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Edinburgh Whisky Stramash 2014

The day is surely not so far away when ‘to stramash’ will be a universally-recognised verb with a highly specific meaning: to spend four hours in Edinburgh at the Surgeons’ Hall sampling exciting whiskies in often exciting ways.

Saturday ushered in the third outing for Scott Martin and Darroch Ramsay’s madcap, monumental whisky festival with a difference – that difference chiefly being a sense of humour. Many of the biggest Scotch whisky brands were in attendance, some of whom were keen to show attendees something out of the ordinary. The world’s best-selling single malt, Glenfiddich, had their ‘Family run since 1887′ installation, essentially a recreation of their warehouse tour at the distillery in Dufftown. This – as it turned out – was what everyone in front of me was queuing to sign up for, meaning that I cannot report on how successful this simulation was after every slot for the 12-4pm session was booked up.

The Black Grouse were offering something called a blending bar (more on that later), Balvenie curated their barley to bottle process in another part of the venue and Drambuie were breaking bad. Having failed to drop in, I don’t know what any of that entailed. Word spread over the afternoon that Bowmore had some single cask samples stashed away somewhere, and that I did manage to infiltrate.

First dram? That I can vividly remember: the new BenRiach 16yo Sauternes Finish. Syrupy, rich and dense, it was impressively fruity and complex. It’s neighbour, the 20yo, has been around for some time but I have never got around to sampling it. I can report that it was a revelation: oodles of fresh American oak and jelly sweets on the nose with a clean, vanilla-rich and shortbready textured palate.

The BenRiach/GlenDronach/Glenglassaugh stand.

Between that and the Glenglassaugh 35yo, finished in a Sherry Hogshead, I signed up for the Black Grouse demonstration. Having detested it the first time I tried it, I was hoping for a more successful introduction this time around. But what of that Glenglassaugh? A mighty popular bottle on the stand, and no wonder: still quite fresh and clean for all its years, with a floral finish.

Life speeded up a little after that, or at least I stopped concentrating quite so hard. The neighbouring building housed many more whiskies than we had first realised, as well as the Dewar’s Theatre and the Drambuie exhibitionism on the ground floor. Here we found Morrison Bowmore and, what piqued my interest, Suntory. Hibiki 12yo (stunning stuff) was available, but so too were the company’s two newest single malts: the Hakushu and Yamazaki Distillers Reserves. I bought the Hakushu a month or so ago on the strength of online reviews and it is delightful, but I wanted to see how the red wine casks had impacted upon the Yamazaki. This is one figgy dram, as it turns out, but very smooth and deep. The younger whiskies take away the spiced poise of the 18yo, for example, but I was mightily impressed.

Across the way, Glen Moray had something of a scrum around them. Much of the core range featured, but my eye was caught by an unlabelled bottle. Allegedly, this is to be a new, non-age statement Port-finished whisky. I can confirm that it is delightful: the wine provides a blackcurrant jelly impression which balances wonderfully with the fresh green apple note from what is clearly a pretty young overall vatting. I preferred it to their 25yo Port Finish, in fact, which to me and my companions tasted too strongly of wood.

Lucy Whitehall unravelling the Black Grouse.

By this point, our turn had finally come for the Black Grouse Blending Bar. Global Brand Ambassador Lucy Whitehall steered us through the component parts of the Black Grouse with a great deal of charm and insight – some of it geeky. I can divulge, for instance, that North British is currently running on 100% maize. Good to know, eh? Before sampling the Black Grouse for ourselves, nosing glasses were passed round of Glenturret new make: the standard unpeated version and a gloriously smoky rendering called Ruadh Moar. I begged a dram of this and it is superb. Of course, only a tiny amount of Glenturret goes in to Famous Grouse but it’s good stuff that makes the cut. Three cask samples followed, showing the affects of European, American and first-fill oak. And what of the Black Grouse? How did we get on? I must say it impressed me far more than initially: a composed, toffee-laden dram with only a smidgen more smoke than the standard Grouse, but attractively so.

My friends and I wended our way back to the BenRiach/GlenDronach stand, this time to sample some of the latter. I wasn’t overly impressed with the latest batch of the Cask Strength (too strong, not enough of the boozy sherry from the first batch with an American oak presence that was a tad cloying) but I adored the 21yo Parliament. This is Rolls Royce stuff if ever a whisky deserved such a billing. Not on the stand, but very near it, was Craig Johnstone, a dear friend of the Quaich Society and a great guy generally. He is enjoying his time in Dubai, working in the whisky industry on the sales/distribution side. Craig confessed that there is much to be learnt from working alongside whisky in the UAE, something that has ramifications for me as I shall disclose in a future post.

If it weren’t for Darroch himself putting a word in my ear, I may have missed the “secret” Bowmore blend-your-own-Small-Batch session happening nearby. I managed to secure our party places on the reserve list, and Bowmore ambassador Ali generously granted us entrance through what turned out to be mock-ups of the Bowmore No. 1 Vaults’ doors. The atmosphere inside was less saline than Islay’s oldest maturation warehouse, but it was warmer and the whisky fug was nearly as potent. Our mission – which we chose to accept – was to recreate the Small Batch which lay breathing in a glass, together with pipettes, measuring cylinders and two sample bottles, on the casks in front of us.

