scotchodysseyblog.com

scotchodysseyblog

‘Cheese and Whisky Gang Thegither!’

If you found yourself stood beside a mashtun in a Scotch whisky distillery this summer – and I really hope you did – your be-tartaned guide may have mentioned the final resting place for the fragrant porridge caked at the bottom. With the sugary wort having been piped away to the next stage of the whisky-making process, the remaining ‘draff’ will ultimately nourish Old MacDonald’s coos. NB – if they even hint that bovine intoxication results they are lying: there is no alcohol created during mashing.

A distillery with draff to offload - in this case, Tobermory.

 

I rather like the ancient-seeming and mutually-beneficial relationships at the heart of whisky production, itself an agricultural off-shoot once upon a time. The farmer of yesteryear would grow the barley, malt it, and distil it, diverting any waste products towards the fortification of his livestock. Distillers and farmers may no long amount to the same person, but draff still supplies much-needed nutrition for cattle and sheep raised on farmland neighbouring whisky distilleries.

Mull of Kintyre Extra Mature Cheddar.

A charming press release appeared the other day attesting to the enduring beef/whisky bond: Tobermory have honoured Mull of Kintyre Mature Cheddar, recognised at this year’s British Cheese Awards as the Best Scottish Cheese ahead of 79 other contenders. Produced in the First Milk Campeltown Creamery, it is one leading example of the uniquely sharp and fruity cheese first produced at the Sgriob Ruadh Farm on the island of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides by Jeff Reade. This year’s award was dedicated to Mr Reade, whose legacy is sure to be a heartening one: whereas Scotland could only claim 24 artisan cheese varieties in 1994, today there are 80.

Jeff Reade.

The whisky and cheddar connection is a more tangible one than mere sponsorship alone, however. Tobermory draff historically provided sterling winter feed for Jeff Reade’s cattle and today the Reade family craft a cheese incorporating the peaty portion of Tobermory make, Ledaig. Congratulations to all at the First Milk Campbeltown Creamery, and here’s to the craft producers on Mull generally lovingly nurturing some mightily tasty wares.

Isle of Mull Cheddar’s sharp, yeasty characteristics are said to hail from the unique pungency of draff which impregnates the milk when eaten. However, I’d also like to make mention of whisky and cheese’s delectable compatability even when the dairy cows have been no nearer draff than the moon. In partnership with Svetlana Kukharchuk at St Andrews’ Guid Cheese Shop, we have on two previous occasions allied some of Europe’s most distinctive cheeses with a selection of Scotland’s boldest spirits. Vintage gouda makes a splendid marriage with Bunnahabhain 12yo, and the double cream Chaource combines magically with Auchentoshan 12yo. Indeed, Auchentoshan’s sister distillery, Glen Garioch, actively encourages this pairing with cheeses as a signature serve.

At their most spectaular, taking cheese and whisky together can unleash tertiary flavours neither possessed on their own: the creamy textures can aid in taming the whisky’s alcohol, allowing nutty flavours with overtones of butterscotch or spice to enthral the palate. The golden ticket as far as I am concerned, however, combines blue cheese with peated whiskies. At a more recent tasting, Svetlana’s Gorgonzola Piccante shared a bed with Benromach’s Peat Smoke. The dry smoky malt smoothed out the blue mould piquancy while the soft richness of the cheese’s body lengthened the fruity flavours sublty embedded in the whisky. A triumph!

Take the plunge with some cheese and whisky pairings for yourself. I could use some company on my Gout ward.

Posted in Comment, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NAS Nay-Sayers

How eclectic, democratic and precious our whisky weblogs are. Whatever the malty polemic of the day, your correspondent will have an opinion on it, and chances are that one or two others will have their point to make, too. The comments section of blogs boils with activity as author and reader negotiate fact from fiction, hearsay from heresy.

Recently, I have noticed a rather vocal sect pitching in beneath reviews of malt whiskies with the temerity to withhold their ages. NAS (or non-age statement) whiskies have been increasingly conspicuous on the Twitter feeds and off-licence shelves – controversially in the eyes of some. Indeed, last week I scrolled to the bottom of a piece describing the new Glen Garioch Virgin Oak on a popular blog and I was stunned by the irate dialogue which I found there. Without having tried the whisky in question, this commenter went so far as to advocate legislation prohibiting distillers from charging beyond a certain price point for whiskies without an age statement. As if in an attempt to alienate me further from their cause, they then insisted that older whiskies were always better.

Two of the Glen Garioch range: part of the problem, or the solution?

