scotchodysseyblog.com

scotchodysseyblog

Day 8: Brora Bail-Out

I didn’t contemplate stopping until some time after I woke up from a sketchy night’s sleep; while eating my breakfast, despite even sketchier innards, I remained focused on my journey’s end in Brora and the following day’s coast-to-coast ride to Ullapool and, following a ferry transfer, Stornoway.

A three-mile detour, as I followed south-bound cycle route signs to Strathpeffer rather than those which would have taken me north, a series of arrow-straight, 15% gradients out of Dingwall, and an inexplicable clunking noise from the bike all turned my thoughts towards what I was capable of enduring. Was the second half of the Odyssey something I could, something I should, persevere with?

The previous evening’s pizza shop paranoia was the first suggestion that bodily fatigue had at last begun to erode mental resilience. In a reverse of four years ago, the spirit had been willing but only now did I realise how weak the body had become.

A week previously, I had been concerned about the left knee; now, the right joint was stiff and uncooperative. However, as I wheezed above the Cromarty Firth, almost painfully bright blue, I began to suspect that neither knee was really the issue. Instead, both legs were empty – there was no zip, no power, left. For the first time, breathing proved uncomfortable and lung capacity felt reduced. What was I riding for? The answer was revealing: ‘Balblair’.

Along the mazy cycle path through the woods to Alness, I decided that there was nothing for me beyond Balblair visitor centre and my night’s stop at Clynelish Farm B&B. The forecast for Lewis on Wednesday was less than encouraging, the distance – 80 miles – was not something I could entertain overcoming in my current state. Mileage forecasts read like nails in my own coffin: 80 miles, 61 miles, 59 miles, 65 miles. I hadn’t done the training to confidently commit to these distances. My ‘see how you go’ approach had now come to a head. I couldn’t go on.

What remained after Balblair, in any case? A distillery I knew I couldn’t physically get to and one I had visited before (Auchentoshan). In between? If you took Lewis and Harris out of the equation I had more or less covered the Skye to Glasgow route on the first Odyssey. Even assuming I miraculously recovered my touring legs, what would I get out of those ten days? More traffic, more exhaustion and certainly no Laidlaws. With my new job beginning in Dubai in September, I reflected that the right decision was to come home to my family and my girlfriend, savour the companionship I was sorely lacking out here on the sun-blasted tarmac of the Scottish Highlands.

Near Invergordon I cut across to the A9, sprinting a mile or so westward before reaching a turn off to the left which I suspected would take me towards Tain. By this stage, the heat and glare had reached impressive levels and the road followed an upward trajectory once more. This was a real physical low point, with little or no energy to call upon. I just had to grovel up the inclines and numbly roll down the descents. Repeat for the next six miles.

Turning through Tain, I was familiar with the next part of my route: stay as close to the soft drain at the left-hand side of the road as possible, keep your head down and try not to scream. Articulated lorries, forestry trucks, campervans, all sweep past you at alarming rates as you pass through the sweet fermenting fug of Glenmorangie. Then it’s uphill to the Dornoch Bridge roundabout before collapsing down the other side to the quieter, shadier banks of the Dornoch Firth.Far slower progress was made than three years previously, when I cycled from my Tain B&B to Balblair each day for a spot of low-impact work experience. Eventually, the caravan park on Edderton’s outskirts appeared on my right, and the brown signs for the distillery guided me past the Clach Biorach Pictish stone, red brick chimney and pagoda vent just visible beyond.

Life was, if anything, hotter in the courtyard beneath the mashtun and alongside the visitor centre, from where Julie and ‘new girl’ Monica appeared. Their greetings, and the sheer pleasure of being at Balblair, ensured I beamed rather than burned. I changed, ate lunch and then wandered back in the direction of the offices. Redecorated since my last visit, and significantly airier, too, on account of the windows being replaced, between Julie and I we established that the best bet would be for me to have a roam around looking for operators. John Ross I bumped into in the car park, Norman and manager John were in the adjoining office.

From there it was up to the break room where I met Alan More and Mike Ross. It transpires that the biggest change since automation in 2011 was the removal of the wee third still. This little riveted beauty was taken out to make room for an extra wash charger, which allows for extra fermentation space and ups the production capacity. Everyone seemed to be in rude health, and Mike showed me the computer operating system for the distillery. It is incredible to see all the graphs and readings from each step of the process, detailed so exactly. I couldn’t make a great deal of them, but clearly there were no causes for concern.

