Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

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

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

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

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colour – dark honey amber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ardbeg Auriverdes

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

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

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

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

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

Ardbeg Auriverdes 49.9% £79.99

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

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

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

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

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

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Ardbeg Islay Half-Marathon

I ran on Islay once. My tenure at Laphroaig had nibbled away at the brief window I had allowed to get myself from the Beautiful Hollow by the Broad Bay to my next port of call, and consequently I was late for the 11AM Lagavulin tour. My canter from my bike to Ruth and the rest of the tour party was all of 20 metres, however: on August 3rd, 165 people put trainer to tarmac to cover 13 island miles in the Ardbeg Islay Half-Marathon.

A percentage of those entrants sprinting out from Bowmore to Islay airport and back hailed from the whisky writing and retailing industries. Their goal overtook that of personal glory and a new PB, however. Last year Alan Lodge, a writer for The Spirits Business, passed away as a result of a brain haemorrhage. He was 29. Journalist colleagues, Ardbeg distillery staff and whisky retailers busted a gut to raise more than £5,000 for the National Brain Appeal.

Some of the drinks writers pounding through Bowmore. Photography by Phill Williams.


‘My family has been overwhelmed by the support we have received from the drinks industry folk since my brother passed away last year,’ said Hannah Grace Lodge. ‘It is evident how much Alan was loved by all in the industry; Ardbeg’s sponsorship of the half and for all of these wonderful people to run and raise money in Alan’s memory is such a testament to him. He always joked about being a legend… turns out, he kind of was one. Thank you so much to all who have been involved in supporting The National Brain Appeal in Alan’s name, he would be honoured.’

To convey a little of the cut-and-thrust of the event, Quercus’s press release suggests that high-drama sporting reportage as well as whisky broadcasts could be the company’s new niche: ‘Chris Losh was the first Ardbeg runner to finish (in 31st place overall) taking six minutes off his personal best with a blistering time of 1 hour 36 minutes. Richard Woodard finished in 1 hour 51 minutes beating his own PB set 30 years ago. Hamish Smith finished in just under two hours, a milestone that eluded veteran Olly Wehring. Joel Harrison entertained spectators by running in fancy dress. After an engrossing five miles of cat and mouse and cheered on by an ecstatic crowd, Sandrae Sharpen pounced to thrash a disconsolate Marcin Miller in the final straight. Several team members, including Laura Foster, Richard Siddle and Eduardo Vivas, bravely ran through injuries and extreme pain. Sian Deegan and Rachel Ramanathan adopted a bizarre strategy of starting 45 minutes before anyone else with a self-imposed handicap of running the course pushing a wheelbarrow full of peat…’ Splendid.

One competitor,’s Joel Harrison, remarked that running has become something of a passion. ‘Getting the correct kit has been key and makes running much more enjoyable (and the obvious results of increased fitness and the ability to eat and drink more, as I’m working it all off!)’ When asked about what he partook of in the race’s feed zones, Joel asserted that nothing bar water passed his lips. It must be said, of course, that Islay water is far more invigorating than your regular drop.

From my time cycling around the island, I remember the rearing, pitted roads and often relentlessly malign winds. ‘I’ve cycled around the island before, but with running, you get a sense of how the weather changes so quickly,’ Joel revealed. ‘One minute you’re boiling hot, the next soaking wet and so the cycle continues!’

‘I’d highly recommend everyone to have a go. It’s not easy, especially when you’re training is all in Central London (and as a result totally flat), but the challenge was excellent.’ Keep an eye out for entry forms for the 2014 event on the Islay Half-Marathon website. I am very tempted to have a go myself: leave the bike at home this time and see Islay with a running vest on.


Photography by Phill Williams.


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Ardbog After a Hard Slog

Many people ask for ‘no fuss’ on their birthdays, but you aren’t supposed to believe them. Perhaps British reticence and conditioned modesty compel this caveat, but everyone secretly wants others to take notice of their special day.

Ardbeg operates more from the US ‘Super Sweet 16′ model for throwing an annual look-at-me jamboree, however, swapping the hideous convertible sports cars of the MTV shows for a tractor, and supplanting the yappy youths with bearded Germans and barrel-chested Swedes. No other Scotch whisky can muster quite such a hullabaloo.

