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Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

Today I conclude my run-through of the different Scotches sent my way before Christmas. This pair could not be more different: one of the smokiest single malts on the planet, and an elderly, genteel blend.

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

The original Supernova from 2010 was peated to over 100ppm and caused quite a stir. This new vintage was launched with some rather exclusive blogger miniatures, some of which may or may not have ended up on auction sites… Mine was a common-or-garden clear glass affair with a typed label so no windfall for James…

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

Nose – remarkable focus and angularity - like a cubist piece, blocks of crackly peat meet blocks of lemon sherbet and blocks of creamy American oak (is there an Ardbeg that doesn’t ooze American oak these days?). That quintessentially Ardbeggian oily sheepiness. Toasted hazelnut and salted caramel. Very good indeed.

Palate – dry, hugely phenolic. Spreads steadily over the tongue with a barbecue intensity. A pillar of dense black peat, spinning gently. A hint of dark chocolate, seashells and seaweed.

Finish – peat (obvs) with flecks of ginger. Lightens gradually to a tasty caramel oakiness. Crushed peat, dry peat, peat a thousand ways. Buttery, kippery, seemingly endless.

Adding water reduced the cubist effect of the nose, although it remained powerful. A fuller fruitiness was on display with banana and apple. Youthful but attractive. Marine-like notes and lemon. The palate revealed smooth apple and pear, an IPA hoppiness, and spicier, sweeter peat. Still sharp. Chilli pepper heat and charred ribs. The chilli heat continues into the finish with an oaky creaminess and thick, ashy peat.

Cutty Sark 33YO 41.7% 3,456 bottles GBP 650

An Art Deco blend according to the press release, harking back to the 1920s and 30s when Cutty started to make in-roads on the American market.  This is the oldest blend ever released under the Cutty Sark label, put together by Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell.

Colour – dark honey amber

Nose – initial notes of coconut, egg custard and an epic creaminess. Further in, that creaminess is both Chantilly and patissiere. Then ripe warm apricot but also a firmness and brightness at the edges where a strange but attractive rose and carbolic soap scentedness lies. The super-sweet grains relax and out steps honey-drizzled peaches with lime zest. Passion fruit, now pineapple syrup. Now and again some Bourbon oak spiciness. Warm apple pie with time and clotted cream. Pain d’Epices syrup on raspberries.

Palate - velvety spice and creamy coconut, plenty of presence. Cinnamon, liquorice root and then passion fruit again. Black cherry in the background. Thick but not heavy, there is some seriously good wood gone into this: warmth and spicy sweetness. Maple syrup.

Finish - creamy with vanilla essence but at the core it is surprisingly firm. Creme caramel, toffee apple. A slight tartness develops with lime and rosehip. Cinnamon biscuits.

So…?       I heap praise on a Glenmorangie, having been a little sceptical in the past, and now I must be a little critical of its sister distillery, having been supremely fond of just about everything it’s released of late. I have not tasted the previous two Supernova releases so cannot compare it to earlier efforts, but I have enjoyed a couple of Octomores, its arch-rival. The hyper-peated version of Bruichladdich combines its dense, mossy smoke with a lovely fat, cereal-driven sweetness. Though young, it feels complete. The SN2014 unfortunately did not feel complete; while there were many tasty and exciting dimensions to it, there wasn’t enough that was exceptional. It is a very good, very smoky whisky, but does not justify the price tag in my opinion.

On to the Cutty Sark. Blended Scotch, you say? Had I been told it was a blended grain I’d have believed it. When I first sample it, in a cold Northumbrian bedroom over Christmas, the slight chill pulled out the grain components to the exclusion of all else. No matter, the grains that have gone into this are of the very highest calibre, nearly on a par with a certain 38YO Invergordon bottled by Compass Box a few years ago. Tasting it again at Dubai room temperature, I could at last detect some malt influence but the grains were still the stars, testament to great skill and sensitivity in the blending room to the lighter style that is Cutty. Absolutely outstanding blending and it was a privilege to taste it.

