I haven’t posted about any single drams I’ve tasted recently, as in general I seem to do ‘proper tastings’ in flights or just not get around to writing about them. However, every now and again something comes along that’s a little bit special and deserves some extra attention – one of those popped up on the morning of the Saturday of Whisky Live. The night before Jonny McCormick, writer and chap who ran the World’s Most Collectible Whiskies masterclass at last year’s Whisky Live London, asked if I wanted to join in a little tasting the next day with Jamie Milne, Glenfiddich brand ambassador and the fellow IT industry escapee who convinced me to give Glenfiddich another try last year. It seems that Jonny and Jamie have been trying to get together and try a certain whisky for a while, and as there was just about enough in the miniature to split between two Jonny was wondering if I wanted some…
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.
Compass Box Flaming Heart (10th Anniversary Edition)
Blended malt whisky, 48.95%. ~£65 from Master of Malt.
As I don’t think I’ve written about whisky enough recently (sarchasm) I thought I’d put something down on paper/the screen/the interwebnets about Whisky Live London 2011. I’ve been almost entirely fail-y when it has come to writing about whisky shows in the past, mainly as a day of walking around pouring whisky down my neck does lead to incoherence (as my nice performance at the nice Connosr‘s nice WhiskyPod this year demonstrated nicely), but this time I also booked up a ticket to a tasting of The World’s Most Collectible Whiskies with Whisky Magazine’s auction king Jonny McCormick and sitting down helped my pen write slightly more legibly.
Jonny writes for Whisky Magazine mainly about whisky collecting and auctions, looking after their whisky auction price tracking ‘WM Index’, and brought that expertise to selecting five whiskies that either are already rising in price or could be the auction stars of the future. First on the mat was Highland Park St Magnus, the second entry in their Earl Magnus series of limited bottlings, named for distillery founder Magnus Eunson’s namesake, Earl Magnus of Orkney. The first in the series, the eponymous Earl Magnus, was limited to 6000 bottles, this one to 12000 and the final one, Earl Haakon (named for Magnus’s cousin), to 3000, showing some tricksiness from a company who know that investors like them. The St Magnus comes in at 55% ABV and on the nose had punchy sherry fruit, mulchy peat, almonds and marzipan, and a hint of farmyard mixed in with a meatiness that spread from the nose down to the back of the mouth. To taste there was sweet overripe fruit, sour citrus, sour wood, quite a bit of boozy heat and a lighter flavour than I expected from the quite forthright nose, although mainly the heat of the booze overpowered everything. It could take quite a bit of water, as you’d expect, bringing out spiky wood, sour Fruit Salad chews, spicy lemons and still more boozy heat. I kept dropping in bits of water from time to time as the tasting went on, which eventually tamed it into a flavoursome dram with a buttery mouth feel. The Earl Magnus has already done rather well value-wise, with its release price of £85 leading to a fast sellout and a rapid rise in value to £250-£300 in shops today. The larger release of the St Magnus suggests that it won’t reach the heady heights of the first bottle, but will be a key part of sets of all three bottles in the future, so grabbing one now if you have the Earl Magnus is a no-brainer. You might have to fight for a bottle of the Earl Haakon, but that’s all part of the fun of collecting whisky…I hear.
Next we turned to the Dalmore 1981 Matusalem. Matured for 22 years in american oak before being recasked for 6 months to finish in 30 year old Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloroso sherry butts, this is part of Dalmore’s increasingly silly range of premium whiskies, although very much at the lower end. It currently seems to be selling at about £400 a bottle in travel retail, a further exclusivity that should help it in the future at auction. On the nose it had oxidised tawny port, dry wood, red grapes and candied lemons. To taste it was quite sweet with sappy wood and twigs – “like licking the inside of a sugar tree” my notes helpfully add – and stone-in stewed fruit (hints of almonds and cherry stone along with the big fruitiness). Water brought out some more sweetness and the wood softened into creamy vanilla, although leaving a bit behind for a long sweetly woody finish. Dalmore seem to be building their range around collectors, with the world’s most expensive whisky (sold in a normal bottle rather than one of a kind Lalique decanter, that is), Trinitas, leading the way with it’s silly £100,000 price tag. Dalmore is currently sitting just outside of the top 10 of the Whisky Magazine index’s auction movers and shakers, but that may well change over the years thanks to their special releases.
Third was the Glenmorangie Signet, an interesting dram produced using some chocolate malt (dark roasted rather than actually involving chocolate) based spirit as well as some older whisky from the original Glenmorangie maltings. On the nose it was soft with sweet orange, lime leaves, rich sweet malt and golden syrup. Behind the richness there was a distinctly leafy vegetal note. To taste it had sweet dark chocolate, some gravelly minerality and a leafy nettle finish – “Mossy chocolate paving stones” says my notebook. Water added more sweetness, turning the dark chocolate towards milk chocolate, and added some sweet chocolate malt (hints of milk stout) to the leafy finish. A very interesting flavour which I’m still not sure I’m a massive fan of, but one I will be trying again to make sure. Maybe several times. Along with the interesting liquid in the bottle Glenmorangie, recently a distillery who have been upgrading packaging all over the place, have created a rather fancy bottle, with the glass darkening from bottom to top and having a large silvered cap on top – something that will help the value in future, especially as many people seem to have opened their bottles due to the reports of how good it is. A whisky to buy two bottles of – one to drink and one to hide for a rainy day.
