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March 6, 2012

Nattering about New Make

I have always assumed that, if you are presently occupied in reading this blog, you know that others exist, too. The inkling that the Scotch Odyssey might be anything other than supplementary reading material to the wealth of other passionate and informed sites out there makes me giggle madly. Really, it does. There are so many individuals and dram-adhered duos picking apart the drink and the industry we love so much, with enlightening and often hilarious results, not to read more widely.

But it can be difficult to detect a synergy of opinion, and conceive of a blogging community. Jason Johnstone-Yellin noted just this lack of cohesion, and sought to ally his superb Guid Scotch Drink with other venerable bloggers. The Whisky Round Table was born.

The first I heard of the WRT was in the back of a minivan, bombing down the A9 from Wick in the autumn of 2010, surrounded by seven of its members. I thought it was an excellent idea, and I perused the conversations that were taking place amongst this representative body of the whisky blogging world. It wasn’t just geeky stuff, either. The principle aim is to supply dedicated discussions on all matters involving whisky so that new folk to the drink, should they come across the WRT, can benefit from the combined knowledge and experience of multiple blogs, rather than the views of one or two alone.

Little did I think that I would be invited to the Table, believing my limited access to the whisky industry pulse, minimal samples and junior status would always count against me. Could an obsessive attention to the state of whisky tourism industry in Scotland – and my readiness with a recommendation for a good slice of cake almost anywhere in that country – make the necessary difference? Matt and Karen of Whisky For Everyone thought so, and kindly nominated me.

The March edition of the Whisky Round Table is hosted by the noble knights of the Edinburgh Whisky Blog. Chris and Lucas wanted to know what we all thought of the marketing of non- or partially-aged spirits, either new make or products with just a hint of oak in their character.

Please read the discussion here.

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October 13, 2011

Inver House at the Quaich Society

Between the six of us committee members, my ironing board and some Benromach whisky fudge, we must have succeeded in getting the message across. You cannot go far wrong with the Quaich Society, St Andrews’ whisky tasting club, for a Thursday night of top drawer dramming. When discussing the academic year’s first tasting last week, I’m delighted to say the expression ‘auspicious start’ doesn’t do it justice.

Two vertical tastings, of Old Pulteney and Balblair, proved a popular format.

Lucas, acting Brand Ambassador for Inver House Distillers, provocative co-author of Edinburgh Whisky Blog and new father, arrived with the whiskies a matter of moments before the inundation of whisky anoraks who watched, beady of eye, as the Quaich committee poured out the evening’s chief talking points. That two decidedly premium expressions, in addition to the present entry-level bottlings, from both the Old Pulteney and Balblair stables had materialised successfully got tongues wagging.

Having squeezed as many souls around the tables as was decent, Lucas launched into the serious business of our congregation: the whiskies. He began with the Old Pulteney 12yo, one of my very favourite drams in the age category by merit of its punchy salt and fruit palate and ludicrous drinkability. Next came the 17yo, which Lucas, I must interpret, rather liked. He praised it’s citrusy character, extra smoothness and poise. ‘Going back to the 12yo from this,’ he said, ‘it comes across as a dirty dram.’ However, a few patrons were concerned that their measure of the 17yo might not have been a dirty dram, too. Indeed, the disparity in colour between samples poured from the newly re-packaged batch of 17yo and those hailing from the older bottling was striking. What we had here was batch variation in practice, and a perfect example of why major brands adjust the complexions of their whiskies with the help of spirit caramel to preclude any confusion or suspicion. Lucas assured us that nothing sinister was afoot. Perhaps the brand sparkly new packaging has given the whisky a sun tan.

I won’t speak to much of the 21yo, as I intend to publish tasting notes of my 21st birthday present to myself soon. It’s rich, spicy Sherry notes and deep toffee flavours were a hit with many on our table, however.

Lucas with the newly re-packaged 17yo. A new canister - and also a new hue.

We now turned to Balblair and the fresh face of youth again. I have had the 2000 bottling maybe four times, but never has it had the power to recall the distillery so particularly and thrillingly. The bolshy, jellied citrus fruit notes leapt out at me straight away and for a moment I was standing with Martin by the spirit safe as the low wines began to dribble through, then by the feints receiver. The incredibly dense spiciness and clean barley flavours evoked the malt bins, and my cleated clatter between them to the changing rooms each morning. As the aroma developed my nostrils duped my brain into believing that I was back in the courtyard beside the draff lorry, and then in the mash house itself. I was stunned by the clarity and idiosyncracy of smells which I could identify with the help of the 2000, that within my little wine glass Balblair’s scent-filled nooks and crannies could be rediscovered.

For my thoughts on the Balblair 1989 I would simply direct you to this post of earlier in the year. Suffice it to say that for those who could not be made to swear oaths of fealty  to the Old Pulteney 21yo, this was their champion of the evening and received plenty of plaudits. It was the 1978, however, that made my night.

When Lucas mentioned that column condensers hadn’t made it to Balblair until the early 1980s, my ears pricked up. When he spoke of Sherry maturation my legs began shake. When I raised the glass and inhaled, the rest of my anatomy damn near went into catatonia. Whiskies pushing passed 30 are always difficult to dissect. They have that langorous ease of age which melds all elements of its production and ingredients list into one glorious whole. So it proved with the 1978 as rich dried fruits and deep oak aromas blended with dark, smooth maltiness and a dried floral note. The grip on the palate was mightily impressive and creamy vanillins curled around drying tropical fruits as the finish developed. I adored it. And stole the canister so that its purply handsomeness could commemorate another precious encounter with one of my favourite malts.

