Keeping up with Whisky Squad meetings has been more difficult than usual recently, what with there being one every two weeks since the beginning of June. (Un)fortunately I’ve had an intervention of life and work, much of which was taken up with 5 days of drinking different boozes each day last week, filling all of my waking hours with Stuff and giving me no time to witter about the latest episode in the world of The Squad. However, after a few calming episodes of Babylon 5 (in which Bruce Boxleitner looks uncannily like my father, making me double take at almost every scene) and a glass of absinthe (of which more in a later post – I need to write about something other than whisky soon) my notebook has fallen open to the right page, photos have moved from camera to iPhoto and soothing musics are playing from my computer speakers. It is time to do a bit of ‘writing’.
Despite my best efforts I know that I am a weak man. I have the willpower of a two year old sat unattended in front of a trough of paint and can have troubles putting down a packet of Polos until I have finished the pack (not advisable with sugar free mints – they hurt you). So, when the illustrious Mr Standing, currently US exiled co-founder of Whisky Squad, told me that a space had come up at the second Squad meetup of June, the meetup that I had deliberately not tried to get a ticket for to allow others to experience the wonder of The Squad, I couldn’t really say no. In a similar fashion to the first meetup of the month this one was also all about Japanese whisky, but in contrast it was a) all about the works of Suntory and b) an away fixture, taking place at Albannach in Leicester Square.
After much speculation as to when it would happen it seems that The Whisky Squad has now officially run out of whisky to drink from Scotland. For that reason, or the more likely one that there are tasty whiskies made outside of the chilly northern territories of the UK, the month of June is to play host to two Squad sessions, both focusing on the far off land of Japan. The first of these was led by returning dodgy story king and Whisky Guy Darren Rook and focused on the world outside of Suntory, the original and biggest whisky maker in Japan. Darren has the added assistance of having a brother who lives in Japan which means that occasionally some interesting tidbits fall into his lap, some of which he kindly brought along.
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time then you know the drill by now – first week of the month = Whisky Squad. We were joined again by Rob Whitehead of Berry Brothers & Rudd, this time leading the session rather than just being an enthusiastic punter. The topic was Highlanders: whiskies from the ‘other’ region in Scotland. Strictly speaking calling the Highlands a region is a little misleading as the easiest definition is “all of Scotland that isn’t in the other regions” – everything north of the Highland Line that joins Edinburgh and Glasgow, excluding Speyside, Islay and Campbelltown. Going along with large geographic variation is a general lack of underlying style – the area encompasses everything from punchy Talisker to light Glengoyne and pretty much anything in between. It’s the largest region by area and the second by number of distilleries and production of spirit, beaten only by densely populated Speyside. Whether the islands other than Islay should be considered part of the region is often debated, with the SMWS splitting them off as a separate ‘Highland Islands’ region in their releases (but they also divide up Speyside as well), and Rob sidestepped that point by (sort of) sticking to distilleries on the mainland.
The first whisky was quite light and had a nose of salted caramel, nuts (walnuts & almonds?), damp forest, sour orange, brine and fresh green vegetables. To taste it had butter, salt & pepper, a touch of fizzy fruit sweetness, and a lingering sweet and sour fruit finish. Water brought out some grapes and lengthened the sweetness of the finish. When the whisky sock was pulled off (as Rob brought along his set of BBR bottle concealing socks, although this time they were augmented by one knitted for the squad by occasional visitor Ruth) it was shown to be a John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney. That’s a Pulteney that’s 7 years old, rather than an Old Pulteney, as the latter is the name of the whisky produced for Inver House at the Pulteney distillery. John (generally known as Jack) Milroy was one of the two brothers that opened Milroy’s of Soho in 1964, the shop that was the template from which pretty much all whisky shops have been stamped out since. Doug McIvor, Berry’s whisky king, used to work there and now that he’s at Berry’s him and Jack sit down from time to time to select a few casks to be bottled under the Milroy name. Rob selected this one as our opener due to the way that we do tastings at Whisky Squad – we try the whisky blind and then guess the age, strength and (if feeling brave) the distillery. We don’t generally get these right and regular Dave has in recent times decided to guess that all whiskies are 7 years old. In order to help him guess right at least once Rob brought this one along, only to be foiled by Dave guessing 8 this time. The whisky was matured in an ex-bourbon barrel specifically purchased as an ‘old refill’ and was retired after this whisky was decanted. The knackered nature of the barrel meant that it didn’t influence the whisky too much, keeping it light and reflecting some of the citrus and brine that you get in Pulteney new make. Unfortunately this one has already sold out.
Number two was a little bit darker and had a nose that developed quite quickly in the glass. On first pour it was quite earthy with mulchy leaves, but that quickly blew away to be replaced by Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, lime cordial, red fruit and vanilla, as well as floral notes that got stronger as it sat. To taste there were apple boiled sweets, candle wax, vanilla, grapes, orange peel and a hint of menthol at the back of the mouth which lingered into the fruit finish. Water brought out a bit of biscuit and cardboard on the finish and some waxy hand cream to the middle of the flavour. The sock came off to reveal that it was a Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991, bottled in 2004. I usually rather like Glencadam, after a very tasty SMWS release led to me picking up their own 15 year old bottling, and this one continued that trend. They’ve not been releasing distillery editions for long, with independent bottlers being the only way of getting a single malt until 2005 when new owners Angus Dundee Distillers, who bought the distillery in 2003, brought out the 15 year old. Since then they’ve expanded the range with a 10 year old appearing in 2008, with a relaunch of the 15 year old at the same time, and in 2010 a 12 year old port finish, 14 year old oloroso finish and a 21 year old. Up until the 2003 purchase Glencadam has had a bit of a checkered history, being closed several times since its opening in 1825, and was mothballed in 2004 when the Berry’s 1991 was bottled. This whisky sold out before Rob started at Berry’s in 2006 and was pulled out of their rather extensive archives, making two whiskies in this tasting that we probably won’t find again.