Sincere thanks to Quercus for the Ardbeg, and Wendy Harries Jones at Cutty Sark.

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Glenrothes Vintage Reserve and Craigellachie 13YO

As I mentioned yesterday, my reviewing days on the Scotch Odyssey Blog are, for the time being, numbered. As a whisky brand ambassador, you’re only really supposed to talk up your own brands but, after some very supportive agencies and distillers sent me some liquid last year, I felt I’d take the opportunity to record a few independent views on some new releases.

Glenrothes Vintage Reserve 40% £TBA

This whisky contains malts from three decades, the oldest vintage being 1989. The majority of the product was distilled in 1998. It will be released in Taiwan first before going global this year.

Colour – brown gold.

Nose – at first I get rich, sourish fruits and bold pistachio biscuit. Underneath is a sturdy phenolic quality. Nose fully in the glass now, seashells and a warm sandiness show themselves but soon clear to the draffy maltiness typical of Glenrothes and egg custard with plenty of nutmeg. A little sharp citric note then glace cherries – a bakewell tart in general. With a bit of time pure lemon steps out along with juicy yellow fruit and pistachio/praline again.

Palate – weighty with lots of fudge, malt and a vaguely sulphury backbone – but it works. A tartness but abundantly sweet.

Finish – milk chocolate and golden delicious apples. Medium-bodied.

Adding water turned the nose even lighter, revealing icing sugar, lemon rind and a tickle of peppery spice. The palate became very smooth indeed with papaya, a slight saltiness and a rich clotted cream texture. I found the finish to be lighter but still palate-coating. Not terribly exciting, however.
Craigellachie 13YO 46% GBP 41.95

Natural colour and non chill-filtered, I believe.

Colour – bright gold.

Nose – chopped salad leaves on first nosing: green and sweet. There follows thick butter, vanilla wafer and a phenolic maltiness. Incredibly muscular and focused at first: bruising malt and mulchy green fruit packed in to a keg of golden oak. Kiwi, pear, a touch of salty metallic tequila. With time, pure confectionary green apple. Biscuit and a very subtle peat. A whole load of textures.

Palate – full and tongue-coating. Dry rich biscuit, a draffy note, lemon pith. Then spice and a hoppy bitterness develops. Reminds me of Innes and Gunn Blonde!

Finish – shortcrust pastry, green plum. Sweet but with a heavy tartness. A coppery flavour/texture appears.

With water, the nose became cleaner with a Granny Smith apple note. Cooked pastry, rather mead-like with that phenolic weight going nowhere. The palate was rounder with egg custard and the green apple from the nose. A touch of herbalness then, as you swallow, in comes a huge old log you might find in the woods in winter: leafy, fungal. A bit of cheese rind. Incredible! It finishes in similarly idiosyncratic fashion: gala melon, apple, dry autumn leaves and an earthiness.

So…?      I mislaid the press release for the Glenrothes, meaning I could taste it completely blind. I only discovered the multi-vintage genesis in a Drinks Report article today. Its price point in Taiwan is GBP 25 which is very good indeed. It’s a very impressive little performer with pleasing depths. Steer clear of water and you have a very drinkable malt indeed.

I always tell myself that I should favour malts like Craigellachie: worm tubs, a once-hidden blender’s favourite – an interesting single malt, in short. This 13YO opened a very exciting new chapter in the John Dewar & Sons malt portfolio and there may well prove some truth in the tagline for the series of whiskies to be released as ‘The Last Great Malts’. Aberfeldy may have been fairly easily-obtainable, but Aultmore, Royal Brackla and Macduff will be revelations when they fully emerge. And will all carry age statements which these days is chicly retro.

There is a 17YO, a 19YO in duty free, and a 23YO to complete the Craigellachie range and they promise a great deal. The leafy, phenolic weight found here in the 13YO should build oak into itself, growing in power and majesty. I doubt I’ll get to try the others any time soon. To be honest, as interesting as I found this dram, it wasn’t entirely for me. The palate was the fascinating star, and without a doubt it has character, but rather Jekyll and Hyde for me.

