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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 anCnoc Peaty Collection

An old saying goes: ‘the other man’s grass is always greener’. You glance furtively across at your neighbour and infer from some marginally neater borders and the way their bird bath stands so proudly on the lawn that they are generally better at life and comporting themselves. This is just as common a phenomenon within the Scotch whisky industry when it comes to peat.

Unlike their forebears, distillers these days are not subject to the limitations of their geographical location regarding the type of whisky they can produce. Heavy peat can come to BenRiach if Billy Walker chooses, just as Caol Ila can go peat-free should the need arise. Of course, a bit of peat reek in your whisky is terribly fashionable at the moment, so many mainland distilleries have been staring across to Islay where their grass is greyer and smokier.

The latest to introduce a bit of peat into the equation is the normally fruity and frisky anCnoc. Since 2004 they have devoted a couple of months each year to creating a smokier spirit and the matured results of these were released last month. The Peaty Collection comprises three single malts, christened Rutter, Flaughter and Tushkar, distinguished not by age but by PPM (parts per million of phenols, the scale for measuring how ashy your whisky is likely to be). However, unlike some other brands, where piling on the peat has been the one and only prerogative at the expense of distillery character (Tomintoul Peaty Tang comes regretfully to mind), there is real balance here across the range between those lush waxy green fruits and a farmy smokiness. This is even more remarkable when you consider that this new range is comprised only of peated stocks laid down between 2004 and 2006 – no older, unpeated anCnoc has been added to balance or flesh out the flavours.

anCnoc Rutter (11ppm) 46% £52

Colour – clean lemony gold.
Nose – pleasant thick peat at first recalling turned earth and wood-burning stoves. Next come banana skins and bran flakes with hugely clean, fresh and fruity spirit underneath. Banana chew sweets and just-caught shortcrust pastry. Creamier with time.
Palate – turfy peat, well smoked and rich. Then in comes apple bubblegum, toasted sourdough and grapefruit. Sweet and round.
Finish – impressions of the kiln: brown and damp smoke. Fruity spirit in good balance with the smoke: apple and gooseberry.

anCnoc Flaughter (14.8ppm) 46% £52

Colour – straw gold.
Nose – more minerally peat with a harder edge: wet slate and smoky feints. Key lime pie and brick dust. Focused and expressive. Razor clam shells on a sunlight beach, honeysuckle, apple and redcurrant jelly. More farmy peat with time.
Palate – mouthfilling but gentle at first: puckering cherry and pastry with a rich warming smoke all round the back. Slowly dries.
Finish – drying gradually but there is a magnificent triumvirate of cherry bark, vanilla oak and sweet chilli-flecked peat that builds. A touch of creaminess and smoked fish.

anCnoc Tushkar (15ppm) 46% 449SEK (Swedish exclusive)

Colour – greeny gold.
Nose – very creamy with juicy mango, peach in syrup and apricot flesh. Wellington boots by the Aga and Italian herbs thrown on the barbecue are the only hints of smokiness at first. The spirit is immense: so driven by green apple and with great texture. Baked pineapple, jelly babies and nettle patch, leading into smoked paprika and Pear Drops. Easily my favourite whisky of the three to nose.
Palate – Cullen Skink panacotta - if smoked haddock were sweet and creamy. Smoke and pear, smoke and passion fruit. Just surreal. Finishes on vanilla and coconut.
Finish – lots of juicy, generous oak but a heathery smoke is building. Treacle sponge and blackcurrant. White chocolate.

So…?      I must say I wasn’t sure how this trio was going to fare. A lot of publicity has gone into the launch, both at a special event in Glasgow which featured much in the way of peaty razzamattaz and on blogs and Twitter. Could the whiskies stand up? Oh yes, they could. I first tasted them a couple of weeks ago for the #LightonDark Tweet tasting and I was very impressed by how the smoke progressively built but the core spirit remained devastatingly fruity and attractive. Then, the Rutter was my favourite, along with the creamy, unctuous bizarreness of the Tushkar. Today, however, I would put the Flaughter above it with its brooding smoke but expressive oily citrus zest. The balance between the anCnoc I know and love and this new, non-seaweedy/iodine-y smoke was deliciously well-preserved.

The price is high but just about acceptable. You could argue – and some have – that another NAS whisky range above the £50-per bottle mark is being cheeky. However, anCnoc stress that the bulk of the whiskies used are between 8 and 10 years old. That ppm rating is for the liquid in the bottle, too, not that of the malt used at the commencement of production. Most important as far as I’m concerned, though, is that these new products have not simply been thrown out of the warehouse door – they have been thought about and deliberately engineered. The ambition was to provide peat aficionados with something different, and help those maybe scared by smoke to enter that particular intense flavour camp. I think the Peaty Collection will achieve both handsomely.

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Glenmorangie Companta – Why I’m Wine Finished

I was panicking, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know what the master distiller wanted from me, why couldn’t he just stop?

‘You will see,’ he said, stalking between the shadows at the far end of the warehouse. ‘It’s the future; you must accept it.’

I fought against the tannins still coating my tongue from the Saint-Emilion-boarding I had received earlier that morning. ’But it’s perfectly good as it is! You don’t have to do this!’