The professionally put-together dram smelt of clove and minerally peat with plenty of leafiness (mint and broom) and charcoal. Clean and lush to taste, with a generous dollop of ex-Bourbon barrel, we had to combine our first-fill and our refill Bourbon samples to approximate this flavour. I could immediately tell that the first-fill would require careful usage; it offered thickness with fudge and coconut, the Bowmore character restricted to soft peat and orange oil. The taste, however, was mostly Bourbony spice and char. I much preferred the second-fill sample. Even at 60.2% ABV the Bowmore soft smoke emerged together with a creamy, ferny character. I also detected Cointreau and porridge. Delicious! Mouth-coating and smoky, I wrote down ‘dense rice pudding’ but I’m not certain what I mean by it. Our trio, after some bickering, presented a version that only narrowly lost out. Too strong apparently…

The Bowmore single cask samples.

We retired from the improvised Vault to find the Stramash winding down. Last pour had been called while we were blending and, if I’m honest, this was definitely a good thing. The cask strength Bowmore had obliterated my palate, not to mention much of my self-awareness. It was with a slack but content grin that I traversed the city back to the New Town for a spot of dinner, completely and utterly stramashed.

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Whisky Prices Blast Off into Orbit

Whisky whisky everywhere, but so little of it affordable...

A disclaimer from the outset: this is NOT about Diageo’s recent announcement concerning the direction its new range of whiskies from the Mortlach distillery will take and which has got many bloggers VERY hot under the collar. Just head over to Oliver Klimek’s redoubtable ‘Dramming’ if you don’t believe me or are not acquainted with the issue. All I would say is that the decision to price a no-age statement whisky at £55 for a 50cl bottle and £180 for an 18yo whisky is symptomatic of a wider trend: Scotch prices are on the up.

Back in the good old days when I was nobbut a lad (rather, six and a half years ago, when I was 17) you could wander into a good spirits store and even a larger Tesco and pick up a bottle of The Glenlivet 18yo, the first whisky I tried that seduced me with difference, depth and intrigue, for between £36 and £40. When I first peeped into the Garden of Eden that was Scotch whisky, of course, this was no mean sum of money to me. I was used to seeing bottles of alcohol for the £20 mark, maybe a shade over if I was paying attention in the spirits aisle. Now, you are doing very well if you come across an 18yo Glenlivet (re-packaged since 2007) for less than £60. And that is at the competitive end for single malts boasting such an age statement. Bowmore’s 18yo is £67 – Highland Park’s is £88 (using Master of Malt as my price guide). Mortlach’s will be £180 – but the less said about that the better.

I’m not going to go into why this should be in this post – economics, guys, all very unseemly – but what I do want to talk about are the few pockets of comparative shade away from the rising temperatures of Scotch prices more generally. Below are a few of the single malts and blends that offer good drinking for a fee that won’t having you spitting it all back up again.

BenRiach

Bodacious BenRiachs.

Maybe it was the torrent of liquid released when Billy Walker and partners purchased this quiet Speyside giant back in 2004 but the wealth of choice came at an attractively low price. Former owners back in the 80s, Allied, had experimented heavily with the production regimes and releases continue to showcase this shape-shifting ability in complex, characterful and fully-mature expressions. Heavily peated, triple distilled as well as clean and fruity single malts are all available under the BenRiach banner. My picks of the bunch would be:

16yo 40% £36.43 If you like your whiskies quintessentially Speyside, dripping with honey, pear and vanilla, this cannot be improved upon for the price. When I tried this last year I could not believe how lovely it was, showcasing excellent cask management and a beautiful spirit. Master Blender Walker has added a tiny smidgen of smoke into the vatting, too, to add complexity.

Solstice 17yo 50% £58.37 Maybe not quite a full 18yo, but what you have here is a Glenlivet 18yo price tag plus extra ABV, smoke, and a delicious, heavy Port influence. This shouldn’t work, but it just does.

Also on the sensible pricing policy are their single cask releases, which appear a couple of times a year.

Glenfarclas

The Grant family have owned Glenfarclas, beneath the mountain of Ben Rinnes on Speyside, for six generations. Their whiskies are bold, full-bodied, and demonstrate only the best Sherry cask attentions.

15yo 46% £43.21 Every time I come back to this it puts a smile on my face. The spirit within the rich, dry Oloroso drapery is powerful, sweet and completely delightful. There is the juiciest vanilla imaginable and tannic presence. A superstar. Also, a 21yo for £61.49? Unbeatable value.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie

Under the LVMH umbrella with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (although you’d never know it), BNJ is visually anonymous with it’s bland white label. However, what’s inside the bottle is anything but.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie 40% £19.69 waves of melon, caramel and soft oak arrive on the nose while the palate boasts a commendable weight and texture with oodles of vanilla and succulent yellow fruits. Blends are, to my mind, liquid comfort blankets and this one will soothe and invigorate in equal measure.

