March 10, 2014
The five Taliskers on show recently at the Quaich Society.
With twenty-eight distilleries to cherry-pick from, it was perhaps a surprise that David Sinclair of drinks industry giant Diageo arrived in St Andrews with the product of only one of their distilleries. Then again, given Diageo’s recent investment in single malt brands – most notably regarding their Speyside dark horse, Mortlach – the decision to showcase all that is new and interesting in the world of Talisker was understandable.
Back when I first succumbed to whisky’s compulsive charms the extent of the Talsiker ‘core’ range was the iconic 10yo, the devilishly hard-to-find but stunning 18yo and the Amoroso-finished Distiller’s Edition. However, over the last twelve months we have seen a feisty no-age statement Storm, it’s brooding cousin Dark Storm and even a Port-finished offering, the punningly-named Port Ruighe (the Gaelic name for the capital town of the Hebridean island of Skye, where Talisker is made). David – somehow or other – managed to procure two bottles of the 2009 30yo release as well, so it wasn’t just a blooding of the youngsters.
Talisker’s production process is, quite rightly, the place to start when appraising any of the whiskies from this cult distillery. Today using medium-peated barley from the Glen Ord maltings, once upon a time Talisker was triple-distilled; indeed, the still house still boasts the extra copper which would have been used to further refine the spirit back in the old days. These stills are unusual in themselves, with purifiers in the wash stills connecting the u-bend lyne arms back to the body of the stills. All condensation takes place in worm tubs. Basically, this is complex distillation, building in weight and power to the spirit.
There can be no better demonstration of this than in the 10yo: idiosyncratically peppery, with a bit of savoury seaweed on the nose, the whisky has mellowed slightly with generous vanilla and spice from the oak casks used to mature it. This was the first time in years I’d tried the core expression and, to be honest, it wiped the floor with the next two interlopers.
Talisker Storm – or ‘drizzle’ as one wag I spoke to dubbed it – is supposed to be a more potent rendering of the house style, building in extra spice and peat with the use of heavily-charred, rejuvenated American oak casks. These impart no flavour from the liquid which was originally in the cask and allow the fresh oak to penetrate the spirit. I maintain that this is actually quite a soft, floral and mild Talisker by comparison with the 10yo and while not an unpleasant dram by any means, it cannot hide its blatant limitations of depth.
I have stated elsewhere that I am a big fan of Port-finished whiskies – in fact, last night I tearfully savoured the last of my BenRiach Solstice which I bought almost a year ago at the distillery. This is a symphony of dry, aggressive peat and thick hedgerow berry sweetness from the Port. I found the Talisker Port Ruighe disjointed and flat in contrast - the house style, after between three and six months in Port casks, had been consummately butchered, a suspicion only underlined whenever I returned to that bombastic 10yo.
David Sinclair talks us through the impressive 30yo.
This is not to say that Talisker and wine casks ought always to be kept well clear of each other; the Amoroso Sherry-retouched Distiller’s Edition is and to my mind always has been a delight. The peat and spice of the spirit meld with the drier elements of the wine while overall the effect is of fullness, sweetness and decadence, but in balance.
Our final whisky was a rare treat. I last sampled a 30yo Talisker at Edinburgh Whisky Blog’s Movember tasting – again courtesy of David. I described it as a lady’s boudoir extruded through the ashes of a peat fire. This one was marginally less sophisticated and surprising but still impressive. The nose offered a pronounced creaminess with some candied zest. Behind came a perfumed smokiness and tropical fruits with a growing spice and coconut character. A trace of cedar oil ramped up the aromatics. The palate, even at cask strength of 53.1%, was leathery and amazingly rounded. I detected almond milk, menthol and eucalyptus and a more overtly herbal finish with plenty of invigorating barley sugar. Excellent.
In the past it hasn’t always been possible to go ‘vertically’ through a Diageo distillery’s range. When there are three or four to choose from the latter drams are normally prohibitively expensive and elusive. To see Talisker in its many costumes was hugely instructive for me, and I know a number of others found the flavour bridge they’d been searching for between smoke-free and heavy peat whiskies. The Storm and Port Ruighe just didn’t do it for me, but I look forward to more experimentation with this powerful and versatile spirit. Hopefully David Sinclair will be able to come by again and curate them for us.
Tags: 30yo whisky
, Port Ruighe
, St Andrews
, The Quaich Society
, Whisky Tastings
February 25, 2014
I was panicking, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know what the master distiller wanted from me, why couldn’t he just stop?
‘You will see,’ he said, stalking between the shadows at the far end of the warehouse. ‘It’s the future; you must accept it.’
I fought against the tannins still coating my tongue from the Saint-Emilion-boarding I had received earlier that morning. ’But it’s perfectly good as it is! You don’t have to do this!’
The master distiller stepped up to the cask which lay, defenceless, between us. ‘You will see,’ he repeated and signalled to his henchmen. Heavy boots scuffled over the cement floor as the goons wrestled another cask into view. They placed this newer-looking cask beside the first, then gripped the mottled grey hogshead.
‘Please don’t do this!’ I cried as they began to lift and tip the contents of the first cask into the second.
‘No! No! Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!’
Okay, so it isn’t a scene that’s going to make it into the next Matt Damon espionage thriller. The anxieties of the wider world are still titillated by government surveillance and nuclear war - the whims of the whisky industry are very far down the list of Hollywood’s screenwriters. But that leads me on rather neatly to the whisky anorak’s premonition of the apocalypse: wine finishing.
I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores; how the practice started is of less importance than where it is leading. There were conspiracies in the darker pockets of the internet that wine casks and indeed any oak vessel which had once held something else were drafted in to the Scotch whisky industry to lift sunken stocks. ‘Is your 13-year-old whisky a bit lifeless and bland? Stick it in a tokaji cask and you’ll be laughing.’ I should stress that I am not tarring all finishes with the same brush, nor am I suggesting that this was the policy for the entire industry. I am a big fan of Sherry and Port finishes, and some fortified wine finishes have been stellar: Ardbeg Galileo from Marsala casks, Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or from Sauternes. I reserve my reservations, in fact it is tantamount to a fully-formed aversion, for red wine-finished whiskies.
