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The Best Foot Forward

Stride out into the wilds of whisky.

Travel and whisky would appear to be a pairing that underpins much that is thought and written about the spirit; for example, this very blog would not exist without whisky’s power of suggestion when it comes to converting an emotional response to a dram, experienced in stillness, into a coercive scheme of bodily movement and exertion.

When Tommy Dewar and the Walkers dispersed their whiskies throughout the world in the late 19th century, they provided a taste of home to those serving the Empire on foreign soil. Today, travel retail positions whisky as a purchase for the adventurer or pioneering businessperson, and it stands as an embodiment of Old World industry and craft which – to the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China – must carry its own air of exoticism, too.

One whisky brand firmly on the side of adventure is Scotch blend, Cutty Sark. For them, travel is as much about continued motion as it is seeking out new territories over the seven seas. From their international film competition, searching for new creative talent to tell the story of the brand and capture its personality, to paraphrase the website, to sponsoring the Travel Photographer of the Year initiative (see here), a certain restlessness ripples the sails of the famous clipper on its iconic yellow label. In stark deviation from the norm as far as my whisky post goes, they sent me the latest compilation of entries to the competition. This handsome coffee table book is entitled ‘Journey Four’, and manages to combine both processes I mentioned above: captured emotion as studies of stillness, and a global trek.

What I ask myself when I browse ‘Journey Four’ is: who is doing the travelling? Is it the photographer, who has proof in pixels of their own intrepidness, or is it me? By looking at these photographs, surely I’m seeing what the person who took them saw – I absorb a little of their panorama, their outlook, their biases. It is a kind of empathy of the eye. In these silent stills, travel becomes a gaze, or form of consumption. Travel photography induces a kind of awe and perhaps a series of urges. Protracted exposure to it breeds the same consequence as too much Cutty Sark: a sense of intoxication. Heady limitlessness is something I have been fortunate enough to experience through travel, and now and again with the help of a whisky or two, as well.

A wealth of travelling companions.

But if travel can be blockbuster in scope and sentiment (to quote a recent film release: an ‘unexpected journey’), it can also be particular, personal and even – perhaps – pedestrian. Still, however, the unexpected element renders it supremely precious. I have a part-time job not a mile away, serving all manner of single malts as well as cocktails. This has done more to expand my horizons concerning whisky than anything since the Scotch Odyssey and I haven’t had to get nearly so sweaty. It is providing me with new perspective on old favourites, and adding a sense of theatre and experimentation to a beverage. Drinks like the Manhattan and Martini have as much history as some distilleries, and so many fascinating contexts and occasions. Cutty Sark has a section of its website devoted to a selection of cocktails: ‘Launched at the height of cocktail culture, Cutty Sark became an instant hit in mixed drinks, whether as a whisky and soda in the Gentlemen’s Clubs of London’s West End or in the fashionable concoctions being created in glamorous bars – and homes – the world over’. Cocktails bring a world of creativity into your glass.

As far as my own creations are concerned, I more often than not get it wrong (who would have thought that Kilchoman, Cointreau, reduced yerba mate tea, lemon juice and soda wouldn’t have worked?) but this is hardly more serious than taking the wrong Highland road, and can be equally as instructive.

Realising what is at your fingertips - on your doorstep, even - and viewing it in new ways would fall under my definition of travel. A spirit (or spirits) of adventure ties together diverse communities and projects while keeping life interesting. Explore the boundaries of your whisky cabinet, and be surprised by the personalities you discover.

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Follow the Compass!

If John Glaser were a festive foodstuff he would be Heston’s Waitrose Christmas Pudding: sold out in minutes with everyone wanting a piece. His presence is requested at international whisky functions; his views are cited in seemingly any article discussing innovation, independence, blended whisky, or indeed whisky; his energy drives record-breaking tastings like this summer’s undertaking with Dominic Roskrow across the Whisky Shops of the United Kingdom. And in his spare moments he still manages to craft whiskies of stunning integrity and intrigue under the Compass Box standard, while journeying to the Fife coast annually to deliver the most engrossing and enlightening tastings the Quaich Society has seen.

In all facets and at every juncture, the message – and the passion with which it is communicated – remain identical. Quality oak produces quality whiskies which can be married together to create a spirit which is more than the sum of its parts. Never compromise on quality. For more than 12 years Glaser has been as good as his word – perhaps even better if you have been fortunate enough to encounter the irrepressible zeal with which he articulates his mission. Indeed, John can at times overshadow his products.

A long-awaited re-evaluation, and a new acquaintance.

If there is one Compass Box expression that enjoys cult status on a par with its creator, however, it is the Flaming Heart limited release. Now onto its fourth outing, Flaming Heart’s flavour profile demands a highly particular assortment of whiskies, not to mention one of the most striking label designs anywhere in whisky. Glaser states on the Compass Box website that ‘It is unlike any other whisky, owing to the combination of distillery whiskies we use and the variety and quality of the casks.’ This is the first Flaming Heart vatting to contain Sherry-matured whiskies, too.

I first sipped this behemoth of a dram at the Quaich Society in 2011, although by the time we reached the Flaming Heart my palate was listing with exhaustion due to the platoon of fine whiskies Glaser had brought with him. Tragically, the other 10th Anniversary release, and penultimate pour, of Double Single also suffered as a result of my fatigue. Courtesy of those wonderful gentlemen at Master of Malt, however, I was able to track down a Drinks By The Dram sample of both the latest Flaming Heart, and that elusive Double Single.

Compass Box Double Single 53.3% £92.02 here

Colour – straw gold.

Nose – prickly and pickled at first: lush green fruits with a wine-y acidic edge. Abundant softness from the grain with some chewy caramel and fresh spiritiness at the margins. Apple and mango juice drink. Very clean, with the grain component now suggesting pineapple syrup. Some golden rum sugariness and a touch of mint from the cask.

Water – sweeter: vanilla, a sugary texture with freshly sawn oak. Gin-like citrus peels. More mango than apple now, although a touch of pear creeps in. Lovely texture. Final hint of honeydew melon. The malt spirit has wonderful poise and purity, and controls the flavour spectrum embellished by the grain.

Palate – grain and malt in complete harmony: caramel and green apple. Some hefty cask presence. Gristy sugars on the lips before a gentle earthy dryness appears.

Water – lime and apple peel, sweet cereal and gingery oak. Supremely balanced. Lots of apple juice (Innocent apple juice, if you have tried it). Hay and brown sugar. Very clean.

Finish – soft with again a stand-out texture in the shape of lush green fruit. Vanilla biscuit and grassiness. A touch of pineapple on the end.

Water – brought out a spicy character: mustard powder and coriander. Short crust pastry with almond and apple. The flavour development is quite short but the lovely texture endures.

Compass Box Flaming Heart.

Compass Box Flaming Heart Fourth Release 48.9% £69.12 here

Colour – full, burnished gold.

Nose – peat leads the charge: viscous, huge, with rich smokiness and baked wholemeal bread. The singed quality creates a bridge to a waxiness which picks out delicate pear and apple. Crisp, with log fire impressions. Richness and delicacy. Thyme and oregano thrown on a barbecue. Then a massive grist/vanilla sweetness appears underpinning everything.

Water – still peat-driven with a gently singed smokiness. Northern Highland textured lush fruitness. Like smoky rock candy. Greener, with a coniferous needle and sap character. Sweet grist and tablet. Lime and cola. With more time, honey and toffee emerge from the oak with more coastal aromas of turf, rocks and seaweed. Sheer weight of maltiness underneath. Fabulous.

Palate – dry, lightly-peated malt at first, although the peat increases in weight, descending with an oregano hint and a pine tree character. Very full-bodied and fascinating.

Water – mouthcoating peatiness, with pear, cinnamon and lovely rich and smooth malt appearing. Sweetness is the key here, together with chunky peat and a cedar lift.

Finish – the peat and the malt continue to hold court. Some old wood flavours. A spruce Christmas garland.

Water – lush grass and earth, green fruit lends a delicate fleshiness. The smoke is so well-controlled and supplies a thick fragrance in the upper reaches. So much appley and gristy sweetness.

So…? The Double Single comprises three quarters 18yo Glen Elgin and one quarter 21yo Port Dundas. Glaser’s intention was to demonstrate the true elegance one can achieve from a sympathetic blending of malt and grain spirit. With this testament to fruit and syrupy sweetness, he has succeeded. Not only did the best of the grain whisky flavour spectrum step forward to be counted, the lush fruity Glen Elgin make pulled the strings so wonderfully and subtly. The real highlight for me, however, was the silken texture achieved from just two different spirits.

John’s own description of Flaming Heart cannot – I feel – be improved upon: ‘a whisky born of fire, yet one with a big heart’. The longer one spent with it, the more this fabulous dualism began to make complete sense. His Northern Highland spirit (Clynelish) melded seemlessly with the bruising Islay South-Coast malt (most likely Laphroaig) to envelope the senses in a flavoursome and textural perfect storm.

Both blends benefited from a little extra time to stretch their legs, and what was abundantly clear about Glaser’s spirits was that strength of personality became more self-evident. Much like the man himself. As we approach January 1st, I can think of no better whisky resolution than to discover Compass Box.

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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 1

I don’t go in for hero worship. Irrespective of how many Tours de France they have won, how many people they have performed in front of or how many Michelin stars they hold, they are still human beings beneath all the Lyrca, cymbals and cauliflower foam. However, at a recent event held within the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE), Edinburgh, I must confess that I could finally empathise a little with Beatle Mania, or whatever it is all those teenage girls succomb to whenever anyone mentions Justin Bieber.

The master blenders and ISC panel.

Together with Chrises Hoban and ‘The Tiger’ White from Edinburgh Whisky Blog, I milled about in the refurbished SWE shop together with many other bright-eyed, excited members of the public for the fun, games and knowledge to begin. For the first time in 17 years, the International Spirit Challenge has devolved from London to Edinburgh. This, to me, seems only right for various coincidences of geography and whisky-producing heritage. As a further innovation, the panel agreed to meet with whisky fans for one night only, talking ticket-holders through one of their bottlings before a whisky and food matching presentation with Whyte & MacKay’s Richard Paterson (or R-Patz as C. Hoban insisted on calling him), to conclude with a Q&A. Courtesy of Mr Hoban, I learnt of the event just in time. Another arrangement for which I am deeply grateful comes courtesy of Mr Hoban as well, and that was permission to crash on his sofa afterwards.

Industry legend John Ramsay kicked off the evening, introducing the decorated individuals to the waiting throng. As they stepped out of the wings onto the new mezzanine floor, my easily-suggestible mind confected a Juliet-on-the-balcony comparison, but I was also struck by how – in this, a peerless collaboration by the Scotch whisky industry – the people responsible for so many of the smartly-packaged whiskies surrounding us on the shelves should also be in full view. Ramsay’s successor at Edrington, Gordon Motion, was introduced first, followed by Caroline Martin of Diageo, Billy Leighton of Irish Distillers, the great David Stewart who will complete 50 years of service for William Grant and Sons in September, R-Patz, Seichii Koshimizu of Suntory, Tadashi Sakuma from Nikka, Mackmyra’s Angela D’Orazio, and Chris Morris from Woodford Reserve. With head spinning, we were ushered upstairs where the chatting and dramming commenced.

Chris Morris, all the way from Woodford Reserve, Kentucky.

I have described previously the awe inspired by stepping into the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection, but skipping between soaring cabinets of seriously old, seriously rare Scotch whisky – both blended and malt – there was added significance as I contemplated meeting the individuals resposnible for continuing the legacy of those brands which were so well-represented all around me. However, my first port of call was outside of Scotland. Since the beginning of the year my fascination for all things Bourbon has mooched into the kind of territory once upon a time open only to the likes of Lagavulin and The Glenlivet. With a recent pub in my local town boasting Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases – the William Larue Weller expression I had tried a couple of days before – I wanted to learn from one of the masters.

With a big smile and a cheery How-do-you-do? Mr Morris poured me a measure of Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. Though hardly an uncommon Bourbon, even in my less than cosmopolitan drinking circles, to sip and listen to an exposition from the man who makes it trumped all previous tumblers of this rich, spicy and floral whiskey. At 43.2% the spirit spoke eloquently of glorious American oak and six to eight baking Kentucky summers. In fact, that was the analogy Chris used when trying to differentiate Bourbon from Scotch in the maturation stakes: in the rackhouses, the intense heat forces the spirit into and out of the oak, and exacts an Angel’s Share of 7% per annum. Though Woodford goes into barrels at 55%, it comes out again at 63%. Chris revealed that he had even found a cask whose long tenure unnoticed had seen alcohol by volume reach 90%. It was, of course, ‘undrinkable’.

The mashbill for Woodford Reserve is 72% corn, 18% rye from Dakota and 10% malt. Mr Morris revealed that a new expression would be on the market in the US soon, and will eventually make its way to Europe. He has taken batches of fully-matured Woodford, reduced the spirit back down to 55% and put the whiskey back into Chardonnay casks for 6 months to a year. The result is infinitely darker than the standard expression and reviews so far are highly complimentary.

Richard Paterson in suitably rarefied surroundings with the new Cigar Malt from The Dalmore.

I headed over to the Edrington stand where the quietly spoken but forthright Gordon Motion introduced me to the Famous Grouse Wade Decanter. Constructed to celebrate the pre-eminence of Grouse in the UK market for the last 30 years, I found it to be a very gingery, biscuity spirit, with clean cereals and a hit of earthy smoke. I rather liked it, but appreciated the conversation I overheard between Gordon and Charles Maclean regarding his new film star status still more.

