May 9, 2013
The 1824 Series at the Pompadour by Galvin, Edinburgh.
I suppose my attire told much of the story. One does not simply walk into a Macallan launch event in jeans, a t-shirt and flipflops. On some level, you sense that a little professionalism – a touch of seriousness – is your due to Scotch whisky’s foremost luxury brand. Somehow the suit, the waistcoat, the polished (ahem) brogues are all required if an audience with the spirit of Easter Elchies is to be granted. You won’t pass muster if the packaging isn’t right.
With the Pompadour Restaurant by Galvin, part of the 5* Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh, The Macallan certainly succeeded as far as their packaging was concerned. The new 1824 Series fitted snugly – and beautifully – into a colossal Art Deco sarcophagus of a cocktail cabinet, in front of which two neat and polite bartenders prepared the brace of on-arrival malt whisky cocktails with unhurried efficiency.
Sipping my Amber Glow, I pretended I was mingling with some of the whisky celebrities in the Pompadour room itself. The incongruity of encountering a living, breathing Charles Maclean in the Pompadour - a combination of place and person I had last seen on Ken Loach’s film ’The Angel’s Share’ – threw my composure. Reality and Macallan’s magic dust seemed to have parted company.
The beautiful cocktail station.
Ken Grier, Director of Malts at Edrington, and Peter Sandstrom, Marketing Director of Maxxium UK, cordially invited us to venture down the rabbit hole. For tonight, colours are flavours.
To provide a bit of background, The Macallan 1824 Series comprises four expressions: Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby. They replace the long-standing 10yo and 12yo in The Macallan age range, together with the Fine Oak expressions up to 18-years-of-age. In the UK market, The Macallan wish to champion the quality of the oak casks they deploy, as well as the dexterity and skill with which their Whisky Maker, Bob Dalgarno, selects the single malt that results irrespective of age. Care and craft – rather than calendars – decide The Macallan.
The Edrington Group who own The Macallan, as well as Highland Park, are proud – justifiably – of the epic and expensive supply chain over which they preside in order to guarantee oak casks fit to mature their spirit. From harvesting the wood to coopering it, loaning it to the Sherry industry, and returning the casks whole to Scotland, the distillery have elected to trumpet their pursuit of excellence in this sector.
Macallan ambassador, Joy Elliot, who presented the new range to us.
My press release states: ‘The casks chosen for the range deliver a gradation of colour from light to dark, with the wood character defining each expression’s flavour, moving from lighter, lemon citrus to richer, dried fruit notes’. At the event, a chart accompanied each whisky on its display stand allowing us to see which industry-recognised colour tint corresponded to the citrus or the dried fruit flavours. In this way, we could see the cross-section of colours/flavours chosen for each expression.
These charts hinted at the kaleidoscope of Macallan characteristics at Dalgarno’s disposal. Why, therefore, settle on only four expressions of them? Why homogenise all of that natural colour variation into a few choice hues? There is another clue in the press release: ‘As the whiskies become darker and richer, so the pool of casks able to deliver this character becomes smaller and rarer’. At the sharp end, this refers to the £120-per-bottle Ruby which showcases the darkest whiskies of the range. Implicitly, the Macallan message is that darker whiskies are rarer whiskies. When priced to coincide with their premium expressions, sold with a strident age-statement such as the 18yo, I fear that the consumer will assume that the darker whiskies are akin to the older expressions in The Macallan stable. ‘But you and I both know that, with a first fill Sherry butt, you can get that depth of colour [ruby] in five years’. The words of Charles Maclean.
Some of the countless glasses ferried about the room on launch night.
I believe in Scotch whisky using its limited assets intelligently, but – to build an analogy out of Macallan ambassador Joy Elliot’s recent experience at a bi-partite London event – it strikes me that there are two messages circulating around The Macallan brand at the moment. When Dalgarno is quoted as saying: ‘the key thought in this range is that a great single malt doesn’t need to be a 30 years old to taste like a 30 year old’, that rather begs the question of why The Macallan 30yo needs to be 30-years-old. When Ken Grier talks about ‘challeng[ing] perceptions about bottling at arbitrary ages’, I agree with him. However, I would also suggest that he has been hoisted by his own petard, given that the £860 price tag demanded for the Fine Oak 30yo (Master of Malt) is anything but arbitrary.
The whiskies ought to be the star subjects of this post, however, but sadly they cannot overcome the marketing speak. I rate the Gold quite favourably (see here), but on the night I found the Amber to be disappointingly inconsistent. Occasionally dazzling on the nose, the palate yielded a big oak grip with final suggestions of marmalade, but little else.
The Sienna was, I must confess, superb. Essentially a combining of Gold/Amber styles of spirit with richer Ruby-esque liquid, the abundance of spice (especially a seductive sandalwood), fruit and vanilla on the nose, together with the sweetly velvety mouthfeel which allied insistent grape and dried fruits with honey, vanilla and bold barley hit the brief. ‘Persistent yet not overpowering’ sums it up nicely. At £66, though, I will need a strong Macallan craving to make the purchase.
The Ruby confused and disappointed in equal measure. It was at this point that Ken Grier chaired the age debate, fending off Charles Maclean, Vince Fusaro and Darroch Ramsay who all took exception to the £120 asking price. As the pinnacle of the range, the embodiment of the European oak narrative, it simply did not have the depth, finesse or richness I was expecting. Some pleasing autumn woodland notes, as well as aromas of chocolate truffles and candied orange emerged, but I longed for the old Sherry Oak 10yo on the palate. Rum and raisin ice cream could best sum it up. Why, I asked Chris Hoban on the night, why would you not buy three bottles of Aberlour a’Bunadh instead?
I sped away from The Caledonian to catch my train north, my brogues pinching slightly and my waistcoat uncomfortably constraining. The look had been achieved, but with one or two niggling drawbacks.
Tags: Bob Dalgarno
, Edrington Group
, Fine Oak
, Ken Grier
, Sherry casks
, The Macallan
April 30, 2013
The modern connotations attached to ‘festival’ embrace many things, but mud, masses of people, inadequate sanitation and probably a youth with a guitar all feature in peoples’ minds’ eye. The true root of the custom, of course, is celebration, and a mighty big one is taking place in Speyside at the end of this week.
