I like whisky festivals. In the last few years the numbers of festivals popping up around the country has grown and much of the thanks for that must got to The Whisky Lounge. I’ve been attending their shows as a punter since their first London festival back in May 2010, and have since progressed to helping at them, both for work and for the The Whisky Lounge themselves. My main problem with working at shows is that I don’t usually get a chance to try many whiskies, as I’m generally behind one of the stands. However, I sometimes get a chance to have a roam and taste a few bits and pieces and Saturday, at the first Bristol Whisky Fest, was one of those times. One rather special dram even got me to break my ‘no writing notes at shows’ rule – Amrut Greedy Angels.
Kavalan at Whisky Lounge Manchester 2011
Part of my Christmas break always involves time on a train and due to a singular lack of easily readable books under the tree this year I am instead resorting to taking up more than my fair share of the communal table with my laptop to do a bit of catching up with the bits of my notebook that I haven’t got round to yet this year. This entry has been several months in coming and it’s a bit shaming that I haven’t done it earlier, as it’s about a quite important whisky tasting – Kavalan at The Whisky Lounge Festival in Manchester.
I’ve written a bit about Kavalan before but haven’t had a chance to try any more of their whiskies since then, so when Eddie Ludlow announced that he’d achieved a bit of a coup and got the distillery to exhibit at his Manchester show plans began to be made. I booked cheap train tickets to Manchester, getting there bright and early, and had a ticket home all in place when Eddie announced part two of his plan – Kavalan Master Blender Ian Chang would also be leading a tasting of the Kavalan range. A new return ticket was bought, the previous one departing 10 minutes before the start of the tasting, and plans to fill in a long morning of wandering around Manchester before the afternoon whisky session started to foment.
The Whisky Lounge – Independent’s Day
Mr Ludlow gets around a bit. I’ve been sitting on this post (well, to be strictly truthful I hadn’t actually got round to writing it until early March) for a bit to let him finish his national tour of this tasting, taking in his regular haunts from London to Newcastle. The reason for keeping it under wraps was simple – like the last one I attended we tasted everything blind and with London being the first leg of the trip he didn’t want anyone to spoil it for future punters.
The blind tasting had a more specific purpose this time as we’d be tasting the whisky in pairs – one distillery bottling and one from an independent. Distillery bottlings usually stick to the regular distillery character while independents often go a bit further afield, but without even knowing which distillery had produced the spirit we were tasting, would we be able to tell? Six whiskies, three distilleries – go!
First up was a yellowy gold dram that we were told came in at 40-46%. On the nose there was a buttery sweetness, with caramel popcorn, vanilla sweet citrus, linssed oil and foam bananas. In the mouth it was quite oily, with a tannic wood rolling in after a burst of syrupy fruit – apples turning to liquorice root and sour wood. Water knocked out some of the sourness and brought out some of the creaminess of the caramel.
Number 2 was a little darker with a nose of smoky leather, hard toffee, meaty undertones, mulching fruit, salty caramels and lemon. To taste it was thick and spicy, sweet and prickly, with unpolished leather and a sweet & sour finish. Water brought out more fruit, cut the prickle, and brought out the lemon from the nose and some vanilla – lemon drizzle cake, maybe?
At the end of the night we had the whiskies revealed, but I’m going to stick them inline so as to not confuse myself. This first one was not at all what I thought – I went for Balblair (thinking that the first was their 2000 vintage) and I wasn’t particularly close. The distillery was The Glenrothes, with the first bottling being Gordon & Macphail’s 8 Year old and the second the 1998 Vintage from the distillery. I didn’t even get the OB/Independent order right… Glenrothes is owned by Berry Brothers & Rudd and they seem to be quite nice about selling casks of their spirit on to independents, appropriate as they are an independent bottler themselves. It was interesting to see the bottlings the opposite way round to usual – the distillery bottling was big and ballsy and the independent lighter and more refined.
Our next distillery was revealed to be in The Highlands and the first whisky was rather light with an announced ABV of 46-50%. On the nose there wear fresh pears, pear drops, ‘watermelon nerds’ (thankyou Mr Matchett) and Imperial Leather soap. To taste it was syrupy sweet to start with apples, a prickly middle and a big dry woody finish. Water open things up, levelling the out the sweetness to leave polished wood and quite a bit of boozy prickle. Mr Matchett pronounced that it was like ‘An apple on the floor in B&Q’s wood section’.