The gist, amidst the salvos of punctuation marks, was that age offered a guide as to what was actually in the bottle. From that they could then decide what was and what was not value for money. After a more informed reader commented to correct them on their extreme adherence to age before beauty, their response asserted both a re-entrenchment in their views and a threat of physical violence towards she who had contradicted them. Debate over. Some people are just nuts.

But then I got to thinking: ‘am I not on the same spectrum?’ Putting aside the utter nonsense that you cannot recognise quality without information about age, which makes whisky sound like ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ or geology, did I not argue a couple of months ago with the Macallan 1824 Series that justifying a three-figure price tag for a whisky with no indication of maturity carried substantial risk? If age is not the handmaiden of quality, then it is at least possible to estimate what sort of liquid lies within. A standard 18yo from one distillery will carry a similar fingerprint of maturity to one from another distillery. But NAS? What can we glean from Talisker’s Storm that might enlighten us regarding the Glen Garioch Virgin Oak? Next to nothing. With NAS, distillers are asking for a leap of faith.

Perhaps Mr/Mrs Furious had heeded the NAS sirens in the past and come to grief as a result, or perhaps distillers are just that little bit opportunistic when it comes to determining an RRP for their NAS products. Or then again, maybe I am out of touch somehow with how whiskies are valued. On the same whisky blog, one gentleman took exception to The Glenlivet Alpha, calling for summary execution – Jeremy Clarkson-style – of those who release anonymous whisky with such a steep asking price.

Is there a tipping point, a sum for whiskies without an age statement beyond which companies are taking the piss? Let’s begin with the NAS monicker itself which, for Scotch whisky, isn’t the full story. Every dram you buy, whether it claims to rest within a particular bracket of maturity or not, has a nominal age statement of 3 years and above. As we have seen with Kilchoman, whiskies at this stage in their development can be mesmerically intense, assured and satisfying. The vast majority of NAS whiskies will contain whiskies fractionally older than this – maybe 6-8 years of age – but with a proportion of significantly older spirit added to the mix. Look no further than the Glenmorangie Signet for a highly-acclaimed example of this style. More often than not distillers are demonstrating creativity with their stocks, bottling liquid with a USP but harmonising this with more conventionally-matured malts. They are not trying to con you.

Problematically, however, the customer cannot be certain whether they are purchasing the marketing or the more costly malts included to support the flavour profile. The press release may gush about the 26 year old whisky included in the new product, but that number cannot be shown on the label. The only figure the customer has to go on, therefore, is the price. As Scotch whisky once again captivates the global drinker, those in the more traditional markets must accept that 10 year old this and 21 year old that will become harder to find, and they must also accept that this is a direct result of the industry’s new economic position. If distillers cannot play a variation on a theme with their NAS products, then the standard age brackets will have to satisfy greater demand, and command even higher prices. In time, companies with the best track records for releasing tasty whiskies without any age statement will have distinguished themselves from the rest, however, inspiring consumer confidence in this regard.

My message to the ‘quality cannot be appreciated without age’ brigade is this: you’re wrong, and set to endure prohibitive prices for your favourite drams unless you have the courage to shop around and discover something new. Crouched in your little bunkers taking pot shots at NAS whiskies will ensure gems simply pass you by. Some bottles may write cheques their contents cannot cash (Macallan Ruby) but others might just boast genuine character, complexity and dynamism (Macallan Sienna, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Dewar’s Signature, the Compass Box range of blended malts). Frequent the whisky blogs, use the Drinks by the Dram service from Master of Malt, inform your purchases, and stop railing against a reality you cannot change. In ten years’ time I suspect the NAS trend will have taught us that age is a luxury, but certainly no guarantor of a great whisky.

Posted in Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Morrison Bowmore at the Quaich Society (2)

The six super serves at the Morrison Bowmore Quaich Society tasting.

If ‘Holy Triumvirate’ is going a tad too far, I do get rather excited at the prospect of Morrison Bowmore’s tantalising trio of fantastic distilleries paying a visit and so do the whisky drinkers of St Andrews. Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch have all acquired a recent reputation for quirky but high-quality releases, many of which landed in our Glencairn glasses – courtesy of Gordon Dundas – earlier this month.

Over the course of a very enjoyable 6-dram tasting, Gordon was the perfect foil to the whiskies under his stewardship: plain speaking, but full of warmth and humour, it was a fiery, engaging evening.

We kicked off with Auchentoshan, a brand doing great things with their younger, fruitier releases. The first of our whiskies on the night, the Three Wood, takes centre-stage in a new transatlantic cocktail competition. Auchentoshan Switch is the brand’s attempt to engage bartenders in America and Europe, switching them on to the powerful flavours in this delicate Lowland malt before switching around the creators of the winning Auchentoshan cocktails to work in the bars on their counterparts: Europe goes to America and vice versa. Read more about the competition – and vote for your favourite cocktails – here.