If you were to believe some of the pronouncements made by those whom I have overheard once or twice in recent years, you would wonder what the good-for-nothing-but-blends region had to celebrate. Incredibly, there are people who dismiss two-thirds of the Scotch single malt industry as grassy, fruity, honeyed and dull. In response, I urge them to do what thousands of international whisky fans are on the cusp of: visit.
Morayshire, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire boast magnificent landscapes (and seascapes), wonderfully varied and high-quality foods and of course, mighty malt whiskies. The Spirit of Speyside Festival touts them all. In past years, Glenfarclas have taken groups up Ben Rinnes, fuelled by their richly sherried liquids; this time around Glenfiddich will host a ceilidh in one of their warehouses.
Delighted with the uptake in tickets, Mary Hemsworth, festival manager, will preside over more than 370 events over the four days. Speaking of the number of enquiries from non-UK attendees, she said: ‘The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is one of the key events in Homecoming 2014, and we hope this trend will lay some very strong foundations on which to grow our international profile and that of Speyside Moray in a very important year for Scottish tourism’.
While in Dufftown last month, just in the one (superlatively excellent) Taste of Speyside I encountered Australian, Dutch and German whisky fans, while three Taiwanese gentlemen had preceeded me around the BenRiach distillery. The latter example demonstrates that it is not just the likes of The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Glenlivet that they are coming to see, but as many of the diverse and dynamic distilleries in the area as they can.
Once again, the normally secretive Mortlach will open its doors to parties over the festival, while the Tamdhu fete sounds especially interesting. The distillery will celebrate its return from the brink of rigor mortis with a ceilidh, whisky tastings, tours and a treasure hunt on May 4th.
Not to be outdone by the IWSC, the ISC, the WWA and numerous others, the Spirit of Speyside bestows its own accolades: the Roving Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards. In a departure from the norm, recipients of the RSOSWFWAs will be decided by those who live, work and visit Speyside, rather than the old hands of an expert panel. Six drams will be judged across three categories (12yo and Under, 13-20yo, and 21yo and Over) by anyone who can make it along to a judging venue with £12 still in their pockets. Tomorrow nosing will take place at the Glenfiddich Distillery; on the 2nd at the Sunninghill Hotel in Elgin; Forsyth’s Coppersmiths in Rothes, and the Aviemore Highland Resort on the 3rd; the Grant Arms in Grantown and Aberlour’s Aberlour Hotel on the 4th. Winners will be announced at a three-course lunch held at Tamdhu on the 5th.
The Speyside community – it should go without saying – rests at the core of this eponymous gathering. On Thursday evening, the Festival will kick off with an Opening Gala and an auction which every connoisseur and collector of Speyside malt whiskies ought to attend. Fourteen rare and limited edition whiskies from the region will go under the hammer to raise as much money as possible for the Moray Immediate Care Scheme, the Festival’s chosen charity for 2013.
Just some of the whiskies include bottle #2 of a 1,000 bottle release of Limited Edition Tamdhu 10yo, a G&M Glen Grant from 1965 not previously on sale in the UK, a three-litre bottle of Glenfarclas 105 and a couple of bottles of Glenfiddich’s Eeu de Robbidou whose non-traditional maturation regime means it is not technically Scotch whisky at all. Commendably, this is whisky’s attempt to give something back to the region.
The events are as numerous as the distilleries, and I would dearly love to forget about revision for a week and get stuck in on Speyside. If you are at a loose end for what to do this week, check out the website at www.spiritofspeyside.com or keep up to date on twitter (I know I will be) with the handle @spirit_speyside.
Experience the beating heart of the Scotch whisky industry for yourself, and encounter the warm hearts of the people who live and work there.
, Spirit of Speyside Festival
, The Glenlivet
, The Whisky Shop Dufftown
April 25, 2013
A Weekend of Whisky with a Difference
Full credit must go to anybody with sufficient passion and organisational nouse to get a whisky festival off the ground and into the congested air space of dramming jamborees. Little short of knighthoods beckon for those singular people who achieved such success first time around that they are back for a second offering.
Darroch Ramsay and Scott Martin are not your average whisky enthusiasts, and their Whisky Stramash – to be held once again in The Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh – is not your average whisky jolly. I was fortunate enough to bump into these straight-talking Glaswegians at the Edinburgh Whisky Blog birthday in February 2012 when their early summer event still precipitated some anxiety. However, with impressive careers working front of house and behind the scenes for many decorated Scotch whisky brands, they boasted the expertise – not to mention wit – to deliver two days of high-octane, multi-sensory whisky experiences.
The Stramash returns on Saturday May 25th and Sunday May 26th. The press release describes the ethos behind the event as ‘mad cap pioneering and ridiculous secrecy’. ‘The Stramash combines the opportunity to try a huge array of amazing drams with fantastically eccentric experiences and installations to tantalise the senses’. Staggering in a roughly clockwise direction around a room stuffed with tables covered in whisky the Stramash is not. There was even a murder mystery going on at the Jura stand last year (see Tiger’s review on Edinburgh Whisky Blog here).
Next month, expect Glenfiddich’s portable Warehouse 47 experience, an interactive photo wall from the folks at Deanston Distillery, a pop up speakeasy and cocktails – but as Heston Blumenthal might envisage them. Many more down-the rabbit-hole diversions are guaranteed. How much for this singular and esoteric encounter, you ask? Experience four hours of serious Stramashing for £26 (sessions are from 12pm-4pm and 5pm-9pm on the Saturday, 1pm-5pm on the Sunday).
Tickets are available here: TicketSOUP
More information abounds at www.thewhiskystramash.com as well as on Twitter (@whiskystramash) and Facebook.
I wish Darroch and Scott the very best of luck for their follow-up Stramash and I have every faith that you can expect wonderful whiskies coupled with, of course, winning weirdness.
