Even above and beyond the extraordinary whiskies we are treated to here at the Quaich Society, the single most important factor in the club is community. However, this all-encompassing term extends beyond the organising Committee, even beyond the whisky faithful who attend each tasting. Community is also about our interactions with the great men and women on the frontline of the whisky industry who generously donate their products and passion.
One of the family by now is certainly Lukasz from Inver House Distillers. Over the last three years he has arrived carrying the most intriguing line ups the Society has seen. In one year Lukasz even managed to squeeze in two tastings for us. He pitches his presentations just right: the whiskies have their moment in the spotlight, there’s a bit of history and a strong emphasis on production values. More than anything else, however, Lukasz is a really top guy whose sense of humour is as self-evident as his love of a good dram.
Last month, to round off our first Semester of superb tastings, Lukasz outdid himself with the breadth and exclusivity of the whiskies he brought. Indeed, so exclusive were they that our post-tasting discounts for attendees in Luvians Bottle Shop could apply to only one of the six single malts on show. We were treated to the Travel Retail Exclusive Old Pulteney Lighthouse Collection (Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Pentland Skerries) and the soon-to-be-released Balblair Vintages of 2003 and 1990 as well as the (slightly) more readily-available 1997.
The Lighthouse Collection is a boldly-packaged, wood-focused range of whiskies from the Wick-based distillery of Old Pulteney. In keeping with their ‘Maritime Malt’ persona, the moniker of each whisky champions a local lighthouse. Their characters are wholly cask-differentiated, however. Lukasz pointed out that it was rare to taste products from the one distillery in which the age was a constant (7-8 years old) but the maturation regime wildly different. The Noss Head is the ex-Bourbon representative. Bubbly, clean and lush on the nose I found plenty of freshly-peeled orange, an oiliness and banoffee pie. The palate was spirity with rich oak and leafy qualities.
The middle whisky was perhaps the best of the bunch for me, and if it is possible for a whisky to boast such a thing, it had real integrity. A Bourbon and Sherry mix, this was softer and more reserved on the nose with salt and sweet oak. Complex and textured. The palate showed fixing fruit, ginger and cardamom.
For his introduction to the Pentland Skerries expression, Lukasz went into a little more detail about Quercus robur - the Darth Vadar of oak. He asserted that coopers and distillers hated working with the stuff since it is prone to splitting, leaking, and all manner of other defects making cask construction and management very complicated – not to mention expensive. Nevertheless, the impact on the finished whisky cannot be replicated any other way and the flavour profile will always be in demand. I must admit, though, that I would not ask for the Pentland Skerries again. While rich and smooth on the nose with plenty of fruit and toffee, sandy notes and wet tweed developed suggesting the cask and the spirit have not quite achieved harmony. The palate was thick and clinging, but beyond the obvious Sherry flavours the engaging depths of the distillery character simply couldn’t surface.
Having eulogised about Sherry casks, Lukasz revealed a little of his own whisky evolution. It wasn’t so very long ago, he told us, that he was a peat freak; the peatier the better, in fact. Then one day, he poured another rich, smoky dram and… was unmoved. Somehow those earthy, fruity beasts simply didn’t push his buttons any more and he rediscovered the joys of an unpeated whisky matured in quality American oak ex-Bourbon casks. To him, he can detect ‘more of the place in my dram’ – ex-Bourbon promotes transparency in a whisky: where it was made, to what brief and by whom.
I have to say I agree. Of the tastings we have had this year, the Tomatin 15yo and Balvenie 12yo Single Barrel have been the stand-out whiskies for me. I began dribbling with anticipation because I know that one of the best spirits to come out of good ex-Bourbon barrels is Balblair, and Lukasz had three vintages lined up for us.
The 2003 replaces the delicious, exciting and charming 2002 which is one of my favourite drams. The 2003 kept the faintly straw-like, hamster feed-ish cereal qualities and added a biscuitiness. The palate had amazing feel to it – all barley sugar and syrupy citrus. However, overall I felt it was just a touch too austere and spirity when compared with the 2002.
The 1997 went by many descriptors from Lukasz: blue sky whisky, a lunchtime whisky… For me personally, this is a desert island whisky and not just because of the tropical fruit notes and freshness. It is a seriously high-quality dram. It boasts an absolutely stunning nose: rich yet lush and creamy with orange travel sweets. There is a great undertone of dryness from the oak. On the palate, all is well with an immensely fruity delivery – think travel sweets again – backed up by cumin and nutmeg.
During the Balblair portion of the evening, Lukasz had to field questions of the vintage bottling policy. He emphasised Balblair’s artisanal philosophy and tiny scale – only 5% of the distillery’s 1.75 mla production goes to single malt or as Lukasz put it: ‘we bottle what Glenfiddich spill’. It is a distillery that I admire hugely and this extended to the final whisky of the evening, the new 1990. What is it with Inver House bottling whiskies from my birth year? Are they trying to bankrupt me? I will have to come by some of this soon, though, for this Balblair takes the house style in a dramatically different direction. After 21 years the whisky comes out of those top quality ex-Bourbon barrels and goes into second fill Oloroso Sherry casks for another two. In the glass, this smelt as old as the 1975 Vintage I tried last year. So much cinnamon, pineapple and mincemeat with a lovely earthiness. Dried orange, pot pourri and even a marsala-like kick are additional layers. The palate is true to Balblair’s trademark spiciness. Some burnt orange appears, too, with a salty oaky dryness. It grows to be slightly herbal before the fruity notes come back in.
Another special Balblair was unveiled for the Raffle and I know that was tremendously popular. Every time Lukasz trundles away back to Edinburgh I hope he will return at some point and I wonder how he can top his last selection. So far, he has managed that every time. Our thanks to him again for a potent send-off towards exams and Christmas. I daresay a couple of Old Pulteneys may have been picked up at the airport as some of our international members return home for the Festive period.