The Three Wood made a favourable impression on most in the room, but I was interested in its stablemate, the Valinch 2012. As Gordon said, these two expressions could not be further apart on the flavour specrum: soft, sweet and rich Sherry oak plays creamy, fruity ex-Bourbon oak at cask strength. This had a sparkly nose, the barley boasting a boiled sweet character in addition to apple and orange. Lemon, banana and vanilla shortbread showed themselves. The palate also ‘sparkled’ somewhat with maltiness again and clean nutmeg from the cask. Lovely.

Those who don’t know about my abiding, dutiful love for the Glen Garioch distillery are obviously recent readers of the Scotch Odyssey Blog. Hence, while people were picking apart the variously sensuous and scintillating flavours of the Auchentoshan offerings, I was some way ahead, courting the Glen Garioch 1995.

Another of the acclaimed vintage releases, the 1995 represents the last litres produced prior to the distillery’s closure by Suntory in the same year,. At this time, there was also a trace of peat smoke to be found in Glen Garioch from the malting process, which was not the case after the reopening of the plant in 1997. This I found to be a highly accomplished dram with the best of first fill Bourbon characteristics coming through. I felt, however, that the butterscotch and coconut drowned out the complex honeyed dustiness of the distillery profile. It was good, but not a Glen Garioch as far as I was concerned. In answer to a question about different peating levels and cut points in the three distilleries’ production regimes, Gordon had said that ‘we produce the same spirit and let the casks do the talking’. This had happened quite spectacularly with the 1995.

Skipping over the fourth pour – the always majestic Bowmore Darkest – we arrived at a unique compare-and-contrast opportunity. More or less on a whim, Gordon had decided to bring along two Tempests to the party: Batch 3 and the not-yet released Batch 4.

Bowmore Tempest 4 55.1%

Nose – swimming pools and cloudy lemonade. Very salty. Sandalwood and a gentle cigar-ash smokiness. Thyme honey. Leathery, very smooth and clean.

Palate – full and rounded with plenty of sweetness and fruits. Fudge and river rushes, before it becomes more and more honeyed.

The balance of this latest release over Batch 3 was evident, with a harmonising interplay between smoke, oak and spirit. I think I preferred the punch of Batch 3 on the night, but can attest to this as another exemplary bottling from the Bowmore team.

Gordon’s generosity extended to the Raffle: the revelation that a full bottle of the latest Tempest would find a lucky new owner forced hands back into pockets for donations. On behalf of the Quaich Society we would like to think him for an extremely informative and entertaining tasting during which the standard of whisky and anecdote never dipped.

Posted in Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Comment, Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cups o’ Kindness: Celebrating with Whisky

Whisky conquers all.

University Year 2 of 4 has come to a conclusion! [Whoops and shrieks and similar noises conveying relief and joy.] But once the giddiness, writers’ cramp and the last haunting echoes of Samuel Beckett have left my person, what do I use to fill the academic void? What whisky does my newly-liberated self demand?

As it happens, the decision is not in any way straightforward. My choice following the final exam of Semester One reflected my needs at the time: a comfort dram was the order of the day, as it would be on any other occasion in which I am expected to write about Marxism for forty minutes. A double Caol Ila 12yo embraced my palate and soothed my mind, and went some way towards pacifying me having been asked by the bar staff for ID. Obviously St Andrews is riddled with deep-voiced, 6’3” bearded 17-year-olds requesting marginally lesser-known Islay single malts. Anyway, the familiar dry barley sweetness and delicate crumbly peat served to put the horrors of the exam period behind me.

I escaped from my last exam this time around on Thursday at 11.30, however, and have still yet to savour a distilled spirit. This has created a concern, because the dram in question has to be rather superb now. Delayed gratification, and whatnot. More than enough lager has been consumed to wash away – Lethe-like - the memories of English and Classics assessment, and I feel like something which can coax me into anticipating the summer of freedom with some crisp, buxom flavours. My Aberlour single cask? Definitely unctuous, creamy and apricot-y, but far too heavy on the oak, I’ve decided. My Glenlivet 21yo? Apt, but more of a soothing fireside whisky. My Balblair single cask? Jolly excellent, but a little over-familiarised in these last months.

