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October 30, 2013

Blue Hanger 7

I’m doing something rather different and exciting tomorrow. Not to brag, or anything, but I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully the eleven other people who have signed up to my little event are, too. I’ll give the evasiveness a rest: tomorrow night I’m hosting a blend your own whisky workshop for my whisky society here in St Andrews. With any luck, I can debunk a few myths and instil an appreciation of the craft and skill of a master blender. I don’t wish to be too reverent, however: my aim is that guests will realise it is something they can get up to in their living rooms with whatever is to hand. The possibilities are endless.

I take my cue from whisky folk such as Doug McIvor, spirits manager at London wine and spirit merchants Berry Bros. and Rudd. In 2003 he revived the Blue Hangar brand which had formerly graced the label of a Berry Bros. blend back in the 1930s. Named after William ‘Blue’ Hanger, the Third Lord Coleraine and one of the firm’s most frequent customers, the story goes that he was the best dressed man of his time and the company wanted to revive this aura of taste and refinement. I suppose for today’s equivalent you would have to look at Hoban and Tiger from Edinburgh Whisky Blog (see below).

The latest release is the seventh rendition of the Blue Hanger blended malt, 3,088 bottles bound for the USA, long a Berry Bros. core market courtesy of Cutty Sark. It’s constituent parts are helpfully itemised in the press release but without going into too much detail, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain (peated and unpeated) and quite a lot of Miltonduff make up the liquid.

What did I think?

Blue Hanger 7 (Berry Bros. and Rudd) 45.6%

Colour – full gold.

Nose – creamy maltiness: unctuous, thick and moreish at first. Sweet citrus at the top and oily nuttiness at the bottom. Next comes a procession of aromas, light and cerealy to oily and dark. Weighty fruit character with apricot, orange and cherry especially. Sours with time, and becomes quite dusty.

Palate – weighty (again) with peat coming through initially then rich malty cereal and stem ginger/cinnamon oak. The peat is rich also and later combines nicely with vanilla notes.

Finish – the peat smoke is incredibly heavy but also grassy in character, somehow. Sweetening with time towards lemon jelly beans.

Adding water improved the nose but blunted the delivery slightly across other areas. Extra aromas on the nose included a Macallan-like oily/brown sugar maltiness. It grew oily and creamy, hinting at the age underlying the whisky as a whole. The effect was of a deepening, but also a freshening. The palate changed emphasis completely: grassy barley, light pear; peat and oak add a crackle of spice. Grunginess leads into the finish with an oak and earth emphasis. A dab of honey and malty biscuit, also.

So…?      I savoured the opportunity to encounter this whisky for the first time having heard many good things about it. Ultimately, however, I didn’t feel the impressive components pulled together as one. While undoubtedly complex, and in certain areas rather satisfying, it didn’t have the coherence of a Compass Box Spice Tree for me, which will always be my yardstick for a rich, expressive blended malt. Whilst it wasn’t entirely to my taste, I can see this working very well to counteract the colder evenings we will be having and would recommend it to those with a predisposition towards peat and the fustier end of the whisky spectrum.

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October 26, 2013

Movember – Edinburgh Whisky Blog style

‘I expect Charles Maclean will be there,’ I thought to myself as I power-walked along a drizzly Princes Street in Edinburgh last week. Tiger from Edinburgh Whisky Blog had invited me to a whisky tasting in aid of Movember, a cause close to the blog’s heart with Hoban, Lucas, Turbo and Tiger sprouting a mo’ every November. We would be sampling the rarest and most outlandish bottles they could come by (legitimately) and the venue would be Ruffians Barbers. Whisky and expressive facial hair. Definitely Charlie Maclean territory.

The opening cocktail, courtesy of Solid Liquids.

 

I ducked into the uber-modern though somehow classic decor of Ruffians and grasped my bearings. I’ve passed the Barbers so often on the bus from St Andrews: it’s rich blue exterior promising relaxation and professionalism. What I hadn’t previosuly glimpsed from the X59 was Martin Duffy and Alan Fisher from Solid Liquids hand-carving stainless ice to deposit into giant glass tumblers, nor row upon row of stemmed blenders glasses receiving their measures of precious spirit. If I’m honest I hadn’t spotted Charles Maclean on the premises before, either, but there he was, lending a proprietorial air.

