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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 2

Fruitcake, Frivolity, and Figs

A fraction over a week ago I was to be found skipping through the streets of Edinburgh with Chris Hoban, ducking into coffee shops and chocolateries, trying to recover a sense of our own humanity. Events which took place a larger fraction over a week ago explain why.

John Ramsay marshalling the Q&A.

With our whisky ration cards long since frittered away in various corners of the Scotch Whisky Experience, a halt was called to the Master Blender Meet-and-Greet. I just had enough time to return Chris’ measure of Johnnie Walker Platinum (full and voluptuous with no small amount of smoke and plenty of coconut-laden grains) to him before we were herded up yet more stairs.

I had long since began to suspect my legs, uncertain as to whether they were working with me or against me, but the room into which we plodded revived my spirits. A vaulted ceiling allowed plenty of the last of the Edinburgh light in, and a striking stained glass window at the far end reminded all guests of the route by which those whiskies we had tasted already that evening had arrived beneath the noses of the master blenders, before they passed them along to us. The blenders themselves were sat along the high table to face the room. Only Richard Paterson, however, got to his feet. The show must go on.

In our glasses panted the juicy, dark and rich beauty that is The Dalmore King Alexander III. As chance would have it, this was the whisky I ordered following my first tour of the Experience, poured by Mr Hoban if memory serves. Paterson wanted to unlock the full spectrum of this immensely complicated whisky, which had seen the inside of six different specimens of cask before its tasteful glass bottle with silver embossing, via strong black coffee, fruitcake and dark chocolate. In a performance that blended at least six potent characterstics of its own to match the whisky, ranging from the ebullient to the outrageous, Paterson encouraged us to approach a single malt like never before. We were discouraged from following his lead, however, and hurling the first measure onto the carpet.

The Dalmore food matching tasting, minus the coffee.

‘Mm mm mmmm… Mm mm mmmm… Mmm Mmm MMMMMMMMMM. And swallow,’ he urged, holding the spirit on his palate for a tingling age. Then chocolate followed fruitcake which followed coffee in rapid fire ingestion. I wasn’t convinced. I don’t view the addition of food to a dram as ‘messing around’ but I have yet to come upon the right combination. Though at many turns in his lecture Paterson had the room gasping in disbelief, my scepticism for the food matching exercise could not be dispelled.

Tutored tasting over, Master of Ceremonies for the final portion of what had been a joyous, insightful evening so far, John Ramsay, took the microphone to the audience. The first question probed the panel with regards to their favoured drinks, a fairly uncontroversial line of inquiry one would have thought, until Paterson rebuffed Caroline Martin for pinning her colours to the Johnnie Walker mast. The Whyte and MacKay man paid tribute to David Stewart, and the Balvenie 21yo Port Wood in particular as a whisky of stupendous interest and beauty.

A lady on our table wanted to know next how the master blenders could keep track of the multitude of flavours they encountered on an hourly, never mind daily, basis. Could they offer any tips, she asked, for improving our own olfactory skills? Gordon Motion fielded the debate, asking the questioner how many windows she had in her flat. After a brief flurry of arithmetic an answer was provided. ‘Now how did you go about counting those windows?’ Motion asked. The lady replied that she could see them in her mind’s eye. ‘I do the same thing,’ said Gordon, ‘I have a set of images for certain flavours. For example, peaches will always remind me of a holiday in France when I was young and we were given a bowl of peaches by the roadside.’

As anyone who has read my collaborationwith Keith Wood on Whisky Emporium a little over a year ago will know, this is precisely what fascinates me most about personal encounters with whisky. My hand shot up when the ‘last question’ call came. What, I wanted to know, was the most powerful moment the panel could remember in which they were transported back to an earlier sensory memory when tasting whisky?

Richard Paterson regaling the room.

Chris Morris answered first, stating that the strongest impressions he can receive from nosing Bourbon is of the rickhouses at Woodford Reserve. ‘That’s warehouses for the rest of us,’ interposed Ramsay. David Stewart’s fifty-plus years around the spirit could flag up no particular instance, although he spoke with quiet pleasure of his apprenticeship with single malt Scotch whisky. Angela D’Orazio’s testimony came directly from the heart as she described peat-cutting on Islay. In addition to the peats, Angela noticed the little wild flowers that grew on the bog, and when she had a sip of Islay whisky later, echoes of those floral characters surged back to her.

Caroline Martin focused on ‘lightbulb moments’ in connection with the distilleries she works for. The instant someone told her that Clynelish was a waxy spirit, manipulating it and understanding it became a far easier task. A childhood growing up in Coleraine, near to the Bushmills distillery, abided with Billy Leighton. When going to school or playing with friends, ever-present was ’this smell’. Entering the industry later on, certain Irish whiskeys could successfully evoke that formative atmosphere. Gordon Motion, whose point about the peaches had inspired my question in the first place, related to us a nosing session in which a particular spirit yielded with irresistible potency the garden centre at B&Q. ’Fencing panels was all I could think of,’ he said, ‘but I couldn’t say that, it sounded stupid.’ But a fellow taster noted ‘tarry wood’ in the same sample, and Gordon was galvanised to supply his tasting note. ‘Just write down what you smell,’ he urged us.

The Japanese blenders had been silent for the majority of the questioning, but Koshimizu-san accepted the microphone. He described his experiences in Japanese, and his translator assisted afterwards. The result was a statement of gentle, thoughtful brilliance. In his day-to-day encounters with whisky, every so often a sample will radiate the aroma of figs. Koshimizu-san has not eaten a fig in the last fifty years, not since one particular day at his grandmother’s house where she always had an abundance of the fruit. Nevertheless, that single flavour – when discovered – reconstructs that house, that person and that moment. ‘It is as if time has vanished,’ said the translator.

John Ramsay concluded the evening and told us of how his days in the maltings when he first started with Edrington assisted him as master blender as, for one distillery, the re-occurrence of that green malt aroma signalled that the spirit was on track. Several rounds of applause later, we all had to sadly make tracks of our own. The master blenders had been supremely generous with their time, but the 9am start and hundreds of whiskies looked to have taken their toll by the end. Outside, while raffle winners collected their bottles, a line for the lift formed involving some of the whisky world’s most significant and talented noses and palates who were all deservedly heading to their hotel rooms. For Chris, Chris and I, however, we were off to Bramble Bar, but that will have to wait for another post.

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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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Le Malt 24 Hours – part 2

As I mentioned in the previous post, for our 24 Whiskies in 24 Hours Challenge Mark and I understood that company would be an important factor in the undertaking. Good morale would ensure positive malt moments. With this in mind, for our eighth whisky Xander, Quaich Society Secretary, joined us in Mission Control.

Out came Peat’s Beast, an independent bottling of a peaty whisky recently released and for which I had a 70cl sample. I hope to bring you more detailed information on this dram soon, but for now suffice it to say that it galvanised our spirits for the night ahead. ‘Just remember,’ Xander replied, ‘alcohol is a depressant’. And then he bounced out the door.

01.30: Four Roses Small Batch and Dervish pizzas.

Little did Mark and I realise that, ordering pizzas aside, we would enjoy no other outside human interaction for the next 17 hours. We decamped to his flat where a Speyside period developed: two malt whiskies with bipolar developments in both Sherry and ex-Bourbon oak. The Macallan Fine Oak 10yo and The Balvenie Doublewood proved delicious, despite the incoming seismic waves of another sinus headache for me. From there, arrangements became somewhat comical as we tramped to and fro, grabbing whiskies (Balblair 1992, Four Roses Small Batch) and a DVD (Rat Race) so that whisky and adequate distraction should be in the one place.

A very truncated verticle tasting of Aberlour followed as Mark’s 10yo introduced my 16yo single cask. It was at this point, dear readers, that despite the fortifying ham pizza, I confess I hit the wall. 03.30 had arrived entirely unexpectedly and found me pschologically unprepared. We had, when discussing the endeavour, always admitted that fatigue and not inebriation would be the greatest threat to completing the Le Malt 24 hours but I had not expected the agonising, bleary-eyed and ponderously-stomached horror of it all. I sat, slumped, on my sofa and could not revive myself with a pragmatic appraisal of the situation: we were two whiskies beyond halfway, if I could only endure until 5am or thereabouts, I could conquer the challenge.

Mercifully, our itinerary came to the rescue. Mark’s coastal collection of Jura Superstition and Clynelish 14yo would see us through until dawn, and we had agreed that we would take the Challenge to the beach. SAS-style, I grabbed everything warm I possessed, in addition to an Easter Egg. The trek that followed I remember neither as brief nor straightforward but we belatedly arrived at the Old Course. En route, we had exchanged greetings with a hedgehog which Mark entirely failed to photograph. I think this multi-species interaction gave me new heart, however, for I navigated my way between the 17th and 18th, then the 2nd and 1st – avoiding the Swilken Burn by some miracle – and placed boot on sand with firmer resolution.

We pitched ourselves on a bit of dune, poured the Jura, and became entranced by the wonders of the universe above our heads. I sipped the whisky which, at pre-dawn temperatures, reminded me of the Jura and ice cream experiment we had indulged in at 16.30: a smoky, butterscotch frozen treat. As I lay on the dune, I noticed a satellite sliding over the sky, and traced its progress with slack-jawed wonder. The Milky Way could be seen, too.

Astoundingly beautiful on both counts: the 15yo Caol Ila and sunrise on St Andrews' pier.

Because it was cold, and unbeknownst to ourselves we now sported a significant layer of light sand courtesy of the seaside breeze, we moved on to East Sands. By this point, light had begun to build in the lower reaches of the sky and hope renewed. Mark and I slouched to the end of the pier which was no less chilly or exposed than West Sands had been, but the insistent swells coming from the horizon broke against it in the half-light with a mesmeric beauty. Black and blue, the waves kept on melting against the structure on which we stood, with textures I well knew my camera could not capture.

Clynelish and that Easter Egg ushered in the dawn, and we poured the Caol Ila single cask in time to encourage the burning slit of red that announced the return of the sun. Despite this being the 17th dram of the day, that Caol Ila in that moment will always remain a particular privilege to have savoured.

The terrors of the night vanquished, we returned to my flat where an unusual breakfast awaited us. The Glenlivet 21yo at 07.30 in the morning beat a bowl of Crunchy Nut cornflakes any day, and when I opened the Redbreast 12yo an hour later, it was infinitely preferrable to fruit muesli and yoghurt.

 

Into the finishing straight: Mark pours the Glenmorangie Original.

Breaking the 20 whiskies barrier would require another stagger back to Mark’s. There, Glenmorangie Original witnessed a fit of laughter on my part as I speculated on what members of the public passing Mark’s sitting room window should think were they to look in at us. The laughing quickly stopped, however. At 10.25, our finishing line seemed further away than it had at 06.45. We put The Departed on the DVD player and poured, drank, washed glasses, poured and drank again. Mark professed to be struggling by this stage, and I had started to worry about what that gentle tug in my lower abdomen might indicate as to the status of my liver. Damon, Di Caprio and co. shooting each other passed some critical time and eventually, with wry smiles and rasped ‘slainte‘s, the penultimate whisky entered the glasses. Incredibly, and Mark agreed, I could still find the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban enjoyable. I could still stand whisky.

Walking back into the Whey Pat, I fixed my gaze upon their wall of whiskies in a manner that the barmaid would have been forgiven for judging as ‘unnecessarily aggressive’ or ‘mad’.

‘What do you fancy?’ asked Mark. I slumped against the bar.

