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Movember – Edinburgh Whisky Blog style

‘I expect Charles Maclean will be there,’ I thought to myself as I power-walked along a drizzly Princes Street in Edinburgh last week. Tiger from Edinburgh Whisky Blog had invited me to a whisky tasting in aid of Movember, a cause close to the blog’s heart with Hoban, Lucas, Turbo and Tiger sprouting a mo’ every November. We would be sampling the rarest and most outlandish bottles they could come by (legitimately) and the venue would be Ruffians Barbers. Whisky and expressive facial hair. Definitely Charlie Maclean territory.

The opening cocktail, courtesy of Solid Liquids.

 

I ducked into the uber-modern though somehow classic decor of Ruffians and grasped my bearings. I’ve passed the Barbers so often on the bus from St Andrews: it’s rich blue exterior promising relaxation and professionalism. What I hadn’t previosuly glimpsed from the X59 was Martin Duffy and Alan Fisher from Solid Liquids hand-carving stainless ice to deposit into giant glass tumblers, nor row upon row of stemmed blenders glasses receiving their measures of precious spirit. If I’m honest I hadn’t spotted Charles Maclean on the premises before, either, but there he was, lending a proprietorial air.

The Edinburgh Whisky boys arrived and the place gradually filled up. Martin pushed one of the tumblers into my hand: a Talisker 10yo infusion, ahed in a tiny oak barrel seasoned with Sherry to which charred pineapple syrup and bitters had been added, finished off with a candied grapefruit peel moustache. Almost simultaneously, I made the acquaintance of Ruffians owner, Ian Fallon. A charming chap, and I wish them luck with the opening of their London shop next month.

A kilted-Hoban and Tweed-bedecked Tiger opened proceedings. Chris explained why we were all there: to get behind the Movember initiative which raises awareness of the No. 1 and 2 most common male-specific cancers: prostate and testicular cancer. From humble beginnings in Australia, the charity has raised millions for research and publicity, aided by a platoon of global moustached-activists.

Tiger and Hoban spreading the word.

Back in Edinburgh, we lathered up with the whiskies, starting with a very special, historical whisky from Chris Hoban’s collection. In June last year, Chris and a select group of other bloggers (not yours truly, sadly) were invited up to Glenfiddich to ‘help’ Grant’s Master Blender, Brian Kinsman, recreate the Stand Fast blend as detailed in William Grant’s own ledger dated June 1912. As Chris pointed out, legislation has changed since Willie Grant’s time and they couldn’t use 2-year-old whisky in their blend but some sensitive nosing and lateral thinking – or maybe chucking a lot of whisky into a measuring cylinder and hoping for the best – resulted in Stand Fast. Never commercially released, Chris had donated his own bottle to delight the crowd. I found this a lovely blend: sharp barley, very rich, firm vanilla tones and a thick carpet of peat smoke.

Tiger admitted that, even with a single cask, he could not match the rarity of Chris’s Stand Fast. The sharp, malty and feisty Glenfarclas from the SMWS took they evening into a burlier direction, one only confirmed with the Sherry-soaked wonders of Karuizawa, Spirit of Asama. I had never experienced this cult Japanese single malt before but Hoban furnished us with a bit of background. Built in the 1950s, its owners wished to make a whisky as close to Scotch – and the Macallan especially – as possible. Small stills, floor maltings, everything about Karuizawa was designed to pile flavours on top of flavours. I liked it a lot.

We were well-stocked with thought-provoking whiskies.

To the final dram of the evening, officially at least, and it was one to put hairs on the chest if not the upper lip. David Sinclair of Diageo bestowed a bottle of Talisker 30yo, for which I for one was deeply grateful. A Special Release from a couple of years back, this was Talisker extruded through a Viscountess’s drawing room: time in cask had added layers of exotic dried fruit, a delicate waxiness and polished oak. The smoky side had relaxed into yesterday’s Russian caravan tea. Just exquisite.

The £10 entry fee had garnered each attendee some Raffle tickets and the prizes had been winking at us all night like quiz machines with an improbably high jackpot. These comprised the contents of EWB’s drinks cabinets: everything from duty free Balblair, Glenfarclas for the Belgian market, new Glenfiddichs and many more whiskies you just can’t find down at your local Tesco. Unfortunately I had to leave for a train, but I’m confident the money rolled in with bountiful donations and big smiles. No one does a charity whisky tasting quite like Edinburgh Whisky Blog. Many thanks to the guys for inviting me, and I wish them luck with their personal sponsorship drives – and the resulting taches.