Many thanks indeed to Quercus for both samples.

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Blending In, Standing Out

I always endeavour to hang around with creative people (if for whatever reason I’m a little short on creativity myself) because you know that something unexpected is never too far away. You have more fun at the time, and you come away with plenty to think over.

If there is one word to sum up the chaps at Master of Malt, the online drinks retailer, creative would be it. These guys have more ideas for new products while hunting for a pair of vaguely matching socks in the morning than most major distillers do in a month of meetings. In recent weeks they have announced a range of single malts finished in Sherry casks, dubbed Darkness!, revealed a new collection of cocktail bitters created by G-force (Bitter Bastards – you read that right), made available Bramble Bar’s modern classic Affinity cocktail to all and sundry and launched the world’s first super-premium spiced rum. If anything, releasing your own premium Scotch whisky blend smacks of convention.

Master of Malt have form in the blended category, conceiving the Home Blending Kit a few years ago (lots of fun) and getting a whole load of bloggers and journos to combine spirits in a good-natured – but I’m sure, fiercely competitive – blending challenge. Then, earlier this year, their Lost Distilleries Blend walked away with the gong for World’s Best Blended Whisky, beating the illustrious likes of Suntory and Irish Distillers. If it had been me, I’d have organised an open-top bus carnival in my own honour.

To follow up, they have concocted a 10yo blend, Batch 1 at 47.5%, unchill-filtered and natural colour. They were going for ‘rich and complex’. Let’s see if they succeeded.

Master of Malt 10yo Batch 1 47.5% £39.95

Colour – rich full gold.

Nose – yep, rich and full with a hefty truncheon of grain whisky before soft, fudgey peat and rich oak emerge. Quite clean, for all the weight and richness, with sweet walnut and a slug of Sherry. A hint of saltiness, golden syrup and carrot cake.

Palate – cake-rich with carrot cake again, rum fudge and thick oak. Out steps a sweet grassy quality before gooey grains spread over the tongue. A touch of marine-like smoke at the very end.

Finish – spice and richness dry the mouth although muscovado sugar softens things a little. Good weight and structure.

Not to be confused with the Reference Series of bottlings, or the Blended Whisky #1 Batch 1 from That Boutiquey Whisky Co., this is a straight-ahead expression of how Master of Malt envisages blended whisky. I have to say I was impressive, with the dram nosing like something a good few years above its age statement. Grain was old-school fat and juicy, with maybe just a hint of oils and spices, and the malts played a satisfying rich theme.

However, there is stiff competition at the moment, especially when you consider price. I had the Tweeddale 12yo Batch 2 before Christmas and that was suppler, as well as sweeter than the MoM offering. It was also, at the time, cheaper. Even I, blend evangelist that I am, have my reservations about paying £40 for a 10yo blend.

Tweeddale is an obvious comparison, small-scale and ’boutique’, but in terms of flavour, the big problem for Master of Malt comes in the shape of the not-inconsiderable Johnnie Walker Black Label. This, too, does fat oak, smoke and rich malt – and for £26. Tweeddale and JW have the edge, too, when you consider that you have the option to buy in-store, foregoing delivery charges. That £39.95 turns into about £45 for the MoM 10yo with no other option but to buy it through their site.

A little footnote: as engrossing a whisky as this 10yo is, I’m not sure I want to sip a blend that sits at nearly 48% ABV. For me, blends act as drinkable comfort blankets with the textures of the grain-malt interface finding best expression at 40-43%. The argument will be made (and has been on MoM’s uproarious, informative blog) that below 46% lipids and other congeners in the whisky are likely to come out of suspension if water or ice is added but this doesn’t bother Compass Box who bottle their gorgeous Asyla at 40%, despite it being unchill-filtered.

