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August 9, 2011

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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July 26, 2011

A Taste of Speyside with Friends

Perhaps the most profound and extraordinary aspect of whisky’s character is how expertly it manipulates and distinguishes precious moments. One distillery, one dram, can bridge many months and miles and can muster disparate souls together to a degree that is startling yet also immensely heartening. When I purchased the Adelphi ‘Breath of Speyside’ 16yo in September last year, I had hoped for just such a moment and, a couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in it.

If Jane and Fiona employed something akin to maternal care for the purposes of chivvying me back on my way last year, Sandy of Taste of Speyside, Dufftown, wielded more paternal power to forcibly shake me from my exhausted and deflated stupour. In both instances, the distilleries they championed today recall a bond as near to kinship as makes no difference. Glen Garioch and Mortlach respectively connote laughter, security and friendship: they are like second homes. With a bottle of the former already in the cupboard, I needed a bottle of the latter as a representative in liquid form of Sandy’s humour and generosity. Mike in the Whisky Castle, Tomintoul, poured a measure of this for me, which he was certain could only be spirit from the desired distillery. For eight months it lurked in the darkness of the sideboard but with the completion of my first year at St Andrews and the imminent departure of a very dear friend to Alabama, USA, I felt the time was right to uncork all that pent-up conviviality.

As I explained to my malt-mad counterparts, I couldn’t imagine sharing the Adelphi with any other persons. Justin, possibly the most infectiously enthusiastic and erudite individual it has ever been my good fortune to attend a whisky tasting with, had swooned upon discovering the 16yo Flora & Fauna earlier in the year and Gareth, whose whisky experience has been swelling at a considerable rate of knots and absorbs the brasher, more aggressive flavours Scotch has to offer with relish, both succombed to wide-eyed rapture upon tasting. I, too, was delirious with delight at how perfectly the dram sang of Speyside’s earthier, richer, woodier landscapes and for a time I was back in a sparkly sunny Tomintoul withstanding Mike’s woe about how hard it is to find a good whisky these days. The dram, which we all agreed matched the distinctive power of Dufftown’s first distillery, communicated a great deal more effectively than I could my feelings both for single malt whisky in general and the two gentlemen who had supped so much of it with me in particular.

Adelphi Breath of Speyside‘Breath of Speyside’ 1991 16yo 57.9% cask no. 4229.

Colour – Fierce: soaked Sherry oak. Rich maple syrup.

Nose – Red fruits squashed into dusty dark earth at first, then a lot of the heady oaky ‘tang’ I associate with first-fill Sherry wood. Blackcurrant cordial. Closer to, the big, dark and powerfully sweet Sherry really leaps out. However, this whisky’s theme emerges immediately alongside this as I smell Chinese stir fry: groundnut oil and soy. Then I detect a log store: damp, bark-like and darkly aromatic. Leaf mould. Fragrance of light, leafy smoke completes this walk in the woods.

      Water conjures up a sweet meaty note straight away. This is roast leg of lamp straight out of the oven with crisp skin and running juices. Behind the meat is soft, muscular fruitiness. Rotting plums. Incredibly dense and feral. Earthily smoky and very rich maltiness suddenly emerges, with lavendar oil close behind. More breathing time pulls out toffee and nuts.

Palate – Attacking, fruit from the cask and then just cask. Serious tannic grip. Mulchy smoke and then sweeter malt steal in.

      Water rounds it out slightly, with the fruit now permitted to stand alone. The oak is tamed although there is still a dark richness that reminds me of beef stock granules.

Finish – Lovely, deep deep vanilla notes. Light and creamy citrus, too. The cask lends all the right flavours here. Meaty. Gently drying with orange pith.

      Water heightens the drying fragrance exerted by the cask: oak branches. Hot darkness comes next with blackened Sherry fruits. Creamy toffee, some green malt and then more impressions of living oak.

This is a powerful, challenging whisky which asserts the continued existence of a darker, more primeval Speyside than the one too many people now write off as light, fruity and honeyed. I can imagine the Speyside Way projecting similar aromas to this wonderful malt from the exceptional Adelphi on a wet November day. Maybe it is a conversation whisky, for I have not been amazed by it to the same degree as when I sipped it with Gareth and Justin. Of course, on the breath of this Speysider will carry the whispers of that particular night to which it bore witness, and I will prize it all the more as long as there is some of it left in the bottle to listen to.

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October 20, 2010

The Small Matter of a Mortlach

 

Do not miss this shop if you are anywhere near north east Scotland. It is relatively accessible (between May and November!) and contains malts and people unlike any others.

Do not miss this shop if you are anywhere near north east Scotland. It is relatively accessible (between May and November!) and contains malts and people unlike any others.

Re-visit Glen Garioch: check; dine at Sandy’s: check – I had been very efficient in my completion of whisky-related objectives so far on my Scotch Odyssey plenary, and with the previous night’s Speyside Platter still handsomely fueling my faculties, we made the journey into the Cairngorms to Tomintoul for my third mission.

As far as whisky emporia which I encountered over the course of my tour, none could match the Drury’s Whisky Castle. For the two days I enjoyed Tomintoul as my base camp, I spent a good deal of time in the shop and not nearly enough money. Mike and Cathy are passionate, generous, and often outspoken, but in the main fabulous ambassadors for whisky – although I don’t expect The Macallan or The Glenlivet to be employing Mike as sales director any time soon, but more of that later.