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The Balvenie Fete

The simple ideas are the best. ‘Why not set up shop in one of Edinburgh’s loveliest squares, commission some extraordinary installation pieces which illustrate our craft-centric approach, notify your Warehouse 24 members and pour them whiskies when they show up?’ The marketing meeting at which The Balvenie Fete took shape may have gone something like this; a brilliant idea which, as St Andrews’ Quaich Society discovered, was impeccably well-executed.

Andrew Forrester is one of our VIPs here in Fife, having delivered a terrific opening tasting for us in September 2012. We had hoped he would be available to repeat the feat but this new and exciting series of events called him away. Being the hospitable fellow he is, we were invited along to the Fete in St Andrews Gardens this weekend for a tasting, some mingling, and a thorough crash course in craft.

Ian MacDonald prepares another hogshead in one of the Stave Domes.

The stupendous Stave Domes – like medium-charred wooden igloos – were the focal points of the festivities: four Domes in total offering dedicated spaces for discussing Balvenie. In the first, the one from where all the noise emanated, was the domain of Ian MacDonald, The Balvenie’s Head Cooper in Dufftown. I lost count of the number of casks he assembled and deconstructed while we were there but if anyone epitomises craft, it is Ian. As Andrew commented, he was using some of the oldest tools known to the industry yet the practiced art of coopering revealed a stunning sensitivity and precision which The Balvenie’s owners, William Grant & Sons, acknowledge is central to the success of their spirit.

A sort of 'from the cask' experience.

Speaking of spirit, to our opening dram - the Balvenie Doublewood – via a decorated Bourbon barrel and a copper ‘dog’, the handiwork of Dennis McBain. Dennis is the only coppersmith in Scotland residing at a distillery and his purview extends to Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie’s stills. For the Fete, he whittled off a couple of long slender copper tubes, just like the ones opportunistic distillery workers of yesteryear would knock up for the purposes of ‘whisky liberation’ in the warehouses.

The venue for our tasting.

Inside one of the Stave Domes, constructed by a creative partner of The Balvenie whose craftsman credentials were impressively underlined, Andrew delivered a breezy, informal tasting for us. On show were the new 12yo Single Barrel, the 14yo Caribbean Cask, the 17yo Doublewood, the 21yo Portwood and the Tun 1401 Batch 8. Andrew threw in some new make for good measure, too. In every dram a little of Ian and his team’s handiwork could be appreciated: the oaky stamp is an ever-present in this Balvenie range, although the nature of that imprint changes in numerous complex and satisfying ways.

With the 12yo Single Barrel that was toffee, banana and shortbread with a deliciously fresh yet creamy and spicy mouthfeel. It was perhaps my favourite of the whole selection, although I adore the rich, gentle muscularity of the 17yo Doublewood and the Tun 1401 delighted with dense, complex oak, leathery malt and superb floral hints. The 21yo Portwood will always rank highly on my list of exquisite drams.

The Balvenie range.

Rosy-cheeked on account of the warmth of Balvenie’s hospitality we stepped out into equally balmy sunshine to savour the whisky bustle. Another dram in hand (I went for a top up of the 12yo Single Barrel) the Quaich Society mingled in the precious autumn sun. Had the team put on a hog roast or similar I may just have camped in St Andrews Square until nightfall, begging for more Balvenie at judicious intervals - I certainly didn’t want to leave this Scotch whisky paradise. I’ve mentioned the hog roast idea to Andrew so we shall see what they can come up with.

Our thanks to Andrew for including us in the Fete’s schedule and we hope to tag along on the next beautifully straightforward Balvenie event. If they can craft another peach of a day, all the better.

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The Blend Bibliography – Isle of Skye

Quietly, consistently, the word spreads. On the blogs especially, between the single malt pangeyrics and cocktail correspondence mention is increasingly made of blended Scotch whisky. And the coverage is informed, open-minded and – heaven forfend – positive.