The answer, I feel, has to be the remnants of my Compass Box cask sample. This decidedly different time in my life (last year’s post-exams high was a tad more stressful than it ought to have been, hurtling down to Newcastle for a Rush concert while quaffing some Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve) calls for a seriously singular spirit. Failing that, I can get a measure of Laphroaig Quarter Cask at my local for £2.40 so I have options.

It is a nice problem to have, of course, selecting which of your favourite whiskies you ought to pour. But can we sometimes become too caught up in having the right drink at the right time, for the right reasons? Do we intimidate ourselves with respect to our own drinks cabinets? Shouldn’t any whisky well-earned taste sweetest? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether or not we create impossible pedestals for our drams and impose too many restrictions and caveats about which pleasures we ought to find in what whiskies at which times?

Posted in Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Morrison Bowmore at the Quaich Society

The broad range of Morrison Bowmore whiskies.

We on the Quaich Society committee have worked out by now that our members, while impressed by a five-dram verticle tasting encompassing the most senior reaches of a distillery’s range, especially love ‘horizontal’ tastings. Hopes were high, therefore, for Morrison Bowmore. A company that can boast the most balanced or Islay malts, with sea spray, peat and fruity toffee, the only exclusively triple-distilled single malt in Scotland and the only distillery that has let me strip off in its still room was sure to go down well with the Quaich Society. The only pity was that, due to a change of date, more people couldn’t attend.

When Paul Goodwin needed a second trip to the car to bring in the last of the expressions he hoped to present before us, we interpretted it as a good sign. In the end, we hadn’t the glassware to sneak in the Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve, too.

Paul Goodwin, modelling jacket and waistcoat in Bowmore Tweed.

Debonair in Bowmore Tweed (‘I thought St Andrews was the right place to try it out,’ he replied wittily), Paul guided us through the dizzying range of styles on offer, starting with the Auchentoshan. The jump from the dried apple and biscuit scents of the Classic to the punchy crushed red fruits and almost earthiness of the Three Wood was startling. Gratifying was how both recalled my 18th birthday and the VIP tour of the distillery. With the Classic there was a delicacy of sweetness, balanced by a burly dryness. On the palate, the first fill Bourbon barrels made their presence felt with a charred quality and creaminess.

The Three Wood was to be many peoples’ favourite dram of the night, including an ever-curious Doug Clement who kept Paul busy fielding questions. Despite having announced pre-tasting that he was more heavily involved in the sales side of the business, Paul’s whisky knowledge was exceptional and our resident industry insider and glass patron returned to his drams, satisfied with the information received. A little snippet I hadn’t been privy to was the cost to whisky of the Second World War. Due to its proximity to Glasgow, wee Auchentoshan must have looked to the Luftwaffe like a weapons-grade storage facility (a mistake the British government repeated in the last decade in Iraq, funnily enough) and bombed the place. 300,000 litres of maturing spirit were lost.

To Islay now, however, and the peat heads in the room started to get excited. The Bowmore 12yo is a great whisky to start with period, but as in introduction to Islay’s delights it works very well. Ferny, heathery peat on the nose developed into sea shore aromas with sharp, crunchy malt. The palate was balanced and rich, with a sweet sootiness and honey. Paul recommended it with seafood.

The Bowmore Darkest chocolate.

‘I’m sorry I didn’t bring along any oysters,’ Paul continued as we turned to the 15yo Darkest, but he handed out some dark chocolate instead. The Lindt was felt to compliment the heavy Sherry tones the whisky picks up from its three-year finish in European oak. The potent result gained a rum-like quality when paired with the chocolate. Separately, I got a very strong chorizo aroma at first with a lot of paprika. This became salty with an undertow of gooey-ness. Red apple, too. On the palate the saltiness and chorizo continued with brown, almost dirty peat and burning straw. I wasn’t sure about this one, although others were won over by its distinctive personality. The Tempest releases for me still hold greater interest than the Sherry-accented Bowmores.

When selecting the Glen Garioch component, Paul had been in a very generous mood. Despite being a spirit many had not come across – and many more could not pronounce – the core range had been overlooked in favour of one of the latest vintages. The 53.9% 1994, all Bourbon-matured was the final dram of the evening and was it different. Very creamy on the nose at first, there was oak grip and alcohol depth. Apricot and wholemeal bread appeared. With water the delivery was sweeter with orange as well as a creaminess. Pepper, lime and shortbread came later. The palate provided barley sugar, banana, charred cask, biscuit and gentle smoke, vanilla emerging with the addition of water.