Next was the Bowmore 21 year old Port Cask, one of a number of peated port casks that were on show at Whisky Live (despite being recommended it by a number of people I missed out on trying the impressive sounding Benriach Solstice – one for the follow-up list). Another travel retail exclusive, this one is made up of whisky distilled on March 10th 1988 and kept for all of its 21 years in port casks. On the nose it was lightly peaty with big dry red wine, plum jam and glacé cherries. To taste it started with flowery air freshener, moved through a meatily spiced middle with lipsticky wax to a stony peat end. The overpowering air freshener flavour that I got up front pretty much ruined it for me and water didn’t improve it, adding in more waxiness and spicy sweetness but leaving the cloying start. Not one for me, although appreciated around the room. Bowmores are currently riding high in the WM Index, both by sales volume and price per bottle, with old bottlings, such as the Black Bowmores, being spoken of in hushed tones and going for thousands of pounds at auction – their continuing range of premium bottlings will hopefully help them to keep up this momentum.
The final whisky of the tasting was Macallan Oscuro, part of their 1824 range of travel retail exclusive whiskies and made up of spirit distilled between 1987 and 1997. On the nose it had raisins, milk chocolate, a touch of struck match, buttered toast, marzipan and shortbread. To taste it was thick and sweet with cinnamon custard and a caramel wood finish. Water brought out more sugar, raisin cordial (not that I’ve tried raisin cordial, but it’s what I imagine non-alcoholic PX to taste like) and butter. My favourite of the night, with my current whisky sweet tooth being firmly satisfied. It’s currently rather pricy, at about £500 a bottle, but Macallans have a lot of success at auction and it might be a nice place to invest, if you don’t drink it. Macallan sits at the top of both Whisky Magazines’s price and volume indices, in part due to the large number of bottlings that their long history has produced, with vintages back to the beginning of the 20th century sitting behind the counter in the distillery shop ready for sale. With an almost constant barrage of interesting bottlings across the price spectrum it looks like they’ll be pretty much permanent fixtures of the auction market.
I’m not really a whisky investor, buying to drink as I do, but vaguely inspired by the tasting I did take advantage of the Friends of Laphroaig “It’s your birthday!” discount offer (another reason to sign up to the FoL) to pick up a couple of bottles of their 12 year old cask strength batch 2, one to drink and one to keep, as it was a nice low-cost way of having a punt at the whisky collecting game. The sold out batch 1 has already increased in price by 50% (to about £40 a bottle) so we shall see…
The thing that most surprised me when discussing collecting with Phil Huckle of Pernod Ricard after the The Glenlivet tasting I went to last year was the emphasis on distillery bottlings – in general independents won’t go up in price to anywhere near the extent that original distillery bottlings will. His advice on the night was simple – buy independents to drink, buy distillery to keep. While my lack of cupboard space is currently beating my love of hoarding things, my love of drinking whisky will continue to keep the collecting bug away. For now. I hope.
Highland Park St Magnus
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 55%. ~£85 from The Whisky Exchange.
Dalmore 1981 Matusalem
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 44%. ~£400 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£110 from Master of Malt.
Bowmore 21 year old Port Cask
Islay single malt vintage Scotch whisky, 51.5%. ~£150 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46.5%. ~£400 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
Signet image courtesy of Master of Malt
This blog is currently descending into whisky obsession and to cap that out this weekend I’m off to Glasgow to go to Whisky Live 2010. To add to the joy of my day of whisky related shenanigans I’ll be doing some live coverage via Twitter and Richard Paterson’s blog (as he and Whyte and Mackay are blagging me in with a freebie ticket). You can see what me, Scott Spolverino from In With Bacchus, Matthew Smedley from The Whisky Review and Blair Bowman of The Aberdeen University Malt Whisky Society are saying up on the Master Blender website or over on twitter through the #whiskylive tag.
In the meantime I’m in the first class car of a Virgin train, punishing their wifi and contemplating some overpriced breakfast. The things I’ll do for a dram…
My week up in Scotland recently not only introduced me to Benromach whisky, but also to the idea of putting whisky in new casks. Now, this may not sound like a particularly wild idea, but the majority of whisky is matured in casks that have already held some other form of booze – bourbon and sherry being the current mainstays before you get on to ‘wood finishing’. The first fill of booze will temper the barrel and remove a lot of the transferable woodiness, letting the second fill pick up different flavours and not be overcome by the wood. However, while up in Scotland I heard of three different whiskies using brand new wood – Benromach Organic and two from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a Glen Moray and a Glenmorangie.
