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February 19, 2012

A Mighty Bonny Balblair

If I can put a positive spin on the well-documented delay and the yearning of those connected with Balblair for a facility in which to welcome visitors, it is that a couple of decades were necessary to allow cask no. 2990 to realise its full potential before making it exclusively available to Balblair pilgrims.

In November, I was one such pilgrim to the dinky, delightful distillery on the Wick-Inverness railway line and I discovered said ex-Bourbon hogshead in the new brand home, pride of place. After the blockage in the valve had been cleared, the not so orderly queue of whisky bloggers and journalists could set about disgorging its contents with gay abandon. I defy anyone to hand-fill their own bottle of 19yo single cask Highland whisky with a scowl on their face.

Bottle number 10 bore my signature and joined the phalanx of other dumpy bottles on the bench beside the cask – like puppies plucked from their mother and placed close by. My pedigree pup arrived on my doorstep having received its kennel cough injections (a duty stamp) just before Christmas and I finally got around to opening it as a toast for completing semester 1 of year 2 at university. Here are my (extensive) tasting notes for this gorgeous specimen.

The Balblair distillery-exclusive.

Balblair 1992 DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE SINGLE CASK, 60.9% abv., #2990

Colour – Clean, fresh gold.

Nose – Firm, sharp and gristy with nose above the glass. Thin pale oak lends a daffodil-like floral edge. Cumin, turmeric and a touch of runny peach. Closer to, I get butteriness, seeds and perfume all at the same time. Lemon and lime marmalade. An intriguing note of creme anglaise. The power starts to build: pure pear drops and apple peel. Tropical fruit bon-bons: pineapple and papaya. The lemon and malt are rapier-like. There is quite a masculine scent, like aftershave. With a bit of air and time, there is a flash of coastal aromas then hay and ripe pear, with rich and swet biscuit.

      Water ratchets up the sweetness that little bit more: jellied apple and pear with lime drizzle cake. Biscuity again. The body of the whisky is so Balblair: firm and crisp simultaneously. Almond and yoghurt-coated pinenut. It becomes exceedingly creamy. A hint of banana also confirms its heritage. Intensely fresh with a repeat of that aftershave note. With more time it becomes a true delight: pineapple, toffee tablet and liquorice.

Palate – Full with more of the buttery, toffeed oak. Then there is an astonishing surge of citrussy sweet fruits: apple, passion fruit, pineapple and then more ex-Bourbon cask notes of biscuit and vanilla.

      Water places the sweet malt to the fore, with the fruits surging round and over. Impressions of the mash tun: chunky and aromatic. Vanilla and ‘golden’ cask flavours and these come to direct the occasion. Plenty of guts.

Finish – Fixing, with a building spongecake maltiness and spoonfuls of mascarpone and vanilla cream. Tropical fruits again. Sugar crystals melt on the tongue. Very late spice adds superb balance: the turmeric from the nose.

Water accents the spongecake quality further although there is added complex richness. Lemon mousse, shortbread biscuit maltiness. More of the cask, as on the reduced palate, with creamy sweetness and flecks of toasted spice.

So…?      I adore the breadth of this malt, which if anything has a larger scope than the impeccable 1990 I had at the distillery. This holds the fruit and firm spiciness in balance with the rich creaminess of the oak magnificently. That being said, I had the impression when nosing and tasting it that water might unleash the promising tension of the unreduced spirit. I anticipated still softer fruits and an added richness. It didn’t quite happen. The nose came on a fraction but the Balblair body would not yield and the oak, as good a job as it has done, nudged its way into the picture more than I would have wanted. On the other hand, it is in no way the oak massacre that ensues when water is added to my 1995 Aberlour single cask. When savouring this whisky, it succeeds in exciting me, making me revel in the power of a personable malt. I see again that strking distillery and I allow the spirit to lead me into its obscure, fragrant corners.

The extreme indigenousness of this whisky means that it works in reverse to most other malts. Rather than coming across it and being duly inspired to visit Edderton, Ross-shire, this 1992 expression constitutes your reward for having made the journey. The glorious quality of this whisky, however, means that you will be certain to return.

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October 8, 2011

Aberlour: Warts and All

Welcome to the second instalment of my Aberlour Founder’s Tour review. My justification for cleaving my report in two? So stuffed with glorious details and quirks was the experience itself I worried that with a single post my finger ends might disintegrate before I had related all of the tour’s worthy facets. I covered the relaxed and illuminating investigation of the Aberlour distilling site in my previous post, but today I shall describe our gripping and surprising adventures through the spirit itself.

Middle School science all over again...