If the principle barrier to blended appreciation has been, as Casktrength.net put it, ‘ubiquity’ I have come to realise that however recognisable the faces of Scotch blends may be, my familiarity with them is only skin deep. Far from demonstrating discernment, comprehensively passing over entry-level blends exposed a yawning chasm of ignorance for me. How could I claim to know anything about Scotch whisky when the category of Scotch whisky that 90% of the world chooses to drink was entirely alien to me?

Over the past two months platoons of samples have passed under my nose and what an enlightening process it has been. In many cases, the supposedly Plain Janes of the whisky world boast a subtle beauty, blessed with sparkling repartee and disarming charm. In a new feature, I want to focus on some of the blended Scotch whiskies you may have overlooked and detail the histories and personalities; the enterprise and innovation, and finally the flavours at their heart.

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Recently, I returned to Skye in the Scottish Hebrides for a week of walking, gastronomy and whisky. The Waternish peninsula would take care of the former, fine food would be guaranteed at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel and the Three Chimneys, and fortunately – three days prior to leaving for my holiday – I found a contender to satisfy most requirements on the latter front.

Isle of Skye is a blended Scotch under the control of Ian Macleod Distillers. Other notable brands of theirs include Glengoyne and Smokehead while they have recently revitalised Tamdhu Distillery in Speyside. The blend lies at the heart of the business, however, with the recipe ‘in the family’ from the 19th century and acquired by Ian Macleod along with the Isle of Skye name in 1963. The Skye connection is an obvious one: over the course of my week in the Dunvegan area it was almost impossible to move for Macleods and Dunvegan Castle, which we visited on a foul Wednesday morning, is the spiritual home of the Clan. Now based in Edinburgh, courtesy of the Isle of Skye blend the company retains this ancestral bond to the West Coast.

Today’s blend harnesses the honeyed body of Speyside malts and the peated pace of one or two island distillates to good effect. The standard expression is the 8yo, but it is also possible to come across a 12yo and a 21yo as part of the core range. They have even released a 50yo, although stocks are very limited.

The UK and USA remain core markets, but in-roads are being made with the whisky-drinking publics of Ukraine and Russia.

The bottle design takes its cues from the Cuillin Hills – the awe-inspiring geological razor blade which dominates the island’s skyline (or should that be Skyeline). The Cuillins represent one of the longest and most testing ridge walks in the British Isles and their moods alter depending on the time of year and the weather; the 8yo highlights their red russet phase, while at other times the prospect can be a furious, Mordor-like black – alluded to by the 12yo.

When I contacted the company they hinted at a significant new sponsorship agreement to be announced at the beginning of next month. In the past, however, Ian Macleod’s blend has headlined at the 135th Year of the Isle of Skye Highland Games in Portree as well as partnering with the revamped Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh during last summer’s Festival Fringe.

I picked up my bottle of the 8yo at my local Tesco for £17.50 having been surprised by its robust but rounded nature and intriguing fruity depths, discovered in a sample from Master of Malt.

Isle of Skye 8yo 40%

Colour – honey with deep orange tones

Nose – light and crusty peat grafted on to rich, fruity Sherry oak at first. With nose in the glass the grains take the lead and their luscious body, zest and rich vanilla qualities suggest some are older than the stated 8 years. Behind this is impressively sensuous honey and berry fruit hints, as well as caramel made from condensed milk. Jelly sweets, soft grassy smoke and suggestions of cigar wrapper. Rounded and assured.

Palate – rich and peaty textures before honey, redcurrent and plum take matters into sweeter, rounder territory. The grain is predominant throughout but adds lovely, potent and above all clean body. A crackle of spice to close.

Finish – very grain-driven again with fleshy fruit (papaya, mango) and a background of ginger, cinnamon and raisin.

While I might not always agree with him, Jim Murray does write with ardent eloquence on the subject of blended Scotch and he rates this expression very highly indeed. For me, it is a perfect example of a blend that is on the one hand very ‘different’ yet soothingly familiar.

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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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The Macallan 1824 Series

The 1824 Series at the Pompadour by Galvin, Edinburgh.

I suppose my attire told much of the story. One does not simply walk into a Macallan launch event in jeans, a t-shirt and flipflops. On some level, you sense that a little professionalism – a touch of seriousness – is your due to Scotch whisky’s foremost luxury brand. Somehow the suit, the waistcoat, the polished (ahem) brogues are all required if an audience with the spirit of Easter Elchies is to be granted. You won’t pass muster if the packaging isn’t right.