Signatory

Owned by Andrew Symington, who also controls the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry, Signatory are a mad-cap independent bottler offering their own unnamed expressions from the various whisky regions of Scotland for under £30, as well as their Unfiltered range which includes single malts from all over the country, either as single casks or pairings of casks, reduced to 46%.

Really amazing value is to be had from their Cask Strength Collection range with whiskies typically of between 19 and 25 years of age, bottled at cask strength and usually from single casks, for below £100 in most cases. It must be borne in mind that Signatory have a reputation of sorts for wine finish deviancy (but less so than Murray McDavid) so tread carefully. However, the company is very good at listing the maturation history of the whisky you are buying.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Queen Street SMWS bar.

Okay, I will admit that the upfront costs are definitely on the steep side: this is, after all, a private club whereby the Society bottles whiskies for the titillation of its members (no sniggering in the back). Since 1983, when some Edinburgh-based single malt zealots began sourcing single casks from all over Scotland, the Society has spread to just about every continent and major city around the world. There are more than 130 single malts and 10 single grain whiskies listed on the Society’s coded books with monthly releases of single casks.

I was gifted membership for my 21st birthday and I haven’t looked back. The cost to join is now £122 but for that you receive a welcome pack stuffed with goodies, including 10cl miniatures of Society bottlings and four issues of Unfiltered each year (annual renewal currently at £59), a rather brilliant magazine which covers the more esoteric fields of debate and flights of fancy whisky can engineer. Oh yes, and the opportunity to buy some stunning single cask whiskies (the Society won an Icon of Whisky Award in 2012 for best independent bottler).

This month, for example, my eye was caught by 77.34: a 13-year-old Northern Highland dram at 56.2% and less than £50. Or, on the more mature end of the scale, what about a 29-year-old single cask for £131? The SMWS prefers to root out distinctive and unusual examples of spirit from the various distilleries of Scotland (and even Japan). What you are buying is, in effect, unique and unrepeatable. Even if you don’t buy full bottles, membership also gains you access to members rooms in London and two separate venues in Edinburgh where masses of green bottles await the arrival of your adventurous streak.

I would not go so far as to say that good whisky is dying out, but the days of inexpensive whisky are rapidly coming to an end. These guys offer something tasty, individual and not too dear, either. If you have any brands or products offering cracking value which you think I’ve missed out, please comment below.

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My Speyside Reboot

BenRiach Distillery on a tempestuous day.

I think we would all agree that 14 months is a ponderous age to be without the means of indulging in your chief passion. That length of time without football, an easyJet flight to somewhere warm, the use of a working television, or sex would try the patience sorely. I had endured 14 months without setting foot in a whisky distillery and righting this wrong last month wreathed me in smiles.

Wriggling from under the barbed wire cage of three assignments in as many weeks, I beheld the prospect of a period of time in which I could plant a project or two. Operation Sniff A Washback was go.

For various reasons, Speyside is my favourite of all the whisky ‘regions’. Not only is it far enough away from the Central Belt to impress upon me a suitably Highland ruggedness, but the density of high-class, diverse distilleries cannot be bettered. One hopelessly romantic train journey through the snow drifts of Aberdeenshire later and I alighted in Elgin, chilled but thrilled to be back in Morayshire. Thanks to the help of Stewart Buchanan and Ewan George, I knew that there was a whisky hearth of brilliant warmth awaiting me at BenRiach.

One very short hop on the 36 bus brought me to the swift S-bend on which BenRiach sits, the black bulk of the maltings showing up well against shards of snow driven into the grass by the determined wind. I was sent to the stillroom to warm up while Ewan finished off some recurring paperwork where I chewed the stillman fat with Fraser, custodian of the BenRiach spirit for the last four years. The quartet of copper pots pelted me with heat as Fraser told me about the various family members employed within the industry, one as far away as Laphroaig. That brought the discussion on to the peated BenRiach production regime and whether the quality of the final whisky represented satisfactory redress for the clinging cigarette smoker fragrance no worker can escape when the smoky stuff is being distilled. Like the gents at Balblair, Fraser prefers the less aromatically-invasive unpeated production.

The stills at BenRiach.

Trotting in Ewan’s wake, once his ‘t’s had been crossed and his ’i's dotted, we headed into the warehouses. Here I could Get My Geek On with a quick game of ‘Name That Cask’. Hoggies, butts, puncheons, and more than a couple of Port pipes could be discerned in the tepid gloom, teeming with the scents of perhaps the industry’s most heterogeneous whisky stocks maturing. I asked Ewan which of Billy Walker’s discoveries had most excited him when they emerged from dunnage obscurity. ‘To be honest, the Solstice stuff I thought was fantastic. I’d gone off peated whiskies for a few years, but that whisky is top class’.

'Under 25'? Hardly.