In his delivery for the distillery, Paul mentioned the ’craft’ word more than once. With a capacity of 1,000,000 litres, it is actually producing below this so certainly isn’t a behemoth of a plant. While not in the Kilchoman league – as Paul admitted when challenged by Mr Clement - there is greater scope for doing something different with the brand as the 48% bottling strength of the Founder’s Reserve and 12yo, together with the vintage releases, confirm.

What I wanted to know more about was the consequence to these brands of the highly-publicised transfer of Rachel Barrie to Morrison Bowmore. ‘Would she,’ I asked, ‘have the same scope to create different expressions like she did with the Glenmorangie Signet etc.?’ Paul’s answer was the measured, but promising, ‘watch this space’.

Masses of Morrison Bowmore merchandise was very kindly donated by Paul for our raffle, and Quaich Society members dug in their pockets to be in with a chance of walking away with a whole bottle of Glen Garioch 12yo or a Bowmore polo shirt as well as other prizes. Our thanks go to Paul for a superb tasting, and we hope to see him back again with more expressions from these diverse stables – perhaps bearing the Barrie signature.

Posted in Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The SMWS Vaults – and Leith’s Labyrinth

‘This isn’t very relaxing at all,’ I raged, stamping past another betting shop, wincing as blisters began to bisect my heels and perspiration pooled beneath my pullover.

The entrance to the Vaults.

On the subject of my pilgrimage to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Vaults venue in Leith, Edinburgh, I had envisaged whisky’s bard – Mr Robert Burns – supplying a cheerful commentary. Unfortunately, rather than his Scotch aphorisms captioning my expedition, the only refrain I could recognise circulating within my seething brain concerned ‘mice and men…’

What ought to have been a leisurely 25 minute stroll from the bus station in St Andrew Square to 87, Giles Street demanded instead an hour and a half of feverish to-ing and fro-ing, in addition to a testy phonecall to my sister sat in front of Google Maps at home, trying to work out where the hell I was and how exactly I was to get to my hallowed destination.

I successfully found Giles Street and my anti-clockwise stromp around it was to be my final error of the day. A likely-looking building reared up at me, all old chunky bricks and little warehouse-esque windows. The green sign was perhaps the biggest give-away, though. Relief evicted the anger from my system, which had the disadvantage of robbing me of what energy I thought I had. Panting and swaying, I mounted the many steps and continued passed the paint tins and dust sheets to what I had been searching for – the bar.

Worries as to whether I could be fitted in were instantly abolished. Having signed in and handed over my membership card I discovered with delight that there was a surplus of leather sofas, broken in to the point of perfection by the posteriors of many a whisky aficionado. Perhaps. I ordered a 7.67 and sunk into one myself.

The members' room - a dining room-come-bar. And ever so cosy.

I can confirm what my picture suggests: this is the baronial stately home approach to accommodating whisky devotees, alluding to a sepia-tinged yesteryear when, I hate to say it, men repaired to the drawing room for a tumbler of something. Cutting edge the Vaults is not. In fact, I was far closer in ages to the bar staff than I was my fellow members. However, I stuck my nose into my Longmorn, ordered some haggis, neeps and tatties and quickly failed to notice anymore.

Many have praised the food available from the SMWS kitchens, both in the Queen Street branch and at the Vaults. My plate was certainly stacked high with flavour (I haven’t had Scotland’s national dish served in that style before) and the chocolate mousse for dessert ticked all of my personal boxes for richness, tartness and gooeyness. Mindful after the last mouthful vanished that I still had some serious tasting to do, it perhaps wasn’t the best combination for keeping my senses in optimum condition. Nevertheless, I had reclaimed the calories Leith’s streets had taken from me and within half an hour I was ready for my next dram.

The bar. As it happens, I only explored the left-hand side.

The 19.46 astonished and moved me. This 21-yo whisky from a refill hogshead smelled initially like an ornamental fireplace in an oak-floored Highland house: blackened coal scuttle and an ancient stone and cast iron grate into which some autumn leaves had found their way. There were brass furnishings, too. Then came rich butter and brown sugar, deep oakiness with a green touch and light, crumbly sweet peat. Caramel toffee-accented malt confirmed the high class of the nose. The palate was equally suave and involving: spicy, biscuity, oaky and leafy. In my notes I have ‘a full-on burnished experience’ which I think means that both the brass furnishing character from the nose reappeared as part of the all-round impression of cohesion and quality. Coriander is another mid-palate note. It becomes rich and buttery again after a time, with late hints of candied lemon zest.

The addition of water developed the lemony theme as lemon curd arrived on the nose, spread between two layers of soft, rich flapjack. Heavy butterscotch, together with strawberry and blueberry jam, rounded out a very good and above all different character. The palate revealed more of the cask influence, with a rich, dark char. Coriander can be found in the mix again, with more lemon pieces. Pepper. The abiding impression was of richness, with a gentle chew.