, Edinburgh Whisky Stramash 2013
, Whisky Festivals
April 23, 2013
The six super serves at the Morrison Bowmore Quaich Society tasting.
If ‘Holy Triumvirate’ is going a tad too far, I do get rather excited at the prospect of Morrison Bowmore’s tantalising trio of fantastic distilleries paying a visit and so do the whisky drinkers of St Andrews. Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch have all acquired a recent reputation for quirky but high-quality releases, many of which landed in our Glencairn glasses – courtesy of Gordon Dundas – earlier this month.
Over the course of a very enjoyable 6-dram tasting, Gordon was the perfect foil to the whiskies under his stewardship: plain speaking, but full of warmth and humour, it was a fiery, engaging evening.
We kicked off with Auchentoshan, a brand doing great things with their younger, fruitier releases. The first of our whiskies on the night, the Three Wood, takes centre-stage in a new transatlantic cocktail competition. Auchentoshan Switch is the brand’s attempt to engage bartenders in America and Europe, switching them on to the powerful flavours in this delicate Lowland malt before switching around the creators of the winning Auchentoshan cocktails to work in the bars on their counterparts: Europe goes to America and vice versa. Read more about the competition – and vote for your favourite cocktails – here.
The Three Wood made a favourable impression on most in the room, but I was interested in its stablemate, the Valinch 2012. As Gordon said, these two expressions could not be further apart on the flavour specrum: soft, sweet and rich Sherry oak plays creamy, fruity ex-Bourbon oak at cask strength. This had a sparkly nose, the barley boasting a boiled sweet character in addition to apple and orange. Lemon, banana and vanilla shortbread showed themselves. The palate also ‘sparkled’ somewhat with maltiness again and clean nutmeg from the cask. Lovely.
Those who don’t know about my abiding, dutiful love for the Glen Garioch distillery are obviously recent readers of the Scotch Odyssey Blog. Hence, while people were picking apart the variously sensuous and scintillating flavours of the Auchentoshan offerings, I was some way ahead, courting the Glen Garioch 1995.
Another of the acclaimed vintage releases, the 1995 represents the last litres produced prior to the distillery’s closure by Suntory in the same year,. At this time, there was also a trace of peat smoke to be found in Glen Garioch from the malting process, which was not the case after the reopening of the plant in 1997. This I found to be a highly accomplished dram with the best of first fill Bourbon characteristics coming through. I felt, however, that the butterscotch and coconut drowned out the complex honeyed dustiness of the distillery profile. It was good, but not a Glen Garioch as far as I was concerned. In answer to a question about different peating levels and cut points in the three distilleries’ production regimes, Gordon had said that ‘we produce the same spirit and let the casks do the talking’. This had happened quite spectacularly with the 1995.
Skipping over the fourth pour – the always majestic Bowmore Darkest – we arrived at a unique compare-and-contrast opportunity. More or less on a whim, Gordon had decided to bring along two Tempests to the party: Batch 3 and the not-yet released Batch 4.
Bowmore Tempest 4 55.1%
Nose – swimming pools and cloudy lemonade. Very salty. Sandalwood and a gentle cigar-ash smokiness. Thyme honey. Leathery, very smooth and clean.
Palate – full and rounded with plenty of sweetness and fruits. Fudge and river rushes, before it becomes more and more honeyed.
The balance of this latest release over Batch 3 was evident, with a harmonising interplay between smoke, oak and spirit. I think I preferred the punch of Batch 3 on the night, but can attest to this as another exemplary bottling from the Bowmore team.
Gordon’s generosity extended to the Raffle: the revelation that a full bottle of the latest Tempest would find a lucky new owner forced hands back into pockets for donations. On behalf of the Quaich Society we would like to think him for an extremely informative and entertaining tasting during which the standard of whisky and anecdote never dipped.
, Auchentoshan Valinch
, Bowmore Tempest
, Glen Garioch
, Morrison Bowmore
, St Andrews
, The Quaich Society
, Three Wood
, Triple Distillation
April 11, 2013
I have a whisky pen-friend, and his name is Jason R. Craig. Now and again he writes to me with news about his brand (everyone should have one) and occasionally there is a sample of liquid attached.
Jason happens to be custodian of blended Scotch whisky, Cutty Sark, a label of seemingly irrepressible energy. ‘You can’t discover a new ocean until you have the courage to leave the shore’ reads my new favourite mug, courtesy of Cutty round about Easter time. They took this mantra to heart recently with two projects worthy of mention: a new blend unashamedly affiliated with America’s darkest days of Prohibition, and another expression put together by a couple of bloggers as hyperactive as they are.
Few Scotch whisky brands acknowledge that the CEOs of today owe their territorial and economic pre-eminence to the deeply clandestine efforts of their predecessors. When America was desperate for a drink, but legal statute represented something of an impediment, Scotch whisky was not about to abandon its transatlantic customers. For some time this refusal to allow police to greatly hinder profit failed to come off as strictly commendable, but Cutty Sark will soon launch a celebration of their own audacity in the 1930s: the Prohibition Edition. With a nod to Cutty’s past alliance with Captain Bill McCoy, it is a ‘reimagining of the whisky that made Cutty Sark America’s favourite Scotch – even before it was legal’.
Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell was tasked with creating a deep and powerful blend, produced in the most traditional manner. Bottled at 100 proof, it is nevertheless hoped that a smooth and complex delivery will result.
Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition 50% (to be released in the USA, then other markets in 2013)
Colour – full honey gold.
Nose – toasted cereals, then the aroma of a heavily-used Scalextric track: singed and hot. The smoke gives way to a dab of spice (nutmeg builds later on) and a fixing dried fruitiness. Peanut butter ice cream. Tart lemon curd, more warming spice and marshmallow sweetness.
Palate – creme caramel and honeycomb. The alcohol is very well-balanced and maximises the sweet, gentle flavour. A spicy tail with barley sugar and vanilla.
Finish – progressively drying on a toased oakiness with a hint of butterscotch.
With water the nose became much fruitier, with baked apple, peach and especially apricot. The peat supplied only a crunchy texture with a fragrance of gingerbread men with time. The palate was soft and sweet with abundant cereals and earthy peat for balance, leading into a short finish with tropical fruit impressions of kiwi and passion fruit.