With the tour over, Ewan was kind enough to furnish me with one of the missing pieces of my BenRiach puzzle. Stewart had told us in St Andrews that more senior BenRiach acquired a tropical fruitiness, and I wanted to put his claim to the test in the shape of the award-winning 30yo. I found this to be a deeply unusual dram, a class apart from those other whiskies I have tried which can also claim to have been three decades in development.

Red fruit sweetness and rich honey came through at first on the nose, but despite its age there was a remarkable zest and life. Lime pickle came next, and then – right enough – the tropical fruits. I found banana and passion fruit were most evident, with grapefruit in time and a toffee’d weight. To taste, this was full with a spicy attack before the experience lengthened with malt, honey and plenty of vanilla. The 50:50 wood contribution between ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry lent this whisky plenty of richness and complexity, but also enough body and freshness to demand a lengthier sipping session.

Ewan had one final ticket for the BenRiach Bandwagon, however, and when I nosed the second release of the Solstice Heavily Peated Port Finish, I leapt aboard.

BenRiach Solstice 17yo 50%

Colour – toffee apple red: clear and bright.

Nose – surprisingly fresh breezy smoke, like a wintry wind blowing the peat smoke over barley fields. It is a soft (though bold and unmistakable) smokiness, like the last stages of kilning. Beneath is a citrussy cleanliness, then the Port gives a firm base of cooked strawberries and morello cherries.

Palate – tickle of peat, then mouth-coating Port flavours. Flavour everywhere especially heavy, industrial peat. There is a clean, light toffee’d malt for balance.

Finish – drying all the time on black, thick and growly peat. Garden fire fragrance. Some tiny pieces of dried strawberry. Clean green apple on the tail.

With water, the nose hinted at the kiln even more, with fat, dry barley. More of the fruits inherent within the spirit emerged: orange and ripe Comice pears, all beneath a veil of smoke. With that dash of water, the palate was more focused with heat and smoke. A trace of creamy, nutty oak heralded a singeing sweetness in the middle of the tongue: pear drops and strawberry jam. Kippery smoke appeared on the finish with citrussy oak, a satiny sweetness and the sooty smokiness of a fire grate.

At the time, I laughed out loud: by rights, it should not taste as good as it does. The Port finish is so well-executed, and the smoke such a joyous mixture of textures and aromas. Having missed my bus on to Aberlour, I contented myself with buying a bottle, the immediate rapture of my dram at the distillery fortifying me against a fierce – but not unwelcome – blizzard outside the distillery. Though certainly not a summery dram, we were hardly experiencing summery conditions. Irrespective of the time of year, however, the bizarre brilliance of this whisky will make itself felt. I am now besotted with BenRiach.

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BenRiach and GlenDronach at the Quaich Society

All aboard for six of the best from Scotland's Highlands.

Bens and Glens characterise the Scottish landscape. Bens are the high bits, and the glens the gaps in between them. That’s Scotland pretty much explained, geographically. As far as Scotch whisky is concerned, Bens and Glens can cover an equally wide spectrum, as Stewart Buchanan demonstrated when he introduced the Quaich Society to BenRiach and GlenDronach. The expression goes that there is a whisky out there to suit every one; as it happens, chances are you will find it in one of the ranges of these fine distilleries.

Weighing down Stewart’s car were three separate releases from BenRiach (the 16yo, 15yo Madeira Finish and Septendecim) and three from GlenDronach (15yo, 18yo and Cask Strength). We were not short of liquid, and it became apparent immediately that that liquid was of a very high quality indeed.

Stewart directed us to the 16yo, a dram ‘designed’ by Billy Walker from the 28,000 casks he and his South African business partners inherited when they acquired the distillery, sited just below Elgin on the A95, in 2004. Five cask styles are used and while I didn’t catch them all, each play their part in the final flavour. And what a flavour. I make no secret of my preference for a pretty, delicate, sweet and intriguing Speysider as a gutsy aperitif, and this may just be the ultimate example of this species. Pear drops, vanilla, lemon sherbet and banana emerged on the nose while the palate was sweet, round and tickled the tongue with spice. It was delightful.

‘Can anyone detect the peat?’ Stewart asked. ‘Some can, some can’t.’ Billy Walker puts peated BenRiach in to the mix, just to add that subtle complexity. This is seriously intelligent cask management and whisky construction, and while I couldn’t find any smoke on the night,  can attest to the quality of the dram.

Former BenRiach manager, Stewart Buchanan, was full of facts and anecdotes.

The Madeira Finish came next, and Stewart confessed regret that it will soon be discontinued. Each time I returned to this whisky I began to partake in Stewart’s affection for it more and more. Having been anxious to try the Septendecim after giving a big thumbs-up to the Curiositas 10yo, I was left marginally disappointed. The crunchy peated malt aromas, together with honey and lemon, were all very pleasant. However, I had hoped for more depth. As an aside, I have recently discovered that BenRiach offer another 17yo peated whisky which is almost hysterically brilliant – but more on that in a later post.