With the Pompadour Restaurant by Galvin, part of the 5* Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh, The Macallan certainly succeeded as far as their packaging was concerned. The new 1824 Series fitted snugly – and beautifully – into a colossal Art Deco sarcophagus of a cocktail cabinet, in front of which two neat and polite bartenders prepared the brace of on-arrival malt whisky cocktails with unhurried efficiency.

Sipping my Amber Glow, I pretended I was mingling with some of the whisky celebrities in the Pompadour room itself. The incongruity of encountering a living, breathing Charles Maclean in the Pompadour - a combination of place and person I had last seen on Ken Loach’s film ’The Angel’s Share’ – threw my composure. Reality and Macallan’s magic dust seemed to have parted company.

The beautiful cocktail station.

Ken Grier, Director of Malts at Edrington, and Peter Sandstrom, Marketing Director of Maxxium UK,  cordially invited us to venture down the rabbit hole. For tonight, colours are flavours.

To provide a bit of background, The Macallan 1824 Series comprises four expressions: Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby. They replace the long-standing 10yo and 12yo in The Macallan age range, together with the Fine Oak expressions up to 18-years-of-age. In the UK market, The Macallan wish to champion the quality of the oak casks they deploy, as well as the dexterity and skill with which their Whisky Maker, Bob Dalgarno, selects the single malt that results irrespective of age. Care and craft – rather than calendars – decide The Macallan.

The Edrington Group who own The Macallan, as well as Highland Park, are proud – justifiably – of the epic and expensive supply chain over which they preside in order to guarantee oak casks fit to mature their spirit. From harvesting the wood to coopering it, loaning it to the Sherry industry, and returning the casks whole to Scotland, the distillery have elected to trumpet their pursuit of excellence in this sector.

Macallan ambassador, Joy Elliot, who presented the new range to us.

My press release states: ‘The casks chosen for the range deliver a gradation of colour from light to dark, with the wood character defining each expression’s flavour, moving from lighter, lemon citrus to richer, dried fruit notes’. At the event, a chart accompanied each whisky on its display stand allowing us to see which industry-recognised colour tint corresponded to the citrus or the dried fruit flavours. In this way, we could see the cross-section of colours/flavours chosen for each expression.

These charts hinted at the kaleidoscope of Macallan characteristics at Dalgarno’s disposal. Why, therefore, settle on only four expressions of them? Why homogenise all of that natural colour variation into a few choice hues? There is another clue in the press release: ‘As the whiskies become darker and richer, so the pool of casks able to deliver this character becomes smaller and rarer’. At the sharp end, this refers to the £120-per-bottle Ruby which showcases the darkest whiskies of the range. Implicitly, the Macallan message is that darker whiskies are rarer whiskies. When priced to coincide with their premium expressions, sold with a strident age-statement such as the 18yo, I fear that the consumer will assume that the darker whiskies are akin to the older expressions in The Macallan stable. ‘But you and I both know that, with a first fill Sherry butt, you can get that depth of colour [ruby] in five years’. The words of Charles Maclean.

Some of the countless glasses ferried about the room on launch night.

I believe in Scotch whisky using its limited assets intelligently, but – to build an analogy out of Macallan ambassador Joy Elliot’s recent experience at a bi-partite London event – it strikes me that there are two messages circulating around The Macallan brand at the moment. When Dalgarno is quoted as saying: ‘the key thought in this range is that a great single malt doesn’t need to be a 30 years old to taste like a 30 year old’, that rather begs the question of why The Macallan 30yo needs to be 30-years-old. When Ken Grier talks about ‘challeng[ing] perceptions about bottling at arbitrary ages’, I agree with him. However, I would also suggest that he has been hoisted by his own petard, given that the £860 price tag demanded for the Fine Oak 30yo (Master of Malt) is anything but arbitrary.

The whiskies ought to be the star subjects of this post, however, but sadly they cannot overcome the marketing speak. I rate the Gold quite favourably (see here), but on the night I found the Amber to be disappointingly inconsistent. Occasionally dazzling on the nose, the palate yielded a big oak grip with final suggestions of marmalade, but little else.