The master distiller stepped up to the cask which lay, defenceless, between us. ‘You will see,’ he repeated and signalled to his henchmen. Heavy boots scuffled over the cement floor as the goons wrestled another cask into view. They placed this newer-looking cask beside the first, then gripped the mottled grey hogshead.

‘Please don’t do this!’ I cried as they began to lift and tip the contents of the first cask into the second.

‘No! No! Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!’

Okay, so it isn’t a scene that’s going to make it into the next Matt Damon espionage thriller. The anxieties of the wider world are still titillated by government surveillance and nuclear war - the whims of the whisky industry are very far down the list of Hollywood’s screenwriters. But that leads me on rather neatly to the whisky anorak’s premonition of the apocalypse: wine finishing.

I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores; how the practice started is of less importance than where it is leading. There were conspiracies in the darker pockets of the internet that wine casks and indeed any oak vessel which had once held something else were drafted in to the Scotch whisky industry to lift sunken stocks. ‘Is your 13-year-old whisky a bit lifeless and bland? Stick it in a tokaji cask and you’ll be laughing.’ I should stress that I am not tarring all finishes with the same brush, nor am I suggesting that this was the policy for the entire industry. I am a big fan of Sherry and Port finishes, and some fortified wine finishes have been stellar: Ardbeg Galileo from Marsala casks, Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or from Sauternes. I reserve my reservations, in fact it is tantamount to a fully-formed aversion, for red wine-finished whiskies.

Over the years I have tried, in no particular order: Auchentoshan 17yo Bordeaux Finish, Bruichladdich Rocks, Bowmore Dusk, Bruichladdich Black Arts, Glenmorangie Artein, Edradour Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Dunedin 10yo Doublewood. All boasted redeeming features (excepting the Black Arts, of course) but the initial taste and recurring faults in the finish – like a repressed memory that keeps fighting back – always upset me.

On taking a first sip, it is as if Tarzan has swung in from nowhere with an offering of semi-decomposed berries and his own leaf mulch mattress. There’s a gruesomely bold ‘ta da! It’s me!’ from the wine, like encountering with a hangover a mostly empty bottle of merlot someone else was drinking the night before sat on a hot windowsill and exhaling exuberantly, which ruins everything else. Fair enough (almost) if your original casks have been stingier than an insurance company in Somerset but what if the liquid was quite charming to start with? This brings me on to Glenmorangie’s latest expression in the Private Edition series, Companta.

Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie, is a big fan of wine. He introduced Super Tuscan wine casks for the Artein release a couple of years ago and has settled in France this time for Companta. Two separate parcels of Glenmorangie were brought together, one lot maturing in Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart and the other in fortified wine casks from the Cotes du Rhone. The idea was to offer something ‘neither too bold nor too tame’. My problem here is that the wine influence is fairly bold, and I suspect they thought the original whisky was on the more mellow side. Rather lovely in its own way, but in need of pep. I fear that, in pursuit of something a little more earnest, they have dressed Cerys Matthews up as Lady Gaga.

Glenmorangie Companta 46% £69.99

Colour – full dark honey with prune tints.

Nose – complex tannic knots of cask, barley sweetness beneath and dark cherry with a dark chocolate shell. Soft, full and inviting. Big note of Port-poached pear, the wine thickening and puckering at the edges. Lashings of blackberry vinegar. A shaving of lightly creamy and spicy ex-Bourbon cask. Earthiness returns and a loss of focus in the mid-range.

Palate – winey fruits and jelly beans collide into each other then firm, sweet baking spice oak arrives. Smooth malt behind. A touch aggressive but pleasant.

Finish – quite light in the finish: apricot flesh surrounds a fading fudgey malt. Budding vanilla fragrance and buttercream thickness.

Adding water improved everything by a fraction. The nose was reminiscent of Jammy Dodgers, sweet hazelnut and stewed apple. There is a lovely malt at its peak texture and sweetness but the wine, I felt, inhibited any attempt to realise the whisky’s depths. With time, strawberry bonbon, acacia honey and peppermint appear. The palate takes the dark cherry note from the neat nose and spins it on a bed of fromage frais. A bit of pear and more winey warmth. Creamy coconut and soft fruit stick to the tongue before earthy cask notes return. All led into a creamy and elusive finish.

So…?      As I said above, there are strong hints of a very lovely whisky here. The high quality Glenmorangie spirit has an exceptional ability to fill the nose and conjure up sweets you had long forgotten about. There are suggestions of the 10yo’s pear and creamy Bourbon character and it’s all rather nice until you have to factor in the wine. In this whisky the dangers of mixing grape and grain came in the form of a warm mulchy earthiness, like making jam in a potting shed. It didn’t dominate, but it was just enough to mar the effect at every stage. The Companta, therefore, is a bright blue sky, with a cloud or two sidling into shot.

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Tomatin at the Quaich Society

Perhaps I’ll embarrass him for saying so, but Alistair Mutch wins gold as far as replying to emails is concerned. No sooner had the proposal for a Tomatin tasting been composed and fired off than an email of acceptance duly returned. Alistair would be there, and he would be bringing seven whiskies. Job done. Why couldn’t all tastings be so straightforward to arrange?