I’ve written about Benromach before, but its use of new wood intrigued me enough while at the distillery that I quizzed our tour guide a bit about it. The wood comes from a US forest which, while maybe not intentionally planted as such many years ago, has been kept up to Soil Association ‘Organic’ standards and that certification suggests a reason why they are using new wood – in order to be certified as Organic they would have to use products that have not been subject to any processes that are not up to scratch, something that I suspect Jack Daniels (the usual first spirit in whisky barrels) don’t really aspire to. While the wood choice may be in part forced on them by their move to make the first organic whisky, it has also pushed them to make an interesting production whisky – the other two I found from new wood are single cask bottlings rather than generally available. The wood comes across clearly in the Benromach, appearing at the start of the taste as a tannic kick and adding vanilla to the aftertaste as well as a lingering woodiness. With water an oaky creaminess pops up and the tannins mellow slightly. During our tour the guide commented that the new barrels add a hint of bourbon flavour to the whisky and now that I have tasted it I can now tell some of the elements of Bourbon that come directly from the wood – some of the sweetness, the slight bitterness on the center of the tongue and the vanilla creaminess that you often miss if you drink your whiskey with ice. I rather like the Benromach organic and am slightly sad that it has almost disappeared in it’s original incarnation, currently replaced by the peated Special Edition, but Sandy the distillery tour guide did assure me that it will be reappearing soon.
While visiting the Edinburgh SMWS rooms on the way back from my sojourn in The Highlands I tried to grab a dram of their new Glen Moray, intrigued by the talk of new wood and my new found liking for the Benromach. However, due to an issue with the bottle labels (either they had the wrong ABV or they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bottle, depending on who you spoke to) it hadn’t turned up in time and I was directed towards a Glenmorangie bottling using a similar idea – 125.31, Tropicana then luscious poached pears. At the recent Whisky Exchange Glenmorangie tasting I learned about the ‘designer casks’ that they had put together for the their Astar – specially selected trees, grown slowly so as to have the right consistency to allow the whisky to be flavoured by the wood in the manner they wanted. However, Astar is not matured in new wood – the barrels are sent over to Jack Daniels for the first four years of their lives, arriving at Glenmorangie after the whiskey has been removed. With a litle reading between the lines on the SMWS website it seems that it is a whisky matured in an Astar barrel untouched by JD. Rather than the upfrontness of the Benromach, the Glenmorangie’s wood was all at the end – it’s a sweet whisky with a slight prickly spiciness that lands in a mouthful of twigs. I wasn’t all that keen, but it wasn’t in any way unpleasant.
Glen Moray have until recently been part of the Glenmorangie family and were a testbed for some of their crazy ideas – according to the barman at the SMWS, if you saw something strange come out of Glen Moray and do well then you could be sure that it would probably appear from Glenmorangie shortly after. I finally managed to find a dram of this final new wood example at the London tasting rooms, after the bottle wrangling had been completed – 35.34, Moroccan Tea-room Masculinity. On the nose there was salt and aniseed, and not a lot of the woodiness I was expecting. To taste there was more wood and tannins, but also toffee, salt and peppery lemons. With water the wood came out more, with a chunk of vanilla, but it wasn’t quite so overpowering as it is in the Benromach. Interesting, but not one for me to add to the collection.
I also found another whisky which uses some new wood while wandering around Whisky Live – Compass Box Spice Tree. While chatting with the guy on the stand about the company’s obsession with wood, we talked about the process that led them to the current methods for getting woodiness into Spice Tree.
First there was a stage that I heard about elsewhere, where they put wood chips in the marrying barrels – a process well known in the wine industry, even if it is seen as a little dodgy. [They didn’t use chips – see the comment from John Glaser below] This was quickly stopped by the SWA, who don’t like it when people do strange things and try and call their product whisky, but they carried on the idea by putting whole new wooden barrel staves directly into the barrel, another trick pinched from wine. This was, again, quickly banned and they came up with their latest trick (not mentioned on their website yet, which tells the tale of their run-ins with the SWA) – new barrel ends. Rather than making a whole barrel from new wood, which would have a bit more of an effect than they wanted, they just replaced the ends of the barrels with the new wood, giving the whisky some contact while at the same time not breaking the rules. The folk at Compass Box are smart. And a bit mad. The Spice Tree is a 100% malt blend, currently made up of Clynelish, Teaninch and Dailuaine (I think that’s right on the last one – I had been drinking by then and my hearing was going) and it’s pleasantly spicy, as the name and intention suggest, with a rich sweetness and some woodiness from the new oak.
It seems that new wood is one of the latest experiments in the whisky world that’s starting to rear its head after a decade long maturation process. Without thinking about the time the whisky has been in the warehouse it almost seems as if the distillers are reacting to the work of people like Compass Box, who are doing interesting things with wood, but after some consideration (as Compass Box are only a decade old) it looks like it’s all part of the long cycle of whisky experimentation. I’m interested to see what other single barrel bottlings appear from new wood but am also intrigued as to what this new flavour might contribute to regular bottlings. Glenmorangie have already made a bit of a splash with Astar, I’m keen to see who’s next.