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December 16, 2013

Old Pulteney and Balblair at the Quaich Society

The intriguingly complex Duncansby Head from Old Pulteney.

Even above and beyond the extraordinary whiskies we are treated to here at the Quaich Society, the single most important factor in the club is community. However, this all-encompassing term extends beyond the organising Committee, even beyond the whisky faithful who attend each tasting. Community is also about our interactions with the great men and women on the frontline of the whisky industry who generously donate their products and passion.

One of the family by now is certainly Lukasz from Inver House Distillers. Over the last three years he has arrived carrying the most intriguing line ups the Society has seen. In one year Lukasz even managed to squeeze in two tastings for us. He pitches his presentations just right: the whiskies have their moment in the spotlight, there’s a bit of history and a strong emphasis on production values. More than anything else, however, Lukasz is a really top guy whose sense of humour is as self-evident as his love of a good dram.

Last month, to round off our first Semester of superb tastings, Lukasz outdid himself with the breadth and exclusivity of the whiskies he brought. Indeed, so exclusive were they that our post-tasting discounts for attendees in Luvians Bottle Shop could apply to only one of the six single malts on show. We were treated to the Travel Retail Exclusive Old Pulteney Lighthouse Collection (Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Pentland Skerries) and the soon-to-be-released Balblair Vintages of 2003 and 1990 as well as the (slightly) more readily-available 1997.

The Lighthouse Collection is a boldly-packaged, wood-focused range of whiskies from the Wick-based distillery of Old Pulteney. In keeping with their ‘Maritime Malt’ persona, the moniker of each whisky champions a local lighthouse. Their characters are wholly cask-differentiated, however. Lukasz pointed out that it was rare to taste products from the one distillery in which the age was a constant (7-8 years old) but the maturation regime wildly different. The Noss Head is the ex-Bourbon representative. Bubbly, clean and lush on the nose I found plenty of freshly-peeled orange, an oiliness and banoffee pie. The palate was spirity with rich oak and leafy qualities.

The middle whisky was perhaps the best of the bunch for me, and if it is possible for a whisky to boast such a thing, it had real integrity. A Bourbon and Sherry mix, this was softer and more reserved on the nose with salt and sweet oak. Complex and textured. The palate showed fixing fruit, ginger and cardamom.

For his introduction to the Pentland Skerries expression, Lukasz went into a little more detail about Quercus robur - the Darth Vadar of oak. He asserted that coopers and distillers hated working with the stuff since it is prone to splitting, leaking, and all manner of other defects making cask construction and management very complicated – not to mention expensive. Nevertheless, the impact on the finished whisky cannot be replicated any other way and the flavour profile will always be in demand. I must admit, though, that I would not ask for the Pentland Skerries again. While rich and smooth on the nose with plenty of fruit and toffee, sandy notes and wet tweed developed suggesting the cask and the spirit have not quite achieved harmony. The palate was thick and clinging, but beyond the obvious Sherry flavours the engaging depths of the distillery character simply couldn’t surface.

Having eulogised about Sherry casks, Lukasz revealed a little of his own whisky evolution. It wasn’t so very long ago, he told us, that he was a peat freak; the peatier the better, in fact. Then one day, he poured another rich, smoky dram and… was unmoved. Somehow those earthy, fruity beasts simply didn’t push his buttons any more and he rediscovered the joys of an unpeated whisky matured in quality American oak ex-Bourbon casks. To him, he can detect ‘more of the place in my dram’ – ex-Bourbon promotes transparency in a whisky: where it was made, to what brief and by whom.

I have to say I agree. Of the tastings we have had this year, the Tomatin 15yo and Balvenie 12yo Single Barrel have been the stand-out whiskies for me. I began dribbling with anticipation because I know that one of the best spirits to come out of good ex-Bourbon barrels is Balblair, and Lukasz had three vintages lined up for us.

The 2003 replaces the delicious, exciting and charming 2002 which is one of my favourite drams. The 2003 kept the faintly straw-like, hamster feed-ish cereal qualities and added a biscuitiness. The palate had amazing feel to it – all barley sugar and syrupy citrus. However, overall I felt it was just a touch too austere and spirity when compared with the 2002.

The 1997 went by many descriptors from Lukasz: blue sky whisky, a lunchtime whisky… For me personally, this is a desert island whisky and not just because of the tropical fruit notes and freshness. It is a seriously high-quality dram. It boasts an absolutely stunning nose: rich yet lush and creamy with orange travel sweets. There is a great undertone of dryness from the oak. On the palate, all is well with an immensely fruity delivery – think travel sweets again – backed up by cumin and nutmeg.

During the Balblair portion of the evening, Lukasz had to field questions of the vintage bottling policy. He emphasised Balblair’s artisanal philosophy and tiny scale – only 5% of the distillery’s 1.75 mla production goes to single malt or as Lukasz put it: ‘we bottle what Glenfiddich spill’. It is a distillery that I admire hugely and this extended to the final whisky of the evening, the new 1990. What is it with Inver House bottling whiskies from my birth year? Are they trying to bankrupt me? I will have to come by some of this soon, though, for this Balblair takes the house style in a dramatically different direction. After 21 years the whisky comes out of those top quality ex-Bourbon barrels and goes into second fill Oloroso Sherry casks for another two. In the glass, this smelt as old as the 1975 Vintage I tried last year. So much cinnamon, pineapple and mincemeat with a lovely earthiness. Dried orange, pot pourri and even a marsala-like kick are additional layers. The palate is true to Balblair’s trademark spiciness. Some burnt orange appears, too, with a salty oaky dryness. It grows to be slightly herbal before the fruity notes come back in.

Another special Balblair was unveiled for the Raffle and I know that was tremendously popular. Every time Lukasz trundles away back to Edinburgh I hope he will return at some point and I wonder how he can top his last selection. So far, he has managed that every time. Our thanks to him again for a potent send-off towards exams and Christmas. I daresay a couple of Old Pulteneys may have been picked up at the airport as some of our international members return home for the Festive period.

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December 9, 2013

On the road again…

Back in the saddle again in June 2014.

The terrific thing about wrapping up a semester is that you can turn your mind to fun future projects, cogitate a little more about what you want them to be, what shape and purpose they will have, and get a jump on making them a reality. That happened to me over the weekend regarding a mission of mine which has been incomplete since May 2010.

As those of you who followed my original Scotch Odyssey three years ago will know, I couldn’t make it to every distillery on my itinerary. The reasons for this were numerous: bike/boy breakdown, an overambitious route, misread opening times etc. etc. I had unfinished business with about eight distilleries in Scotland – and then a bunch of passionate people set about building more!

In June next year – all being well – I’ll graduate from the University of St Andrews. Between the formal termination of my final semester here in Fife and Graduation Week there are a few days begging to be capitalised upon and I feel I really ought to finish what I started prior to entering higher education in 2010. With the aid of Google Maps and the mega-litres of whisky experience I gained last time I packed my panniers and pedalled to the glens I have compiled a second route round Scotland which will see me cover nearly 1,200 miles in 20 days and visit thirteen malt whisky distilleries old and new.

The Scotch Odyssey Part II will begin here in St Andrews with Daftmill and Kingsbarns distilleries before I head north over the Tay to tick off Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. From there I wend my way into Speyside for the distillery I shouldn’t have missed last time round but did: The Balvenie. Then I swing by the Aberdeenshire distilleries of The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh before skirting the Moray Firth on my journey to The Dalmore. I did visit this distillery in 2010 but in the meantime the visitor experience has been dramatically overhauled and I feel I really ought to spy those famous stills on the Cromarty Firth in this new light. Next I head to Balblair for my first tour as a punter, despite working there for a week in the summer of 2011.

I continue north to Clynelish which famously does not open for tours on a Saturday in late April. Then it’s time to head westwards: catching the ferry from Ullapool I visit the most westerly Scotch whisky distillery of them all, the spirit of Lewis, Abhainn Dearg. I will cycle down through Lewis and Harris to Tarbert before another ferry desposits me at Uig, Isle of Skye. From here it is an identical route to previously as I pedal off the island to Fort William. There will be a few long days in the saddle before I reach Clydebank and the Auchentoshan distillery. After a few more I hope to visit Annandale – if it is open to receive me – before wending my way back up to St Andrews.

Knowing what I know now about cycle touring I’m hoping to extract maximum adventure from my trip and I’ve invited any friends who wish to accompany of a leg or legs of the journey to do so. The real logistics of B&Bs, ferries and tour bookings have still to be made, and the fitness regime will have to start fairly sharpish. The Scotch Odyssey of 2010 is an undertaking I think about every single day and with every whisky I drink. I have high hopes for the next pilgrimage round Scotland’s beauty spots and barley-boiling stills.

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December 5, 2013

Compass Box Delilah’s and Peat Monster 10th Anniversary

The Compass Box motto is and always has been, Above all, share and enjoy. For any Douglas Adams fans, this is also uncannily similar to the anthem of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Fortunately, whisky creator John Glaser’s products are on another planet compared with the shoddy robots you find in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In 2013, John’s output has underlined the company’s commitment to great whisky, great packaging and a pervasive philosophy of appreciation without taking yourself too seriously. Enter Delilah’s, a blended Scotch whisky constructed in partnership with the Chicago punk whisky bar of the same name. The iconic venue celebrated its 20th anniversary this autumn and owner Mike Miller wanted something special to mark the occasion. However, having fun remained the principal goal. Compass Box released just over 6,000 bottles of their new blend, created with roughly 50% Cameronbridge grain whisky and 50% malt (Longmorn* and Teaninich) matured in new and rejuvenated American oak casks. The serve? A shot to enjoy alongside a beer. Uncomplicated. Off-beat. But if speed is not of the essence, what does this whisky taste like?

Compass Box Delilah’s 40% (natural colour, unchillfiltered) 6,324 bottles £47.50

Colour – rich orangey gold.

Nose – soft, sweet and creamy at first, like white chocolate mice. The grains have an oily, golden syrup presence. Vanilla and peeled tangerine, peach and mango verging on to lush florals. Getting stuck in, it is so soft; light but purposeful. Silky almond milk-like grains introduce spun sugar malts with orange peel and sultana. Honeydew melon and banana. Has the rounded oaky spice of a younger Bourbon – almost wheated. Lovely.

Palate – creamy sweetness + spice. Rounded vanilla with cinnamon and chilli, then orange zest fuses the two. Lingering.

Finish – something like heather and runny honey (but not heather honey). Still creamy but the oak develops a nipping core at the end.

Adding water dimmed the nose by quite a bit – those exuberant oak notes just overplayed their hand a touch, becoming tired and inhibiting. A little dried mango and banana, as well as coconut and apricot emerge but the oak/spirit balance has been lost. The palate, on the other hand, is extraordinary: pearlescent green fruits (my favourite Longmorn fingerprint*) with melon balls, grape and pear with honeycomb. So wonderful. The oakiness stays away and the pear builds before a tickle of spice rounds things off with echoes of very mature grains.

As well as marking the anniversaries of others, Compass Box has a milestone of its own to celebrate. It has been ten years since the first Peat Monster was concocted and released. Back then, it was for an American customer and called only The Monster. As the years have gone by the smoky style of Scotch whisky has gained a rabid following and John has sought to up the peaty ante. It is now the best-seller in the Compass box range and loved by many for its pristine oak sugars and thick though never terrifying smoke profile. In celebration of the Monster reaching a decade on the shelves, John has recalibrated the recipe slightly, going odder and older with what I am assuming is Ardmore. Richness, boldness and smoke are the watchwords here, with Caol Ila and Laphroaig puffing away. Clynelish is the instrumental play-maker.

Compass Box The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary 48.9% 5,700 bottles £75.85

Colour – pale straw.

Nose – robust, round but deep and dark peat at first. Behind is serious oaky weight, ash, sandiness and barbecued green apple. Approaching the glass and it is phenolic and earthy. Tremendously oily but sweet, reminding me of Kilchoman with the engine oil and vanilla ice cream effect. Glints of barley malt and a strain of acidic fruits emerge with the impression of hot copper stills. An engagingly different smoky experience.

Palate – awesome. dry, kiln-clinging smoke with smoked oysters and caramelised malt husks. An explosion of peat on swallowing then saliva-inducing chilli. Did I say awesome?

Finish – hard to know when it begins to fade. This is powerful stuff: rich, dry, thick, lovely. Peat and turf roots with a slice of oak. Dulse and barnacles. Sweet grist has the final say.

As with the Delilah’s, I wasn’t sure that water helped. The nose kept its density and complexity with the fruits coming out a touch more. Sweeter notes from the casks now (there’s a percentage of French oak in the marriage). Laphroaig Cask Strength-esque fudgey smoke. Cardamom. Rock pools on a scorching day. Grows a tad too perfumed for my liking. The palate was lighter at first, the smoke billowing before condensing. So bold and powerful – an outdoor whisky for sure. Doesn’t hit the heights of the straight sample. The finish is almost winey with puckering fruits. Like the peaty Great King Street it has a mineral character.

So…?      I was bowled over by the variety on display in these whiskies and both received very high scores in my personal ratings system. I had thought Delilah’s might just be a reformulation of Asyla (they share many core ingredients) but this is certainly its own whisky. Keep the water away, however, to retain the gorgeous airiness but subtle impact of the nose. The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary, though, is the powerhouse whisky and one I would need to return to a number of times to fully understand. There is so much going on in there and its sense of purpose is so convincing. It is a whisky to surrender to. And what a label! They should really do posters, as well…

* Chris Maybin of Compass Box who kindly furnished me with the samples has been in touch with a correction for me. It transpires that the ‘Elgin’ malt used in Delilah’s is in fact Glen Elgin – not Longmorn - and I was attributing that mesmeric fruitiness on the palate to the wrong distillery! Embarrassing, but it does not mar my admiration for the blend or indeed my devoted attitude towards Longmorn. My thanks to Chris for pointing this out, and credit where it is due to Diageo.

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