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September 25, 2013

The Glenrothes 2001

‘That’s your local whisky, right?’ During my time at the Road Hole Bar at the Old Course Hotel here in St Andrews, many guests would make this error when I plucked down from the groaning shelves a Glenrothes by way of recommendation. Although there is a Glenrothes 20 miles away from the Old Grey Toon, it cannot lay claim to a 1988 Vintage or a Select Reserve.

Hailing instead from Morayshire in the Speyside whisky region, the Glenrothes distillery pumps out a lot of spirit. Yet despite a prodigious output I had only ever come across an 8yo, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail, prior to their latest vintage landing on my doorstep. The 2001 typifies the unusual channels by which The Glenrothes, as a single malt, enters the market under a proprietary label. Although the Edrington Group, owners of The Macallan and Highland Park, assume responsibility for the distillery’s production (much will go into the company’s blended Scotches, such as Famous Grouse), the branding and distribution fall to London wine and spirit merchants, Berry Bros. & Rudd.

A highly-respected independent bottler in their own right, Berry Bros. have won much acclaim for their approach with The Glenrothes in recent years. Indeed, they have masterminded an encroachment into the duty free market with the Manse Brae collection. These three whiskies do not carry an age statement but showcase the rich, oily but fruity Glenrothes spirit at varying levels – or moods – of maturity.

What of the 2001, though?

The Glenrothes 2001 43% £45

Colour – full gold.

Nose – seriously powerful: the oak is like being hit with a length of 2×4 and the barley has such oily intensity. Shortcrust pastry on top of which is fresh but quite rich and nutty barley as well as a sour apple note in the top ranges, but everything settles into heather honey and lavender. Oak chips introduce spice, especially star anise and sandalwood. Ginger and red fruits come later. Firm and vibrant.

Palate – the malt darkens but layers of spice begin to trickle down. The oak steps in with a mouthcoating grip, then a flash of lemon.

Finish – a complex array of Indian spices melting together. Turmeric. A suggestion of apple cores and natural caramel.

Water accentuated extra fruitiness across nose and palate, with a custard tart note on the nose as well as honeycomb and almond. There was an added fudgey quality to taste before melon and pear freshened the finish.

So…?      I don’t share the opinion of some writers that this is a fresh, delicate whisky. Despite the ex-Bourbon heritage this, for me, is definitely a malt to chew over perhaps after a walk in the woods. I am not complaining, however, and I found it a delight to spend some time with a malt that truly knows what it is about. The Glenrothes 2001 pursues its aims unswervingly and stays true to its character; there are limitations but within those self-imposed parameters you are looking at a very engaging whisky.

 

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September 21, 2013

Ardbeg Islay Half-Marathon

I ran on Islay once. My tenure at Laphroaig had nibbled away at the brief window I had allowed to get myself from the Beautiful Hollow by the Broad Bay to my next port of call, and consequently I was late for the 11AM Lagavulin tour. My canter from my bike to Ruth and the rest of the tour party was all of 20 metres, however: on August 3rd, 165 people put trainer to tarmac to cover 13 island miles in the Ardbeg Islay Half-Marathon.

A percentage of those entrants sprinting out from Bowmore to Islay airport and back hailed from the whisky writing and retailing industries. Their goal overtook that of personal glory and a new PB, however. Last year Alan Lodge, a writer for The Spirits Business, passed away as a result of a brain haemorrhage. He was 29. Journalist colleagues, Ardbeg distillery staff and whisky retailers busted a gut to raise more than £5,000 for the National Brain Appeal.

Some of the drinks writers pounding through Bowmore. Photography by Phill Williams.

 

‘My family has been overwhelmed by the support we have received from the drinks industry folk since my brother passed away last year,’ said Hannah Grace Lodge. ‘It is evident how much Alan was loved by all in the industry; Ardbeg’s sponsorship of the half and for all of these wonderful people to run and raise money in Alan’s memory is such a testament to him. He always joked about being a legend… turns out, he kind of was one. Thank you so much to all who have been involved in supporting The National Brain Appeal in Alan’s name, he would be honoured.’

To convey a little of the cut-and-thrust of the event, Quercus’s press release suggests that high-drama sporting reportage as well as whisky broadcasts could be the company’s new niche: ‘Chris Losh was the first Ardbeg runner to finish (in 31st place overall) taking six minutes off his personal best with a blistering time of 1 hour 36 minutes. Richard Woodard finished in 1 hour 51 minutes beating his own PB set 30 years ago. Hamish Smith finished in just under two hours, a milestone that eluded veteran Olly Wehring. Joel Harrison entertained spectators by running in fancy dress. After an engrossing five miles of cat and mouse and cheered on by an ecstatic crowd, Sandrae Sharpen pounced to thrash a disconsolate Marcin Miller in the final straight. Several team members, including Laura Foster, Richard Siddle and Eduardo Vivas, bravely ran through injuries and extreme pain. Sian Deegan and Rachel Ramanathan adopted a bizarre strategy of starting 45 minutes before anyone else with a self-imposed handicap of running the course pushing a wheelbarrow full of peat…’ Splendid.

One competitor, Caskstrength.net’s Joel Harrison, remarked that running has become something of a passion. ‘Getting the correct kit has been key and makes running much more enjoyable (and the obvious results of increased fitness and the ability to eat and drink more, as I’m working it all off!)’ When asked about what he partook of in the race’s feed zones, Joel asserted that nothing bar water passed his lips. It must be said, of course, that Islay water is far more invigorating than your regular drop.

From my time cycling around the island, I remember the rearing, pitted roads and often relentlessly malign winds. ‘I’ve cycled around the island before, but with running, you get a sense of how the weather changes so quickly,’ Joel revealed. ‘One minute you’re boiling hot, the next soaking wet and so the cycle continues!’

‘I’d highly recommend everyone to have a go. It’s not easy, especially when you’re training is all in Central London (and as a result totally flat), but the challenge was excellent.’ Keep an eye out for entry forms for the 2014 event on the Islay Half-Marathon website. I am very tempted to have a go myself: leave the bike at home this time and see Islay with a running vest on.

 

Photography by Phill Williams.

 

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September 17, 2013

The Blend Bibliography – Isle of Skye

Quietly, consistently, the word spreads. On the blogs especially, between the single malt pangeyrics and cocktail correspondence mention is increasingly made of blended Scotch whisky. And the coverage is informed, open-minded and – heaven forfend – positive.

If the principle barrier to blended appreciation has been, as Casktrength.net put it, ‘ubiquity’ I have come to realise that however recognisable the faces of Scotch blends may be, my familiarity with them is only skin deep. Far from demonstrating discernment, comprehensively passing over entry-level blends exposed a yawning chasm of ignorance for me. How could I claim to know anything about Scotch whisky when the category of Scotch whisky that 90% of the world chooses to drink was entirely alien to me?

Over the past two months platoons of samples have passed under my nose and what an enlightening process it has been. In many cases, the supposedly Plain Janes of the whisky world boast a subtle beauty, blessed with sparkling repartee and disarming charm. In a new feature, I want to focus on some of the blended Scotch whiskies you may have overlooked and detail the histories and personalities; the enterprise and innovation, and finally the flavours at their heart.

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Recently, I returned to Skye in the Scottish Hebrides for a week of walking, gastronomy and whisky. The Waternish peninsula would take care of the former, fine food would be guaranteed at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel and the Three Chimneys, and fortunately – three days prior to leaving for my holiday – I found a contender to satisfy most requirements on the latter front.

Isle of Skye is a blended Scotch under the control of Ian Macleod Distillers. Other notable brands of theirs include Glengoyne and Smokehead while they have recently revitalised Tamdhu Distillery in Speyside. The blend lies at the heart of the business, however, with the recipe ‘in the family’ from the 19th century and acquired by Ian Macleod along with the Isle of Skye name in 1963. The Skye connection is an obvious one: over the course of my week in the Dunvegan area it was almost impossible to move for Macleods and Dunvegan Castle, which we visited on a foul Wednesday morning, is the spiritual home of the Clan. Now based in Edinburgh, courtesy of the Isle of Skye blend the company retains this ancestral bond to the West Coast.

Today’s blend harnesses the honeyed body of Speyside malts and the peated pace of one or two island distillates to good effect. The standard expression is the 8yo, but it is also possible to come across a 12yo and a 21yo as part of the core range. They have even released a 50yo, although stocks are very limited.

The UK and USA remain core markets, but in-roads are being made with the whisky-drinking publics of Ukraine and Russia.

The bottle design takes its cues from the Cuillin Hills – the awe-inspiring geological razor blade which dominates the island’s skyline (or should that be Skyeline). The Cuillins represent one of the longest and most testing ridge walks in the British Isles and their moods alter depending on the time of year and the weather; the 8yo highlights their red russet phase, while at other times the prospect can be a furious, Mordor-like black – alluded to by the 12yo.

When I contacted the company they hinted at a significant new sponsorship agreement to be announced at the beginning of next month. In the past, however, Ian Macleod’s blend has headlined at the 135th Year of the Isle of Skye Highland Games in Portree as well as partnering with the revamped Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh during last summer’s Festival Fringe.

I picked up my bottle of the 8yo at my local Tesco for £17.50 having been surprised by its robust but rounded nature and intriguing fruity depths, discovered in a sample from Master of Malt.

Isle of Skye 8yo 40%

Colour – honey with deep orange tones

Nose – light and crusty peat grafted on to rich, fruity Sherry oak at first. With nose in the glass the grains take the lead and their luscious body, zest and rich vanilla qualities suggest some are older than the stated 8 years. Behind this is impressively sensuous honey and berry fruit hints, as well as caramel made from condensed milk. Jelly sweets, soft grassy smoke and suggestions of cigar wrapper. Rounded and assured.

Palate – rich and peaty textures before honey, redcurrent and plum take matters into sweeter, rounder territory. The grain is predominant throughout but adds lovely, potent and above all clean body. A crackle of spice to close.

Finish – very grain-driven again with fleshy fruit (papaya, mango) and a background of ginger, cinnamon and raisin.

While I might not always agree with him, Jim Murray does write with ardent eloquence on the subject of blended Scotch and he rates this expression very highly indeed. For me, it is a perfect example of a blend that is on the one hand very ‘different’ yet soothingly familiar.

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September 11, 2013

‘Cheese and Whisky Gang Thegither!’

If you found yourself stood beside a mashtun in a Scotch whisky distillery this summer – and I really hope you did – your be-tartaned guide may have mentioned the final resting place for the fragrant porridge caked at the bottom. With the sugary wort having been piped away to the next stage of the whisky-making process, the remaining ‘draff’ will ultimately nourish Old MacDonald’s coos. NB – if they even hint that bovine intoxication results they are lying: there is no alcohol created during mashing.

A distillery with draff to offload - in this case, Tobermory.

 

I rather like the ancient-seeming and mutually-beneficial relationships at the heart of whisky production, itself an agricultural off-shoot once upon a time. The farmer of yesteryear would grow the barley, malt it, and distil it, diverting any waste products towards the fortification of his livestock. Distillers and farmers may no long amount to the same person, but draff still supplies much-needed nutrition for cattle and sheep raised on farmland neighbouring whisky distilleries.

Mull of Kintyre Extra Mature Cheddar.

A charming press release appeared the other day attesting to the enduring beef/whisky bond: Tobermory have honoured Mull of Kintyre Mature Cheddar, recognised at this year’s British Cheese Awards as the Best Scottish Cheese ahead of 79 other contenders. Produced in the First Milk Campeltown Creamery, it is one leading example of the uniquely sharp and fruity cheese first produced at the Sgriob Ruadh Farm on the island of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides by Jeff Reade. This year’s award was dedicated to Mr Reade, whose legacy is sure to be a heartening one: whereas Scotland could only claim 24 artisan cheese varieties in 1994, today there are 80.

Jeff Reade.

The whisky and cheddar connection is a more tangible one than mere sponsorship alone, however. Tobermory draff historically provided sterling winter feed for Jeff Reade’s cattle and today the Reade family craft a cheese incorporating the peaty portion of Tobermory make, Ledaig. Congratulations to all at the First Milk Campbeltown Creamery, and here’s to the craft producers on Mull generally lovingly nurturing some mightily tasty wares.

Isle of Mull Cheddar’s sharp, yeasty characteristics are said to hail from the unique pungency of draff which impregnates the milk when eaten. However, I’d also like to make mention of whisky and cheese’s delectable compatability even when the dairy cows have been no nearer draff than the moon. In partnership with Svetlana Kukharchuk at St Andrews’ Guid Cheese Shop, we have on two previous occasions allied some of Europe’s most distinctive cheeses with a selection of Scotland’s boldest spirits. Vintage gouda makes a splendid marriage with Bunnahabhain 12yo, and the double cream Chaource combines magically with Auchentoshan 12yo. Indeed, Auchentoshan’s sister distillery, Glen Garioch, actively encourages this pairing with cheeses as a signature serve.

At their most spectaular, taking cheese and whisky together can unleash tertiary flavours neither possessed on their own: the creamy textures can aid in taming the whisky’s alcohol, allowing nutty flavours with overtones of butterscotch or spice to enthral the palate. The golden ticket as far as I am concerned, however, combines blue cheese with peated whiskies. At a more recent tasting, Svetlana’s Gorgonzola Piccante shared a bed with Benromach’s Peat Smoke. The dry smoky malt smoothed out the blue mould piquancy while the soft richness of the cheese’s body lengthened the fruity flavours sublty embedded in the whisky. A triumph!

Take the plunge with some cheese and whisky pairings for yourself. I could use some company on my Gout ward.

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