In a conference theatre adjoining the Fleming Rooms, and which betrayed the heavy Druidic hand favoured by the marketing department, nosing glasses of suspicious spirit were passed around, the first of which was the foreshot sample. At 67% abv., I couldn’t be certain whether dilution had occurred between spirit safe and our copitas. I doubt it made that much difference in any case.

Below our nostrils was the reason distillers are not exactly OCD about the cleaning of their pipework: a Frankenstein’s monster of a liquid. It certainly smelt somewhat eldritch and Faustian: heavy, metallic cereal notes barged out, with blackcurrant skins underneath and the panicked suggestion of pear drops and apples in the background, as if fleeing from the burning castle. A violent spiciness gripped the nose. Water failed to turn this monster into a princess. Instead the dominant flavour was of intense macerated citrus fruits, creating a thin and cold ambiance. My North American friends recoiled in disgust although I must admit that I was not particularly offended. Maybe I have hung around more low wines and feints receivers than is strictly healthy, but even here I could appreciate malt whisky’s feral beginnings. Yes it was frantically aggressive and uncoordinated, but it could have been much worse, too, for all the microscopic traces of copper sulphate seething within it.

It was with relief, therefore, that we turned to the second sample. At 74% in strength after only half-an-hour’s cautious distilling, we were now exploring Aberlour spirit in its liveliest precocity. Far sweeter and lighter than the foreshots, this offered crisp cereal notes growing to creamy and grassy flavours. Proceedings deepened with a little water, a leafiness appearing together with fruit skins (apple and pear) and a note of emerging caramel which intrigued me no end. Donna, Michele & co. were still unimpressed, however.

Nosing the third cut point reveals a striking trend. If the foreshots were savage and brutal and the new make coherent and vibrant, the feints betrayed the doughty and flaccid death throes of the distilling cycle. Despite its raucous abv. reading of 58%, the tail barely wagged. Notes of banana skin and floor cleaner, followed by firmer, leafy wood notes with water made for a very forgettable spirit. On time, a dimmed floral character developed – something like sunflowers in very late summer – but hardly electrifying. At this juncture in its evolution, the water of life is somewhat stagnant.

The good, the bad and the ugly. But all were appreciated.

Few distillers would have the balls to show there spirit without its make-up on. To so much as come by a nip of the new make – that which will become the single malt output of Distillery X in a few years’ time – is a rare privilege. My American friends dissaproved of the specimens while I was prepared to root out redeeming features; in both cases, however, I’m sure we found the opportunity fascinating. The overall complexion of wash, boiled in copper pot stills, is imperfect, inconsistent and volatile. All the distiller can do with this torrent of flavours as they tumble past him is to snatch at those which meet his requirements.

A truly epic selection, and mighty tasty in more ways than one.

And so to the whiskies themselves, those temperamental juices harvested many years ago and handed over to oak to see what it could make of them.

The first of these was the new make itself, the sample of spirit we had encountered earler when combined with the remainder of the spirit run. At 70% abv., there was an enhanced creaminess over the earlier sample with medium deep fruits and unripe pear lurking quitely in the foreground. The palate revealed leafy, malty notes with more fruitiness. The white chocolate and black fruit chocolate that accompanied it enhanced the creaminess and tamed the alcohol somewhat.

I must admit that at this point I jumped the Good Ship Jonathan. While he described the 18yo as well as the provenance and composition of the four bespoke chocolates gleaming before us, I turned to the golden-coloured contents of the glass on my right. With trembling fingers, I lifted off the stopper cap, brought the glass to my nose with ponderous slowness and… did whatever it is one does when fulfilling destiny.

The latest single cask ex-Bourbon barrel available in Warehouse No. 1 was a 16yo at 54.2% abv. Two years more and 9.1% less than my darling of the previous year. What difference could this make? On the nose this is a heavy and syrupy beast (to my rarefied memory the 14yo was sweet and lithe) with grapeskins (not apples), creamy spice and cardamom (not coconut). I had to make a real effort to quell the accusatory interruptions of that ex-ex-Bourbon, to allow this dram to speak for itself. The alcohol boasted a heady, heavy quality, too, but shifted to reveal an intense grassiness, biscuitiness and – yes – coconut. My golden apples appeared on the palate, together with heaps of caramel and a hint of blackcurrant jam. Creamy fruitiness endured.

‘I’m sorry, Jonathan,’ I piped up. ‘I am following the tasting, it’s just this is the whisky I’ve waited seventeen months to meet.’ Jonathan assured me that this was not a problem and that I should just damn well enjoy myself. 