June 1 dawned with the reek of peat thick in the air. Around the globe, Ardbeg disciples uncorked their Corryvreckans and guzzled their Uigeadails in sacramental whisky worship of their favourite distillery, while in London inflatable sheep were driven about the streets, culminating in one almighty party. Meanwhile, Ardbeg distillery closed the Feis Ile festival of malt and music with much frivolity and fun. I, however, was working.

Nevertheless, Ardbeg wanted me to feel part of the occasion, and sent a sample of the new Committee release my way. Ardbog was also available for the general public to try at the numerous international Ardbeg Embassies on Ardbog Day itself. Bottled without an age statement, all we have to go on is that this whisky is roughly 10-years-old, with dual maturation in American oak and ex-Manzanilla casks. It is also cask strength. Is it a fit toast for this cult distillery?

Ardbeg Ardbog.

Ardbeg Ardbog 52.1% £79.99

Colour – rich caramel gold.

Nose – at first, a tickle of ashy peat with freshly sliced apricots and a fat maltiness drizzled with honey and syrup. With nose really wedged in the glass I find a classic Ardbeg arrangement: a rich cummerbund of peat, echoes of the kiln and dark, medium-sweet malt. Treated fenceposts, worn leather and spice gradually, with Manchego rind (a hard Spanish sheeps’ milk cheese) and pink peppercorn-laden white chocolate later. With more time, I get wholemeal bread from a wood oven.

Palate – thick with a boiling blackcurrent depth to the peat. The peat element dries and darkens before lemon and honey fill the palate. Just at the end is a rock salt and rosemary savouriness.

Finish – the star of the procedings: rich dark chocolate torte, with a sulphorous match note coming next for complexity. Bonfire night. For a while, flavour defers to impressions and sensations, although at the end there is bold, smouldering wood ash and shards of honeycomb malt. Complex and evocative, as the best Ardbegs are.

Adding water weakened the experience, where it had engineered lift-off with the Galileo. The nose was sharper with the malt and oak stabbing up through the peat. I found a central aroma of gooey sweetness, like the fruity-caramel combo of a tarte tatin. Over the peat was an invigorating menthol presence with hints of almond flour and cherry stones. Overall, it didn’t express itself quite as well. On the palate, there was greater smoothness and more fruit, with the peat and a vanilla note closely aligned. A puff of smoke dried everything before chantilly cream trickled back in. Wholemeal returned on the finish with salty vegetal notes, like sea cliff top verdure. Hay introduces a wispy smoke and the rich honeycomb returned together with the sulphur. However, it failed to hit the allusive heights.

So…?      I must confess that, first time through, this was a crushing disappointment. Tasted alongside Kilchoman’s Loch Gorm this appeared lazy, incoherent and uninspiring while the younger whisky boasted dynamism, energy and originality. Indeed, I found this distinctly un-Ardbeg-like, the finish excepted. The Manzanilla had adulterated the overall character, rather than enhanced it.

On a second tasting, I found more to like, and – praise be – more that was unmistakeably Ardbeg. I do worry that it has set its sights on earthlier pursuits, while Galileo sought for the stars, but this is certainly above average liquid. I remain conflicted about the sample, but my anxiety to taste the next Committee release when it comes along will remain undimmed. More Marsala wood, Bill, that’s all I’ll say.

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Whisky Re-Entry

Since gazing in wonderment at the stars of Whisky Luxe, I have been in orbit around planet whisky – Apollo XIII-style – without an obvious means of returning home. I hope you will forgive my absence, but alternative galaxies demanded my full attention. For example, it is difficult to indulge in single malt space exploration when the gravitational pull of earthly academic matters fixes you leadenly to the ground.

Spurring me on to further cosmological discoveries, however, was the Halley’s Comet of whisky: Ardbeg’s latest special release, Galileo. Earlier in the year, Dr Bill Lumsden - Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie Co. – stepped out of his space suit long enough to discuss an extra-terrestrial experiment which involved Islay’s cult distillery and zero gravity. Micro-organic compounds found within Ardbeg new make spirit will be studied on board the Internation Space Station as they interact with cask shavings. After two years, the results will be compared with samples stored in the United States and, of course, on the Islay south coast.

Ardbeg Galileo.

In honour of the man who contributed so much to our understanding of the universe and all matters astronomical, Lumsden has devised a new concoction of phenolic ferocity pointed squarely at the final frontiers of whisky under serious rocket propulsion.