On to GlenDronach, the dram of choice for the discerning lady of the night in 19th century Edinburgh. James Allardice  may no longer peddle the products of his Forgue-based copper still in Scotland’s capital, paying his way in potent clearic, but since Walker’s acquisition of GlenDronach in 2008 the Aberdeenshire whisky has been finding a whole new appreciative audience. I fondly remember the 15yo from a couple of years ago as big, meaty and rich. In St Andrews, it still makes best use of full Oloroso Sherry maturation to lend a caramelised nuttiness to proceedings. The malt spirit is inherently sweet and powerful. It’s older brother strides out in full Sherry regalia at 18yo, but possibly to exaggeratedly.

I was very curious to try the new Cask Strength, which Whisky For Everyone thoroughly approved of when they sampled it in January. It tasted pretty special in February. A nose of orange, tablet and juicy malt, it had a leathery weight with plenty of spice coming through from the Oloroso casks in the shape of nutmeg and paprika, together with plum jam, cinnamon and star anise from the Pedro Ximenez maturation. The palate – even at full strength (54.8%) – was rich, smooth and sweet with creamy malt and chocolate powder. How to pick a winner between this and the 16yo? Though at opposite ends of the tasting spectrum on the night, they came together in terms of exceptional quality.

Stewart led a tasting as relaxed as it was informative. The Quaich Society committee thank him for the calibre of stock he brought with him, and the plethora of gems he left behind for our WaterAid Raffle prizes. To the new owner of a BenRiach Horizons 12yo, congratulations. There was one matter which Stewart did not clear up, however; having hinted that Billy Walker had seated himself on one side of another negotiating table, he declined to drop the disputed distillery’s name. Of course, now we know that joining BenRiach and GlenDronach in Walker’s single malt stable is the Portsoy plant of Glenglassaugh.

He said: ‘We’re really delighted to buy Glenglassaugh, a renowned Highland single malt with a rich and distinguished heritage. It’s an excellent complementary fit with our existing BenRiach and GlenDronach brands. Part of its attraction to us is that it isn’t too large for our portfolio but its potential in contributing to the group certainly is.

‘It’s our intention to bring this iconic distillery fully back to life by giving it the investment, commitment and care it deserves. I believe our whisky expertise, proven brand-building ability and strong routes to market will help take Glenglassaugh to the next level.’

Last week I returned from Speyside with a visit to BenRiach under my belt and a miniature of Glenglassaugh Revival from the Whisky Shop Dufftown in my pocket. Little did I guess that the two were linked by more than the coincidences of my personal whisky travels. I can’t wait to see what Billy Walker will find lurking in those seashore warehouses…

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The Bloggers’ BenRiach

The whisky blogosphere can be both intoxicating and intimidating. On the one hand, to see so many people pursue their passion as far as maintaining a little corner of the internet in which to display their views I find tremendously inspiring. Appreciating how others drink so deeply of the spirit of the subject provokes a redoubling of my efforts at comprehension and communication.

On the other hand, however, there are the likes of Caskstrength.net, a blog so professional, so influential and so damn readable I wonder how my attempts can be in any way comparable. It would be easy to become downhearted – even petulant – if Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, the blog’s founders, were not such lovely people and performed such a sterling whisky service by providing comment, controversy and creativity.

Creativity, thinking outside the box, is the focus of my post today. Caskstrength.net enjoys a standing few other blogs can boast because Caskstrength.net has done things few other blogs have attempted. In 2011, to celebrate the three year anniversary of the blog’s inception, Joel and Neil took a risk: they approached the Isle of Arran distillery, purchased a cask from them, and bottled it for their readership. They told me in November last year that those 96 bottles had given them plenty of sleepless nights. Would it be popular? Would they all be sold? Would they have to flee the country as the traditional independent bottlers made pariahs of them for discrediting their profession? I made that last one up, but dipping a toe in the financial realities of whisky distribution, rather than simply writing about it, was a serious step to take.

The Caskstrength BenRiach.

They needn’t have worried, of course. Former A&R men for the music industry, they can sense a hit when they hear it. The Arran sold out, and as 2012 rolled around their prescient noses sought a second project. Nothing if not thorough in their approach, Joel and Neil thought that an alphabetical system worked as well as any other and hence the Cask Strength and Carry On BenRiach was released through online retailer Master of Malt last week. I placed my order within minutes of receiving the press release, having got wind of the bottling on Twitter. I like to show my support for creative enterprises, after all. Please take a look at Chris’ excellent side-by-side review of last year’s Arran with this BenRiach over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog.

Cask Strength and Carry On BenRiach 1996 cask #5614 55.2% 296 bottles. Available here for £54.95

Colour – rich chestnut orange.

Nose – restrained at first with ripe banana and a cereal bar stickyness: raisins and dates. Dark but sweet liquid honey. Sundried tomato. Suddenly, weighty toffee and sweet bubblegum step out as well as some lovely herbal sweetness: patchouli. Sweet leather and gentle smoke. Oily citrus freshness interchanges with toastier, burnt rich flavours. A saltiness.

