood and a peary fruitiness. It tasted interesting –  a dose of caramel and hint of banana, cooling on the tongue and fading to a mild bitterness. Water opened up the nose, bringing out more soft fruit and adding a creamy richness to the flavour and mouth feel. It was quite a delicate whisky compared to what I expected and I wasn’t too shocked by its unstated age of 8-9 years – a nice whisky, but not one that I’ll be seeking out.

Next up we had La Santa, the latest incarnation of the sherry finished Glenmorangie that I remember very much enjoying in the past – I think it may have been the first sherried whisky that I knowingly tried, and thus might be considered the beginning of my downfall. The original range of wood finishes was discontinued a few years back (I know of several people who are hoarding the last remnants of bottles of the port wood) and I’ve not had the chance to taste this new version as yet. This was a light gold whisky, richer in colour than the first two, and came from 10 years in regular oak and 2 finishing in oloroso casks. On the nose it was heavy and rich with caramel, although Anna reckoned it was crisp and green. It was quite sweet to taste with a hint of hazelnut and almonds, and a slightly creamy mouth feel leading to a fast fading flavour. With water the nose showed more fruit and a dash of vanilla essence and the taste became more citrusy with orange notes and a hint of tiger balm. The overall flavour for me though was hazelnut, which I didn’t particularly think went all that well with the other flavours. Annabel advised us to keep a little bit for later to compare against the more heavily sherried casks we were going to try, but I’d finished mine and didn’t feel much like revisiting it anyway.

We moved on to the second row and, from my initial sniffing, the ones that were more to my taste – darker more sherried drams. The first was The Sonnalta – the reason for the tasting evening and newest addition to the Glenmorangie range. This was the last whisky I’d known in advance that we’d be tasting and the one that I was most looking forward to – it’s finished in Pedro Ximinez casks, one of my favourite drinks of all time. I’d tried a few PX finished whiskies and been universally unimpressed with them, finding them to be uninspiring sherry finished whiskies, so I didn’t have much hope for this. Following the standard 10+2 first fill/wood finish maturation ratio this was a bronze whisky with a richly perfumed nose – vanilla and menthol that Anna likened to ancient Chanel No 5. To taste it was quite different – thick and spicy, with cinnamon, raisins and fruit cake. I noted down that it was meaty – a chewy whisky that had definite hints of PX to it. Adding water softened the nose, moving it more towards the fruit and caramel of the 10yr old, and opened the taste to more fruit without knocking out much of the richness. I rather liked this, tickling my sherry loving self as well as actually bringing some of the characteristics of PX. One of the ‘keep an eye out’ list. Annabel suggested that it would work well with food, suggesting the (by her own admission) obvious of choice of tapas. The flavour that jumped out to me was Morcilla, spanish black pudding. Umami-laden spicy rich blood sausage in spreadable form to match up with the spices, chewiness and meaty punch of the whisky. I may have to experiment…

Whisky2Whisky number 5 was a bit of a mystery – Annabel described it as a bit of a Marmite dram, with there being two camps – loved or hated. A non production cask, hidden at the back of the warehouse with (former chairman) David MacDonald’s name stencilled on it, it’s occasional sampled for tastings. It’s currently at 10 years in regular barrels followed by 10 years in sherry. Legally speaking the length of time that a whisky needs to remain in a wood to be said to be finished by it is unspecified (leading to my profit maximising idea of pouring unfinished whisky through sherry barrels to add a super quick finish), so this whisky can still be claimed to have a sherry finish, although it is very much towards the extreme end. Unreduced it smelled of creme caramel with spicy cherries and tasted surprisingly delicate with dark chocolate and a light fruitiness fading to a slightly bitter end. Watered the nose showed more saltiness and the taste opened up to give more soft fruits and a nice fruit cakiness. An impressive whisky and a nice surprise to be able to get to taste.

The final dram of the night was one that some of the Whisky Exchange employees were glad to get a taste of – the £250 a bottle Quarter Century. A combination of whiskies from 25 years old and upwards, with a touch of oloroso finished spirit in there somewhere, it was a deep gold in colour and surprisingly light on the nose with hints of very dark chocolate and garibaldi biscuits. It tasted somewhat different with a muddled pile of flavours to start and a thick caramel sweetness leading to a strangely astringent aftertaste. With a touch of water the flavour widened, displaying hints of chocolate, berries, and a thick layer of slightly bitter sugar brittle. As refined in flavour as you would expect for the price, it’s not one for me to grab a bottle of but definitely one to sneak a dram of if you can.

Overall it was an interesting evening which has definitely had the effect of bringing Glenmorangie back into my mind. Even if I didn’t really get on with their new range of finishes it has kicked me towards the Sonnalta and shown me that they do have a good selection out there, much more than they used to, and are always looking to expand what they’re doing.

Glenmorangie New Spirit
0 years old, 67%(?)

Glenmorangie 10yr Old
10 years old, 40%

Glenmorangie Astar
Unstated, 8-9 years old, 57.1%

Glenmorangie La Santa
12 years old, 46%
Sherry finished

Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX
12 years old, 46%
PX finished (and sold out at The Whisky Exchange that night. Not to me, unfortunately)

Glenmorangie David MacDonald Cask
20 years old, 51%
Sherry ‘finished’

Glenmorangie Quarter Century
25 years old, 43%

Whither Angostura?

Partly an excuse to post a picture, shot in my ghetto studio mk2 with my new polarising filter, partly a real news story – it seems that there’s an Angostura bitters shortage on.

AngosturaI’ve recently heard tales that the company that makes Angostura had gone out of business and as such there would be no more, however it seems that is not true. At least, that’s what the company are saying. According to The Guardian they had to shut down production for a spell due to issues with finances after the company changed hands. However, it seems that shipments have started up again and there may be Angostura appearing on these fair shores again soon.

However, I was over at Vinopolis last night for a whisky tasting and ended up talking to one of the guys at The Whisky Exchange about bitters. He advised me against the Peychaud’s I’d picked up, as he reckoned it wouldn’t go well with the Rittenhouse 100 I’d grabbed at the same time (initially assuming I was going to make Sazeracs [which Peychaud’s is an ingredient of] and offering me a miniature of Absinthe to use as part of that recipe [experiments to follow when I do buy some absinthe], and then shocked that I might use it in whisky old fashioned. He let me buy some when I explained that I would probably use it in rum and brandy Old Fashioneds as well as just for general drink experimentation. I like the guys at The Whisky Exchange) and offered me Fee Brothers Old Fashioned as an alternative to Angostura, which he seemed to think were dead and gone. The Grauniad article is from last November and there is still a definite lack of Angostura on the shelves, so it may be more serious than was initially thought. The US is the main consumer (although at a measley 950k bottles you can see why most people have never bought more than one) and they seem to have supplies resuming, so hopefully the worst is over.

The bottle above has been in my possession for the last 10 years, having been left in my first post-university flat by a house guest, and despite many years of drinking bitters laden cocktails I am still barely half way through it. Long may it continue.

Update: While in Worcester this weekend for a birthday party I found a row of shiny new bottles of Angostura in Tesco. I’d like to think that this means that the shortage is now over rather than Tesco having a stash due to not selling much in Worcester. I still grabbed a bottle, just in case.