The Sienna was, I must confess, superb. Essentially a combining of Gold/Amber styles of spirit with richer Ruby-esque liquid, the abundance of spice (especially a seductive sandalwood), fruit and vanilla on the nose, together with the sweetly velvety mouthfeel which allied insistent grape and dried fruits with honey, vanilla and bold barley hit the brief. ‘Persistent yet not overpowering’ sums it up nicely. At £66, though, I will need a strong Macallan craving to make the purchase.

The Ruby confused and disappointed in equal measure. It was at this point that Ken Grier chaired the age debate, fending off Charles Maclean, Vince Fusaro and Darroch Ramsay who all took exception to the £120 asking price. As the pinnacle of the range, the embodiment of the European oak narrative, it simply did not have the depth, finesse or richness I was expecting. Some pleasing autumn woodland notes, as well as aromas of chocolate truffles and candied orange emerged, but I longed for the old Sherry Oak 10yo on the palate. Rum and raisin ice cream could best sum it up. Why, I asked Chris Hoban on the night, why would you not buy three bottles of Aberlour a’Bunadh instead?

I sped away from The Caledonian to catch my train north, my brogues pinching slightly and my waistcoat uncomfortably constraining. The look had been achieved, but with one or two niggling drawbacks.

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The Mon-Stramash

A Weekend of Whisky with a Difference

Full credit must go to anybody with sufficient passion and organisational nouse to get a whisky festival off the ground and into the congested air space of dramming jamborees. Little short of knighthoods beckon for those singular people who achieved such success first time around that they are back for a second offering.

Darroch Ramsay and Scott Martin are not your average whisky enthusiasts, and their Whisky Stramash – to be held once again in The Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh – is not your average whisky jolly. I was fortunate enough to bump into these straight-talking Glaswegians at the Edinburgh Whisky Blog birthday in February 2012 when their early summer event still precipitated some anxiety. However, with impressive careers working front of house and behind the scenes for many decorated Scotch whisky brands, they boasted the expertise – not to mention wit – to deliver two days of high-octane, multi-sensory whisky experiences.

The Stramash returns on Saturday May 25th and Sunday May 26th. The press release describes the ethos behind the event as ‘mad cap pioneering and ridiculous secrecy’. ‘The Stramash combines the opportunity to try a huge array of amazing drams with fantastically eccentric experiences and installations to tantalise the senses’. Staggering in a roughly clockwise direction around a room stuffed with tables covered in whisky the Stramash is not. There was even a murder mystery going on at the Jura stand last year (see Tiger’s review on Edinburgh Whisky Blog here).

Next month, expect Glenfiddich’s portable Warehouse 47 experience, an interactive photo wall from the folks at Deanston Distillery, a pop up speakeasy and cocktails – but as Heston Blumenthal might envisage them. Many more down-the rabbit-hole diversions are guaranteed. How much for this singular and esoteric encounter, you ask? Experience four hours of serious Stramashing for £26 (sessions are from 12pm-4pm and 5pm-9pm on the Saturday, 1pm-5pm on the Sunday).

Tickets are available here: TicketSOUP

More information abounds at www.thewhiskystramash.com as well as on Twitter (@whiskystramash) and Facebook.

I wish Darroch and Scott the very best of luck for their follow-up Stramash and I have every faith that you can expect wonderful whiskies coupled with, of course, winning weirdness.

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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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My Unofficial Whisky Fringe

In the ever-expanding pantheon of whisky festivals, there is one that excites uncommonly rabid fervour: the Whisky Fringe. Between August 3rd and 5th, the eleventh outing of this malt extravaganza, organised by Royal Mile Whiskies, absorbed those whisky fanatics who were fortunate enough to come by a ticket (places are more highly sought-after than for the Tattoo, probably) and induced much envy and grumpiness in those who were not. I was one of the latter, and sat at home with my nose pressed up against the window pane that is Twitter, racked with sorrow.

However, and to atone for such a missed oppportunity in the Scottish capital at its moment of peak creativity and colour, I knew that the door to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society would be open to receive me. During a recent visit to the shows of the Festival Fringe, I dragged a few friends with me to the Society’s Queen Street venue where some stupendous acts awaited me.

The SMWS Queen Street bar.