My abiding impression of the Vaults, though? As a base camp for a society like the SMWS, I doubt it could be improved upon. In fact, my navigational headaches buttressed the atmosphere of eclectic sequestration the place exudes. You can’t just pop in off Prince’s Street. It seems to me very appropriate that there should be a venue in the city’s former commercial and goods trading centre, one that is built in to Leith’s abundant wine and spirit heritage. The decor (the final touches to a refit of the reception rooms were taking place during my visit), friendliness of the staff and eye-popping breadth of bottlings promise a permanent reward for those keen enough to make the trek to discover the spiritual home of the Society, tucked into a district where whisky as a viable commercial product was made possible in the first place. Who would have thought that at the centre of the labyrinth there would be an Olympus?

Posted in Sensings, Whisky Societies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve

Surprising, isn’t it, that I haven’t posted any notes of my most significant distillery, my more-than-whisky distillery, or what I suppose others call their favourite distillery? Expressions are hard to come by and I wasn’t blown away by their new 12yo. Whilst pleasantly sweet, citrussy and peppery, I always suspected this, the Founder’s Reserve and restorative-and-a-half at the distillery in April last year, was the more rewarding dram.

The new entry-level expression following the relaunch in late 2008, this has no age statement but is non-chillfiltered and bottled at 48% abv. It’s potent stuff and boasts its ex-Bourbon maturation. I filled a little sample flask from my 70cl bottle – purchased by my aunt for my 20th birthday – earlier in the year so that I might have some Glen Garioch in St Andrews when the anniversary of my Aberdeenshire purgatory and redemption struck, and it was what I sipped at the end of last month as we raced away from St Andrews and the end of my first year there for the Rush Time Machine concert which was taking place in Newcastle that night. In short, it has featured in a few singular moments over the last fourteen months or so.

Glen Garioch Founder's ReserveGlen Garioch Founder’s Reserve 48% abv. £29

Colour – Rich full gold with peachy tones.

Nose – At first, sugary-sweet draff/worts notes and sticky but firm honeycomb. More cerealy draff appears with a stab of alcohol then medium grade dark chocolate. I always detect a strawberry note and it is joined here by a sweet nuttiness. Crumbly earthiness and hedgerow berries. Very clean and citrussy with good body to it.

      Water lightens the spectrum although the oakiness becomes richer with more toffee and creamy vanilla shortbread. Stewed red fruits appear with sweet malt and dryness. Stem ginger and lemon boiled sweets. Chunks of butterscotch. A bit more time reveals heather honey, toasted oak and strawberry jam. Overall very chunkily malty.

Palate – Rich malt and oak, then lighter cereal sweetness and a flash of clean citrus. Spicy. Red fruits and red apples emerge.

      Water makes for a richer and even fruitier experience. We begin with fruitcake although this morphs into slightly burnt oat biscuits. Lemony and syrupy notes come in later with more stewed fruit.

Finish – Chocolatey and biscuity. Soft malt with the dryish draff note from the nose reappearing. Honey on thick toast. Clean and firm.

      Water accentuates a smoothness and juiciness. Things become heathery with some delicate sweet spice from the oak. Vanilla and cinnamon, too. Stewed fruits and especially apple. Caramel and citrus.

I don’t go into the cupboard for this dram terribly often, but when I do it always surprises me. The barley malt profile is deep and complex, with a fruitiness, earthiness, caramel sweetness yet also dustiness. It is a shame Glen Garioch no longer malts its own barley but I can imagine the atmosphere of aromas that must have existed when it did, just by nosing this whisky. That dustiness is something I noted with the 1991 Vintage and I’m not sure how to account for it: it is at once a note which distinguishes it from other Highland malts but is also slightly alien at first.

Following my unforgettable experiences to get there last year, and the very different kind of tour I received once I arrived, my spiritual side wants to explore more of the whiskies from Glen Garioch. Matt and Karen at Whisky For Everyone have just tasted the new 1994 Vintage, and John Hansell at What Does John Know? has recently opened a 21yo from the 1970s as one of his very special drams. As is the case with these oft-overlooked single malts, there are many incarnations kicking around that are just astonishingly good. That they are oft-overlooked does mean, however, that those who do apprehend their potential and charm have a greater chance of being rewarded for their faith.

Posted in Sensings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Glen Garioch – One-Year-Old(meldrum)

A view from the dry warmth of the visitor centre last April.

A view from the dry warmth of the visitor centre last April.

