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Bursting at the Wemyss

A selection from Wemyss' second batch of single casks.

Even in an age of single malt insatiability such as this one, it is a sad fact that of the 101 malt distilleries operating in Scotland, not all enjoy any real prominence on the shelves. Betrothed to blends or sought after in foreign territories, some whiskies are the proverbial wild goose. Praise be, therefore, to the independent bottlers who track down finite stocks which the distillery owners have often overlooked and make them available to you and me.

The latest company whose delectable discoveries crossed my path are Wemyss Malts. Edinburgh-based bottlers since 2005, they offer a wide selection of single casks, blended malts and even their own blended Scotch in the form of the Lord Elcho expression. A consignment of all of the above found its way to me via Doug Clement, Quaich Society patron and ferociously determined advocate for a distilling operation near the home of golf in St Andrews.

The Kingsbarns Distillery project had looked to have stalled until Doug’s bright idea secured £3m of investment from Wemyss Malts, making the former caddy’s fantasy a reality. Check out this STV report - featuring Doug – about the auspicious beginnings of another Lowland distillery. In a few years there will be a home-grown single malt in the Wemyss stable, but what about those whiskies made by other people? Have they an eye for a hole-in-one?

The Hive 12yo 40%

Nose – Full and attractive: very malty with a toasty sweetness. Milk chocolate with candied ginger and sweet rose. Playful and rounded.

Palate – Honeycomb oak, sticky light malt and a return of the chocolate with dried fruit flavours.

Finish – Increasingly lives up to its name: a dryish maltiness sits above a pot of gentle heather honey. Sweet porridge with apricot. A dab of peat at the end.

Spice King 8yo 40%

Nose – Earthy and lots of woodpsice. Expensive mens’ eau-de-cologne. A full creamy note, like soft goats cheese. Oak is quite prevalent. Watery sweetness at the base. Some roasted chestnuts and pecan, but lacks the guts for true richness.

Palate – Blackberries, a richer earthy maltiness and vanilla pod. Tongue-coating with treacle sponge and other Highland flavours, including a tickle of peat.

Finish – A gentle tarry flavour. Burnt toffee. Woodsmoke. The barley emerges from the scrum of these darker characteristics to lend some pure sweetness.

Peat Chimney 12yo 40%

Nose – Dry smoke: peat stacks in the sun very close to a sandy beach containing lots of empty shellfish shells. With time it gets a little farmy with hay and cow breath. Caramelising brown sugar introduces the peated malt.

Palate – Very dry but pleasingly delicate. Very aromatic peat, softer maltiness than I’d expected and Black Bullet sweets. Becomes quite ashy. On a second sip many more fruits appear, especially orange and pear. Peat has a chilli flake heat. Barbecued pineapple.

Finish – Lemon grass fragrance as the peat filters down (like a pint of Guinness settling) to a dried earthy character. A honeyed edge to the smoke, which is appreciated. Smoked sausage. Long.

 

So…?      I was impressed by these offerings from Wemyss; someone has taken very tasty malts and combined them with sympathy and confidence to elicit a bold flavour profile. I could maybe quibble that there isn’t an awful lot of complexity, but if you have a sweet tooth and a £35 budget, The Hive will not disappoint. Likewise, the Peat Chimney was a harmonious celebration of smoke, and a good contrast to the earthier Peat Monster from Compass Box. It would be my pick. The Spice King made allusions to a deeper complexity, but excited me the least. That being said, its 12yo incarnation has just walked away with the title of ‘Best Blended Malt Scotch’ at the World Whisky Awards, so congratulations are in order.

With three whiskies down, I’ll give you the highlights of four single casks I tried. There was one big disappointment in the shape of ‘Caribbean Fruits’ (a Glencadam from 1990) which had been pretty much raped and pillaged by the oak. Some honeyed cereals, fig rolls and dunnage notes fought their way through but could not overcome the aggressive hogshead. As a fan of the massively underrated Glencadam I had been looking forward to this.

‘Autumn Berries’ (a 1986 Blair Athol) had impressed on first viewing, but alongside a Miltonduff of the same generation (a 1987) it became disjointed. A nose of high-toned bold fruitness, especially overripe pear, prevailed at first on the nose, with heather honey and smoke. The intensity of spirit for one of its years was unusual, and often appealing. The palate extrudes this fruitness further, and a note of coriander intrigued me.

‘Wild Berry Spice’ [Miltonduff 1987] 46%

Nose – Fresh, light and fruity at first with a hint of crisp, dryish barley for balance. Bright and mellow with strawberry compote and vanilla pod. Spoonfuls of dark Muscovado sugar. Ages before your eyes, as dark and rich woodsmoke appears and a pronounced saltiness.

Palate – Good weight, malt and cinnamon spice come forward together with a little Kendal mint cake.