Next was another darker whisky, although it was difficult to see exactly in the rather dimly lit tasting room, and within seconds of nosing it inspired a cry of ‘sherry’. On the nose it had sour fruit, sherry wood, burned meaty bits, hints of brine and forest leaves. To taste it started with a powdery icing sugar sweetness which faded to sour red grape, stewed tea, sour fruit and spice, and finished with sour fruit and lightly tannic wood. Water brought out a touch of salty ‘old sweaty sock’ on the nose as well as dulling the smell in general. In the taste, dilution lengthened the sweetness at the front and added a bit of card on the finish. The sock came off and this one was a Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998, bottled in 2009. Blair Atholl is another distillery that doesn’t produce much whisky as single malt, with the vast majority going into Bell’s and a Flora & Fauna bottling being the main place to find it on its own. The distillery is in Pitlochry, on the southern borders of the Cairngorms, and has been owned by Diageo since they bought up Arthur Bells & Sons in 1985.
Number four was still darker and had a nose of plums, galia melon, royal icing, polished wood, vanilla, cream, a hint of strawberry shrimp and some cement-like minerality. To taste it started with sweet pastry, sour plums and worked its way through hints of stone and touches of green leaves to a finish of cardboard, and lemon rind and pith. Water simplified things, with sweetness leading to fruit leading to lemon rind – one to drink at bottle strength. This was revealed to be Berry’s Own Teaninich 1973, bottled in 2010 for a total of 37 years of maturation. It was made up of two casks and bottled at cask strength of 41.8% and sells for about £135, one of the most expensive Berry’s Own bottlings that they’ve done. This is in part due to buying the casks old, rather than Berry’s usual plan of buying them at filling time and then looking after them during maturation – it’s more of a gamble, but is much cheaper than buying the casks when you can see how good they are at the end of maturation. Teaninich is another Diageo distillery that mainly sees the light of day through blends and a Flora & Fauna bottling, and it’s near to Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon and Dalmore distilleries on the north side of the Cromarty Firth near to Alness. Outside of Diageo’s various products it’s also a favourite of Compass Box, appearing in their Asyla and Oak Cross blends.
Number five was brought along by co-founder Jason rather than Rob and had a rather dodgy looking thin topped cork. Rob couldn’t say much about the whisky for fear of giving away what it was, so we went straight in for a taste. On the nose it had wet leaves, hints of brine, a touch of wood smoke, nettles, candy floss and baked beans. The taste was rather uncomplicated, but quite pleasant, with wood smoke, woody fruit, butter, marzipan and a slightly beany finish with some more fruit. Water calmed down a bit of the alcoholic burn and brought out a bit more fruit, but didn’t really improve things. When the sock came off it became quite obvious why they couldn’t say much – it was Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt, also known as ‘The Shackleton Whisky’. This one has quite the story behind it and is a marketing department’s wet dream. When explorer Ernest Shackleton was forced to abandon his Antarctic expedition in 1909 he left lots of supplies in his hut and during excavations on the site in 2006 a case of whisky was found. Over the last 5 years it has been moved to New Zealand to be thawed, and eventually a couple of bottles were handcuffed to Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson and flown back to Scotland in W&M owner Vijay Mallya’s private jet. Paterson extracted a small amount of liquid through the cork with a syringe and recreated the blend for this special bottling. As only he and whisky writer Dave Broom have tasted it noone knows for sure quite how accurate it is, but it’s a nice whisky. This edition is limited to ‘just’ 50k bottles and at £100 (with a fiver going to the Antarctic Heritage Trust) it should net W&M a tidy sum. I’m not sure it’s quite worth £100 for the liquid, nice as it is, but with the old-style replica bottle (complete with dodgy cork) and pretty wooden box (containing a more durable cork) it gets a bit closer. I think I’ll wait until they revive the Mackinlay’s name, as I’m sure they will, and sell a hopefully similar but cheaper whisky.
The last whisky of the evening was very dark and a quick nose showed that it was a sherry monster – prunes, burnt meat, rum, moss and hazelnuts and an alcoholic punch that got right into the sinuses. To taste there was pipe tobacco, coffee, very dry fruit, chocolate and a fruit and tar finish. It was quite closed at full strength and water helped open up all of those flavours to be more distinct, with some more brandy/rum notes and a touch of menthol coming through. When the sock came off Rob admitted to cheating somewhat – this was from the highlands, but not the highlands of Scotland (hence the ‘sort of’ back in paragraph one). It was the Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 year old from Japan, bottled by Berry’s in 2007. The distillery is quite central on Japan’s main island of Honshu, in the foothills of Mount Asama, the most active volcano on the island. This whisky came from a single first fill American oak sherry butt, with an outturn of 308 bottles, and has really taken on a lot of sherry wood flavour. It’s quite a mad whisky and as such there are still bottles left, one of which will shortly be finding its way into my whisky cupboard.
The final whisky this time is a seque into next month’s tastings. After a year of bimbling around Scotland The Squad will be making its first major foray overseas for two Japanese whisky tastings next month. More details will appear on the Whisky Squad site soon…
John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£30.
Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£35-45.
Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35.
Berry’s Own Selection Teaninich 1973
Highland cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 41.8%. ~£135.
Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt
Blended Scotch whisky, 47.3%. ~£100.
Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 Year Old
Cask strength single cask single malt Japanese whisky, 60.6%. ~£75.
Hot on the heels of this month’s first birthday Whisky Squad the chaps managed to squeeze in another a mere two weeks later. Offered the back room at The Gunmakers for a larger than usual whisky and dinner affair they took up the challenge and matched the occasion with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, returning for his second leading of an evening. The theme this time was ‘Side by Side’ – we would be blind tasting six whiskies in pairs, with each pair having a connection, giving us three mini vertical tastings through the evening.