Whisky number 4 was 56-65% and bronze coloured. On the nose it had marzipan, menthol, thick toffee, stewed raisins, rum/brandy and an underlying roasted meatiness. To taste it was spicy, sweet and woody with a good fieriness – very woody to finish, leaving me with numbed lips. It tooks a good chunk of water, cutting back the fire and revealing cream, cinnamon and squashed raisins. My notes also mention that there was ‘Lots of vanilla pod on the belch’. What can I say – I had been drinking…
I didn’t even guess the distillery this time, but was certain that the second of the whiskies was the independent – yet again I was wrong. The spirit was made at Glengoyne, the first an independent from Berry Brothers, their Berry’s Own Selection 1999, and the second the distillery’s own 12 year old Cask Strength. The distillery is quite unique in its location, being in the Highland region but being close enough to the boundary with the Lowlands (The Highland Line) that its warehouses, over the road from the distillery building, are considered to be in the Lowlands. That has the smell of marketing to it, in my opinion, but from what I’ve heard it strikes quite close to the the distillery’s regular style – a more refined Highland spirit. However, the whiskies we tried didn’t really go that way, with both the independent and cask strength OB stepping away from that into more punchy territory.
The first whisky from our last distillery was a deep bronze colour and declared to be between 55% and 65%. On the nose it was intense, with big medicinal notes, sherry, coal tar, stoniness and hints of fruit under the punch of the rest of the flavour. To taste it was very sweet and spicy, with a bit of hammy smoke (although not as much as the the nose would suggested) and big rich fruit. Water killed it dead – less sweetness and a little bit of fruit but generally less impressive.
Dram #6 was rather light and had brine, light TCP, lemons and bit of mulch on the nose – wet forest in a glass. To taste it had woody smoke, vegetation, mulchy fruit and something I described as ‘smoked chocolate’ in my notes. Water revealed sweetness, with candied lemons appearing.
I did cheat a little on this one as I was on a table with Colin Dunn, Diageo whisky brand ambassador, who could barely contain his usual excitement and may have let slip that he’d supplied one of the whiskies – a Caol Ila. This left us to decide which was which, helped slightly by Colin’s typically exuberant arm waving and surreptitious “this one’s ours” comments slipping out ‘accidentally’. First up was Gordon and Macphail’s 1996 Cask Strength, put together from three refill sherry butts, and the second was the distillery’s own Natural Cask Strength bottling. Our only Islay of the evening and one of my favourites – while I preferred the first without water, with its light approach to Caol Ila’s traditional flavours, the second had the punchy peaty smoke that is slowly returning to my list of likes.
Eddie got everyone to score the whiskies as we went along and his collated results from all the tastings across the country are up on Facebook. The next Whisky Lounge tastings are of Pernod Ricard’s range (sure to include at least The Glenlivet and Aberlour, if not a drop of Strathisla) and dates are already up on Eddie’s site. I suspect I may be along…
The Macphail’s Collection 8 years old from Glenrothes
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£20.
The Glenrothes 1998
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40.
Berry’s Own Selection Glengoyne 1999
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35.
Glengoyne 12 years old Cask Strength
Highland cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 57.2%. ~£40.
Gordon & Macphail Caol Ila 1996 Cask Strength
Islay cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 59%. ~£40.
Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength
Islay cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 61.6. ~£40.
Whisky Lounge – Islay ‘Blind Fury’ Tasting
Having rather foolishly double booked myself during the last Whisky Lounge event in London (a Springbank tasting that I was rather looking forward to that got dropped in favour of an evening of sherry) I grabbed a ticket to Mr Ludlow’s December extravaganza as soon as I could. This time the format was slightly different in that it was to be a blind tasting, with the whiskies revealed at the end of the night, focusing on whiskies from the whisky obsessed island of Islay.
There are currently 8 distilleries on the island (with a 9th in the planning/building stages), which isn’t bad for a piece of land less than half the size of London and inhabited by only 3500 people. While traditionally Islay is known for its peaty spirit the distilleries produce a range of whiskies, with Bunnahabhain producing unpeated spirit (most of the time) and Ardbeg producing face melting bottles of smoky mud (also, most of the time). A blind tasting of these is quite interesting, as while each distillery has its own style different bottlings borrow ideas from the other producers, making things all a bit muddled. There are a few bottlings and distilleries that I reckon I could pick out, but I was interested to see how many I could guess. In the end though this blind tasting wasn’t about guessing. Knowing where the spirit in my glass has come from will often prompt an attitude or tasting note that comes from inside my head rather than from the glass. Tasting blind removes all of that and hopefully lets us taste without preconceptions.
