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Edinburgh Whisky Stramash 2014

The day is surely not so far away when ‘to stramash’ will be a universally-recognised verb with a highly specific meaning: to spend four hours in Edinburgh at the Surgeons’ Hall sampling exciting whiskies in often exciting ways.

Saturday ushered in the third outing for Scott Martin and Darroch Ramsay’s madcap, monumental whisky festival with a difference – that difference chiefly being a sense of humour. Many of the biggest Scotch whisky brands were in attendance, some of whom were keen to show attendees something out of the ordinary. The world’s best-selling single malt, Glenfiddich, had their ‘Family run since 1887′ installation, essentially a recreation of their warehouse tour at the distillery in Dufftown. This – as it turned out – was what everyone in front of me was queuing to sign up for, meaning that I cannot report on how successful this simulation was after every slot for the 12-4pm session was booked up.

The Black Grouse were offering something called a blending bar (more on that later), Balvenie curated their barley to bottle process in another part of the venue and Drambuie were breaking bad. Having failed to drop in, I don’t know what any of that entailed. Word spread over the afternoon that Bowmore had some single cask samples stashed away somewhere, and that I did manage to infiltrate.

First dram? That I can vividly remember: the new BenRiach 16yo Sauternes Finish. Syrupy, rich and dense, it was impressively fruity and complex. It’s neighbour, the 20yo, has been around for some time but I have never got around to sampling it. I can report that it was a revelation: oodles of fresh American oak and jelly sweets on the nose with a clean, vanilla-rich and shortbready textured palate.

The BenRiach/GlenDronach/Glenglassaugh stand.

Between that and the Glenglassaugh 35yo, finished in a Sherry Hogshead, I signed up for the Black Grouse demonstration. Having detested it the first time I tried it, I was hoping for a more successful introduction this time around. But what of that Glenglassaugh? A mighty popular bottle on the stand, and no wonder: still quite fresh and clean for all its years, with a floral finish.

Life speeded up a little after that, or at least I stopped concentrating quite so hard. The neighbouring building housed many more whiskies than we had first realised, as well as the Dewar’s Theatre and the Drambuie exhibitionism on the ground floor. Here we found Morrison Bowmore and, what piqued my interest, Suntory. Hibiki 12yo (stunning stuff) was available, but so too were the company’s two newest single malts: the Hakushu and Yamazaki Distillers Reserves. I bought the Hakushu a month or so ago on the strength of online reviews and it is delightful, but I wanted to see how the red wine casks had impacted upon the Yamazaki. This is one figgy dram, as it turns out, but very smooth and deep. The younger whiskies take away the spiced poise of the 18yo, for example, but I was mightily impressed.

Across the way, Glen Moray had something of a scrum around them. Much of the core range featured, but my eye was caught by an unlabelled bottle. Allegedly, this is to be a new, non-age statement Port-finished whisky. I can confirm that it is delightful: the wine provides a blackcurrant jelly impression which balances wonderfully with the fresh green apple note from what is clearly a pretty young overall vatting. I preferred it to their 25yo Port Finish, in fact, which to me and my companions tasted too strongly of wood.

Lucy Whitehall unravelling the Black Grouse.

By this point, our turn had finally come for the Black Grouse Blending Bar. Global Brand Ambassador Lucy Whitehall steered us through the component parts of the Black Grouse with a great deal of charm and insight – some of it geeky. I can divulge, for instance, that North British is currently running on 100% maize. Good to know, eh? Before sampling the Black Grouse for ourselves, nosing glasses were passed round of Glenturret new make: the standard unpeated version and a gloriously smoky rendering called Ruadh Moar. I begged a dram of this and it is superb. Of course, only a tiny amount of Glenturret goes in to Famous Grouse but it’s good stuff that makes the cut. Three cask samples followed, showing the affects of European, American and first-fill oak. And what of the Black Grouse? How did we get on? I must say it impressed me far more than initially: a composed, toffee-laden dram with only a smidgen more smoke than the standard Grouse, but attractively so.

My friends and I wended our way back to the BenRiach/GlenDronach stand, this time to sample some of the latter. I wasn’t overly impressed with the latest batch of the Cask Strength (too strong, not enough of the boozy sherry from the first batch with an American oak presence that was a tad cloying) but I adored the 21yo Parliament. This is Rolls Royce stuff if ever a whisky deserved such a billing. Not on the stand, but very near it, was Craig Johnstone, a dear friend of the Quaich Society and a great guy generally. He is enjoying his time in Dubai, working in the whisky industry on the sales/distribution side. Craig confessed that there is much to be learnt from working alongside whisky in the UAE, something that has ramifications for me as I shall disclose in a future post.

If it weren’t for Darroch himself putting a word in my ear, I may have missed the “secret” Bowmore blend-your-own-Small-Batch session happening nearby. I managed to secure our party places on the reserve list, and Bowmore ambassador Ali generously granted us entrance through what turned out to be mock-ups of the Bowmore No. 1 Vaults’ doors. The atmosphere inside was less saline than Islay’s oldest maturation warehouse, but it was warmer and the whisky fug was nearly as potent. Our mission – which we chose to accept – was to recreate the Small Batch which lay breathing in a glass, together with pipettes, measuring cylinders and two sample bottles, on the casks in front of us.