To start us off Colin pulled out an extra aperitif from his bag. Keeping the whisky secret, as usual, he matched this with a Maltesers easter bunny and instructed us to munch, sniff and sip our way through the first glass. On the nose there wasn’t a lot, with high alcohols and a hint of sweet wood. The lightness continued into the taste, but with a bit more to it than the nose – a hint of rubber, sweet orange and marmelade, a little bit of ripe vine fruit, and a sour, bitter wood finish. A drop of water brought out apples and pears, icing sugar and orange cream. Noone had much of an idea of what it might be and it was revealed to be Cameron Brig. Made at Cameron Bridge grain distillery near Leven in Fife, this is one of the only commercially available bottlings of single grain whisky on the market, although it’s not particularly easy to find. I’m a fan of older grain whiskies, but haven’t tried any younger ones before this – I can detect the flavours I like from grain whiskies in there, but they are masked by the youngness of the spirit (it’s not got an age statement, but I suspect it’s not particularly old or matured in active casks). Give this a couple more years in a barrel and I suspect it’d be right up my street.
Dinner was then run in and scoffed, leading us on to our first pair of whiskies. #1 was quite a dark bronzed gold colour and had a dry nose with an underlying meatiness, hints of sherbet lemons, dry oxidised sherry (Spanish style Amontillado?), yeast and a lick of smoke. To taste there was bread, dry fruit cake, caramel, dark chocolate, a touch of smokey spice and a sweet woody finish. Water homogenised the flavours into something sweet and bready – a red grape jam sandwich?
Number 2 was light gold and a bit more aggressive on the nose, with TCP, a bit of peat smoke, sherbet lemons, sweet fruit and a bit of sticky toffee – Colin identified that last flavour as being like Blue Bird hard toffee that he used to eat when growing up. To taste it started with sweet syrup and moved through sour fruit to a sour, lingering wood ash finish and a bit of a boozey burn. Water calmed down the booze, sweetened up the middle a bit and added a bit of muddy mulch to the finish.
The concealing labels came off to reveal that #1 was Johnnie Walker Black Label and #2 Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition. The connection was that the light smokiness in the first comes, in part, from a slug of Caol Ila in the blend, along with some Talisker and whatever else Diageo have in the smokey section of their extensive warehouses. Black Label is a fairly decent blend and does what it sets out to – have a bit of everything at the same time as being worryingly easy to drink. The Caol Ila was one that I’d not tried before, initially thinking it to be the cask strength version I tried at the Whisky Lounge Independent’s Day tasting. However, it was a bit sweeter than I remembered and that fits with the production method – the spirit is finished for 3 months in moscatel casks, adding a bit of wine fruit to the mix. Surprisingly, based on it’s current status as an increasingly respected Islay whisky (including winning a bunch of medals over the last few years at the San Francisco World Spirits competition, including ‘Best Single Malt Scotch Whisky’ for the Distiller’s Edition this year), before 2002 there were only independent bottlings, with 99% of its production going into Diageo’s blends. They released a 12, 18 and 25 year old back then and the range has continued to change and increase since, with the distillery now undergoing expansion to keep up with ongoing single malt demand.
To start the next pair number 3 had a rather ‘industrial’ nose, with me picking out a light rubberiness and the rest of the table chipping in with motor oil and burning tires. Along with that were lemons, brine, marzipan and a general savoury umami. To taste there was salt, more rubber, white pepper and raisins, leading to a sweet fruit finish. Water calmed things down, with butter, bread and hot cross buns appearing.
Number 4 was announced as being 14 years old, which was enough to convince me that I knew the whiskies and what the connection was. In the end I got the right distillery, but didn’t get the expression right for this one. On the nose it was rich and fruity, with wax, bananas, pineapple and glacé cherries. To taste there was lots of woody spice, rich fruit and woody smoke, with salt, a peppery burn and a lemon sherbet finish. Water simplified things to a syrupy sweetness with a hint of pepper.
When the bottles were revealed it wasn’t a surprise that number 3 was Clynelish 12 year old but I was taken aback that #4 wasn’t the regular 14 year old, my favourite everyday whisky of the moment, but was instead the Clynelish Distiller’s Edition. I’ve written a bit about the distillery before, but since then it’s very much become one of my faves. I’ve got a half bottle of the 12 year old in the cupboard, will have another bottle of the 14 next time I go on a whisky buying run, and now have the distiller’s edition firmly stuck in my brain. Similar to the Caol Ila, it is a sweeter and richer version of the regular bottling, having been finished in oloroso sherry casks.
The final pair started off with number 5 and a plate of fruit cake to accompany the drams. On the nose it was quite light, with sweet cream and butter, and a bit of red fruit. To taste it was woody, with the fruit and cream from the nose leading to a sour, but buttery, wood finish. Water didn’t help it much, knocking out a lot of the flavour and leaving it just syrupy and sweet.
Number 6 had a bit more, with a nose of sweet grass, vanilla, light cream, unripe grapes, plums, stewed fruit and a hint of cheese rind. To taste it was quite green in the middle, with nettles and leaves, starting with a salty butter and ending with a gravelly minerality and quite a lot of alcoholic fire. Water killed the burn leaving the butter and gravel, and introducing some sweet and salty shortbread.
Again the connection was easy to see on the reveal, with the bottles being The Singleton of Dufftown 15 year old and Dufftown 1997 Managers’ Choice. I had a bottle of The Singleton of Dufftown shortly after it came out and wasn’t that impressed, but it seems that the mix of my changing tastes and their gradual changes to the bottling over the years have matched it more closely with my likes (especially as this is a different bottling to the regular 12 year old – thanks to Jason for pointing that out in the comments). The Singleton range has a different distillery for each territory it’s released in, with Europe having Dufftown, the US Glendullan and Asia Glen Ord. The Manager’s choice is rather more interesting – a single cask selected by the manager of the distillery as a ‘distillation’ of what their spirit is about and bottled as part of a rather exclusive range of pricy bottlings. The Dufftown bottle of the range is from a rejuvenated cask, where they plane down the staves of a tired cask and retoast them to give the barrel a bit more life, and with this whisky coming in at 11 years and 11 months old and picking up a good chunk of flavour from the wood it seems to work.