Back in the office, I could get down to the important business of tasting. Lukasz Dynowiak had been very generous at his Quaich Society tasting the previous winter, so I had tried the 2003 and 1990 already. My chief target was the hand-fill ex-Bourbon cask from 2000, exuding spicy/sweet aromas in the visitor centre. That and the 1983. I got to work on the latter while Julie slipped away to find me a measure of the former.

The nose was warm and leathery with plenty of rich orange, leaf mulch and banana toffee. The weight and clarity was exceptional, recalling my favourite Balblair ever, the 1978. Rich honey and even a light smokiness emerged next with traces of coconut and an almost Japanese dried bark intensity. The palate showcased the waxiness of age together with deep dried fruit, papaya, mango, cinnamon and cream.

The hand-fill (58% ABV) was closed, clean and quite sharp at first. A fragrant, soapy texture developed along with creamy cedar wood. To taste, I didn’t detect much more than hard leather, oak and budding fruits. Water improved matters, exposing grapefruit, lime, washback fruits, turmeric and banana foam sweets on the nose. A malty and citrusy palate was attractive but while it showed more Balblair hallmarks, I couldn’t justify the £90 asking price, which is very high for a 14yo single cask. Conscious that this was my final distillery visit, and that there was a vintage from my birth year in the shop, I went for the 1990 instead. With a bit of ingenuity, it fitted snugly in my pannier.Setting off for the Dornoch Bridge, the body felt a little more pepped and willing. I was even buoyed by a generous tailwind passing over the firth. From thereon in, however, life became difficult again. I allotted myself ten-mile sections of the A9 which I would ride as briskly as possible before pulling over for a rest. Soon, the wide tarmac hard-shoulder vanished and I was at the mercy of the traffic again. Inexplicably, for the third day in a row, the wind hit me full in the face. Saturday: heading east with a headwind; Sunday: heading west with a headwind; Monday: heading north with a headwind. Clearly the weather gods wanted me to throw in the towel.

Twelve miles to Golspie, became 8, then four. I knew Brora was not much further on from Golspie, but couldn’t be more precise until I saw a sign reading ‘Golspie 4; Brora 10′. The traffic was intermittent: congested and irritable one moment, non-existent the next. As I pedalled through the sleepy main street of Golspie, I suddenly recollected the climb out of it. These were miles familiar from Scotch Odyssey 1, but that didn’t make them any easier.

The road swung round to the cliff top once again for the run in to Brora and the full force of the north coastal breeze just about toppled my sanity. Teeth gritted, pushing down a yell of rage, I bumped into the village (no idea what those rumble strips are doing there) and spied the station. If I was getting home the next day, it would have to be by train. Of course, the station was un-staffed - indeed, it was in the process of being boarded up so I pedalled back to the A9 and followed the signs to Clynelish as I knew my B&B was practically in the grounds. I took the wrong road, however, and ended up circuiting the ruins of Brora Distillery, necessitating another short sharp climb back to what could only be Clynelish Farm B&B. Arriving simultaneously with a couple in a car (what wisdom), I was shown to my room by Victoria, the Australian proprietor.That afternoon’s shower was well-deserved, I thought, as I scoured off all the road muck and sun cream, but also philosophical. My next task was not finding dinner and preparing for the next adventure, but plotting my route back home. A couple of abortive phone calls to National Rail and Scotrail occurred as I walked between fields of cows and gorse back into Brora, followed by a confessional call to my parents.

‘I’ve decided to stop,’ I said. They didn’t seem terribly upset by this news and, following two train journeys and a bike ride to St Andrews, a bus and a further train back to Northumberland, I can confirm that I’m not terribly upset, either. Of course there are pangs of longing for the grandeur and adventure of bike touring, and I miss the pared down lifestyle it encourages. However, there is not an ounce of regret that I didn’t carry on to Stornoway. I know my body could not have coped.

Since January and my two weeks in London with Compass Box I haven’t stopped to rest and attempting a 1,000 mile bike trip two weeks after sitting my final exams was asking a great deal. A great deal too much, as it turned out. Instead, I covered nearly 460 miles in eight days, via six distilleries or distilleries-in-the-making, and ended up 60 miles north of Inverness on the beautiful Sutherland coast. I had my fun and the 1983 Balblair was definitely a dram worth holding out for. We shall have to see what touring opportunities arise in future.

Posted in The Odyssey, The Tours | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

Incredibly, I may just be in a position to take on a second circumnavigation of Scotland in search of Scotch whisky distilleries to visit.

If April was chock full of coursework, May was the domain of exams, and you can’t memorise the finer points of Kelman, Stevenson or Self (especially Self) if you are physically knackered. Training, therefore, has been rather more opportunistic and far scarcer than it was four years ago, when my ‘Fit For the Glens’ weekly posts updated progress from ten weeks prior to the Grand Depart. No such lead-in this time. I covered about 660 miles in training ahead of April 12 2010; this time we are maybe looking at half that figure, possibly a little more. I have had, as they say, my doubts.