What better way, therefore, to suggest that there is life on the Scotch Odyssey Blog than with a review of this intriguing expression? The first Ardbeg release to boast an identifiable age statement, outwith the 10yo, this contains whiskies all distilled in 1999. Some spirit had been maturing in first- and second-fill Bourbon barrels, some in Marsala wine casks, for all that time. Bottled at 49% abv. with no chillfiltration, this fruitier slant on the Ardbeg juice has proved popular throughout the universe.

Ardbeg Galileo 1999 49% vol. £69.99 on release

Colour – lightish, clean toffeed amber.

Nose – at first, very thick and sooty smoke, with an insistent orange zest sweetness underneath. Sweet and spicy vanilla. The phenolic notes have a garlic-like fragrance. Drying, dark peat forms a superb platform of weight and texture, on top of which there is so much sweetness: wildflowers and smoky honey. Soft damsen plums with icing sugar. Toulouse sausage, tarred fence and earth. It takes a while for more fruit to emerge, but when it does there is sultana, apple cores and cherry wood.

Water lifted the nose and added a scented quality: a log-burning fire just lit, with a sticky but light smoke. Lots of vanilla and big oak sugars lend excellent texture. The smoke and sweetness put me in mind of smoked shellfish. Weighty red berries – like tayberries – sidle in. It becomes steadily autumnal with leaf mulch. Rich honey. Bold aromas of fruitcake and marzipan with more time.

Palate – everything you would expect from an Ardbeg: sweet malt and wood sugars with a fixing, prowling smoke. Then the smoke thickens into dry peat ash.

Water reveals one of the most fascinating combinations of flavours I can remember. Things commence with that Ardbeg sheepiness: lanolin, sheep sheds, iodine. Then there is something that reminded me immediately of Cashmere: a texture and fragrance. Red fruit bubblegum appears next before drying on lovely lovely peat.

Finish – spicy and sweet with building creaminess. Thick and rich with dark, ashy peat. Long and elemental: earth and warm sea breezes.

Water added, this is perhaps the greatest finish to a whisky since… I can’t think of one, this is flawless. Big, with allusions to the thickness of the undiluted sample. Then there are impressions of the distillery, between the kilns and the warehouse: light toffee oak and aromatic peated malt. Some of the garlic from earlier. Saddlery and carbolic soap, farm supplies warehouses. Dune grasses and sand in typical Ardbeg fashion. Gentle barley sweetness underneath and the scent of heather in the rain.

So…? We have lift-off! This is why I miss peated whiskies, and why I need to get some money together for a smoky specimen. I would happily plump for a bottle of this, but I see online that prices are creaping up towards the £125 mark, which is where I start to lose interest even for a whisky as stratospherically superb as this one. Neat, it is enthralling enough, without really escaping the earthly sphere, and does everything you would expect an Ardbeg to do. With a couple of drops of water, however, the subtlety and playfulness of the spirit leapt out at me, and I would go as far as to say that this is the sweetest Ardbeg I have ever tasted. The Madeira influence is not as dramatic as I was expecting, but beautifully illuminates dimensions of the Ardbeg spirit when required.

I have the tasting glass from six hours earlier sat, unwashed, on the desk. Like the best variety of incence, it exhales sweet smoke into the room. With Galileo’s help, I’m focusing my telescope on my favourite whisky galaxy once again.

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The Port Charlotte Paradox

The latter years of the noughties will go down in the annals of history as the Peaty Arms Race, when two forces from the Wild West of the whisky world competed for smoky supremacy. Both of the two distilleries involved had been only recently resurrected. One, Bruichladdich, wished to couch its rebirth in terms of independence, innovation and inspiration; the other, Ardbeg, boasted a cult following and a long legacy of phenolic excellence. Who would emerge the victor?

Bruichladdich - site of some seriously clever WMDs (Whiskies of Monstrous Deliciousness).

Octomore played Supernova in a titanic bout akin to Alien v. Predator, Barcelona v. Real Madrid, Charizard v. Mewtwo (I’m showing my age, there). Each vied with the other for PPM points: phenols became nuclear warheads as one sought to annihilate the other – and the drinking public – with an atom bomb of smoke. I must confess that I have yet to do battle with a rendition of Supernova, but two Octomores have made it as far as my taste buds. In fact, in pursuit of the prize for the peatiest, Bruichladdich may have won. While only a couple of Supernovas were released, the Octomore range has welcomed a fifth addition with Comus. At 167ppm, you would expect this to be as close to licking the inside of malt kiln as you could get.  And yet…

Port Charlotte PC8.

