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Duncan Taylor at the Quaich Society

The outstanding Duncan Taylor selection for their Quaich Society tasting.

I owe a few fine whisky orators an apology: ‘neglect’, ‘oversight’, ‘disregard’ – these are just some of the accusations Lucas Dynowiak and Chris Hoban could level at me on account of my blog-based silence concerning their tastings for the St Andrews Quaich Society. First, however, I must beg the forgiveness of Andrew Shand, who visited as far back as October to present some fabulous Duncan Taylor whiskies to we thirsty students.

When Andrew’s father, Euan Shand, took over the whisky business in 2001, single malt Scotch was on the up. Sitting on warehouses full of casks from as far back as the 1930s, with 80-90% of the industry’s distilleries represented on the books, it was ‘a sound move’. Today, Duncan Taylor are one of the more innovative independent bottlers around, boasting a portfolio of not only single casks and small-batch vattings, but a blended whisky and blended malt offerings, too. And onto those now.

We kicked off the evening with a couple of whiskies from the Dimensions range. This in turn is subdivided into two branches: one of whiskies between 10 and 18-years-of-age bottled at 46% with natural colour and no chillfiltration; the second celebrating whiskies which have amassed between 18 to 45 years in cask, bottled at cask strength. Our first two drams were from the former range. Two to four third fill ex-Bourbon casks of Aultmore from 2001 had been vatted together, and the fragrance was fresh yet rich with dominant aromas of banana cream pie, honey and sticky oat bars. Firm and malty on the palate, a grassiness grew into the finish.

Ever since John Glaser and then Dave Broom extolled the virtues of the Glen Elgin make (check out my review of Compass Box’s Glen Elgin-driven Double Single here), I have been drawn to its understated elegance and intensity. This one followed suit with an old sweet shop, sugar syrup and green pear on the nose. Water brought out cherry bakewell tart with a grassy kick. The palate was dryish, gristy, with a Bourbon-y popcorn quality and a curious saltiness.

The following whisky demonstrated the spirit of experimentation Duncan Taylor brings to its business. The Octave range is an ever-changing line-up of whiskies – single malt and, intriguingly, single grain – which have been plucked from the ex-Bourbon beginnings and deposited lovingly into an Octave Sherry cask. This is 1/8 the size of an original Sherry butt and a smaller cask, as Andrew explained, means more oak contact for the spirit with more dramatic oak flavours being absorbed in a shorter space of time. When I first bumped into Andrew at WhiskyLuxe in September, he plied me with an Octave Cardhu, which was stunningly drinkable. On this occasion a 1998 Macduff had been given the Octave treatment. At 55.3%, the nose was deep and luciously rich with a curious gin-like presence: citrus peel and juniper. The palate revealed treacle and gingerbread with dry spice. A powerful offering, a slight astringency let it down.

To continue the theme of doing something that little bit different, dram four was Black Bull blended whisky. A 19th century brand which Duncan Taylor restored to prize-winning glory in 2008 with a bullish 30yo, the standard release is the 12yo in front of us. Comprising 50% malt and 50% grain whiskies, the recipe is blended and then additionally matured. Andrew hinted that there were hopes to launch a Black Bull range, with perhaps an 18yo and even a 21yo. A smoky Black Bull? That could happen, too. On the nose, the 12yo had buttery grain in abundance as well as a vinous, sherried veneer. Mixed berry jam and vanilla sugar emerged with water. To taste, this blew the doors off: fresh and zesty but with real weight, a hint of smoke was followed by fruit peels and vanilla sweetness. Outstanding blending with some characterful raw ingredients.

And finally, a little something for the peat freaks. ’We do a couple of different versions of Big Smoke,’ began Andrew. ‘There’s a 40% one and a 60% release. I thought I’d bring the 60% for you guys.’ Cheers erupted around the room.

For me, Big Smoke was a little underpowered. Pleasant enough on the nose, the tar and creosote aromas yielded too soon to the green herb and olive fragrances. Much like the Black Bull, however, sipping this revealed a restrained sweetness at first before thick peat hove into view. Well balanced indeed.

Andrew’s final surprise saw many donations to the end-of-tasting Raffle: a ticket entitling the winner to a tour and tasting of Duncan Taylor’s facilities in Huntly. A rare treat if the liquids of that October night are anything to go by.