Water turns the spotlight onto the Pedro Ximenez influence: a heavy, lichen-like oak aroma with purple raisin and marzipan. Some gooseberry-like tartness. Iced gingerbread men and the booziest of Christmas mince pies. Caramel and a nuttiness, like pecan. Stewed dates with a wrapping of soft smoke.

Palate – soft, nutty and mouthfilling. Medium-dry and sweet malt rolls over the tongue with a suggestion of singed grasses. Then unctuous, creamy oak sugars pour over everything. For all this, it is surprisingly delicate and superb for it.

Water revealed dried fruits galore, all against clean but not obstructive oak. Creamy vanilla, orange and syrupy flapjack. Yellow fruit and icing sugar.

Finish – still with a soft creaminess, there is plenty of oak but also honey. Some dryish bruised apple flavours give way to glazed almonds.

Water enlarged the experience with suave richness. Bold pear, almond butter and biscuity, cinnamon-accented malt. Perfect sherry oak contribution with sultana and vanilla caramel.

So…? As I breathlessly declared on Twitter, this was not the malt I was expecting. In the past I have always gazed with longing upon the Batches of single cask releases BenRiach and sister distillery GlenDronach indulge in each year, hoping to come by one of these rich, fruity and generous expressions. A 16yo single cask, with four years of PX maturation behind it, fitted the bill perfectly and I knew Joel and Neil would not sign their names to a duff bottling. Whilst it might not – on first impressions – wear its heart on its sleave, I believe this BenRiach is an example of what Martine Nouet calls ‘whispering whiskies’.

It is composed, brilliant, complex, challenging and utterly delicious but it does not shout to be heard. Water accentuates some of the distillery’s inherent fun-loving fruitiness, but this is a dram to spend a long evening with – do not expect cheap, quick thrills.

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A Pat on the Back for BenRiach & Co.

I make no secret of the fact that independent whisky producers have my approval. Independent whisky producers who capitalise on their minimal-strings business models to do something different are the subjects of my most blissful dramy daydreams.

BenRiach: showing the Speyside old dogs some new tricks.

The people behind the purchase of this Speyside distillery in 2004 have lifted the lid on this previously shy dame: there is a lot going on just off the main road between Rothes and Elgin. In 2008, GlenDronach joined the stable and dazzling standard together with bespoke bottlings have appeared in gratifying number. The BenRiach 12yo is as clean, soft and fruity as you could wish a Speysider to be, and its peated Curiositas 10yo takes peat in utterly new directions. I adore the complexity and power of the GlenDronach 15yo, and one of their single casks from a couple of decades ago is on the shopping list for next autumn.

From Batch #4 of the single cask releases, this highly praised specimen is out of my budget.

GlenDronach might stick to its guns with bruising, darkly fruity Sherry monsters, but the BenRiach portfolio is kaleidoscopic with triple distilled spirit having been produced since 2005. They have also reinstated the floor maltings. I can only imagine how extraordinary a heavily home-peated malt will taste like in a few years.

Of 2011, however, Managing Director for the two distilleries, Billy Walker said: ”we have been very fortunate to win a couple of top awards this year which reflect the passion our people bring to the art of whisky creation. They are also testament to the huge amount of time and energy we dedicate to our wood management programme.”

The awards he alludes to include the 2011 Malt Maniac Awards, the logistics of which I learnt from Keith Wood and that these are dedicated, passionate and discerning people singling out areas of the industry for special mention there can be no doubt. In addition to two gold, four silver and three brinze medals, the GlenDronach 1972 #712, from Batch 4 of the single cask releases, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.

Praise came not only from the collective of the whisky appreciation world but one of its solo grandees. Jim Murray was especially complimentary about the company’s products. Billy Walker’s response was:

“Jim made a number of very kind comments in his new book, but the highpoint was his singling out GlenDronach as the distillery with the most consistently impressive output throughout 2011.

“He very generously concluded by saying: ‘If there was a Whisky Bible Scotch Malt Whisky Distillery of the year, GlenDronach would be it.’ That was very special.”

Between the pair of distilleries, they claimed nine awards at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge, two of which were top gongs and went to the BenRiach 12yo Sherry-matured. “For a small independent distillery like BenRiach, to win two trophies for the same single malt is astounding,” said Alistair Walker, Sales Director. “IWSC is the one every whisky producer wants to win.”

Congratluations, then, to the men and women behind these rejuvenated distilleries, whose products have always been recognised as distinctive, but are only now coming before a global audience.

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The Spirit of Unity

Whisky ‘News’  and the latest releases are ordinarily entities I leave to other bloggers, preferring to focus instead on the distilleries behind the products. On this occasion, however, I think you will agree that this is more than your everyday expression and Scotch Odyssey – with ambitions one day for a Japanese Odyssey – would like to join others covering this dram.

Seven ‘craft’ Scotch distillers are contributing one cask each from their warehouses for the purposes of blending the contents and selling the doubtless delicious result in support of the relief efforts which still continue in both Japan and Christchurch following the recent earthquakes. All proceeds from this unique blend, dubbed the Spirit of Unity, will go to those countries battling to recover from the dreadful infrastructural and above all human costs.