Bruichladdich is not Ardbeg simply plonked on the shores of Lochindaal. With those Octomores, the peat presence was undeniable, but so too was a lovely rich biscuitiness – all the more beautiful for the unlikelihood of its existence. No matter how much earth you throw at it in the beginning, those Bruichladdich stills are hard-wired to produce a spirit with beguiling sweetness at its heart. Perhaps this points to its appeal beyond the smoke-singed lunacy.

The same can be said of the distillery’s Port Charlotte bottlings. Medium-peated in comparison with Octomore, it still butts heads with the old guard of Islay’s fire-breathing dragons. Since 2006, peat freaks have salivated over the latest PC vintage, of which there have been five in addition to the An Turas Mor multi-vintage expression. On the face of it, with the same ppm rating as Laphroaig you cannot help but anticipate an ash tray experience. In reality – as I found recently – it is anything but.

Port Charlotte PC8 60.5% £125

Colour – full and syrupy yellow gold.

Nose – straight away there are overtones of the forceful Islay peat profile, but there is a pillowy softness there, too. Cask staves ooze vanilla. Immediately there is sweet spice, especially ginger, at the heart of this whisky in addition to medium-sharp green fruit and red liquorice. There is also the sweet shortbread note I find with all Bruichladdichs. The smoke is at the margins, with sandalwood scents. With time, there is a gorgeous one-two punch of tablet and ashes.

Water pulled out more wood sugars with the smooth yet prickly peat texture continuing. Creamy, buxom and clean barley is right at the core, with a side show of dark brown peat and caramel (Benromach 10yo-esque). There are aromas of burning twigs, tablet again and a cumin/cayenne heat. Warm and ‘squidgy’ pear drops surge upwards out of nowhere. The whole effect is now dominated by pear, shortbread, seashells and invigorating smoke. With more time, insistent saltiness fixes the nose in place with a little lime.

Palate – oh yes, there is the peat. Fairly prickly with the alcohol and the peat really digs in with full-on earthy and smoky flavours. Mouthcoating. Some warm cookie dough behind.

Water lent some sanity to the delivery but the peaty power is maintained partnered by full-bodied maltiness. There is a crush of green fruit then spades of rich peat just on the kiln. The peat is so thick it has a gravely crunch. Remarkable breadth and clarity.

Finish – if the palate took you deep into the West Coast earth, as the finish develops you slowly rise out of it to rest on the cropped grass above. Loose green tea. Very good peat notes at the back with suggestions of a summer driftwood bonfire. TCP hints, too. A whisky that is permanently in a buoyant mood.

Water opens up the peaty palette still further with Arbroath Smokies and crumbs catching in the toaster. Sweet Coal Ila-like peat settles in before the sweetness crystallises around peated grist. Some creaminess.

So…? I have known for some weeks that I need more peat in my life and this stunning whisky only highlighted the gaping chasm in my drinks cupboard. This is the sort of whisky to revive your spirits: to remedy any feelings of despondence or uninterest. There is so much goodness and wonder to pay attention to besides the smoke, as lovely as it is. The wood policy (Business Development Manager Craig Johnstone shares my view that there is a lot of first-fill Bourbon in there, with some refill) complements the clean, rich flavours of the malted barley and at cask strength the flavours boast so much exuberance.  Perhaps it cannot claim to be balanced in the same way as a Bowmore or a Coal Ila, but for intensity of fruit, cereal and smoke in glorious combination look no further.

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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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Luvians at the Quaich Society

The eclectic line up for the Quaich Society Luvians tasting.

Tastings at the St Andrews Quaich Society have been coming around faster than I can give any account of them, it would seem. David Fletcher pulled off an excellent evening of Diageo malts a couple of nights ago and still Jamie’s dynamic, diverse and above all different tasting of Luvians’ finest from a couple of weeks ago has had no mention. Allow me to right a wrong.

The epicurean student societies of St Andrews love Luvians and Luvians reciprocate that love with discounts for entitled members on their wines, beers, sherries, vodkas, rums, Bourbons and, for the purposes of this post, whiskies. The independent wine and spirits merchant takes more of an interest in the student body beyond those who frequent their Market Street shop, however, and that is where Jamie comes in. When not coordinating the store’s beer and sherry lists – no mean feat if the plethora of little brown bottles by the door are anything to go by – Jamie takes Luvians to the students which, recently, meant that Quaich Society.