So…? I was really impressed by the liquid on show here. Indeed, the serve Cutty Sark has in mind (or had in mind, back to Prohibition days) is manifested perfectly in this robust yet easy-drinking blend. I can foresee a great deal of today’s whisky drinkers slinging this down their necks quite happily, much as their forebears would have done under very different circumstances. In fact, I am seriously tempted by a bottle of this when it emerges in the UK very soon. I tried it in a highball with equal parts whisky and soda, some Bitter Truth orange bitters and lemon peel. I conclude that this would make a perfect summer mixer.
Irrespective of a brand’s activities back in murkier times, modern day blending operations have an ivory tower feel to them. Only highly-qualified and long-apprenticed blenders are given the keys to the honed, established DNA of the blended whisky in order to create the next iteration of the brand. Not so Cutty Sark, when they collaborated with Neil and Joel of Caskstrength.net. Though 90 years old last month, the brand is happy to indulge young upstarts.
The decision on the part of Caskstrength to release a blended whisky for ‘C’ in their A-Z of whisky series came as a surprise to some, but the ambitious bloggers have – I feel – judged this bottling run sagely. Blended whisky deserves far more exposure, especially in terms of its creative, experimental side. With renowned marque such as Cutty Sark on board, this project boasted every possible advantage: intriguing stocks to ‘play’ with, as well as undeniable expertise to call upon. Kirsteen Campbell was again on hand to direct Neil and Joel’s blending efforts in order that they remained true to the brand’s flavour heritage, but concocted something unique.
Only 500 bottles, tipping the scale at 51.4%, were released late last month, and some are still available at Master of Malt. How did the boys fare?
Caskstrength and Carry On Cutty Sark 51.4% £35
Colour – fresh and clean gold.
Nose – an immediate toasty sweetness at first which hints at grain spirit, but the subtle weight puts one in mind of the golden fruits of Speyside single malts. Vanilla ice cream, in a cone. A teasing rum-like sweetness, returning to the lime pith-like grain. Demerara sugar, chewy apple and caramel.
Palate – interplay of cereal, candied orange and ginger then lemon appears on top of a puff of peat smoke. The strength keeps everything focused.
Finish – continues on a drying, smoky theme but returns to barley sugar, lemon zest and the lightest oak. Gooseberry sharpness late on begs for another sip. Clever blending!
Adding a little water, more vanilla, honey and mascarpone appeared on the nose with a berry richness and freshly baked shortbread. Dessert is served! A spicier palate developed with ginger and a pronounced honey flavour. Lavender and a grassy maltiness were very appealing with a curious muesli and Cointreau tail. The oak emerged more fully in the finish, with a coconut fragrance and more spice in the shape of nutmeg and cinnamon.
So…? This is some achievement on the part of Caskstrength and Cutty Sark: a blend that out-blends blends. By this I mean that all of the best flavours and aromas of a sturdy, satisfying blended Scotch are present and intensified, and the result is a product of far more versatility than their ‘B’ bottling, the otherwise excellent single cask BenRiach. At £35 it is a genuine bargain for such an assured performer and I can only hope that Joel and Neil have been making enquiries to Dewar’s about their ‘D’ bottling…
Tags: Blended Scotch Whisky
, Cutty Sark
, Kirsteen Campbell
, Whisky reviews
April 9, 2013
BenRiach Distillery on a tempestuous day.
I think we would all agree that 14 months is a ponderous age to be without the means of indulging in your chief passion. That length of time without football, an easyJet flight to somewhere warm, the use of a working television, or sex would try the patience sorely. I had endured 14 months without setting foot in a whisky distillery and righting this wrong last month wreathed me in smiles.
Wriggling from under the barbed wire cage of three assignments in as many weeks, I beheld the prospect of a period of time in which I could plant a project or two. Operation Sniff A Washback was go.
For various reasons, Speyside is my favourite of all the whisky ‘regions’. Not only is it far enough away from the Central Belt to impress upon me a suitably Highland ruggedness, but the density of high-class, diverse distilleries cannot be bettered. One hopelessly romantic train journey through the snow drifts of Aberdeenshire later and I alighted in Elgin, chilled but thrilled to be back in Morayshire. Thanks to the help of Stewart Buchanan and Ewan George, I knew that there was a whisky hearth of brilliant warmth awaiting me at BenRiach.
One very short hop on the 36 bus brought me to the swift S-bend on which BenRiach sits, the black bulk of the maltings showing up well against shards of snow driven into the grass by the determined wind. I was sent to the stillroom to warm up while Ewan finished off some recurring paperwork where I chewed the stillman fat with Fraser, custodian of the BenRiach spirit for the last four years. The quartet of copper pots pelted me with heat as Fraser told me about the various family members employed within the industry, one as far away as Laphroaig. That brought the discussion on to the peated BenRiach production regime and whether the quality of the final whisky represented satisfactory redress for the clinging cigarette smoker fragrance no worker can escape when the smoky stuff is being distilled. Like the gents at Balblair, Fraser prefers the less aromatically-invasive unpeated production.
The stills at BenRiach.
Trotting in Ewan’s wake, once his ‘t’s had been crossed and his ’i's dotted, we headed into the warehouses. Here I could Get My Geek On with a quick game of ‘Name That Cask’. Hoggies, butts, puncheons, and more than a couple of Port pipes could be discerned in the tepid gloom, teeming with the scents of perhaps the industry’s most heterogeneous whisky stocks maturing. I asked Ewan which of Billy Walker’s discoveries had most excited him when they emerged from dunnage obscurity. ‘To be honest, the Solstice stuff I thought was fantastic. I’d gone off peated whiskies for a few years, but that whisky is top class’.
'Under 25'? Hardly.
With the tour over, Ewan was kind enough to furnish me with one of the missing pieces of my BenRiach puzzle. Stewart had told us in St Andrews that more senior BenRiach acquired a tropical fruitiness, and I wanted to put his claim to the test in the shape of the award-winning 30yo. I found this to be a deeply unusual dram, a class apart from those other whiskies I have tried which can also claim to have been three decades in development.