With the addition of a little water, the nose grew even creamier with Werther’s Original toffees. Coconut leapt out much more readily, giving the delicious impression of hot gorse bushes. Fresh linen appeared, as did more green fruits in the shapes of lime and apple. Thick Glycerine icing sugar – like you would find on a Christmas cake – provided a minty, sugary flavour and there, oh Mamma, there was the Lelandii, the fresh cut pine note from the oak. Marvellous. The oak showed far more boldly on the palate now, in addition to lemon and faintly earthy malt. The ex-Bourbon DNA thrust more forcefully to the surface. The chocolate pairing was less successful, but then this could have been because I had fallen in a swoon.

I know, every blogger has an image of themselves doing this. But that's because it is very very enjoyable.

A word, then, on those other whiskies which would, in any other line-up, inspire eulogies of their own. The 18yo was indeed delightful and worked supremely well with its dark chocolate-coated dried apricot. Gentle and sweetly soft on the nose, there were additional flavours of chocolate coins and red apple, once again on the softer side of things. Malty characters prevailed on the palate with a touch of toasted oak and fruit cores.

My ambition to assemble a cabinet of balance and variety having been irrecoverable scuppered on the Tuesday with my ex-Bourbon Caol Ila purchase, I turned to the single cask ex-Sherry Aberlour, a 16yo at 57.4%, with curiosity and some guilt. This would be the wiser choice, but could I walk away from Aberlour for a second time without a bottle of the ex-Bourbon? I could not. Though deep, rounded and velvety, and with the Sherry contributing plenty of orange notes and cinnamon (paired beautifully with a dark bitter chocolate and candied orange morsel), we repaired to Warehouse No. 1 with my decision firmly made.

When my two French counterparts of last year’s tour set to coordinating their collective extraction of precious Sherry-matured spirit with much chuckling and picture-taking, I had loved spectating on the manifestation of their Scottish holiday momento. It was even more fun participating in the birth of one’s own precious souvenir. I use the birthing analogy only because Bob did so first. I picked up an empty, label-less bottle and held it beneath the nozzle of the verticle glass chamber which would soon dispense whisky once I raised the lever to the right of the valve. Much like the hyrdometers I had been playing with in Balblair, spirit swelled into the tube and with a downward swipe in to the bottle it gushed. Bob would show how best to manipulate the valve so that whisky entered the glass with minimum aeration. From there it was a clamp straight out of the Industrial Revolution to insert the cork, then another for the foil cork wrapper.

Not since primary school have I concentrated so much on my handwriting. As neatly as possible I recorded the cask, the fill, the date of filling, the cask number, the date of bottling, the age, the bottle number and the strength. Jonathan wrapped up my new treasure in swaddling red tissue and encased it in a wooden box. Bob and Chris filled from the Bourbon and the Sherry, and each seemed as delighted with the new addition to their lives as I was.

The bottle-your-own facilities. Haven't the 'sweet shops' of my childhood grown up a bit?

Sadly there was little time to dwell. Our easy pace had delayed our progress somewhat, and Jonathan still had a final treat for us lying, caged and ominous, in Warehouse No. 6. This 8yo first-fill Oloroso butt was a cracker. At 61% its potency could not be ignored, and it blended raw, mouth puckering but sugar-sweet tannins with rich red fruits and toffee. Had Jonathan not locked the beast up again there’s no telling how many laws I may have broken.

While I munched on some exquisitely absorbent chicken and bacon pancakes in Fresh on Aberlour’s main street, I realised that the sense of joy and contentment which prevailed over me was deeply familiar. Scrumptious as they were, I don’t think I can put it down to the pancakes, the company of my family or even the marginal detail that today I was 21 years of age. I had felt exactly the same when alone in my B&B on a non-descript, drizzling April afternoon with the final remains of a chicken tikka pie in my hand. Aberlour distillery had, once again, transformed my day, advanced my single malt understanding and reinvigorated my soul. The Founder’s Tour is the standard by which I shall judge all specialist tours from now on. The bar is giddily high.

Aberlour Founder’s Tour: £25, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Booking essential.

www.aberlour.com

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January 1, 2011

Balblair 1989: a Double Take

The first release is on the left and the second on the right. These are twoo very engaging and distinct drams.

The first release is on the left and the second on the right. These are two very engaging and distinct drams.

No sooner had we bloggers disembarked from the tiny plane and clambered onto the minibus in November than Lucas was pressing goodie bags into our hands full of coveted items from Inver House. In addition to the Old Pulteney polo shirt which I wear on a very regular basis, I have recently had the opportunity to acquaint myself with the Balblair 1989 Second Release which was stashed away, too. As luck would have it, I had half of the contents of a miniature of the first release sitting on my desk. A comparison was called for, and the intriguing results are below.

The people with the keys to the warehouses must have been sure in their convictions that, for the mid-range Balblair expression, they had a truly vintage year on their hands in the shape of 1989. Whereas the entry-level 1997 was replaced by the delightful and fey 2000, we now have another batch of ’89 malt to savour on this occasion.

NB: The bold text is intended to highlight those flavours which I feel are both intrinsically part of the distillery’s character, and also those which I interpret as evidence of ‘a sense of place’.  The technique is partially inspired by Keith’s presentation of his tasting notes, and I think it also makes them more easily-read.

Balblair 1989 (Bottled 2008) 43% abv.

Colour - Lemony gold.

Nose - Very delicate at first with immediate sweetness and some spicy dryness. Honey, vanilla and milk chocolate come next with syrupy sweet citrus flavours in the mix. Toffee, dried cherries and golden raisins present a gorgeous variety of aromas. Clean, sweet and fresh with raw barley.

      Water realises the full potential of the malt, with rich fruit slices and beautiful vanilla, caramel and malty sweetness. Rich oak is extracted which lends a slight grip, with some blackcurrant leaf. Toffee and date pudding, in addition to more citrus, maintains the complexity. Overall, though, this is a lively and delicate malt, and the best way to describe it would be ‘fun’. Its sweet American oak DNA reminds me a lot of the post-tour drams on offer throughout Scotland, an encounter made all the more hedonsitic if your visit has been of sufficient quality to provoke excitement about the whole process and environment.

Palate - Very smooth, rounded and sweet with a delicious malty richness culminating in earthy hay.

      Water does this malt few favours in this department. Fruity, oaky and spicy with some vanilla, light creamy cereals and green fruits. It loses a lot of its assertiveness and becomes just too ethereal for me.

Finish -  There is a great burst of orchard fruit juices at first, and then things settle down with sweet green apple. Malt and oak create a hot chocolate flavour and the dried fruits from the nose return. Heathery earthiness and orange round off a very pleasant experience.

      Water, as occurred with the palate, weakens things. Vanilla and puff pastry appear, some tart green fruits sprinkled with sugar, some milk chocolate, hazelnut and banana are there, too.

Balblair 1989 (2nd Release, bottled 2010) 43%

Colour – Essentially the same, although maybe a fraction older golden tones, with a pale grassy tinge.

Nose – There is a very firm presence of oak in this one, with a richer spiciness than the first release but overall much darker, tighter and closed. There is citrus here, too, although it takes the form of bonbon-like sweetness. Heavy Bourbon wood and a dusty earthiness  are other flavours, in addition to orange peel, rich vanilla and tablet. Dried fruits appear, as with the first release, and there is a rock candy flavour which leads into creamy coconut – gorse bushes.

      Water improves procedings, as it did for the first release, becoming creamier and spicier. I am privileged to as accurate a presentation of a blackened hogshead with its rusted hoops sitting in a cool dunnage warehouse as I have enjoyed with any malt. Toffee cake, dry rich maltiness. Heather honey. Zesty sweet fruits, burnt fruitcake. Cardamom and star anise: very spicy and earthy.

Palate – Rich and mouthcoating, chocolatey with some synthetic fruitiness (jelly sweets).

      Water lightens everything, but not to the extent of the first release. It becomes incredibly smooth but focused with green fruits, spice, richness, more malt and chocolatey toffeed oak. Earthy.

Finish – Rich, with plenty of vanilla. Barley sugar with blackcurrant and apple juice. Toffeed. Fresh fruitiness and ever-evolving dark oakiness. Over-ripe banana. Nutty, chocolatey and spicy.

      Water renders this still more satisfying with vanilla again and caramel. There is fantastic texture to the American oak influence: the cask is very much a three-dimensional suggestion. The sweet spice of a gingerbread latte abides for quite a while.

So…?:      Direct comparison always throws up surprises and these are, despite the identical nature of the included tasting notes on the packaging, two very different malts. The first release is 18/19 years old, the second 20/21 and those two years have done much to influence the development of that stock from 1989. I would rate the second release as a more rewarding and fulfilling malt for the age range it has placed itself in, but I am utterly seduced by the nose of the first: so exuberant and charming with endless sweetness.

The character of Balblair is said to lend itself to more mature, spicy and fruity whiskies, courtesy of the clear wort and the plain stills and that is certainly what is on show here. I can’t quite stretch to a bottle of the ’89 (and I would if I could) but the 2000 is a gem of a dram, and on the list.

Many thanks to Lucas, Cathy and Inver House for the sample. Also, a very happy new year, one and all.

On the nose, after dilution, this was where the second release transported me back to.

On the nose, after dilution, this was where the second release transported me back to.

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