Over the years I have tried, in no particular order: Auchentoshan 17yo Bordeaux Finish, Bruichladdich Rocks, Bowmore Dusk, Bruichladdich Black Arts, Glenmorangie Artein, Edradour Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Dunedin 10yo Doublewood. All boasted redeeming features (excepting the Black Arts, of course) but the initial taste and recurring faults in the finish – like a repressed memory that keeps fighting back – always upset me.
On taking a first sip, it is as if Tarzan has swung in from nowhere with an offering of semi-decomposed berries and his own leaf mulch mattress. There’s a gruesomely bold ‘ta da! It’s me!’ from the wine, like encountering with a hangover a mostly empty bottle of merlot someone else was drinking the night before sat on a hot windowsill and exhaling exuberantly, which ruins everything else. Fair enough (almost) if your original casks have been stingier than an insurance company in Somerset but what if the liquid was quite charming to start with? This brings me on to Glenmorangie’s latest expression in the Private Edition series, Companta.
Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie, is a big fan of wine. He introduced Super Tuscan wine casks for the Artein release a couple of years ago and has settled in France this time for Companta. Two separate parcels of Glenmorangie were brought together, one lot maturing in Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart and the other in fortified wine casks from the Cotes du Rhone. The idea was to offer something ‘neither too bold nor too tame’. My problem here is that the wine influence is fairly bold, and I suspect they thought the original whisky was on the more mellow side. Rather lovely in its own way, but in need of pep. I fear that, in pursuit of something a little more earnest, they have dressed Cerys Matthews up as Lady Gaga.
Glenmorangie Companta 46% £69.99
Colour – full dark honey with prune tints.
Nose – complex tannic knots of cask, barley sweetness beneath and dark cherry with a dark chocolate shell. Soft, full and inviting. Big note of Port-poached pear, the wine thickening and puckering at the edges. Lashings of blackberry vinegar. A shaving of lightly creamy and spicy ex-Bourbon cask. Earthiness returns and a loss of focus in the mid-range.
Palate – winey fruits and jelly beans collide into each other then firm, sweet baking spice oak arrives. Smooth malt behind. A touch aggressive but pleasant.
Finish – quite light in the finish: apricot flesh surrounds a fading fudgey malt. Budding vanilla fragrance and buttercream thickness.
Adding water improved everything by a fraction. The nose was reminiscent of Jammy Dodgers, sweet hazelnut and stewed apple. There is a lovely malt at its peak texture and sweetness but the wine, I felt, inhibited any attempt to realise the whisky’s depths. With time, strawberry bonbon, acacia honey and peppermint appear. The palate takes the dark cherry note from the neat nose and spins it on a bed of fromage frais. A bit of pear and more winey warmth. Creamy coconut and soft fruit stick to the tongue before earthy cask notes return. All led into a creamy and elusive finish.
So…? As I said above, there are strong hints of a very lovely whisky here. The high quality Glenmorangie spirit has an exceptional ability to fill the nose and conjure up sweets you had long forgotten about. There are suggestions of the 10yo’s pear and creamy Bourbon character and it’s all rather nice until you have to factor in the wine. In this whisky the dangers of mixing grape and grain came in the form of a warm mulchy earthiness, like making jam in a potting shed. It didn’t dominate, but it was just enough to mar the effect at every stage. The Companta, therefore, is a bright blue sky, with a cloud or two sidling into shot.
, Private Editions
, Single Malt Scotch Whisky
, Whisky reviews
, Wine Finished whiskies
February 13, 2014
6am My second alarm erupts beside me (I’m one of those people who likes to give myself a 30-minute warning) and I collapse upright. In term time I can usually greet the new day on my own terms - anywhere between 8.30 and 10 I would deem acceptable. 6am in Enfield had, for the first couple of weekday mornings, felt like an incursion into my human rights. Now I seem to have adjusted and I’ve even stopped swearing under my breath.
6.30am Cereal in the process of being munched, toast to follow. Heart FM witters away by my right ear. I now know what has become of Jamie Theakston.
7.30am I manage to pick my way through the slush of yesterday’s Metros and board the Greater Anglia service from Southbury.
7.42am Disembark at Seven Sisters. After a few days I start to get the hang of platform positioning: in seconds I scythe between commuters still half-asleep and then, for the next eternity, shuffle down the stairs to the Victoria Line escalators.
7.48am Duck into the Tube train and grab on to a pole. Slowly adjust facial features to apathetic hostility. Summarily fail to find a position that will not leave me vulnerable to the next influx of passengers to left and right.
8.06am Disembark at Victoria, misread platform notices and head on to the Piccadilly Line. About turn and find the District Line platform. Feel like a mouse in a lab experiment.
8.16am Ears ringing to ‘MindtheclosingdoorsMindtheclosingdoors’, I take my position on – but not beyond – the Yellow Line for the next train bound for Richmond. During the journey, daylight appears.
8.35am Disembark at Gunnersbury. Wander through the cigarette smoke of other commuters trying to squeeze a final one in before the office. Check Twitter. Arrive at 9, Power Road, Compass Box HQ.
8.45am Enter the office and nod to Chris, signalling both: ‘Good morning’ and ‘Extraordinary outfit’. Spectate on the Coffee-Making Ritual. Coffee is very important to office morale, as fastidious and passionate in its preparation as the whisky arm of the business. Hot, rich percolation aromas rise over the glass partition of the kitchen/blending lab area to where I sit at Brian’s Desk. I don’t partake of coffee since it makes me paranoid. I check my emails instead, which makes me paranoid.
Coffee. The Compass Box office boasts somewhat better beans.
9am Start as I mean to go on with the Great PR Filing Project. Beside Brian’s Desk is a plastic trough full of binders containing press cuttings of Compass Box praise. Not all of this is in English, neither is it all from publications I recognise. However, the editorial staff of The Sex Herald really liked Oak Cross back in 2004. Scan and digitise, scan and digitise. Celine pretends the scanner beeping isn’t driving her insane.