However, I’m presently fed and showered following a 57-mile day of training, which suggests that – when I pedal off in a northerly direction towards Pitlochry on Tuesday – distance shouldn’t be a problem. Neither, it must be said, should inclines scare me. Over the course of recent weeks I have been impressed/dismayed by just how hilly Fife is. Seriously, the kingdom is like a heart rate monitor reading. If you want to acquire solid cardiovascular fitness, Fife is the place to cycle, lurching up single-track precipices and screeching down the other side repeatedly.

It’s also bloody windy. If you manage to get to the top of a hill, the breeze blowing out to sea is something you must contend with. Often this week I have been crawling along into the molars of a gale.

In summary, if the quantity of training cannot match 2010, perhaps the quality is a shade higher. I’m hoping so, because I have more than 900 miles filling 17 days, meaning that what I covered today is my average – average – for the tour as a whole. I’m going to need some carrots to get me through all of those, and fortunately the whisky industry has obliged.

I will begin close to home, at Francis Cuthbert’s Daftmill distillery. Long have I wished to poke about in this wholly-independent farm operation and possibly taste something interesting. It is rare these days to be taken round a plant by the person who makes the spirit. From there it is up the A9 to the distilleries which my overly ambitious itinerary ruled out last time: Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I only hope Dalwhinnie is as pretty on the inside as it is to look upon, hurtling by on the main road. Tomatin are releasing stellar whiskies at the moment; hopefully I’ll be able to get a taste of what is on the horizon.

If you can't have Balvenie, then a single cask Imperial from the year you were born is definitely the next best thing.

Speyside is next, a region where I had a very high hit rate four years ago. Sadly – nay, tragically – I have repeated my feat of being too late to book a tour of The Balvenie. I gave them two weeks’ notice in 2010, one month this time. Nothing doing. If you want to get round before the end of the year, my advice is book now and cross your fingers. You’d think it was El Bulli. Of course, I have an excellent fall back option, the soon-to-be-complete single estate distillery at Ballindalloch Castle (like them on Facebook). After that, I’m going to repair to the Speyside Way with an apt dram. A 23yo Imperial, bottled by Hunter Laing, fits the bill nicely. From there I shall peddle gently on to Dufftown to say hello to, and eat the fine food of, Sandy Smart at Taste of Speyside.

Already the mileages start to increase, and the next day I leave for GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Sunday is a distillery-free hike west and then north, before my triumphant return (all being well) to Balblair. I’m banking on Clynelish being open on a Monday, but the site is being expanded so maybe not. I’ll phone ahead this time.

The next section has me petrified and hyperactive with excitement all at the same time. I will have distance, ferry timetables and the whims of the West Coast weather systems to trouble me as I cycle across to Ullapool for a boat to the Outer Hebrides. It is quite a trek to get to Mark Tayburn’s Abhainn Dearg, but if everything runs smoothly it should be spectacular. Long days in the saddle are necessary to get from Stornoway to the bottom of Harris in time for a ferry to Uig, before peddling down the spine of Skye for another stay at the Ratagan Youth Hostel.

From Loch Duich I more or less retrace 2010′s tire tracks to Fort William before omitting the islands (with regret) and pitching up in Glasgow for Auchentoshan. Fired with triple-distilled gorgeousness (but not too much, obviously), I wend homewards with a night in Stirling before stopping off at Strathearn Distillery (another small-scale operation) by way of a rest on the homeward stretch to St Andrews.

If you are travelling in Scotland during the next two and a half weeks, do look out for me. I’m the tall, lean be-spectacled cyclist smelling faintly of wash and pot ale, amongst other things. I’ve decided to pack a bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street Experimental Peat in the hope that I’ll make some new friends. The blog will be silent during that time, but do check Twitter for up-to-the-minute events (@WhiskyOdyssey). I shall expand my experiences to more than 140 characters upon my return. I welcome any comments or queries you may have!

Posted in The Odyssey, Whisky Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Old Pulteney and Balblair at the Quaich Society

The intriguingly complex Duncansby Head from Old Pulteney.

Even above and beyond the extraordinary whiskies we are treated to here at the Quaich Society, the single most important factor in the club is community. However, this all-encompassing term extends beyond the organising Committee, even beyond the whisky faithful who attend each tasting. Community is also about our interactions with the great men and women on the frontline of the whisky industry who generously donate their products and passion.