Whereas the Vaults in Leith is confined to one level, and you sit in your fireside leather armchair speculating upon the thousands of litres of extraordinary Scotch whisky sleeping in casks beneath your feet, Queen Street is the epitome of the town clubroom where whisky is conspicuously consumed rather than purveyed. A gorgeous winding staircase takes you to the third floor bar, with views onto the city’s leafier pockets. I scanned the deep green wall of Society single cask bottlings in search of their newest one - 129.1 to be exact. Society newbie Dan was guided to a #35 by the efficient, friendly bar staff.

We found a group of seats in an adjoining room, beside a display of sample bottles which made for a very evocative stained glass window. Here I decided to become better acquainted with the latest distillery to find itself on the Scotch Malt’s books, the only fully independent distillery on Islay and one of my absolute favourites.

Scotch and sunlight conspiring beautifully.

129.1 2006 60.2% 235 bottles

Nose – creamy barley, brown sugar, pear drops and sharp smoke. This is clean but with a marked aggressive streak. Water made for a richer and darker experience with chocolate-dipped ice cream cone, cider apple and chunky tablet.

Palate – vanilla provides lubrication for clean maltiness and rolls of tobacco-like peat which moves into a finish of strong black tea.

In an attempt to show off the diversity of the Society, and their knack for rooting out the finest truffles of single casks, I went in search of a grain whisky. As we were in Edinburgh, I thought a dram from G1 was in order.

G1.5 1984 60.7% 245 bottles

Nose – buxom. Huge vanilla notes with apple and cinnamon. Leathery and rich with toasted coconut and creamy coconut emerging. A gorgeous spicy dryness. This has spent 24 years in very good wood indeed.

Palate – clinging wood oils, coconut and fat cereal grains. Another hit of spice with a spearmint character. Silky and sublime.

As we sipped, the conversation embraced numerous topics but an overarching theme was perhaps the nature of true passion and interest, where they took us and how pursuing, then enjoying them made us feel. For me, reclining with two whiskies of magnificent quality and personality as well as witty and charming people revived the best of memories while sparking new stories and intrigues. Amongst the sumptuous paraphernalia of the SMWS, flavour and fun returned from the fringes to the centre of my world.

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Bramble Bar, Edinburgh

A Bunker for Blissful Beverages

We’ve all been faced with this particular dilemma, right? How do you flesh out the remainder of the evening following a dinner date with some of the planet’s most important whisk(e)y people? Fortunately, if you happen to be in Edinburgh there is a contingency plan for this all-too-frequent eventuality. It’s called Bramble Bar.

Cocktails have appeared on my radar only recently and I say this to my shame. Mitigating circumstances might stretch to having grown up in a Northumbrian market town where ‘cocktails’ start and finish with the Black Russian. However, reading around the wonderful subject of whisky will inevitably alert you to those individuals for whom the spirit has a creative – rather than simply a consumptive - use value. These people interest me for many reasons, such as their understanding of flavour which is demonstrated in contexts and for purposes entirely different from mine. They can also champion whisky’s versatility and bash the whisky-drinking Bible in new ways, attracting new drinkers to the spirit. Mostly, though, they extend the stories and characters of these brilliant drinks, combining flavours and personalities to serve something not only tasty but unique and theatrical. A good cocktail, in its inception and execution, is just like a good single malt or Bourbon.

The Affinity Cocktail.

From what I had read about Bramble Bar previously (look no further than the fabulous feature written by Chris at Edinburgh Whisky Blog), I was expecting a very good cocktail indeed. Chris Hoban, Chris White and I tripped down the steps from Queen Street – a result of the low mood lighting, I assure you, and not our whisky encounters from earlier in the night. The space is snug, white-wash, with exposed stone on walls and floor. Lighting is, as I hinted, sparingly used with the dark bar tucked into the near right-hand corner. The array of drinks looked to be selective and towards the higher end: there was even a Kilchoman on the deep shelves. We deposited bags and ourselves on the yielding, plush bench running along the same wall as the bar and began our tab. To kick off? Three Affinity Cocktails.

The story behind the Affinity is a great one, combining ancient Scotch whisky know-how and techniques from the dawn of cocktails with a modern serve and a climate of inquisitiveness with respect to single malt. Bramble teamed up with Glenmorangie to re-cask their 10yo with vermouth and Byrhh (red wine and quinine) in tiny, 5 litre barrels. These have been ‘maturing’, or ‘marrying’, for a number of months now to meld the raw ingredients and allow the mixture to take on some of that oaky sweetness and structure.

