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Day 5: Speyside and Spokes

Perhaps it was my super-abundance of full cooked Scottish breakfast, perhaps it was a moment of madness to leave it behind the wheel of my hosts’ car in the first place, but I was four and a half miles beyond Nethy Bridge, about to join the A939, when I realised I had left my bike lock at the Coire Choille bed and breakfast. Fortunately, Jan and Allan Goodall are wonderful people (cyclists themselves) and they were willing to down tools and drive out to meet me with the lock.

While I waited, I could appreciate the stark beauty of this upland landscape as the low cloud began, mercifully, to lift. I also heard a cuckoo. The rest impaired my ascent of the 20% gradient up to the main road, however, which was a fairly upsetting obstacle so early in the day. It would get worse.

When cycling to Tomintoul four years ago, I had snow and the Devil’s Elbow up to the Lecht ski station to contend with; as I pedalled towards sunshine I began to recognise that the road I was on concealed challenges of its own. Bridge of Brown is the settlement perched above a sheer drop and some hairpins. As the gradient warning signs appeared, a flashback occurred to me from having driven in this direction with the parents maybe six years previously.

My first problem was controlling the bike on the abhorrently steep descent: with all the weight, braking achieved only so much. Soon, though, I could whistle to the glen bottom and begin the ascent up the other side which was, if anything, steeper. The hairpin innards were nigh-on verticle, and even in bottom gear I had to stop at flattish sections to hyperventilate before carrying on. Eventually, I hauled myself up to the summit and could appreciate a gentler descent into a sunlit Strathavon.The remainder of the road into Tomintoul was hardly plain sailing, but it was spectacular. Indeed, one section recalled the panoramic photograph that illustrates southern Speyside in Dave Broom’s magnificent The World Atlas of Whisky.

By the time I rolled through the village the sun was rather fierce and what I really needed to do was cool off in the company of Mike Drury in the Whisky Castle. Bombastic as ever, Mike combined a diatribe against the vacuity and rapacity of the modern whisky industry with greetings to locals and taking delivery of consignments from said modern whisky industry.

‘Where were we?’ I asked, as the shop cleared again. ‘Somewhere between truth and non-truth?’ he replied. He then poured me a dram, an extravagantly creamy Dewar Rattray 18yo Braeval which was good, but not £90 brilliant. ‘I’ve sold one hundred and sixty bottles of that!’ Mike blustered.

We then touched on the reasons why the whisky industry is in ‘the shite’: the lack of good quality, old casks. Mike and his wife Cathy are single cask, single malt fanatics and they bottle whiskies under their Whisky Castle label when they find something great. Mike confessed that the casks simply haven’t been up to scratch of late, so he hasn’t bothered bottling any.

The accelerated wood programmes of most distillers, using virgin oak, first-fill Bourbon barrels whose staves hadn’t been air-dried properly in the first place and bottling younger expressions were all exacerbating the dearth of quality single malts. Doom and gloom, therefore. It’s true that the industry has to think very hard about where the oak is coming from to encase the many millions more litres of spirit being produced, but I’m not about to shed any tears just because the heart-stoppingly beautiful single cask Ardbegs, Glenlivets, or Braevals for that matter – and which only ever pleased a handful of enthusiasts – are growing scarcer. Investment in whisky is across the board, from distilleries to bottling plants to cooperages. Distillers are grappling with the problems of the supply chain and I believe that, five to ten years from now, we will be looking at more consistently tasty expressions available from more companies than we enjoy currently. The only question that remains concerns how much we shall be expected to pay for them.

Leaving the Whisky Castle behind, I pedalled off into the Glenlivet Estate below a scorching sun. Soon, I glimpsed the steam chimney of The Glenlivet, ’the single malt that started it all’, and for me in particular. The last time I cycled past a blizzard swept down the glen to engulf the distillery and me; now I was worried about heat stroke.

Late (very late) for my rendezvous with Brian Robinson at Ballindalloch Distillery, I carried on past The Glenlivet following the Avon once again. As I passed a field of cows, on a flat smooth stretch of tarmac, I heard a disconcerting, metallic ‘ping’. Fearing the worst, but carrying on anyway, I reached the A95 and turned down towards Cragganmore and the Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course, where a wee distillery was being built.

The gorgeous location of the Ballindalloch distillery.

Dismounting, I discovered that I had indeed snapped a spoke, two in a week, and my plans for the afternoon were going to have to change. That lovely Imperial 23yo on the Speyside Way? Scratch that, I was going to have to get to Dufftown and try to find the bike shop in Elgin I’d used last time to get the rear wheel structurally sound again.

With mechanical matters in mind, I maybe wasn’t as attentive or curious on my tour of the site with Brian as I could have been. However, key points that emerged were that Ballindalloch, when it opens to visitors (hopefully by September) will not be like other distilleries and visitor centres; the plan is to bring a flavour of the ancestral home of the MacPherson Grants at Ballindalloch Castle into the distillery. Mrs Russell, who has lived in the Castle for 65 years, will oversee interior design.

The VC was some way behind the rest of the distillery, but it will be a space dedicated to making visitors feel very cossetted and special. Brian was at pains to emphasise the love and dedication shown to the project by the local builders, carpenters, electricians, etc. The final say for the build goes to the family at the Castle, however. ‘If they say they want this room to be pink, it will be pink’.

Charlie Smith will be head distiller, and his brief was to produce an oily, weighty spirit. Working backwards, worm tubs were required, squat slender stills installed, a long-ish ferment and cloudy wort will be established. The traditional approach to whisky-making starts with the barley which will be grown on the Ballindalloch estate, but malted in Inverness, and continues to the copper-domed mash tun and those brand new worm tubs. A unique element of the build is that the filling store and warehouses are ‘inside’ the distillery building – guests will be able to fill a cask as they go round on the tour before rolling it into the warehouse.