One of the family by now is certainly Lukasz from Inver House Distillers. Over the last three years he has arrived carrying the most intriguing line ups the Society has seen. In one year Lukasz even managed to squeeze in two tastings for us. He pitches his presentations just right: the whiskies have their moment in the spotlight, there’s a bit of history and a strong emphasis on production values. More than anything else, however, Lukasz is a really top guy whose sense of humour is as self-evident as his love of a good dram.

Last month, to round off our first Semester of superb tastings, Lukasz outdid himself with the breadth and exclusivity of the whiskies he brought. Indeed, so exclusive were they that our post-tasting discounts for attendees in Luvians Bottle Shop could apply to only one of the six single malts on show. We were treated to the Travel Retail Exclusive Old Pulteney Lighthouse Collection (Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Pentland Skerries) and the soon-to-be-released Balblair Vintages of 2003 and 1990 as well as the (slightly) more readily-available 1997.

The Lighthouse Collection is a boldly-packaged, wood-focused range of whiskies from the Wick-based distillery of Old Pulteney. In keeping with their ‘Maritime Malt’ persona, the moniker of each whisky champions a local lighthouse. Their characters are wholly cask-differentiated, however. Lukasz pointed out that it was rare to taste products from the one distillery in which the age was a constant (7-8 years old) but the maturation regime wildly different. The Noss Head is the ex-Bourbon representative. Bubbly, clean and lush on the nose I found plenty of freshly-peeled orange, an oiliness and banoffee pie. The palate was spirity with rich oak and leafy qualities.

The middle whisky was perhaps the best of the bunch for me, and if it is possible for a whisky to boast such a thing, it had real integrity. A Bourbon and Sherry mix, this was softer and more reserved on the nose with salt and sweet oak. Complex and textured. The palate showed fixing fruit, ginger and cardamom.

For his introduction to the Pentland Skerries expression, Lukasz went into a little more detail about Quercus robur - the Darth Vadar of oak. He asserted that coopers and distillers hated working with the stuff since it is prone to splitting, leaking, and all manner of other defects making cask construction and management very complicated – not to mention expensive. Nevertheless, the impact on the finished whisky cannot be replicated any other way and the flavour profile will always be in demand. I must admit, though, that I would not ask for the Pentland Skerries again. While rich and smooth on the nose with plenty of fruit and toffee, sandy notes and wet tweed developed suggesting the cask and the spirit have not quite achieved harmony. The palate was thick and clinging, but beyond the obvious Sherry flavours the engaging depths of the distillery character simply couldn’t surface.

Having eulogised about Sherry casks, Lukasz revealed a little of his own whisky evolution. It wasn’t so very long ago, he told us, that he was a peat freak; the peatier the better, in fact. Then one day, he poured another rich, smoky dram and… was unmoved. Somehow those earthy, fruity beasts simply didn’t push his buttons any more and he rediscovered the joys of an unpeated whisky matured in quality American oak ex-Bourbon casks. To him, he can detect ‘more of the place in my dram’ – ex-Bourbon promotes transparency in a whisky: where it was made, to what brief and by whom.

I have to say I agree. Of the tastings we have had this year, the Tomatin 15yo and Balvenie 12yo Single Barrel have been the stand-out whiskies for me. I began dribbling with anticipation because I know that one of the best spirits to come out of good ex-Bourbon barrels is Balblair, and Lukasz had three vintages lined up for us.

The 2003 replaces the delicious, exciting and charming 2002 which is one of my favourite drams. The 2003 kept the faintly straw-like, hamster feed-ish cereal qualities and added a biscuitiness. The palate had amazing feel to it – all barley sugar and syrupy citrus. However, overall I felt it was just a touch too austere and spirity when compared with the 2002.

The 1997 went by many descriptors from Lukasz: blue sky whisky, a lunchtime whisky… For me personally, this is a desert island whisky and not just because of the tropical fruit notes and freshness. It is a seriously high-quality dram. It boasts an absolutely stunning nose: rich yet lush and creamy with orange travel sweets. There is a great undertone of dryness from the oak. On the palate, all is well with an immensely fruity delivery – think travel sweets again – backed up by cumin and nutmeg.