It was a full house in the upstairs room of The Red Lion in St James’s and the man behind the Whisky Lounge, Eddie Ludlow, led the group through the whiskies. The plan was simple – we were to taste the whisky, talk about it and then give him a tasting note from each table to add to a record of the evening and compare against the other tastings of the same whiskies that he’d done around the country. We were the penultimate leg on his tour of the UK and the room did well in coming up with yet another totally different set of tasting notes for Eddie to try and consolidate. I was sat next to Chris Matchett, one of my occasional whisky buddies, a man well known for his lyrical descriptions of flavours – he was the one who came out with comments about bacon at the unsmoky The Glenlivet tasting last month…
First up was a coppery bronze dram that Eddie let us know was between 46 and 50% alcohol. On the nose it was sweaty and muddy, with camphor, apple, sea salt, a hint of oranges and salted caramel. To taste it had vanilla and light smokiness (more woody than peaty), with a syrupy texture and a dry, spicy wood finish. Water brought out more sweet creamy vanilla and some perfume from the wood, as well as some sticky glacé cherry. The tasting note we ended up providing was ‘Soggy marmite toast with salted butter and golden syrup, all spread with the same knife’, although Chris’s ‘Birkenstock sandals that someone else has been wearing all summer’ as one for just the nose almost pipped it. As an overall description his note of ‘A speyside whisky on holiday’ pretty much nailed it – not your usual Islay fair. My prediction for this one was that it was a sherried Bunnahabhain and I was rather pleased to see that I was right – it was Bunnahabhain 12 years old. This is a new version of their standard whisky, bottled at a stronger than before 46.3% and made up of a mix of bourbon and sherry casks. Totally unpeated and quite rich, it was a tasty start to the evening.
Next was a very lightly coloured whisky which we were told was between 50 and 55%. On the nose it was quite a big difference to the previous whisky – woody/muddy peat, mulchy seaweed, mint, mushrooms, pears, strawberry, cracked granite, meaty butter, a hint of the farmyard and a floral centre (maybe roses). To taste it maintained the muddiness from the nose adding in some piney smoke. It had a minerally, grassy finish that lingered around with a hint of the sweetly syrupy middle flavour. Water tamed it nicely, adding orange, lime and a generic ‘fruitiness’ to the nose, pushing the smokiness back a bit. This revealed more stoniness and some sweet citrus hanging around in the middle. I didn’t have much of a clue on this one and put it down as maybe one of the peaty Bruichladdichs, focusing on the mineraliness. As expected I was entirely wrong – it was a Berry Brothers and Rudd 1989 Bowmore, bottled at 50.9% and 20 years old. Probably from a quite inactive cask and totally unlike any Bowmore I’ve tried before.
We then moved on to a darker dram, a nice yellow gold, which were told was 40-50%. On the nose there was sweaty salted butter, leather, marmalade, toast, lemon, mulch and Bisto gravy thickener (the brown cornflour rather than gravy granules). To taste it had a light caramel sweetness to start, with an oily mouthfeel, leading to a hot peaty finish through a core of creamy sugar and woody spice. Water extended the sweetness into the finish and softened the wood to a green twig sappiness. The smoke of the finish gave way to woodiness with orchard fruit and sweet and sour sauce. For this I guessed an Ardbeg, focusing on the peat/wood/sweet combination (which may not be general Ardbeg but for some reason sticks in my head), but was yet again entirely wrong. It was, instead, a bit of a ringer – Jura Prophecy. This has no age statement (although it’s probably 12-16 years old), is bottled at 46% and is the heavily peated expression of their range – a range of whiskies from the next island along from Islay, separated by a mere 250m of water. Eddie got round this ‘semantic’ argument by claiming that Jura was connected to Islay via an underwater causeway, and thus counted. There were murmurings…
Next up was a coppery dram that we were told was between 55 and 60%. On the nose there was turkish delight, dark chocolate, raisins, burned apple pie (very specifically listed by me as the burned bits on the top of the pie where the pastry cracks and the filling bubbles out, and by someone else as the layer between the filling and the pastry when the top has burned), bread and butter pudding, and a bed of meaty peat under it all. To taste it was very smoky, with a heavy coal smoke flavour almost obscuring vanilla and more apple pie. Water helped separate the flavours, leaving a spike of peat at the front leading to a sweet muddy mulch. The coal is calmed down to reveal vodka-like grain. Our note for this was ‘Apple pie and ice cream beside an iron coal stove’. This was the first whisky I was fairly certain of, writing down a definite Bowmore – the specific sweet smokiness is the flavour that I find in Bowmore and few other Islay whiskies, and this time I was right – Bowmore Tempest, a 10 year old whisky bottled at 56%. This one was from the second batch they’ve made of this and was matured in first fill bourbon casks.