Finish – Honey from the oak, sweetened cream and vanilla. Pleasant richness from the clean barley.

With water matters became still more attractive with a sweetly leathery nose, chou pastry and cocoa powder and icing sugar. A hint of sweet cigar smoke then dark chocolate. With time there is pistachio ice cream The palate revealed rich fudge, charcoal from the cask and orange fruit pastels. Then there is concentrated Ribena, honey and smoked fruits. Leafy oak, malt and a coal scuttle unfurl in the complex finish with butter tablet and honey.

‘Lemon Smoke’ [Caol Ila 1996] 46%

Nose – Beach barbecue, olive oil, wood varnish. Hints of seaweed and modroc plaster. More savoury with time: smoked chicken in the sea air. A very focused Caol Ila.

Palate – Light – very light – at first with pear drops and citronella. The peat steps up in intensity very gradually before sherbet lemon appears alongside a gently nutty maltiness.

Finish – Quite quick, leaving gentle peat smoke and honey. The malt is there, too, and has a creamy toffee character.

With a few drops of water the nose became much farmier with burning twigs, lemon and honey, and a Champagne-like yeasty note. This was much truer to the Caol Ilas I’ve known in the past when sipped: malt, green fruit and smoke together with cardamom and buttered popcorn. The finish was quicker again.

So…?      Definitely a mixed bag with these single casks, as is to be expected. Each expression presented a very distinct flavour profile, however, and in this respect they mirrored the blended malts above. Using flavour descriptors to identify your malts can backfire with the contrasting capacities of peoples’ palates and a potential incooperative mood, but to my mind it is a policy that makes as much sense as age statements. Possibly more. Like Tiger in his review for Edinburgh Whisky Blog here, I would go for the Caol Ila. Wemyss and whisky present a formidable combination, and I can’t wait to learn how they shall bring their experience to bear on producing a single malt of their own.

Many thanks to Doug Clement for the liberal dispensation of samples.

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Cups o’ Kindness: Celebrating with Whisky

Whisky conquers all.

University Year 2 of 4 has come to a conclusion! [Whoops and shrieks and similar noises conveying relief and joy.] But once the giddiness, writers’ cramp and the last haunting echoes of Samuel Beckett have left my person, what do I use to fill the academic void? What whisky does my newly-liberated self demand?

As it happens, the decision is not in any way straightforward. My choice following the final exam of Semester One reflected my needs at the time: a comfort dram was the order of the day, as it would be on any other occasion in which I am expected to write about Marxism for forty minutes. A double Caol Ila 12yo embraced my palate and soothed my mind, and went some way towards pacifying me having been asked by the bar staff for ID. Obviously St Andrews is riddled with deep-voiced, 6’3” bearded 17-year-olds requesting marginally lesser-known Islay single malts. Anyway, the familiar dry barley sweetness and delicate crumbly peat served to put the horrors of the exam period behind me.

I escaped from my last exam this time around on Thursday at 11.30, however, and have still yet to savour a distilled spirit. This has created a concern, because the dram in question has to be rather superb now. Delayed gratification, and whatnot. More than enough lager has been consumed to wash away – Lethe-like - the memories of English and Classics assessment, and I feel like something which can coax me into anticipating the summer of freedom with some crisp, buxom flavours. My Aberlour single cask? Definitely unctuous, creamy and apricot-y, but far too heavy on the oak, I’ve decided. My Glenlivet 21yo? Apt, but more of a soothing fireside whisky. My Balblair single cask? Jolly excellent, but a little over-familiarised in these last months.

The answer, I feel, has to be the remnants of my Compass Box cask sample. This decidedly different time in my life (last year’s post-exams high was a tad more stressful than it ought to have been, hurtling down to Newcastle for a Rush concert while quaffing some Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve) calls for a seriously singular spirit. Failing that, I can get a measure of Laphroaig Quarter Cask at my local for £2.40 so I have options.

It is a nice problem to have, of course, selecting which of your favourite whiskies you ought to pour. But can we sometimes become too caught up in having the right drink at the right time, for the right reasons? Do we intimidate ourselves with respect to our own drinks cabinets? Shouldn’t any whisky well-earned taste sweetest? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether or not we create impossible pedestals for our drams and impose too many restrictions and caveats about which pleasures we ought to find in what whiskies at which times?

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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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King Kilchoman?

Though in the eyes of some it may have a few years of its single malt minority still to overcome, I would suggest that Kilchoman, Islay’s infant princeling, has already staked several bold claims to the crown. That crown is ‘My Favourite Distillery Out There’.

Kilchoman’s sudden surge to prominence and notoriety has, I’ve always felt, paralleled my own passion for whisky. Bubbling away significantly from the later part of the last decade, 2009 onwards witnessed a dedicated assault on the whisky establishment, its institutions and its received wisdom. That last bit is meant to describe the distillery, you understand, although if encountering whisky on two wheels counts as an innovation in discovery I suppose the Odyssey may fall under the same umbrella.