During the Balblair portion of the evening, Lukasz had to field questions of the vintage bottling policy. He emphasised Balblair’s artisanal philosophy and tiny scale – only 5% of the distillery’s 1.75 mla production goes to single malt or as Lukasz put it: ‘we bottle what Glenfiddich spill’. It is a distillery that I admire hugely and this extended to the final whisky of the evening, the new 1990. What is it with Inver House bottling whiskies from my birth year? Are they trying to bankrupt me? I will have to come by some of this soon, though, for this Balblair takes the house style in a dramatically different direction. After 21 years the whisky comes out of those top quality ex-Bourbon barrels and goes into second fill Oloroso Sherry casks for another two. In the glass, this smelt as old as the 1975 Vintage I tried last year. So much cinnamon, pineapple and mincemeat with a lovely earthiness. Dried orange, pot pourri and even a marsala-like kick are additional layers. The palate is true to Balblair’s trademark spiciness. Some burnt orange appears, too, with a salty oaky dryness. It grows to be slightly herbal before the fruity notes come back in.

Another special Balblair was unveiled for the Raffle and I know that was tremendously popular. Every time Lukasz trundles away back to Edinburgh I hope he will return at some point and I wonder how he can top his last selection. So far, he has managed that every time. Our thanks to him again for a potent send-off towards exams and Christmas. I daresay a couple of Old Pulteneys may have been picked up at the airport as some of our international members return home for the Festive period.

Posted in Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the road again…

Back in the saddle again in June 2014.

The terrific thing about wrapping up a semester is that you can turn your mind to fun future projects, cogitate a little more about what you want them to be, what shape and purpose they will have, and get a jump on making them a reality. That happened to me over the weekend regarding a mission of mine which has been incomplete since May 2010.

As those of you who followed my original Scotch Odyssey three years ago will know, I couldn’t make it to every distillery on my itinerary. The reasons for this were numerous: bike/boy breakdown, an overambitious route, misread opening times etc. etc. I had unfinished business with about eight distilleries in Scotland – and then a bunch of passionate people set about building more!

In June next year – all being well – I’ll graduate from the University of St Andrews. Between the formal termination of my final semester here in Fife and Graduation Week there are a few days begging to be capitalised upon and I feel I really ought to finish what I started prior to entering higher education in 2010. With the aid of Google Maps and the mega-litres of whisky experience I gained last time I packed my panniers and pedalled to the glens I have compiled a second route round Scotland which will see me cover nearly 1,200 miles in 20 days and visit thirteen malt whisky distilleries old and new.

The Scotch Odyssey Part II will begin here in St Andrews with Daftmill and Kingsbarns distilleries before I head north over the Tay to tick off Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. From there I wend my way into Speyside for the distillery I shouldn’t have missed last time round but did: The Balvenie. Then I swing by the Aberdeenshire distilleries of The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh before skirting the Moray Firth on my journey to The Dalmore. I did visit this distillery in 2010 but in the meantime the visitor experience has been dramatically overhauled and I feel I really ought to spy those famous stills on the Cromarty Firth in this new light. Next I head to Balblair for my first tour as a punter, despite working there for a week in the summer of 2011.

I continue north to Clynelish which famously does not open for tours on a Saturday in late April. Then it’s time to head westwards: catching the ferry from Ullapool I visit the most westerly Scotch whisky distillery of them all, the spirit of Lewis, Abhainn Dearg. I will cycle down through Lewis and Harris to Tarbert before another ferry desposits me at Uig, Isle of Skye. From here it is an identical route to previously as I pedal off the island to Fort William. There will be a few long days in the saddle before I reach Clydebank and the Auchentoshan distillery. After a few more I hope to visit Annandale – if it is open to receive me – before wending my way back up to St Andrews.

Knowing what I know now about cycle touring I’m hoping to extract maximum adventure from my trip and I’ve invited any friends who wish to accompany of a leg or legs of the journey to do so. The real logistics of B&Bs, ferries and tour bookings have still to be made, and the fitness regime will have to start fairly sharpish. The Scotch Odyssey of 2010 is an undertaking I think about every single day and with every whisky I drink. I have high hopes for the next pilgrimage round Scotland’s beauty spots and barley-boiling stills.

Posted in The Odyssey, Whisky Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

Posted in Comment, Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Knowing the Clearac

What does oak do for whisky? Now, I’m not about to embark upon yet another exposition of the science at the heart of the maturation process, the like of which can be found in every other magazine or blog. I’m not even going to refigure my many previous eulogies composed to exalt the profoundly powerful impressions shuffling through a dunnage warehouse elicits, or at least not entirely.

Instead, I’m going to begin with the claim that oak is PR, that it is the romantic dressings to whisky’s true inception. This thorny reality is that, for most single malts, their start in life betrays the clatter, hiss and heat of industrialism. When whisky floods through the spirit safe, what can really separate it from gin or vodka to the lay consumer? It is new make, a white dog; it is brutal and challenging. But it is honest, too.

The spirit safe: incubator of formative flavour.