Arran, BenRiach, Bladnoch, GlenDronach, Glengyle, Kilchoman and Springbank will contribute their singular characters to the blend whose marriage will be overseen by BenRiach Distillery Co. Master Blender, Billy Walker.

The relationship between the Scotch whisky industry and that in Japan has been long-established: Masataka Taketsuru studied the art of whisky distillation in Speyside and Campbeltown during the 1920s - regions here represented by BenRiach and Springbank/Glengyle – before shaping the establishment of Yamazaki and founding Nikka. The outturn of this vatting is expected to be in the region of 2000 bottles, 1200 of which are reserved for the UK and the benefactors hope to raise around £50,000 from the sale of these almost certainly unrepeatable bottles.

Royal Mile Whiskies and Loch Fine Whiskies are already taking preliminary orders through their websites, with the batches due to be dispatched into their stores by the end of this month with an expected price of £59.

The Scotch whisky industry has endured some tumultuous times over its history in the shape of bankruptcy, over-production and global recession, but is now in a position to lend its strength to others. With this and many other contributions from all over the world we can hope that Japan and her distilling traditions will swiftly bounce back.

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Seventh Release of Exclusive BenRiachs

BenRiach_1976_Single_Cask[1]If the subject wasn’t whisky, I would consider the recent concentrated exposure to the BenRiach Distillery Co. and its products a haunting. A tasting of the GlenDronach 15-year-old, details of the forthcoming Cask In A Van tour, press releases on What Does John Know?, prominent bottlings in the bar of the Scotch Whisky Experience when I visited last Wednesday and now another press release. This one concerns Batch 7, a 10-bottle release of rare and exclusive expressions from the revitalised distillery just south of Elgin. They commemorate the sixth anniversary of the BenRiach take-over and the subsequent spate of bottlings matched only by Bruichladdich in their profusion and variety.

This release, in much the same way as the whisky lab on Islay, offers a variety of malts of different ages, strengths, wood finishes and peating levels.

BENRIACH’S LATEST AND VERY LIMITED BATCH OF SINGLE CASK BOTTLINGS NOW AVAILABLE

AWARD-WINNING BenRiach is issuing its latest batch of single cask bottlings this week. Available worldwide, Batch 7 maintains BenRiach’s reputation for encapsulating both perfection and rarity in a glass.

The new release celebrates the sixth anniversary of the first bottling of BenRiach under its new independent owners. Back in August 2004, its ‘Heart of Speyside’ core range of 12, 16 and 20 yo malts became available for the first time.

Fast forward six years, and Master Distiller Billy Walker has selected ten highly distinctive casks from 1976 to 1993 for BenRiach aficionados. These vintage malts are immense and full of character – from pineapple, coconut, honey, and spicy vanilla to treacle toffee, cloves and chocolate coated fruits.

And the range of exceptional vintages is enhanced by their prolonged maturation in different casks – from a Virgin American Oak and a Gaja Barolo Finish to a Tokaji and a Peated Tawny Port Finish.                                                

The ten, in ascending chronological order, are:

Year     Number        Strength       Age          Cask Type             Style

1976     8795           53.2%          33yo     Hogshead                              Classic Speyside       

1977     1033           52.2%          33yo     Pedro Ximinez Hogshead     Pedro Ximinez Sherry Finish

1978     4417           50.4%          32yo     Tokaji Hogshead                Tokaji Finish                                      

1979     7511            47.9%         30yo     Bourbon Barrel                  Classic Speyside   

1980     2532            51.1%          30yo     New Wood Oak Barrel     Virgin American Oak   

1981     2589             51.6%         28yo      Bourbon Barrel                 Classic Speyside                                

1984     493               54.1%         25yo       Hogshead                            Classic Speyside                               

1984     4052            51.7%         25yo       Tawny Port Hogshead    Peated/Tawny Port Finish

1991     4389             54.9%         19yo       Virgin Oak Hogshead      Virgin American Oak Finish

1993     7420            56.7%         17yo       Gaja Barolo Hogshead   Gaja Barolo Finish         

Bottled in July 2010, the ten are all bottled at cask strength, with natural colour and non chill-filtered. They are individually numbered by hand and presented in a gift tube.

 

I think the whisky gods are trying to tell me something. I need to try BenRiach.

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Dufftown to Nairn

Dufftown to Rothes, Via Elgin: 45 miles

Having had my faith in humanity, and myself, reaffirmed by my weekend in Dufftown, I was ready to move on again. The weather could not have been better. Distinctly breezy, but bright and warm.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

On the road out towards Craigellachie, I spotted what I had missed on the way in to Dufftown on the Thursday and consequently since in my walks around the town: the sign to Balvenie. I thought I’d better take a look, and at least cycle round the place if I couldn’t tour. It is quite a site, I must say, and bouncing along the road between Glenfiddich and Balvenie revealed some warehouse damage to the former which was being repaired with many vehicles and red plastic fencing. They were kilning the malt at the time as I returned to the main road. This made me rather more excited than really it ought to but it was stupendous to see those wraiths of peat smoke waft out of the pagoda roof to be snatched and stolen away by the Speyside wind.