The Committee would like to thank Andrew for making the journey to St Andrews and providing such a thorough, amiable tasting. Judging by how many people came up to me afterwards, asking with an avid gleam in their eye where they might come by some bottles, Duncan Taylor have a committed fan club in the Kingdom of Fife.

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The Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

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The (Really) Good Spirits Co., Glasgow

When plans were first afoot to drop by a few more of Scotland’s excellent whisky shops, I could have had no idea that by the time it came to write about them on the Scotch Odyssey Blog the mood of optimistic malty materialism would have soured to one of grudging destitution.

Whisk(e)y – and this is the honest truth - constitutes my only financial weakness. I don’t own a games console, I don’t buy clothes, I don’t go to concerts more than twice a year or sporting events at all. Yet here I sit, gently shivering in my student flat, more acutely aware than ever before of the dwindling loan money, incredulous at what it costs to be in a position to pour yourself a dram once in a while. Electricity, rent, internet, food, phone: all must take precedence.

Inside the Good Spirits Co.

It was under a cloud of such dark thoughts, on an otherwise spotless Glasgow day, that I ducked into the Good Spirits Co. in the city centre. A few weeks previously I had sent an excited message to Mark Connelly, co-founder of the independent spirits shop, asking for Bourbon or Rye recommendations. His pick was a Noah’s Mill, a brand I had never heard of but which receives rave reviews from what I could glean from a quick traipse across the internet. The batch Mark was so keen on was bottled at 57.15% and would come in at £49. My eyes struggled to ignore the handsome black wax-sealed bottle, but I would have to scan other shelves.

On a single level, just beneath the street, a flight of stone stairs conveys you from the battle royal of Glasgow buses pulling up and roaring off again into the soothing company of fine spirits. I was impressed with its size, a large and long cuboid extending from the door to the far wall, where the only Spanish cedar wood, walk-in humidor in Scotland lurks fragrantly. In whisky shops now, my gaze flicks to particular areas, expecting to see the same brands. Not here. There are some of the usual suspects, but the packaging of independent bottlers enlivens the displays with A. D. Rattray, Hart Brothers and Duncan Taylor well-represented. However, I get the feeling that were I to go back in next month Adelphi, Douglas Laing and Signatory may well have taken their places. Mark told me that his customers are increasingly interested in ‘good spirits’, not ‘the same stuff I have always drank’. This, he says, is especially true with his gins and allowed him to stock different brands of rare or small batch products which would always sell. Gin nudges Scotch for the top seller in the shop.

The impressive selection of world whiskeys section.

The world whisky section is particular impressive also, with two separate offerings from South Africa in the shapes of Bains and Three Ships. From different parts, there is Lark, Mackmyra and a healthy showing from Ireland: Cooley in particular.

As I mentioned before Christmas, my promise to myself and my palate was that no more Scotch would be bought until I had explored one other region first. The Noah’s Mill may have been off-limits, but I was delighted to see a solitary bottle of Four Roses and a legion of Buffalo Trace, both for £26. It would have to be between these two, and Mark made the decision still harder but informing me that the Buffalo Trace was now bottled at 40% abv, but what he had was a consignment of some of the last 45% ers.

It was the Four Roses I ultimately handed over the exquisite counter: a design based around the staves of three Sherry butts with more straightened staves for the counter top. ‘We looked at getting it for the whole floor,’ Mark mused, but then quoted me a three-figure price per square metre and the decision to go with standard wooden flooring looked a sound one.

The Good Spirits Co.'s Living Cask. What Dr Frankenstein was really after, I think.

I was not allowed to leave before having tried their ‘living cask’, a tiny Sherry wood cask which originally held Highland Park and Bunnahabhain but always receives a top-up of something else when the level in the barrel reaches the tap. Batch 4 dribbled into my Glencairn glass and it was rather excellent: coastal with plenty of Sherry fruit and spice on the nose, there were also notes of rich honey and earth – possibly the Ardmore and the Aberfeldy fighting for supremacy. The palate was sublime with red fruits and pale creamy oak leading into plenty of toffee. A second sip revealed an aggressive saltiness and a fizzing sweet cereal quality. £15 will buy you a 20cl bottle and it is certainly worth a look.

With directions to the Chinaski’s Bourbon bar and the Bon Accord lodged in our brains, my friends and I reascended to street level in very good spirits.

 

The Good Spirits Co., 23 Bath Street, Glasgow

0141 258 8427

http://thegoodspiritsco.com

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