10am An email has come through from The General (John Glaser) re. The General. I have to get in touch with some Missouri-based distributors ahead of the whisky’s launch in America in March. I print off the letters, address and seal the envelopes, return to the Chiswick high street Post Office, exchange cheery waves of recognition with the staff.
11.15am I return to the office. Gregg ‘Hurricane’ Glass has a query about samples (I have also been consulted on snooker and haggis). I rummage in the Room of Doom for bottles before filling them with the Signature Range: Asyla, Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster, Hedonism, Great King Street, Orangerie (Orangerie always spills). Label, bubblewrap, pack. Coordinate delivery with a well-known courier service. Check Twitter.
12noon Eat lunch. Elif, Celine, Chris and Inga take turns to microwave something wholesome and tasty. To my recollection, not once did I see John or Gregg eat anything for lunch (lovely olives, dates and pistachios aside).
12.30pm Scan and digitise, scan and digitise. These binders won’t get the better of me. Succomb, mentally, to the arcane rhythms of Radio Paradise, commercial-free, listener-supported radio.
2.30pm It’s about time I was providing some vital feedback for Gregg ‘Hurricane’ Glass on one of the new whiskies he’s concocting. One of these is the result of their Experimental Great King Street Batches. Will it be smoky? Will it be sherried? Will it have passion fruit in it? Dear SWA, It will NOT have passion fruit in it. Feel like Dave Broom for a bit, all cool, insightful and influential. I’ve neglected my scanning.
3pm Scan and digitise, scan and digitise.
4pm Take bottles out of cardboard boxes and put them in the Liquid Library cabinet or vice versa. As you enter Compass Box HQ there is a giant cabinet on the right filled with bottling run samples of all the core range and the Limited Releases. I have to unearth the duplicates and lay them aside for office Neknomination videos (I don’t). I’ve never handled so many Oak Crosses in my life. Speculate on the wonders of Eleuthera and Last Vatted Grain. Contemplate having a bath in Hedonism.
5pm Depart from Chiswick bound for either Alexandra Palace for Masters Snooker, Soho to meet up with friends, Shoreditch for a cocktail and beard watching, or Enfield to sleep.
That was a representative snapshot of a working day during my two weeks with the Compass Box crew. I loved my time there nearly as much as Celine loves Mezcal – no, in truth I had a brilliant fortnight and I’m grateful for every act of kindness, be it a headtorch for the Room of Doom, a How Not to Get Lost on Chiswick High Street lecture, permission to roam through Borough Market, a frame of snooker, a pep talk from Jonathan Driver, some cured meat, and a cocktail or seventeen. Thanks for putting up with me, guys, and I hope the cake went some way to derailing your January diets.
White chocolate sponge with orange and passion fruit curd. Delicious cake for a delicious whisky company.
Tags: Blended Scotch Whisky
, Compass Box Whisky Co.
, London Underground
, Office work
, Scotch whisky
February 10, 2014
If you have been offended by the chasm of silence which has gripped the Scotch Odyssey Blog since the beginning of the year, I do apologise. However, in order to write interesting posts about whisky you have to get out there and do interesting whisky-related things. If reportage was somewhat thin on the ground, therefore, I assure you my fieldwork was pretty intense.
Part way through January I had an internship lined up with those lovely people at Compass Box Whisky Co. Regular readers cannot have failed to pick up on my fanatical thirst and approval for Compass Box creations. For more than a decade John and his growing team have crafted and marketed whiskies that appeal to my geeky side as well as being frankly delicious. When I approached founder John Glaser about the possibility of becoming the glorified office bitch for a couple of weeks, therefore, my love and respect for their products overwhelmed any negative considerations about where they operate from: London.
England’s capital city is, to one who grew up on the back-of-beyond Northumbrian coast and attends a university on the back-of-beyond Scottish coast, an alien province equally glitzy and frightening. The size, the over-crowding, the aggressive furthering of one’s own interests – it was a scary place in my mind. Then you read about the cool whisky launches and events, and most especially the bars of London, and it starts to pulse in your imagination as the intersection of creativity, choice and quality.
In my second week at Compass Box, I made the decision to delay – or at any rate elongate – my 1 hour 20 minute commute back to Enfield where I was staying and check out a few bars whose reputations preceded them. This meant going to Shoreditch. Buoyed by good module results, I had three bars in mind which I hoped would show me a good time and serve me a stupendous drink.
Hawksmoor (Spitalfields), 157A Commercial Street, E1 6BJ
Word in the office was that Hawksmoor was the place to go if I wanted an excellent cocktail and a bite of something tasty to eat. The inclusion of the basement bar on my itinerary was rendered absolutely necessary by the cocktail menu and one ‘Stolen Heart’; none other than Compass Box’s iconic Spice Tree combined with Kamm & Sons Ginseng Spirit and apricot brandy.
The fare at Hawksmoor, Spitalfields.
Ducking off the high street and into the narrow stairway, I found a thick wooden door at the bottom behind which was part Turkish baths ante-room, part Art Deco diner. Lots of richly-coloured ceramic tiles prevented this space from being too dark. A very friendly (bearded, of course) man took my order. I went for the roast ox cheek sandwich and one Stolen Heart. I would have sat at the bar but every stool was taken with Young Professionals enjoying the craic with the bartenders. From what I overheard, they were in the drinks industry, also, so this is where those who work with beverages come to consume beverages. The clientele was otherwise a mish-mash: couples out for a quick snack before the pub, single businessmen not quite ready to face the commute back home.
I enjoyed my sandwich immensely although at £12 I would have wanted more sandwich. Maybe a second one, perhaps. The Stolen Heart was silky yet palate-gripping at the same time, the Compass Box supplying a buzzing energy at the base. It was probably the weakest of the cocktails I had on the night, however. Having paid the bill (I’d discover 12.5% service charges are standard practice in such places) it was on to the next bar.
The Worship Street Whistling Shop, 63 Worship Street, EC2A 2DU
Shoreditch is apparently so restlessly trendy it is in the process of being knocked down and remodelled. Inspecting Google Maps, none of the building sites I had to navigate were shown which made finding Worship Street more difficult than it really needed to be. When I saw another basement entrance, however, I knew I’d arrived.
