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My Unofficial Whisky Fringe

In the ever-expanding pantheon of whisky festivals, there is one that excites uncommonly rabid fervour: the Whisky Fringe. Between August 3rd and 5th, the eleventh outing of this malt extravaganza, organised by Royal Mile Whiskies, absorbed those whisky fanatics who were fortunate enough to come by a ticket (places are more highly sought-after than for the Tattoo, probably) and induced much envy and grumpiness in those who were not. I was one of the latter, and sat at home with my nose pressed up against the window pane that is Twitter, racked with sorrow.

However, and to atone for such a missed oppportunity in the Scottish capital at its moment of peak creativity and colour, I knew that the door to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society would be open to receive me. During a recent visit to the shows of the Festival Fringe, I dragged a few friends with me to the Society’s Queen Street venue where some stupendous acts awaited me.

The SMWS Queen Street bar.

Whereas the Vaults in Leith is confined to one level, and you sit in your fireside leather armchair speculating upon the thousands of litres of extraordinary Scotch whisky sleeping in casks beneath your feet, Queen Street is the epitome of the town clubroom where whisky is conspicuously consumed rather than purveyed. A gorgeous winding staircase takes you to the third floor bar, with views onto the city’s leafier pockets. I scanned the deep green wall of Society single cask bottlings in search of their newest one - 129.1 to be exact. Society newbie Dan was guided to a #35 by the efficient, friendly bar staff.

We found a group of seats in an adjoining room, beside a display of sample bottles which made for a very evocative stained glass window. Here I decided to become better acquainted with the latest distillery to find itself on the Scotch Malt’s books, the only fully independent distillery on Islay and one of my absolute favourites.

Scotch and sunlight conspiring beautifully.

129.1 2006 60.2% 235 bottles

Nose – creamy barley, brown sugar, pear drops and sharp smoke. This is clean but with a marked aggressive streak. Water made for a richer and darker experience with chocolate-dipped ice cream cone, cider apple and chunky tablet.

Palate – vanilla provides lubrication for clean maltiness and rolls of tobacco-like peat which moves into a finish of strong black tea.

In an attempt to show off the diversity of the Society, and their knack for rooting out the finest truffles of single casks, I went in search of a grain whisky. As we were in Edinburgh, I thought a dram from G1 was in order.

G1.5 1984 60.7% 245 bottles

Nose – buxom. Huge vanilla notes with apple and cinnamon. Leathery and rich with toasted coconut and creamy coconut emerging. A gorgeous spicy dryness. This has spent 24 years in very good wood indeed.

Palate – clinging wood oils, coconut and fat cereal grains. Another hit of spice with a spearmint character. Silky and sublime.

As we sipped, the conversation embraced numerous topics but an overarching theme was perhaps the nature of true passion and interest, where they took us and how pursuing, then enjoying them made us feel. For me, reclining with two whiskies of magnificent quality and personality as well as witty and charming people revived the best of memories while sparking new stories and intrigues. Amongst the sumptuous paraphernalia of the SMWS, flavour and fun returned from the fringes to the centre of my world.

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A Place to Gather

‘Community’ is a word endowed with many connotations, leading to its (mis)appropriation by politicians, sociologists, market researchers and Mark Zuckerberg. Whether that community is ‘fractured’, patri-local or online, in the 21st century we still value and are moved by an idea of our collectivity.

Whisky provides yet another excuse for grouping together. With a single distillery or style we can identitfy with one another, share experiences and profess our loyalty. We can demonstrate how fiercely we fight for flavour. Increasingly, Scotch whisky distilleries have sought to foster such communities. Though they are ostensibly confined by the internet, strongly implied is the suggestion that one’s true point of contact – irrespective of where one lives – is a postcode in Scotland. The personality of a distillery, mediated via its virtual presence, promises the possibility of a connection to bricks, mortar and copper once you have logged off and bought a Caledonia-bound plane ticket.

Courtesy of a few clicks on the internet, you can be a Diurach with Jura, an Ardbeg Committee member, a Friend of Laphroaig, or a Guardian of The Glenlivet. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the next few months, The Macallan Order of the Garter realises its inauguration. Brands are encouraging us to pledge fealty to them on a fractionally more intimate footing. We have bought their whisky, but they want us to participate in their stories, too.

The Clach Biorach standing stone at Balblair.

My old friend, Balblair, has followed suit and underscored this notional encounter all the more powerfully and simply with ‘The Gathering Place’. In recognition of the distillery’s long-standing neighbour, the Clach Biorach Pictish stone around which Highland peoples would assemble millenia ago, and whose swirls and forms find echoes in the Balblair bottle design, there is a new way of connecting to the pair of stills in Edderton, Ross-shire. Balblair fans can sign up for free to receive exclusive web content, expert whisky tasting videos and, perhaps the principal boon of swearing allegiance to one’s lord, spirits for your taste buds only. Tiger over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog has reviewed the first soon-to-be-released vintage from 1990. He rather liked it.