All in all, an interesting experiment and a tasty drop. I’m just not sure what – even if I were prepared to pay for one – I would do with a whole bottle.

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Ardbeg Auriverdes

There may be some of you – just maybe – who tried to bring up the Scotch Odyssey Blog on your PC, tablet or mobile device last week and could not. Regrettably, I was too snowed under with essays to troubleshoot or indeed even notice that the site had vanished from the Internet. My theme programming had sprung a leak (I use the technical term) and the upshot was that I was a blogger without a blog.

Good intentions for what I wanted to write about when academic pressures eased - of those I had a few. Useful material was also plentiful and, having tasted the sample sent to me by Marcin Miller of Quercus Communications a second time, I’m delighted my tech support web hosting people could fix the problem and restore my soapbox. Because the latest Ardbeg limited edition is worth shouting about.

It may be news to no one that I ride my bike quite a lot, and training is progressing ahead of the second Scotch Odyssey in June. However, I am only just beginning to admit to liking football again. As the stars align for Liverpool to win the Premier League title for the first time since the year I was born, videos on the BBC Sport web page count me down to the start of the World Cup in Brazil this summer. For folk with gear to flog, time is running out to tie it in with the beautiful game’s global competition.

Ardbeg Auriverdes (named in honour of the World Cup host nation’s team) accompanies another mad-cap initiative by the Islay distillery to entertain (and possibly injure) peat freaks. Ardbeg Peat Football will occur (quite how, I don’t know and haven’t dared ask) at various Ardbeg Embassies on Ardbeg Day, which is May 31st for the uninitiated. If you want to don wellies and wade through two feet of peat slurry without obvious gain, but precipitous loss of dignity, check out Ardbeg.com for your nearest Embassy. You should also be able to try the Auriverdes, and that is something you really ought to do.

Another of Dr Bill Lumsden’s creations, and following on from recent smash hits Galileo (one of my all-time favourite whiskies) and Ardbog (a bit of a let down in comparison), this new malt has been matured in American oak barrels with two differently custom-toasted heads. The idea is that one imparts ‘mocha coffee’, the other ‘creamy vanilla’ into the finished whisky. There is no indicator as to age, unlike the Galileo (about 13yo) and Ardbog (about 10yo).

Ardbeg Auriverdes 49.9% £79.99

Colour – dark brassy gold.
Nose – on the top of the glass, this is sweet at first with a seashore saltiness before oily tarry smoke and vanilla pod emerge. Nose in the glass there is plenty of dry and rich biscuitiness and a medicinal edge that I didn’t notice on first nosing. Sooty with capsicum heat and freshly cut grass. Thick, textured wood sugars but well integrated. A crisp, frothy lemon curd lift. Beach bonfire. With time, golden syrup, dried cherry and light zesty oak appear.
Palate – spicy oak immediately: black liquorice and cayenne. Peat is a dry, roiling presence on all sides. Major release of wood sugars on the tongue with crunchy malt and vanilla supporting.
Finish – more maritime Ardbeg character with lots of dry peat smoke and sea shells. Thickens with a stout-like sweet weight. An interesting caramel and carbolic soap fusion.

Like previous releases, I felt this needed water. With the alcohol toned down, the Auriverdes came into its exuberant own.

Nose – buttery but with abundant impressions of dry old cottage fireplaces: polished iron fender and coal dust. Autumn leaves in the grate. Then a trace of banana and Black Jack sweets. That dense carpet of black/blue peat that I associate with this distillery unfurls together with pine sap and a “sheepiness”. Pistachio and sugared almonds come next. Pricking the nostrils is a fabulous double-team of peat and smoky oak. Clove and roast sweet peppers appear later.
Palate – sweeter, malt, red liquorice and Chinese sweet chilli sauce. Strong oak presence yielding espresso and Demerara sugar notes. Malt returns with a floral overtone. Dense, bold, drying peat.
Finish – not quite as Ardbeg-like as when undiluted but as with the palate this is a sweeter encounter: chocolate truffles, pot ale and peat.