The Edinburgh Whisky boys arrived and the place gradually filled up. Martin pushed one of the tumblers into my hand: a Talisker 10yo infusion, ahed in a tiny oak barrel seasoned with Sherry to which charred pineapple syrup and bitters had been added, finished off with a candied grapefruit peel moustache. Almost simultaneously, I made the acquaintance of Ruffians owner, Ian Fallon. A charming chap, and I wish them luck with the opening of their London shop next month.

A kilted-Hoban and Tweed-bedecked Tiger opened proceedings. Chris explained why we were all there: to get behind the Movember initiative which raises awareness of the No. 1 and 2 most common male-specific cancers: prostate and testicular cancer. From humble beginnings in Australia, the charity has raised millions for research and publicity, aided by a platoon of global moustached-activists.

Tiger and Hoban spreading the word.

Back in Edinburgh, we lathered up with the whiskies, starting with a very special, historical whisky from Chris Hoban’s collection. In June last year, Chris and a select group of other bloggers (not yours truly, sadly) were invited up to Glenfiddich to ‘help’ Grant’s Master Blender, Brian Kinsman, recreate the Stand Fast blend as detailed in William Grant’s own ledger dated June 1912. As Chris pointed out, legislation has changed since Willie Grant’s time and they couldn’t use 2-year-old whisky in their blend but some sensitive nosing and lateral thinking – or maybe chucking a lot of whisky into a measuring cylinder and hoping for the best – resulted in Stand Fast. Never commercially released, Chris had donated his own bottle to delight the crowd. I found this a lovely blend: sharp barley, very rich, firm vanilla tones and a thick carpet of peat smoke.

Tiger admitted that, even with a single cask, he could not match the rarity of Chris’s Stand Fast. The sharp, malty and feisty Glenfarclas from the SMWS took they evening into a burlier direction, one only confirmed with the Sherry-soaked wonders of Karuizawa, Spirit of Asama. I had never experienced this cult Japanese single malt before but Hoban furnished us with a bit of background. Built in the 1950s, its owners wished to make a whisky as close to Scotch – and the Macallan especially – as possible. Small stills, floor maltings, everything about Karuizawa was designed to pile flavours on top of flavours. I liked it a lot.

We were well-stocked with thought-provoking whiskies.

To the final dram of the evening, officially at least, and it was one to put hairs on the chest if not the upper lip. David Sinclair of Diageo bestowed a bottle of Talisker 30yo, for which I for one was deeply grateful. A Special Release from a couple of years back, this was Talisker extruded through a Viscountess’s drawing room: time in cask had added layers of exotic dried fruit, a delicate waxiness and polished oak. The smoky side had relaxed into yesterday’s Russian caravan tea. Just exquisite.

The £10 entry fee had garnered each attendee some Raffle tickets and the prizes had been winking at us all night like quiz machines with an improbably high jackpot. These comprised the contents of EWB’s drinks cabinets: everything from duty free Balblair, Glenfarclas for the Belgian market, new Glenfiddichs and many more whiskies you just can’t find down at your local Tesco. Unfortunately I had to leave for a train, but I’m confident the money rolled in with bountiful donations and big smiles. No one does a charity whisky tasting quite like Edinburgh Whisky Blog. Many thanks to the guys for inviting me, and I wish them luck with their personal sponsorship drives – and the resulting taches.

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October 19, 2013

Tomatin at the Quaich Society

Perhaps I’ll embarrass him for saying so, but Alistair Mutch wins gold as far as replying to emails is concerned. No sooner had the proposal for a Tomatin tasting been composed and fired off than an email of acceptance duly returned. Alistair would be there, and he would be bringing seven whiskies. Job done. Why couldn’t all tastings be so straightforward to arrange?

Alistair had started the day at the Tomatin Distillery just south of Inverness and consequently there was an air of authenticity and provenance to the small off-licence he brought with him. Kicking off with The Antiquary 12yo we could appreciate the blended side of the Takara Shuzo Co., Tomatin’s Japanese owners. Indeed, as Alistair stressed, the history of Tomatin is closely tied to the fortunes of blends. Once the biggest distillery in Scotland, Alistair boasted that once upon a time every blended Scotch would have had a wee drop of Tomatin in it. Fast forward to the 1980s, and this business model proved the distillery’s downfall. The global demand for Scotch unaccountably tailed off and in the new, bleaker economic climate Tomatin had been overproducing. The owners went into liquidation, and Tomatin did not put its head above the parapet again for some years.

The whiskies and backdrop for the Quaich Society's Tomatin tasting.

Nowadays, of course, they have the Antiquary brand all to themselves. Amongst the very high malt content, the majority is Tomatin. The blend started life in Edinburgh, the name reputedly conferred by John and William Hardy in the nineteenth century as a tribute to favourite author, and near neighbour, Sir Walter Scott. On the night I found the 12yo very interesting indeed: smooth in the extreme, with plenty of malt and natural caramel notes. Gristy barley and lemon peel leapt out on the nose.

The Tomatin range itself began exuberantly. The new Legacy is the group’s contribution to the NAS market-place and has, according to Alistair been winning over many punters at Europe’s numerous whisky festivals. There is a proportion of virgin oak in there, and it showed with dazzling vanilla and lush fruit tones.

On to the 12yo, and Alistair discussed how Tomatin embarked upon constructing a stable of whiskies to tempt the consumer. Age was important as a point of difference, of course, but since 2000 successive distillery managers have put their stamp on old favourites, or introduced new ones. The 12yo has been around for a while, but the addition of some Sherry oak to the mix is a more recent innovation. I must admit this is not for me: wafer biscuit, a bizarre pear note, then heavy chocolate… It tastes muddled, in my opinion, but others around me enjoyed it.

The smile returned to my face with the 15yo, however. Only the delicate attentions of refill Bourbon have interacted with the naturally fruity Tomatin spirit and what a dazzling display of honey, white peach and ginger. A sweet whisky, and no mistake, but one I could happily have spent more time with.

Sherry oak returns to the range in the shape of the 18yo, but at this age there is sufficient leathery weight to the malt to carry the gaudier overtones. It has grown in to the dried fruits and moccha depths. At 46% and unchillfiltered, this dram compels your attention. Perhaps a shade too much oak for my tastes on the night, and this belief became stronger when I could appreciate the staggering performance of the next whisky.

‘Now you might taste pineapple on this one,’ warned Alistair. Far from suggestive skullduggery, the 30yo was indeed a wicker basket of tropical fruits. The palate screamed pineapple and passion fruit, but there was not a single overbearing oak note. Obviously a mature whisky was in front of us, but it could still give my taste buds the run-around.

Most distilleries produce a peated make these days (which poses problems when trying to work out what sort of Bunnahabhain you are likely to get) but despite laying down stocks some time ago, Tomatin have been slow to launch their smoky alter ego. The Cu Bocan, aptly enough for a man of Alistair’s story-telling abilities, started with a tale: Tomatin legend has it that the last wolf in Scotland was killed on the site of the existing distillery, and that the ghost of this lonely canine occasionally stalks the village. A research student, after discussions with retired distillery workers, uncovered more of the beast’s behaviour. When spotted, it will rush at you before vanishing harmlessly in a wisp of smoke.

The new Cu Bocan.

Cu Bocan, from its bottle design to its contents, manifests this myth. Alistair told me that the malt is peated to only 15ppm, which does not so much batter you with ash and brimstone as beguile you with a choice coil or two of wood smoke. I enjoyed it immensely: softer and sweeter than the Benromach 10yo (which posts a similar peating level) and with none of the rubberiness that Fettercairn Fior can exhibit, that peat character rests comfortably in the mix. A very well-made malt.

Having offloaded plenty of WaterAid Raffle goodies, Alistair made his excuses and departed as duties called him back at the distillery that night. A full Quaich Society house will remember his unhurried demeanour, riotous sense of humour and pearls of wisdom from more than 20 years in the whisky industry for some weeks yet, however. We shall also fondly recall the whiskies he showered upon us, of course.

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October 15, 2013

Auchentoshan Presents: The Taste Experiments

The contrast between the Balvenie Fete and Auchentoshan’s Taste Experiments could not have been more glaring. Where one had been relaxed, timeless and traditional, the Glasgow leg of the triple-distilled Scotch whisky brand’s Presents series upped the ante on the cutting edge front. The word ‘molecular’ may even have been used…

Billed as part cocktail masterclass, part food matching, part taste bud examination with a bit of whisky thrown in, I didn’t begrudge the two and a half hour bus ride to Glasgow required to attend the event. As far as I could make out, Auchentoshan wanted to step away from the tried-and-tested modes of introducing people to whisky and incorporate a bit more science, a bit more mystery, a bit more variety. It was a whisky tasting for those who don’t do whisky tastings.

Mr Lyan kicks off the Auchentoshan Taste Experiments.

The London event in July called upon the considerable talents of Rachel Barrie, master blender for Auchentoshan, cocktail consultant extraordinaire Ryan Chetiyawardana (AKA Mr Lyan), coffee experts DunneFrankowski and Rebel Dining Society. Read Miss Whisky’s review of the first jamboree here.

The personnel were stripped down for the Glasgow event, held at the sumptuously Classical Corinthian Club on Ingram Street. Food pairings were out, and Rachel Barrie was also sadly absent, but Mr Lyan’s cocktails – a masterclass if ever there was one in creative simplicity – still featured on the menu. In the ground floor bar, we sipped our Auchentoshan Classic julep (enlivened with chocolate bitters and grapefruit peel) and chowed down on the mighty haggis balls in preparation for kick off. Attendees numbered at least 30 – Tiger and Turbo from Edinburgh Whisky Blog amongst them – and Ryan’s crushed ice must have been on its last legs, the bar spoon worn to a stub with all the frantic stirring.

The Auchentoshan Classic julep.

With the final table cocktailed, Ryan could step out from behind the bar wearing a natty Auchentoshan apron. We were promised that he and the DunneFrankowski boys would be playing ‘a few experiments on you’ but I sensed that none in the room was deterred.

Even a hike up the stairs to a more out-of-the-way chamber did not alarm anyone. Before us were Glencairn glasses filled with what looked very much like whisky. So far so familiar. The little plastic vials had not made it to any previous tasting of mine, however, nor had the glass pots filled with cotton wool. Balloons were completely out of my comfort zone.

The DunneFrankowski 'lab'.

Victor Frankowski stepped forward to outline the evening’s itinerary which began with puncturing that balloon. The smell of Bourbon oak descended softly to focus the mind. Next, we nosed those seven different cotton wool swabs, steeped in chemical compounds supposedly found in whisky. Rob Dunne urged us to focus on first impressions and lock in to our visual memory. I’m hopeless at these exercises, and with the exception of Pot 5 was way wide of the chemically-determined mark. Throughout I found everything from honey to carpet; we were promised that these compounds did occur in single malt whisky, although in varying concentrations and were all desirable when combined intelligently. I confess – sitting a good way down one of the tables as I was, with a talkative chap on my right – I could not catch every essence by its official title. As it turned out, this wasn’t the point. Our sense of smell is highly individuated, and each of us will have a separate interpretation for the chemical stimulus: the sweet will give rise to different impressions, as will the heavier or sharper compounds. That there was broad consensus, but not outright agreement, fitted the pattern.

Rob’s personal mission was to ensure we differentiated between taste and flavour: the one objective, the latter subjective. Taste, he said, could only be one of five properties according to Western standards. There then ensued ten minutes of guests passing round little droppers, holding noses with one hand while squeezing liquids onto tongues with the other and registering the geography of their impact. So far, so silly, but it did underline the advantages to pushing whisky around the mouth.

My highlight was the PTC test: the plastic vials on our tasting mats were at last employed yet they contained no cotton wool, or liquids – not even another smaller balloon - but rather paper. The PTC strip divided the room. Some, incredibly, could not taste the rubberised, acrid bitterness of the middle vial but it would seem this is genetics in action. 20% of the population cannot detect this compound, which means that Campari shouldn’t phase them. Others were aware of the taste but could tolerate it. I thought I might be one, but the horror worsened.

With this insight into our palates, we turned to the whiskies with Mr Lyan as our compere: Auchentoshan Classic, Valinch and Threewood. I have discussed these whiskies before so shall move on to the cocktails, also courtesy of Mr L: a delicious Classic Hi-Ball made with the Auchentoshan, Creme de Poires, lemon juice, syrup and ginger ale. Three further bottles accompanied them, however: labelled Sweet, Sour and Bitter, these concentrates could be added by ourselves to adjust the cocktail according to our preferences.

'Salt and pepper' for my hi-ball.

I had to run out on the Threewood Old-Fashioned as I my parole from the Central Belt bus network had expired. The Taste Experiments proved enlightening, surprising and entertaining, however. The interdisciplinary approach worked very well as the coffee and cocktail meisters came at the topic unencumbered by tradition or marketing. That being said, Rachel Barrie’s chemical background and experience in the industry would have been greatly appreciated. The future of whisky tastings? Taking people to another sensory dimension alongside whisky definitely has merit as a technique for illuminating the rewarding complexity of the spirit. I’m just not sure where I would store all that ice, or whether Holland & Barrett stock PTC…

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October 3, 2013

The Balvenie Fete

The simple ideas are the best. ‘Why not set up shop in one of Edinburgh’s loveliest squares, commission some extraordinary installation pieces which illustrate our craft-centric approach, notify your Warehouse 24 members and pour them whiskies when they show up?’ The marketing meeting at which The Balvenie Fete took shape may have gone something like this; a brilliant idea which, as St Andrews’ Quaich Society discovered, was impeccably well-executed.

Andrew Forrester is one of our VIPs here in Fife, having delivered a terrific opening tasting for us in September 2012. We had hoped he would be available to repeat the feat but this new and exciting series of events called him away. Being the hospitable fellow he is, we were invited along to the Fete in St Andrews Gardens this weekend for a tasting, some mingling, and a thorough crash course in craft.

Ian MacDonald prepares another hogshead in one of the Stave Domes.

The stupendous Stave Domes – like medium-charred wooden igloos – were the focal points of the festivities: four Domes in total offering dedicated spaces for discussing Balvenie. In the first, the one from where all the noise emanated, was the domain of Ian MacDonald, The Balvenie’s Head Cooper in Dufftown. I lost count of the number of casks he assembled and deconstructed while we were there but if anyone epitomises craft, it is Ian. As Andrew commented, he was using some of the oldest tools known to the industry yet the practiced art of coopering revealed a stunning sensitivity and precision which The Balvenie’s owners, William Grant & Sons, acknowledge is central to the success of their spirit.

A sort of 'from the cask' experience.

Speaking of spirit, to our opening dram - the Balvenie Doublewood – via a decorated Bourbon barrel and a copper ‘dog’, the handiwork of Dennis McBain. Dennis is the only coppersmith in Scotland residing at a distillery and his purview extends to Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie’s stills. For the Fete, he whittled off a couple of long slender copper tubes, just like the ones opportunistic distillery workers of yesteryear would knock up for the purposes of ‘whisky liberation’ in the warehouses.

The venue for our tasting.

Inside one of the Stave Domes, constructed by a creative partner of The Balvenie whose craftsman credentials were impressively underlined, Andrew delivered a breezy, informal tasting for us. On show were the new 12yo Single Barrel, the 14yo Caribbean Cask, the 17yo Doublewood, the 21yo Portwood and the Tun 1401 Batch 8. Andrew threw in some new make for good measure, too. In every dram a little of Ian and his team’s handiwork could be appreciated: the oaky stamp is an ever-present in this Balvenie range, although the nature of that imprint changes in numerous complex and satisfying ways.

With the 12yo Single Barrel that was toffee, banana and shortbread with a deliciously fresh yet creamy and spicy mouthfeel. It was perhaps my favourite of the whole selection, although I adore the rich, gentle muscularity of the 17yo Doublewood and the Tun 1401 delighted with dense, complex oak, leathery malt and superb floral hints. The 21yo Portwood will always rank highly on my list of exquisite drams.

The Balvenie range.

Rosy-cheeked on account of the warmth of Balvenie’s hospitality we stepped out into equally balmy sunshine to savour the whisky bustle. Another dram in hand (I went for a top up of the 12yo Single Barrel) the Quaich Society mingled in the precious autumn sun. Had the team put on a hog roast or similar I may just have camped in St Andrews Square until nightfall, begging for more Balvenie at judicious intervals - I certainly didn’t want to leave this Scotch whisky paradise. I’ve mentioned the hog roast idea to Andrew so we shall see what they can come up with.

Our thanks to Andrew for including us in the Fete’s schedule and we hope to tag along on the next beautifully straightforward Balvenie event. If they can craft another peach of a day, all the better.

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