As I left I spectated on the worm tubs’ installation before getting on the bike. I knew, despite my anxiety, I needed to get some serious calories in me and the Delnashaugh Hotel, just beneath the curl of the A95, was closest. I actually really enjoyed my time there: from the helpful waitress who found me the number for Bikes & Bowls in Elgin, to the huge plate of mac ‘n’ cheese, garlic bread and chips had outside on the patio area, I began to feel more in control. Also, the range of single malts behind the bar is pretty impressive. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Full to the gunnels with carbohydrates, I managed to power through to Aberlour, then time-trial up the hill to Dufftown. I was just in time to catch the bus from the clock tower to Elgin, but I couldn’t travel with the whole bike. This meant I had no choice but to repair the bike tomorrow morning, and that put GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh in jeopardy.

I was despondent for as long as it took to shower, change and visit Sandy at Taste of Speyside. Once again I was bowled over by the Highland hospitality, the venison casserole, and the G&M Glentauchers 1994. I could reflect that, even if the bike wasn’t 100% fit, I had still made it to the malt whisky capital and that wasn’t such a bad place to be.

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BYOB: Bottle Your Own Booze

Someone working on behalf of The Dalmore thought I might like to know that the Whyte & MacKay-owned Highland distillery has been beasting the competition as far as value growth is concerned. The ‘luxury brand’ is outstripping the other top 25 global single malts, with 69% year-on-year growth playing 12%. Consumers would appear to be fully prepared to throw lots of cash at rarer, more ‘deluxe’ bottlings from The Dalmore over and above other competitors, which is what I take ‘value growth’ to mean: the sumptuous packaging, the clever brand story, the astronomical performances at auction, would appear to be netting those managing the Cromartie Firth distillery vast amounts of money.

To double back and tackle the packaging issue, however. The Trinitas expression could boast crystal, rare woods, and enormous quantities of expertly-wrought silver, all of which nudged the whisky up towards that knee-knocking figure of £100,000. Yes, the whisky inside was doubtless rather special, but fostering the idea that a crack team of craftsmen had exhausted hundreds of hours of labour to manifest this specialness visually seemed to be important.

However, there is a counter-culture sweeping the visitor centres of Scotch whisky distilleries and it is the ‘bottle your own’ phenomenon. Aberlour, on Speyside, has perhaps the highest and longest-standing profile with respect to offering their visitors the chance to get their hands wet and fill, cork, seal and label their own bottle of whisky. Indeed, it was the first distillery at which I got up close and personal with raw whisky to take away.

Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 and the hand-bottling area.

The list of distilleries at which this gimmicky but fun and unusual process can be undertaken is a long one. Over the coming weeks, I hope to have factsheet posts for all of the Scotch whisky regions and sub regions detailing the visitor experience on offer, but for now here are those which I know accommodate hand-bottling: Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Auchentoshan, Balblair, Balvenie, Benromach, Bruichladdich, GlenDronach, Glenfiddich, Glengoyne, Glen Moray, Pulteney, and Tomatin. The spirits available typically hail from ex-Bourbon or ex-Sherry, but some may have occupied an exotic wine cask. They will vary in age and strength, but none are cheap. My Aberlour was £65, and at Auchentoshan you pay up to £100 for the privilege of infiltrating the warehouse and drawing your 70cls.

 

My 'whisky handshake' moment at Aberlour last September.

Why do we stand for it, if we are doing all of the manual labour? Of course, it is to experience that connection with the whisky-making process we have just observed. To see golden spirit exit the cask in front of us constitutes a timely reminder that depsite the often sanitized environments of modern distilleries and the gargantuan bottling lines by which our favourite single malt lands in Tunbridge Wells or Taiwan, whisky can be understood in terms of 250l hogsheads, and can - when emerging from oak - pungently enter the light and air of our personal atmosphere before slipping into a glass bottle. As we hold that bottle steady, and as its proportions slosh with spirit, it is like a whisky hand shake. We see, feel and hear before we taste and smell the personality of the whisky, uniquely developed in its wooden nursery, in a way we cannot do when picking up a bottle from the shelves of our local spirits store.

Distilleries lay on a special batch of spirit, and the tools to capture it, so that we can mark our moments in them. We can get involved, cut out the middle men, and escort off the premises a measure of the place itself. The label will bear not only the name of the distillery, but your signature, too, placing you in a new relation to your favourite dram. As far as the distilleries are concerned, I think it demonstrates that they similarly want to establish a new relation to their customers. The life of a cask is enriched by the 200-odd names, from all over the world, who drew spirit from it which I think is a powerful means of appreciating the lengths many whisky drinkers go to for their favourite whiskies, and the stories behind them. When that bottle sits, pride of place, on the shelf in Brussels or Beijing, there will exist a personal connection directly back to a few square feet of Scotland: not bad going for less than a litre of distilled beer.

Keep watching the Scotch Odyssey Blog for precisely what single cask, tasty morsels Scotch whisky distilleries will be offering the visitors this summer. Alternatively, I have found my way onto Twitter, and you can follow me via @WhiskyOdyssey. See you there.

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Cups o’ Kindness: Celebrating with Whisky

Whisky conquers all.

University Year 2 of 4 has come to a conclusion! [Whoops and shrieks and similar noises conveying relief and joy.] But once the giddiness, writers’ cramp and the last haunting echoes of Samuel Beckett have left my person, what do I use to fill the academic void? What whisky does my newly-liberated self demand?

As it happens, the decision is not in any way straightforward. My choice following the final exam of Semester One reflected my needs at the time: a comfort dram was the order of the day, as it would be on any other occasion in which I am expected to write about Marxism for forty minutes. A double Caol Ila 12yo embraced my palate and soothed my mind, and went some way towards pacifying me having been asked by the bar staff for ID. Obviously St Andrews is riddled with deep-voiced, 6’3” bearded 17-year-olds requesting marginally lesser-known Islay single malts. Anyway, the familiar dry barley sweetness and delicate crumbly peat served to put the horrors of the exam period behind me.

I escaped from my last exam this time around on Thursday at 11.30, however, and have still yet to savour a distilled spirit. This has created a concern, because the dram in question has to be rather superb now. Delayed gratification, and whatnot. More than enough lager has been consumed to wash away – Lethe-like - the memories of English and Classics assessment, and I feel like something which can coax me into anticipating the summer of freedom with some crisp, buxom flavours. My Aberlour single cask? Definitely unctuous, creamy and apricot-y, but far too heavy on the oak, I’ve decided. My Glenlivet 21yo? Apt, but more of a soothing fireside whisky. My Balblair single cask? Jolly excellent, but a little over-familiarised in these last months.