I missed out on the Inaugural Release, but I enjoyed the Autumn 2009, Spring 2010 and Summer 2011 expressions enormously. At times I have been nothing short of astounded by the breadth of flavours this young whisky boasts and I think I am gradually isolating a house style. Gorgeously peaty and seductively sweet, the spirit speaks of Islay and also centuries of whisky knowledge harnessed to best effect, with at times miraculous results from brief maturation regimes. That peat note is at times ‘brown’ and dirty, at other times dry and fragrant. I often detect cow byre. The malt is full, juicy and rounded. Between the two, meanwhile, I find a beguiling herbal quality close to oregano or sometimes green tea. The Autumn 2009 will reside long in my memory for its extraordinary length of finish.

In a move away from incremental, work-in-progress style releases, late last year the single malt community could celebrate Kilchoman’s fifth birthday with the launch of the 2006 vintage. The significance for the Kilchoman brand was clear: could those ‘clever casks’ which had helped the 3yos taste so magnificent continue to augment and embellish the spirit without showing their hand roo much?

Ahead of our Quaich Society Committee Tasting next week, I grabbed a couple of bottles from Luvians in St Andrews, pouring myself a dram by way of a finder’s fee. Here are my thoughts on the whisky, tasted in parallel with an expression from my existing ‘King’ distillery: a Scotch Malt Whisky Society Caol Ila.

The first 5yo Kilchoman.

Kilchoman 2006 46% £49

Colour – Pale gold.

Nose – Straight away tight, smudgey peated malt, painted in browns and greens. Damp peat. With nose in the glass, there is a remarkable thickness of peat residue: very kippery. Quickly rising above this is toffee malt and incredibly light, creamy green fruits. It is fuller and more engaging than the Caol Ila. Vanilla-coated apple peel. Some shellfish. The oak provides a liquorice-like lift. Garden bonfire – autumnal suddenly. Stunning.

Water adds a gloss to all that sweetness, although the ‘brown’ peat retains its crackle and roughness. So soft and creamy. Sweet apple peel appears beside a beach bonfire. Vanilla toffee. Oregano. Some oiliness, hinting at the phenolic, dark underbelly of this spirit but it disappears the next moment into soft, endless smoke and grassiness. More time reveals sweet butter and a bit of rosemary. Burning turf. There is the kind of toffee malt I would only expect from your more assured 12yo Speysides. Awesome.

Palate – Thick, fruity and lively with bags of thick peat, charred beach bonfire and slivers of sweet malt. There is a concluding interplay between malty sugars and dry, dark peat.

Water provides a sharper tableau: a summer day on a West Coast beach with a storm coming in. Barbecued vegetables and sea scrub. Malt and apple. Coriander and ginger paste. Dry peat and oak hit later on and the sustained intensity is utterly brilliant.

Finish – A little bit of toffee and gingerbread in the oven. Sweetness dominates but the dry peat continues to tickle. Like licking a pencil sharpener. A bit of vanilla. Becomes exceedingly dry.

Water gives the impression of the distillery: malt bins, mill room. Creamy with a balancing dryness.

 

Caol Ila 9yo 66.6% (Scotch Malt Whisky Society, 53.134)

Colour – Clean, full gold.

Nose – Soft and scented to start with, it picks up vanilla custard and a vein of smoke. Pear. With nostrils in the glass, soft butter tablet appears alongside creamy, ‘golden’ oak. Pear switches to green apple. Very oaky, however. Juniper and lime jump out with a bit more time. Dirty smoke and caramel biscuit emerge, too.

Water creates spicy and savoury aromas: cheese and onion crisps. Some oak influence but mostly wash scents at this early stage. Mint humbugs. Sour apples spell the beginning of the end as the shouty, sharp Bourbon cask cannot be held in check any longer. Bin bags. Some burnt toffee appears late on.

Palate – Lots of smoke and alcohol with wood sugars galore. Gently peated malt and apple cores emerge. Ferocious.

Water witnesses a disaster zone with bin liner-wrapped hay bales and shallots. A bit of peat and samphire before resolving into alcohol bite and lethargic, heavy oak.

Finish – Big, clean oak flavours, starting with vanilla and honey. A little green smoke appears.

Water, to persist with a theme, ruins the experience with oak sugars squeezing all but apple pip notes out.