Ten years later, however, with a bit of money thrown at some wood, the sales and marketing team can recoup some of their investment with packaging that declares, with all the sincerity of a sickly maitre d’, that your whisky has been matured in the ‘finest oak casks’. In the vast majority of cases, a lot of it has been thrown into whatever American oak hogshead has arrived into the filling store, or has been delivered to the central warehousing complex if new make is put into cask off-site.

Not enough, to bring this tirade to some sort of point, is said about the process at the distillery and the practiced nuances required to ensure the right character of spirit goes into the wood policy lucky dip. It seems strange to praise the maturation regime, one which few – if anyone – understands completely, whereas mashmen and stillmen have consistently precise calls to make to ensure that the whisky is up to scratch. My week at Balblair testified to this, and so too did in-depth visits to Benromach and Bruichladdich where infinitesimal adjustments to malt batch, peating levels and wash density must be made to guarantee that the appropriate flavours will sing out years down the line.

New make after a bit of ex-Bourbon blusher.

Dave Broom, in his World Atlas of Whisky, explains this accrual of marginal gains (to quote British Cycling) exceedingly well. Distillers must assume control over those parts of the whisky-making process which will yield to their influence. Though 60-70% of a single malt’s flavour will be owed to the cask, that 30-40% of direct distiller interference is keenly contested. To return to the dog metaphor, it is like training a two-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier that will ultimately have to adjust to a new owner. The example set at the beginning will prove critical. For Broom, our readily available single malts cannot be comprehended without that most limited and secretive of substances: new make. In the nature or nurture debate, a spirit’s encounters with oak incorporates and rejects both sides to varying degrees in order to assume its eventual character.

Recently, the Whisky Roundtable discussed new make, and so too did Joel and Neil in an excellent article for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Unfiltered magazine. More distillers are marketing single malts in their infancy to the delight of mixologists and whisky geeks. I still think, however, that more distilleries should provide a measure as part of their end-of-tour tastings. How better to bridge the gap between the smells of the distillery and the mature product on the shelves? New make can babble brilliantly, echoing the grist, the wort, the CO2 at the washbacks and those complex, heavy and heady aromas of esters and congeners coming into being at the spirit safe. Glencadam did, and that remains my favourite new make: puckeringly sweet and clinging, some of the soft yellow and green tropical fruits from the stainless steel washbacks could be detected.

Last week, however, I tried Auchentoshan’s new make spirit. Triple distilled, this was joyously intense with strawberry jam and pear on the nose, yellow citrus on the palate. Water pulled out plum yoghurt and sticky pot ale, a combination which recalled the delicate balance of waste and gain at the heart of distilling. In the mouth, I found cider apple and coconut. It was a fabulous insight into the selection process that three stills necessitates and how a delicate but full-throated flavour can be teased into existence and magnified.

When surveying the classifications of single malt species, knowing the new make makes a big difference. You always begin with a highly individual and complex animal which, whether dressed in Pedro Ximenez or Carribean rum or Sauternes, can never completely change its spots. To not hide those spots is another challenge for the distiller altogether.

Posted in Comment, Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Comment, Whisky Societies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Balblair Rolls Out the Years

I like anniversaries. I like them still more when someone else arranges the party for you.

Just this very circumstance occurred last week as a result of browsing Twitter (follow me @WhiskyOdyssey for my summer whisky and distillery hunt). Balblair, it turned out, would be releasing two new vintages to supplement their excellent range on Tuesday July 10th and would anyone like to volunteer to taste them live on Twitter? Would anyone like a million pounds may as well have been the query.

My affair with Balblair began with their 1997 vintage way back in 2009 but has since blossomed into a long-term relationship via the Bloggers Press Trip of 2010, a week’s work experience there last summer, and a further visit to Edderton in November 2011 for the official Brand Home opening. The Twitter tasting would coincide exactly with my six days strolling about the distillery, smelling washbacks and lounging by the spirit safe a year ago. It turned out to be a glorious reacquaintance.

Balblair one year ago. One beautiful distillery on one beautiful day.

Lucas D sent a couple of sample bottles my way, one marked ‘A’ and the other ‘B’. The identities of the two liquids would be revealed during the tasting. Deeply excited, and keen to commence with the detective work (although slightly apprehensive that my knowledge of the Balblair spirit would prove less dependable than I had thought), I poured away.

Balblair 2002 (sample A) 46% £TBC

Colour – very pale gold. Lemon pith.

Nose – medium to full with an immediate confectioner’s aroma: vanilla rock candy. Next comes trademark green fruit with real waxy/leathery textures: all pulped green apple and hot lime. Very creamy with icing sugar and chewy banana sweets. Lively and engaging with a dash of mint, dusty malt bins and orange and coconut cake. Quintessential Balblair for me.