So…?      This is a characterful whisky, make no mistake about it, and far more straight-ahead with the Ardbeg DNA than the Ardbog, in my opinion. Some have suggested that this is a step up, in nature, from the 10yo and I’d agree. If that whisky is the graceful youth, the Auriverdes is the same entity after a couple of months at the gym on the protein shakes.

With all Ardbeg’s I taste, it is the texture of the peat throughout that captivates me, but it is never overplayed. Here, softer, even fruitier flavours are allowed room to express themselves. This isn’t quite the surprise that Galileo was, but with a dash of water especially the layers of flavour become overwhelmingly vivid. In a good way. Much like the country of your denomination scoring the decisive penalty in the World Cup final would be.

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The anCnoc Peaty Collection

An old saying goes: ‘the other man’s grass is always greener’. You glance furtively across at your neighbour and infer from some marginally neater borders and the way their bird bath stands so proudly on the lawn that they are generally better at life and comporting themselves. This is just as common a phenomenon within the Scotch whisky industry when it comes to peat.

Unlike their forebears, distillers these days are not subject to the limitations of their geographical location regarding the type of whisky they can produce. Heavy peat can come to BenRiach if Billy Walker chooses, just as Caol Ila can go peat-free should the need arise. Of course, a bit of peat reek in your whisky is terribly fashionable at the moment, so many mainland distilleries have been staring across to Islay where their grass is greyer and smokier.

The latest to introduce a bit of peat into the equation is the normally fruity and frisky anCnoc. Since 2004 they have devoted a couple of months each year to creating a smokier spirit and the matured results of these were released last month. The Peaty Collection comprises three single malts, christened Rutter, Flaughter and Tushkar, distinguished not by age but by PPM (parts per million of phenols, the scale for measuring how ashy your whisky is likely to be). However, unlike some other brands, where piling on the peat has been the one and only prerogative at the expense of distillery character (Tomintoul Peaty Tang comes regretfully to mind), there is real balance here across the range between those lush waxy green fruits and a farmy smokiness. This is even more remarkable when you consider that this new range is comprised only of peated stocks laid down between 2004 and 2006 – no older, unpeated anCnoc has been added to balance or flesh out the flavours.

anCnoc Rutter (11ppm) 46% £52

Colour – clean lemony gold.
Nose – pleasant thick peat at first recalling turned earth and wood-burning stoves. Next come banana skins and bran flakes with hugely clean, fresh and fruity spirit underneath. Banana chew sweets and just-caught shortcrust pastry. Creamier with time.
Palate – turfy peat, well smoked and rich. Then in comes apple bubblegum, toasted sourdough and grapefruit. Sweet and round.
Finish – impressions of the kiln: brown and damp smoke. Fruity spirit in good balance with the smoke: apple and gooseberry.

anCnoc Flaughter (14.8ppm) 46% £52

Colour – straw gold.
Nose – more minerally peat with a harder edge: wet slate and smoky feints. Key lime pie and brick dust. Focused and expressive. Razor clam shells on a sunlight beach, honeysuckle, apple and redcurrant jelly. More farmy peat with time.
Palate – mouthfilling but gentle at first: puckering cherry and pastry with a rich warming smoke all round the back. Slowly dries.
Finish – drying gradually but there is a magnificent triumvirate of cherry bark, vanilla oak and sweet chilli-flecked peat that builds. A touch of creaminess and smoked fish.

anCnoc Tushkar (15ppm) 46% 449SEK (Swedish exclusive)

Colour – greeny gold.
Nose – very creamy with juicy mango, peach in syrup and apricot flesh. Wellington boots by the Aga and Italian herbs thrown on the barbecue are the only hints of smokiness at first. The spirit is immense: so driven by green apple and with great texture. Baked pineapple, jelly babies and nettle patch, leading into smoked paprika and Pear Drops. Easily my favourite whisky of the three to nose.
Palate – Cullen Skink panacotta - if smoked haddock were sweet and creamy. Smoke and pear, smoke and passion fruit. Just surreal. Finishes on vanilla and coconut.
Finish – lots of juicy, generous oak but a heathery smoke is building. Treacle sponge and blackcurrant. White chocolate.