Red fruit sweetness and rich honey came through at first on the nose, but despite its age there was a remarkable zest and life. Lime pickle came next, and then – right enough – the tropical fruits. I found banana and passion fruit were most evident, with grapefruit in time and a toffee’d weight. To taste, this was full with a spicy attack before the experience lengthened with malt, honey and plenty of vanilla. The 50:50 wood contribution between ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry lent this whisky plenty of richness and complexity, but also enough body and freshness to demand a lengthier sipping session.
Ewan had one final ticket for the BenRiach Bandwagon, however, and when I nosed the second release of the Solstice Heavily Peated Port Finish, I leapt aboard.
BenRiach Solstice 17yo 50%
Colour – toffee apple red: clear and bright.
Nose – surprisingly fresh breezy smoke, like a wintry wind blowing the peat smoke over barley fields. It is a soft (though bold and unmistakable) smokiness, like the last stages of kilning. Beneath is a citrussy cleanliness, then the Port gives a firm base of cooked strawberries and morello cherries.
Palate – tickle of peat, then mouth-coating Port flavours. Flavour everywhere especially heavy, industrial peat. There is a clean, light toffee’d malt for balance.
Finish – drying all the time on black, thick and growly peat. Garden fire fragrance. Some tiny pieces of dried strawberry. Clean green apple on the tail.
With water, the nose hinted at the kiln even more, with fat, dry barley. More of the fruits inherent within the spirit emerged: orange and ripe Comice pears, all beneath a veil of smoke. With that dash of water, the palate was more focused with heat and smoke. A trace of creamy, nutty oak heralded a singeing sweetness in the middle of the tongue: pear drops and strawberry jam. Kippery smoke appeared on the finish with citrussy oak, a satiny sweetness and the sooty smokiness of a fire grate.
At the time, I laughed out loud: by rights, it should not taste as good as it does. The Port finish is so well-executed, and the smoke such a joyous mixture of textures and aromas. Having missed my bus on to Aberlour, I contented myself with buying a bottle, the immediate rapture of my dram at the distillery fortifying me against a fierce – but not unwelcome – blizzard outside the distillery. Though certainly not a summery dram, we were hardly experiencing summery conditions. Irrespective of the time of year, however, the bizarre brilliance of this whisky will make itself felt. I am now besotted with BenRiach.
, BenRiach Distillery Co.
, Gordon & MacPhail
, Peated whiskies
, Spirit of Speyside 2013
March 26, 2013
A selection from Wemyss' second batch of single casks.
Even in an age of single malt insatiability such as this one, it is a sad fact that of the 101 malt distilleries operating in Scotland, not all enjoy any real prominence on the shelves. Betrothed to blends or sought after in foreign territories, some whiskies are the proverbial wild goose. Praise be, therefore, to the independent bottlers who track down finite stocks which the distillery owners have often overlooked and make them available to you and me.
The latest company whose delectable discoveries crossed my path are Wemyss Malts. Edinburgh-based bottlers since 2005, they offer a wide selection of single casks, blended malts and even their own blended Scotch in the form of the Lord Elcho expression. A consignment of all of the above found its way to me via Doug Clement, Quaich Society patron and ferociously determined advocate for a distilling operation near the home of golf in St Andrews.
The Kingsbarns Distillery project had looked to have stalled until Doug’s bright idea secured £3m of investment from Wemyss Malts, making the former caddy’s fantasy a reality. Check out this STV report - featuring Doug – about the auspicious beginnings of another Lowland distillery. In a few years there will be a home-grown single malt in the Wemyss stable, but what about those whiskies made by other people? Have they an eye for a hole-in-one?
The Hive 12yo 40%
Nose – Full and attractive: very malty with a toasty sweetness. Milk chocolate with candied ginger and sweet rose. Playful and rounded.
Palate – Honeycomb oak, sticky light malt and a return of the chocolate with dried fruit flavours.
Finish – Increasingly lives up to its name: a dryish maltiness sits above a pot of gentle heather honey. Sweet porridge with apricot. A dab of peat at the end.
Spice King 8yo 40%
Nose – Earthy and lots of woodpsice. Expensive mens’ eau-de-cologne. A full creamy note, like soft goats cheese. Oak is quite prevalent. Watery sweetness at the base. Some roasted chestnuts and pecan, but lacks the guts for true richness.
Palate – Blackberries, a richer earthy maltiness and vanilla pod. Tongue-coating with treacle sponge and other Highland flavours, including a tickle of peat.
Finish – A gentle tarry flavour. Burnt toffee. Woodsmoke. The barley emerges from the scrum of these darker characteristics to lend some pure sweetness.
Peat Chimney 12yo 40%
Nose – Dry smoke: peat stacks in the sun very close to a sandy beach containing lots of empty shellfish shells. With time it gets a little farmy with hay and cow breath. Caramelising brown sugar introduces the peated malt.
Palate – Very dry but pleasingly delicate. Very aromatic peat, softer maltiness than I’d expected and Black Bullet sweets. Becomes quite ashy. On a second sip many more fruits appear, especially orange and pear. Peat has a chilli flake heat. Barbecued pineapple.
Finish – Lemon grass fragrance as the peat filters down (like a pint of Guinness settling) to a dried earthy character. A honeyed edge to the smoke, which is appreciated. Smoked sausage. Long.
So…? I was impressed by these offerings from Wemyss; someone has taken very tasty malts and combined them with sympathy and confidence to elicit a bold flavour profile. I could maybe quibble that there isn’t an awful lot of complexity, but if you have a sweet tooth and a £35 budget, The Hive will not disappoint. Likewise, the Peat Chimney was a harmonious celebration of smoke, and a good contrast to the earthier Peat Monster from Compass Box. It would be my pick. The Spice King made allusions to a deeper complexity, but excited me the least. That being said, its 12yo incarnation has just walked away with the title of ‘Best Blended Malt Scotch’ at the World Whisky Awards, so congratulations are in order.