Adding water turned up the volume on the pear with extra sweet grassiness. Fresh and lively, with a spirit so boisterous it almost fizzes. Apple, orange and honeycomb. Hard toffee. Lovely balance and juicy weight. Sweet leather and buttery vanilla biscuit.

Palate – smooth but with a core of firmness. Lots of cerealy/biscuity malt on swallowing with sweet dryish oak and vanilla toffee.

With water the spicy character of Balblair really shines: coriander and cumin with lemon. Some rich ginger biscuit. Tongue-tingling and firm. A lovely performer.

Finish – the sweet citrus ramps up and fills the mouth. Excellent poise and development, although the light malt/American oak interchange is fairly conventional. Green apple slides in at the end, though.

With water it’s an explosion of lush juices: peach, pineapple. Lime zest, too, overcomes a threat from dryish cereal. Clean and sweet.

 

Balblair 1975 46% £TBC

Colour – full yellow gold with honey in the depths.

Nose – soft and deep at first with a richness that only just tiptoes over the line from rounded sweetness. Fat barley malt with a crystallised orange peel husk. The spirit and the oak are in a cool stand off, with papaya and physalis in the gap. Like walking into a room in which birthday candles have been snuffed out a few minutes before. Creamy with autumnal spice. Tight charring – ex-Bourbon for sure. Black liquorice and old magazines.

Adding water pulls out more of that ethereal mossy smoke which was birthday candles before. I have an Auchentoshan Three Wood pack which includes little pots of cask shavings and the aroma is of ex-Bourbon fragments at first, but with some of the raisiny sweetness of the PX shavings. Wax candles and vanilla. Essential oils of orange and lavendar. Becomes a little peppery but always dark and waxy.

Palate – rich, smoky oak, some jellied orange and pink grapefruit before earthy, dark barley and crushed dusky flowers appear.

With water oak is prominant with some of the dried fruit/incence character from the nose. However, the fruits interplay more freely with orange and baked apple. Soft smoke at the back this time, but extra waxiness.

Finish – clearly old, 25 years plus, this is all brooding darkness and mystery. Some moccha notes and sweet barbecue flavours. Very dense.

With water it remains extraordinarily deep, but tropical fruits come out together with vanilla pod and a cypress/cigar aromatic hint.

The Struie Hills: there were hints of these bleak, misty conditions with the 1975.

When tasting these, I was struck by the youthfulness but also coordination of ‘A’. While not as creamy as the 1997, its full juiciness with none of the sharpness of the 2000 made me think of something between 12 and 14 years of age. When Lucas revealed this was a 2002 whisky, I was stunned, but bowled over by such a fresh and fun whisky.

The ‘B’ sample growled with age and the unflinching darkness and softness of the oak put me in mind of something older than 30 years. Ultimately, I hedged my bets and thought it might be an early ’80s bottling to replace the 1978 with which it shared some of the brooding intensity and delicate, mysterious richness. To hear 1975 didn’t surprise me, nor did the news that the release was comprised of six ex-Bourbon hogsheads. The charred notes and gentle smoke, together with dustings of dried fruit, suggested prime old hoggies. In the end, though, the spirit was a touch too aloof and lacked the articulacy of the outstanding ’78. Whilst an exciting, thought-provoking malt, I couldn’t resist the exuberance of the 2002, and I doubt I will be able to when it finally arrives on the shelves of spirits stores throughout the land.

Posted in Comment, Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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?

Posted in Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

anCnoc at the Quaich Society

The selection of anCnocs waiting to charm the Quaich Society in their final tasting of the year.

With a feat of endurance the gain-sayers could scarcely believe, the Quaich Society held its second whisky tasting in as many weeks ast Thursday. To the plaintive sobs of all, however, it was to be the last of the 2011/12 academic year. Solace of sorts came in the form of Lucas Dynowiak, acting-brand ambassador for the charming and recently highly-commended Inver House single malt stable. Having kicked off our tasting year in September with Old Pulteney and Balblair, including the 21yo expression from the Wick distillery just days before Jim Murray announced it as his Whisky Bible Whisky of the Year, hopes were high and mouths were moist for what might appear on this occasion.

Though I could hardly feel otherwise after Inver House’s superlative hospitality towards myself and my fellow bloggers in November 2010, I arrived at Knockdhu distillery near Huntly and fell in love with the place. In the process, I acquired a keen appreciation for their creamy, unctuous but somehow clean and fresh make. The New York-based Scottish artist Peter Arkle obviously holds that little pocket of Aberdeenshire in high regard too, because a couple of weeks ago Inver House announced their partnership with a series of limited bottlings bearing Peter’s artwork, and furthering anCnoc’s affiliations with the creative arts industry. Armed with a couple of bottles of the brand spanking new Peter Arkle Limited Edition, Lucas’ arrival could not have been better timed.