The professionally put-together dram smelt of clove and minerally peat with plenty of leafiness (mint and broom) and charcoal. Clean and lush to taste, with a generous dollop of ex-Bourbon barrel, we had to combine our first-fill and our refill Bourbon samples to approximate this flavour. I could immediately tell that the first-fill would require careful usage; it offered thickness with fudge and coconut, the Bowmore character restricted to soft peat and orange oil. The taste, however, was mostly Bourbony spice and char. I much preferred the second-fill sample. Even at 60.2% ABV the Bowmore soft smoke emerged together with a creamy, ferny character. I also detected Cointreau and porridge. Delicious! Mouth-coating and smoky, I wrote down ‘dense rice pudding’ but I’m not certain what I mean by it. Our trio, after some bickering, presented a version that only narrowly lost out. Too strong apparently…

The Bowmore single cask samples.

We retired from the improvised Vault to find the Stramash winding down. Last pour had been called while we were blending and, if I’m honest, this was definitely a good thing. The cask strength Bowmore had obliterated my palate, not to mention much of my self-awareness. It was with a slack but content grin that I traversed the city back to the New Town for a spot of dinner, completely and utterly stramashed.

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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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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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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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The Best of Blends

Revision, I have come to learn, is an exercise in segregation. No matter how often professors bandy about the word ‘holistic’, post-colonial readings of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the crisis in Victorian masculinity as Marxist resistance really ought to be cognitively kept apart. At least, such unholy mixtures seldom earn the better marks in examinations. However, feminist issues in the plays of Middleton persisted in forming unhelpful fusions with sexual subjection in Jane Eyre and I decided it was time for a break, and to muse on the best results of blending.

The pre-eminent panel of master blenders.

In April, I had reconvened with the International Spirits Challenge judges at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience, a body of men and women towards whom I feel something like hero worship. For the second time, these illustrious master blenders – from Scotland, the USA, Japan and Sweden – had kindly agreed to an evening meet-and-greet, despite the demands of assessing some 200 whisky samples during the day. I start to tire after about eight whiskies (and that number decreases concerning new human acquaintances) so my admiration for their effort, energy and wisdom reached precipitous heights.

Brian Kinsman takes us through the SWE 25yo blend.

Prior to roaming the MacIntyre Gallery, we were treated to an on-arrival dram of the 25yo Scotch Whisky Experience blend. Put together by William Grant & Sons’ Brain Kinsman, this lush, mature offering contains whiskies from every shareholding company at the Experience, and commemorates the 25th Anniversary of the venue which is very much Edinburgh’s chief whisky tourism and education facility.

Upstairs, I wished to right a wrong perpetrated in the summer when I had failed to visit Billy Leighton at the Irish Distillers stand. At a given time of day, I am rather fond of Jameson, and at approximately 19:55 on Wednesday April 25th I was deeply impressed by the Jameson Gold Label Reserve. Apple, cinnamon and unctuous honey led the way on the nose, with an abundance of fresh grain. With time, the nose became buttery, with a trace of salt. The palate delivered: a big nectarine and barley punch, before vanilla led me into a drying finish.

Angela D'Orazio with the very special Mackmyra #10.

Billy revealed the economics behind the 100m euro Midleton expansion, which will push capacity up to 60 million litres of alcohol per year. In addition, he told us how crucial cask selection is to Jameson’s success, and that he remains central to cask monitoring, and ensuring no sulphur enters the system. Recent marketing meetings have focused on ‘creating craic’, and the warm, welcoming and loquacious Mr Leighton certainly ensuring there was a surfeit of that at his stand over the course of the evening.

Another omission from the previous Meet the Blenders line-up was Mackmyra. Here I shared in Chris ‘Tiger’ White’s wonderment at Angela D’Orazio’s latest creation, the Mackmyra Special #10. A Swedish exclusive for the time being, this whisky has been part matured in casks that have contained coffee bean-infused spirit: the beans macerated in whisky, casked for two weeks, then turned into a liqueur. I was stunned by the obvious coffee notes on the nose, but also marvelled at the crushed strawberry and fudgey malt character which was equally prominent. Add a glug of this to a short Americano and there can be no complaints.

Next door, I was drawn to the latest Balvenie, the 17yo Doublewood. The expression of the same name but five years its junior is something of a cult, and I was fascinated by this. Oppulent oak and stewed fruits surrounded a candy cane thread of fresh barley sugar for a whisky of admirable richness and engaging liveliness. As I said to Brian Kinsman, this is a whisky for which ‘effortlessness’ is the only adequate descriptor.

The beautifully simple Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition bottle.

Elsewhere, Caroline Martin presented the Johnnie Walker Gold Route, and Gordon Motion’s two bottles of the Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition vanished very quickly indeed. This was the first time I had seen the packaging for this impressive, feisty blend, and very taken with it I was, too.

Finally, the congregated whisky fans appraised The Dalmore Custodian – vibrant orange, vanilla and clove, with the distillery’s classic coffee overtones (although that could have been the last of the Mackmyra sitting in my nostrils), this was a fine final pour. Afterwards, the panel fielded questions from the floor, with one barbed comment concerning the lack of innovation in Scotch when compared with the likes of Mackmyra and the Japanese blends wringing an impassioned defence of Scotch whisky in the 21st century from Richard Paterson. While acknowledging the duty of care he and his colleagues shared regarding the proud heritage of the blended category in Scotland, Richard assured us that every possible permutation of whisky-making that is permitted by legislation is being presently investigated.

Progress and innovation is very much at the forefront of the Scotch priority list in response to committed global competition. John Ramsay, ISC chairman, related something Diageo’s Caroline Martin had said to him over the course of judging the Japanese expressions earlier that day: ‘this is getting a bit scary, John’.

A thoroughly convivial evening confirmed that blended whisky is very much leading the charge for flavour, personality and craft at the moment.

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The Macallan 1824 Series

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.

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Spirit of Speyside

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.

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The Mon-Stramash

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.

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The Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

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