The answer, I feel, has to be the remnants of my Compass Box cask sample. This decidedly different time in my life (last year’s post-exams high was a tad more stressful than it ought to have been, hurtling down to Newcastle for a Rush concert while quaffing some Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve) calls for a seriously singular spirit. Failing that, I can get a measure of Laphroaig Quarter Cask at my local for £2.40 so I have options.

It is a nice problem to have, of course, selecting which of your favourite whiskies you ought to pour. But can we sometimes become too caught up in having the right drink at the right time, for the right reasons? Do we intimidate ourselves with respect to our own drinks cabinets? Shouldn’t any whisky well-earned taste sweetest? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether or not we create impossible pedestals for our drams and impose too many restrictions and caveats about which pleasures we ought to find in what whiskies at which times?

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Le Malt 24 Hours – part 2

As I mentioned in the previous post, for our 24 Whiskies in 24 Hours Challenge Mark and I understood that company would be an important factor in the undertaking. Good morale would ensure positive malt moments. With this in mind, for our eighth whisky Xander, Quaich Society Secretary, joined us in Mission Control.

Out came Peat’s Beast, an independent bottling of a peaty whisky recently released and for which I had a 70cl sample. I hope to bring you more detailed information on this dram soon, but for now suffice it to say that it galvanised our spirits for the night ahead. ‘Just remember,’ Xander replied, ‘alcohol is a depressant’. And then he bounced out the door.

01.30: Four Roses Small Batch and Dervish pizzas.

Little did Mark and I realise that, ordering pizzas aside, we would enjoy no other outside human interaction for the next 17 hours. We decamped to his flat where a Speyside period developed: two malt whiskies with bipolar developments in both Sherry and ex-Bourbon oak. The Macallan Fine Oak 10yo and The Balvenie Doublewood proved delicious, despite the incoming seismic waves of another sinus headache for me. From there, arrangements became somewhat comical as we tramped to and fro, grabbing whiskies (Balblair 1992, Four Roses Small Batch) and a DVD (Rat Race) so that whisky and adequate distraction should be in the one place.

A very truncated verticle tasting of Aberlour followed as Mark’s 10yo introduced my 16yo single cask. It was at this point, dear readers, that despite the fortifying ham pizza, I confess I hit the wall. 03.30 had arrived entirely unexpectedly and found me pschologically unprepared. We had, when discussing the endeavour, always admitted that fatigue and not inebriation would be the greatest threat to completing the Le Malt 24 hours but I had not expected the agonising, bleary-eyed and ponderously-stomached horror of it all. I sat, slumped, on my sofa and could not revive myself with a pragmatic appraisal of the situation: we were two whiskies beyond halfway, if I could only endure until 5am or thereabouts, I could conquer the challenge.

Mercifully, our itinerary came to the rescue. Mark’s coastal collection of Jura Superstition and Clynelish 14yo would see us through until dawn, and we had agreed that we would take the Challenge to the beach. SAS-style, I grabbed everything warm I possessed, in addition to an Easter Egg. The trek that followed I remember neither as brief nor straightforward but we belatedly arrived at the Old Course. En route, we had exchanged greetings with a hedgehog which Mark entirely failed to photograph. I think this multi-species interaction gave me new heart, however, for I navigated my way between the 17th and 18th, then the 2nd and 1st – avoiding the Swilken Burn by some miracle – and placed boot on sand with firmer resolution.

We pitched ourselves on a bit of dune, poured the Jura, and became entranced by the wonders of the universe above our heads. I sipped the whisky which, at pre-dawn temperatures, reminded me of the Jura and ice cream experiment we had indulged in at 16.30: a smoky, butterscotch frozen treat. As I lay on the dune, I noticed a satellite sliding over the sky, and traced its progress with slack-jawed wonder. The Milky Way could be seen, too.

Astoundingly beautiful on both counts: the 15yo Caol Ila and sunrise on St Andrews' pier.

Because it was cold, and unbeknownst to ourselves we now sported a significant layer of light sand courtesy of the seaside breeze, we moved on to East Sands. By this point, light had begun to build in the lower reaches of the sky and hope renewed. Mark and I slouched to the end of the pier which was no less chilly or exposed than West Sands had been, but the insistent swells coming from the horizon broke against it in the half-light with a mesmeric beauty. Black and blue, the waves kept on melting against the structure on which we stood, with textures I well knew my camera could not capture.

Clynelish and that Easter Egg ushered in the dawn, and we poured the Caol Ila single cask in time to encourage the burning slit of red that announced the return of the sun. Despite this being the 17th dram of the day, that Caol Ila in that moment will always remain a particular privilege to have savoured.

The terrors of the night vanquished, we returned to my flat where an unusual breakfast awaited us. The Glenlivet 21yo at 07.30 in the morning beat a bowl of Crunchy Nut cornflakes any day, and when I opened the Redbreast 12yo an hour later, it was infinitely preferrable to fruit muesli and yoghurt.

 

Into the finishing straight: Mark pours the Glenmorangie Original.

Breaking the 20 whiskies barrier would require another stagger back to Mark’s. There, Glenmorangie Original witnessed a fit of laughter on my part as I speculated on what members of the public passing Mark’s sitting room window should think were they to look in at us. The laughing quickly stopped, however. At 10.25, our finishing line seemed further away than it had at 06.45. We put The Departed on the DVD player and poured, drank, washed glasses, poured and drank again. Mark professed to be struggling by this stage, and I had started to worry about what that gentle tug in my lower abdomen might indicate as to the status of my liver. Damon, Di Caprio and co. shooting each other passed some critical time and eventually, with wry smiles and rasped ‘slainte‘s, the penultimate whisky entered the glasses. Incredibly, and Mark agreed, I could still find the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban enjoyable. I could still stand whisky.

Walking back into the Whey Pat, I fixed my gaze upon their wall of whiskies in a manner that the barmaid would have been forgiven for judging as ‘unnecessarily aggressive’ or ‘mad’.

‘What do you fancy?’ asked Mark. I slumped against the bar.

‘Old Pulteney 12yo, please.’

And so Lavinia, our companion from the Bruichladdich tasting but 21 hours previously, discovered us half an hour later a pitiful, morose pair. There was a plate of nachos I could not finish, despite having drawn upon them as my motivational energy in the small hours. There were blood-shot eyes. There was a notable failure of communication as I could think of nothing besides my bed. However, there was real cameraderie between myself and my fellow expeditionist. We had done what had at certain points seemed impossible and we could still look at a bottle of whisky without yelping in fright. 24 whiskies, 24 hours – a vast number of singular memories, and the written promise that we will never do anything like it again. At least, my signature is on there; Mark is thinking he might give it a shot with ale.

The completion photograph. I should have done - but could not do - more damage to those nachos...

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First Class First-Fill Caol Ila

No sooner had I submitted my beastly final piece of English coursework for this semester than I was back at my desk, concentrating. The subject was whisky, the work engrossing.

At this time of year in my privately-rented and above all electrically-heated flat, a dram combats the cold far more cost-effectively than the radiators. Even if that dram is a single cask, 15yo stunner from Islay. In fact, my Dewar Rattray Caol Ila can ignite the taste buds not only with its strength, but also in its gorgeous suggestions of peat kilns and beach bonfires. I can put up with the sight of my breath in the chill air providing the charming vapour from my favourite distillery is infused within it.

A zingy, vibrant step up from the standard 12yo, with much of the evolving depth of the astonishing 18yo.

 

Dewar Rattray Caol Ila 1991 15yo Cask #743 56.7% abv.

Colour – Bold lemon gold.

Nose – A curious Manichean dram at first: deep coils of black smoke smoulder at the core while dense, fuzzy sweetness oozes over the top. Bonfire smoke, peat and baked apple emerge. A little bit of heating in the hand (very necessary as I have already said) is certainly worth it as my favourite vision of Islay materialises: wintriness, frost and earth, peaty rivers and pale sunlight forming the backdrop for fruit peel, singed barley and delicate heathery smoke. There is a wonderful defined maltiness, shot through with steely apple and electric vanilla. Sweet lemon rind. Further warming and it’s like putting your head in a log-burner – dense, brown woody smoke. Beneath that, though, and so so gorgeous, is that Caol Ila oiliness and black olive note.

Water added and my notes say ‘Oh, the sweetness’. It’s a mixture of syrupy fruits, cask contributions and proving bread. Lime smoke comes next – one indivisible from the other. Slices of just ripe, chilled pear. The oak does wonderful sweet and aromatic things: first creamy with the kind of pure, natural vanilla notes you don’t come across very often, then wafts of scented sandalwood. Returns to that classic Caol Ila olive brine character. At last the peated malt makes an appearance.

Palate – Fabulously intense: prickly smoke and bursting fruits: apple, orange and lime. Burning peat and then creamy pale oak sugars drizzle over the tongue. Water did not spoil the cohesion and more of the delicious malt appeared with a friskier fruitiness. The oak is a smooth grip on the tongue now, however, with less of the sweetness.

Finish – Lactic at first, although apple builds. A soft peat reek. Develops a lot of maritime saltiness but is otherwise fairly discreet.

Water pulled out olive and green fruits. Intensely exuberant. Barrages of soft malty smoke and a touch of deisel oil welcome you back to Islay. A triumph.

Different elements of this malt appear with time and water, making for a very rewarding experience. I adore this whisky’s life and potency, which I note quite often in the 15yo region, and shows how well spirit and cask have paired up. Later in the evening I had my Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 ex-Bourbon cask and… well, that was what I tasted most of. The oak murdered my palate on that occasion, where the Caol Ila had delighted it. I’m growing slightly wary of first-fill expressions, especially ones that creep into their mid-teens, and I intend to investigate a few more refill casks in future. Any single cask is a lottery, both for the distillery workers putting the clearic in to it to the customer purchasing its eventual contents but taking heart from the SMWS refill Glen Garioch I marvelled at earlier this month, I shall be on the look-out for those instances where the whisky-wood marriage is a happy one. I’m still partial to an oaky caress from my whiskies, providing it leads to something more, however.

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Four years of fanaticism. And counting…

Maturity, supposedly, is defined by the ability to learn from mistakes. Politicians are forever assuring the electorate that shortcomings in the decision-making process have been apprehended and addressed, and that government is a savvier place as a result. Perhaps, on second thoughts, this isn’t the most clear-cut example of the development I am talking about as endemic errors have the habit of undermining whatever edifice of wisdom even the most adept spin doctors can construct. Therefore, I offer up an instance from my own life to illustrate how redemption is possible.

When the 25th of October hove into view for the second time on my higher educational calendar I improved upon my strategy for the first occurrence in a number of key areas. Firstly, I circled the date in thick red pen, which instantly lodges it in the medium-term prioritisation agenda. Secondly, I ensured that I would not lament the lack of any outstanding malts for company on that evening. Thirdly, with a proud fist and booming voice I cried ‘Essays be damned!’ With these simple measures I had no reason to fear a frazzled repeat of 25/10/2010 and could have a lot of fun instead.

Four years and here is one shelf I can be happy with.

Between my flat mate, Gareth, Camel, Aerosmith and Dream Theater and a potent delegation from the whisky community, I raised a thoughtful glass to my fourth year since shuffling, wide-eyed, into The Glenlivet. In fact, I raised three. Beginning with the pale, unctuous fruitiness of the Aberlour 16yo Warehouse No. 1 bottling, moving to a sociably spicy Balblair 1989 (supplied by Gareth), and concluding my meditation with the Dewar Rattray Caol Ila, I could not reproach myself for not having taken the time to recognise and celebrate the inescapable hold malt whisky has over almost every aspect of my world view - and practically my identity, too.

The Caol Ila in particular, possibly the most richly phenolic specimen from that distillery I have ever been fortunate enough to come across, delineated and hyper-extended the critical moments in my whisky life so far, and stoked the fires of my passion for the stuff once again. Indeed, I rather suspected it might have been the blackened, oily residue of that very engine room of distilled spirit enthusiasm so intensively potent, rib-tickling and galvanising was it. Lime cordial and heavy thick peat on the nose gives way to tart, caramel-covered influences from the first-fill Bourbon cask, and a finish as delicately sweet yet fragrantly dry as you could wish for in a dram.

Sipping the water of life while head-banging to ‘Learning to Live’, I had a malt-soaked manifesto thrashed out there and then. Durkheim, Milton and Homer, I decided, proffer only one perspective on the world. Within and around them is a universe of flavour no less surprising, instructive or eternal. Indeed, as Housman said: ‘malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man’. We’ll see how well that goes down with my tutors.

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The SMWS at the Quaich Society

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has, when it comes to tastings, adopted the American military’s infamous strategy of shock and awe. Not only are their drams the equivalent of B52s in impact and firepower, their ambassadors together form some sort of Single Malt Navy Seal special forces unit. Essay deadlines had leached my preceding week of colour, life and pleasure. An airstrike from the SMWS squadron explosively repatriated them.

St Doug Clement worked a little miracle for the Quaich Society; by contributing 300 Glencairn glasses we could ensure that the five single cask, cask strength, unchillfiltered, uncoloured (my, oh my) drams Craig Johnstone had retrieved from The Vaults to wreak mass destruction would not be thwarted in their mission by inadequate glassware. ‘To leave no nose upturned’ is the Society’s motto, and when I had a mind to scan the room, every one of the 60 guests appeared to have theirs buried in Glencairns.

Some many-hued delights. 'Horizontal' tastings offer endless possibilities for exploration.

Craig introduced himself to the room, and the room to itself. He enquired of everyone’s places of origin and their taste in drinks. This was no phatic stunt to break the ice, however; it turns out that Craig has been just about everyone, tasted just about everything, and has a ravenous desire to understand how so many of our favourite beverages come to be. We learnt of eccentric Canadian treatments for back pain (Crown Royal if your sciatica is playing up); how India claim to be drinking more Johnnie Walker than Scotland produces, and the extraordinary diversity of flavours being created throughout the world and which Craig has witnessed for himself.

A considerable proportion of this flavour diversity – and maybe all of the 32 primary aromas he talked about – leapt out at us from the glasses in front of us. The first dram of the evening hailed from distillery 121 and it was cask #48. 121.48, then, or ’Let’s get this party started’ as the tasting note excerpt read. I found this light and rounded at first, with crisper, biscuity dry undertones developing. A little bit of braised cabbage and candied lemon, also. The palate was clean and smooth, with a hit of alcohol mid-palate and unripe pear. Water sharpened the nose, bringing out freshly washed cotton on the clothes line. A more strident biscuit note developed in the mouth, with charred oak, thick caramel and dark chocolate. A very fresh and frisky dram from Arran.

Dram No. 2 - or to be more correct, G5.3 – was a revelation. Gasps gusted around the Garden Suite and it was not simply on account of the 65.6% abv. Matured for eighteen years in a toasted virgin oak cask, this was one single grain that, for many, outstripped the single malts that night. I must confess that ‘Extraordinary’ is right. The grain spirit had plucked everything that was superlative from the cask, while keeping its light, clean softness. ’Who thought grain whisky could taste like this?’ Craig enquired. Had most of these Quaich Soc’ers not already been blessed with John Glaser’s proselytising with the help of his Hedonism bottling, more hands would have gone up. This was another weighty case to put to the grain dissenters.

The evening then repaired to an Old Jazz Bar next, a 26yo specimen from #35. I was impressed by the breadth of flavours, although it seemed a tad too discreet and polite at first although perhaps this was due to the strength. At 40.6% another couple of months in this particular ex-Bourbon cask would have robbed it of its whisky identity. Crisp, flaky malt, plain chocolate, ginger sponge and ground coffee comprised the expansive nose while the palate was exceptionally soft, with apple, well-integrated oak and vanilla biscuit. As Glen Morays go, this was a deliciously delicate individual.

Mr Craig Johnstone, giving one hell of a lecture.

I would never in a million years have supposed that 76.85, ‘The Antagonist’, might have indicated output from dear old Mortlach. Apple, pear and melon (eh?!) on the nose with some gently buttery barley and crisp oak have never appeared in my tasting notes for this Chthonic distillery. On the palate I did find rich vegetables and a ‘fixing’ quality, but I did not think to equate this with worm tub collusion, still less Dufftown. Water made it more voluble and oaky, with some orange rind tucked underneath to please the nostrils. And they were pleased, just fairly rubbish at the identity parade.

There could be no confusing the next incumbent. 29.90, as all Society peatheads will tell you, is the quite unique Laphroaig and I doubt this particular bottling would disappoint them. Heavy peat, glorious peat. Cigarette ash and bonfire night, spent matches. There were some in the room, however, who were somewhat hostile to this style of spirit but Craig, ever resourceful, had a solution. ‘I promise you this will get rid of the smoke, and you will finish that dram.’ Eyebrows were raised, but Craig persevered. ‘I want you to take a mouthful of water and just keep it there.’ We all obeyed, trying not to drown ourselves or gargle. ‘Now drink the whisky through the water.’ I stared in bemusement and wonder. The equivalent of Sawing the Woman in Half had just happened, in my mouth. The smoke fleetingly appeared as a rich, dry tickle and then disappeared altogether leaving only a caramel-like, barley sugar sweetness that rolled over the tastebuds with every possible flirtation. ‘The phenols dissolve in water first, you see,’ Craig said through a huge grin.

The tasting over, and a queue of people around the front table for the purposes of either thanking our host or putting their name and credit card details in his membership ledger, I could reflect on the marvel we had all witnessed. Craig Johnstone is the Kilchoman of the whisky ambassador world. For one so young it astonishes me that he should have acquired so much knowledge, science, anecdote and authority in so short a space of time. In fact, many a wily and more senior ambassador has laid light fingers on his show-stopper tricks without attribution, a tactic that does wrankle him a little. Of course, he is a couple of decades ahead of them already, and who knows what heights will be attained with a few more years around casks regarding the Craig Johnstone package?

‘Had any of you heard about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before tonight?’ Craig had asked at the top of the evening. ’Did any of you think we were a cult?’ Perhaps expansion into the religious sect business would not be a disastrous idea: I know that many in St Andrews were converted.

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Aberlour: Warts and All

Welcome to the second instalment of my Aberlour Founder’s Tour review. My justification for cleaving my report in two? So stuffed with glorious details and quirks was the experience itself I worried that with a single post my finger ends might disintegrate before I had related all of the tour’s worthy facets. I covered the relaxed and illuminating investigation of the Aberlour distilling site in my previous post, but today I shall describe our gripping and surprising adventures through the spirit itself.

Middle School science all over again...

In a conference theatre adjoining the Fleming Rooms, and which betrayed the heavy Druidic hand favoured by the marketing department, nosing glasses of suspicious spirit were passed around, the first of which was the foreshot sample. At 67% abv., I couldn’t be certain whether dilution had occurred between spirit safe and our copitas. I doubt it made that much difference in any case.

Below our nostrils was the reason distillers are not exactly OCD about the cleaning of their pipework: a Frankenstein’s monster of a liquid. It certainly smelt somewhat eldritch and Faustian: heavy, metallic cereal notes barged out, with blackcurrant skins underneath and the panicked suggestion of pear drops and apples in the background, as if fleeing from the burning castle. A violent spiciness gripped the nose. Water failed to turn this monster into a princess. Instead the dominant flavour was of intense macerated citrus fruits, creating a thin and cold ambiance. My North American friends recoiled in disgust although I must admit that I was not particularly offended. Maybe I have hung around more low wines and feints receivers than is strictly healthy, but even here I could appreciate malt whisky’s feral beginnings. Yes it was frantically aggressive and uncoordinated, but it could have been much worse, too, for all the microscopic traces of copper sulphate seething within it.

It was with relief, therefore, that we turned to the second sample. At 74% in strength after only half-an-hour’s cautious distilling, we were now exploring Aberlour spirit in its liveliest precocity. Far sweeter and lighter than the foreshots, this offered crisp cereal notes growing to creamy and grassy flavours. Proceedings deepened with a little water, a leafiness appearing together with fruit skins (apple and pear) and a note of emerging caramel which intrigued me no end. Donna, Michele & co. were still unimpressed, however.

Nosing the third cut point reveals a striking trend. If the foreshots were savage and brutal and the new make coherent and vibrant, the feints betrayed the doughty and flaccid death throes of the distilling cycle. Despite its raucous abv. reading of 58%, the tail barely wagged. Notes of banana skin and floor cleaner, followed by firmer, leafy wood notes with water made for a very forgettable spirit. On time, a dimmed floral character developed – something like sunflowers in very late summer – but hardly electrifying. At this juncture in its evolution, the water of life is somewhat stagnant.

The good, the bad and the ugly. But all were appreciated.

Few distillers would have the balls to show there spirit without its make-up on. To so much as come by a nip of the new make – that which will become the single malt output of Distillery X in a few years’ time – is a rare privilege. My American friends dissaproved of the specimens while I was prepared to root out redeeming features; in both cases, however, I’m sure we found the opportunity fascinating. The overall complexion of wash, boiled in copper pot stills, is imperfect, inconsistent and volatile. All the distiller can do with this torrent of flavours as they tumble past him is to snatch at those which meet his requirements.

A truly epic selection, and mighty tasty in more ways than one.

And so to the whiskies themselves, those temperamental juices harvested many years ago and handed over to oak to see what it could make of them.

The first of these was the new make itself, the sample of spirit we had encountered earler when combined with the remainder of the spirit run. At 70% abv., there was an enhanced creaminess over the earlier sample with medium deep fruits and unripe pear lurking quitely in the foreground. The palate revealed leafy, malty notes with more fruitiness. The white chocolate and black fruit chocolate that accompanied it enhanced the creaminess and tamed the alcohol somewhat.

I must admit that at this point I jumped the Good Ship Jonathan. While he described the 18yo as well as the provenance and composition of the four bespoke chocolates gleaming before us, I turned to the golden-coloured contents of the glass on my right. With trembling fingers, I lifted off the stopper cap, brought the glass to my nose with ponderous slowness and… did whatever it is one does when fulfilling destiny.

The latest single cask ex-Bourbon barrel available in Warehouse No. 1 was a 16yo at 54.2% abv. Two years more and 9.1% less than my darling of the previous year. What difference could this make? On the nose this is a heavy and syrupy beast (to my rarefied memory the 14yo was sweet and lithe) with grapeskins (not apples), creamy spice and cardamom (not coconut). I had to make a real effort to quell the accusatory interruptions of that ex-ex-Bourbon, to allow this dram to speak for itself. The alcohol boasted a heady, heavy quality, too, but shifted to reveal an intense grassiness, biscuitiness and – yes – coconut. My golden apples appeared on the palate, together with heaps of caramel and a hint of blackcurrant jam. Creamy fruitiness endured.

‘I’m sorry, Jonathan,’ I piped up. ‘I am following the tasting, it’s just this is the whisky I’ve waited seventeen months to meet.’ Jonathan assured me that this was not a problem and that I should just damn well enjoy myself. 

With the addition of a little water, the nose grew even creamier with Werther’s Original toffees. Coconut leapt out much more readily, giving the delicious impression of hot gorse bushes. Fresh linen appeared, as did more green fruits in the shapes of lime and apple. Thick Glycerine icing sugar – like you would find on a Christmas cake – provided a minty, sugary flavour and there, oh Mamma, there was the Lelandii, the fresh cut pine note from the oak. Marvellous. The oak showed far more boldly on the palate now, in addition to lemon and faintly earthy malt. The ex-Bourbon DNA thrust more forcefully to the surface. The chocolate pairing was less successful, but then this could have been because I had fallen in a swoon.

I know, every blogger has an image of themselves doing this. But that's because it is very very enjoyable.

A word, then, on those other whiskies which would, in any other line-up, inspire eulogies of their own. The 18yo was indeed delightful and worked supremely well with its dark chocolate-coated dried apricot. Gentle and sweetly soft on the nose, there were additional flavours of chocolate coins and red apple, once again on the softer side of things. Malty characters prevailed on the palate with a touch of toasted oak and fruit cores.

My ambition to assemble a cabinet of balance and variety having been irrecoverable scuppered on the Tuesday with my ex-Bourbon Caol Ila purchase, I turned to the single cask ex-Sherry Aberlour, a 16yo at 57.4%, with curiosity and some guilt. This would be the wiser choice, but could I walk away from Aberlour for a second time without a bottle of the ex-Bourbon? I could not. Though deep, rounded and velvety, and with the Sherry contributing plenty of orange notes and cinnamon (paired beautifully with a dark bitter chocolate and candied orange morsel), we repaired to Warehouse No. 1 with my decision firmly made.

When my two French counterparts of last year’s tour set to coordinating their collective extraction of precious Sherry-matured spirit with much chuckling and picture-taking, I had loved spectating on the manifestation of their Scottish holiday momento. It was even more fun participating in the birth of one’s own precious souvenir. I use the birthing analogy only because Bob did so first. I picked up an empty, label-less bottle and held it beneath the nozzle of the verticle glass chamber which would soon dispense whisky once I raised the lever to the right of the valve. Much like the hyrdometers I had been playing with in Balblair, spirit swelled into the tube and with a downward swipe in to the bottle it gushed. Bob would show how best to manipulate the valve so that whisky entered the glass with minimum aeration. From there it was a clamp straight out of the Industrial Revolution to insert the cork, then another for the foil cork wrapper.

Not since primary school have I concentrated so much on my handwriting. As neatly as possible I recorded the cask, the fill, the date of filling, the cask number, the date of bottling, the age, the bottle number and the strength. Jonathan wrapped up my new treasure in swaddling red tissue and encased it in a wooden box. Bob and Chris filled from the Bourbon and the Sherry, and each seemed as delighted with the new addition to their lives as I was.

The bottle-your-own facilities. Haven't the 'sweet shops' of my childhood grown up a bit?

Sadly there was little time to dwell. Our easy pace had delayed our progress somewhat, and Jonathan still had a final treat for us lying, caged and ominous, in Warehouse No. 6. This 8yo first-fill Oloroso butt was a cracker. At 61% its potency could not be ignored, and it blended raw, mouth puckering but sugar-sweet tannins with rich red fruits and toffee. Had Jonathan not locked the beast up again there’s no telling how many laws I may have broken.

While I munched on some exquisitely absorbent chicken and bacon pancakes in Fresh on Aberlour’s main street, I realised that the sense of joy and contentment which prevailed over me was deeply familiar. Scrumptious as they were, I don’t think I can put it down to the pancakes, the company of my family or even the marginal detail that today I was 21 years of age. I had felt exactly the same when alone in my B&B on a non-descript, drizzling April afternoon with the final remains of a chicken tikka pie in my hand. Aberlour distillery had, once again, transformed my day, advanced my single malt understanding and reinvigorated my soul. The Founder’s Tour is the standard by which I shall judge all specialist tours from now on. The bar is giddily high.

Aberlour Founder’s Tour: £25, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Booking essential.

www.aberlour.com

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Coming of Age at Aberlour

I’m not allowed to turn 21 every day. I appealed the decision, but the powers that be stood firm. You would be in complete sympathy with the temper tantrums I managed by some miracle to quash had you too participated in the Aberlour Founder’s Tour on this bright and balmy Speyside morning for as a means of spending a day – indeed as a means of spending everyday - I can think of few better.

Great things await at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.

The honorary Scotch Cyclist taxi service pulled up outside the dapper stone gate house which is the visitor’s first glimpse of the Aberlour experience. I say ‘experience’ and not ‘distillery’ very deliberately. Chivas Brothers have been immensely clever and revolutionary in the handling of their Speyside portfolio: throw open the doors of The Glenlivet for all those who have come to Scotland from afar, drawn by the alluring kiss of one of the world’s most prolific brands; spruce up Strathisla for those who need somewhere tangible to express their love for Chivas Regal; transform Aberlour into one of the most professional, innovative and comprehensive whisky tourism facilities in Scotland for those wom simply traipsing round a distillery is not enough.

Maybe this is really how Aberlour achieves its golden-green apple flavour...

Aberlour’s excellence begins with their staff. The instant you wander into the compact visitor centre and shop you are welcomed by shirt-and-tie-sporting gentlemen who are friendliness and discretion personified. Graduate from the How To Make Your Customers Feel Completely At Ease And Looked After School of public relations on the day of my visit was Jonathan. We exchanged ‘How-do-you-dos’, he handed over my tour paperwork and then we enjoyed a very pleasant conversation about his four and a half years at William Grant & Sons, during which he pitched in at every stage of the whisky-making and tourist-wowing processes, in addition to my own ventures into Scotch whisky. I was very interested in what he had to say and, to his credit, Jonathan looked interested in what I had to say. However, I secretly hoped that there might be other personalities to accompany us on the tour. ’We’ll get underway in just a little while,’ he said. ‘There is a party of four still to join us.’ Fantastic!

Companionship was something I had hankered for on many of my one-to-one tours of 2010 and I was delighted when four completely lovely people, bedecked in active outdoor cum distillery-wear piled through the door within moments. Donna, Michele, Bob and Chris supplied that critical ingredient in tours of this nature: regular conversation. Too often when I book a specialist tour of a distillery I am the sole participant and conversation can grow appallingly technical. I become more concerned with scribbling in my notebook than remaining sensitive to the sheer fun of being in a functioning distillery. My four companions from Boston  ensured I never sacrificed my celebratory mood for recording pernickity details about flow rate and wash densities.

A home away from home, only with (slightly) more sumptuous single malts.