‘I feel you can only judge a distillery on their entry level malt,’ said Lucas. ‘For me, this 12yo is fantastic.’ The Quaich Soc’ers set to work on the first of only two core expressions which bear the anCnoc name and I for one loved the up-front sweetness, with tempered but ominous darkness underneath. The nose was firm and fixing with fresh barley, bold vanilla and candied orange. The palate revealed the slightly feral richness that worm tubs convey to a spirit: rich barley and building vanilla toffee skirted around the darker flavours which reminded me of malting floors and the dustier corners of the distillery.

If there was one dram that captured the popular imagination over the course of the night, however, it was the 16yo. Glasses containing this pale gold spirit were the first to be scavenged from unattended tasting mats and little wonder. Lucas suggested there were some ‘tired’ Bourbon casks in the vatting for this whisky, but all I found was malt and vibrant oak working in sublime harmony. Seriously honeyed on the nose, there grew aromas of caramelised, candied yellow fruits, soft but deep floral tones and cookie dough. The oak made the mouth water, while elevating all of the other flavours packed in to the soirit. Peach and coconut emerged with a bit of water. The palate boasted fullness and richness with plenty of fruit and Werther’s Original toffee maltiness. Stunningly good, all-round.

On then, to the more singular sideshow of anCnoc, and one which makes it highly popular with connoisseurs. Released a short while ago, the 1998 Vintage exhibits partial Bourbon and Fino sherry cask maturation. On the nose this produced heavy red raisin aromas and macerated green fruits. The belief is that worm-tub-condensed spirits often require a little bit longer in the cask for sulphur-masked flavour compounds to completely blossom into more attractive aromas and flavours and despite being two years older than the standard 12yo, low wines and feints receiver scents came across more forcefully in this expression. With a bit of time, though, hedgerow berry conserve and nettles predominated. Full on the palate, there was a pronounced nuttiness which I interpreted as walnut and peanut. Dark and grungey overall.

A close-up of the label for anCnoc's new Peter Arkle Limited Edition.

What of the boldly-packaged Peter Arkle then? Was the eye-catching black-on-white design disguising an inferior product? Far from it, as this was to be a handful of peoples’ favourite of the tasting. All-matured in Fino sherry casks, the nose was creamily nutty with masses of golden raisin. Green pear and so much fudge appeared next. Grape skins emerged, too, and a waxy feel which must hint at the drams youthfulness (8 years in oak, roughly). The palate was markedly different from the others of the night: fruity and sulphury with cider apples and mango. Dried fruits took over into the medium-length finish. I must confess that my colours were pinned to the 16yo, but this is one intriguing bottling.

For the fifth dram, Lucas opted for an ‘informal’ policy. Guests had the option of a measure of the Speyburn 25yo, decorated at the recent World Whisky Awards, and the third instalment from Balblair’s 1989 stocks. Attendance numbers meant that most, as fortune would have it, succeeded in wangling a dram of both. The Speyburn blended aromas and flavours of old country houses and libraries, with an oily and fresh maltiness that made yours truly sit up and take notice. The Balblair delivered its usual creamy citrus and banana-toffee notes with, if anything, still more elan and softness than previous releases.

To the Raffle, therefore, and the impossible very nearly happened. If John Glaser had outdone himself with the previous tasting’s prizes, Lucas’ donation exceeded many of the company’s happiest whisky dreams. Held aloft was a pre-release, pre-just-about-anything bottle of the forthcoming anCnoc 35yo – the oldest expression ever bottled by the distillery. I was forbidden in no uncertain terms from posting images of this beauty, but I can tell you what it tasted and smelt like.

On the nose, this whisky echoed the 12yo with its cleanliness but also with its hints of the deeply dark. Like the single cask Aberfeldy of our Society tour in March, oak held sway but to gorgeous effect: interspersed with the charcoal were glossy orange sweets and rich honey. A mint fudge note alluded to the redoubtable age of this dram. The palate was a slow build: candle wax, honey, floral notes and spice filling the mouth. Dense mossy oak hove into view and the finish revealed clean, malty sweetness.

Our thanks go to Lucas for his generosity and improvisation. anCnoc may not have been firmly established in the subconsciousnesses of our members beforehand, but I suspect there are some new converts who won’t be looking too far over The Hill for their next whisky purchase.

Posted in Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment