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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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Glenmorangie Taghta and Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve

Happy new year, everyone! Welcome back to the Scotch Odyssey Blog although I should warn you, activities will be dialled back down to zero following the next couple of posts.

My circumstances have changed quite dramatically in recent months, changes I only hinted at while recounting my second Scotch Odyssey. I now have a job within the whisky industry, working as brand ambassador for some of my favourite whiskies in a very new location for me: Dubai. The Scotch Odyssey has gone international!

This does create a slight conflict of interest of course when it comes to running an independent whisky blog, one that has been quite critical of the industry and some of what it has gotten up to in recent years. I will not change a word of what I have already written on the blog - I want my reviews and above all my accounts of visits around Scotland to remain available to whoever may wish to begin their own journey to the farthest-flung frontiers of Scotch. However, I won’t be writing any more tasting notes – after this week that is!

I flew back to the UK for Christmas to discover that the tenant who succeeded me in my St Andrews flat had quite a lot of whisky mail piled up by the door. As a thank you to Quercus PR and the team at Cutty Sark, who have both been very generous and communicative with me over the years, I will review the samples they sent. I am putting my connection with a major wine and spirits multinational and my own beloved brands to one side for the next three posts – these are my own words as a whisky fan.

Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve 40% GBP 54.95

The first Glenrothes to be released by brand owners Berry Brothers and Rudd that has been entirely matured in first-fill Sherry.

Colour – Light amber.

Nose – punchy purple fruits at first with plum and date. Then follows the classic dense, rich, faintly draffy maltiness which is the signature for this distillery. Seriously rich and dry Sherry on show with dried cranberries, cherry and raisin together with a musky incence-like note. A touch of new rubber.

Palate – full and dense. A little bit beefy. Spicy with cayenne and coconut. Now prune and red apple emerge with a phenolic underpinning.

Finish – more on dried fruits and vanilla, candied peel and orange oil. Quite fruity malt.

With water everything brightened up a touch, the nose becoming more youthful (muscovado maltiness and citrus). The Sherry reminded me of fruitcake. On the palate, vanilla and almond stepped out and then the fruits. Still with a meaty weight, fruit skins and marzipan rounded everything off. The finish was much the same as the straight sample, perhaps with a touch of clove.

Glenmorangie The Taghta 12,000 bottles for Cask Masters 46% GBP 69.99

A ‘crowd-sourced’ whisky, over the last 18 months Glenmorangie fans have assumed responsibility for this dram. From voting for the liquid (I remember there were three options), to choosing the name, packaging and product launch venue, this has been a very democratic whisky indeed. This whisky has been finished in ex-Manzanilla Sherry casks.

Colour - syrupy full gold.

Nose - wonderfully generous oak notes immediately – natural caramel from Bourbon and a sweet yet drying nuttiness from the Manzanilla. Cadbury Fruit n’ Nut bar as well as chopped dried apricots. Suggestions of the pure pear-rich distillery character behind. Now honey and warm gorse bushes together with almond and buttery spiced pecan.

Palate - nutty and oaky, a clean minerally malt behind. A lovely firm fruitiness follows, perfectly in balance. Orange peel and fudgy malt.

Finish - dry but also richly sweet. Quite chewy oak at the end with golden raisin. Just enough zip in the fruit to emerge from the velvety malt.

Adding water took an already extravagantly good aroma to still greater heights: rich toffee, floral notes, cool nutty grape, heather and silky malt. A soft orange blossom fragrance and then more lifted citrus. A palate of apricot, vanilla and a gentle dry spice from the Sherry. The finish was very well-judged with milk chocolate and sea salt, a touch of sweet orange and vanilla pod. The fruit from the Sherry is plump and delicious. Smooth honey and a hint of cigar conclude.

So…?      I will review the Glenrothes Vintage Reserve very soon, but both it and the Sherry Cask Reserve represent another move to no-age statement releases from BBR, having been innovators in their vintage expressions. The Sherry Cask Reserve is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable malt, both clearly a Glenrothes and clearly from Sherry. Water on both samplings improved it a touch, but for the money there are more exciting Sherry-matured whiskies out there. A Glenfarclas 15yo, for example.