Our penultimate dram was very light and between 46 and 49%. From the nose I was certain I knew which distillery it was from – a strong smell of the farmyard, light alcohols, white cabbage, menthol, caraway, vodka, a light oiliness (the smell of ‘flavourless’ cooking oils) and white pepper. It smelled young and was quite thin and prickly. To taste it had a creaminess combined with the smoke, bringing to mind Bavarian smoked cheese tubes. It also had sweet root vegetables, lots of caraway and a pleasantly creamy mouth feel. A drop of water brought out tropical fruit, sour wood and mulchy peat as well as more cream. I was certain that this was Kilchoman, the island’s newest distillery, as the whisky tasted very young and similar to the new make spirit and not-mature-yet ‘whiskies’ that I’ve had from them. Yet again I was wrong – it was Douglas Laing’s Big Peat Batch 10, a blended malt bottled at 46% and made up of whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen (although as the latter is closed and bottles go for silly amounts of money we assumed that there wasn’t much of it in there). This is a really young tasting whisky and ones that makes me want to crack open the bottle of Kilchoman I have hiding at the back of my cupboard.
The last whisky of the night was a pale gold, and between 55 and 60%. On the nose it had golden syrup and salt, burning grassland, mint, white grapes and a stony minerality. To taste it was sweet with and almost cloying peatiness backed up by wood smoke. There was also sweet fruit (apple and strawberry?), fragrant tea and pepper. Water brought out lime and vanilla on the nose, and sherbert, wet carpet, cinnamon, lemon & lime, spiced orange peel and a tarry finish to the taste. Again, I was fairly certain I knew what this one was (especially bolstered by 6 drams as I was by this time) and both wrote down and called out Laphroaig Quarter Cask, focusing on the sweet peatiness and minerality that I find in that whisky. Predictably I was wrong again – it was a cask sample from Ardbeg. Drawn from the cask (a first fill bourbon barrel) quite recently it was at the cask strength of 56.3% and was distilled in 2000.
In the end I was quite pleased with two out of six, especially as most of my other guesses made sense (at least to me) and weren’t blind stabs in the dark. It was also nice to taste things without any foreshadowing, letting my subconscious whisky snob stay asleep and not jump in with its ideas. The evening was wrapped up by singer/guitarist/songwriter Tim Hain knocking out a quick rendition of his song One More Dram (last heard at The Whisky Show a month or so ago, accompanied by Colin Dunn in the Connosr Whiskypod) before Eddie had to run away to the snowy north again. There are already plans afoot for next year’s events and there is also a new Whisky Lounge dram appearing soon – Dram 101. It’s a blended malt with about 50 components and was put together by Eddie as a follow up to last year’s Whisky Lounge Festival Dram. It should be available from the Whisky Lounge website soon, maybe even before Christmas but so far the only evidence of its imminent existence are a couple of tweets and this video…
At the end of the tasting we all scored the whiskies out of 100 (something that I hate doing, hence the lack of scores on this site) and Eddie is now collating the results from all of the tastings ready for release to see which whisky came out top overall. My favourite of the night was the Berry Brother’s Bowmore, followed by the Big Peat, so I’ll be interested to see what the group reckoned.
Bunnahbhain 12 Year Old (new bottling)
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46.3%. ~£30 from The Whisky Exchange.
Berry Brothers & Rudd 1989 Bowmore
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 50.9%. ~£60 from BBR.
Single Malt Jura Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.
Bowmore Tempest 10 Year old
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.
Blended Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.
Ardbeg first fill bourbon cask sample
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56.3%. Not available unless you go to the distillery and beg or rob Eddie.
Whisky Lounge 2009 Festival Dram
While I feel slightly guilty for not writing up my notes from the floor of The Whisky Lounge London Show this year, what with this blog allegedly being the only reason I drink, I didn’t come away from the show empty handed. Along with the bottle of Greenore, as inspired by the Cooley tasting, I met Celine Tetu of Arran Distillers and Malcolm Waring of Old Pulteney, both of whom ran tastings that I went to recently, I bumped into Jason of the Whisky Squad, Dave of Londonist and Guy from Albannach, and I managed to grab a bottle of The Whisky Lounge Festival Dram 2009.
The guy on the shop stand told me that it’s a combination of all of the whiskies that Eddie, the man behind Whisky Lounge, liked from last year’s Whisky Lounge events, vatted together by Berry Brothers and then bottled in this limited edition of 250 20cl bottles. If true, this means it’s a blend of Scottish, Irish, Japanese, American and Indian whiskies, which may make it the most cosmopolitan blend that I’ve tried before.
On the nose there’s parma violets, fragrant wood, vanilla, oil, cinnamony spice and a light meatiness. To taste it’s generally sweet with apples, pears, a hint of mustardy burn, butter, linseed, sweet cream, dried fruit and a prickly sweet wood finish. Water brings out vanilla and biscuits, apple pie and victoria sponge with butter icing. The finish is slightly more bitter but with a touch of red fruit and drying vanilla wood that lingers for a while.
A bit of a random dram, but one that I quite like, especially with the sponge cakeyness that water adds.