So, another Whisky Squad done and a successful second expansion into the big room. Next week’s one is back in our cosy upstairs cupboard and is all about Highlanders, courtesy of Berry Brother & Rudd’s Rob Whitehead. Keep an eye on the Whisky Squad twitter feed and website if you’re around on May 5th as last minute spots do have a habit of popping up…
Single grain Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£20
Johnnie Walker Black Label
Blended Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25
Caol Ila 1996 Distiller’s Edition
Single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£50
Clynelish 12 year old “Friends of the Classic Malts”
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30
Clynelish 1992 Distiller’s Edition
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30
Singleton of Dufftown 15 Year Old
Single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£40
Dufftown 1997 Managers’ Choice
Single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 59.5%. ~£200
Many thanks to Alan for letting me use his piccies after I singularly failed to take any that worked…
Impressively it seems that a year has passed since the first Whisky Squad meetup. I wasn’t present back in that dim and distant time (having only met co-founder Andy a few days earlier and already been booked up for three months of first Thursdays) but I have heard tales of whisky excellent and vile, and exploits terrifying and daring. The story-telling was mainly fuelled by beer but I trust the tellers implicitly, although I’m not sure how a T-Rex would get through The Gunmakers‘s front door or how a single pork scratching could drop one before it ate any customers.
This time our imbibing was led by other co-founder Jason and the theme was a secret, only revealed at the end (or at least when Jason got bored of not having told people) as being whiskies from distilleries with significant anniversaries this year. There was also cake, with recipe up on The Squad site – it was rather good, and last time I saw Jason he told me he had been dreaming about it. That might be going a bit far, but it’s one to have a go at, even if sticking in the last of your Bowmore Darkest isn’t recommended…
Anyways, the whiskies were all tasted blind, as usual, and the first one started of with a nose of bubblegum, apples and pear drops with a big savoury base. To taste it had citrus, cinnamon spice, sweet fruit, orange pips, sour wood and a hint of rubbery bitterness. Water brought out some fizzy Refresher flavours but left the big bitter finish. The paper came off to reveal that it was a Connoiseurs Choice Royal Brackla 1991, bottled at 17 years old. The distillery isn’t particularly well known, despite being the first to receive a royal warrant (hence the Royal in its name), and sits on the edge of Speyside, variously being described as a Highland or Speyside whisky depending on who you ask. The distillery was founded in 1812, its imminent 100th anniversary being the reason for being included in the line-up, by Captain William Fraser and was simply known as Brackla until receiving its warrant from William IV in 1835. It continued on, with the normal changings of hands and rebuildings, until 1985 when it was closed. It reopened in 1991 under the banner of United Distillers and Vintners (now Diageo) and was sold to Dewars in 1998, the current owners, who use the distillery to mainly produce whisky for their blends as well as Johnnie Walker and others. Its connection with blended whisky goes back a bit further, with Andrew Usher (the ‘father’ of whisky blending) being employed by the distillery in the 1860s and using its spirit in some of his initial blends. There aren’t many distillery bottlings (other than an old Flora and Fauna from the UDV days and a 10yr old from 2004 that I’ve seen mentioned) but thanks to its life as a whisky sold for blending it appears fairly often from independent bottlers, such as Gordon & MacPhail who bottle the Connoiseurs choice range.
Number two started the regular round of more evocative description with a ‘Smells like Timpsons’, and had a nose of pain stripper, PVA glue, a hint of leather, bananas, sweet fruit and gomme syrup. To taste it was backed with marzipan, with raisins, tart white grapes, butter and woody spice. Water brought out some citrus and transformed it into a Fry’s Orange Cream on the nose. Honey and spice appeared in the taste, along with oranges and lemons, and the finish brought in some burnt wood. The bottle was uncovered to reveal that it was a Gordon and MacPhail Linkwood 15 year old. The distillery is in Elgin, in the heart of Speyside and is owned by Diageo. It opened in 1824 and has been distilling continuously since, apart from closures during the second world war and from 1985-1990, two times when many distilleries went dark. When it reopened after the second world war not much changed, with distillery manager Roderick Mackenzie taking the ‘nothing must change, just in case it changes the characteristics of our spirit’ to a level beyond most managers, anecdotally insisting that spider webs must be left alone for fear of making changes to the flavours. Linkwood is another distillery that doesn’t get much love in the way of distillery bottlings, with the sole official release being a rather lacklustre Flora and Fauna entry, but it’s much loved by the independents and appears quite often – I’ve tried some especially good SMWS ones as well as a rather tasty one bottled for The Whisky Exchange’s 10th anniversary last year. Outside of those bottlings it can be found as a component in many blends, especially those managed by Diageo.
Number three came out of the gate with a call of ‘Buttered rum and biscuits’, with brioche, candied pineapple, wood, light tobacco and glue appearing on the nose. The gradual crystallisation of the more esoteric tasting notes led to ‘Like Colonel Gadaffi hiding in an old cupboard in Cuba’. To taste it started with soured fruit and moved through spicy cream to a lightly sour, rubbery finish. Water brought out more cream and softened the rubber, adding syrup sweetness and some dusty wood. Paper torn off, this turned out to be a Gordon and MacPhail Strathisla 25 year old. Another independent bottling, as Strathisla’s owners (Chivas Brothers/Pernod Ricard) only produce a single officially bottling (a quite tasty 12 year old that I tasted last year), this 25 year old is scarily cheap for its age, coming in at about £60, showing another bonus of independent bottlings – they often come in at much more affordable than an equivalent distillery bottling (if one was available). Founded in 1786 as Milltown and changing its name in the 1870s, Strathisla hasn’t closed since opening (making it the oldest continually operating distillery in Scotland, according to the internets and PR bumph) and these days is used as the heart of the various Chivas blends.