I was quite prepared to pour scorn on the Glenmorangie. On this blog I’ve been less than delighted with Artein and more recently Companta. It is a tribute to this whisky that it got me excited about Glenmorangie again. This is a stupendously good dram, the clarity and quality of the Manzanilla and Bourbon casks that have gone into making this beggars belief. On my first tasting I wasn’t sure I tasted Glenmorangie at all, but such was the excellence of the spirit Dr. Lumsden has created I didn’t care. Second time through, I did detect a few more clues confirming that this malt was made in Tain, and fell even more in love with the nose. I’ve read a few disparaging comments about this whisky that it is ‘simple’ or for ‘beginners’ – whatever your whisky experience, you should be able to appreciate a stunningly well-made and beautifully balanced dram.

Many thanks indeed to Quercus for both samples.

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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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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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X-Years-Gold

The Macallan Gold.

1824. It’s an important number for many reasons: 1) it was at about this time that Scotch whisky production became a licenced operation, after which you either went legit, or went to prison, 2) The Macallan distillery on the banks of the River Spey took out its licence in this year, 3) at one point, it seemed that there may have been 1,824 whiskies in the brand’s core range, and 4) it is the tag now attached to their principle single malt portfolio. In the UK market, 1824 announces The Macallan’s new Gold standard.

Anyone even marginally acquainted with whisky will know that the world’s second most popular Scotch took a risk late last year. Controversial? Misleading? Economically necessary? There are cases to be made under either heading, and – via a shameful pun – therein lies the problem. Macallan want to carry on shifting cases of mature malt whisky, but they have a finite amount of spirit which qualifies, despite 2009′s mammoth expansion.

To moisten as many new lips in emerging markets – especially those in the Far East – as possible, the brand have decided to prioritise more aged whisky in those territories and have gambled on their established strongholds, such as the UK, taking to their bosoms NAS – or Non-Age Statement – expressions.

The Macallan 10yo, a formative single malt encounter for me, has gone, along with its 12yo and 15yo stablemates. The Fine Oak range? Gone, too. If you want a Macallan with a number on it below ’18′, you are going to have to buy an expensive air ticket. Financing a flight to the Far East is as nothing, however, compared with the ‘oligarch’ prices demanded of the half-century bottlings The Macallan can present with much fanfare and notable frequency. If so much mature stock wasn’t being squeezed into Lalique decanters maybe – but Chris over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog can debate the economics more effectively than I can here. The question is: what medal do I give the new Gold?

The Macallan Gold 40% vol. £35.95

Colour – erm… gold. Maybe with impressions of bruised apple.

Nose – grippy clean and tight oak at first with bruised banana and granola bar, backed up by vanilla fudge. Orange and peach squash drink, full and biscuity oak with fat, caramel-accented malt towards the top. Muscovado sugar and a dark fruitiness. With time, the Sherry oak makes its presence felt with golden raisin.

Palate – chocolate-y breakfast cereal, before some burnt fruitcake and dark malt come in. Big and pleasantly drying, with hints of candied orange peel.

Finish – semi-rich with brown sugar and baking spice from the oak. Brief, however, with a dash of green apple peel and hints of sticky toffee pudding.

With water, extra sweetness was found on the nose with a touch of lemon and the return of the vanilla. Marmite and fruitscones was an unexpected aroma. Flapjack, tilled fields and autumn leaves suggested a more typical, buxom Speyside panorama. The palate became grippier, with malt and oak leading the charge. Red apple and cinnamon appeared. Brown sugar dominated the finish once again with added pot ale flavours and vanilla-driven creaminess. The oak hovers into view, bringing sultana and Sherry sweetness, before it disappears.

So…?

I rather liked this. As a well-mannered Speyside with some body and charm, it leaves little room for improvement. However, as the flagship expression from the most gentrified of single malts? For £36? While undoubtedly well-constructed, I would still have the old Sherry Oak 10yo on the shelf, which wasn’t afraid to thrust its head into those bolder territories to which this whisky alludes but never really treads. It supplies a fleeting glimpse of this distillery’s pedigree and treasures, but it has the feeling of Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’: prodigious wares and finery being tugged out of shot.

By happy accident, however, I discovered it makes a damn fine Old-Fashioned. Or Gold-Fashioned, if you will.

The Macallan Gold-Fashioned

The Macallan Gold-Fashioned.

50 ml The Macallan Gold

2 healthy dashes Angostura Bitters

3 dashes Bitter Truth orange bitters

splash of soda water

1 barspoon brown sugar

Put the bitters, sugar and soda into a tumbler and whisk until you have a paste. Add 3-4 ice cubes and 25ml of the whisky. Stir. A lot. Add another 3-4 ice cubes and the rest of the whisky. Stir some more. Garnish with a slice of orange peel and cherry.

The result? A cocktail that is dangerously drinkable, with a leathery richness and strong cereal quality providing the necessary firmness. The Sherry hints from the single malt conspire with the orange bitters for a lovely sweet finale.

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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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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 1

I don’t go in for hero worship. Irrespective of how many Tours de France they have won, how many people they have performed in front of or how many Michelin stars they hold, they are still human beings beneath all the Lyrca, cymbals and cauliflower foam. However, at a recent event held within the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE), Edinburgh, I must confess that I could finally empathise a little with Beatle Mania, or whatever it is all those teenage girls succomb to whenever anyone mentions Justin Bieber.

The master blenders and ISC panel.

Together with Chrises Hoban and ‘The Tiger’ White from Edinburgh Whisky Blog, I milled about in the refurbished SWE shop together with many other bright-eyed, excited members of the public for the fun, games and knowledge to begin. For the first time in 17 years, the International Spirit Challenge has devolved from London to Edinburgh. This, to me, seems only right for various coincidences of geography and whisky-producing heritage. As a further innovation, the panel agreed to meet with whisky fans for one night only, talking ticket-holders through one of their bottlings before a whisky and food matching presentation with Whyte & MacKay’s Richard Paterson (or R-Patz as C. Hoban insisted on calling him), to conclude with a Q&A. Courtesy of Mr Hoban, I learnt of the event just in time. Another arrangement for which I am deeply grateful comes courtesy of Mr Hoban as well, and that was permission to crash on his sofa afterwards.

Industry legend John Ramsay kicked off the evening, introducing the decorated individuals to the waiting throng. As they stepped out of the wings onto the new mezzanine floor, my easily-suggestible mind confected a Juliet-on-the-balcony comparison, but I was also struck by how – in this, a peerless collaboration by the Scotch whisky industry – the people responsible for so many of the smartly-packaged whiskies surrounding us on the shelves should also be in full view. Ramsay’s successor at Edrington, Gordon Motion, was introduced first, followed by Caroline Martin of Diageo, Billy Leighton of Irish Distillers, the great David Stewart who will complete 50 years of service for William Grant and Sons in September, R-Patz, Seichii Koshimizu of Suntory, Tadashi Sakuma from Nikka, Mackmyra’s Angela D’Orazio, and Chris Morris from Woodford Reserve. With head spinning, we were ushered upstairs where the chatting and dramming commenced.

Chris Morris, all the way from Woodford Reserve, Kentucky.

I have described previously the awe inspired by stepping into the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection, but skipping between soaring cabinets of seriously old, seriously rare Scotch whisky – both blended and malt – there was added significance as I contemplated meeting the individuals resposnible for continuing the legacy of those brands which were so well-represented all around me. However, my first port of call was outside of Scotland. Since the beginning of the year my fascination for all things Bourbon has mooched into the kind of territory once upon a time open only to the likes of Lagavulin and The Glenlivet. With a recent pub in my local town boasting Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases – the William Larue Weller expression I had tried a couple of days before – I wanted to learn from one of the masters.

With a big smile and a cheery How-do-you-do? Mr Morris poured me a measure of Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. Though hardly an uncommon Bourbon, even in my less than cosmopolitan drinking circles, to sip and listen to an exposition from the man who makes it trumped all previous tumblers of this rich, spicy and floral whiskey. At 43.2% the spirit spoke eloquently of glorious American oak and six to eight baking Kentucky summers. In fact, that was the analogy Chris used when trying to differentiate Bourbon from Scotch in the maturation stakes: in the rackhouses, the intense heat forces the spirit into and out of the oak, and exacts an Angel’s Share of 7% per annum. Though Woodford goes into barrels at 55%, it comes out again at 63%. Chris revealed that he had even found a cask whose long tenure unnoticed had seen alcohol by volume reach 90%. It was, of course, ‘undrinkable’.

The mashbill for Woodford Reserve is 72% corn, 18% rye from Dakota and 10% malt. Mr Morris revealed that a new expression would be on the market in the US soon, and will eventually make its way to Europe. He has taken batches of fully-matured Woodford, reduced the spirit back down to 55% and put the whiskey back into Chardonnay casks for 6 months to a year. The result is infinitely darker than the standard expression and reviews so far are highly complimentary.

Richard Paterson in suitably rarefied surroundings with the new Cigar Malt from The Dalmore.

I headed over to the Edrington stand where the quietly spoken but forthright Gordon Motion introduced me to the Famous Grouse Wade Decanter. Constructed to celebrate the pre-eminence of Grouse in the UK market for the last 30 years, I found it to be a very gingery, biscuity spirit, with clean cereals and a hit of earthy smoke. I rather liked it, but appreciated the conversation I overheard between Gordon and Charles Maclean regarding his new film star status still more.

I managed to catch The Nose as the last of his consignment of the latest The Dalmore Cigar Malt disappeared. He had just put in an order for a replacement when the MC tapped him on the shoulder – the next stage of the evening had to begin promptly. He just had enough time to tell me that my date of birth and body mass index could provide vital clues as to how a blend personalised for me might taste (and to pose for a photograph) before strutting off upstairs.

The tutored tasting and blenders’ question and answer session would take place next, but that is for another post.

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Highland Park at the Quaich Society

A treat for the Quaich Society: two bottles of Highland Park Earl Magnus.

The art of pillaging has moved on somewhat since the last time an insatiable horde sought the treasures of Orkney. Quaich Society guests were in fact deeply well-mannered as they queued for a welcoming and welcome dram of the Highland Park 12yo to begin the first tasting of the new year. They sensed that riches would come their way without the need for axes or blood-curdling yells, and they were right.

Patsy Christie and David Howe of Maxxium Brands ventured north to St Andrews to introduce the most northerly of Scotland’s single malts. Aided by some multimedia projection, we could appreciate what implications this might have for the whiskies in our Glencairns. Predominating images were of movement: sea and air principally. It is some challenge not to get blown away on Orkney, but Highland Park’s stature has swelled over the years and today it poses dismissively against the gale.

In my tenure at the Society, we have not welcomed a brand which malts a proportion of its own barley. With Highland Park, this affected the style of our tasting profoundly. ‘Orkney is a big part of Highland park,’ David had said, and Patsy produced a bit of the islands themselves forthwith to demonstrate what he meant. With some good-natured flouting of the health and safety laws, this slab of Hobbister Moor peat was ignited and passed around the congregation, a cloud of wraith-like smoke circulating. As it came in my direction, I detected a spent birthday cake candle smell, and a deeper aroma of incence. Placed beneath Highland Park barley for a few hours and this will generate the delicate heathery quality which I found enlivened all of the whiskies on show.

First up was the new make, and one I was desperate to try. I have said elsewhere how much I love this bolshy, raw product and I’m pleased to report that as new makes go, this is up there with Glencadam’s and Glen Garioch’s. It is stunning. On the nose there is orange and lemon, then fabulous buxom barley which blends a creaminess with a lovely, earthy crispness. This leads into a light prickle of sweet smoke.

Full-bodied on the palate, it displays clean and crisp qualities again. Barley sweetness and some honeydew melon. Shortbread and coconut - gently earthy. It really is magically complex.

A revelatory peat moment. My favourite kind of revelatory moments, if I'm honest.

‘When David and I were planning this tasting,’ said Patsy, ‘he asked me whether I wanted to talk about maturation. Of course! I love wood!’ Her impish grin set the Quaich Society a-sniggering but there was more to Patsy’s cask policy lecture than innuendo. With such premium, classically sherried brands as The Macallan and our guest for the evening, Highland Park, owners the Edrington Group had to source the best oak they could. I heard the following detail on Orkney and it was reiterated: the Edrington Group spends more on wood than the rest of the Scotch whisky industry combined. From the Missouri forests, American oak is shipped to Spain, converted into casks, filled with sherry, emptied and returned – whole – to Scotland. They care about what will contain these fine spirits for years to come and have done for sometime, as the recent launch of the 50yo attests.

We could see the results of that excellent new make after a few Orkney summers in these casks with the 18yo. F. Paul Pacult’s opinions may mean nothing to you – and they certainly mean nothing to me – but to his esteemed palate the 18yo is ‘the best spirit in the world’. Fair enough, but I don’t think it is a sufficient basis on which to anchor sales patter. Or maybe I would say that, having always preferred the 12yo. I’m sorry, but it has far more variety and balance than this specimen, which in the past has poured toffee into my nostrils and not much else. It performed admirably on the night, though, and is undoubtedly an impressive dram.

Patsy Christie and a tiny tot of the new Thor. Great things, small packages and whatnot.

A genuine privilege came in the form of the Earl Magnus of which, we were told, none now exist for sale. The character of this 15yo, cask strength individual was nuttier than the 18yo with more vanilla, apple and pear. A dab of water released far more orange and lemon, which, though a fraction peatier, mirrored the profile of the new make closely. The palate delivered with smoke and spice in addition to caramel, red apple and other red fruits.

The final venerable malt was the 21yo which launched itself out of the glass with robust, warm sherry tones. I detected embers in tbe grate, too, continuing the lovely delicacy of peat that the range had supplied hitherto. Red fruits appeared on the palate with a bit of phenolic smoke.

We almost forgot about the 21yo, however, because the normally docile and genial Quaich Society got a bee in its bonnet. The way issues such as ‘chillfiltration’ and ‘artificial colouring’ were hurled back and forth put me in mind of the Houses of Parliament during the Blair years and the words ‘weapons of mass destruction’. They would not give an inch. HP is chillfiltered, but only a little bit, it would appear. They don’t colour at all. Patsy, a whisky nerd up there with the most obsessive, cited research conducted by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute which said that chillfiltration had no effect – zero, nada – on the flavour profile of a whisky. I don’t know what to believe anymore, as I struggle to credit that the residue left on the edges of the glass after a single cask Glenfarclas has no impact on mouthfeel or the behaviour of the malt in your mouth. Never having had the opportunity of tasting the same malt chillfiltered and not, I cannot compare. If regulations are so strict about what you put into whisky, however, I think we need a little more guidance on what is taken out.

Patsy and David evaded the jabs and thrusts of the Quaich Soc’ers with composed, honest answers. Even a loaded comment about the calibre of cask selection and what might make its way into Famous Grouse would not provoke them. They received a raucous round of applause for their efforts, and I would like to thank both of them for bringing their expertise and excellent whiskies along to us. Maybe a few more minis of Thor for next time, though?

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Highland Park

It rather took me by surprise; seemingly jumping out of nowhere after my latest gruelling climb. It was a pleasant surprise, though.

It rather took me by surprise; seemingly jumping out of nowhere after my latest gruelling climb. It was a pleasant surprise, though.

Holm Road, Kirwall, Orkney, KW15 1SU, 01856 874619. Edrington Group. www.highlandpark.co.uk

There were no issues with aggressive germination on the day I visited: it was freezing!

There were no issues with aggressive germination on the day I visited: it was freezing!

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      I was expecting to see some pagodas down in the centre of the town so was rather surprised when I turned my head to the right and there they were: the twin kilns of Highland Park, one of which was smoking merrily away. From the warehouses there is a brilliant view to the soft, rolling hills to the north and west, while the harbour is visible from the road outside the distillery. Highland Park is on its own hill, surrounded on its northern side by housing estates. Kirkwall itself is a bit of a walk away.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below. Incredible!

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £35. An in-depth tour with a senior guide. It takes two hours and there are four whiskies to sample in the tasting room or the 12, 15, 18 and 25YOs. Transport is also provided: even if your staying in the hotel next door they will provide a taxi to take you and bring you back!

‘Magnus Eunson Tour’: £75. Named after the founder of the distillery, this is equally in-depth and you are taken by the manager around the distillery to areas usually off-limits. You taste all the whiskies as in the Connoisseur Tour with the addition of the 30 and 40YOs. You are given a certificate and a the distillery book, which retails for £25 normally. Again, transport is laid on and if you book the tour, only you and other members of your party will be taken round.

‘Silent Season Tour’: £5. The Highland Park silent season is throughout June, July and August. You watch the film and take the tour, if possible. At the end their is a taste of the 12 and 18YOs.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:     The Hjarta caught my eye, a cask strength 12YO available only in the distillery shop and Scandinavia, £67. The remaining two distillery-exclusives are also cask strength 12yos: the Saint Magnus (part 2 in the Magnus trilogy), £87, and The Sword. This is a version principally for Taiwan but the visitor centre succeeded in withholding a few cases for visitors, £62.

My Tour – 04/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      ***

Notes:      Together with Bowmore, the most complete distillery tour to be had, as far as following the process is concerned: floor maltings, to the kiln, to the mash tun, washbacks, stills and finally into the warehouse. Tremendous. It has been making whisky on the same site since its inception in 1798. They have five malting floors and the figure I was given is that it is 2.5 times more expensive to oversea the malting of your own barley than it is to buy it in. This barley comes from Black Isle way, the barley on Orkney neither the right variety nor in the correct quantities. They smoke the barley over their peat for 16 – 20 hours and finish the drying process over coke for a maximum of 20 hours. Casks can be used up to four times – they must be good, then.

Ah! Warmth! And my first taste of how those famously smoky whiskies attain their character. A very special moment.

Ah! Warmth! And my first taste of how those famously smoky whiskies attain their character. A very special moment.

GENEROSITY:      * (2 drams: the 12YO and the 15YO. Only one star because 2 into 6 makes three: spot on generous.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      9/10 *s

COMMENT:      It may have rained all the while I was on it, but Orkney is a very special place. I don’t know who said it was flat, though. I got over the last big hill and suddenly there was Kirkwall. I began scanning for pagoda rooves down in the town and was startled out of my wet skin when they appeared right in front of me. It was very special free-wheeling in beneath that wrought-iron name sign. The tour was with Dagmar, a lovely young Danish woman (they’re all from the Viking lands up there). She knew the distillery supremely well, and plenty of anecdotes about the distillery’s history. That Magnus Eunson sounds like quite a character – hiding his casks from the excisemen under shrouds in the church so when they went looking for them all they found were “coffins” and a grieving community. Genius. The history of the place is self-evident. The stonemasonry is exquisite and speaks of age. The floor maltings were amazing to see after so many videos and explanations. Dagmar said that lots of people say afterwards that their understanding was improved by having visited. I entirely see why: when it is there in front of you and not some effort of the imagination, of course it is easy to comprehend. The reason distilleries all give for abandoning malting on-site is cost, and when you hear that it is 2.5 times more expensive to malt your own than buy your malt in, you can see what they mean. Highland park carry on regardless and the visitor benefits as a result. The kiln was fantastic, too, and not just because I was shivering to death. One firing is done using  their uniquely heathery peat from Hobbister Moor (no trees on Orkney, remember) and the second using coke. On the way round I wondered what sort of details the more expensive tours go in to if they declare themsleves to be in-depth. All questions were answered on the standard tour before I had so much as conceived them. The warehouse was a stand-out section. They have the most dedicated wood policy in the industry – £2 million a year on casks and wood management. This is more than the rest of the industry combined. This was the first I’d heard of it. When it comes to wood, it is Glenmorangie which toots its horn the loudest. Well, like Glenmorangie, Highland Park has its own forests in America where they harvest the wood, lend them to the Sherry industry, then bring them back to Orkney to mature Highland Park. There are no Bourbon barrels in the place, just American oak seasoned in Europe in addition to European oak. It takes seven years from cutting down the tree to that wood coming into contact with Highland Park spirit. There is a Spanish oak butt and an American oak butt to smell and much to distinguish between them, though both only seasoned with Sherry. There was a Spanish oak cask to nose back in the VC – an ex Ambassador Cask, no less. Again, quite a contrast. The 12YO I knew well when I came to taste it, but as has been the case throughout this tour, they always come across differently when you sip them in-situ. The American oak used in the making of the 15Yo was a startling deviation from what I’m used to: creamier and herbal with warm nettle notes. The next time you sip your 12YO, remember this: when the last batch of 12YO was being put together, the oldest whisky used by the master blender to bring harmony to the vatting was more than 35 years of age. What a tour, and so worth the £6 to get in, the £14 to get there on the ferry, the 20 miles of wet cycling and every one of the previous 700. Spectacular.