Henceforth, ’one year ago…’ moments shall occur to me on an almost daily basis. They may never have come to pass, however, had it not been for my guardian angels who abstained from supping Scotch whisky vapour long enough to manifest themselves at Glen Garioch, Aberdeenshire. To commemorate this date twelve months ago I thought I would post up a piece which I submitted to John Hansell’s blog for consideration in his guest-blogger season last September. Although I was frustratingly unsuccessful in that particular journalistic bid, I have retained the article so that, today, it may serve as the narrative silver lining to my north-east Highland rain clouds.

I rolled out of Dufftown, making headway into the first of the day’s sixty miles. Snow flurries mutated into persistent rain and little strips of asphalt became the A96. I had chosen to ignore the look my hotelier had given me when I told him I was taking the main road between Aberdeen and Inverness to Oldmeldrum. For ten miles I didn’t so much cycle as self-preserve, hunted by oil industry executives in their BMWs and blasted by the bow waves of air from gargantuan trucks, none of whom were about to touch the brakes for a squidgy cyclist.

Exhausted and petrified I swung off the motorway at the sign for Oldmeldrum, the rain still falling lazily, the rolling arrow-straight roads of Aberdeenshire taunting my cracked, foggy brain. Every last inch of me was dripping and squelching. My bike, on account of the spray, muck and frenzied pedalling of the A96, was disturbing the peace in Hades with its creaking, squeaking and rattling. My personal fuel warning light had been on for the last fifteen miles and I splashed into the distillery car park not entirely alive. I knew, however, and with grim certainty, that if I didn’t get my cycling gear dried somehow, when I came to leave the distillery after my tour for the return leg to Huntly I would depart this mortal coil, as well – long before the trucks could have a second crack at me on the motorway.

Resembling a refugee more than a participant on her next tour, I begged the lady in the visitor’s centre for a hot radiator.

“Go across to the stillroom and say Jane sent you to dry some things,” she said.

The very accommodating stillroom.
The very accommodating stillroom.

I stumbled back out into the rain to the still house where I found the stillman reading his newspaper. I mumbled my message from Jane and he pointed to a clothes rack stationed behind the spirit still. With the last of my strength I wrenched off my saturated clothing and turned the stillroom at Glen Garioch into my own personal launderette.

Back across the road in the visitor’s centre, Jane made me a cup of tea and I was taken round the distillery by tour guide Fiona. As we approached the glowing stills, the point at which my semi-nudity had featured unexpectedly in her previous tour, Fiona joked that she had considered whether or not to inform her two visitors who had also witnessed my disrobing that half-naked cyclists were pivotal to the final Glen Garioch flavour.

After the tour we discussed with Jane my travel ambitions, mishaps and fears, of which there were many at that moment. It was partly the bone-dry clothes, but mostly their encouragement that meant I had a smile on my face when I left Oldmeldrum and still had one when I later arrived in Huntly.

Would my Glen Garioch experience have been drastically different had I undertaken my journey in invigorating spring sunshine? It is, to all intents and purposes, a redundant question – one pretending to a rationality and design entirely absent from the minute-to-minute experience of my Odyssey. It rained, I chose a despicable road, I had a crisis, I was restored. That’s pretty much it.

When will be the 'right time'...?

When will be the 'right time'...?

Except, of course, it isn’t. Not by a long way. As I excavated my bottle of the 1990 Small-batch Release from the drinks cabinet, my entire tour could be appraised in 70 centilitre form. As I had reason to remark to my charming Swedish neighbour on a recent train journey, Scotch whisky has at once assumed positions in the micro and the macro of my life. Nothing is ‘just’ a dram – drinking is not simply consumption but a form of communion with a very particular form of spirit. Glen Garioch will always abide in my memory – like the mircoflora in a wooden washback – because it created a unique, intoxicating blend of circumstance, humanity and history: a sequence of unrepeatable malt moments. Friday, April 23 2010 surpassed all previous expectations for how whisky could inspire me to singular efforts, as well as the extent to which it and the people involved in it could reward them. Therefore, whilst my powers of recollection do not strictly require a material object, my 1990 bottling is as good a manifestation as I can come up with for now of these complex amalgamations of whisky and wonder.

Posted in Comment | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2010: The Scotch Odyssey Review

‘Tis the season for rumination, reflection, and the airing of hour-long compilations taking an irreverent retrospective on the smorgasbord of the year’s events. At the Scotch Odyssey it is no different, so pour yourself a dram (preferrably one of those listed below) and join me for a root around my panniers of memory and an appraisal of what has been stuffed into them.

