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November 26, 2013

Old Pulteney 1990 Peated Casks

To boast strength of character sets you apart. You don’t have to shout to be heard; pulling power isn’t about the size of your bank balance or the cheap thrills you promise hangers-on. Strength of character combines expertise, sincerity, idiosyncracy. You don’t have to chase people – they will come to you.

This is how I feel about the Pulteney distillery in Wick. In 1826 it supplied whisky for those who relied on their skill and bravery for a living: the herring fishermen. Today, it continues to produce a spirit which is essentially traditional but unlike anything else. When I went round the distillery in 2010, I couldn’t come to terms with the ramshackle nature of its layout and location. This is a distillery born out of opportunism and a mend-as-we-go mentality, yet the confidence and character impress you.

When Inver House Distillers, Old Pulteney’s owners, invited me back exactly three years ago, I peeked into a few more corners, asked a few more questions and again reflected on the distillery’s infectious pride and personality. Its situation – so far up on the north coast – is said to instil a saltiness into their whiskies which rest in the warehouses by the harbour; its equipment is unique: ugly duckling stills rather than the more graceful swans from elsewhere in the industry feed into worm tubs, both of which build complexity on top of flavour on top of texture. In 2012, Jim Murray recognised Old Pulteney 21yo as the best whisky in the world. Having bought a bottle four months before the announcement, the plaudits came as no suprise.

On that last November visit, manager Malcolm Waring filled a glass with the visitor centre single cask bottle-your-own dram. It was a 1990 Old Pulteney from a Bourbon barrel that had previously held peated Scotch single malt. I don’t remember it all that well, being the final dram of a mammoth sampling, but a bracing freshness, depth and sweetness had been evident. Now, the brand is to release a 1990 vintage marriage of several ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks with that peated wood element in play. As 1990 is my birth year, I was eager to see a) how the whisky had developed over the last three years and b) whether I might need a bottle for a special occasion.

Bottled at 23 years of age or thereabouts, this whisky is 46%, natural colour and not chill-filtered.

Old Pulteney 1990 Vintage 46% (900 cases) £120 (RRP)

Colour – full honey gold.

Nose – slightly musty fruits from above with old yellow apple, papaya and mandarin. A tickle of spice (ginger), syrupy sweet oak with plenty of vanilla and rich earthiness. With nose in the glass it is very self-contained with lush meeting spicy. A waxy weight to this. Seville orange, green fruits, sherry-soaked currants and rich oak sugars. The malt has a soft, perfumed shell, behind which is zesty barley. A bracing salty edge when warmed.

Palate – sparkles around the mouth with a wealth of bubbly fruit: apple, pear, peach and flamed orange zest. In time there is weighty, firm and dark oak as well as rich earthy peat just at the tail.

Finish – the smoke pervades for a time, just drying on the edges of the tongue. Then butterscotch and sherried fruits emerge. Salty with again that weighty, waxy spirit character.

Adding water made this even more expressive: a fraction dryer on the nose as the spice and salt really kick in. The oak is nicely creamy, however, with fudge and vanilla aromas. The peat note is farmy while apricot develops with time. The palate is a show-stopper: age is apparent immediately with dense oak and oily malt. However, it still conspires to be fruity with pear, orange and apricot in alliance with oak, salt and peat. These last three club together in a dazzling triad to grip and structure everything. Far smokier to taste than the straight sample, but it is still a very mild peat influence and only there for a spicy, sweet complexity. The finish is unmistakably dry with salt and hot oranges. The barley is still clean and gristy beside the dried fruit of the oak. That muted aged peatiness from the oak returns.

So…?      As I said, strength of character. This is not a whisky that makes a song and dance about its merits, which are extensive. It hadn’t the lush vigour of the 12yo, or the oily austerity of the 17yo, nor the gloriously expressive orange and spice crackle nose boasted by the 21yo; however, every one of the 23 years shows. When analysing, there was simply so much going on and I worried I hadn’t kept track. Rather than the flirty and the obvious, this evolves in the glass and I can see this being a seriously reliable fireside dram as well as a joy for food pairings: a hard cheese like a vintage gouda or dessert would be my suggestion.

The Old Pulteney spirit does things its own way, which I certainly commend. Weighty, fruity, waxy, spicy, salty – it brings a great deal to the table and is always a malt I relish returning to. This 1990 is possibly a fraction out of my budget for the time being, and I’d still recommend the 21yo in its stead. For those who do make its acquaintance, however, they will not be disappointed.

Thanks go to Lukasz Dynowiak for the sample.

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November 25, 2013

The St Andrews Brewing Co. Pub

The new craft brewing pub in St Andrews.

Picture it: you’re an independent brewing collective with a contemporary approach, you focus on craft, quality and novelty, and you have opened your first pub in a notoriously moneyed area of golf-mad Scotland. What whiskies do you source for the back bar?

For Bob, Tim and friends of the St Andrews Brewing Company this was their challenge ahead of opening their new BrewPub on South Street, St Andrews. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to stomach ales, stouts, porters, beers in general. Therefore, the sixteen hand-pulled brews and countless refrigerated bottles were not my main concern when the boys opened their doors last week. I was all about the whiskies.

A couple of weeks beforehand, legendary distiller Eddie MacAffer set up stall in the new BrewPub to guide us through three Morrison Bowmore single malts paired with some choice morsels (salmon smoked with Auchentoshan cask shavings paired with Auchentoshan Threewood; Bowmore Darkest with dark chocolate and Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve with Isle of Mull cheddar). Visitor Centre Development Manager for the group, Anne Kinnes, was also there to tell us a little more about the tourism facilities available at MBD’s outstanding distilleries. The BrewPub accommodated us all superbly: indulgently supple leather chairs, wholesome wood and a couple of log-burning stoves made for a homely evening and when Jordan told me that they intended to stock forty whiskies from opening – building to about a hundred - I sensed it would become my second home.

The main bar at the St Andrews Brewing Co.

So how to kit yourself out with the best spirits and ensure you aren’t playing it too safe? With the help of Graeme Broom (Straight Up Whisky), the guys have a most intriguing selection. The first thing you will notice is the heavy prevalence of Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice bottlings. I counted a Teaninich, Clynelish, Arran and Dailuaine while G&M’s own malt distillery, Benromach had a number of expressions such as the rich, pungent Organic, the smoky, soft 10yo and the bracing Peat Smoke. Another great addition is the rich, vanilla-driven Bruichladdich Scottish Barley.

The whisky cupboard.

Finally, however, I can get Compass Box whiskies at a bar in St Andrews. They carry The Peat Monster, Oak Cross and Great King Street. Checking the list, I clocked a Woodford Reserve for the Bourbon fans, Wemyss Spice King 12yo and The Hive 12yo for blended malts and even a Green Spot to keep those with a taste for Irish whiskey happy (i.e., me). The best news? I think the most expensive dram on the list weighs in at £7. As the evenings darken and the air becomes ever more frigid, the St Andrews Brewing Co. would appear to be the ideal venue to drive out the chills. Once they extend their license beyond 11PM, of course, but I’m assured that will be very soon.

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November 15, 2013

Compass Box Experimental Great King Streets

The two new Great King Streets.

Blending whiskies together is an art, a challenge and also a lot of fun. I mentioned recently that I would be hosting a blending workshop in St Andrews for the Quaich Society’s keen beans, those who obsess over single malt but for whom blends are foreign – possibly benign - territories at best. Over a couple of hours of pipetting and measuring, nosing and adjusting, I think my ten candidates for Master Blender began to appreciate the finer details involved. At any rate, they gave it their all to win the first prize: another craft blend with startling depths in the shape of the Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Sherry.

