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April 11, 2013

Cutty Collaborates

I have a whisky pen-friend, and his name is Jason R. Craig. Now and again he writes to me with news about his brand (everyone should have one) and occasionally there is a sample of liquid attached.

Jason happens to be custodian of blended Scotch whisky, Cutty Sark, a label of seemingly irrepressible energy. ‘You can’t discover a new ocean until you have the courage to leave the shore’ reads my new favourite mug, courtesy of Cutty round about Easter time. They took this mantra to heart recently with two projects worthy of mention: a new blend unashamedly affiliated with America’s darkest days of Prohibition, and another expression put together by a couple of bloggers as hyperactive as they are.

Few Scotch whisky brands acknowledge that the CEOs of today owe their territorial and economic pre-eminence to the deeply clandestine efforts of their predecessors. When America was desperate for a drink, but legal statute represented something of an impediment, Scotch whisky was not about to abandon its transatlantic customers. For some time this refusal to allow police to greatly hinder profit failed to come off as strictly commendable, but Cutty Sark will soon launch a celebration of their own audacity in the 1930s: the Prohibition Edition. With a nod to Cutty’s past alliance with Captain Bill McCoy, it is a ‘reimagining of the whisky that made Cutty Sark America’s favourite Scotch – even before it was legal’.

Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell was tasked with creating a deep and powerful blend, produced in the most traditional manner. Bottled at 100 proof, it is nevertheless hoped that a smooth and complex delivery will result.

Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition 50% (to be released in the USA, then other markets in 2013)

Colour – full honey gold.

Nose – toasted cereals, then the aroma of a heavily-used Scalextric track: singed and hot. The smoke gives way to a dab of spice (nutmeg builds later on) and a fixing dried fruitiness. Peanut butter ice cream. Tart lemon curd, more warming spice and marshmallow sweetness.

Palate – creme caramel and honeycomb. The alcohol is very well-balanced and maximises the sweet, gentle flavour. A spicy tail with barley sugar and vanilla.

Finish – progressively drying on a toased oakiness with a hint of butterscotch.

With water the nose became much fruitier, with baked apple, peach and especially apricot. The peat supplied only a crunchy texture with a fragrance of gingerbread men with time. The palate was soft and sweet with abundant cereals and earthy peat for balance, leading into a short finish with tropical fruit impressions of kiwi and passion fruit.

So…?      I was really impressed by the liquid on show here. Indeed, the serve Cutty Sark has in mind (or had in mind, back to Prohibition days) is manifested perfectly in this robust yet easy-drinking blend. I can foresee a great deal of today’s whisky drinkers slinging this down their necks quite happily, much as their forebears would have done under very different circumstances. In fact, I am seriously tempted by a bottle of this when it emerges in the UK very soon. I tried it in a highball with equal parts whisky and soda, some Bitter Truth orange bitters and lemon peel. I conclude that this would make a perfect summer mixer.

Irrespective of a brand’s activities back in murkier times, modern day blending operations have an ivory tower feel to them. Only highly-qualified and long-apprenticed blenders are given the keys to the honed, established DNA of the blended whisky in order to create the next iteration of the brand. Not so Cutty Sark, when they collaborated with Neil and Joel of Caskstrength.net. Though 90 years old last month, the brand is happy to indulge young upstarts.

The decision on the part of Caskstrength to release a blended whisky for ‘C’ in their A-Z of whisky series came as a surprise to some, but the ambitious bloggers have – I feel – judged this bottling run sagely. Blended whisky deserves far more exposure, especially in terms of its creative, experimental side. With renowned marque such as Cutty Sark on board, this project boasted every possible advantage: intriguing stocks to ‘play’ with, as well as undeniable expertise to call upon. Kirsteen Campbell was again on hand to direct Neil and Joel’s blending efforts in order that they remained true to the brand’s flavour heritage, but concocted something unique.

Only 500 bottles, tipping the scale at 51.4%, were released late last month, and some are still available at Master of Malt. How did the boys fare?

Caskstrength and Carry On Cutty Sark 51.4% £35

Colour – fresh and clean gold.

Nose – an immediate toasty sweetness at first which hints at grain spirit, but the subtle weight puts one in mind of the golden fruits of Speyside single malts. Vanilla ice cream, in a cone. A teasing rum-like sweetness, returning to the lime pith-like grain. Demerara sugar, chewy apple and caramel.

Palate – interplay of cereal, candied orange and ginger then lemon appears on top of a puff of peat smoke. The strength keeps everything focused.

Finish – continues on a drying, smoky theme but returns to barley sugar, lemon zest and the lightest oak. Gooseberry sharpness late on begs for another sip. Clever blending!

Adding a little water, more vanilla, honey and mascarpone appeared on the nose with a berry richness and freshly baked shortbread. Dessert is served! A spicier palate developed with ginger and a pronounced honey flavour. Lavender and a grassy maltiness were very appealing with a curious muesli and Cointreau tail. The oak emerged more fully in the finish, with a coconut fragrance and more spice in the shape of nutmeg and cinnamon.

So…?      This is some achievement on the part of Caskstrength and Cutty Sark: a blend that out-blends blends. By this I mean that all of the best flavours and aromas of a sturdy, satisfying blended Scotch are present and intensified, and the result is a product of far more versatility than their ‘B’ bottling, the otherwise excellent single cask BenRiach. At £35 it is a genuine bargain for such an assured performer and I can only hope that Joel and Neil have been making enquiries to Dewar’s about their ‘D’ bottling…

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September 1, 2012

The Bloggers’ BenRiach

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

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

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

The Caskstrength BenRiach.

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

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

Colour – rich chestnut orange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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