I managed to catch The Nose as the last of his consignment of the latest The Dalmore Cigar Malt disappeared. He had just put in an order for a replacement when the MC tapped him on the shoulder – the next stage of the evening had to begin promptly. He just had enough time to tell me that my date of birth and body mass index could provide vital clues as to how a blend personalised for me might taste (and to pose for a photograph) before strutting off upstairs.

The tutored tasting and blenders’ question and answer session would take place next, but that is for another post.

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Blair Athol

When I was not setting, turning, spinning and polka-ing during the Celtic Society’s jaunt to Pitlochry, we had just enough time to visit a distillery. We – or at least I – would have contrived some way of fitting Blair Athol in irrespectively.

My previous visit to the home of Bell’s blended whisky was irritating in the extreme. I had discovered that morning that I could expect little more than a video and a dram at the distillery due to maintenance. I rocked up at the reception and exhibition area, got bored, and decided I had better set off for Edradour if I wanted to make it to Brechin before nightfall. I remember it as a smart plant, with an eager burn washing between the buildings.

Blair Athol Distillery, the home of Bell's.

Perth Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5LY, 01796 482003. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/blairathol/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      The distillery sits beneath the railway line, halfway up the braes that lead in to Pitlochry with the River Tummel at its foot. Beautiful stone buildings house the distillery, which sits within a courtyard. The burn which flows through it provides an extra scenic dimension.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Blair Athol Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Flora and Fauna Tour’: £12.50. A  tour of the distillery with a chance to taste the Blair Athol 12yo and two other expressions from the Flora and Fauna range. Mortlach 16yo and Linkwood 12yo are my recommendations.

‘Allt Dour Deluxe Tour’: £25. The distillery tour plus Blair Athol 12yo, Cask Strength distillery-exclusive and four other malts.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A cask-strength, Sherry-matured Blair Athol. 55.8% vol. and £55. I managed to wangle myself a dram of this and found it much lighter than the standard 12yo with more of an insistent creaminess and first. Delicate floral notes could be detected before planed oak took over. The palate was prickly and nutty with a good dose of vanilla but water didn’t help at all. A strange dram, and I would personally go for the standard bottling.

My Tour – 23/01/2012

The Blair Athol reception and exhibition area.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The tour commences from the courtyard, climbing up a series of steps into the old floor maltings, which now house the mashtun. Two waters only are required to extract the sugars from the grist, which are drained efficiently back down the hill to the four stainless steel washbacks. A short ferment (50 hours) produces the nutty characteristics required, and from there it is on to the stillhouse. Four tall and proud stills sit in the corners of the room, belching heat and a heavy, intriguing spirit. Standing by the ISRs, I could detect old gym crash mats and biscuit. From there it is across the bridge into the filling store for a cooper recruitment drive (there aren’t enough of them, apparently) and into the warehouse. The tour concludes on the balcony of the shop, with a dram.

GENEROSITY:       (Only the one dram is available as part of the standard tour. Asking nicely is the way to do it.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:        *

SCORE:     5/10*s

The shop.

COMMENT:      What hasn’t already been said about a Diageo distillery tour? I was part of a larger group – many first-time whisky drinkers – who said to me later that the ‘patter’ came across as somewhat formulaic and that they didn’t entirely trust some of the claims made. Having done more than 50 distillery tours, I suppose I have become inured to the ‘patter’ but I found our guide to be clear, informative and friendly. To address those odd ‘claims’, though. I only raised an eyebrow when discussions about blending began in the warehouse, the suggestion was that the blender fiddles around with ex-Bourbon casks because colour is more easily managed. There was some discussion of the vanilla elements ex-Bourbon casks lend to a spirit but the focus returned to colour as a reason for master blenders maturing their whisky in these casks. The warehouse itself was something of a disappointment, separated as we were from the sleeping casks in a sealed viewing chamber. No aroma could penetrate, and I feel many missed out on the mystery and magic of those oak-spirit scents, allowing them to guess at the gentle dynamism at work in a dunnage warehouse. The entire distillery, it must be said, was a little denuded of smell. The washbacks were ventilated, the mashtun airlocked, too. For the home of a major blended brand like Bell’s, I found the decor to be a little mundane and thin. It certainly could not hold a torch to the Famous Grouse Experience or Dewar’s World of Whisky. The blend-single malt focus was appropriate, however, and it was made very clear at the beginning that Blair Athol was an element of Bell’s, and was not the producer of it. We are living in different economic times to when I undertook my Odyssey, and I suppose that £6 is what one must now expect to pay for a distillery tour. As such I feel the expense is justified because Blair Athol and its product are undeniably charming. But if you have the means of getting to Edradour above Pitlochry, I would say that was a better bet.

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