With three whiskies down, I’ll give you the highlights of four single casks I tried. There was one big disappointment in the shape of ‘Caribbean Fruits’ (a Glencadam from 1990) which had been pretty much raped and pillaged by the oak. Some honeyed cereals, fig rolls and dunnage notes fought their way through but could not overcome the aggressive hogshead. As a fan of the massively underrated Glencadam I had been looking forward to this.
‘Autumn Berries’ (a 1986 Blair Athol) had impressed on first viewing, but alongside a Miltonduff of the same generation (a 1987) it became disjointed. A nose of high-toned bold fruitness, especially overripe pear, prevailed at first on the nose, with heather honey and smoke. The intensity of spirit for one of its years was unusual, and often appealing. The palate extrudes this fruitness further, and a note of coriander intrigued me.
‘Wild Berry Spice’ [Miltonduff 1987] 46%
Nose – Fresh, light and fruity at first with a hint of crisp, dryish barley for balance. Bright and mellow with strawberry compote and vanilla pod. Spoonfuls of dark Muscovado sugar. Ages before your eyes, as dark and rich woodsmoke appears and a pronounced saltiness.
Palate – Good weight, malt and cinnamon spice come forward together with a little Kendal mint cake.
Finish – Honey from the oak, sweetened cream and vanilla. Pleasant richness from the clean barley.
With water matters became still more attractive with a sweetly leathery nose, chou pastry and cocoa powder and icing sugar. A hint of sweet cigar smoke then dark chocolate. With time there is pistachio ice cream The palate revealed rich fudge, charcoal from the cask and orange fruit pastels. Then there is concentrated Ribena, honey and smoked fruits. Leafy oak, malt and a coal scuttle unfurl in the complex finish with butter tablet and honey.
‘Lemon Smoke’ [Caol Ila 1996] 46%
Nose – Beach barbecue, olive oil, wood varnish. Hints of seaweed and modroc plaster. More savoury with time: smoked chicken in the sea air. A very focused Caol Ila.
Palate – Light – very light – at first with pear drops and citronella. The peat steps up in intensity very gradually before sherbet lemon appears alongside a gently nutty maltiness.
Finish – Quite quick, leaving gentle peat smoke and honey. The malt is there, too, and has a creamy toffee character.
With a few drops of water the nose became much farmier with burning twigs, lemon and honey, and a Champagne-like yeasty note. This was much truer to the Caol Ilas I’ve known in the past when sipped: malt, green fruit and smoke together with cardamom and buttered popcorn. The finish was quicker again.
So…? Definitely a mixed bag with these single casks, as is to be expected. Each expression presented a very distinct flavour profile, however, and in this respect they mirrored the blended malts above. Using flavour descriptors to identify your malts can backfire with the contrasting capacities of peoples’ palates and a potential incooperative mood, but to my mind it is a policy that makes as much sense as age statements. Possibly more. Like Tiger in his review for Edinburgh Whisky Blog here, I would go for the Caol Ila. Wemyss and whisky present a formidable combination, and I can’t wait to learn how they shall bring their experience to bear on producing a single malt of their own.
Many thanks to Doug Clement for the liberal dispensation of samples.
Tags: Blair Athol
, Caol Ila
, Doug Clement
, Independent Bottlers
, Kingsbarns Distillery
, Single Casks
March 25, 2013
All aboard for six of the best from Scotland's Highlands.
Bens and Glens characterise the Scottish landscape. Bens are the high bits, and the glens the gaps in between them. That’s Scotland pretty much explained, geographically. As far as Scotch whisky is concerned, Bens and Glens can cover an equally wide spectrum, as Stewart Buchanan demonstrated when he introduced the Quaich Society to BenRiach and GlenDronach. The expression goes that there is a whisky out there to suit every one; as it happens, chances are you will find it in one of the ranges of these fine distilleries.
Weighing down Stewart’s car were three separate releases from BenRiach (the 16yo, 15yo Madeira Finish and Septendecim) and three from GlenDronach (15yo, 18yo and Cask Strength). We were not short of liquid, and it became apparent immediately that that liquid was of a very high quality indeed.
Stewart directed us to the 16yo, a dram ‘designed’ by Billy Walker from the 28,000 casks he and his South African business partners inherited when they acquired the distillery, sited just below Elgin on the A95, in 2004. Five cask styles are used and while I didn’t catch them all, each play their part in the final flavour. And what a flavour. I make no secret of my preference for a pretty, delicate, sweet and intriguing Speysider as a gutsy aperitif, and this may just be the ultimate example of this species. Pear drops, vanilla, lemon sherbet and banana emerged on the nose while the palate was sweet, round and tickled the tongue with spice. It was delightful.
‘Can anyone detect the peat?’ Stewart asked. ‘Some can, some can’t.’ Billy Walker puts peated BenRiach in to the mix, just to add that subtle complexity. This is seriously intelligent cask management and whisky construction, and while I couldn’t find any smoke on the night, can attest to the quality of the dram.
Former BenRiach manager, Stewart Buchanan, was full of facts and anecdotes.
The Madeira Finish came next, and Stewart confessed regret that it will soon be discontinued. Each time I returned to this whisky I began to partake in Stewart’s affection for it more and more. Having been anxious to try the Septendecim after giving a big thumbs-up to the Curiositas 10yo, I was left marginally disappointed. The crunchy peated malt aromas, together with honey and lemon, were all very pleasant. However, I had hoped for more depth. As an aside, I have recently discovered that BenRiach offer another 17yo peated whisky which is almost hysterically brilliant – but more on that in a later post.
On to GlenDronach, the dram of choice for the discerning lady of the night in 19th century Edinburgh. James Allardice may no longer peddle the products of his Forgue-based copper still in Scotland’s capital, paying his way in potent clearic, but since Walker’s acquisition of GlenDronach in 2008 the Aberdeenshire whisky has been finding a whole new appreciative audience. I fondly remember the 15yo from a couple of years ago as big, meaty and rich. In St Andrews, it still makes best use of full Oloroso Sherry maturation to lend a caramelised nuttiness to proceedings. The malt spirit is inherently sweet and powerful. It’s older brother strides out in full Sherry regalia at 18yo, but possibly to exaggeratedly.
I was very curious to try the new Cask Strength, which Whisky For Everyone thoroughly approved of when they sampled it in January. It tasted pretty special in February. A nose of orange, tablet and juicy malt, it had a leathery weight with plenty of spice coming through from the Oloroso casks in the shape of nutmeg and paprika, together with plum jam, cinnamon and star anise from the Pedro Ximenez maturation. The palate – even at full strength (54.8%) – was rich, smooth and sweet with creamy malt and chocolate powder. How to pick a winner between this and the 16yo? Though at opposite ends of the tasting spectrum on the night, they came together in terms of exceptional quality.
Stewart led a tasting as relaxed as it was informative. The Quaich Society committee thank him for the calibre of stock he brought with him, and the plethora of gems he left behind for our WaterAid Raffle prizes. To the new owner of a BenRiach Horizons 12yo, congratulations. There was one matter which Stewart did not clear up, however; having hinted that Billy Walker had seated himself on one side of another negotiating table, he declined to drop the disputed distillery’s name. Of course, now we know that joining BenRiach and GlenDronach in Walker’s single malt stable is the Portsoy plant of Glenglassaugh.
He said: ‘We’re really delighted to buy Glenglassaugh, a renowned Highland single malt with a rich and distinguished heritage. It’s an excellent complementary fit with our existing BenRiach and GlenDronach brands. Part of its attraction to us is that it isn’t too large for our portfolio but its potential in contributing to the group certainly is.
‘It’s our intention to bring this iconic distillery fully back to life by giving it the investment, commitment and care it deserves. I believe our whisky expertise, proven brand-building ability and strong routes to market will help take Glenglassaugh to the next level.’
Last week I returned from Speyside with a visit to BenRiach under my belt and a miniature of Glenglassaugh Revival from the Whisky Shop Dufftown in my pocket. Little did I guess that the two were linked by more than the coincidences of my personal whisky travels. I can’t wait to see what Billy Walker will find lurking in those seashore warehouses…
, St Andrews
, The Quaich Society
, Whisky Tastings
, Wood Finishes
March 7, 2013
Disillusioned and jaded, James felt that there was nothing else to be done; five years had passed agreeably enough, but could he sustain himself with only the polite and the pleasant for company? Had he not better, James asked himself, seek his fortunes further afield? Perhaps there was merit in this rum business that everyone was talking so animatedly about…
If I come across as a character the misanthropic like of which Dickens or Beckett drew, I’m not being entirely serious. My whisky life isn’t all that bad; with regular tastings at the Quaich Society, Scotch Malt Whisky Society visits and the odd Edinburgh-based whisky event now and again, I come across genuinely interesting and tasty drams. But the problem worsens: the more whiskies you taste, the rarer those whiskies of exceptional character and quality become. You become inured to the sensation of pleasure and wonder over time, the bar is raised to heights tantamount to masochistic denial. If only the VVVVVIPs can make it into the club, it starts to look pretty empty.
Little or nothing can pin you back in your seat with exhilaration, or catapault you into the air with excitement, or turn you to a beaming, self-satisfied jelly. ‘This is good,’ you acknowledge, ‘but does it better Dram X of three months ago? It certainly can’t hold a torch to Dram Y.’ It is time and romance, of course, that have transformed Dram Y into that picture of transient ambrosia. With more experience, the impressions past whiskies have made in the mind remain, while I can only dimly recollect the actual cohesion of flavour and aroma particular to them.
Compass Box The Entertainer.
Thank goodness, therefore, that Compass Box exist to reaffirm my faith in whisky. In January, two samples arrived which represented the shafts of radiant sunlight on an otherwise overcast day.
Compass Box The Entertainer 46% £85 available exclusively at Selfridges’ UK stores, and online (1,000 bottles)
Colour – rich lemon curd yellow/gold.
Nose – vanilla unfurls, bringing with it barley with a bristly texture. Strawberry patch: straw, crushed berries and earth. It opens up onto creaminess, with a hard layer of peat. Demerara sugar and sea spray. Growing citrussy warmth: orange zest. Lemon butter icing, gingerbread-accented malt and honey.
Palate – very sweet, with dancing peat: dry, fragrant, with a suggestion of smouldering pine furniture. Dries leisurely with some vanilla spongecake, oak, and gently honeyed malt.
Finish – quite rich, with the peat evident, but towards the back of ‘the mix’. Icing sugar and marzipan. Lemony and creamy.
With water, the nose became more biscuity and the smoke reduced to only a texture: like the last embers of a log fire, so soft and ashy. Creamy again with the finest Scottish tablet. Pastry cases, almonds and boiling damsen jam. On the palate the creaminess continued. All was super-soft at first with banana, vanilla and ripe pineapple, before the oak dug in a little. Ginger, clove and pear then appeared. Cereal sweetness dominated in the finish with muscovado sugar, marshmallow, and beach bonfire.
I tasted this for the second time in conjunction with the latest Flaming Heart, when its sweetness came back into line and the peat was not so pronounced. It lost, too, a slight ‘sweaty sock’ aroma which hadn’t been terribly welcome the first time through. This is another strong runner from the House of Compass Box and assuredly worth finding in the four Selfridges of England. However, it was the second sample that rocked my world.
Compass Box Hedonism 10th Anniversary 46% DISCONTINUED (120 bottles, single cask)
Colour – syrupy dark honey/gold.
Nose – incredibly delicate cereals at the top, with dryness and a rum-like sugariness. Thick golden creme patissiere and heady toasted coconut. With my nose in the glass now, I get acrylic paint and impressions of dusty age at first, but then baked red apples slide into view on a bed of caramel and marginally mentholated oak. The cask is rigid, but sublime: it allows vanilla, oiliness and tropical fruit to emerge (especially passion fruit) while keeping everything structurally sound. So much runny honey and icing sugar. Grape, lemon curd and marzipan sweets. Christmas spices with time.
Palate – Bourbon-like at first with rich, spicy oak. But then… Oh goodness me… pooling yellow fruit, such sweet warm lemon, marzipan again and book glue. The body so thick and creamy with just enough balancing dryness. Damn near flawless. In fact, the best whisky I have sipped ever.
Finish – white chocolate profiteroles, gorse blossom. Cannot quite sustain perfection as a tad too much cinnamon-driven dryness comes in. Nutmeg, sweet cereals and buttery toffee.
After adding water, coconut became more pronounced on the nose with stunning vanilla shortbread and sandalwood handsoap sumptuousness. Candied orange. Then pralines, rich and sugary. Soft leather. With more time an amazing freshness emerges: Soy-covered Japanese vegetables, satin-like golden syrup. The palate wasn’t quite the wonder it had been. Still Bourbon-y at first, the lemon and sugar were there, too, but not quite in such terrific collaboration. Blackberries and strawberries baked in sugar. The richness is impeccably balanced. Going into the finish, I found caramel wafer bars, buttercream icing, and that leatheriness returned to support the coconut oils.
Released in 2010 to coincide with the company’s 10th anniversary, John Glaser had scoured the land for grain whiskies which could pay tribute to the expression that started it all: the blended grain seductress, Hedonism. He found it when scrutinising samples from Invergordon, and one from 1971 could not be passed up. I adore grain whiskies that have been left in prime ex-Bourbon casks to do their thing, and this fits the bill absolutely. Master of Malt still have it listed on their website - though out of stock - at £197.01. Multiply that figure by ten, and I would scrimp, save and sue to purchase a bottle of this. It is utterly extraordinary. And ‘the bar’ is now somewhere near the jetstreams.
My profound thanks to Chris Maybin for the samples.
Tags: Blended Scotch Whisky
, Compass Box
, Single Grain Whisky
, The Entertainer
, Whisky reviews
March 1, 2013
The Macallan Gold.
1824. It’s an important number for many reasons: 1) it was at about this time that Scotch whisky production became a licenced operation, after which you either went legit, or went to prison, 2) The Macallan distillery on the banks of the River Spey took out its licence in this year, 3) at one point, it seemed that there may have been 1,824 whiskies in the brand’s core range, and 4) it is the tag now attached to their principle single malt portfolio. In the UK market, 1824 announces The Macallan’s new Gold standard.
Anyone even marginally acquainted with whisky will know that the world’s second most popular Scotch took a risk late last year. Controversial? Misleading? Economically necessary? There are cases to be made under either heading, and – via a shameful pun – therein lies the problem. Macallan want to carry on shifting cases of mature malt whisky, but they have a finite amount of spirit which qualifies, despite 2009′s mammoth expansion.
To moisten as many new lips in emerging markets – especially those in the Far East – as possible, the brand have decided to prioritise more aged whisky in those territories and have gambled on their established strongholds, such as the UK, taking to their bosoms NAS – or Non-Age Statement – expressions.
The Macallan 10yo, a formative single malt encounter for me, has gone, along with its 12yo and 15yo stablemates. The Fine Oak range? Gone, too. If you want a Macallan with a number on it below ’18′, you are going to have to buy an expensive air ticket. Financing a flight to the Far East is as nothing, however, compared with the ‘oligarch’ prices demanded of the half-century bottlings The Macallan can present with much fanfare and notable frequency. If so much mature stock wasn’t being squeezed into Lalique decanters maybe – but Chris over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog can debate the economics more effectively than I can here. The question is: what medal do I give the new Gold?
The Macallan Gold 40% vol. £35.95
Colour – erm… gold. Maybe with impressions of bruised apple.
Nose – grippy clean and tight oak at first with bruised banana and granola bar, backed up by vanilla fudge. Orange and peach squash drink, full and biscuity oak with fat, caramel-accented malt towards the top. Muscovado sugar and a dark fruitiness. With time, the Sherry oak makes its presence felt with golden raisin.
Palate – chocolate-y breakfast cereal, before some burnt fruitcake and dark malt come in. Big and pleasantly drying, with hints of candied orange peel.
Finish – semi-rich with brown sugar and baking spice from the oak. Brief, however, with a dash of green apple peel and hints of sticky toffee pudding.
With water, extra sweetness was found on the nose with a touch of lemon and the return of the vanilla. Marmite and fruitscones was an unexpected aroma. Flapjack, tilled fields and autumn leaves suggested a more typical, buxom Speyside panorama. The palate became grippier, with malt and oak leading the charge. Red apple and cinnamon appeared. Brown sugar dominated the finish once again with added pot ale flavours and vanilla-driven creaminess. The oak hovers into view, bringing sultana and Sherry sweetness, before it disappears.
I rather liked this. As a well-mannered Speyside with some body and charm, it leaves little room for improvement. However, as the flagship expression from the most gentrified of single malts? For £36? While undoubtedly well-constructed, I would still have the old Sherry Oak 10yo on the shelf, which wasn’t afraid to thrust its head into those bolder territories to which this whisky alludes but never really treads. It supplies a fleeting glimpse of this distillery’s pedigree and treasures, but it has the feeling of Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’: prodigious wares and finery being tugged out of shot.
By happy accident, however, I discovered it makes a damn fine Old-Fashioned. Or Gold-Fashioned, if you will.
The Macallan Gold-Fashioned
The Macallan Gold-Fashioned.
50 ml The Macallan Gold
2 healthy dashes Angostura Bitters
3 dashes Bitter Truth orange bitters
splash of soda water
1 barspoon brown sugar
Put the bitters, sugar and soda into a tumbler and whisk until you have a paste. Add 3-4 ice cubes and 25ml of the whisky. Stir. A lot. Add another 3-4 ice cubes and the rest of the whisky. Stir some more. Garnish with a slice of orange peel and cherry.
The result? A cocktail that is dangerously drinkable, with a leathery richness and strong cereal quality providing the necessary firmness. The Sherry hints from the single malt conspire with the orange bitters for a lovely sweet finale.
Tags: Age Statements
, Edrington Group
, Non-Age Statement
, Single Malt Whisky
, The Macallan