The youngster beats the 9yo all ends up. I still haven’t decided whether the SMWS bottling is an almost excusable momentary aberration, or that the Kilchoman alongside it was simply peerless, but the wrong whisky had come out of the wrong cask and done itself no credit. I goggle at the quality the Kilchoman guys – with the help of Dr. Jim Swan – have achieved here, and seriously skilful stock management is on show. If I had the money, a bottle would be sitting on my shelf now as the spirit has so much going for it. Not only does it generate conversation based on its ‘craft’ and bespoke credentials, but the flavours are so crisp and precise, whilst remaining evocative and complex. I hope our guests at the Quaich Society will agree on Thursday.

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First Class First-Fill Caol Ila

No sooner had I submitted my beastly final piece of English coursework for this semester than I was back at my desk, concentrating. The subject was whisky, the work engrossing.

At this time of year in my privately-rented and above all electrically-heated flat, a dram combats the cold far more cost-effectively than the radiators. Even if that dram is a single cask, 15yo stunner from Islay. In fact, my Dewar Rattray Caol Ila can ignite the taste buds not only with its strength, but also in its gorgeous suggestions of peat kilns and beach bonfires. I can put up with the sight of my breath in the chill air providing the charming vapour from my favourite distillery is infused within it.

A zingy, vibrant step up from the standard 12yo, with much of the evolving depth of the astonishing 18yo.

 

Dewar Rattray Caol Ila 1991 15yo Cask #743 56.7% abv.

Colour – Bold lemon gold.

Nose – A curious Manichean dram at first: deep coils of black smoke smoulder at the core while dense, fuzzy sweetness oozes over the top. Bonfire smoke, peat and baked apple emerge. A little bit of heating in the hand (very necessary as I have already said) is certainly worth it as my favourite vision of Islay materialises: wintriness, frost and earth, peaty rivers and pale sunlight forming the backdrop for fruit peel, singed barley and delicate heathery smoke. There is a wonderful defined maltiness, shot through with steely apple and electric vanilla. Sweet lemon rind. Further warming and it’s like putting your head in a log-burner – dense, brown woody smoke. Beneath that, though, and so so gorgeous, is that Caol Ila oiliness and black olive note.

Water added and my notes say ‘Oh, the sweetness’. It’s a mixture of syrupy fruits, cask contributions and proving bread. Lime smoke comes next – one indivisible from the other. Slices of just ripe, chilled pear. The oak does wonderful sweet and aromatic things: first creamy with the kind of pure, natural vanilla notes you don’t come across very often, then wafts of scented sandalwood. Returns to that classic Caol Ila olive brine character. At last the peated malt makes an appearance.

Palate – Fabulously intense: prickly smoke and bursting fruits: apple, orange and lime. Burning peat and then creamy pale oak sugars drizzle over the tongue. Water did not spoil the cohesion and more of the delicious malt appeared with a friskier fruitiness. The oak is a smooth grip on the tongue now, however, with less of the sweetness.

Finish – Lactic at first, although apple builds. A soft peat reek. Develops a lot of maritime saltiness but is otherwise fairly discreet.

Water pulled out olive and green fruits. Intensely exuberant. Barrages of soft malty smoke and a touch of deisel oil welcome you back to Islay. A triumph.

Different elements of this malt appear with time and water, making for a very rewarding experience. I adore this whisky’s life and potency, which I note quite often in the 15yo region, and shows how well spirit and cask have paired up. Later in the evening I had my Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 ex-Bourbon cask and… well, that was what I tasted most of. The oak murdered my palate on that occasion, where the Caol Ila had delighted it. I’m growing slightly wary of first-fill expressions, especially ones that creep into their mid-teens, and I intend to investigate a few more refill casks in future. Any single cask is a lottery, both for the distillery workers putting the clearic in to it to the customer purchasing its eventual contents but taking heart from the SMWS refill Glen Garioch I marvelled at earlier this month, I shall be on the look-out for those instances where the whisky-wood marriage is a happy one. I’m still partial to an oaky caress from my whiskies, providing it leads to something more, however.

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Four years of fanaticism. And counting…

Maturity, supposedly, is defined by the ability to learn from mistakes. Politicians are forever assuring the electorate that shortcomings in the decision-making process have been apprehended and addressed, and that government is a savvier place as a result. Perhaps, on second thoughts, this isn’t the most clear-cut example of the development I am talking about as endemic errors have the habit of undermining whatever edifice of wisdom even the most adept spin doctors can construct. Therefore, I offer up an instance from my own life to illustrate how redemption is possible.

When the 25th of October hove into view for the second time on my higher educational calendar I improved upon my strategy for the first occurrence in a number of key areas. Firstly, I circled the date in thick red pen, which instantly lodges it in the medium-term prioritisation agenda. Secondly, I ensured that I would not lament the lack of any outstanding malts for company on that evening. Thirdly, with a proud fist and booming voice I cried ‘Essays be damned!’ With these simple measures I had no reason to fear a frazzled repeat of 25/10/2010 and could have a lot of fun instead.