Number 4 didn’t inspire quite so much bombast, but got some quiet respect. It had a calm nose of sweet cream, light acidity and a bit of volatile alcohol, leading to a taste of lemony wood, sweet syrup and milk chocolate on the finish. Water brought out butter, foam strawberries, and some lingering unfinished wood. With the label removed we saw that the bottle claimed to be a Bowmore, but that was a sneaky substitution – it was in fact Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, normally enclosed in their distinctively triangular bottle, but switched to keep us guessing a bit longer. The Snow Phoenix is a limited edition put together after the heavy snows in 2010 collapsed the roof of one of Glenfiddich’s warehouses. They fished the barrels out from the snow and rubble, and then vatted them together to produce a one-off commemorative whisky. It went on sale for about £50 a bottle and has quickly risen in price and sold out (with this bottle coming from a batch of bottles that I managed to grab recently in my local Waitrose for label price), with its rather pretty tin adding to the appeal. However, I’ve heard rumours that another tranche has recently been released and that it may not be quite so limited as originally though, which makes me question my investment in a couple of bottles for future sale to a collector a few years down the line. We shall see…
Number 5 was rather scary – as dark as Coke and dangerous looking. Initially on smelling it someone came out with ‘Dirty, but in a good way’, but that quickly lost the ‘in a good way’ as we stuck our noses deeper into our glasses. There were prunes, rubber, bitter orange, cubes of jelly concentrate, motor oil and sour molasses. To taste there wasn’t very much – it tasted very much like a light new make spirit backed up with burnt coffee. Water got rid of some of the coffee and might have added some orange (although that could have been wishful thinking), but didn’t do anything to improve it. Label removed this was shown to be Cú Dubh, gaelic for Black Dog. This is a whisky from Mannochmore, founded in 1971 and celebrating its 40th birthday this year, in the vein of the previously released Loch Dhu (black loch). They take a relatively young whisky and send it to Denmark for ‘special treatment’ which turns it very dark. As it’s still called whisky it’s fairly obvious what this special treatment is – the addition of spirit caramel. While I generally agree that a small amount of caramel doesn’t affect the flavour of a whisky noticeably, as the folks at Master of Malt examined recently, the burnt flavour hiding at the back of the palate in this whisky suggests to me that if you load a vat with it then it’ll start appearing on the tongue. Loch Dhu is often called one of the worst whiskies released in recent memory (with at least one review giving a half bottle a higher score than a full one due to there being less to hate) but it’s picked up a reputation as being something strange and due to the rapidly decreasing stock has risen rapidly in price – if you can find a bottle you’ll often pay over £250 these days. The Cú Dubh is an effort to get back in on the Loch Dhu action and the Danish processing is probably due to its popularity in Scandinavia. However, the reviews I’ve read suggest that this one is considered to be even worse than its predecessor and has even caused some people to reassess quite how bad the Loch Dhu was. Despite all that, I didn’t particularly dislike it – I blame my dangerous love of new make spirit…
The final dram for the night was rather distinctive in both colour and shape of bottle and even without that hint most people in the room would have guessed the distillery anyway. On the nose it started off with baby sick (dissected by those present into astringent sour milkiness) which faded with exposure to air to give mud, a hint of peat, and generally sour and salt scents. To taste there was a lightly sweet peatiness, sweet fruit, liquorice, peppermint and a touch of charcoal. Water brought out more minerality and a mulchy vegetable air. While the distillery wasn’t in question the exact expression was, with these guys being famed for the silly number of bottlings they’ve produced since they reopened 10 years ago (hence their inclusion in the list) – it was the Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram. This spirit was from the first batches that they produced when the distillery came back online in 2001, with this release was bottled in 2008 and limited to 24000 bottles, several of which have been sitting in Jason’s flat until needed. With Bruichladdich reaching their 10 year landmark they seem to be looking to cut down on their bottlings (a new one every couple of months as far as I can tell) and focus on producing a lightly peated core range (based around the 10 year old) and using their other brands (Octomore and Port Charlotte) to focus on the big peat that most people look for in Islay whiskies. It’s nice to see them calm down slightly, although whether they can stop master distiller Jim McEwan having crazy ideas is another matter.
So, Happy Birthday Whisky Squad. All going to plan I’ll be along as often as I can on the way to the next one(s). Speaking of which, the next one is this Tuesday…
I was beaten to getting this written up yet again, this time by Charly over at Caffeine Frenzy Wanderlust.
Connoiseurs’ Choice Royal Brackla 1991
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35
Gordon & Macphail Linkwood 15 years old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40
Gordon & Macphail Strathisla 25 years old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£65
Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 47.6%. ~£75
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25
Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35
Twelve down, many to go – Whisky Squad has almost reached its first birthday and to mark the occasion we had a rather special evening nestled in the hands of Chris Maybin from Compass Box. I’ve mumbled out Compass Box in the past and they remain one of my favourite whisky companies, with consistently interesting and tasty products as well as a really friendly team working to put them together. I met Chris briefly at Whisky Live London in 2010, when I went to the Compass Box stand for a second time at the end of the show and he insisted on making me taste everything they had for a second time…what an evil man.
Picture by Chris Matchett and his shiny iPhone
The company has just had its 10th anniversary, starting out in 2000 with former Johnnie Walker marketing director John Glaser putting together his first whisky and selling some cases of it to Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh (if I remember the story correctly). Ten years on they’ve created a variety of interesting blended whiskies (as well as a few very limited single cask bottlings), won a stack of awards and stuck out as an innovator in the generally conservative world of blended whisky. They take the opposite tack to most blending companies, focusing on producing whiskies where you can taste the various components, and how they compliment each other, rather than a more amorphous combined flavour. This is in part achieved by using a smaller number of component whiskies (typically three) as well as doing the blending in smaller batches a number of times a year, creating whiskies that vary slightly from batch to batch but always keeping the same idea behind the flavour.
From the tasting I did with John Glaser last year I know he is not a fan of spirit caramel, used to colour many whiskies for a variety of reasons good and ill, and Chris agreed, passing around a bottle for us to have a sniff. I rather liked it, burnt sugar that it is, but am not a fan of it in whisky. While I understand the usual use for colouring whiskies, so that they are consistent between batches, and don’t think it has as much of an influence on flavour as many say, it does mask flavours and alter the mouthfeel of a whisky when used in larger quantities, and isn’t something that I think should be needed if consumers understood their drinks more. However, most people aren’t whisky geeks and don’t care so the colouring continues. Compass Box also don’t chill filter their whiskies, a process that definitely has an impact on the flavour and mouthfeel of whisky, leaving their bottlings as close to ‘natural’ as you can have without leaving chunks of charred barrel in the bottle (cf Blackadder whiskies…).
Their production process is quite simple for their regular range – buy maturing casks of spirit, test them until they get to the point where they are ready to be used, make small test batches of blended whisky in their Chiswick office, send the finalised recipe up to Scotland where the whiskies are vatted together, recask the whiskies after blending, leave them to marry and further mature, bottle. The marrying process takes at least 6 months, but they leave some whiskies longer depending on what they are trying to do with them. The choice of wood for that final maturation stage is very important, with their experimentation in the area getting them into trouble with the SWA (as John Glaser explained in a comment when I wrote about it before), but I’ll talk about that a bit more later on. On with the whisky!
As usual we tasted blind, with each bottle being revealed after tasting, and first up was a lightly coloured dram. This was my first correct guess of the evening, although my cheating by looking up its recipe in an earlier blog post fell down due this batch having different components. The nose had stacks of vanilla, backed up with some lightly sweet wood smoke, coconut, sweet butter, apples, pears, marzipan and a hint of cherry – cherry bakewells in a fruit bowl? To taste it started with sweet citrus (candied lemons?) and worked its way through sour wood and fruit salad chews to a dry wood and spice finish, with a bit of a boozy prickle. Water brought out big sweet caramel (rather than the evil burnt caramel) and left a nice chunk of woodiness at the end. This was, as expected for the first dram of the tasting, Asyla, the closest that Compass Box have to a ‘regular’ blend and a great entry point to their range. It’s 50/50 grain and malt whisky, with the grain half coming this time from Cameron Bridge (for sweetness), and the malt from Teaninich (for grassiness) and Glen Elgin (for rich robustness). All the whisky is matured in first fill bourbon casks and after vatting is put back into those casks to marry for 6 months before bottling. The name isn’t the bad pun on Islay that many people think it is, myself included, but instead the plural of ‘asylum’ (a word meaning both sanctuary and madhouse) and taken from the name of a piece of music by Thomas Adès. They make about three batches of Asyla each year, with tweaks to the recipe to keep it in the same area of flavour based on what whiskies they have available, and are planning on numbering the batches soon. Chris mentioned that the SWA, traditional foils of Compass Box, are planning on regulating the listing of batch numbers and blending constituents, but I can’t find any information on that – anyone know anything? It wouldn’t surprise me, although in recent times I’m coming around to not disliking the SWA as much as the initial stories I heard about them, from Bruichladdich and Compass Box, encouraged me to.
Next up was the beginning of my no longer having any idea of what the whisky was, despite having tasted most of them before. On the nose there was whiteboard marker sweetness, foam and real bananas, vanilla and a hint of woody smokiness. The taste was bigger and richer than the Asyla, with more fruit salads, astringent wood, hints of marzipan, thick sweet woody spice and a thicker, slightly oily mouthfeel. Water brought out more of the fruit chew-ness and more prickly wood along with some sweetened cream and liquorice. The paper came off to reveal that this was Oak Cross, the first of a trio of whiskies that vary mainly in the wood used for maturation. It’s made up of mainly Clynelish (about 60%) with the rest split between Teaninich (for the grassy freshness) and Dailuaine (for structure). After vatting this whisky is filled half back into the original first fill bourbon casks and half into special Oak Cross barrels – first fill bourbon casks with the regular heads (the barrel ends) replaced by new French oak, not touched by other drinks and lightly toasted. New French oak is used a lot in the wine industry but not really touched by whisky as the nature of the spirit quickly draws lots of tannins from the wood, making whiskies dry and woody before their time. However by only using new oak heads during the 6 month marrying process the whisky can pick up some of the French oak characteristics without going too far. In a way this technique can be seen as retaliation for the SWA’s reaction to the next whisky.
This one was one of my favourites of the night, with vanilla, candied lemon, some floralness, raisins and wood on the nose – ‘Crepe Suzette’ according to whisky wordsmith Mr Matchett. To taste it had spicy apple, creamy custard, raisins, hints of chocolate, big woody spices and a woody end. Water brought out more wood and fruit, as well as some sourness. When the label came off I was pleased to see that this was one I’d not tried before, having no clue what it was – Illegal Spice Tree. The illegal bit isn’t quite right, but it was Compass Box’s first edition of Spice Tree, which the SWA told them they weren’t allowed to sell, under threat of legal action, due to the wood maturation process. Taking the same recipe that is now used for Oak Cross they filled some of the vatted whisky into first fill bourbon casks that had new heavily toasted French oak barrel staves tethered to the inside, giving the whisky contact with a lot of wood, including a big surface area of the new oak. However, the SWA felt that this was not a traditional enough maturation method to allow the product to be called whisky and thus was it withdrawn from sale in 2006. This was from Jason’s personal stash and one that only occasionally appears in the wild these days.
Next up was the third in bottle in the Spice Tree saga and one that most of us guessed even before pouring would be the newer, legal version of Spice Tree. On the nose this reminded me heavily of Fry’s Orange Cream bars, with an underlying spicy earthiness. To taste it had sweet polished wood leading to a lingering, warm, woody finish. On the way there there was lightly burned toast, a sherbety fizz, dark caramelised oranges and coffee. Water brought out dark chocolate in the nose, some floral notes (violets? I need to find some violets to smell to see if the scent I think is violets really is…) and Turkish delight. A more elegant whisky than the older Spice Tree but one that I didn’t like as much, although that could well be a subconscious love of that which I can no longer easily obtain oozing out. This whisky is very similar to the Oak Cross in nature, but with the 6 months of maturation in the new oak headed casks extended to 2-3 years, the new oak heads undergoing a heavier toasting, 60% of the whisky coming from the special casks and the bottling strength upped by 3% to 46%. It’s made a bit of a stir, appearing on a number of 2010 best of lists including getting the Best New Whisky award in Jim Murray’s 2011 Whisky Bible.
