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Whisky Prices Blast Off into Orbit

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

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

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

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

BenRiach

Bodacious BenRiachs.

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

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

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

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

Glenfarclas

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

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

Bailie Nicol Jarvie

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

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

Signatory

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

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

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Queen Street SMWS bar.

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

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

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

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

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The Glenlivet at the Quaich Society

The Glenlivet is one of those whiskies people imagine they know all about. You can come by it in supermarkets the length and breadth of the land and seemingly every bar across the globe. But ubiquity is not the whole story – not by a long way. Indeed, near world domination is merely the result of a number of interesting causes, as Ian Logan dropped by to tell us.

As an International Brand Ambassador for the world’s second best-selling single malt, it was no surprise that Ian’s PowerPoint presentation contained snapshots from Playboy Bunnies in New York to tales from the top of Taipei 101. However, despite all the globetrotting he still spends three-quarters of his working life on Speyside and he couldn’t be happier about it. Before embarking on a series of long-haul flights in support of Chapter, a new expression for The Glenlivet and one that will see consumer interaction on unprecedented levels for the brand, Ian stopped off in St Andrews to share six whiskies with us, and a story or two.

Most whisky histories devote a chapter to Glenlivet, a rugged and - in the late 1700s - lawless landscape where farmers and smugglers were the distillers of their day. The modern Glenlivet still pays tribute to these spirited ‘entrepreneurs’ who evaded the excisemen and, in the shape of George Smith, pioneered a style of single malt that King George IV himself would request by name. The early history of the distillery clearly captivates Ian, as the moment when he described holding Smith’s pistols – a gift from the Laird of Aberlour to defend himself against his former smuggling colleagues – attested.

As we sipped the 12yo, Ian focused on the business nouse and bloodymindedness of succeeding Smiths to cement their distillery in the area and sell their product. The 15yo French Oak took us into more modern territory and how the distillery operates today. 20% of the stocks that will become this whisky is taken out of ex-Bourbon barrels and into Limousin oak casks for two years, before being married together again prior to bottling.

Throughout, Ian’s technical knowledge as well as deference to the illustrious line of men who have managed the distillery, made an impact. Today’s Master Distiller is Alan Winchester, a true industry veteran. The age of the personnel was one thing, but the age of the whiskies was another as the 18yo, 21yo and XXV 25yo hove into view. When whisky suffered a slump in the 1980s, other companies cut back on production. With what must go down as remarkable foresight given the nature of the whisky market today, those responsible for The Glenlivet, Aberlour et al insisted they continued to produce at near capacity. The result is impressive stocks of well-aged whiskies.

Ian’s favourite is the 18yo and I struggle to find a more sensuous, subtle and charming whisky for the same price. It was the whisky, nearly six years to the day of the St Andrews tasting, that had convinced me there was more to this single malt lark. The 21yo, in contrast, came across as a bit too oak-heavy for me on the night. The final dram was the XXV, or a Christmas cake smoothie in Ian’s words. As the only dram of the evening I had not encountered before, this was the only one to have tasting notes recorded for it.

The nose was dense and thick, with red and mixed tropical fruits and dark chocolate. Rich red apple and walnut gave way to turf roofs and an almost phenolic quality. With time a rich soft smokiness did emerge with a tarry pinewood undertone. The palate was rich and oaky but with enough clean spice and fragrance to evoke the Speyside Way in late summer. Blanched almond and gorgeously plump and soft malt came next with a tint of balancing bitter chocolate edge.

Over the course of the evening, Ian underlined The Glenlivet’s consistency, the ability to make a spirit as perfectly as possible day after day. The Glenlivet produces 10.5 million litres of this clean, fruity spirit each year to satisfy global demand. To contrast this he told us about his Sma’ Still which he wheels out for special events at the distillery. In true illicit distiller-style, this is dinky enough to be carried away under one arm. There are three casks maturing in warehouses up at Minmore from tiny distillation runs and it is still RAF whisky: that’s ‘rough as…’ to you and me.

Full of anecdotes and whisky lore, I’m confident the 50 folk who turned up will have gone away with a deeper understanding – not to mention appreciation – of The Glenlivet. Our thanks to Ian Logan for finding time to talk to us.

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Chivas Regal 25yo

If I were to draw a distinction between how the two chief categories of Scotch whisky communicate, I would say that single malts prattle on about place, while blends portray themselves in terms of personality and occasion. For the latter, what matters is not where you come from but where you want to end up: character and creativity beat credentials every time. A prime example would be the Chivas Regal 25yo.

In 1909, Charles Howard and Alexander Smith envisaged a new clientele for their blend and to secure it they engineered a whole new whisky. What had started life in a little grocer’s shop in Aberdeen suddenly had aspirations on the other side of the Atlantic: on top of skyscrapers or beside the Hudson, they believed that Chivas 25yo could accompany a new wave of American ambition and glamour.

The glitterati guzzled Howard and Alexander’s creation, right up until Prohibition pulled the rug out from under them and countless other entrepreneurial blenders. Chivas 25yo ceased to be, a relic of the Roaring Twenties.

Fast forward nearly a century, and introduce a new person behind the blended story. Colin Scott resurrects the Chivas Regal 25yo as an attempt to replicate ‘the delicate intensities and subtle textures’ of the 1909 original while creating a new super-premium figurehead for one of the most popular blended Scotch brands in the world. I purchased myself a sample and set about investigating.

Chivas Regal 25yo 40% vol. £177 from here.