The Whistling Shop was recognisable for two reasons: I’ve read a lot about it, bar consultant Ryan Chetiyawardana being something of a UK bartending Buddha. Ryan has also worked on Bramble in Edinburgh, which is my ‘local’ and possibly favourite bar. The low lighting and tucked-away bar space was very similar. Also, it managed to feel like the St Mary’s Library here in St Andrews: two sides of the seating area are walled with books. The idea is to meld ‘the charm of Victorian squalor with the elegance of grand gin palaces’. Quite.
The menu fits on one side of A4, which is a good thing, in my opinion. There are only so many mini oak casks and weird tinctures you can store on the bar at any one time, and it lends a feel of specialism to the operation. Not exactly seasonality, but what the bartenders are excited about at that moment. I went for the Pikesville Rye Whiskey, which is not telling the whole story. The guys have ‘finished’ rye whiskey with port and left it in a mini cask to fuse in flavour. This is decanted into a little thimble glass and served alongside ginger ale with an enormous slice of lemon peel. You drink one, then the other, or pour one into the other – it really depends. The first sip of the spirit/port combo with the ginger ale next was delicious. It carried on being delicious, in fact.
So inspired was I by the liquids on display – the Peat & Umami tincture which went in to the Late Pickings cocktail was extraordinary – I had another, the Onesie. For this they take Four Roses and combine it with a hop distillate and pale ale syrup. Fascinating concept, but it came across as a touch too soft and grassy for my tastes.
NOLA, 66-68 Rivington Street, EC2A 3AY
NOLA's Hurricane Sandy.
I decided that one more bar was essential, and NOLA had been recommended by a St Andrews partner in crime. This is a Creole/Cajun/Deep South/Big Easy bar concept co-founded by Dan Priseman, Four Roses ambassador and writer of the excellent Bitters & Twisted blog. When I came to a red brick underpass with a giant mural on it I thought I’d gone too far. NOLA is another bar that you have to squeeze into, as though through a cocktail cat flap. This time, I was heading upstairs rather than down.
The bar was quieter than Hawksmoor and Worship Street had been, but that allowed bartender Ian to be still more friendly. It is a real pleasure being able to chat to London bartenders and easily the best way to discover where else is doing exciting things and who you need to check out. For example, we had an in-depth discussion about where the best banana daiquiris were to be had in East London. The décor of NOLA is relaxed, fun and with great attention to detail. The bar itself is beautiful: carved wooden cabinets showcasing the wealth of spirits (with a strong Four Roses line-up, as you would expect) on offer.
I liked the look of the Hurricane Sandy, a twist on the classic Blood and Sand. Rather than the sweet vermouth, Monkey Shoulder was combined with orange and lime juice as well as cherry brandy. Masses of crushed ice made for an amazingly refreshing drink.
Every bar I went into offered a distinct atmosphere, interpersonal protocol and drinks selection. Every bar was professional but homely, too. It was leaving NOLA that I thought: ‘I want to live somewhere I can find such hospitality and creativity on my doorstep. London rules’. I still favour Bramble in Edinburgh, though, for reasons of economy (cocktails are usually £2-£3 cheaper) but also intimacy. It is a London approach to mixing great drinks with a more particular feel.
If pressed, I would go back to NOLA of the three. I feel that, later on in the evening, this would really be a place to let your hair down while enjoying excellent drinks. Next time I’ll talk about three more bars I visited – only this time, I had the Compass Box office with me.
Tags: Bar reviews
, Compass Box Whisky Co.
, The Worship Street Whisktling Shop
, Whisky Cocktails
January 10, 2014
We are, there can be no denying it, squarely inside 2014 by now but I hope the genial fog of the festive season has not entirely lifted for you all just yet. When another sample of interesting Scotch whisky arrived courtesy of Compass Box Whisky Co. this week, I certainly experienced something of a Christmas relapse.
Compass Box don’t really do viral marketing, but if you follow their Facebook page things become mightily tantalising. Towards the end of last year the steady trickle of small batch Scotch whiskies issuing from John Glaser’s blending lab became a torrent with three limited edition blends and a blended malt. One that they kept under wraps longer than most was The General. They promised it would be old. They promised it would be unusual. They promised it would be stonking.
So here we have it: a steam locomotive-inspired, gold wax-dipped beauty. I’ve raved about Compass Box labels before but just look at this one: classic bold graphics and a killer colour scheme. With the rich rosewood tones of the whisky within, this is one of the most handsome bottles I have laid eyes on for a while.
The concept behind this whisky is complex, if not convoluted. Two separate companies had both blended grain and malt whiskies in cask some time ago and then laid them aside. We must infer that neither could find a use for their super-mature blends upon their rediscovery, hence Compass Box’s acquisition of them. John worked for two months with these stunning, unique packages of stock – some from ex-Bourbon barrels, some from ex-Sherry butts; some 33 years old, some more senior still – to find the right combination. The result is a blended Scotch like no other. I’ve said before that older isn’t always better, just different. However, in this case, older is better than just about anything I’ve ever encountered.
Compass Box The General 53.4% (1,698 bottles) £180-199
Colour – very deep: leather-tinged amber.
Nose – compact, rich and exquisite texture. Leather boot polish, cinnamon and cherry liqueur. Damp hogsheads – this is very old indeed. Roasted sweet peppers and habanero heat. Scented soap and heavy floral notes give a surprisingly feminine lift. With time there are fine, ethereal tropical fruits, egg custard, sandalwood, blackberry and more oak.
Palate – big dark oak flavours, especially vanilla, creamy coffee and orange-accented dark chocolate.
Finish – bourbon oakiness with cereals crisping up rapidly. Very brulee’d crème brulee. Drying.
I’ll be honest, I was disappointed on first examination. The oak was stifling rather than enhancing the whisky and I had no option but to contemplate water. With whiskies of this age, such a strategy carries risk since many are liable to disintegrate. However, the following are my notes after just a touch of water had been added.
Nose – quite savoury at first with a nut and pretzel mix. Then a brittle, valedictory toffee apple rises from the oak, surrounded by a Bourbon-like matrix of wood, spice and aromatics. Masses of peaches in syrup. Now I get soft, kiln-ready green malt and – more amazingly – fresh pink grapefruit for life. Still, though, the earthy oak takes my senses to new realms of maturity. Time reveals a moth’s cough of smoke and grapefruit again. Liquorice root, black cherry and a textured grassiness I can neither believe nor resist arrive.
Palate – old, fruity, shifting into spicy with garam masala. Amazing development to maple syrup and honeycomb. So rich with a bit of charcoal smoke and again tropical fruits (dried mango, fresh pineapple). It waits for you to swallow before building up tiers upon tiers of flavour.
Finish – still weighty but the oak doesn’t drag. Buttery and soothing. Sweetly spicy like fresh cardamom. Sweetly earthy, too. Waxier weight and incredible length.
So…? I’m not sure I’d have had the balls to blend these blends together. I imagine that, faced with the samples for the first time, the safe option would be to go: ‘they’re both fantastic, we’ll bottle them separately’. However, John has pulled together some excellent extra dimensions which I had no idea whisky could accommodate or sustain. Older is not always better, but in this instance the concentration and exotic combination of aromas and flavours is an absolute treat. This is a very very good whisky which some may find reminiscent of Johnnie Walker Blue Label in its rich, heavy oak intensity. However, this stops short of being fungal and shows a dapper, genteel maturity.
Given the praise I have lavished upon The General, it seems extraordinary to admit that he has a rival in the super-old blend stakes. Before Christmas I tried Batch 4 of Duncan Taylor’s Black Bull 40yo and this is another example of dazzling whiskymaking. To my tastes, it just has the edge. Duncan Taylor boasts one of the largest inventories of mature Scotch whisky of any independent bottler. When putting together a blend of such phenomenal age, they are at liberty to select whiskies with marginally more favourable oak/spirit balance than I believe John had at his disposal. Especially neat, The General’s whiskies are back-of-house pulling the strings – what we primarily see are the oak-derived characteristics which have absorbed the majority of the once vibrant spirits into themselves. The Black Bull 40yo puts its whiskies centre stage with fabulously dense oak forming the backdrop. The General’s ‘antique’ oak notes are unlike anything I’ve had before, and are of the very highest standard, but perhaps – for my tastes – the Black Bull has a fraction more to offer.
Very many thanks indeed to Chris Maybin for the sample.
Tags: Black Bull 40yo
, Blended Scotch Whisky
, Compass Box
, Rare whiskies
, The General
, Whisky review
December 16, 2013
The intriguingly complex Duncansby Head from Old Pulteney.
Even above and beyond the extraordinary whiskies we are treated to here at the Quaich Society, the single most important factor in the club is community. However, this all-encompassing term extends beyond the organising Committee, even beyond the whisky faithful who attend each tasting. Community is also about our interactions with the great men and women on the frontline of the whisky industry who generously donate their products and passion.
One of the family by now is certainly Lukasz from Inver House Distillers. Over the last three years he has arrived carrying the most intriguing line ups the Society has seen. In one year Lukasz even managed to squeeze in two tastings for us. He pitches his presentations just right: the whiskies have their moment in the spotlight, there’s a bit of history and a strong emphasis on production values. More than anything else, however, Lukasz is a really top guy whose sense of humour is as self-evident as his love of a good dram.
Last month, to round off our first Semester of superb tastings, Lukasz outdid himself with the breadth and exclusivity of the whiskies he brought. Indeed, so exclusive were they that our post-tasting discounts for attendees in Luvians Bottle Shop could apply to only one of the six single malts on show. We were treated to the Travel Retail Exclusive Old Pulteney Lighthouse Collection (Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Pentland Skerries) and the soon-to-be-released Balblair Vintages of 2003 and 1990 as well as the (slightly) more readily-available 1997.
The Lighthouse Collection is a boldly-packaged, wood-focused range of whiskies from the Wick-based distillery of Old Pulteney. In keeping with their ‘Maritime Malt’ persona, the moniker of each whisky champions a local lighthouse. Their characters are wholly cask-differentiated, however. Lukasz pointed out that it was rare to taste products from the one distillery in which the age was a constant (7-8 years old) but the maturation regime wildly different. The Noss Head is the ex-Bourbon representative. Bubbly, clean and lush on the nose I found plenty of freshly-peeled orange, an oiliness and banoffee pie. The palate was spirity with rich oak and leafy qualities.
The middle whisky was perhaps the best of the bunch for me, and if it is possible for a whisky to boast such a thing, it had real integrity. A Bourbon and Sherry mix, this was softer and more reserved on the nose with salt and sweet oak. Complex and textured. The palate showed fixing fruit, ginger and cardamom.
For his introduction to the Pentland Skerries expression, Lukasz went into a little more detail about Quercus robur - the Darth Vadar of oak. He asserted that coopers and distillers hated working with the stuff since it is prone to splitting, leaking, and all manner of other defects making cask construction and management very complicated – not to mention expensive. Nevertheless, the impact on the finished whisky cannot be replicated any other way and the flavour profile will always be in demand. I must admit, though, that I would not ask for the Pentland Skerries again. While rich and smooth on the nose with plenty of fruit and toffee, sandy notes and wet tweed developed suggesting the cask and the spirit have not quite achieved harmony. The palate was thick and clinging, but beyond the obvious Sherry flavours the engaging depths of the distillery character simply couldn’t surface.
Having eulogised about Sherry casks, Lukasz revealed a little of his own whisky evolution. It wasn’t so very long ago, he told us, that he was a peat freak; the peatier the better, in fact. Then one day, he poured another rich, smoky dram and… was unmoved. Somehow those earthy, fruity beasts simply didn’t push his buttons any more and he rediscovered the joys of an unpeated whisky matured in quality American oak ex-Bourbon casks. To him, he can detect ‘more of the place in my dram’ – ex-Bourbon promotes transparency in a whisky: where it was made, to what brief and by whom.
I have to say I agree. Of the tastings we have had this year, the Tomatin 15yo and Balvenie 12yo Single Barrel have been the stand-out whiskies for me. I began dribbling with anticipation because I know that one of the best spirits to come out of good ex-Bourbon barrels is Balblair, and Lukasz had three vintages lined up for us.
The 2003 replaces the delicious, exciting and charming 2002 which is one of my favourite drams. The 2003 kept the faintly straw-like, hamster feed-ish cereal qualities and added a biscuitiness. The palate had amazing feel to it – all barley sugar and syrupy citrus. However, overall I felt it was just a touch too austere and spirity when compared with the 2002.
The 1997 went by many descriptors from Lukasz: blue sky whisky, a lunchtime whisky… For me personally, this is a desert island whisky and not just because of the tropical fruit notes and freshness. It is a seriously high-quality dram. It boasts an absolutely stunning nose: rich yet lush and creamy with orange travel sweets. There is a great undertone of dryness from the oak. On the palate, all is well with an immensely fruity delivery – think travel sweets again – backed up by cumin and nutmeg.
During the Balblair portion of the evening, Lukasz had to field questions of the vintage bottling policy. He emphasised Balblair’s artisanal philosophy and tiny scale – only 5% of the distillery’s 1.75 mla production goes to single malt or as Lukasz put it: ‘we bottle what Glenfiddich spill’. It is a distillery that I admire hugely and this extended to the final whisky of the evening, the new 1990. What is it with Inver House bottling whiskies from my birth year? Are they trying to bankrupt me? I will have to come by some of this soon, though, for this Balblair takes the house style in a dramatically different direction. After 21 years the whisky comes out of those top quality ex-Bourbon barrels and goes into second fill Oloroso Sherry casks for another two. In the glass, this smelt as old as the 1975 Vintage I tried last year. So much cinnamon, pineapple and mincemeat with a lovely earthiness. Dried orange, pot pourri and even a marsala-like kick are additional layers. The palate is true to Balblair’s trademark spiciness. Some burnt orange appears, too, with a salty oaky dryness. It grows to be slightly herbal before the fruity notes come back in.
Another special Balblair was unveiled for the Raffle and I know that was tremendously popular. Every time Lukasz trundles away back to Edinburgh I hope he will return at some point and I wonder how he can top his last selection. So far, he has managed that every time. Our thanks to him again for a potent send-off towards exams and Christmas. I daresay a couple of Old Pulteneys may have been picked up at the airport as some of our international members return home for the Festive period.
, Inver House Distillers
, Old Pulteney
, St Andrews
, The Quaich Society
, Travel Retail
December 9, 2013
Back in the saddle again in June 2014.
The terrific thing about wrapping up a semester is that you can turn your mind to fun future projects, cogitate a little more about what you want them to be, what shape and purpose they will have, and get a jump on making them a reality. That happened to me over the weekend regarding a mission of mine which has been incomplete since May 2010.
As those of you who followed my original Scotch Odyssey three years ago will know, I couldn’t make it to every distillery on my itinerary. The reasons for this were numerous: bike/boy breakdown, an overambitious route, misread opening times etc. etc. I had unfinished business with about eight distilleries in Scotland – and then a bunch of passionate people set about building more!
In June next year – all being well – I’ll graduate from the University of St Andrews. Between the formal termination of my final semester here in Fife and Graduation Week there are a few days begging to be capitalised upon and I feel I really ought to finish what I started prior to entering higher education in 2010. With the aid of Google Maps and the mega-litres of whisky experience I gained last time I packed my panniers and pedalled to the glens I have compiled a second route round Scotland which will see me cover nearly 1,200 miles in 20 days and visit thirteen malt whisky distilleries old and new.
The Scotch Odyssey Part II will begin here in St Andrews with Daftmill and Kingsbarns distilleries before I head north over the Tay to tick off Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. From there I wend my way into Speyside for the distillery I shouldn’t have missed last time round but did: The Balvenie. Then I swing by the Aberdeenshire distilleries of The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh before skirting the Moray Firth on my journey to The Dalmore. I did visit this distillery in 2010 but in the meantime the visitor experience has been dramatically overhauled and I feel I really ought to spy those famous stills on the Cromarty Firth in this new light. Next I head to Balblair for my first tour as a punter, despite working there for a week in the summer of 2011.
I continue north to Clynelish which famously does not open for tours on a Saturday in late April. Then it’s time to head westwards: catching the ferry from Ullapool I visit the most westerly Scotch whisky distillery of them all, the spirit of Lewis, Abhainn Dearg. I will cycle down through Lewis and Harris to Tarbert before another ferry desposits me at Uig, Isle of Skye. From here it is an identical route to previously as I pedal off the island to Fort William. There will be a few long days in the saddle before I reach Clydebank and the Auchentoshan distillery. After a few more I hope to visit Annandale – if it is open to receive me – before wending my way back up to St Andrews.
Knowing what I know now about cycle touring I’m hoping to extract maximum adventure from my trip and I’ve invited any friends who wish to accompany of a leg or legs of the journey to do so. The real logistics of B&Bs, ferries and tour bookings have still to be made, and the fitness regime will have to start fairly sharpish. The Scotch Odyssey of 2010 is an undertaking I think about every single day and with every whisky I drink. I have high hopes for the next pilgrimage round Scotland’s beauty spots and barley-boiling stills.
Tags: Abhainn Dearg
, Distillery Tours
, Scotch Odyssey
, The Balvenie
, The Dalmore
, The GlenDronach
, Whisky Tourism
December 5, 2013
The Compass Box motto is and always has been, Above all, share and enjoy. For any Douglas Adams fans, this is also uncannily similar to the anthem of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Fortunately, whisky creator John Glaser’s products are on another planet compared with the shoddy robots you find in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
In 2013, John’s output has underlined the company’s commitment to great whisky, great packaging and a pervasive philosophy of appreciation without taking yourself too seriously. Enter Delilah’s, a blended Scotch whisky constructed in partnership with the Chicago punk whisky bar of the same name. The iconic venue celebrated its 20th anniversary this autumn and owner Mike Miller wanted something special to mark the occasion. However, having fun remained the principal goal. Compass Box released just over 6,000 bottles of their new blend, created with roughly 50% Cameronbridge grain whisky and 50% malt (Longmorn* and Teaninich) matured in new and rejuvenated American oak casks. The serve? A shot to enjoy alongside a beer. Uncomplicated. Off-beat. But if speed is not of the essence, what does this whisky taste like?
Compass Box Delilah’s 40% (natural colour, unchillfiltered) 6,324 bottles £47.50
Colour – rich orangey gold.
Nose – soft, sweet and creamy at first, like white chocolate mice. The grains have an oily, golden syrup presence. Vanilla and peeled tangerine, peach and mango verging on to lush florals. Getting stuck in, it is so soft; light but purposeful. Silky almond milk-like grains introduce spun sugar malts with orange peel and sultana. Honeydew melon and banana. Has the rounded oaky spice of a younger Bourbon – almost wheated. Lovely.
Palate – creamy sweetness + spice. Rounded vanilla with cinnamon and chilli, then orange zest fuses the two. Lingering.
Finish – something like heather and runny honey (but not heather honey). Still creamy but the oak develops a nipping core at the end.
Adding water dimmed the nose by quite a bit – those exuberant oak notes just overplayed their hand a touch, becoming tired and inhibiting. A little dried mango and banana, as well as coconut and apricot emerge but the oak/spirit balance has been lost. The palate, on the other hand, is extraordinary: pearlescent green fruits (my favourite Longmorn fingerprint*) with melon balls, grape and pear with honeycomb. So wonderful. The oakiness stays away and the pear builds before a tickle of spice rounds things off with echoes of very mature grains.
As well as marking the anniversaries of others, Compass Box has a milestone of its own to celebrate. It has been ten years since the first Peat Monster was concocted and released. Back then, it was for an American customer and called only The Monster. As the years have gone by the smoky style of Scotch whisky has gained a rabid following and John has sought to up the peaty ante. It is now the best-seller in the Compass box range and loved by many for its pristine oak sugars and thick though never terrifying smoke profile. In celebration of the Monster reaching a decade on the shelves, John has recalibrated the recipe slightly, going odder and older with what I am assuming is Ardmore. Richness, boldness and smoke are the watchwords here, with Caol Ila and Laphroaig puffing away. Clynelish is the instrumental play-maker.
Compass Box The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary 48.9% 5,700 bottles £75.85
Colour – pale straw.
Nose – robust, round but deep and dark peat at first. Behind is serious oaky weight, ash, sandiness and barbecued green apple. Approaching the glass and it is phenolic and earthy. Tremendously oily but sweet, reminding me of Kilchoman with the engine oil and vanilla ice cream effect. Glints of barley malt and a strain of acidic fruits emerge with the impression of hot copper stills. An engagingly different smoky experience.
Palate – awesome. dry, kiln-clinging smoke with smoked oysters and caramelised malt husks. An explosion of peat on swallowing then saliva-inducing chilli. Did I say awesome?
Finish – hard to know when it begins to fade. This is powerful stuff: rich, dry, thick, lovely. Peat and turf roots with a slice of oak. Dulse and barnacles. Sweet grist has the final say.
As with the Delilah’s, I wasn’t sure that water helped. The nose kept its density and complexity with the fruits coming out a touch more. Sweeter notes from the casks now (there’s a percentage of French oak in the marriage). Laphroaig Cask Strength-esque fudgey smoke. Cardamom. Rock pools on a scorching day. Grows a tad too perfumed for my liking. The palate was lighter at first, the smoke billowing before condensing. So bold and powerful – an outdoor whisky for sure. Doesn’t hit the heights of the straight sample. The finish is almost winey with puckering fruits. Like the peaty Great King Street it has a mineral character.
So…? I was bowled over by the variety on display in these whiskies and both received very high scores in my personal ratings system. I had thought Delilah’s might just be a reformulation of Asyla (they share many core ingredients) but this is certainly its own whisky. Keep the water away, however, to retain the gorgeous airiness but subtle impact of the nose. The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary, though, is the powerhouse whisky and one I would need to return to a number of times to fully understand. There is so much going on in there and its sense of purpose is so convincing. It is a whisky to surrender to. And what a label! They should really do posters, as well…
* Chris Maybin of Compass Box who kindly furnished me with the samples has been in touch with a correction for me. It transpires that the ‘Elgin’ malt used in Delilah’s is in fact Glen Elgin – not Longmorn - and I was attributing that mesmeric fruitiness on the palate to the wrong distillery! Embarrassing, but it does not mar my admiration for the blend or indeed my devoted attitude towards Longmorn. My thanks to Chris for pointing this out, and credit where it is due to Diageo.
Tags: Blended Malt Whisky
, Blended Scotch Whisky
, Compass Box
, Peated whiskies
November 26, 2013
To boast strength of character sets you apart. You don’t have to shout to be heard; pulling power isn’t about the size of your bank balance or the cheap thrills you promise hangers-on. Strength of character combines expertise, sincerity, idiosyncracy. You don’t have to chase people – they will come to you.
This is how I feel about the Pulteney distillery in Wick. In 1826 it supplied whisky for those who relied on their skill and bravery for a living: the herring fishermen. Today, it continues to produce a spirit which is essentially traditional but unlike anything else. When I went round the distillery in 2010, I couldn’t come to terms with the ramshackle nature of its layout and location. This is a distillery born out of opportunism and a mend-as-we-go mentality, yet the confidence and character impress you.
When Inver House Distillers, Old Pulteney’s owners, invited me back exactly three years ago, I peeked into a few more corners, asked a few more questions and again reflected on the distillery’s infectious pride and personality. Its situation – so far up on the north coast – is said to instil a saltiness into their whiskies which rest in the warehouses by the harbour; its equipment is unique: ugly duckling stills rather than the more graceful swans from elsewhere in the industry feed into worm tubs, both of which build complexity on top of flavour on top of texture. In 2012, Jim Murray recognised Old Pulteney 21yo as the best whisky in the world. Having bought a bottle four months before the announcement, the plaudits came as no suprise.
On that last November visit, manager Malcolm Waring filled a glass with the visitor centre single cask bottle-your-own dram. It was a 1990 Old Pulteney from a Bourbon barrel that had previously held peated Scotch single malt. I don’t remember it all that well, being the final dram of a mammoth sampling, but a bracing freshness, depth and sweetness had been evident. Now, the brand is to release a 1990 vintage marriage of several ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks with that peated wood element in play. As 1990 is my birth year, I was eager to see a) how the whisky had developed over the last three years and b) whether I might need a bottle for a special occasion.
Bottled at 23 years of age or thereabouts, this whisky is 46%, natural colour and not chill-filtered.
Old Pulteney 1990 Vintage 46% (900 cases) £120 (RRP)
Colour – full honey gold.
Nose – slightly musty fruits from above with old yellow apple, papaya and mandarin. A tickle of spice (ginger), syrupy sweet oak with plenty of vanilla and rich earthiness. With nose in the glass it is very self-contained with lush meeting spicy. A waxy weight to this. Seville orange, green fruits, sherry-soaked currants and rich oak sugars. The malt has a soft, perfumed shell, behind which is zesty barley. A bracing salty edge when warmed.
Palate – sparkles around the mouth with a wealth of bubbly fruit: apple, pear, peach and flamed orange zest. In time there is weighty, firm and dark oak as well as rich earthy peat just at the tail.
Finish – the smoke pervades for a time, just drying on the edges of the tongue. Then butterscotch and sherried fruits emerge. Salty with again that weighty, waxy spirit character.
Adding water made this even more expressive: a fraction dryer on the nose as the spice and salt really kick in. The oak is nicely creamy, however, with fudge and vanilla aromas. The peat note is farmy while apricot develops with time. The palate is a show-stopper: age is apparent immediately with dense oak and oily malt. However, it still conspires to be fruity with pear, orange and apricot in alliance with oak, salt and peat. These last three club together in a dazzling triad to grip and structure everything. Far smokier to taste than the straight sample, but it is still a very mild peat influence and only there for a spicy, sweet complexity. The finish is unmistakably dry with salt and hot oranges. The barley is still clean and gristy beside the dried fruit of the oak. That muted aged peatiness from the oak returns.
So…? As I said, strength of character. This is not a whisky that makes a song and dance about its merits, which are extensive. It hadn’t the lush vigour of the 12yo, or the oily austerity of the 17yo, nor the gloriously expressive orange and spice crackle nose boasted by the 21yo; however, every one of the 23 years shows. When analysing, there was simply so much going on and I worried I hadn’t kept track. Rather than the flirty and the obvious, this evolves in the glass and I can see this being a seriously reliable fireside dram as well as a joy for food pairings: a hard cheese like a vintage gouda or dessert would be my suggestion.
The Old Pulteney spirit does things its own way, which I certainly commend. Weighty, fruity, waxy, spicy, salty – it brings a great deal to the table and is always a malt I relish returning to. This 1990 is possibly a fraction out of my budget for the time being, and I’d still recommend the 21yo in its stead. For those who do make its acquaintance, however, they will not be disappointed.
Thanks go to Lukasz Dynowiak for the sample.
Tags: 1990 Vintage
, Inver House Distillers
, Old Pulteney
, Scotch whisky
, Single Malt Whisky
, Whisky reviews
November 25, 2013
The new craft brewing pub in St Andrews.
Picture it: you’re an independent brewing collective with a contemporary approach, you focus on craft, quality and novelty, and you have opened your first pub in a notoriously moneyed area of golf-mad Scotland. What whiskies do you source for the back bar?
For Bob, Tim and friends of the St Andrews Brewing Company this was their challenge ahead of opening their new BrewPub on South Street, St Andrews. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to stomach ales, stouts, porters, beers in general. Therefore, the sixteen hand-pulled brews and countless refrigerated bottles were not my main concern when the boys opened their doors last week. I was all about the whiskies.
A couple of weeks beforehand, legendary distiller Eddie MacAffer set up stall in the new BrewPub to guide us through three Morrison Bowmore single malts paired with some choice morsels (salmon smoked with Auchentoshan cask shavings paired with Auchentoshan Threewood; Bowmore Darkest with dark chocolate and Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve with Isle of Mull cheddar). Visitor Centre Development Manager for the group, Anne Kinnes, was also there to tell us a little more about the tourism facilities available at MBD’s outstanding distilleries. The BrewPub accommodated us all superbly: indulgently supple leather chairs, wholesome wood and a couple of log-burning stoves made for a homely evening and when Jordan told me that they intended to stock forty whiskies from opening – building to about a hundred - I sensed it would become my second home.
The main bar at the St Andrews Brewing Co.
So how to kit yourself out with the best spirits and ensure you aren’t playing it too safe? With the help of Graeme Broom (Straight Up Whisky), the guys have a most intriguing selection. The first thing you will notice is the heavy prevalence of Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice bottlings. I counted a Teaninich, Clynelish, Arran and Dailuaine while G&M’s own malt distillery, Benromach had a number of expressions such as the rich, pungent Organic, the smoky, soft 10yo and the bracing Peat Smoke. Another great addition is the rich, vanilla-driven Bruichladdich Scottish Barley.
The whisky cupboard.
Finally, however, I can get Compass Box whiskies at a bar in St Andrews. They carry The Peat Monster, Oak Cross and Great King Street. Checking the list, I clocked a Woodford Reserve for the Bourbon fans, Wemyss Spice King 12yo and The Hive 12yo for blended malts and even a Green Spot to keep those with a taste for Irish whiskey happy (i.e., me). The best news? I think the most expensive dram on the list weighs in at £7. As the evenings darken and the air becomes ever more frigid, the St Andrews Brewing Co. would appear to be the ideal venue to drive out the chills. Once they extend their license beyond 11PM, of course, but I’m assured that will be very soon.
, Compass Box
, Craft beer
, Eddie MacAffer
, Gordon & MacPhail
, Morrison Bowmore
, Scotch whisky
, Single Malt Whisky
, St Andrews
, St Andrews Brewing Co.
, Wemyss Malts