Sticking to the yellow brick road, or rather the tarmac markings intended to ward off rampaging McPherson tankers, our troop entered the distillery via the corporate front door. Jonathan whisked us into the Fleming Rooms, a sumptuous but tasteful hospitality suite which only VIPs are permitted to enter. As Founder’s Tour ticket holders, we five qualified as such. Over an exceedingly flirtatious Aberlour 12yo, Jonathan described the history of the distillery in which we sat (on luxurious leather sofas): its owners, its hardships and its modifications. He made no bones about the automated nature of the present site, and nor did I mind in the least. Times have to be moved with, and on a plant of Aberlour’s size trusting to a computerised system for such junctures as cut points and fermenting makes sound sense.

In the leisurely manner characteristic of the Founder’s Tour (and the Warehouse No. 1 Tour, as I remember) we arrived at the operating buildings themselves. In the plush exhibition area adjacent to the mill, I was more diverted by the wonderful aroma of sweet, fat barley and a richly creamy overtone than the factoid that a Aberlour spirit starts life as Oxbridge and Optic barley.

A glance at the bodacious, if sweltering, stills and we returned to the Fleming Rooms for the truly unique component of the Founder’s Tour. When Jonathan grabbed a couple of bottles that looked identical to some forgotten-about relics from my high school chemistry cupboard, I was eager to explore further – but not to the point of tipping some into my mouth and swallowing. ‘Look at that,’ Jonathan grimaced. ‘We couldn’t get away with putting that on the shop shelves.’ He likened the foreshots sample to a snow-shaker, and with a flick of the wrist spumes of bright blue sediment swirled about the bottle. If you were curious as to quite why distillers have to replace their stills, and where that copper goes, here’s your answer. The other three bottles looked perfectly normal new make, but that wasn’t the whole story, either.

Join me for another blogpost later on when I describe my encounter with three very different beasts which provide a snapshot of the distilling art, in addition to a report on the second unusual element of the Founder’s Tour. And, amidst all the fancy chocolates and caged Sherry butts, could the contents of a particular ex-Bourbon barrel seduce me for a second time?

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A Trophy Cabinet: Assembling Whisky United

The depleted whisky shelf.

The depleted whisky shelf.

Putting together a satisfactory whisky cabinet is much like building a successful football team. A collection of individuals it may be, but only as a cohesive unit can they hope to secure long-term glory. Likening whisky to a team sport may sound odd, but my relationship with it is such that I can only conceive of it in this way.

For me, whisky is precisely like a game football: the malt I happen to be drinking is simply the one in control of the ball while round about it are many others engineering its direction, providing supporting angles and ensuring collective success. One whisky is never consumed in isolation for it evokes so many elements in my whisky explorations, not just of places, people and processes, but of flavours and possibilities, too. The inclination to have a dram stems from all of these considerations and betrays not a craving just to consume alcohol but a need to savour again the past successes and delights associated with drinking whisky. It is therefore a polymorphous, composite inclination in its own right and highly complex. The challenge which it lays down is never the same and requires an elite assemblage of malts whose qualities enable them to engage in the contest dynamically and inspirationally.

This does not mean, however, that the brashest, showiest and above all most expensive whiskies make it into the team. I have learnt that my Whisky United, while expected to perform on the most glamorous nights of the Champions League, must chiefly earn their bread and butter in the quotidien grind of the Premiership. As I have already described here, my very favourite moment for a malt whisky and therefore by far and away the period of time in which most is consumed, is before dinner and this calls for a relatively light, fruity dram with ideally a strong citrussy and vanilla-accented ex-Bourbon influence. Peat is not unwelcome either. This, therefore, is the spine of my team from the centre halves to the holding midfield players. Of these latter, I have recently recognised that the Compass Box Asyla is my Iniesta: a player whose merit far outweighs his initial asking price. The likes of Linkwood and Caol Ila are the star strikers.

As I alluded to above, however, there are some late evening kick offs where a dram must possess the requisite power and artistry to shine on the biggest stage. It is not often that I call upon a whisky to serve as a digestif, but when I do there had better be one ambitious enough to seize the opportunity and make the moment. My Adelphi can do this tremendously well. It is the Didier Drogba or Cristiano Ronaldo of my drinks cabinet.

However, with the new season imminent, I have a problem with personnel. Many of my try-outs from the youth academy did not impress (Tomintoul Peaty Tang, Tormore 12yo, Glenmorangie LaSanta) and my old stagers have retired (Longmorn 15yo, Old Pulteney 12yo). The team needs rebuilding and I’m putting my limited budget towards quality players perhaps overlooked by many. They must be distinctive, individual and roar with eloquence about how fantastic unadulterated whisky can be. Presently I have my Adelphi (which qualifies handsomely), the Ardmore Traditional, Auchentoshan 1978 and tiny amounts of Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve and Compass Box. Not a collection guaranteed to best the hurly-burly of forthcoming opposition. I need additional vibrancy, delicacy and long-term commitment.

I’m struggling to channel Sir Alex Ferguson on this one, though. I’m due in Benromach for a Manager’s Tour next month and cannot overcome the temptation to take them up on their offer of £15 off the bottle-your-own single cask. The excellent 10yo may be more consistently amenable, and there is much to be said for drinking a whisky at 43% abv when there is still much academic work to be done over a cask strength brute. But the ‘cask strength brute’ is precisely what interests me about whisky right now: in its raw state, pure, simple and unique. There is a similar conundrum associated with the Aberlour bottle-your-own. It is a lot of money (although I would drink it) and despite the ex-Bourbon genesis, is it simply too rich to serve as an aperitif whisky?

My response has been and continues to be: wait and see. The Benromach single cask may be first-fill sherry, in which case it is a big no-no; the Aberlour may underwhelm so impossibly high are my expectations for this next single cask. Or, I may elect to trust in my holding midfielder (the Compass Box Asyla) and maybe a G&M Longmorn 12yo, while investing in the promises made at the time by whichever luminous malts I succumbed to that they can and will set the pitch on fire when necessary. Perhaps it is not for me yet to dictate where and when a malt is allowed to be extraordinary.

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