So…?      I must say I wasn’t sure how this trio was going to fare. A lot of publicity has gone into the launch, both at a special event in Glasgow which featured much in the way of peaty razzamattaz and on blogs and Twitter. Could the whiskies stand up? Oh yes, they could. I first tasted them a couple of weeks ago for the #LightonDark Tweet tasting and I was very impressed by how the smoke progressively built but the core spirit remained devastatingly fruity and attractive. Then, the Rutter was my favourite, along with the creamy, unctuous bizarreness of the Tushkar. Today, however, I would put the Flaughter above it with its brooding smoke but expressive oily citrus zest. The balance between the anCnoc I know and love and this new, non-seaweedy/iodine-y smoke was deliciously well-preserved.

The price is high but just about acceptable. You could argue – and some have – that another NAS whisky range above the £50-per bottle mark is being cheeky. However, anCnoc stress that the bulk of the whiskies used are between 8 and 10 years old. That ppm rating is for the liquid in the bottle, too, not that of the malt used at the commencement of production. Most important as far as I’m concerned, though, is that these new products have not simply been thrown out of the warehouse door – they have been thought about and deliberately engineered. The ambition was to provide peat aficionados with something different, and help those maybe scared by smoke to enter that particular intense flavour camp. I think the Peaty Collection will achieve both handsomely.

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Glenmorangie Companta – Why I’m Wine Finished

I was panicking, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know what the master distiller wanted from me, why couldn’t he just stop?

‘You will see,’ he said, stalking between the shadows at the far end of the warehouse. ‘It’s the future; you must accept it.’

I fought against the tannins still coating my tongue from the Saint-Emilion-boarding I had received earlier that morning. ’But it’s perfectly good as it is! You don’t have to do this!’

The master distiller stepped up to the cask which lay, defenceless, between us. ‘You will see,’ he repeated and signalled to his henchmen. Heavy boots scuffled over the cement floor as the goons wrestled another cask into view. They placed this newer-looking cask beside the first, then gripped the mottled grey hogshead.

‘Please don’t do this!’ I cried as they began to lift and tip the contents of the first cask into the second.

‘No! No! Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!’

Okay, so it isn’t a scene that’s going to make it into the next Matt Damon espionage thriller. The anxieties of the wider world are still titillated by government surveillance and nuclear war - the whims of the whisky industry are very far down the list of Hollywood’s screenwriters. But that leads me on rather neatly to the whisky anorak’s premonition of the apocalypse: wine finishing.

I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores; how the practice started is of less importance than where it is leading. There were conspiracies in the darker pockets of the internet that wine casks and indeed any oak vessel which had once held something else were drafted in to the Scotch whisky industry to lift sunken stocks. ‘Is your 13-year-old whisky a bit lifeless and bland? Stick it in a tokaji cask and you’ll be laughing.’ I should stress that I am not tarring all finishes with the same brush, nor am I suggesting that this was the policy for the entire industry. I am a big fan of Sherry and Port finishes, and some fortified wine finishes have been stellar: Ardbeg Galileo from Marsala casks, Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or from Sauternes. I reserve my reservations, in fact it is tantamount to a fully-formed aversion, for red wine-finished whiskies.

Over the years I have tried, in no particular order: Auchentoshan 17yo Bordeaux Finish, Bruichladdich Rocks, Bowmore Dusk, Bruichladdich Black Arts, Glenmorangie Artein, Edradour Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Dunedin 10yo Doublewood. All boasted redeeming features (excepting the Black Arts, of course) but the initial taste and recurring faults in the finish – like a repressed memory that keeps fighting back – always upset me.