Past the cooperage and Craigellachie distillery, over the Spey and then up the hill back past Macallan. The wind would be in my face for the next 7 miles or so but the scenery was so damn gorgeous I really didn’t care. I was relieved, though, when two pagoda rooves lifted their chins above the outline of a ploughed field. See my review of the Cardhu tour below – and my rave about their Highland cattle!

I had the benefit of the wind’s assistance on the reverse leg to Rothes and this ensured it was only a little after 2PM when I made it to my hotel. I phoned up Moray Cycles in Elgin to announce that I would be seeing them that very afternoon and headed off again.

I had by now grown used to the insane levels of traffic on these Speyside roads but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. That said, pagoda rooves appeared everywhere and at one stage, just before a quick descent towards Elgin, I fancied I spotted the outline of the Moray Firth and the Highlands bordering the sea.

The man in the bike shop put my mind at ease. The noise I had been hearing from the front wheel was merely a combination of a slight buckling which wasn’t at all serious and spokes rubbing against each other. It was worth the 18-mile detour for peace of mind.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

On the return journey, with the sun so omnipresent, I stopped off at Benriach - it being practically on the road, and took my mission statement very literally: I cycled round the distillery. It had an inviting feel about it, too, and I would like to arrange a tour. I did the same with Longmorn – visible just a little way further into the glen. It was a privilege – a secret indulgence – to pedal round when no-one else was there.

I returned to my hotel, showered, did a mass of laundry and enjoyed a meal that owed more to chance and improvisation than management. Good fun, though, and my tour was once embued with momentum.

***

Rothes to Forres: 28 miles

Rain. Lots of rain. It isn’t how I prefer to be woken up, and everywhere looks a bit oppressed when it has that watery sheen to it. I had less than a mile to cover to Glen Grant, however, and it ceased on the way.

The route to Glen Moray involved retracing my tyre tracks from the day before. The sun even appeared. Swishing past my privately toured distilleries of yesterday, I made good time into Elgin where I was rewarded by the equally magnificent aroma of cooking shortbread from the Walkers factory. I just caught the 12.30 tour.

A hot chocolate and much food later, I went in search of Forres. I was not going to use the A96, however, and had planned a route of quiet B roads. Miltonduff and Pluscarden Abbey slipped by and I was thoroughly enjoying the warmth and glorious cherry trees. It couldn’t last, though.

The rain made an encore appearance and I had to adopt rain gear. The temperature meant I could do without overshoes and hood but I just got wetter as I passed through Forres – my B&B lying on the northern outskirts. I arrived to find no-one at home. I was quite chilly by this time, pondering how I was supposed to find my dinner and stay reasonably dry. My landlady returned from her walk and everything was accommodated for: a shed for the bike, rags to clean it, a washing machine for my filthy things and an exceedingly comfortable room.

If you like to put away 3000 calories over the course of your evening meal, go to Chapter One in Forres. My burger with all its trimmings was enormous. I left not a speck on the plate, however; much to the amazement of the couple dining next to me. I should have left it there, but the dessert menu looked too good. I ordered the meringue nest, thinking it would be maybe the size of an orange. It wasn’t. It was the size of a rustic country bread loaf. It beat me, it humiliated me. I could only eat a third of it, and regretted forcing in that much. As I waited for the bill, passing in and out of consciousness, a wondered how anyone could manage two courses, if even a touring cyclist couldn’t manage them. Great grub, though.

***

Forres to Nairn: 26 miles

I spun this day out a little. The initial distance suggested less than 20 miles and that would leave me with far too much time on my hands. I wanted to see the sea, in any case, and headed to Findhorn Bay. It is a profoundly beautiful place, and the whole of the landscapes over the last few days had begun to acquire more rugged, wild demeanours. This was no exception. I think I could retire to Findhorn Bay, with Forres nearby for my bowls and Tesco.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

Benromach is a very stylish little distillery and offers one of the best smells from the outside. See my review below.

After I bought my lunch from the above supermarket giant, I had little to do but make my way to Nairn in my own time. I ate the purchased sandwiches on the cycle path beside the Findhorn river.

Nairn arrived a little slower than planned, but I was glad when it did. I had been climbing along single track roads for quite some distance, duking it out with motorists and insects, when the hedges of gorse fell away on my right and there was the Moray Firth. A more dramatic stretch of coastline I had hitherto not encountered. It was jaw-dropping.

I bought a book, an apple turnover and a cup of tea in Nairn, then watched some more snooker. Unlucky, Steve Davis.

Before the football came on I made my way to the beach as the clouds and the setting sun exercised their artistic characters over the sea and the coast which I followed to the horizon with my eyes, knowing that Orkney was at the end of it. Internazionale v. Barcelona evolved into a bit of a damp squib in the first half so I watched Monty Halls in the Uists and went to bed. The Highlands proper demanded my full attention.

Moray Firth at Nairn

 

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