Four years and here is one shelf I can be happy with.

Between my flat mate, Gareth, Camel, Aerosmith and Dream Theater and a potent delegation from the whisky community, I raised a thoughtful glass to my fourth year since shuffling, wide-eyed, into The Glenlivet. In fact, I raised three. Beginning with the pale, unctuous fruitiness of the Aberlour 16yo Warehouse No. 1 bottling, moving to a sociably spicy Balblair 1989 (supplied by Gareth), and concluding my meditation with the Dewar Rattray Caol Ila, I could not reproach myself for not having taken the time to recognise and celebrate the inescapable hold malt whisky has over almost every aspect of my world view - and practically my identity, too.

The Caol Ila in particular, possibly the most richly phenolic specimen from that distillery I have ever been fortunate enough to come across, delineated and hyper-extended the critical moments in my whisky life so far, and stoked the fires of my passion for the stuff once again. Indeed, I rather suspected it might have been the blackened, oily residue of that very engine room of distilled spirit enthusiasm so intensively potent, rib-tickling and galvanising was it. Lime cordial and heavy thick peat on the nose gives way to tart, caramel-covered influences from the first-fill Bourbon cask, and a finish as delicately sweet yet fragrantly dry as you could wish for in a dram.

Sipping the water of life while head-banging to ‘Learning to Live’, I had a malt-soaked manifesto thrashed out there and then. Durkheim, Milton and Homer, I decided, proffer only one perspective on the world. Within and around them is a universe of flavour no less surprising, instructive or eternal. Indeed, as Housman said: ‘malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man’. We’ll see how well that goes down with my tutors.

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Medicine with Uncle Mike

You may have heard of the description, ‘a shrinking violet’. They tend not to make good sales people. Mike Drury, of the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, is a very good sales person. He is not a shrinking violet. The shop is run as a private church to his evangelical faith that whisky ought to be better than the standard which most official bottlings, to his mind, settle for. Mike is vehemently, unapologetically passionate about single malt Scotch, and when taken together form one formidable duo.

Hopefully I can make annual visits to this tantalising apothecary shop of astounding, individual whiskies.

My staunch refusal to countenance anything other than a Mortlach last year had evidently pained him – ‘there are much better whiskies than that in here…’ he had sighed – and so last week I vowed to submit to his tutelage. Despite a rapidly congesting nose, I begged to know what was good at that moment. ‘He’s come to Uncle Mike for a cure,’ beamed Mr Drury, and I had a Douglas Laing Mortlach in my hand inside 25 seconds.

I explained my Project – cask strength, preferably single cask, non-chillfiltered: a whisky with genuine personality – and away he went to forage in the forest of bottles behind the counter. He produced a Gordon & MacPhail-sourced, Whisky Castle-bottled Arran. ‘This,’ winked Mike, ‘is one sexy whisky – if you like toffee.’ A first-fill ex-Bourbon barrel had held Arran spirit for 11 years, and the result was a bonanza of the best that wood can offer: butterscotch galore, creamy, unctuous, with a suggestion of green fruits and spring blossoms in a cool mist. We had our benchmark.

There followed many others: amongst them a Bunnahabhain (heavy lactose notes at first, then a more mature maritime character and a complex oak-malt interchange on the palate) and a ‘diverting’ A.D. Rattray melange of malts. Nothing flicked any switches, however, and I began to worry that my Cinderella whisky was simply a fantasy.

This 15yo first-fill ex-Bourbon will hopefully prove to be the ultimate Caol Ila experience.

However, Cathy – Mike’s wife, who all this time had been surfing the net calling out cruise trip options further along the counter – spoke up in support of another G&M/Whisky Castle collaboration: a Sherry-matured Caol Ila. The moment those gloriously familiar peat notes reached my nose – a mixture of peat bog and the lightest smoke eddying on the Islay breezes, my mission changed and I was acquainted with a Dewar Rattray 15yo.

Meanwhile, others were getting the Mike treatment: controversial declarations which gently put the customer’s nose out of joint. However, his bluster is always backed up by a stunning malt the customer would never have thought of. I reflected as I counted out seven ten-pound notes how effective Mike’s approach is. Whisky is a complicated matter: a wood wilfully obscured by the trees at times. I would wager that Mike’s particular methods, by starting from the customer’s own tastes and challenging them with good-natured abuse and tenacity, induce new opinion in his punters. To defend your predilections is to gain a more rounded understanding of them and with a new conviction comes new confidence. By establishing a dialogue, aided and abetted by those glorious drams I talked about, people become genuinely interested in what whisky is and can be. A steady stream of samples shows that there is no harm – only greater rewards - in exploring.

I left with my Dewar Rattray after all, similarly bristling with single malt bombast. Mike knows his own mind, and he knows whisky, and consequently I believe that it is possible at the Whisky Castle to purchase drams as they should be drunk: in lively, enlightening conversation.

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A Trophy Cabinet: Assembling Whisky United

The depleted whisky shelf.

The depleted whisky shelf.

Putting together a satisfactory whisky cabinet is much like building a successful football team. A collection of individuals it may be, but only as a cohesive unit can they hope to secure long-term glory. Likening whisky to a team sport may sound odd, but my relationship with it is such that I can only conceive of it in this way.

For me, whisky is precisely like a game football: the malt I happen to be drinking is simply the one in control of the ball while round about it are many others engineering its direction, providing supporting angles and ensuring collective success. One whisky is never consumed in isolation for it evokes so many elements in my whisky explorations, not just of places, people and processes, but of flavours and possibilities, too. The inclination to have a dram stems from all of these considerations and betrays not a craving just to consume alcohol but a need to savour again the past successes and delights associated with drinking whisky. It is therefore a polymorphous, composite inclination in its own right and highly complex. The challenge which it lays down is never the same and requires an elite assemblage of malts whose qualities enable them to engage in the contest dynamically and inspirationally.

This does not mean, however, that the brashest, showiest and above all most expensive whiskies make it into the team. I have learnt that my Whisky United, while expected to perform on the most glamorous nights of the Champions League, must chiefly earn their bread and butter in the quotidien grind of the Premiership. As I have already described here, my very favourite moment for a malt whisky and therefore by far and away the period of time in which most is consumed, is before dinner and this calls for a relatively light, fruity dram with ideally a strong citrussy and vanilla-accented ex-Bourbon influence. Peat is not unwelcome either. This, therefore, is the spine of my team from the centre halves to the holding midfield players. Of these latter, I have recently recognised that the Compass Box Asyla is my Iniesta: a player whose merit far outweighs his initial asking price. The likes of Linkwood and Caol Ila are the star strikers.

As I alluded to above, however, there are some late evening kick offs where a dram must possess the requisite power and artistry to shine on the biggest stage. It is not often that I call upon a whisky to serve as a digestif, but when I do there had better be one ambitious enough to seize the opportunity and make the moment. My Adelphi can do this tremendously well. It is the Didier Drogba or Cristiano Ronaldo of my drinks cabinet.

However, with the new season imminent, I have a problem with personnel. Many of my try-outs from the youth academy did not impress (Tomintoul Peaty Tang, Tormore 12yo, Glenmorangie LaSanta) and my old stagers have retired (Longmorn 15yo, Old Pulteney 12yo). The team needs rebuilding and I’m putting my limited budget towards quality players perhaps overlooked by many. They must be distinctive, individual and roar with eloquence about how fantastic unadulterated whisky can be. Presently I have my Adelphi (which qualifies handsomely), the Ardmore Traditional, Auchentoshan 1978 and tiny amounts of Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve and Compass Box. Not a collection guaranteed to best the hurly-burly of forthcoming opposition. I need additional vibrancy, delicacy and long-term commitment.

I’m struggling to channel Sir Alex Ferguson on this one, though. I’m due in Benromach for a Manager’s Tour next month and cannot overcome the temptation to take them up on their offer of £15 off the bottle-your-own single cask. The excellent 10yo may be more consistently amenable, and there is much to be said for drinking a whisky at 43% abv when there is still much academic work to be done over a cask strength brute. But the ‘cask strength brute’ is precisely what interests me about whisky right now: in its raw state, pure, simple and unique. There is a similar conundrum associated with the Aberlour bottle-your-own. It is a lot of money (although I would drink it) and despite the ex-Bourbon genesis, is it simply too rich to serve as an aperitif whisky?

My response has been and continues to be: wait and see. The Benromach single cask may be first-fill sherry, in which case it is a big no-no; the Aberlour may underwhelm so impossibly high are my expectations for this next single cask. Or, I may elect to trust in my holding midfielder (the Compass Box Asyla) and maybe a G&M Longmorn 12yo, while investing in the promises made at the time by whichever luminous malts I succumbed to that they can and will set the pitch on fire when necessary. Perhaps it is not for me yet to dictate where and when a malt is allowed to be extraordinary.

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Caol Ila 30yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Caol Ila from Master of Malt.

A single cask Caol Ila from Master of Malt.

We all have our own idiosyncratic methods of getting through the day: overcoming the arduous, tedious or simply mystifying duties whose application to ourselves is impossible to account for, and yet equally impossible to escape. Instead of model-building, gardening, recreational drug use or wandering about with a concealed weapon, I reach for a sample of whisky to reconnect me with a region of satisfaction and fulfilment.