The Whisky Lounge Festival Dram 2009
A potential world spanning blended whisk(e)y. 46%.
I think it was £12 for a 20cl bottle, but my memory is spotty. I suspect it’s sold out, but if you ask Eddie nicely he might have some bottles in his loft.
Arran Tasting with The Whisky Lounge
The name of The Whisky Lounge seems a bit of a misnomer – rather than a loungey bar somewhere it mainly seems to be a guy called Eddie. He organises events up and down the country based, around tasting whisky and having a good time. I went along to his show in London this year, at which everyone seemed to know him and he knew almost all of them, and it was rather good. So, having stuck my name on the mailing list I waited for his next London event, which came up rather fortuitously – a tasting of the range of the Arran distillery‘s whiskies, led by Céline Têtu. I’d spoken briefly to Céline at The Whisky Lounge London event, Arran being the first stand I went to, and was rather taken by her excellent scots/french accent so was keen to wander along to hear more and also learn about one of my favourite distilleries.
Arran is an island that I visited a few times as a child – popping over on the ferry (and on The Waverley at least once) when up in Scotland visiting people in Ayr. I don’t remember much about it apart from always asking if we could back every time we visited. When I joined the SMWS a few years back I saw that they had some bottlings from Arran and rather liking the style bought most of them until recently. I also picked up one of the distillery bottlings – the limited edition Peacock – and rather liked that as well, all of which has led me towards wanting to try more of their whiskies.
The Arran distillery is quite young, having been built from scratch at Lochranza in the north of the island in 1995, and is currently the island’s only distillery. The Isle of Arran itself is in a rather unique location, sitting between the mainland and the peninsula of Kintyre, home of Campbeltown whiskies, experiencing a relatively constant and mild climate thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream. This helps in the maturation of the whisky, with the constant temperature increasing the effect of time, with Arran whisky often passing as older than it is (as I discovered with one of my SMWS bottlings – 5 years old, the colour of Irn Bru and tasting as rich as something two to three times its age).
It’s quite difficult for new single malt focused distilleries to pay for themselves to start with, with 3 years before you can call your spirit whisky and generally 10 years before you can start putting a ‘regular’ bottling on the shelves. To help augment the income from limited young bottlings (such as the SMWS ones that I tried, as well as ones from other independent bottlers) they built a visitors centre, opened by The Queen, and have become part of the tourist trail on the island. As a thankyou to Her Majesty they gave a couple of casks to Princes William and Harry which they’ve been looking after ever since, as seen in this video from back in April:
The distillery turns 15 years old this week and to celebrate they are having an open day on July 3rd with various events during the day, a ceilidh in the evening, a special whisky cask aged beer from the rather good local Arran Brewery, 3 single cask bottlings from 1995 and a generally available special edition bottling, but more about that later.
The distillery uses barley that is malted offsite and farmed on the east coast of Scotland between Dundee and Montrose. They experimented with using local barley but it didn’t work particularly well, leading to their initial importing of pre-ground unpeated malt from the mainland. Having decided that they needed more control over the grinding of the barley a mill and silo were built on site in 2007, allowing less frequent deliveries and grinding on the premises.
Their stills are quite squat, with long, thin, tall necks stretching up 3-4m to a right angled lyne arm, giving a light and fruity spirit. Eddie had managed to get some new make to try and there were a few glasses dotted around the tables. On the nose it was sweet with mulchy grain, hay, sweet malt and a hint of sugary fruit – maybe pineapple. To taste it was very buttery in mouthfeel, with lots of sweet cereals.
The first whisky to taste of the night was the Arran 10 year old. A mix of about 80% oloroso sherry cask matured whisky and 20% bourbon, this is the latest iteration of their ‘standard’ malt, first produced in 2006 and taking over from the 8 year old which had been the standard until then. Since the first release they have slowly changed the proportions of bourbon and sherry oak, starting with 100% bourbon and potentially moving to a 100% sherry in the near future. It’s bottled at 46%, and, as with all of the distillery’s whiskies, has no added colouring and is not chill filtered. On the nose it has candle wax, salt, milk chocolate, raisins and some lemon sherbert. To taste it has polished oak floors, woody spice, a touch of dried fruit and a dry woody finish. Water opens it up a bit with sweet honey, big tannic winey wood, a hint of chocolate and a spicy finish.
Next up was one of their Icons of Arran bottlings – The Rowan Tree, the follow-up to the Peacock that I have in the cupboard. It’s named for the local profusion of Rowan trees, not a particularly common species in Scotland, more often being found in Scandinavia. It’s bottled at 46% as well and made up of whisky from a batch of 10 second fill sherry butts, producing about 6000 bottles of which 600 are allocated for sale in the UK. On the nose it’s slightly briny with spice and dried fruit. To taste it has black pepper, cumin and a touch of curry, as well as raisins and a dry spicy finish. Left in the glass for a bit some flavours of grass and stones started to emerge. With water more wood popped out and the fruit turned to candy, with sticky boiled sweets behind the oak.
Third of the evening was one of their cask finishes – The Arran Madeira Finish. This is bottled at 50% and consists of whisky matured for 8 years and then finished for 10 months in madeira casks. This is part of a limited run of 6300 bottles, but the cask finishes they tried was so popular that they’ve decided to compliment the growing Arran range with 3 of them as regular bottlings – Port, Sauternes and Amarone (a wine that I’d not heard of, made using partially dried grapes to concentrate the flavour). This one was quite spicy on the nose with dried and tropical fruit (pineapple, apple syrup/maybe mango). To taste it had a dry sweetness to start, quickly becoming fruity and syrupy before tailing off into a spicy wood finish. Water brought out more syrup on the nose, and added more wood and a touch of milk chocolate to the taste.
Being so young a distillery it’s quite difficult to have a wide range of whiskies at traditional ages. They will shortly be releasing their oldest regular production whisky – a 14 year old which we couldn’t try as it was still in the cask finishing its maturation. This will lead to the standard range of whiskies being the 10 and 14 year olds as well as the three cask finishes mentioned above. In addition to the single malts they also do a cream liqueur, Arran Gold, and a pair of blends, Robert Burns and Lochranza, the latter of which has been on my ‘to try’ list for a bit. In a few more years they will have an 18 to round out the age selection, but from there who knows what they might do.
In the meantime they’ve already been continuing their experimentation and the fourth whisky we tried was very much in that line – The Arran Pomerol Finish. Pomerol is an area in France near to Bordeaux known for producing expensive wine, making this an interesting finish both for the quality of the previous occupant of the barrel (a wine from Château La Conseillante) as well being a red wine finish, not particularly common due to it being hard to produce one that works well. This one is bottled at 50% and has a pinkish tinge that is surprising for having only been in the wine cask for 6 months. Again this is finished after 8 years in oak, split 50/50 between bourbon and sherry and married together before being put in the wine barrels. On the nose it is quite meaty with lots of heavy red wine woodiness. To taste it has a thick sweetness with more meaty wininess, hints of icing sugar, spice and a touch of lemon, rounding off to a woody finish. Water brings in more sweet vanilla and fruit but also more sour wood. Left in the glass for a while it opens up further with more sherry sweetness and red wine heaviness coming through. A bit of a divider this, with most of the room really not liking it. I was more on the dislike side, although as it developed in the glass it grew on me.
Next to taste was a bit of a treat – The Arran 15th Anniversary Bottling. This one is being specially produced for this week’s birthday, with 5640 bottles going on sale very shortly (although only 500 of them staying in the UK) – Céline had only had a couple of tastes of this before, showing quite how new it is. It’s from a batch of 1999 distilled spirit, matured in oloroso casks for 8-9 years and then finished for 2 years in Amontillado casks, my favourite kind of sherry. On the nose it’s quite savoury, with sherry wood mixing with a slight brininess to give rich salted caramel. To taste it’s thick and syrupy, with red grapes, spicy wood and a chunk of tannin, rolling towards a buttery apple finish. With water there’s more wine fruit and buttery biscuits, and the wood is tamed although still sits spicily in the finish. A tasty whisky and a nice celebration of the first 15 years of production.
The last whisky of the night was a bit of a curveball – The Peated Arran. Having made a point of letting us know that Arran produced unpeated spirit, Céline went on to explain what this dram was all about. It was first produced in 2004 and came about due to an accidental delivery of barley peated to about 14ppm rather than the distillery’s regular unpeated order. Rather than send it back they decided to have a go at making whisky with it, producing 5 casks. It was rather popular and as such the distillery now produce a few casks of peated spirit a year, having now upped the peat levels from the initial mistake to about 20-25ppm. They make them as the last batches each year before closing down for summer maintenance, giving a chance to clean any residual peatiness out of the workings before starting again in autumn with their regular unpeated spirit. This bottling was one of 253 bottles from a 2005 distillation from barley at about 14 ppm, matured in first fill bourbon casks and bottled in 2009 at 57.7%. On the nose it has a light smokiness laying on a background of grassy fields. To taste it was rich with some sweet peatiness as well as sweet oranges and golden syrup. Water brought out the more vegetal notes from the nose, with a some grass appearing, accompanying oily butter and some sweet mulch. It took water well, tasting younger as the water knocked out some of the peat, adding more cereal and mulchy grass. Being a younger whisky the peat overpowered the wood influence, making it taste quite a lot peatier than the 14ppm suggested.
Annoyingly I can’t make it up to distillery this weekend for the party, but it’s definitely on my list next time I’m on the right side of Scotland. Equally annoying is that the whisky doesn’t quite live up to the spectacular single cask bottlings I’ve had over the last couple of years – they’re all rather good, with the Rowan Tree and Madeira Finish coming in as my favourites of the evening, but none quite as rich and complex as the ones that I’ve found at the SMWS. That won’t stop me picking up more Arran in the future, distillery bottlings as well as single casks, as they are also very reasonably priced, with the most expensive whisky of the evening coming in at under £70 and most bottlings being around £30-£50. Excellent value for such good whisky.
Arran 10 year old
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 46%. ~£30
Arran Rowan Tree
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 46%. ~£35
Arran Madeira Cask Finish
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 50%. ~£40
Arran Pomerol Cask Finish
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 50%. ~£45
Arran 15th Anniversary Bottling
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 54.6%. Available soon
Arran 2005 Peated
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 57.7%. ~£45 (limited availability)
Eddie of The Whisky Lounge is Eddie Ludlow and he is in the process of putting together this Autumn’s event calendar. Keep an eye on his website for details.
Master of Malt have a good range of Arran whiskies, although they don’t have the peated. Eddie might have a couple of bottles of that, although I suspect they’re for personal consumption, but The Whisky Exchange have a few which they are more likely to sell you.
Cooley Whiskey tasting at Whisky Lounge London
It’s a busy time of year for a man with a booze related mission, such as myself. All of a sudden tastings and shows are appearing from the woodwork, and last Saturday allowed me to combine both of those into one event – Whisky Lounge London. My tasting notes from the show floor are fairly worthless (although they may make a very brief appearance in a Quick Tastings, if I can decipher them) but I also signed up for the first event of the day, a tasting of Cooley whiskeys.
Cooley is the only independent distiller in Ireland, having been founded (as the traditional anecdotal story states) by some guys sitting in the pub and wondering why there were so many scotches and not as many Irish whiskeys. Despite having been much more popular than scotch during the first half of the 1900s the trials of two wars and prohibition took their toll on the sale of Irish whiskey and production shrunk down to only one working distilling concern, doing the distilling for all of the various Irish brands. In 1987 Cooley started up distilling on the Cooley peninsula and since then has also picked up the Kilbeggan distillery, claimed as the oldest working distillery in the world. They put out their whiskey under the names of older, now defunct, whiskey brands, with the core range consisting of whiskeys from Greenore, Tyrconnell, Kilbeggan and Connemara, not necessarily matching up the styles with the older versions (most of which are now forgotten) but doing something different with each brand.
Irish whiskey is currently one of the biggest growing segments of the global spirits market, with Pernod-Ricard pushing Jameson heavily in the US and Tullamore Dew (the second biggest selling Irish worldwide) recently being sold to William Grant & Sons for a respectable £260million. Ireland is a country with whiskey brands owned by holding companies with contract distilling along with the big boys, Diageo and Pernod-Ricard, owning most of the production facilities – there are no other independents and much of the tradition of making spirit seems to have been lost. It’s a very different environment to that on the other side of the Northern Channel and one that Cooley seem to be doing well in.
The tasting was led by Stephen Teeling, part of the family who own the distillery, who’s based in London and seems to wander the country telling everyone how great Cooley whiskey is. I may be jealous. We were presented with 6 whiskies from the Cooley stable, showing the range of what they make. First up was a ‘welcome dram’ to keep us going while Stephen, by his own admission and in stereotypical Irish style, talked a lot. This was the Greenore Single Grain.It’s aged for at least 8 years and is currently the only commercially available Irish single grain. It’s made with 99% corn, rather than the cheaper grains you can often find in grain whisky, and matured in barrels from Heaven Hill in the US. On initial release they ran out due to an underestimation of demand, as there was no other product like it in the market, and I can see why. On the nose it’s quite perfumed but with the underlying alcohol kick that seems to be a trademark of grain whiskies. When you get over the punch to the back of the nose things calm down with roses and vanilla wood coming through. To taste it was light and sweet, with pear drops, rose water, boiled sweets and white chocolate, fading to a cereal finish. With water it became more sparkly, with vanilla and fizzy Refreshers with some apple appearing in the finish. To spoiler the rest of the article, this was my favourite of the day and I bought a bottle of it from their stand lateron. An excellent summer whiskey that would probably work when slightly chilled…maybe even with a piece of ice.