On taking a first sip, it is as if Tarzan has swung in from nowhere with an offering of semi-decomposed berries and his own leaf mulch mattress. There’s a gruesomely bold ‘ta da! It’s me!’ from the wine, like encountering with a hangover a mostly empty bottle of merlot someone else was drinking the night before sat on a hot windowsill and exhaling exuberantly, which ruins everything else. Fair enough (almost) if your original casks have been stingier than an insurance company in Somerset but what if the liquid was quite charming to start with? This brings me on to Glenmorangie’s latest expression in the Private Edition series, Companta.

Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie, is a big fan of wine. He introduced Super Tuscan wine casks for the Artein release a couple of years ago and has settled in France this time for Companta. Two separate parcels of Glenmorangie were brought together, one lot maturing in Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart and the other in fortified wine casks from the Cotes du Rhone. The idea was to offer something ‘neither too bold nor too tame’. My problem here is that the wine influence is fairly bold, and I suspect they thought the original whisky was on the more mellow side. Rather lovely in its own way, but in need of pep. I fear that, in pursuit of something a little more earnest, they have dressed Cerys Matthews up as Lady Gaga.

Glenmorangie Companta 46% £69.99

Colour – full dark honey with prune tints.

Nose – complex tannic knots of cask, barley sweetness beneath and dark cherry with a dark chocolate shell. Soft, full and inviting. Big note of Port-poached pear, the wine thickening and puckering at the edges. Lashings of blackberry vinegar. A shaving of lightly creamy and spicy ex-Bourbon cask. Earthiness returns and a loss of focus in the mid-range.

Palate – winey fruits and jelly beans collide into each other then firm, sweet baking spice oak arrives. Smooth malt behind. A touch aggressive but pleasant.

Finish – quite light in the finish: apricot flesh surrounds a fading fudgey malt. Budding vanilla fragrance and buttercream thickness.

Adding water improved everything by a fraction. The nose was reminiscent of Jammy Dodgers, sweet hazelnut and stewed apple. There is a lovely malt at its peak texture and sweetness but the wine, I felt, inhibited any attempt to realise the whisky’s depths. With time, strawberry bonbon, acacia honey and peppermint appear. The palate takes the dark cherry note from the neat nose and spins it on a bed of fromage frais. A bit of pear and more winey warmth. Creamy coconut and soft fruit stick to the tongue before earthy cask notes return. All led into a creamy and elusive finish.

So…?      As I said above, there are strong hints of a very lovely whisky here. The high quality Glenmorangie spirit has an exceptional ability to fill the nose and conjure up sweets you had long forgotten about. There are suggestions of the 10yo’s pear and creamy Bourbon character and it’s all rather nice until you have to factor in the wine. In this whisky the dangers of mixing grape and grain came in the form of a warm mulchy earthiness, like making jam in a potting shed. It didn’t dominate, but it was just enough to mar the effect at every stage. The Companta, therefore, is a bright blue sky, with a cloud or two sidling into shot.

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Compass Box The General

We are, there can be no denying it, squarely inside 2014 by now but I hope the genial fog of the festive season has not entirely lifted for you all just yet. When another sample of interesting Scotch whisky arrived courtesy of Compass Box Whisky Co. this week, I certainly experienced something of a Christmas relapse.

Compass Box don’t really do viral marketing, but if you follow their Facebook page things become mightily tantalising. Towards the end of last year the steady trickle of small batch Scotch whiskies issuing from John Glaser’s blending lab became a torrent with three limited edition blends and a blended malt. One that they kept under wraps longer than most was The General. They promised it would be old. They promised it would be unusual. They promised it would be stonking.

So here we have it: a steam locomotive-inspired, gold wax-dipped beauty. I’ve raved about Compass Box labels before but just look at this one: classic bold graphics and a killer colour scheme. With the rich rosewood tones of the whisky within, this is one of the most handsome bottles I have laid eyes on for a while.