Our Affinities came in a little wax-sealed bottle, with a chilled martini glass complete with cherry. Orange zest came separately. Sipping immediately, the cocktail was rich, sticky and deep, with a mulled wine flavour. Ripping the zest and placing in the drink transformed it, with the oily citrus pulling out some comparable fresh flavours from the Glenmorangie spirit underneath. A stunning, easy-drinking confection.

The Affinity Cocktail with progress made.

With those dispatched, but not before the empty bottles had caught the appreciative eye of a neighbouring drinker who was graciously enlightened by Hoban, thoughts turned to a successor and I grabbed the menu. Much like the illumination, this was a minimalistic list but I realise that – like a really top restaurant – this is no bad thing. Focusing on a few choice morsels and doing them exceedingly well is better than a melee of options. The Affinity had taken great strides to converting me on the whisky-based cocktail issue, having been unsure before, and I hazarded Bramble’s Butter-Scotch Cocktail.

When the drink arrived, accoutrements were a good deal more conventional than with the Affinity, with glassware restricted to the glass itself and the deep orange liquid inside it. The mixologist had put together butter-washed Monkey Shoulder, aperol, Oloroso sherry, vanilla sugar, ginger jam and Peychaud’s bitters. The result was one of the most delicious, soothing, invigorating, thought-provoking, try-this liquids I have ever had. Chris and Chris duly obliged and agreed it was rather special. The high-strength of the whisky had been tamed, with respect to mouthfeel, by the butter-washing process and the fruits, zests and sweetness could cascade lazily on top of one another – like cheesecake mix being poured from the bowl to the tin – on the palate. The whole package was like the FC Barcelona midfield: an operation of supreme slickness, simplicity and quality.

I will be back at Bramble when I am next in Edinburgh to range around their menu which may be the highest complement I have paid in this review so far. I trust the brains who have conceived these drinks and I am amazed by the skill with which they are put together before you. I don’t care what the base spirit it is; the flavour is all I’m bothered about.

Bramble Bar & Lounge, 16A Queen Street, Edinburgh 0131 226 6343

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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 2

Fruitcake, Frivolity, and Figs

A fraction over a week ago I was to be found skipping through the streets of Edinburgh with Chris Hoban, ducking into coffee shops and chocolateries, trying to recover a sense of our own humanity. Events which took place a larger fraction over a week ago explain why.

John Ramsay marshalling the Q&A.

With our whisky ration cards long since frittered away in various corners of the Scotch Whisky Experience, a halt was called to the Master Blender Meet-and-Greet. I just had enough time to return Chris’ measure of Johnnie Walker Platinum (full and voluptuous with no small amount of smoke and plenty of coconut-laden grains) to him before we were herded up yet more stairs.

I had long since began to suspect my legs, uncertain as to whether they were working with me or against me, but the room into which we plodded revived my spirits. A vaulted ceiling allowed plenty of the last of the Edinburgh light in, and a striking stained glass window at the far end reminded all guests of the route by which those whiskies we had tasted already that evening had arrived beneath the noses of the master blenders, before they passed them along to us. The blenders themselves were sat along the high table to face the room. Only Richard Paterson, however, got to his feet. The show must go on.

In our glasses panted the juicy, dark and rich beauty that is The Dalmore King Alexander III. As chance would have it, this was the whisky I ordered following my first tour of the Experience, poured by Mr Hoban if memory serves. Paterson wanted to unlock the full spectrum of this immensely complicated whisky, which had seen the inside of six different specimens of cask before its tasteful glass bottle with silver embossing, via strong black coffee, fruitcake and dark chocolate. In a performance that blended at least six potent characterstics of its own to match the whisky, ranging from the ebullient to the outrageous, Paterson encouraged us to approach a single malt like never before. We were discouraged from following his lead, however, and hurling the first measure onto the carpet.

The Dalmore food matching tasting, minus the coffee.

‘Mm mm mmmm… Mm mm mmmm… Mmm Mmm MMMMMMMMMM. And swallow,’ he urged, holding the spirit on his palate for a tingling age. Then chocolate followed fruitcake which followed coffee in rapid fire ingestion. I wasn’t convinced. I don’t view the addition of food to a dram as ‘messing around’ but I have yet to come upon the right combination. Though at many turns in his lecture Paterson had the room gasping in disbelief, my scepticism for the food matching exercise could not be dispelled.