We moved on to a whisky that everyone who knew the Compass Box range immediately guessed after a quick sniff – stony peat, coal smoke, smoked meat and a hint of iodine medicinalness. To taste it was sweet, with a creamy slightly cheesy note, ending with coal smoke and a blue cheese sweetness (the latter note one that others told me, as I don’t touch the evil, mouldy stuff). Water brought out soft, mulchy fruit in the middle, more fruit in the upfront sweetness, and left the finish intact – like breathing in while standing next to a coal burning stove. It was, of course, The Peat Monster. Much less peaty than the name suggests, a whisky that shows that peat and smoke in a whisky don’t need to be overpowering. This is made up of a combination of 20% Laphroaig, 40% Caol Ila and 40% Ardmore, the only mainland highland distillery doing exclusively heavily peated spirit, and comes in at 25ppm. The Laphroaig and Caol Ila really come through on the nose, with the minerality and medicinal punch, but in the taste they are overcome by the more rounded smoke of the Ardmore – an excellent combination. This one was originally put together for Park Avenue Liquor in New York, as The Monster, and was a chunk peatier, but after some softening it joined the regular range with a different name, even if that name does confuse people who are looking for something to strip away the inside of their faces with a peaty punch.
Next was a whisky that I knew very well from just the nose – Hedonism. This is the whisky that I wrote about in my first entry on this blog and one that I still vary from day to day whether I love or hate it, although my increasing love of nicely aged grain whisky has hacked away at the days when it’s not one of my favourites. Fortunately it was a day when I really liked it. On the nose it had sweet candied fruit, vanilla, acetone, buttery pastry, rum, garibaldi biscuits, coconut, tropical fruit and banoffee pie. To taste it was sweet and floral, with high alcohols and ripe tropical fruit. Water dropped out some of the sweetness, replacing it with woodiness, and added more prickle, more body and some creamy vanilla. This was Compass Box’s first whisky, starting with a product unlike others on the market – A blended grain whisky. They do a couple of batches a year and this one (H29MMIXB – 29th batch, second batch of 2009, the one after the bottle I have) is a blend of 14 and 29 year old from Cameron Bridge, Cambus (now closed) or Carsebridge, with a little drop of 30 year old Invergordon (not usually added, but in this batch for a little more richness). This one is a more limited release than the others in the range in part due to the niche nature of grain whisky but also due to the difficulty in sourcing good quality older grain whisky, as most is decanted young and used in blending.
The last whisky was the wildcard. For their 10th anniversary Compass Box had bottled a number of interesting whiskies and having tasted through the rest of their core range it seemed likely that one of those would appear as whisky number 7. On the nose there was acetone, vanilla, cherries, flowers (maybe violets?) and icing sugar – combining to give “Cherry bakewells with superglue icing” (thankyou Mr Matchett) and “Manhattan cocktails”. To taste it was less sweet than the nose suggested and like a rich dessert wine with concentrated grapes, a burst of grassy new make spirit and long lingering sweet fruity finish. Water brought out roses, Turkish delight and glacé cherries. I was quite blown away by this and a bunch of head nodding down my end of the table confirmed what we had hoped, it was Hedonism 10th Anniversary Edition. Different to most of the other Compass Box whiskies (apart from their Canto bottlings, I think) in that it is a single cask whisky. It’s 1971 Invergordon (rumoured to be a sister cask to the now no longer available Berry’s Own Selection bottling which I tried last year and which was also excellent) bottled in 2010 at 38 years old, so a single cask single grain whisky, a type of whisky that doesn’t appear much and one that I have so far almost always enjoyed every time I’ve found it. There were 120 bottles produced from the cask, 24 of which were allocated to the UK market at £200 each and there are a few around still to buy. Despite the price I’m very tempted as it was very good indeed and I was thinking about it still two days later, despite having Whisky Live London in between.
Speaking of Whisky Live, which was the day after the tasting, I met up with Whisky Squad organiser Mr Standing at the show and having just visited the Compass Box stand we had our tipsy states taken advantage of by the folk of Connosr and recorded a video about another of the Compass Box limited editions, Flaming Heart, in their Whisky Pod. My only comment on the video is that Niceness is an excellent word. Please do not count the number of uses of the suffix -ness in the text above, I just did and it’s shocking. My fairly drunken tasting notes for the Flaming Heart read: “Nose – Muddy peat, light burning hay, orange peel. Taste – sweet start moving through rich spicy caramel to a smoky fiery end. Water – More Clynelish, but with burnt wood over the finish. Fruity middle, mango and pineapple, butter and ash”. Not bad after 5 hours at a whisky show.
Next month’s Whisky Squad is yet unannounced, but with it being the first anniversary I suspect Things may be happening. We shall see…
Whisky Guy Darren very rudely didn’t attend due to having become a dad the day before. I will forgive this terrible breach of etiquette on this occasion and wish him, Mrs Darren and Baby Darren all the best.
Blended Scotch Whisky, 40%. ~£25 from Master of Malt.
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£30 from Master of Malt.
Spice Tree Version 1
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%. No longer available
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky, 43%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.
Hedonism 10th Anniversary
Single cask single grain Scotch whisky, 56%. ~£200 from Master of Malt
The blessing, and curse, of the monthly whisky club is that it pops up so regularly. Unfortunately this does often mean that it is surrounded, in my diary at least, by other whisky related events, so now after one whole post of respite we move on to whisky deluge #2.
This month’s cryptic theme at Whisky Squad was The Bottle of Britain, but after a bit of deduction it wasn’t that hard to work out what we were going to be seeing – Whisky Squad usually does four bottles per month and there are four constituent countries to our glorious United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. All four have distilleries, so that’s a ready made tasting ready to rock.