‘Yeah, new make!’ I cooed, when he had unpacked some Glenglassaugh Spirit Drink bottles ahead of the tasting. ‘Not just that,’ he said, opening a polythene bag and shaking its contents beneath my nose. Peaty porridge oats wafted oat again. ‘Ardbeg grist. I want to give you a start to finish tasting tonight.’

Centred around (some of) the Bruichladdich range, in addition to the Ardbeg grist (‘I made some bread with this. It was f****** awesome’) Jamie had also come armed with a block of peat, some chunks of cask and a couple of bottles of Pedro Ximenez. Unbelieveably sample bottles appeared filled with Benromach foreshots and feints. Earth, breakfast cereal, wood, whisky in all its earliest permutations and wine. ‘Start to finish’ was right.

You wouldn't dry a lot of malt with this approach, but it helped to convey the distinctive aroma of Scottish peat.

No sooner had all of the tasters arrived than Jamie shepherded us back out into the November evening again. The plan was to ignite the peat and provide the impression of the kiln. A stiff breeze and an inert clod meant that few gained the complete Laphroaig/Bowmore maltings peet reek, and Jamie burnt his thumb more than the fuel, but performing a process creates a more vivid impression than simply describing it.

Though neither the Glenglassaugh new spirit (pear and pineapple, while incredibly sweet and soft), the trio of Laddies or the Sherry (can you imagine?) boasted a strong peaty character, the find-the-peat-smoke exercise had awakened our senses. The first official whisky of the night was the Classic, a 7-8yo whisky matured in ex-Bourbon barrels. ‘No, really?’ I thought, as dramatic sweet and rich biscuit notes, combined with thick mascarpone, pine and hard sugar leapt out at me. This was like wandering around the Speyside cooperage, so intensely Bourbon woody was it. I don’t mean it was overly oaky, simply that the flavours of the American cask left no space for anything else. On the palate it was a similar story: a strong phenolic note could simply have been the charred cask, but the Laddie firmness of body gained the ascendancy together with a fizz of sweetness. Some water revealed tropical fruits, dried papaya especially, lemon syllabub and cedarwood incense on the nose, with a barley husk character on the palate.

The red carpet had been laid down for the latest significant Islay 10yo of recent years: the first age statemented Bruichladdich distilled under the present owners and master distiller Jim McEwan. Jamie raved about it. I was eager to find out which camp I was in: devotee or dissenter. For 100% Bourbon maturation, I was surprised by the initial nutty note on the nose. It was exceedingly nutty and rounded, in fact. I wasn’t surprised by what came next, though. See Tiger’s review on Edinburgh Whisky Blog here for a further discussion as to what this aroma might be, but while a neighbour of mine muttered ‘parmesan’, I recognised it as overly buttery, slightly damp shortbread. I have found this on all Bruichladdichs I’ve tasted and I’m not especially offended by it. However, it isn’t the best this dram has to offer as the Santa leftovers fade out to be replaced by pleasant oak notes together with papaya again and lychee. Lemon pith, too. The palate was full, with a slight peat note and brie on wholemeal bread. Vanilla came in later while some spirity notes asserted a degree of youthful vibrancy.

Water improved the nose, lending orange peel and biscuit. Eventually, a sniff depicted the hot summer sun on a ripening barley field. The palate, too, was something of a grower. It filled the mouth and offered very clean, sweet barley with a slight smoky edge. I came to really like this dram for its dazzling purity mixed with idiosyncracies.

The final whisky of the evening proudly sported its PX ballgown. This spirit from 1992 offered roast pepper on the nose with lots of sugar-laden barley and red fruits. Much of the sherry’s sugariness appeared later, with European oak’s lovely deep sappy quality. The palate was smooth and rounded, with a tannic note and then an easy progression into sweet orange notes. This whisky from the old regime was my pick of the night, although I hope to come across the Laddie Ten at some point again in the future.

I massive thank you has to go to Jamie for the thought and imagination he put in to giving us such a rewardingly holistic encounter with whisky. Maybe Luvians might want to invest in a portable kiln and pagoda for the next tasting, though.

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Memory and the Middle Cut

‘Life through the Worm Tub’

Memory and the Middle Cut

I have been exceedingly fortunate in my explorations into Scotch whisky thus far to have had the opportunity to engage in dialogues with many fascinating people. Be they distillery personnel, brand ambassadors, retailers or folk like you and me who just passionately love the stuff, an encounter with another person whose life has embraced whisky in a meaningful capacity invariably results in new insights and perspective.