Tutored tasting over, Master of Ceremonies for the final portion of what had been a joyous, insightful evening so far, John Ramsay, took the microphone to the audience. The first question probed the panel with regards to their favoured drinks, a fairly uncontroversial line of inquiry one would have thought, until Paterson rebuffed Caroline Martin for pinning her colours to the Johnnie Walker mast. The Whyte and MacKay man paid tribute to David Stewart, and the Balvenie 21yo Port Wood in particular as a whisky of stupendous interest and beauty.

A lady on our table wanted to know next how the master blenders could keep track of the multitude of flavours they encountered on an hourly, never mind daily, basis. Could they offer any tips, she asked, for improving our own olfactory skills? Gordon Motion fielded the debate, asking the questioner how many windows she had in her flat. After a brief flurry of arithmetic an answer was provided. ‘Now how did you go about counting those windows?’ Motion asked. The lady replied that she could see them in her mind’s eye. ‘I do the same thing,’ said Gordon, ‘I have a set of images for certain flavours. For example, peaches will always remind me of a holiday in France when I was young and we were given a bowl of peaches by the roadside.’

As anyone who has read my collaborationwith Keith Wood on Whisky Emporium a little over a year ago will know, this is precisely what fascinates me most about personal encounters with whisky. My hand shot up when the ‘last question’ call came. What, I wanted to know, was the most powerful moment the panel could remember in which they were transported back to an earlier sensory memory when tasting whisky?

Richard Paterson regaling the room.

Chris Morris answered first, stating that the strongest impressions he can receive from nosing Bourbon is of the rickhouses at Woodford Reserve. ‘That’s warehouses for the rest of us,’ interposed Ramsay. David Stewart’s fifty-plus years around the spirit could flag up no particular instance, although he spoke with quiet pleasure of his apprenticeship with single malt Scotch whisky. Angela D’Orazio’s testimony came directly from the heart as she described peat-cutting on Islay. In addition to the peats, Angela noticed the little wild flowers that grew on the bog, and when she had a sip of Islay whisky later, echoes of those floral characters surged back to her.

Caroline Martin focused on ‘lightbulb moments’ in connection with the distilleries she works for. The instant someone told her that Clynelish was a waxy spirit, manipulating it and understanding it became a far easier task. A childhood growing up in Coleraine, near to the Bushmills distillery, abided with Billy Leighton. When going to school or playing with friends, ever-present was ’this smell’. Entering the industry later on, certain Irish whiskeys could successfully evoke that formative atmosphere. Gordon Motion, whose point about the peaches had inspired my question in the first place, related to us a nosing session in which a particular spirit yielded with irresistible potency the garden centre at B&Q. ’Fencing panels was all I could think of,’ he said, ‘but I couldn’t say that, it sounded stupid.’ But a fellow taster noted ‘tarry wood’ in the same sample, and Gordon was galvanised to supply his tasting note. ‘Just write down what you smell,’ he urged us.

The Japanese blenders had been silent for the majority of the questioning, but Koshimizu-san accepted the microphone. He described his experiences in Japanese, and his translator assisted afterwards. The result was a statement of gentle, thoughtful brilliance. In his day-to-day encounters with whisky, every so often a sample will radiate the aroma of figs. Koshimizu-san has not eaten a fig in the last fifty years, not since one particular day at his grandmother’s house where she always had an abundance of the fruit. Nevertheless, that single flavour – when discovered – reconstructs that house, that person and that moment. ‘It is as if time has vanished,’ said the translator.

John Ramsay concluded the evening and told us of how his days in the maltings when he first started with Edrington assisted him as master blender as, for one distillery, the re-occurrence of that green malt aroma signalled that the spirit was on track. Several rounds of applause later, we all had to sadly make tracks of our own. The master blenders had been supremely generous with their time, but the 9am start and hundreds of whiskies looked to have taken their toll by the end. Outside, while raffle winners collected their bottles, a line for the lift formed involving some of the whisky world’s most significant and talented noses and palates who were all deservedly heading to their hotel rooms. For Chris, Chris and I, however, we were off to Bramble Bar, but that will have to wait for another post.

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