And I rather like this new inclination to transform customers into a community. Whisky inspires deep passions in people, chief among which must be that our favourite drams continue to be of high quality, testaments to integrity and skill. Through these membership schemes, we have the opportunity to communicate with these distilleries and the individuals responsible for them, rather than merely pay our money and consume them. A related point is developed very well by Stuart Robson over at the Whisky Marketplace blog. Philosophy intermingles with financial imperatives and hopefully we customers can make a bolder, more sustainable statement, adding an extra and vocal dimension to those sales figures. Give us a gathering place and we will prove our loyalty. The Gathering Place at Balblair.

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The SMWS Vaults – and Leith’s Labyrinth

‘This isn’t very relaxing at all,’ I raged, stamping past another betting shop, wincing as blisters began to bisect my heels and perspiration pooled beneath my pullover.

The entrance to the Vaults.

On the subject of my pilgrimage to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Vaults venue in Leith, Edinburgh, I had envisaged whisky’s bard – Mr Robert Burns – supplying a cheerful commentary. Unfortunately, rather than his Scotch aphorisms captioning my expedition, the only refrain I could recognise circulating within my seething brain concerned ‘mice and men…’

What ought to have been a leisurely 25 minute stroll from the bus station in St Andrew Square to 87, Giles Street demanded instead an hour and a half of feverish to-ing and fro-ing, in addition to a testy phonecall to my sister sat in front of Google Maps at home, trying to work out where the hell I was and how exactly I was to get to my hallowed destination.

I successfully found Giles Street and my anti-clockwise stromp around it was to be my final error of the day. A likely-looking building reared up at me, all old chunky bricks and little warehouse-esque windows. The green sign was perhaps the biggest give-away, though. Relief evicted the anger from my system, which had the disadvantage of robbing me of what energy I thought I had. Panting and swaying, I mounted the many steps and continued passed the paint tins and dust sheets to what I had been searching for – the bar.

Worries as to whether I could be fitted in were instantly abolished. Having signed in and handed over my membership card I discovered with delight that there was a surplus of leather sofas, broken in to the point of perfection by the posteriors of many a whisky aficionado. Perhaps. I ordered a 7.67 and sunk into one myself.

The members' room - a dining room-come-bar. And ever so cosy.

I can confirm what my picture suggests: this is the baronial stately home approach to accommodating whisky devotees, alluding to a sepia-tinged yesteryear when, I hate to say it, men repaired to the drawing room for a tumbler of something. Cutting edge the Vaults is not. In fact, I was far closer in ages to the bar staff than I was my fellow members. However, I stuck my nose into my Longmorn, ordered some haggis, neeps and tatties and quickly failed to notice anymore.

Many have praised the food available from the SMWS kitchens, both in the Queen Street branch and at the Vaults. My plate was certainly stacked high with flavour (I haven’t had Scotland’s national dish served in that style before) and the chocolate mousse for dessert ticked all of my personal boxes for richness, tartness and gooeyness. Mindful after the last mouthful vanished that I still had some serious tasting to do, it perhaps wasn’t the best combination for keeping my senses in optimum condition. Nevertheless, I had reclaimed the calories Leith’s streets had taken from me and within half an hour I was ready for my next dram.

The bar. As it happens, I only explored the left-hand side.

The 19.46 astonished and moved me. This 21-yo whisky from a refill hogshead smelled initially like an ornamental fireplace in an oak-floored Highland house: blackened coal scuttle and an ancient stone and cast iron grate into which some autumn leaves had found their way. There were brass furnishings, too. Then came rich butter and brown sugar, deep oakiness with a green touch and light, crumbly sweet peat. Caramel toffee-accented malt confirmed the high class of the nose. The palate was equally suave and involving: spicy, biscuity, oaky and leafy. In my notes I have ‘a full-on burnished experience’ which I think means that both the brass furnishing character from the nose reappeared as part of the all-round impression of cohesion and quality. Coriander is another mid-palate note. It becomes rich and buttery again after a time, with late hints of candied lemon zest.

The addition of water developed the lemony theme as lemon curd arrived on the nose, spread between two layers of soft, rich flapjack. Heavy butterscotch, together with strawberry and blueberry jam, rounded out a very good and above all different character. The palate revealed more of the cask influence, with a rich, dark char. Coriander can be found in the mix again, with more lemon pieces. Pepper. The abiding impression was of richness, with a gentle chew.

My abiding impression of the Vaults, though? As a base camp for a society like the SMWS, I doubt it could be improved upon. In fact, my navigational headaches buttressed the atmosphere of eclectic sequestration the place exudes. You can’t just pop in off Prince’s Street. It seems to me very appropriate that there should be a venue in the city’s former commercial and goods trading centre, one that is built in to Leith’s abundant wine and spirit heritage. The decor (the final touches to a refit of the reception rooms were taking place during my visit), friendliness of the staff and eye-popping breadth of bottlings promise a permanent reward for those keen enough to make the trek to discover the spiritual home of the Society, tucked into a district where whisky as a viable commercial product was made possible in the first place. Who would have thought that at the centre of the labyrinth there would be an Olympus?

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