The bike (you can see it through the gate) and myself having completed two of the four whisky compass points.

The bike (you can see it through the gate) and myself having completed two of the four whisky compass points.

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The Macallan

A special place in most important respects.

A special place in most important respects.

Easter Elchies, Craigellachie, Morayshire, AB38 9RX, 01340 872280. Edrington Group. www.themacallan.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      This is just a stunning place to put a distillery: at the top of a cliff on one of the inner banks of a Spey meander, looking out towards Benrinnes and other less venerable and whisky-significant mountains.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Experience Tour’: £8. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Precious Tour’: £20. The essential tour of the distillery is exactly the same as for the £8 Experience tour. However, at the end you are taken in to the nosing room where you are given a presentation on nosing and tasting, followed by a chance to do the real thing with some new make, two Sherry Oak expressions and two Fine Oak expressions. These will vary according to the tastes of the participants but range from 12 to 30 years of age.

NB: Tours are restricted to 10 (for both the Experience and Precious tours) and booking is “advisable, if not essential.”

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Not only a distillery-exclusive, but you must have participated on a tour in order to purchase it. A single cask Sherry butt from 1997 (52.3% ABV), £120.

My Tour – 22/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      In a similar way to The Glenlivet, this tour is like an iceberg: most of the rest of the production and its equipment is out of sight. The stills are gorgeous, two spirit to one wash. There are about 20 more elsewhere on the site. This I whispered to one man who casually pondered how they could produce 8 million litres a year from six stills. They have retained – and even made new – wooden washbacks because The Macallan understands the aesthetics of it all. There are very modern, interactive displays, such as a turn-your-own barley mill, scale models and nifty photography at the start and pipework out of which you pull bungs and can nose new make spirit. All good touches, and show a real concern for the education and enjoyment of the visitor. The treatment of the maturation process I don’t think was bettered in any of my other tours.

GENEROSITY:      (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

COMMENT:      A fine tour, with a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide in Jennie. The distillery has only just finished an expansion project and we toured what was called the “dormant” side at the time. The modern entrance to the production site is very clean and effective with good photographs on a loop over several screens to illustrate the process. As romantically as possible. This is a serious lifestyle brand, after all. There are models to provide a more hands-on educational opportunity: especially the grind-your-own hand-turned barley mill. The expansion has seen further washbacks installed made of stainless steel. The ones we saw were brand new wooden ones. Again, the aesthetic is important and they did look very smart. The stillhouse is glorious with the dumpy, squat spirit stills. The Macallan works on a two wash stills to one spirit still ratio and has the finest spirit cut in the industry at just 16% of the second distillation cycle. Glen Garioch’s is the same percentage but I only found that out at Glen Garioch! The warehouse was where things picked up in a big way: a big woody way. The dunnage warehouse was, as always, a delicious atmosphere to inhale. There were five empty casks for us to sniff, too, however: an American barrel, a hogshead, an American oak butt seasoned with Sherry, a Spanish oak butt seasoned with Sherry and a Spanish oak butt, seasoned with Sherry and then filled with Macallan for 12 years. It was fascinating to note the differences, because they were quite marked. The American oak with the Sherry seasoning was the most strikingly magnificent: rich, fruity, but sweet and toffeed. Lurvely. Just the one dram to savour at the end, but it was the standard 10-year-old, which I feel is one of the best young malts on the market. The new warehouses, by the by, won’t win any architectural awards.

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