Colour – deep amber.

Nose – first nosing reveals immediate ermine-coated grains which lend a ‘squidgy’ cereal sweetness. Some high-toned peat and baked apple. Deeper inspection reveals stunning age: full-bodied, rounded and sweetly rich. Coconut and corn oils balance the American oak banana cream pie effect. Beeswax, soft fruits: a little mango and caramelised pineapple. Spices emerge with time: cinnamon stick and nutmeg. Creamier depths with tangerine sharpness and sweetness. A magical Sherry note: apricot, golden raisin and cherry. Stunning.

Palate – weighty oak informs the delivery but doesn’t menace the tongue. The malts build a dark, oily texture with the grains contributing firm sweetness. Flashes of almond and dried fruit.

Finish – more about poise than all-out flavour. Tablet, creamy rich vanilla. Touches of flowers (rose, violet) before plump echoing malt makes the final flourish.

Adding water increased the impression of seniority on the nose still further with leather, coconut panacotta and egg custard tarts with plenty of nutmeg. A multifaceted honey character embraces floral tones one minute and light caramels the next. Figs unfurl before your eyes. With time a deep dunnage panorama surfaces. Great seams of maturity anchor the aroma: raisins, cooperages and vanilla pods. The palate is still more impressive: fruit skins, leathery malt with glorious sherried back notes. Waxy, demerara sugar, polished oak. Garden apples and turned earth. The finish presented honey on buttered toast, and unctuous sweet vanilla. One mentholated wheeze of oak reconfirmed that there are some seriously old whiskies in here.

So…?      It’s pretty clear I enjoyed this one, I’d say. ‘Enjoy’ is putting it mildly, in fact: I was in raptures. I am awe of those who have the ability to combine whiskies such that every moment spent with the finished product reveals new evolving complexities and the most satisfying, choreographed delivery. I would happily pay the asking price for a whisky this skilfully realised, and which embodies some of the highest quality raw ingredients you will find anywhere. Some stupendous Strathislas, Benriachs and Longmorns have contributed to a liquid of singular beauty and richness. Blends testify to skill, vision and sensitivity: Colin Scott, you are my new whisky hero.

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The Glenlivet Thermostat (Nadurra 16yo)

The debate rages on as to the ethics of putting ice in your whisky. Personally, I think that buying a lovely single malt or blend and throwing some ice cubes in is the equivalent of buying a Lamborghini Aventador, taking it to Silverstone, and driving it at 20mph. The full extent of the spirit’s capabilities and magnificence has been shackled and compromised. But I will concede that, on occasion, there is simply no choice in the matter. For example, when cycling to The Glenlivet distillery in April 2010, the snow and hail with which I had to contend meant that by the time I arrived, wandered around the plant via the warehouse, and eventually creaked into the tasting room, I was the ice with my drink.

That drink, however, was the Nadurra 16yo. ‘Natural’ in Gaelic, this was The Glenlivet at cask strength, straight out of first-fill Bourbon casks without chill-filtration (although the process would have been eminently possible on that day). It slid down my throat like molten shortbread, firing warmth into the very muscles of my legs, or so it felt like. Despite the raw power, I can still remember the delicate malt and floral flavours characteristic of The Glenlivet and which thrilled my soul.

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo.

So now I knew what my bottle of the Nadurra, which had lain in my whisky cabinet for two years, tasted like. Purchased with the full intention of drinking it, I had noticed on the label the bottling date of October 2007, the very month in which my obsession for whisky materialised, and consequently this was to be a golden-hued time capsule embodying that single glorious moment in my life. I had expected the Nadurra to remain sealed and chaste indefinitely, but then came an invitation to a 21st birthday in Stourbridge, near Birmingham. Siobhan, born in 1991 and being rather fond of whisky, constituted the perfect excuse to unleash this vibrant but subtle beauty of a malt which had itself largely come into being in 1991.

While watching Disney’s ‘Basil the Great Mouse Detective’ and snuggled into my sleeping bag, I poured measures for Siobhan, myself and a couple of other friends. While delicious, I appreciated the other extreme of the temperature spectrum to April 2010 as I sipped. Whisky + sleeping bag + room full of people = lustful contemplation of… ice.

Though now a whisky inseperably associated with a tortured hypothalamus, I poured some in neutral surroundings to see what it could really offer.

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo 57.7% abv. Batch 1007D

Colour - Rich and bright honey gold.

Nose - Bold, fresh ex-Bourbon barrels. Classic syrupy aromas of tablet, pine and coconut. Richness, but of an airy sort: butterscotch, floral notes and creme patisiere. With more time there is a scented, toasted Jack Daniels aroma and a touch of stewed green apple.

With water - Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I thought that might happen. Creamy vanilla pools unctuously in the cracks of the fragrant, golden cask staves. Stewed peaches and vanilla ice cream. Somehow that light, semi-dry sweet malt of the distillery can still be perceived. Firm, wild flavours like a winter burn on the slopes of Ben Rinnes: definitely a brown peaty aroma. That golden barley vista grows ever clearer. Greater exposure to the air unearths syrupy corn, pine again but with zesty orange immediately behind it. Gorgeous coconut and the dusty racked warehouse at The Glenlivet.

Palate - Bursting with mint toffee, oak prickle. Gradually, peat and sweet heather emerge which are then covered with oozing golden caramel. Toffee and ripe pear.

With water - Creamier, banana, still some spearmint but tamer. More impressions of the cask: char, honey, candied lemon. Lots of lemon, in fact. Caramel smoothness and delicate, drying malt.

Finish - Darker, with charred meat-esque sweetness. The coconut dribbles across the tongue but there are also firmer flavours including flowers. Lemon pith.

With water - Deepens into relaxed oaky toffee with a generous waft of heather. Harvest on Speyside. Delicate but purposeful with some sweet and rich corn melting in. Vanilla and green fruits which have plenty of sugar with them but also some juicy freshness.

So…?

What a stunning whisky. Indeed, as I nosed it there were shades of Compass Box’s Hedonism and even, could it be, that supreme Aberlour 14yo single cask which I tasted a few days after that Nadurra in April 2010. This is not a spirit that deals lightly with the oak, but those casks are of such high quality and let out enough of the inherently classy Glenlivet flavours that, to this palate, the effect is nearly faultless. This is the only expression I have tasted of The Glenlivet to be bottled at cask strength and whether it is this or the non-chillfiltration that I must credit with the gorgeous sustain and expert flavour development, I’m not sure. The whole marries suaveness and vibrancy with beautiful results. How delighted I am that I opened it after all; a cautionary tale for all those ‘wait-and-see’ purchasers.

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Majestic Glenlivet

The word on the street is that there is some sort of royal shindig going on? Lizzie has reigned over us for 60 years and we Brits think that deserves bunting, scones, a few elderly gentlemen playing guitars, that sort of thing. The Macallan has grasped the spirit of the occasion a little better, I feel, with a new bottling from its regal stocks, although it cannot match – at least in terms of years – the Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 60yo. Either way, whisky as a fit means of honouring important occasions, usually with a calendrical application, cannot be disputed.

This brings me on to whisky as a fit means of marking notable moments in my life, and The Glenlivet in particular. It shall always be bound up with October 25, 2007, as the distillery I visited on that bright but chilly day and which launched my interest in whisky into the stratosphere. I don’t know whether this fact was consciously recalled by my friends when, in anticipation of my 21st birthday in September of last year, they pitched in for a bottle of The Glenlivet 21yo Archive (I should mention that it has shot up in price since). Upon opening it, I was ever so glad they did. Upon receiving it, I could only marvel at what a tremendous group of people I call friends. Lizzie will, doubtless, enjoy her scones this weekend and today I intend to tell you how much I enjoyed a measure of this whisky recently.

The Glenlivet 21yo Archive

The Glenlivet 21yo Archive 43% vol. £99.95

Colour – Boldly rich and burnished amber. Toffee apple.

Nose – A few choice aromas initially: clean, sweet and creamy ex-Bourbon wood with plenty of vanilla, sugary yellow fruits and fruitcake. With nose in the glass, I found the delivery a little timid at first but it was gentle and medium rich with a lovely freshness. Maltiness eventually appeared which boasted a certain oiliness whilst being wrapped in nougat and caramel. Terrific firmness of body with a fragrance like heather. The aroma seems to become ever richer with toffee and vanilla, in addition to nutty sherry and dark honey.

Water releases the creamy soft barley which makes powerful surges on a bed of vanilla. Peach, syrupy and running with juice, also Scottish tablet. The nose settles into an image of dunnage warehouses and top notch old Bourbon casks. The cereal notes are quite sharp and still somewhat oily. Plenty of nuttiness appears. With more time, shortbread, sweet mash tun and some dunnage again. Full, fresh and juicy malt.

Palate – Sweet, heavy fruits at first before oak and a slight earthiness break in. A malty flavour that combines vanilla and biscuity richness. Nutty oak dominates towards the finish.

Water heightens the creaminess, as it did for the nose. More toffee and sharp cereals. A good deal of weighty oak. A puff of vanilla after swallowing. Prune and almond.

Finish – Semi rich, oaky, but with a dusty floral note. Plum jam/ figgy residue and vanilla toffee. Quite basic and closed.

Water lent the finish real expressiveness. A crystallised sweetness to the malt introduced the oak once more, only on this occasion it had relaxed a fraction, allowing some tropical fruits to emerge: passion fruit, orange. Butterscotchy/ biscuity richness characteristic of the distillery.

So…? This is a whisky that just about succeeds in balancing delicacy and robustness. Some elements are as fresh and juicy as you could wish for with a Glenlivet, while the extra years have granted it a subtle, dark weight. The wood types have been juggled very impressively with controlled emphasis on Sherry oak but with some very high-quality refill Bourbon barrels in there, too. This is a very good whisky indeed, which does not require your full attention all the time but rewards closer inspection, too.

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Aberlour: Warts and All

Welcome to the second instalment of my Aberlour Founder’s Tour review. My justification for cleaving my report in two? So stuffed with glorious details and quirks was the experience itself I worried that with a single post my finger ends might disintegrate before I had related all of the tour’s worthy facets. I covered the relaxed and illuminating investigation of the Aberlour distilling site in my previous post, but today I shall describe our gripping and surprising adventures through the spirit itself.

Middle School science all over again...

In a conference theatre adjoining the Fleming Rooms, and which betrayed the heavy Druidic hand favoured by the marketing department, nosing glasses of suspicious spirit were passed around, the first of which was the foreshot sample. At 67% abv., I couldn’t be certain whether dilution had occurred between spirit safe and our copitas. I doubt it made that much difference in any case.

Below our nostrils was the reason distillers are not exactly OCD about the cleaning of their pipework: a Frankenstein’s monster of a liquid. It certainly smelt somewhat eldritch and Faustian: heavy, metallic cereal notes barged out, with blackcurrant skins underneath and the panicked suggestion of pear drops and apples in the background, as if fleeing from the burning castle. A violent spiciness gripped the nose. Water failed to turn this monster into a princess. Instead the dominant flavour was of intense macerated citrus fruits, creating a thin and cold ambiance. My North American friends recoiled in disgust although I must admit that I was not particularly offended. Maybe I have hung around more low wines and feints receivers than is strictly healthy, but even here I could appreciate malt whisky’s feral beginnings. Yes it was frantically aggressive and uncoordinated, but it could have been much worse, too, for all the microscopic traces of copper sulphate seething within it.

It was with relief, therefore, that we turned to the second sample. At 74% in strength after only half-an-hour’s cautious distilling, we were now exploring Aberlour spirit in its liveliest precocity. Far sweeter and lighter than the foreshots, this offered crisp cereal notes growing to creamy and grassy flavours. Proceedings deepened with a little water, a leafiness appearing together with fruit skins (apple and pear) and a note of emerging caramel which intrigued me no end. Donna, Michele & co. were still unimpressed, however.

Nosing the third cut point reveals a striking trend. If the foreshots were savage and brutal and the new make coherent and vibrant, the feints betrayed the doughty and flaccid death throes of the distilling cycle. Despite its raucous abv. reading of 58%, the tail barely wagged. Notes of banana skin and floor cleaner, followed by firmer, leafy wood notes with water made for a very forgettable spirit. On time, a dimmed floral character developed – something like sunflowers in very late summer – but hardly electrifying. At this juncture in its evolution, the water of life is somewhat stagnant.

The good, the bad and the ugly. But all were appreciated.

Few distillers would have the balls to show there spirit without its make-up on. To so much as come by a nip of the new make – that which will become the single malt output of Distillery X in a few years’ time – is a rare privilege. My American friends dissaproved of the specimens while I was prepared to root out redeeming features; in both cases, however, I’m sure we found the opportunity fascinating. The overall complexion of wash, boiled in copper pot stills, is imperfect, inconsistent and volatile. All the distiller can do with this torrent of flavours as they tumble past him is to snatch at those which meet his requirements.

A truly epic selection, and mighty tasty in more ways than one.

And so to the whiskies themselves, those temperamental juices harvested many years ago and handed over to oak to see what it could make of them.

The first of these was the new make itself, the sample of spirit we had encountered earler when combined with the remainder of the spirit run. At 70% abv., there was an enhanced creaminess over the earlier sample with medium deep fruits and unripe pear lurking quitely in the foreground. The palate revealed leafy, malty notes with more fruitiness. The white chocolate and black fruit chocolate that accompanied it enhanced the creaminess and tamed the alcohol somewhat.

I must admit that at this point I jumped the Good Ship Jonathan. While he described the 18yo as well as the provenance and composition of the four bespoke chocolates gleaming before us, I turned to the golden-coloured contents of the glass on my right. With trembling fingers, I lifted off the stopper cap, brought the glass to my nose with ponderous slowness and… did whatever it is one does when fulfilling destiny.

The latest single cask ex-Bourbon barrel available in Warehouse No. 1 was a 16yo at 54.2% abv. Two years more and 9.1% less than my darling of the previous year. What difference could this make? On the nose this is a heavy and syrupy beast (to my rarefied memory the 14yo was sweet and lithe) with grapeskins (not apples), creamy spice and cardamom (not coconut). I had to make a real effort to quell the accusatory interruptions of that ex-ex-Bourbon, to allow this dram to speak for itself. The alcohol boasted a heady, heavy quality, too, but shifted to reveal an intense grassiness, biscuitiness and – yes – coconut. My golden apples appeared on the palate, together with heaps of caramel and a hint of blackcurrant jam. Creamy fruitiness endured.

‘I’m sorry, Jonathan,’ I piped up. ‘I am following the tasting, it’s just this is the whisky I’ve waited seventeen months to meet.’ Jonathan assured me that this was not a problem and that I should just damn well enjoy myself. 

With the addition of a little water, the nose grew even creamier with Werther’s Original toffees. Coconut leapt out much more readily, giving the delicious impression of hot gorse bushes. Fresh linen appeared, as did more green fruits in the shapes of lime and apple. Thick Glycerine icing sugar – like you would find on a Christmas cake – provided a minty, sugary flavour and there, oh Mamma, there was the Lelandii, the fresh cut pine note from the oak. Marvellous. The oak showed far more boldly on the palate now, in addition to lemon and faintly earthy malt. The ex-Bourbon DNA thrust more forcefully to the surface. The chocolate pairing was less successful, but then this could have been because I had fallen in a swoon.

I know, every blogger has an image of themselves doing this. But that's because it is very very enjoyable.

A word, then, on those other whiskies which would, in any other line-up, inspire eulogies of their own. The 18yo was indeed delightful and worked supremely well with its dark chocolate-coated dried apricot. Gentle and sweetly soft on the nose, there were additional flavours of chocolate coins and red apple, once again on the softer side of things. Malty characters prevailed on the palate with a touch of toasted oak and fruit cores.

My ambition to assemble a cabinet of balance and variety having been irrecoverable scuppered on the Tuesday with my ex-Bourbon Caol Ila purchase, I turned to the single cask ex-Sherry Aberlour, a 16yo at 57.4%, with curiosity and some guilt. This would be the wiser choice, but could I walk away from Aberlour for a second time without a bottle of the ex-Bourbon? I could not. Though deep, rounded and velvety, and with the Sherry contributing plenty of orange notes and cinnamon (paired beautifully with a dark bitter chocolate and candied orange morsel), we repaired to Warehouse No. 1 with my decision firmly made.

When my two French counterparts of last year’s tour set to coordinating their collective extraction of precious Sherry-matured spirit with much chuckling and picture-taking, I had loved spectating on the manifestation of their Scottish holiday momento. It was even more fun participating in the birth of one’s own precious souvenir. I use the birthing analogy only because Bob did so first. I picked up an empty, label-less bottle and held it beneath the nozzle of the verticle glass chamber which would soon dispense whisky once I raised the lever to the right of the valve. Much like the hyrdometers I had been playing with in Balblair, spirit swelled into the tube and with a downward swipe in to the bottle it gushed. Bob would show how best to manipulate the valve so that whisky entered the glass with minimum aeration. From there it was a clamp straight out of the Industrial Revolution to insert the cork, then another for the foil cork wrapper.

Not since primary school have I concentrated so much on my handwriting. As neatly as possible I recorded the cask, the fill, the date of filling, the cask number, the date of bottling, the age, the bottle number and the strength. Jonathan wrapped up my new treasure in swaddling red tissue and encased it in a wooden box. Bob and Chris filled from the Bourbon and the Sherry, and each seemed as delighted with the new addition to their lives as I was.

The bottle-your-own facilities. Haven't the 'sweet shops' of my childhood grown up a bit?

Sadly there was little time to dwell. Our easy pace had delayed our progress somewhat, and Jonathan still had a final treat for us lying, caged and ominous, in Warehouse No. 6. This 8yo first-fill Oloroso butt was a cracker. At 61% its potency could not be ignored, and it blended raw, mouth puckering but sugar-sweet tannins with rich red fruits and toffee. Had Jonathan not locked the beast up again there’s no telling how many laws I may have broken.

While I munched on some exquisitely absorbent chicken and bacon pancakes in Fresh on Aberlour’s main street, I realised that the sense of joy and contentment which prevailed over me was deeply familiar. Scrumptious as they were, I don’t think I can put it down to the pancakes, the company of my family or even the marginal detail that today I was 21 years of age. I had felt exactly the same when alone in my B&B on a non-descript, drizzling April afternoon with the final remains of a chicken tikka pie in my hand. Aberlour distillery had, once again, transformed my day, advanced my single malt understanding and reinvigorated my soul. The Founder’s Tour is the standard by which I shall judge all specialist tours from now on. The bar is giddily high.

Aberlour Founder’s Tour: £25, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Booking essential.

www.aberlour.com

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Coming of Age at Aberlour

I’m not allowed to turn 21 every day. I appealed the decision, but the powers that be stood firm. You would be in complete sympathy with the temper tantrums I managed by some miracle to quash had you too participated in the Aberlour Founder’s Tour on this bright and balmy Speyside morning for as a means of spending a day – indeed as a means of spending everyday - I can think of few better.

Great things await at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.

The honorary Scotch Cyclist taxi service pulled up outside the dapper stone gate house which is the visitor’s first glimpse of the Aberlour experience. I say ‘experience’ and not ‘distillery’ very deliberately. Chivas Brothers have been immensely clever and revolutionary in the handling of their Speyside portfolio: throw open the doors of The Glenlivet for all those who have come to Scotland from afar, drawn by the alluring kiss of one of the world’s most prolific brands; spruce up Strathisla for those who need somewhere tangible to express their love for Chivas Regal; transform Aberlour into one of the most professional, innovative and comprehensive whisky tourism facilities in Scotland for those wom simply traipsing round a distillery is not enough.

Maybe this is really how Aberlour achieves its golden-green apple flavour...

Aberlour’s excellence begins with their staff. The instant you wander into the compact visitor centre and shop you are welcomed by shirt-and-tie-sporting gentlemen who are friendliness and discretion personified. Graduate from the How To Make Your Customers Feel Completely At Ease And Looked After School of public relations on the day of my visit was Jonathan. We exchanged ‘How-do-you-dos’, he handed over my tour paperwork and then we enjoyed a very pleasant conversation about his four and a half years at William Grant & Sons, during which he pitched in at every stage of the whisky-making and tourist-wowing processes, in addition to my own ventures into Scotch whisky. I was very interested in what he had to say and, to his credit, Jonathan looked interested in what I had to say. However, I secretly hoped that there might be other personalities to accompany us on the tour. ’We’ll get underway in just a little while,’ he said. ‘There is a party of four still to join us.’ Fantastic!

Companionship was something I had hankered for on many of my one-to-one tours of 2010 and I was delighted when four completely lovely people, bedecked in active outdoor cum distillery-wear piled through the door within moments. Donna, Michele, Bob and Chris supplied that critical ingredient in tours of this nature: regular conversation. Too often when I book a specialist tour of a distillery I am the sole participant and conversation can grow appallingly technical. I become more concerned with scribbling in my notebook than remaining sensitive to the sheer fun of being in a functioning distillery. My four companions from Boston  ensured I never sacrificed my celebratory mood for recording pernickity details about flow rate and wash densities.

A home away from home, only with (slightly) more sumptuous single malts.

Sticking to the yellow brick road, or rather the tarmac markings intended to ward off rampaging McPherson tankers, our troop entered the distillery via the corporate front door. Jonathan whisked us into the Fleming Rooms, a sumptuous but tasteful hospitality suite which only VIPs are permitted to enter. As Founder’s Tour ticket holders, we five qualified as such. Over an exceedingly flirtatious Aberlour 12yo, Jonathan described the history of the distillery in which we sat (on luxurious leather sofas): its owners, its hardships and its modifications. He made no bones about the automated nature of the present site, and nor did I mind in the least. Times have to be moved with, and on a plant of Aberlour’s size trusting to a computerised system for such junctures as cut points and fermenting makes sound sense.

In the leisurely manner characteristic of the Founder’s Tour (and the Warehouse No. 1 Tour, as I remember) we arrived at the operating buildings themselves. In the plush exhibition area adjacent to the mill, I was more diverted by the wonderful aroma of sweet, fat barley and a richly creamy overtone than the factoid that a Aberlour spirit starts life as Oxbridge and Optic barley.

A glance at the bodacious, if sweltering, stills and we returned to the Fleming Rooms for the truly unique component of the Founder’s Tour. When Jonathan grabbed a couple of bottles that looked identical to some forgotten-about relics from my high school chemistry cupboard, I was eager to explore further – but not to the point of tipping some into my mouth and swallowing. ‘Look at that,’ Jonathan grimaced. ‘We couldn’t get away with putting that on the shop shelves.’ He likened the foreshots sample to a snow-shaker, and with a flick of the wrist spumes of bright blue sediment swirled about the bottle. If you were curious as to quite why distillers have to replace their stills, and where that copper goes, here’s your answer. The other three bottles looked perfectly normal new make, but that wasn’t the whole story, either.

Join me for another blogpost later on when I describe my encounter with three very different beasts which provide a snapshot of the distilling art, in addition to a report on the second unusual element of the Founder’s Tour. And, amidst all the fancy chocolates and caged Sherry butts, could the contents of a particular ex-Bourbon barrel seduce me for a second time?

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Mothballed? Why?! Glen Keith 1993

Way back in icy January I mentioned I raft of lesser-spotted Speysiders I had come across courtesy of Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice range, the foundation line of whiskies demonstrating the extraordinary variety Scotland, and especially her pre-eminent independent bottlers, have at their disposal.

Gordon & MacPhail Glen Keith 1993Of the five malts I purchased, the Glen Keith was really startlingly good, and tasting notes are below. Glen Keith, although mothballed since 2000, is still a significant site for Chivas Brothers. Located in the town of Keith, it is just down and across the river Isla from Strathisla, whose spirit is filled there. When I passed from tun room to still house during my tour of Strathisla last year, I remember seeing pipes arrowing away down stream to another pagoda. The two distilleries are intrinsically connected. Glen Keith also malted its own barley until 1976, providing itself and Strathisla with malt. Chivas Bros. still use Glen Keith for important experimentation into the whisky-making process. 

Purchase this little star in 70cl form here.

Glen Keith 1993 46% (Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice). £40.

Colour – Candy yellow. Light honey gold.

Nose – At first it seems quite bold with very clean characteristics and sweet citrussy oak. Lemon butter icing and butterscotch maltiness. Closer to it is oaky and grassy with apple, chunks of tablet and a just-ripe banana note. Lemon curd. Shortbread dough – raw pastry. Soft and creamy. After a sip, deeper vanilla toffee emerges, along with poached pears and cinnamon. Toasted ex-Bourbon oak and thick whipped cream.

      Water renders the whisky softer and sweeter still. The shortbread has been cooked and topped with praline. Lemon accented vanilla cream. Clean, ‘golden’ American oak. Intense heathery aromas appear and a darker rich spice. Apple turnover. Not complex: there are simply acres of delight to be accommodated. Aberfeldy-ish.

Palate – Round, quite rich and toffeed with a sweet spiciness. Citrus appears (lemon and orange) together with drying spices.

      Water makes for a softer experience again, with gristy malt and then oak. Lemon pastries, an intense dried grassiness then clean fruitiness. Slight charring.

Finish – Butterscotch sauce. Clean and soft malt in perfect harmony with a light juicy oakiness. More lemon. Medium length. Sponge cake mixture.

      Water perhaps fractionally improves matters: clean malt and soft sweet oak combine nicely. Fruity with white grape and green apple. Rich biscuit.

So…?      The advice when collecting is to go for the closed distilleries and those bottlings which taste nice. While I haven’t heard anything from anyone else about this particular vintage, it would be no skin off my nose to purchase a couple of these and, if nothing happens price-wise, I at least have the insurance of a lovely dram. This is not complex, but shows what pleasant, sweet and fresh heights some lighter Speyside malts can reach when paired with a damn good cask. The American oak does make this malt, but it does not predominate and allows some delicious biscuit and fruit notes through.

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For Whisky, like Women; Is the Question of Age Still Off-limits?

It seems I am quite low down on the whisky blogger pecking order, but higher than I had suspected. Forty-eight hours or so after the debates began on What Does John Know? and the Edinburgh Whisky Blog amongst others, the press release concerning Chivas Brothers’ new consumer education campaign dropped into my inbox.

This is a fascinating topic, one that is both timely and crucial for the industry’s future. Experimentation and innovation are circling like a Viking mob whisky’s (and especially Scotch whisky’s) ancient castle keep with tradition, protectionism and legislation its bricks and mortar. Not only are people coming up with new ways of making and marketing whisky, but they are finding increasing popularity and plaudits for their efforts. Time, then, for the old guard to reassert some long upheld “truths”.

Let it be known that I am not enacting unreasonable militancy against the big corporate players. Without them, we would not have reached this glorious peak of single malt variety. I cannot help but feel, however, that Chivas, a branch of Pernod Ricard, are reacting in a rather heavy-handed way to the recent spate of no-age-statement bottlings proliferating on our retailers’ shelves. They commissioned a survey of 2,000 people who had purchased whisky in the previous month. They found that 94% believed that age was an indicator of quality; 93% believed that whiskies with a higher age statement were of a higher quality, and 89% look for an age statement before contemplating buying. Yet only 10% knew what the age statement referred to in relation to the contents of the whisky they sought to buy. Where has this prejudice come from, and who is responsible for further light not having been shed on the benighted 90% of the public? It is the whisky makers themselves in both cases.

Think about it, if the men in high office decide that they are going to commence stating an age, with all the legal requirements that such a declaration entails, they are going to devise an effective piece of marketing to coincide with it. Rather than necessarily inform the consumer what it means with bold exactitude, they are more likely to reassure the man or woman browsing the shelves that it means a better whisky for him or her. On my distillery tour, I encountered many casual tourists who, despite the best efforts of various guides, still had some trouble digesting the true definition behind the age statement. I cannot see how this is anyone’s fault bar the companies themselves. The misleading belief that older equals better suits them just fine.

So why are Chivas trying again now? As I mentioned above, the conservative approach to whisky marketing and labelling has taken quite a beating as smaller companies have whipped up serious committed followings for the younger products of their distilleries. The Glenmorangie Company is the inevitable case study, with both the Ardbeg and Glenmorangie ranges boasting NAS bottlings. Their success (with Rollercoaster, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan and Signet) would call into question the extent to which the attitudes found in the Chivas survey actually signify a devout adherence to age statements – shunning all others; or whether vague suspicions are not quite enough to deter some from purchasing one of these new and much-hyped whiskies of indeterminate age. My guess is that it is the latter, and this is why Chivas are pumping money, time and awareness into reviving the old prejudices.

Another reason for drawing the consumer back to age statements is that all of their needs could be satisfied by those brands in the Chivas stable. They style themselves as “the world’s leading producer of luxury Scotch whisky” and I’m fairly sure they base this on the fact that their portfolios contain bottles whose age statements reach and exceed 25-years-of-age in the case of Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet. An awful lot of Chivas whisky comes with a number on it. The perceived ignorance of the legal definition of age statements is a great opportunity to remind people of all the fine age-statemented whisky they have available.

The video on The Glenlivet website states the latest position of their owners loud and clear: “A guarantee of age. A guarantee of quality.” These are slogans, not truths, and they have not addressed the dearth of understanding, rather perpetuated the misconceptions. This is no time to aim for aphorisms for one cannot impart total understanding on this subject in a soundbite. In their press release they put forward the scenario that because “one of the greatest influences on the flavour of a whisky comes from maturation,” (no arguments there, this is consistent with the chemistry behind whisky making) “it follows that the longer the maturation period, the more complex the whisky.” Now this is frankly dangerous territory. In a piece of publicity with semantics such as “luxury”, “quality” and ”premium”, the word “complex” adopts connotations of desirability; perhaps inflated connotations. The implication is surely that older is better. Words have been used, and I suspect will be deployed again in the “point-of-sale materials, advertising and public relations” that will drive this campaign, to sell an idea about whisky, as opposed to deliver the low-down on the facts.

I won’t deny that it is a fairly reliable guide, but it does not always “follow” that complexity comes with age. I tried a single cask Caol Ila at 30-years-old that was very straightforward ex-Bourbon oak in flavour. The Kilchoman Second Release is one of the most complex malts I have tasted for quite some time and it is only a toddler at just over 3-years-old.  You must arm the consumer with more than this simplistic correlation masquerading as a rule if you are to set him or her away into the expanding and evolving world of single malt whisky. Say Consumer X starts out with Chivas Regal 12yo, moves on to Aberlour 10yo, then The Glenlivet 18yo and, having enjoyed this initial journey so much, maybe starts reading a few blogs, magazines or books, and decides he would like to pick up a single cask bottling at 21-years-of-age… and hates it. Say Consumer X is undetered and plumps for a 30yo from a distillery he has heard good things about, a special treat… and he hates that one, too. He has not, as Christian Porta of Chivas Brothers Ltd. asserts, been “empowered with knowledge”, at least, not the knowledge he needed. Why should it be the agenda to convince Customer X about “the value of what [he is] buying” in preference to the make up and process behind what he is buying? Only with that can Customer X work out why his 21 and 30yos were not to his taste, and make a different choice next time round. If his central, indeed sole, tenet is that older is better, where is he to go after his traumatic experiences? Most likely he will head straight out of this confusing, intimidating drinks sector and into another. Let’s not risk alientating new-comers by serving them absolutes. It is the drinks equivalent of “Teach a man to fish…” Whisky production is a complicated, unpredictable exercise all the quirks and foibles of which no-one truly understands. I appreciate that it is hardly effective marketing to proceed with the “ifs” and “buts”. I also accept that new customers want certainty, indeed, the very “transparency and authenticity” of which Porta speaks, so create a campaign that steers clear of the subjective and vague and sets out in more detail the true nature of the beast from the off.  That this topic has spawned the levels of discussion that it has demonstrates that this is not something a logo can clear up.

Just as the wood is “one of the greatest influences on the flavour of whisky”, the age is only one of the facts we need to be told to make a truly informed purchase. I would like to see information on the age, cask type, number of fills of cask, proportion of malt matured in each different cask (if there is more than one), peating level, filtration, colouring. If I was being really pernickety I would want to know if any and if so what proportion of whisky had been matured centrally or at the distillery itself. There is a long way to go but if the industry is committed to enlightening its customers then these steps will eventually be taken, and others feel the same. See Steffen Brauner’s comments on the WDJK? post.

Notice that I have not come out and denounced age statements themselves. I believe they are crucial information. It should be said, of course, that all whiskies have a minimum age, but this again depends on your knowledge of whisky laws. Nothing can be called whisky unless it is a minimum of 3-years-old. Anyway, the age statement helps me in my browsing because I know that an 8-10yo whisky will be quite bold and basic in its palette, with a liveliness. 18yo+ will probably be mellow, deep and, yes, complex. However, this is only as a result of past experience, not what any brand has told me. In addition, this is only what I expect age to have done to the whisky’s character and body. I don’t know what it will taste like. Novices may see an 18yo Laphroaig (a fine malt) and buy it believing it to be complex, and having been told that complex equals quality, quality equals good. But what if they don’t like complexity in the shape of peat, seaweed and oak? I think there needs to be a joint effort across the industry, began by Diageo’s Flavour Map, to classify by the sensory appreciation of a malt, not the obscure theoretical discrimination of quality care of maturity.

Lastly, I would keep age statements at all costs because that number, when properly understood, tells me, if nothing else, of the time and heritage behind what I am sipping. I’m still in a position where I can affordably drink whisky older than I am, and that is quite incredible when I think about it. I respect my elders, and a 25yo malt is something to savour and appreciate. Its creation and the means by which it has come to me were not carelessly left to chance and are not to be dismissed. It is in this sense that I agree with the “Investing in Age” section of The Glenlivet site. It is true that “there are no shortcuts in this process. Nothing can be rushed.” If the sole achievement of your campaign is that this is more widely understood, then you have done a great service to the industry, Chivas. I might not agree that “The Age Matters”, but age itself unquestionably counts for a great deal.

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Strathisla

A stunningly gorgeous distillery, this one. It's a shame my mood was too black to appreciate it at the time.

A stunningly gorgeous distillery, this one. It's a shame my mood was too black to appreciate it at the time.

Seafield Avenue, Keith, Banffshire, AB55 5BS, 01542 783044. Chivas Brothers. Strathisla Distillery Website  

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      Keith itself isn’t the bonniest, but this distillery is in a pleasant secluded neuk just down from the main road through the town with parks to be found on the opposite side of the road. Indeed, some young boys were energetically mountain-biking around the one next to the distillery car park.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £5. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘The Ultimate Chivas Brothers Experience’: £25. A tour of the distillery plus tastings of Chivas Regal 18 and 25-year-olds, Royal Salute 21-year-old and the 100 Cask Selection – all seriously premium blends.

‘Straight From The Cask Tour’: £25. Five cask strenght malts from the Chivas stable – “the only tour in Scotland offering all cask strength whiskies.” Pre-book all, and from the leaflet it suggests that the former is on Saturdays and the latter Sundays. It does seem an odd way of doing things…

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A; although there is a service available to personalise your own label on a Chivas Regal 12YO or a Chivas Regal 18YO.

My Tour – 24/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Strathisla uses four waters in its mashing, but that isn’t exceptionally interesting. The spirit is piped out to Glenkeith to be casked through a pipe that exits above the tun room, passes straight over the merry little river Isla and away to another pagoda roof towards the centre of the town. The warehouse visit is the most immersive I experienced short of Glencadam and Bladnoch, but this was a true standard tour.

GENEROSITY:      ** (Two drams (the Chivas Regal 12-year-old to welcome you, then a choice of the Strathisla 12-year-old or the Chivas Regal 18-year-old at the end.))

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      7/10 *s

COMMENT:      I was thoroughly dour when I arrived, having a nervous breakdown about when the bike was going to snap in two. Having been immeasurably positive and proud of my fortitude the day before, the idea that the bike might collapse before I did because of my own shear negligence was hard to take. It had squeaked at me all the way to Keith, and the nearest bike shop wasn’t until Elgin. One of the many helpful things my guide said to me was where I might find the car DIY store in Keith, and after using a little of the product bought there, the bike rode like new. But the tour. Interesting. When you arrive you have Chivas Bros. marketing films rammed pretty forcibly down your throat. I didn’t need to see a lot of pretty Argentinians quaffing Chivas Regal 12-year-old (with ice), nor some Asian archers doing the same. I wanted to know about Strathisla. My guide thankfully plucked me out of the very comfortable lounge area before some unknown had finished waxing lyrical about some obscure blend. It’s a very old distillery, and it shows in the still room whose wooden beams make for a health and safety nightmare. The warehouse visit is one of the best on offer, though: you walk right through the sleeping casks – can even touch them – to The Vault which contains miscellaneous whisky objects – all connected with the most expensive and rare offerings with Chivas Regal on the label. There are some for coronations and some for other extremely old blends – the 100 Cask Selection, for example. There are casks from Glen Grant and even Laphroaig to be seen among the racks. A beautiful distillery and a perfectly pleasant tour which is well worth your while if you are in the area. And you like all the guff that goes with marketing blended whisky.

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