‘Old Pulteney 12yo, please.’

And so Lavinia, our companion from the Bruichladdich tasting but 21 hours previously, discovered us half an hour later a pitiful, morose pair. There was a plate of nachos I could not finish, despite having drawn upon them as my motivational energy in the small hours. There were blood-shot eyes. There was a notable failure of communication as I could think of nothing besides my bed. However, there was real cameraderie between myself and my fellow expeditionist. We had done what had at certain points seemed impossible and we could still look at a bottle of whisky without yelping in fright. 24 whiskies, 24 hours – a vast number of singular memories, and the written promise that we will never do anything like it again. At least, my signature is on there; Mark is thinking he might give it a shot with ale.

The completion photograph. I should have done - but could not do - more damage to those nachos...

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Wordsmiths and Drinkmongers

I fancy that Scotland owes Robert Burns and his progenitors a great deal. The North-of-Border-Bard supplies a seminal date for two of its finest areas of excellence: literature and whisky. Haggis might well be a third entity to benefit from close association with the ‘heaven taught ploughman’.

A stirring Highland-scape.

January 25th can serve as a seminal date for Scottish poetic expression and the spirit to which so much of it is dedicated. Robin Laing has compiled a charming anthology called The Whisky Muse which contains verse recent and ancient celebrating uisquebeatha’s prominent role in the culture of this beautiful country and the lives of the characters within it. Of course, whisky doesn’t exactly need a date each year on which to be so venerated, but who else can the industry and product cleave to as a figurehead? To favour any particular commercial distiller would be to forget the essential roots of whisky, in the bothies and peat sheds of farmers trying to earn a little more from their harvests. To plump for a politician responsible for a piece of legislation that made our favourite drink what it resembles today would be deeply unpopular and somehow, to miss the point. Burns is a personality to which whisky as the potent blood of Scots-hood may gratefully pin its colours, a high priest to a romantic past resurrected by the whisky-laden breath of every Burns Night makar.

Drinkmonger's inviting exterior.

I returned from Pitlochry yesterday having discovered a new outpost for the contemporary whisky industry. Along the road from the tartan and teek of the Blair Athol distillery is Drinkmonger, an offshoot of Royal Mile Whiskies. Inside, I discovered a retail space a little different to what you might expect of a whisky retailer in such a tourism-driven town. It would not look out of place on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Wooden-floored with dark shelving, the layout is clean and tasteful. The staff are especially helpful, and I learnt from the sales assistant that the shop had been open six months and they continued, even in the leaner post-Christmas times, to enjoy local interest in their products and services.

The spirits shelves at Drinkmonger.

From what I could see of the range, there can be few complaints. Drinkmonger came into existence to allow RMW to expand into the wine sector but their malt and bourbon selections are tasteful and extremely interesting. I list Bourbon for several reasons: I am deeply keen to try more of this fantastically innovative and complex spirit, and Drinkmonger has the best range of any retailer I have come across in four years of poking around in Scottish spirits shops. Buffalo Trace distillery was very well represented, with the eponymous expression (£24) in addition to Sazerac Rye (delish) and Eagle Rare (£32). Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek and Wild Turkey were also in evidence.

I am a Scotch blog, though, and I gazed lovingly at a bottle of the new Kilchoman 2006 (under £50), in addition to the GlenDronach 14yo Port finish (£33 if I remember rightly). I was assured, however, that through their extensive connections with distributors the store will attempt to track down any special request you may have.

If you are one who thinks that there is a surplus of whisky shops already, I suspect that even you will forgive Drinkmonger. Between their wines, spirits other than whisky (I was pointed towards the rums whilst noticing their impressive selection of gins) and cigar humidor, this is a highly professional outfit with a few gems certain to surprise. I’m saving my money for a trip to the Good Spirits Co. in Glasgow, but under different circumstances I could have spent many an hour and much currency in Drinkmonger.

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