Let me give you an example: when Lukasz Dynowiak (Alembic Communications and Edinburgh Whisky Blog) invited me to join his phalanx of whisky bloggers set to descend on Inver House distilleries last year, I found myself sat across the aisle in our toothpaste tube of an aeroplane on a lurching leap up to Wick beside a Mr Keith Wood. In the act of elaborating upon my whisky adventure my deep-seated and only dimly-understood convictions concerning whisky’s essential magic crawled to the surface of our discussion. As the tour progressed, an affinity in our respective approaches to drams became clear and I have been reading Keith’s superb Whisky Emporium ever since. Indeed, it is partly on account of his personal testimonies which every so often emerge in and colour his tasting notes that I have been inspired to post up my own every so often.

Rather than leave it at that, however, we felt a little whisky scholarship was in order. Keith, newly inducted into the order of Malt Maniacs, and I searched the scrolls for scientific study into olfaction and personal memories, using any conclusions we found to illustrate how whisky has catalysed with a profound and primordial part of us. Why was not of prime importance – I simply had to devote more time to reflecting on the ways in which malts have cross-referenced my life experiences so far, and share them with another individual whose sensory archives dwarf my own.Caol Ila

The distillation of our meditations is this combined blog post, in which we discuss the boundaries between the personalities of Scotch Whisky and our own, and how our willingness to blur them can result in extraordinary, almost out-of-body, experiences. Read Keith’s version here.

Though hardly essential in all matters, with certain phenomena it is satisfying when science can confirm what you long suspected. ‘[O]lfaction,’ Messrs Rubin, Groth and Goldsmith stated in their 1984 study concerned with the relationship between how our separate senses cue contrasting categories of memory, ‘is somehow different from more commonly studied senses of vision and audition.’

This, I feel certain, will hardly astonish my whiskyphile readers. Who among us has not perceived the heightened degree of intimacy tied to an evening of enraptured dram-snuffling? Whiskies impel us, quite irresistibly, to personal meditation and every so often the consequences can be quite revelatory. If this weren’t the case, if whisky in the glass were no more loaded with subtle powers of suggestion than whisky on the page or screen, we would all be content to limit our encounters to reading tasting notes or watching Ralfy bounce enthusiastically around Scotland on YouTube.

As human beings we are programmed to pay close attention to these most immediate and invasive of sensory cues. Aroma and taste, as though armed with a search warrant, can pluck the deepest and murkiest echoes of our lives from their obscurity for its own arcane ends. Like connecting the blood-stained cleaver under the sink to the grisly murder perpetrated the previous day, our brains forge an indissoluble and significant link between stimulus and past experience. Though no longer of quite the same evolutionary necessity, this ancient mechanism is still most definitely switched on. The study found that an odour cue was more likely to retrieve a unique and well-preserved recollection than other forms of cue: ‘previously inaccessible memories’ were recalled for the test subjects as a result of nosing a selection of aromas, memories that had never been consciously contemplated or discussed prior to their unveiling during the experiment. In addition, though not conclusively proven, these rarer memories were for some rated as more pleasant than those conjured up by images and words.

Allow Keith and I to describe how whiskies have rifled through our personal mental photo albums and why, non-scientifically but all the better for it, we found it to be such a breath-taking ride.

GlenfarclasKeith: I often reflect on this phenomenon as whisky aromas often return long-forgotten memories immediately to the fore. My first experience of this was whilst nosing a Jack Wieber Caol Ila and I was summarily returned to a cold and damp day in the Yorkshire Dales some 30 years previously. You will also see from my tasting notes page that I swear there is an Islay jetty inside every bottle of Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Laphroaig. This is thanks to those peaty aromas mingling with ones of wood, sea-air, surf and that je ne sais quoi which is Islay personnified. Likewise, Highland Park takes me away into the wild Scottish countryside with heather, bracken, hints of smoke and the great outdoors, reminding me of many walks across Bens and Glens. Finally, people often talk about ‘Christmas drams’ and I also have my own definitive one; Glenfarclas Quarter Casks (1987) which was truly surprising as it offered an amazing array of aromas when the bottle was first opened. These included leather, aged oak and musty books, but after the bottle had been opened a couple of days these were replaced by sherry and dark fruits like plums, currants, raisins and figs. This overall experience immediately transported me to an Olde English country house on Christmas day, just after lunch when I might be relaxing in my favourite deep-buttoned leather chair, surrounded by old first editions lining oak shelves and with a glass of sherry or port in my hand. This, for me is the magic of malt whisky!