Great King Street is both an address and a mission. When John Glaser released the first Great King Street (named after Compass Box’s Edinburgh HQ) in 2011 its gorgeous packaging and even more gorgeous contents won plenty of praise and proved that an inexpensive blended Scotch could compete with older, more widely-available single malts on texture, flavour and story. Dubbed ‘the Artist’s blend’, John pitched it as the ultimate mixer, forming the core of his hiball renaissance; it could also act as an aperitif with ice or some cold water. Frankly, I drank it any which way I could. I found it unbeatable as the Scotch component for any number of classic whisky cocktails.

The Great King Street monicker had always been intended to adorn a range of whiskies, not just one, however, and in September this year two contenders for the next instalment arrived. One took the unctuous, fruity and bold style of blended Scotch in a more sherried direction – a rare move for Compass Box who favour their first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels and new toasted French oak, while the other laid on the peat. Great King Street focuses on art, inspiration and craft: awesome whiskies take care of the art, inspiration comes from the 19th century heyday of Scotch blends with a modern twist and craft is all about balance. All Great King Streets are natural colour, without chill-filtration.

What of the whiskies, then? As Scotland shuttles into winter, both the rich fruit of a sherried whisky and the belligerent thrust of peat become welcome flavours to drive out the cold.

Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Batch #00-V4 43% (3,439 bottles)

Colour – nutty amber with light malt tones.

Nose – a stirring of malt followed by sweet fruitiness and candied peels. Plenty of rich dark honey and green fruits. There then builds a rich veneer of dryish Oloroso: mostly fruity but grows maltier with a touch of lively cereal citrus. Sugar-coated almond and dried apricot. Pink marshmallow. Energy and richness beautifully combined. Mascarpone and dark chocolate lead into bitter orange and nuts.

Palate – chocolate-y sherry oak… oh, and the rich, lazy, muscular malt. So rich, smooth and delicious with the grain supplying adundant creaminess at the end. Outstanding.

Finish – dries a touch with persistent creamy grain and dark cocoa powder. Banana fritter. Verges on possibly being overly sweet. The standard GKS re-introduces more oaky spicy for balance at this point.

 

Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Batch #TR-06 43% (3,805 bottles)

Colour – clean full gold.

Nose – phenolic and rich at first with seashore peat and razorclam shells. Buttery vanilla behind. In the glass it is all dry smoke at first: big but without threatening. Glossy tropical fruits with melon and especially passion fruit. Vanilla ice cream with a ripple of caramel. The smoke comes in drifts revealing firm, chewy cereals, turmeric and cloves. Maltier with time.

Palate – big turmeric at first with some lemon peel. Peat starts as a wisp of smoke but dries and enlarges to become turf-like and dense.

Finish – remarkably dry and ashy but there is incense in there as well as vanilla. Spent fireworks. Still weighty and sweet.

The Sherry had the edge over the Peat on the nose and palate but the finish of the Peat was a delight.

Adding water harmed the Peat a touch. It became more marine-like on the nose with beach pebbles. Then custard tart aromas developed from the American oak: nutmeg and vanilla. The palate was almost unaffected, still big on the soft peats and soft creamy grain. The Sherry, on the other hand, upped the ante on the chocolate with vanilla biscuit in there, too. Overt patisserie indulgence! Even some smoke appeared. The vision I received was of an exquisite gingery Sherry butt beneath which the malt thundered away on a honeyed theme like a Balvenie might. The palate became more honey-driven with some floral tones and plenty of malt. Liqueur chocolates and European oak added further weight. Again, the thick, sweet grains are wonderfully alert and busy amidst the dark oaky tannins.

So…?      I had thought that these might be a revolution in blended Scotch. However, while they don’t reinvent the wheel they are strikingly brilliant and outscored every blended Scotch I have tasted bar the Chivas Regal 25yo. In both cases the intensity of the malt compenents (67% of the total blend for the TR-06 and 72% for the 00-V4) was beautifully harnessed by the silky beauty of the grains. If you concentrate, the mechanics of on-the-money blended Scotch are there to see, but if you just want to relax and treat yourself to something a little more gutsy but which still boasts shades of subtlety these can soothe all manner of cares.

This year sees a raft of new releases from Compass Box: these in the Great King Street stable, the Delilah’s blend constructed in partnership with a Chicago institution, the Peat Monster 10th Anniversary and something called The General. Watch this space.

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November 10, 2013

The Glenlivet at the Quaich Society

The Glenlivet is one of those whiskies people imagine they know all about. You can come by it in supermarkets the length and breadth of the land and seemingly every bar across the globe. But ubiquity is not the whole story – not by a long way. Indeed, near world domination is merely the result of a number of interesting causes, as Ian Logan dropped by to tell us.

As an International Brand Ambassador for the world’s second best-selling single malt, it was no surprise that Ian’s PowerPoint presentation contained snapshots from Playboy Bunnies in New York to tales from the top of Taipei 101. However, despite all the globetrotting he still spends three-quarters of his working life on Speyside and he couldn’t be happier about it. Before embarking on a series of long-haul flights in support of Chapter, a new expression for The Glenlivet and one that will see consumer interaction on unprecedented levels for the brand, Ian stopped off in St Andrews to share six whiskies with us, and a story or two.

Most whisky histories devote a chapter to Glenlivet, a rugged and - in the late 1700s - lawless landscape where farmers and smugglers were the distillers of their day. The modern Glenlivet still pays tribute to these spirited ‘entrepreneurs’ who evaded the excisemen and, in the shape of George Smith, pioneered a style of single malt that King George IV himself would request by name. The early history of the distillery clearly captivates Ian, as the moment when he described holding Smith’s pistols – a gift from the Laird of Aberlour to defend himself against his former smuggling colleagues – attested.

As we sipped the 12yo, Ian focused on the business nouse and bloodymindedness of succeeding Smiths to cement their distillery in the area and sell their product. The 15yo French Oak took us into more modern territory and how the distillery operates today. 20% of the stocks that will become this whisky is taken out of ex-Bourbon barrels and into Limousin oak casks for two years, before being married together again prior to bottling.

Throughout, Ian’s technical knowledge as well as deference to the illustrious line of men who have managed the distillery, made an impact. Today’s Master Distiller is Alan Winchester, a true industry veteran. The age of the personnel was one thing, but the age of the whiskies was another as the 18yo, 21yo and XXV 25yo hove into view. When whisky suffered a slump in the 1980s, other companies cut back on production. With what must go down as remarkable foresight given the nature of the whisky market today, those responsible for The Glenlivet, Aberlour et al insisted they continued to produce at near capacity. The result is impressive stocks of well-aged whiskies.

Ian’s favourite is the 18yo and I struggle to find a more sensuous, subtle and charming whisky for the same price. It was the whisky, nearly six years to the day of the St Andrews tasting, that had convinced me there was more to this single malt lark. The 21yo, in contrast, came across as a bit too oak-heavy for me on the night. The final dram was the XXV, or a Christmas cake smoothie in Ian’s words. As the only dram of the evening I had not encountered before, this was the only one to have tasting notes recorded for it.

The nose was dense and thick, with red and mixed tropical fruits and dark chocolate. Rich red apple and walnut gave way to turf roofs and an almost phenolic quality. With time a rich soft smokiness did emerge with a tarry pinewood undertone. The palate was rich and oaky but with enough clean spice and fragrance to evoke the Speyside Way in late summer. Blanched almond and gorgeously plump and soft malt came next with a tint of balancing bitter chocolate edge.

Over the course of the evening, Ian underlined The Glenlivet’s consistency, the ability to make a spirit as perfectly as possible day after day. The Glenlivet produces 10.5 million litres of this clean, fruity spirit each year to satisfy global demand. To contrast this he told us about his Sma’ Still which he wheels out for special events at the distillery. In true illicit distiller-style, this is dinky enough to be carried away under one arm. There are three casks maturing in warehouses up at Minmore from tiny distillation runs and it is still RAF whisky: that’s ‘rough as…’ to you and me.

Full of anecdotes and whisky lore, I’m confident the 50 folk who turned up will have gone away with a deeper understanding – not to mention appreciation – of The Glenlivet. Our thanks to Ian Logan for finding time to talk to us.

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