With exams not at all far away, therefore, I need all the help I can get and fortunately enough, those charming people at Master of Malt are doing all they can to provide that assistance. Having already encountered their own expression of Highland Park, I had a wax-sealed jar of seriously mature Inner Hebridean nectar in the desk drawer. Perhaps my favourite distillery, I was anxious that this Caol Ila would represent an improvement on the Orcadian malt. Find this wee dram for yourself here.

Caol Ila 30yo 57.4% Distilled in 1980, filled into refill Bourbon wood. £99.95

Colour - Reasonably rich full gold/amber.

Nose - This one came in a trio of waves, each more involving than the last. The notes go on and on but I shall summarise: intense and quite dry golden apply sweetness at first with an assertive waft of crisp and quite deep fruity peatiness. This peat note is the first to develop, turning industrial with soot-blackened Islay jetties with impressions of a cool warehouse filled with old hogsheads. Lemon and orange sneak in. Finally it becomes perfumed with spearmint chewing gum. Very soft and creamy with grist and salt. Cow shed-like peatiness appears with bonfire wood and there is also a very fetching baked earth sweetness.

      Water accentuates the seaside much more with fresh fishy sweetness – all seared scallops with a delicious liquid tablet quality alongside. Stewed green apple and almond/hazelnut. The oak is very generous but not overpowering, allowing masses of sweet flavours to emerge such as lemon and lime tart, barley sugar and grape with jellied sweets. More time does this dram every possible favour, becoming – to my mind – a classic Caol Ila: peaty with dry husky-sweet malt, nuttiness, wet logs and a touch of stem ginger.

Palate - Peppery and spicy with plenty of peat and soft, chewy-sweet citrus. The peat is more evident in this expression than a Bladnoch Forum Caol Ila 30yo I have had.  Caramelising sugar sweetness comes along, too.

      Water ramps up the fruitness to the point where it is acetone-esque. Hot, very sweetly spicy with smooth peat and Earl Grey. Clean and not as cutting, with a little toffee. Rich and complex.

Finish – Warming and extremely smooth. Delicate soft fruits and maritime. Peated wash. Grassy and gentle with a conifer-like sweetness.

      Water transformed this malt, for me. Beginning with a medium-sweet maltiness it builds into gently earthy phenolics and sloe gin. Clean and syrupy, it coats the tongue and continues to enthrall long after it has gone down. It lent me the impression of May in the Hebrides, beginning on the beach with the dunes and sun-bleached shells. A spirit of adventure draws you towards the low-lying cliffs, however, surrounded by rocks and covered in tough, new-green and wind-clipped turf. This Caol Ila, once the fireworks have died away, is exactly like lying on one of those wild lawns. I felt the sun’s heat and the earthy aromatics released from the dark soil beneath. Fantastic.

So…?      As the biggest producer on Islay by some distance (and with expansion plans approved it will only get bigger) it goes some way to explaining why so many Caol Ilas appear under independent labelling. That they appear to be all so intriguing is testament to the inherent quality of the spirit produced in such quantities. and after 30 years? Caol Ila doesn’t age like other whiskies. There is none of the darkness velvety richness I have noted in other 25yo+ drams - just, as I said, never-ending panoramas of sweetness. I would quite happily go for a full bottle of this – so deftly-handled is the Caol Ila signature I love so much.

Master of Malt have chosen a stonkingly good cask to bottle for their customers and with only 154 bottles emerging from that hogshead, I’d be quick. I’m extremely grateful to Master of Malt for giving me the opportunity to try such a marvellous whisky – and forget about exams for half an hour.

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Diageo on the Beach (at the Quaich Society)

Diageo at the Quaich Society

The Quaich Society here in St Andrews has acquired a considerable quantity of momentum so far this term. A number of factors put paid to the final portion of last term’s itinerary but so far in 2011 the drams and learned conversation have been liberally flowing. This Thursday (the 10th), Diageo came to town, and I could not miss my chance to appraise how the world’s largest drinks producer goes about conducting tastings. As it happened, they are rather good indeed.

There could have been no more appropriate ambassador to address a bunch of students than a man who looked as if he had only just graduated himself. Duncan opened his talk with an allusion to just this happy circumstance, promising that he was relishing the change in demographic our forty-or-so strong crowd presented.Duncan McRae

With his six key points of discussion, and a special al fresco stunt planned for us at the end of the evening, Duncan’s task was a hefty one. Constraints of time are rarely too strictly observed at the Quaich Society, however, and we lapped up all of the information Duncan put before us. And the prevailing bias of the tasting was just that: information. The only thing ‘hard-sell’ about Duncan was his sincere love for his job and Scotch whisky, and putting the free Talisker scarves and ‘rocking glass’ to one side, gimmickry was notable by its absence. He expressed his personal views on such matters as terroir and centralised warehousing, basing many of his statements on the science of distilling, in addition to the simple realities of economics.

To those six factors, therefore: facets of the Scotch whisky product Duncan felt it most necessary to know. He accompanied each individual whisky with a spiel relating whichever of these categories that whisky could most interestingly illustrate, the first of which was Glenkinchie. Now this little Lowlander receives a fair amount of flak from some quarters, but I happen to be a fan of its sweet, dry, herbal characteristics. On this occasion I found more of the tight spiritiness of younger whisky with a great deal of vanilla and ginger cookie dough. Duncan partnered this with the distillery’s history. When the phylloxera virus decimated Cognac in the 1800s, two Edinburgh businessmen saw an opportunity to supply drinkers south of the border with spirit. However, it had to be different from their past encounters with the potent, heavy qualities of Highland Scotches. Sited close to rail links and raw materials for efficient production and access to market, Glenkinchie today continues to provide much of the freshness and zip in blends such as Johnnie Walker.

DiageoWe covered Dalwhinnie next, a preferred dram of mine in the right circumstances. Creamy and peachy with honey and smoke, the flavours did not disappoint or surprise. Duncan illuminated the story of Dalwhinnie with a word on the journey required to reach it. ‘You know when you head north of Pitlochry on the A9, when everything starts to look as if you’re in Mordor? That’s Dalwhinnie.’ Meaning ‘meeting place’, I can empathise with Duncan’s description. Unfortunately this was from the comfort of a car instead of a bike but that is what the next Odyssey is for…

Dram no. 3 was introduced in a highly novel fashion: ‘OK, who has beef with the Singleton of Dufftown?’ Hands shot up. Duncan’s explanation of why Diageo markets three different malts in three different territories in exactly the same style went some way to pacifying the dissenters in the room. Glendullan for the States, Glen Ord for Asia and Dufftown for the UK and Europe are each intended to occupy a given location on the Flavour Map, which was also wheeled out a couple of times during the evening, hence the identical labelling. Duncan conceded that, as a trio, they did not garner the greatest critical acclaim. However, he then dropped in the little nugget that the Singleton was the fastest growing whisky and in the world. Fair enough – Diageo don’t stay where they are at the top of the tree by refusing to give the general drinker, and in this case new drinkers, what they want.

With a word on maturation regimes for the Singletons (almost exclusive Sherry maturation) we arrived at the ‘big boy whiskies’. Duncan’s passion for Talisker and his eloquence on the subject of whisky generally was extremely powerful. ‘Why is whisky favoured around the world? Why is it romanticised in the way that maybe vodka isn’t? Why, when you type Talisker into Google do you come up with endless pictures of dogs?’ We awaited his answer, and – for me – it was the right one. ‘Because of the place.’ Talisker, as I have said before, is the most awesomely-situated distillery in Scotland. Duncan endeavoured to explain how Skye and malt whisky had the power to conspire and embed sensory sensitivity in the overcome visitor. How the locality and force behind the whisky could return to you, when you least expected it, over a Talisker anywhere in the world. That was what the tumblers and scarves were for. Duncan intended to lead us down to the beach, pour out some 57 North and let the magic happen.

Caol Ila and Lagavulin were somewhat hastily guzzled in anticipation of this jaunt – unique in my experience at the Quaich Society. Whilst to describe Lagavulin is superfluous by now (I am deeply saddened that my 20cl bottle is nearly dry), my encounter with the Caol Ila 12yo after what must be nearly two years of hiatus was keenly savoured. When I first entered the room I must confess I had been rather rude to my companions as I slumped on the table with my nose dipped, immovable, in the glass. It is such a magnificent aroma, such a majestic house style: so sweet, fresh, clean, oily and smoky. When Duncan told me that they had recently launched the Caol Ila Moch, I took note. An exclusive for the Friends of the Classic Malts, Moch is non-age statemented, vatting together 8-15 year-old Caol Ila for a medley of qualities. Money, where are you?Diageo

After satisfying his raffle-drawing duties, Duncan marched those of us intrepid enough and devoted enough to Talisker to brave the ferocious wind and cold to the shoreline. In the dark, the cask strength hooch flowed into waiting tumblers. Beneath the stars, we warmed ourselves on malty lava from the Isle of Skye. Unfortunately, I was left somewhat cold by the 57 North. It could have been the temperature, it could have been the lack of water to cut the spirit, but I found it too one-dimensional with a rigid dark oak note which strangled the body of the whisky. Rather than that irresistable Talisker peat fire burn which builds and builds, the whole thing just tasted slightly burnt – like salted caramel left on too high a heat.

Though the whisky was not to my taste, it was a highly innovative idea on Duncan’s part – not something he could have done in Manchester or Leeds, for example. The stars and my fellow Quaich Sockers were magnificent company at any rate.

I think this picture adequately demonstrates our gratitude to Duncan, and the Quiach Society committee, for laying on another fabulous evening.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

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