Another, more recent one which took me totally by surprise; The whisky was an Independent Port Ellen called Old Bothwell which my dear friend and fellow Maniac Oliver Klimek brought to the table in December last year. This had a very maritime character but with only extremely faint peat, more akin to “the great outdoors” with fresh, sea-air in abundance. For some reason I was immediately transported back to some childhood days out at the coastal resort of Scarborough during the school holidays. It was a special treat for me when my Mother would take me to one of the local coastal resorts for the day on the train. Scarborough was special because at that time it was far from being a tourist trap and had a great promenade along the sea front from the new to the older part of town, under the watchful eye of the castle. Anyway, the countryside and maritime character of the Port Ellen immediately evoked those childhood days out from more than 40 years ago.

Port Ellen, twinned with Scarborough - in Keith's mind.

Port Ellen, twinned with Scarborough - in Keith's mind.

Evocative, non? I marvel at the period of time Keith describes – twice my present age! Please note I am not suggesting my esteemed collaborator is in any way of an excessively senior disposition, rather that his extra years work to his advantage with regards to this phenomenon. Keith’s agglomeration of experience is so much broader than mine. To use a 21st century analogy, his iPod has many thousands more songs stored on its harddrive which must, I can only suppose, make the act of hitting ‘shuffle’ liable to throw up many more surprises.  Allow me, then, to present an example of which tracks single malt has selected from my more limited jukebox of private sensory memories.

I should say that only rarely – thus far – has a malt recalled its distillery, a function I had hoped my experiences on the Odyssey would enable more consistently. Often my jogs of memory derive from the most innocuous and randomised assortment of landscapes and circumstances, though whisky is never too far away from the original recollection in one of its many forms. One example is a tasting of Ardbeg 10-year-old in late 2008, and the ensuing reawakening of an open-air encounter I had had nearly a year previously at the Torranbuie Cottage near Strathdon in wild, wooded Aberdeenshire. In the process a meaningful connection was made between two largely unremarkable moments: one from my innocent life Before Whisky and the other what had been twenty minutes spent analysing just another dram another dram. There sudden, unforeseen conflation, however, shed new splendour on both. I was walking to the porch, then, on this late October afternoon which was rapidly freshening. The cool mountain air seemed to draw out greater pungency from the bracken, grasses and damp earth. Meanwhile, I became cloaked in the smoke from our neighbour’s log-burner which had pooled in the space between the two houses beneath the pine trees. Back in 2008, and as the Islay malt slid down my throat and the finish developed, the same quality of wood smoke wafted about my palate. A Northumbrian summer melted from my physical sight as I was transported back to the last days of my single malt Dark Age. Soon afterwards on that holiday, I would stumble across The Glenlivet distillery, my state of sensory obliviousness enlightened irreversibly.

The Whisky Country of my imagination.

The Whisky Country of my imagination.

Handing the floor back to Keith: This is one of the truly unique powers, perhaps what some would call mysteries of Scotch malt whisky and although these are purely personal recollections, I will continue to write about them [on the magnificent Whisky Emporium] when they occur in the hope that others will also be encouraged to ‘open their minds’ and let their imaginations enjoy the mysteries of single malts.

I wholeheartedly agree, Keith, and promoting sensitivity to those aspects of single malts over and above flavour-finding - to what that process can reveal concerning our own engagement with the world – was at the back of mind whilst producing this piece. I second any move to get out there and open ourselves up to the depths of our own personal histories, and how whisky can navigate them with such inspiring sympathy.

Just a hint of smoke...

Just a hint of smoke...

*      *      *      *      *

Keith WoodKeith was born in the summer of ’59 and discovered his love of whisky at a rather young age, in fact he was a mere toddler in his teething process when his mother discovered that his pain and discomfort seemed to ease if she rubbed a little whisky on his sore gums. Sadly, her own pain and discomfort didn’t ease quite so much as he tended to scream for more!
A lifetime of enjoying drams through four decades from the mid 70′s to present, then writing about his passion for whisky since late 2009 was rewarded in December 2010 when he was invited to join the Malt Maniacs as a certified member, although some say that he should have been ‘certified’ many years ago!

His Whisky-Emporium website is now his main hobby and home to his whisky musings, tasting notes and lots of whisky-related features.