The concept behind this whisky is complex, if not convoluted. Two separate companies had both blended grain and malt whiskies in cask some time ago and then laid them aside. We must infer that neither could find a use for their super-mature blends upon their rediscovery, hence Compass Box’s acquisition of them. John worked for two months with these stunning, unique packages of stock – some from ex-Bourbon barrels, some from ex-Sherry butts; some 33 years old, some more senior still – to find the right combination. The result is a blended Scotch like no other. I’ve said before that older isn’t always better, just different. However, in this case, older is better than just about anything I’ve ever encountered.

Compass Box The General 53.4% (1,698 bottles) £180-199

Colour – very deep: leather-tinged amber.

Nose – compact, rich and exquisite texture. Leather boot polish, cinnamon and cherry liqueur. Damp hogsheads – this is very old indeed. Roasted sweet peppers and habanero heat. Scented soap and heavy floral notes give a surprisingly feminine lift. With time there are fine, ethereal tropical fruits, egg custard, sandalwood, blackberry and more oak.

Palate – big dark oak flavours, especially vanilla, creamy coffee and orange-accented dark chocolate.

Finish – bourbon oakiness with cereals crisping up rapidly. Very brulee’d crème brulee. Drying.

I’ll be honest, I was disappointed on first examination. The oak was stifling rather than enhancing the whisky and I had no option but to contemplate water. With whiskies of this age, such a strategy carries risk since many are liable to disintegrate. However, the following are my notes after just a touch of water had been added.

Nose – quite savoury at first with a nut and pretzel mix. Then a brittle, valedictory toffee apple rises from the oak, surrounded by a Bourbon-like matrix of wood, spice and aromatics. Masses of peaches in syrup. Now I get soft, kiln-ready green malt and – more amazingly – fresh pink grapefruit for life. Still, though, the earthy oak takes my senses to new realms of maturity. Time reveals a moth’s cough of smoke and grapefruit again. Liquorice root, black cherry and a textured grassiness I can neither believe nor resist arrive.

Palate – old, fruity, shifting into spicy with garam masala. Amazing development to maple syrup and honeycomb. So rich with a bit of charcoal smoke and again tropical fruits (dried mango, fresh pineapple). It waits for you to swallow before building up tiers upon tiers of flavour.

Finish – still weighty but the oak doesn’t drag. Buttery and soothing. Sweetly spicy like fresh cardamom. Sweetly earthy, too. Waxier weight and incredible length.

So…?      I’m not sure I’d have had the balls to blend these blends together. I imagine that, faced with the samples for the first time, the safe option would be to go: ‘they’re both fantastic, we’ll bottle them separately’. However, John has pulled together some excellent extra dimensions which I had no idea whisky could accommodate or sustain. Older is not always better, but in this instance the concentration and exotic combination of aromas and flavours is an absolute treat. This is a very very good whisky which some may find reminiscent of Johnnie Walker Blue Label in its rich, heavy oak intensity. However, this stops short of being fungal and shows a dapper, genteel maturity.

Given the praise I have lavished upon The General, it seems extraordinary to admit that he has a rival in the super-old blend stakes. Before Christmas I tried Batch 4 of Duncan Taylor’s Black Bull 40yo and this is another example of dazzling whiskymaking. To my tastes, it just has the edge. Duncan Taylor boasts one of the largest inventories of mature Scotch whisky of any independent bottler. When putting together a blend of such phenomenal age, they are at liberty to select whiskies with marginally more favourable oak/spirit balance than I believe John had at his disposal. Especially neat, The General’s whiskies are back-of-house pulling the strings – what we primarily see are the oak-derived characteristics which have absorbed the majority of the once vibrant spirits into themselves. The Black Bull 40yo puts its whiskies centre stage with fabulously dense oak forming the backdrop. The General’s ‘antique’ oak notes are unlike anything I’ve had before, and are of the very highest standard, but perhaps – for my tastes – the Black Bull has a fraction more to offer.

Very many thanks indeed to Chris Maybin for the sample.

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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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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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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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