Arriving at The Gunmakers I saw four bottles on the side and nodded my head sagely, smug in the knowledge that I was, as is obvious, best. Then Andy arrived and added a 5th bottle to the pile. All bets were now off. There’s only one distillery in each of Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and pulling in two Scotches isn’t Whisky Squad’s style, so one of the bottles was a mystery. And to add to the mystery we only had them revealed once we have tried all 5 – there wasn’t even going to be a chance of guessing by ticking options off the list…
First up was a suspiciously colourless liquid that smelled suspiciously like whisky, that well known not-colourless liquid. On the nose it had a bit of barley grain (which I suspect wasn’t really there but was instead my underlying assumption that it was new make spirit), vanilla, red berries, bread and a hint of the farmyard. To taste it was sweet and didn’t taste much like a new make spirit – astringent fruitiness, peach stones and sweet vanilla cream. Water brought out some woody smoke and reduced a bit of the astrigency, but still left a bit at the end. It was almost like someone had bleached a whisky of all colour (and some of its flavour) and in a way that’s what had happened. It was revealed to be a spirit drink, rather than whisky as such, from the Isle of Man (Not part of the UK, but part of the British Isles, so I’ll allow it) – ManX Blue. Designed to be used in cocktails, where being clear is a bonus, ManX buy whisky (at least 5 years old) from Scotland and then redistil it to produce a clear drink with some of the flavour of whisky, but none of the colour. They variously claim a patent ‘intensification process’ where neutral alcohols are removed as well as that they ‘enhance the flavour of the drink by removing certain compounds found in the original whisky‘. It certainly removes something, but it is still worryingly drinkable. The thought in the room was that bad whisky was used as the starting product, either stuff that didn’t taste right or that which had dropped below 40% and thus couldn’t legally be called whisky any more (although fortifying it with stronger whisky is allowed – cf the conspiracy theories about Ardbeg Serendipity and the strength of the Ardbeg that went into it), and that this is probably better than the initial product. It’s not particularly easily findable at the moment, but you can get it on their website for £30 a bottle, or £54 when paired with the ‘distilled from at least 10 year old whisky’ (but still cheaper than the blue) red label. Weird stuff.
We then moved on to something which was also rather different from our regular whisky fair. With a bit more colour than the ManX, not hard though that was, it was still very pale and had a nose of marzipan, amaretti biscuits, marshmallows and nuts, with a meaty silage note underneath that suggested relative youth. To taste there were caramel nuts, candly floss, sour apples and a woody finish. Water brought out sweetness and custardy cream, with brandy fruitiness hanging around as well. At the reveal I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that it was the English Whisky Company‘s Chapter 6, despite having tasted it recently and not picked it out before the concealing paper (this week a page from each of the newspapers that Gunmakers landlord Jeff had left downstairs) was removed. The Chapter 6 is the first release from the English Whisky Company that can properly be called whisky, the 5 releases before coming at 6 month intervals from distilling, and it was one of the last ones to be put together by consulting distiller Ian Henderson, with production taken over by the owners of the distillery now that things are up and running. It’s young, different and something that I suspect will get more interesting over time – roll on the later chapters…
Next was something that appeared to be much more traditionally whisky – darker in the glass and more familiar in smell and taste. The nose had caramel, spiced fruit, strawberry, rum and raisin fudge, liquorice bootlaces, wine gums and creamed coconut. To taste there was a big sweetness up front, almost cloying, followed by sappy wood, sweet coconut and milk chocolate. Water brought the sourness from the wood as well as woody spices, more fruit and Asian cooking spice. The paper was removed and the tall elegant bottle was revealed to be Penderyn Sherrywood. They are Wales’s only whisky distillery and I’m still not convinced, although this is the nicest one I’ve tried so far. There’s a taste in there that I can’t quite describe that not only tells me it’s Penderyn but also grates on my palate. The more heavily sherried whiskies I’ve tried from them have masked it, but it’s still hiding in the background, souring things for me.
Our penultimate whisky was a bit of a divider, with it initially being my least favourite of the night, but developing into one of my favourites. On the nose it had, according to Whisky Guy Darren, ‘maraschino cherries and diesel oil’, sponge cake (from me) and ‘cheap apple shampoo’ according to Alan. To taste it was very tannic, almost causing my face to compress to a point, with wood smoke and struck matches. The tannins were too much for me and I quickly declared it to be nasty, however after a drop of water I ate my words. The violence of the wood was rubbed away, leaving a solid woodiness but also more sweetness and more of the cakey vanilla and fruit that the nose promised. The paper came off and it was shown to be Bushmills 1608, produced for the 400th anniversary of the distillery. While the location of the distillery that was built 400 years ago is down the road from the current distillery there was a license for distilling issued to someone in the area in 1608, so we can probably let them have the ‘oldest distillery in the world’ tag for the time being.
Last, but very much not least, was something a lot more familiar – on the nose there was spiced apple and pear, vanilla and soft wood. To taste there was creamy custard leading to a sugary wood centre and dry wood to finish. Water brought out more wood, more custard and some butteriness – a text book bit of rich Scotch whisky. The label came off and a Scotch it was – House of Commons Speaker Bercow’s Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Exclusively available at the House of Commons (and thus from eBay and other ‘secondhand’ buying locations), this was a leaving present to Andy from a job there, donated to us for the evening. There is a tradition of malt whiskies being produced in the Speaker’s name, with previous speaker Michael Martin definitely not being involved in the selection process due to the small problem of him being teetotal, and they are rather collectible, especially when signed by members of parliament or the speaker themself. The previous bottling, Speaker Martin’s, seems to have been overtly a Macallan but this one is quietly bottled by Gordon & MacPhail with no indication of origin, although Darren reckoned it might well be a Macallan. Tasty, no matter what it was – a reason to visit the Commons bar (or the Private Members gift shop).
Another month down and another tasting to look forward to next month. It’s not up on the Whisky Squad website yet, but March’s tasting will be with Compass Box, purveyors of fine blends to discerning drinkers since the year 2000. It’ll be up on the site soon, so keep an eye there and on Twitter – tickets go quickly…
Whisky based spirit drink, 40%. ~£30 from their website
English Whisky Company Chapter 6
English single malt whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange
Welsh single malt whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt
Irish blended whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange
Speaker Bercow’s Single Malt Whisky
Single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. Occasionally available from eBay or more regularly at the House of Commons Private Members gift shop…
Alan beat me to finishing a write-up this month and you can find his, complete with very pretty pictures, over on his blog