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The Magic of Distilleries

I think Ardbeg could win wars. In the shape of its Committee the Islay distillery has, in the event that the word “closure” wriggles from Gallic mouths in LVMH, a sizeable and quickly-mobilised private army. Paris would fall in hours. People hold Ardbeg in the kind of esteem that was once more commonly displayed for one’s country. Ardbeg transcends nationality, however. Japanese, Scandinavians and Americans would muster alongside the Ileachs beneath the banner emblazoned with that stylised Pictish ‘A’ should strife threaten the peacable, peaty kingdom. In fact, I rather suspect Ardbeg transcends whisky altogether.

Ardbeg: a whisky lover's Wembley Stadium, Graceland and Mecca - all rolled into one.

Ardbeg: a whisky lover's Wembley Stadium, Graceland and Mecca - all rolled into one.

I use Ardbeg as the most demonstrative and well-documented example of this tribal fanaticism. Clan Ardbeg is vociferous, protective and passionate bordering on unhinged. When I visited in May the distillery was crawling with people. Hordes of men (and they were almost entirely male) roved about the visitor centre, clutching T-shirts, caressing bottles, looking as if they would shortly wet themselves with excitement and joy. However, I could not fail to interpret something more in their fixed stares, proud gaits and faint smiles: spiritual gratification and beatification was burgeoning in their souls with every step and profound breath. Their visit had unshakeable, indeed consoling and elevating, overtones of the divine. Their pilgrimage was at an end; their faith had been rewarded. The atmopshere was one of incredible intensity – such are the emissions of reverence. Perhaps that explains my prevailing disappointment with the tour itself.

Only near-neighbour Laphroaig can administer the single malt sacrament akin to the Ardbeg dogma. In the visitor centre there, too, it was easy to pick out the disciples for whom this was no simple diversion but a sacred destination. I could isolate the contingent of hushed devotees at Macallan, Springbank, Bowmore and virtually every other distillery I toured, global icon or not.

The question is why? What compels someone to travel to the birthplace of their favourite malt? Why is it so crucial to hear the mill, smell the washbacks, feel the heat of the stills and see the middle cut gushing through the spirit safe? For many, such a journey is neither straightforward nor cheap yet whisky enthusiasts arrive in their thousands each year in order to learn how that bottle of Bruichladdich they bought in Osaka, Stockholm or Seattle came into being. I think it is a means to discover, to acquaint themselves with, a malt whisky’s complete personality; flavour being only one limited facet of it. Octomore, after all, will taste the same on Islay as it does in Idaho, but seeing for yourself where it is made, by whom and how, adds so much to the experience of pouring a dram once back home.

However, if your interest in malt whisky has been keen enough to lure you to the distillery’s front door, I must warn you that it is already too late to resist the exponential momentum to which your relationship with the spirit is now prey. It will carry you into obsession and alter entirely your perceptions of the industry. Suddenly, the drink will become subsidiary to the premises that craft it in the same way that music is subsidiary to the person who writes and performs it. Visiting a distillery is like seeing the band live; the songs are the same but they are enriched by the arousal of all the senses in response to the wholeness of the experience: the essential mechanics of the performance, the demeanour of the musicians, the intoxicating sensation of sharing space with many other like-minded people. A great concert can be further enhanced by occurrences and encounters only loosely connected to it before, during or after; close-to or far away. All provide texture, depth and context to the main event.

The same is true of distilleries. To travel to one is to immerse oneself in its locality, and in Scotland that is almost invariably beautiful and dramatic. No longer is your favourite dram made in the isolation of your imagination but amidst hills, lochs, forest and foaming waves. You associate it with so many things: your landlady of the previous night; the man in the pub; the guide and staff in the visitor centre. You are charmed by the architecture, absorb the history of the place radiated from every stone and dusty corner. A fascination with and love of Scotch malt is so readily translated into an equally potent desire for Scotland. A little more exploration reveals an indelible symbiotic tie between the most engaging, dynamic and endearing distilleries and the most authentic and personable faces of the country. These may occasionally be tragic and melancholy ones but this only strenghtens the preference of the enthusiast.

All of which leads me back to Ardbeg and its beautiful rennaissance. The underdog, not so very long ago broken and dishevelled, has come good. It is now a distillery of charisma, drama and energy, with these heady ingredients imbued - in the romantic eyes of the fans - into its expressions, and who among us wouldn’t wish for a similar apotheosis at times?

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