Next up was the Kilbeggan 15 year old, a premium blend named for the Kilbeggan distillery that is Cooley’s second production location. It’s also the more picturesque of the two distilleries, with the one at Cooley being a hard hat wearing industrial plant rather than the prettier Kilbeggan, which is also the site of the main visitor centre. The distillery, formerly known as Locke’s Distillery, is ‘the oldest licensed distillery in the world’, with their 1757 certificate hanging on site, and runs with a still bought from Tullamore, which is the oldest still in operation in Ireland – they are definitely pushing the oldness angle. The whiskey is a blend with a 35/65 malt/grain split, all aged for at least 15 years. It’s a premium blend (coming in at over £50) with an aggressively large bottle designed to stick out on the back bar – flat and wide with the name writ large. The aggressiveness doesn’t carry over into the spirit, however, with its style being similar to that of other premium blends – easy drinking and not too challenging. On the nose there is toffee as well as some of the floralness of the Greenore, a common note in Irish whiskeys we were told. To taste it’s soft with more toffee, flowers, a hint of the grain sweetness and some orange fading to a bitter finish. Water brings out more fruitiness and wood as well as amplifying the grain flavours. A good easy drinking blend, but not one that I’d spend £50 on (although my drinking companion eagerly grabbed a bottle).
We next moved on to the malts, starting with the Tyrconnells. Tyrconnell was at one point the biggest selling Irish whiskey in the world but, as with the industry in general, has now faded into memory. The first of the two we tried was the Tyrconnell Single Malt – a no age statement whiskey matured in Heaven Hill barrels for at least 5 years, with some 7 year and older whiskeys also in the mix. On the nose it’s salty with a some meaty umami, a hint of toffee and some sherbet citrus. To taste it’s lighter than the nose suggests with grass, apples, cereal, some aquavit-like caraway and a strangely meaty finish. Water opens it up with more sweetness but also enhances the savoury note that runs through it – chicken sherbet? One to try again.
Next was the Tyrconnell 10 yr old Madeira Finish – one of several whiskies in their wood finish collection. On the nose this was sweet with caramel and maybe a hint of acetone. To taste it was much more savoury, with red peppers and red berries. A touch of water unlocked some of the more traditional finish flavours, with vanilla, cinnamon and fruit through to a woody finish. The flavour didn’t dim much with water and it could take quite a bit before tasting dilute – an interesting and tasty whisky.
We then moved on to the more unique Connemara whiskeys – peated irish. With Ireland’s overly egged reputation of being one big peat bog you might expect there to be more peated Irish whiskey, but with the contraction in the market decisions were made and the older peated styles died out completely. Connemara is Cooley’s attempt to bring back some of the older flavours as well as having something that might compete favourably with the peaty Scottish malts. The first one on the table was the regular Connemara Peated – peated to 20-24ppm, roughly equivalent to having the malt smoked for a day, and with no age statement. On the nose there is sweet peat with crisp granite hint to the smokiness. To taste it has a light peatiness with a sweet malty middle and a peaty finish, although it doesn’ t have much to it (this could well be a sign of palate fatigue). With water it sweetens and there’s more fruit, but otherwise it maintains the peat/malt/peat profile of the un-diluted dram. Not my favourite, although maybe a good introductory whisky to someone who wants to explore peat.
The last whiskey of the tasting was the Connemara Limited Edition Sherry Cask, 9-15 year old whiskey finished for 24 months in Oloroso sherry casks. The nose was interesting with caramel, salt, old apples and, as one would hope, a hint of peat. To taste it had a fruitcakey base mixed with flinty peat smoke which prickled across the tongue. Water calmed things down a bit bringing out orange and frothy icing sugariness. Another interesting dram, and one I’d like to try again.
Since I heard of Cooley last year (rather than just the names of their whiskies) I’ve seen nothing but praise for their company and the whiskies they produce. They seem to be accumulating awards by the barrowful, with Kilbeggan recently picking up the IWSC Best Irish Blend award and Malt Advocate naming Cooley 2010 Distillery of the year, and it seems to be well deserved, with a wide range of interesting and tasty whiskey. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.
Greenore Irish Single Grain
8 years old, 40%. ~£30 per bottle
Kilbeggan 15 year old
Blended irish whiskey, 40%. ~£60 per bottle
Tyrconnell Irish Single Malt Whiskey
No age statement, at least 5 years old, 40%. ~£25 per bottle
Tyrconnell 10yr old Madeira finish
Irish single malt whiskey, 46%. ~£45 per bottle
Connemara Peated Irish Single Malt Whiskey
No age statement, 40%. ~£30 per bottle
Connemara Limited Edition Sherry cask
No age statement, 9-15 years, 46%. ~£50 per bottle
Keep an eye out for other events from Whisky Lounge – the show was quite small but perfectly formed, with a big range of whisky producers and some very interesting drams to taste. Eddie Ludlow, Mr Whisky Lounge, puts on events all around the country and I’ll certainly be along when I next find the time to do so.