My 2010

No one remembers last winter now that the present one is showing itself to be so appalling and ghastly, but January and February were not conducive to outdoor riding. I had a tour to prepare for, but snow and ice were determined to stick around. Hours on the turbo trainer and a regime of running substituted serious cycling until the weather could string a sunny spell together. I saw the colour green for the first time in months, I amassed an OS map for every inch of Scotland and my relationship with the bike deepened auspiciously.The Whisky Trail

Six weeks of liberation, education, ingestion and exploration followed. Scotch whisky, like an age-restricted carrot on a stick, lured me from south to north and east to west; preserving me through all manner of meteorological phenomena; profound levels of fatigue and uncertainty, and many a crowded bunkhouse. The extraordinary, the execrable and the passionately insane coloured my quest, an expedition which may not have been quite as complete as I had initially hoped, but was made more precious on account of those unforeseen circumstances.

The Odyssey has introduced me to many peerless people and almost as many marvellous malts, both in April and May and since then. My many miles of pedalling in the name of Scotch secured me an invite for two days with Inver House Distillers. To be dry and conveyed by spark plugs and pistons to a host of desirable whisky destinations was a true pleasure, although I couldn’t shake off feelings of fraudulence without my Lycra’d attire. Meeting Lucas, Chris, Jason, Keith, Mark, Karen, Matt and of course Cathy were the pre-eminent highlights.Orkney

At university I am a fully paid-up member of the whisky society, and though weather scuppered our date with Compass Box’s John Glaser, Adelphi entertained us all marvellously in October.

The opportunity to catch up with Jane (congratulations, Cattanachs) and Fiona at Glen Garioch and Sandy in Dufftown was eagerly taken in September, and I hope they feature again in 2011. Further plans for the forthcoming year are not as yet concrete but some creative thinking will be done as to how I can make the Scotch Odyssey Blog more unique and indispensable to the Scotch malt tourist.

Favourite Five (My Moments):

#1   The visceral, unflinching, incomparable Isle of Skye. When the prospect of cycling to Scotland’s whisky distilleries began to make sense again.

Skye

#2   How it feels to pull on and zip up dry cycling clothing, having been revived by two lovely women in an Eastern Highland distillery after a thorough, dispiriting drenching. Huntly looked a great deal better in the fogged up euphoria of ’Mission Accomplished’.

Not my clothes, but the same clothes rack.

Not my clothes, but the same clothes rack.

#3   We left Wick at… some time in the evening. We arrived in Tain… later. In the intervening period, in the darkened minibus tanking through Caithness and Sutherland, I understood what a great bunch of people are out there writing about whisky.

The Minibus

#4    A little whisky shop in Tomintoul has some big personalities bottled inside it. The Druries know how to guide their customers around the gems of Scotland: Aultmore, Bowmore – what a way to toast having made it to Speyside.

#5   Bladnoch and Dumfries and Galloway. Inexpressible joy. I’ll be back.

Bladnoch

Favourite Five (Drams): 

#1   Mortlach 16-year-old. I do miss its rich, fruitcake and nut flavours.

#2   Lagavulin 12-year-old Cask Strength. Astonishing at the distillery on a scorching May day, almost as good in the back of a minibus in November.

#3   Aberlour 14-year-old Single Cask Bourbon-Matured. The dram I dream about from time to time. No sense asking what I’m going to be doing as part of my 21st birthday celebrations: in Warehouse #1, salivating.

#4   Kilchoman Autumn 2009 Release. This is one serious little malt: so peaty, so sweet with that faint whiff of the farmyard.

#5   Redbreast 15-year-old. I know, it isn’t Scottish, but its really quite extraordinary. The whisk(e)y horizons are broading, and a bike belongs in the picture.

Favourite Five (Malt Moments of 2010):

#1   Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 70-year-old. An historic whisky moment, presided over and made possible by an iconic Scottish company.

#2   Feis Ile 2010. I was on Islay and Jura a week before things got underway, and the sense of anticipation was extraordinary. I hope to make the trip myself at some stage.

#3   Chivas’s ‘The Age Matters’ campaign: a step in the right direction and some healthy debate prompted.Ardbeg

#4   Whisky on the box: Oz and Hugh, Dara, Griff and Rory have all got exposure for various brands on the television.

#5   Dramming literature: a vintage year for whisky books, with the typically excellent Malt Whisky Yearbook hitting the shelves again. Dave Broom, Gavin D Smith and Dominic Roskrow have added their considerable weight to my collection.

*      *      *

Thank you for all your support and interest this year, and I hope to hear from you in 2011.

Posted in Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment