Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

Today I conclude my run-through of the different Scotches sent my way before Christmas. This pair could not be more different: one of the smokiest single malts on the planet, and an elderly, genteel blend.

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

The original Supernova from 2010 was peated to over 100ppm and caused quite a stir. This new vintage was launched with some rather exclusive blogger miniatures, some of which may or may not have ended up on auction sites… Mine was a common-or-garden clear glass affair with a typed label so no windfall for James…

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

Nose – remarkable focus and angularity - like a cubist piece, blocks of crackly peat meet blocks of lemon sherbet and blocks of creamy American oak (is there an Ardbeg that doesn’t ooze American oak these days?). That quintessentially Ardbeggian oily sheepiness. Toasted hazelnut and salted caramel. Very good indeed.

Palate – dry, hugely phenolic. Spreads steadily over the tongue with a barbecue intensity. A pillar of dense black peat, spinning gently. A hint of dark chocolate, seashells and seaweed.

Finish – peat (obvs) with flecks of ginger. Lightens gradually to a tasty caramel oakiness. Crushed peat, dry peat, peat a thousand ways. Buttery, kippery, seemingly endless.

Adding water reduced the cubist effect of the nose, although it remained powerful. A fuller fruitiness was on display with banana and apple. Youthful but attractive. Marine-like notes and lemon. The palate revealed smooth apple and pear, an IPA hoppiness, and spicier, sweeter peat. Still sharp. Chilli pepper heat and charred ribs. The chilli heat continues into the finish with an oaky creaminess and thick, ashy peat.

Cutty Sark 33YO 41.7% 3,456 bottles GBP 650

An Art Deco blend according to the press release, harking back to the 1920s and 30s when Cutty started to make in-roads on the American market.  This is the oldest blend ever released under the Cutty Sark label, put together by Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell.

Colour – dark honey amber

Nose – initial notes of coconut, egg custard and an epic creaminess. Further in, that creaminess is both Chantilly and patissiere. Then ripe warm apricot but also a firmness and brightness at the edges where a strange but attractive rose and carbolic soap scentedness lies. The super-sweet grains relax and out steps honey-drizzled peaches with lime zest. Passion fruit, now pineapple syrup. Now and again some Bourbon oak spiciness. Warm apple pie with time and clotted cream. Pain d’Epices syrup on raspberries.

Palate - velvety spice and creamy coconut, plenty of presence. Cinnamon, liquorice root and then passion fruit again. Black cherry in the background. Thick but not heavy, there is some seriously good wood gone into this: warmth and spicy sweetness. Maple syrup.

Finish - creamy with vanilla essence but at the core it is surprisingly firm. Creme caramel, toffee apple. A slight tartness develops with lime and rosehip. Cinnamon biscuits.

So…?       I heap praise on a Glenmorangie, having been a little sceptical in the past, and now I must be a little critical of its sister distillery, having been supremely fond of just about everything it’s released of late. I have not tasted the previous two Supernova releases so cannot compare it to earlier efforts, but I have enjoyed a couple of Octomores, its arch-rival. The hyper-peated version of Bruichladdich combines its dense, mossy smoke with a lovely fat, cereal-driven sweetness. Though young, it feels complete. The SN2014 unfortunately did not feel complete; while there were many tasty and exciting dimensions to it, there wasn’t enough that was exceptional. It is a very good, very smoky whisky, but does not justify the price tag in my opinion.

On to the Cutty Sark. Blended Scotch, you say? Had I been told it was a blended grain I’d have believed it. When I first sample it, in a cold Northumbrian bedroom over Christmas, the slight chill pulled out the grain components to the exclusion of all else. No matter, the grains that have gone into this are of the very highest calibre, nearly on a par with a certain 38YO Invergordon bottled by Compass Box a few years ago. Tasting it again at Dubai room temperature, I could at last detect some malt influence but the grains were still the stars, testament to great skill and sensitivity in the blending room to the lighter style that is Cutty. Absolutely outstanding blending and it was a privilege to taste it.

Sincere thanks to Quercus for the Ardbeg, and Wendy Harries Jones at Cutty Sark.

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The Glenrothes 2001

‘That’s your local whisky, right?’ During my time at the Road Hole Bar at the Old Course Hotel here in St Andrews, many guests would make this error when I plucked down from the groaning shelves a Glenrothes by way of recommendation. Although there is a Glenrothes 20 miles away from the Old Grey Toon, it cannot lay claim to a 1988 Vintage or a Select Reserve.

Hailing instead from Morayshire in the Speyside whisky region, the Glenrothes distillery pumps out a lot of spirit. Yet despite a prodigious output I had only ever come across an 8yo, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail, prior to their latest vintage landing on my doorstep. The 2001 typifies the unusual channels by which The Glenrothes, as a single malt, enters the market under a proprietary label. Although the Edrington Group, owners of The Macallan and Highland Park, assume responsibility for the distillery’s production (much will go into the company’s blended Scotches, such as Famous Grouse), the branding and distribution fall to London wine and spirit merchants, Berry Bros. & Rudd.

A highly-respected independent bottler in their own right, Berry Bros. have won much acclaim for their approach with The Glenrothes in recent years. Indeed, they have masterminded an encroachment into the duty free market with the Manse Brae collection. These three whiskies do not carry an age statement but showcase the rich, oily but fruity Glenrothes spirit at varying levels – or moods – of maturity.

What of the 2001, though?

The Glenrothes 2001 43% £45

Colour – full gold.

Nose – seriously powerful: the oak is like being hit with a length of 2×4 and the barley has such oily intensity. Shortcrust pastry on top of which is fresh but quite rich and nutty barley as well as a sour apple note in the top ranges, but everything settles into heather honey and lavender. Oak chips introduce spice, especially star anise and sandalwood. Ginger and red fruits come later. Firm and vibrant.

Palate – the malt darkens but layers of spice begin to trickle down. The oak steps in with a mouthcoating grip, then a flash of lemon.

Finish – a complex array of Indian spices melting together. Turmeric. A suggestion of apple cores and natural caramel.

Water accentuated extra fruitiness across nose and palate, with a custard tart note on the nose as well as honeycomb and almond. There was an added fudgey quality to taste before melon and pear freshened the finish.

So…?      I don’t share the opinion of some writers that this is a fresh, delicate whisky. Despite the ex-Bourbon heritage this, for me, is definitely a malt to chew over perhaps after a walk in the woods. I am not complaining, however, and I found it a delight to spend some time with a malt that truly knows what it is about. The Glenrothes 2001 pursues its aims unswervingly and stays true to its character; there are limitations but within those self-imposed parameters you are looking at a very engaging whisky.


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Cutty Sark Storm

A Storm of flavour.

After detailing my first baby steps into whisky blending, I thought I had better review a new release from the professionals. The modern master blender is not content – as I was – with 11ml of whisky boasting a bit of life and character to it; instead, he or she has their mind trained on cases and cases of consistent, distinctive and tasty liquid.

At the turn of the year, adventurous blenders Cutty Sark wanted something with a little more presence and power. They named the result Storm, a delectable maelstrom of older single malts allied to fresh, clean grain spirit.

Cutty Sark Storm 40% vol. £19

Colour – light honey gold.

Nose – clean, medium-bodied and bright with immediate bold cereal sweetness, scented buttery oak, nuts and pineapple. Comice pear and caramel are followed by honey and fruity, fat malt. Browning butter and nutmeg.

Palate – fresh with plenty of pineapple before the rich biscuity oak takes the palate in a drier direction. Flashes of dessicated coconut and dark sugars.

Finish – peaches in syrup – even a hint of treacle at the back. Fruit salad. Slowly drying.

Adding water adversely affected the exuberance of the blend, offering extra honey, leather and spice on the nose with added emphasis on the clean, firm grain whisky. The grain again held sway on the palate with a chunky, sweet cereal body and dryness. A touch of green tobacco smoke fills the nostrils immediately after swallowing. Whereas – undiluted – fruit had led the way into the finish, now there were only notes of Werther’s originals, honey and a dab of lemon pith.

So…?      As with the standard Cutty, the neat nose is a joyful mixture of the fresh and the lively. The Storm adds a few percentage points of richness and more impressive malty boldness, however. Whether it would work with Appletiser, the recommended summer serve according to Jason Craig at Cutty Sark, I have yet to see so intrigued was I to try the blend without any sparkling apple flavour.

When my highball glass and carbonated can of fizzy apple juice arrived in the post, it rather stole the thunder (Storm, thunder – geddit?) of my own Cutty cocktail idea. Why not try this next time you are basking in the summer sunshine: 40ml Cutty Sark, 40ml apple juice, 25ml apricot brandy, 10ml grenadine and 10ml of lemon juice. Shake all ingredients and strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. A lot more work than the official proposition, but I believe it remains true to the creative ethos pushed by the brand just now. Not to mention, it tastes jolly nice!

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The Best of Blends

Revision, I have come to learn, is an exercise in segregation. No matter how often professors bandy about the word ‘holistic’, post-colonial readings of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the crisis in Victorian masculinity as Marxist resistance really ought to be cognitively kept apart. At least, such unholy mixtures seldom earn the better marks in examinations. However, feminist issues in the plays of Middleton persisted in forming unhelpful fusions with sexual subjection in Jane Eyre and I decided it was time for a break, and to muse on the best results of blending.

The pre-eminent panel of master blenders.

In April, I had reconvened with the International Spirits Challenge judges at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience, a body of men and women towards whom I feel something like hero worship. For the second time, these illustrious master blenders – from Scotland, the USA, Japan and Sweden – had kindly agreed to an evening meet-and-greet, despite the demands of assessing some 200 whisky samples during the day. I start to tire after about eight whiskies (and that number decreases concerning new human acquaintances) so my admiration for their effort, energy and wisdom reached precipitous heights.

Brian Kinsman takes us through the SWE 25yo blend.

Prior to roaming the MacIntyre Gallery, we were treated to an on-arrival dram of the 25yo Scotch Whisky Experience blend. Put together by William Grant & Sons’ Brain Kinsman, this lush, mature offering contains whiskies from every shareholding company at the Experience, and commemorates the 25th Anniversary of the venue which is very much Edinburgh’s chief whisky tourism and education facility.

Upstairs, I wished to right a wrong perpetrated in the summer when I had failed to visit Billy Leighton at the Irish Distillers stand. At a given time of day, I am rather fond of Jameson, and at approximately 19:55 on Wednesday April 25th I was deeply impressed by the Jameson Gold Label Reserve. Apple, cinnamon and unctuous honey led the way on the nose, with an abundance of fresh grain. With time, the nose became buttery, with a trace of salt. The palate delivered: a big nectarine and barley punch, before vanilla led me into a drying finish.

Angela D'Orazio with the very special Mackmyra #10.

Billy revealed the economics behind the 100m euro Midleton expansion, which will push capacity up to 60 million litres of alcohol per year. In addition, he told us how crucial cask selection is to Jameson’s success, and that he remains central to cask monitoring, and ensuring no sulphur enters the system. Recent marketing meetings have focused on ‘creating craic’, and the warm, welcoming and loquacious Mr Leighton certainly ensuring there was a surfeit of that at his stand over the course of the evening.

Another omission from the previous Meet the Blenders line-up was Mackmyra. Here I shared in Chris ‘Tiger’ White’s wonderment at Angela D’Orazio’s latest creation, the Mackmyra Special #10. A Swedish exclusive for the time being, this whisky has been part matured in casks that have contained coffee bean-infused spirit: the beans macerated in whisky, casked for two weeks, then turned into a liqueur. I was stunned by the obvious coffee notes on the nose, but also marvelled at the crushed strawberry and fudgey malt character which was equally prominent. Add a glug of this to a short Americano and there can be no complaints.

Next door, I was drawn to the latest Balvenie, the 17yo Doublewood. The expression of the same name but five years its junior is something of a cult, and I was fascinated by this. Oppulent oak and stewed fruits surrounded a candy cane thread of fresh barley sugar for a whisky of admirable richness and engaging liveliness. As I said to Brian Kinsman, this is a whisky for which ‘effortlessness’ is the only adequate descriptor.

The beautifully simple Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition bottle.

Elsewhere, Caroline Martin presented the Johnnie Walker Gold Route, and Gordon Motion’s two bottles of the Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition vanished very quickly indeed. This was the first time I had seen the packaging for this impressive, feisty blend, and very taken with it I was, too.

Finally, the congregated whisky fans appraised The Dalmore Custodian – vibrant orange, vanilla and clove, with the distillery’s classic coffee overtones (although that could have been the last of the Mackmyra sitting in my nostrils), this was a fine final pour. Afterwards, the panel fielded questions from the floor, with one barbed comment concerning the lack of innovation in Scotch when compared with the likes of Mackmyra and the Japanese blends wringing an impassioned defence of Scotch whisky in the 21st century from Richard Paterson. While acknowledging the duty of care he and his colleagues shared regarding the proud heritage of the blended category in Scotland, Richard assured us that every possible permutation of whisky-making that is permitted by legislation is being presently investigated.

Progress and innovation is very much at the forefront of the Scotch priority list in response to committed global competition. John Ramsay, ISC chairman, related something Diageo’s Caroline Martin had said to him over the course of judging the Japanese expressions earlier that day: ‘this is getting a bit scary, John’.

A thoroughly convivial evening confirmed that blended whisky is very much leading the charge for flavour, personality and craft at the moment.

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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 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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The Best Foot Forward

Stride out into the wilds of whisky.

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

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

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

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

A wealth of travelling companions.

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

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

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

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