Massive thanks are owed to Lucas and Inver House whose generosity and estimation of Quaich Society tastes proved to be most astute. Lucas hinted that anCnoc might merit a tasting all of its own next year… We shall see.

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February 16, 2011

Whisky Folk

An apology with a reservation coming up: I have been something of a wandering whisky soul of late and that has meant not a great deal has been visibly happening on the pages of the Scotch Odyssey Blog. However, general exploration in whisky circles is what this blog has been based upon from the very beginning. I have not been idle.

My inter-semester break from University was more than productively spent, in fact - although I had to make the pragmatic decision to abstain from a stint in Dufftown, Scotland’s ‘Whisky Capital’. NB: ‘Pragmatically’ relates to an absence of ‘Money’. Nevertheless, I read, I tasted, and I arranged a meeting with Top Bloke and ever-increasingly my Malt Guru, Chris Hoban, in Edinburgh. In order of appearance, Dave Broom’s World Atlas of Whisky has been an utter joy to digest (I want more Linkwoods in my life so very very badly); the Glenfarclas 1990 Family Cask lived up to billing and then some, and Chris introduced me to all the best places and all the best people during my afternoon in Auld Reekie.

Whilst I know it isn’t, Chris’s recommendation of Coco Chocolate on Brunstfield Place may have been directed squarely at me. What became very much apparent during the whisky bloggers’ Inver House tour in November, as I jabbed a finger in the direction of notable cafes we were passing, was that I am very fond of cake. Jason and Chris are running with this one, suggesting there could be a supplementary blog in there somewhere. Coco did not disappoint my sweet tooth and the Aztec blend (one of seven hot chocolate mixes they have on the counter for you to select) was one of the most exciting hot frothing mugs of just about anything you can think of I have had for a very long time. The brownies are fairly awesome, too.Scotch Whisky Experience Find Coco Chocolate online here.

With a bar of Organic Dark Chocolate with Organic Earl Gray and Organic Bergamot Oil stashed in my bag, it was to the Scotch Whisky Experience that we repaired for lunch. I did my best to follow the many interesting and complicated things Chris is now involved in as part of the Master of Malt sales team while enjoying a magnificent soup-and-sandwich in the relaxing environs of the Experience’s Amber Restaurant. I grabbed a dram of The Glenlivet 21yo Archive at the bar, scribbled some thoughts down (so reminiscently Glenlivet-y with biscuit, toffee, stewed apple and creamy malt. It was as if I had returned to Ballindalloch), and then we were off again to Robert Graham’s.

Chris ushered me into a little shop on Canongate which I had cycled past twice on the first day of my Odyssey but cannot recollect spotting. Andy, on his employers’ behalf, evidently forgave me as plentiful samples emerged from under the counter and disappeared down my throat. Another former Experience tour guide, Andy has been working at Robert Graham Treasurer for only a few months, but his enthusiasm and professionalism ensured that their product range was as familiar to him as the face of my companion, Mr Hoban. As I sniffed and swallowed, I learnt that the shop’s independent bottlings have done very well for themselves indeed: finding their way in front of Jim Murray and Whisky Magazine, they have been handsomely praised.

With neither camera nor receptacles conducive to tasting, nor the presence of mind to keep track of the whiskies I was sampling, all I can say with confidence was that some of their Islay’s are very interesting and their own-brand labels (provenance highly-classified) were intriguing, too. I really enjoyed one of their Tobermorys, in fact: clean, sweet with a spring onion/shallot quality. Their miniature selection is not massive, but there are some surprises lurking. I had to have a Graham’s-own 5cl sample of Allt a Bhainne, keen as I am to explore the make from this most anonymous of distilleries but with such an extraordinary location. Thank you, Andy, for your knowledge and hospitality. Robert Graham website.St Andrews


By the end of the week I had returned to Whisky Country and student digs. The first Quaich Society tasting of the semester appeared with startling rapidity – so startling that I was late for it. A happy accident as a result was that the first seat I came to following my surreptitious entrance was on the committee table beside our host for the evening, Graeme Broom (a Dave Broom, A Robert Graham, and now a Graeme Broom).

Descending on us thirsty students in the capacity of his personal project, Straight Up Whisky, he had brought along three ‘finished’ whiskies and the wines whose former barrels had been snapped up by the various distillers to complete the maturation of their product. The challenge was to match the three different wines to the whiskies their personalities had helped to ‘finish’. I’ll be quite honest, I was rubbish, but some succeeded in matching Whisky A (Auchentoshan Three Wood) to the Oloroso Sherry; Whisky B Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban) to the Port, and Whisky C (the new Springbank Claret Finish) to the red wine.  Allowing us to debate each pairing first, Graeme would then describe the various processes involved in creating the wine, how materials were then adopted by the whisky industry and finally what impact it was intended to have on the final whisky. I say intended. Healthy debate ensued as to how successful the various finishes were (I don’t remember the Springbank being so expressive) and Graeme gave us some hard facts behind the general lament that there are comparatively few good wine casks out there. The ‘treating’ of American oak within the Spanish Sherry bodegas is a practice I knew about from my visits to The Macallan and Highland Park, is an example of how companies seek to circumvent these barriers.

Heavily-involved in the wine industry and a passionate exponent for those doing things right in the whisky industry, Graeme provided a very refreshing perspective on matters. Details of Straight Up Whisky can be found here.

As I hope I stress often enough, whisky is about the people involved in making, selling and teaching it. Be sure that when I cross paths with the very best ambassadors for the drink, those who devote themselves to providing something distinctive, unique and personal, you will here about it from me.

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