A sample of the varied bottlings to be found here.

A sample of the varied bottlings to be found here.

Where else could I have gone to purchase a most significant bottle? Who else could more instructively and entertainingly me guide me through the plethora of independent expressions available inside? Mike was my man for Mortlach.

He did not at first understand why I should be so determined to limit myself within the biodiverse jungle of his shop to one species of distillery alone. I had to explain that Mortlach was a special place for me, producing a special dram appreciated by special people. He grabbed a 12-year-old Provenance from the phalanx of sample bottles behind the till and tipped some into the bulbous Whisky Castle tumblers, which worked well for the tasting. I sensed conifer branches and burnt toffee, with plenty of phenolic character. Rich oak and sweet barley sugar emerged, too, along with a little shortbread. It was a clean nose, leading into a big, sulphury palate which filled the mouth with sweetness and a hint of peat smoke. A worthy start, but it hadn’t the guts at 46% ABV that I was really seeking.

This was a thoroughly pleasant way of spending a Thursday morning. I mean afternoon...

This was a thoroughly pleasant way of spending a Thursday morning. I mean afternoon...

Mike’s next suggestion was a Douglas Laing of the same age as the Provenance. At 50% ABV it was approaching the heady heights of raw whisky and certainly propounded plenty of oaky flavours on the nose: vanilla, new oak and a dry sweetness, extra rounded stewed fruit notes appearing after a time with greener fruits behind them. Toffee was present in the mouth, as well as more oak. Chewy and fruity, this reminded me quite a lot more of the 16-year-old official expression, one of my very favourites.

As I was nosing, scribbling and pondering, people were continually being sucked through the door. Whisky drinkers are chatty people – even at 11AM – and what was as a harmless remark on the part of one couple that they had visited The Glenlivet the previous day caught Mike’s attention. Yes, he said, The Glenlivet was a nice place to visit, it wasn’t really very good. He had plenty of malts which could kick the standard bottlings into touch.

‘I’d like to see you prove that,’ was the retort, and while he poured me further Mortlachs, he attended to these new customers and, I rather fancy, he did.

It is Mike’s policy to slyly rub you up the wrong way: juxtaposing your apprehension of the industry with that of his. His experience informs what can come across as incendiary – even sacrilegious – remarks about the state of the industry at present, and such disappointment is derived from his knowledge of better, more exciting days of flavour and distinction; these, he says, are behind us. His argument is that single malt whisky in its readily available, big-brand form, is dull. Not bad, he says, just consistent; uniform. He hurls his invective on chill-filtration and 40% ABV bottlings, claiming it sucks the life out of a once idiosyncratic spirit. He takes issue with the scale of the industry, too, bemoaning the lack of really good wood and this is where the Macallan comes in. The husband of the couple, when asked by Mike what he normally drank so that a suitable challenger could be selected, nominated the Speyside megastar. Mike argued that their wood management, whilst extensive and sophisticated, was dealing fundamentally with a threatened, finite resource and the resulting whisky was not a patch on that being bottled fifteen or twenty years ago. The Fine Oak range was a prime example of how the paucity of good Sherry casks was afflicting the X-factor of the output of distinguished malts today.

With the aid of a single cask 18-year-old Longmorn, the lack of protest from his patrons would suggest that he had made his point.

Meanwhile I had been savouring an Adelphi which Mike had put in front of me which, in his opinion, was a Mortlach. Technically, it proceeded under the rubric solely of ‘Breath of Speyside’ but his suspicion was that it was Dufftownian in origin. Single cask, cask strength (57.9% ABV): this was what I was here for. On the nose, sweet and powerful oak flavours dominated with plenty of toffee and a resinous character. Smooth and chocolatey, its dark richness put me in mind of dunnage warehouses – an instant hit for any whisky. Lightly charred notes came forward, with thick vanilla. Barley sweetness, like with the Provenance, appeared, too, with caramel shortbread. The palate was epically enthralling, evocative of the majestic Flora and Fauna bottling so rich, dark and fruity was it. The presence of more chocolate and toffee made this just the decadent example of Speyside I am particularly partial to.

The A D Rattray 16-year-old could not quite measure up to this delightfully rich mystery dram. Whilst being deeper and fuller, with more resinous dark fruits, it was a little too musty for my liking – very drying indeed. Caramel toffee and orange teased the nose, with some honey and rich barley. Those phenolic notes appeared on the palate with more fruit and vanilla. Nuts and sugar presented an authentic Mortlach experience.

It had to be the rich, sweet, oaky power of the Adelphi, though. Its spirited dynamic exhibition of the best of Sherry cask maturation ensured I would be taking this back home to Northumberland.

Requiring a walk to clear the old head of whisky vapour, my Dad and I wandered in the Glenlivet Estate, the same route we took, in fact, the day immediately prior to stumbling into the eponymous distillery. The weather, just as it had been three years ago, was as delicious as the malts I had been quaffing, and as the track took us beyond the tree line we could appreciate the rugged isolation of the Cairngorms and Tomintoul tucked within them. Scanning the valley bottom, I found the road which I had agonisingly toiled along only five months earlier: blizzard-blasted and hamstrung. All that came after had its steel, optimism and endeavour rooted in that day. My reward then had been an hour in The Whisky Castle, with a super meal at the Clockhouse Restaurant. It was there that we reconvened with my Mother and Aunt for another extraordinary feast.

Tomintoul

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