Alistair had started the day at the Tomatin Distillery just south of Inverness and consequently there was an air of authenticity and provenance to the small off-licence he brought with him. Kicking off with The Antiquary 12yo we could appreciate the blended side of the Takara Shuzo Co., Tomatin’s Japanese owners. Indeed, as Alistair stressed, the history of Tomatin is closely tied to the fortunes of blends. Once the biggest distillery in Scotland, Alistair boasted that once upon a time every blended Scotch would have had a wee drop of Tomatin in it. Fast forward to the 1980s, and this business model proved the distillery’s downfall. The global demand for Scotch unaccountably tailed off and in the new, bleaker economic climate Tomatin had been overproducing. The owners went into liquidation, and Tomatin did not put its head above the parapet again for some years.

The whiskies and backdrop for the Quaich Society's Tomatin tasting.

Nowadays, of course, they have the Antiquary brand all to themselves. Amongst the very high malt content, the majority is Tomatin. The blend started life in Edinburgh, the name reputedly conferred by John and William Hardy in the nineteenth century as a tribute to favourite author, and near neighbour, Sir Walter Scott. On the night I found the 12yo very interesting indeed: smooth in the extreme, with plenty of malt and natural caramel notes. Gristy barley and lemon peel leapt out on the nose.

The Tomatin range itself began exuberantly. The new Legacy is the group’s contribution to the NAS market-place and has, according to Alistair been winning over many punters at Europe’s numerous whisky festivals. There is a proportion of virgin oak in there, and it showed with dazzling vanilla and lush fruit tones.

On to the 12yo, and Alistair discussed how Tomatin embarked upon constructing a stable of whiskies to tempt the consumer. Age was important as a point of difference, of course, but since 2000 successive distillery managers have put their stamp on old favourites, or introduced new ones. The 12yo has been around for a while, but the addition of some Sherry oak to the mix is a more recent innovation. I must admit this is not for me: wafer biscuit, a bizarre pear note, then heavy chocolate… It tastes muddled, in my opinion, but others around me enjoyed it.

The smile returned to my face with the 15yo, however. Only the delicate attentions of refill Bourbon have interacted with the naturally fruity Tomatin spirit and what a dazzling display of honey, white peach and ginger. A sweet whisky, and no mistake, but one I could happily have spent more time with.

Sherry oak returns to the range in the shape of the 18yo, but at this age there is sufficient leathery weight to the malt to carry the gaudier overtones. It has grown in to the dried fruits and moccha depths. At 46% and unchillfiltered, this dram compels your attention. Perhaps a shade too much oak for my tastes on the night, and this belief became stronger when I could appreciate the staggering performance of the next whisky.

‘Now you might taste pineapple on this one,’ warned Alistair. Far from suggestive skullduggery, the 30yo was indeed a wicker basket of tropical fruits. The palate screamed pineapple and passion fruit, but there was not a single overbearing oak note. Obviously a mature whisky was in front of us, but it could still give my taste buds the run-around.

Most distilleries produce a peated make these days (which poses problems when trying to work out what sort of Bunnahabhain you are likely to get) but despite laying down stocks some time ago, Tomatin have been slow to launch their smoky alter ego. The Cu Bocan, aptly enough for a man of Alistair’s story-telling abilities, started with a tale: Tomatin legend has it that the last wolf in Scotland was killed on the site of the existing distillery, and that the ghost of this lonely canine occasionally stalks the village. A research student, after discussions with retired distillery workers, uncovered more of the beast’s behaviour. When spotted, it will rush at you before vanishing harmlessly in a wisp of smoke.

The new Cu Bocan.

Cu Bocan, from its bottle design to its contents, manifests this myth. Alistair told me that the malt is peated to only 15ppm, which does not so much batter you with ash and brimstone as beguile you with a choice coil or two of wood smoke. I enjoyed it immensely: softer and sweeter than the Benromach 10yo (which posts a similar peating level) and with none of the rubberiness that Fettercairn Fior can exhibit, that peat character rests comfortably in the mix. A very well-made malt.

Having offloaded plenty of WaterAid Raffle goodies, Alistair made his excuses and departed as duties called him back at the distillery that night. A full Quaich Society house will remember his unhurried demeanour, riotous sense of humour and pearls of wisdom from more than 20 years in the whisky industry for some weeks yet, however. We shall also fondly recall the whiskies he showered upon us, of course.

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BenRiach and GlenDronach at the Quaich Society

All aboard for six of the best from Scotland's Highlands.

Bens and Glens characterise the Scottish landscape. Bens are the high bits, and the glens the gaps in between them. That’s Scotland pretty much explained, geographically. As far as Scotch whisky is concerned, Bens and Glens can cover an equally wide spectrum, as Stewart Buchanan demonstrated when he introduced the Quaich Society to BenRiach and GlenDronach. The expression goes that there is a whisky out there to suit every one; as it happens, chances are you will find it in one of the ranges of these fine distilleries.

Weighing down Stewart’s car were three separate releases from BenRiach (the 16yo, 15yo Madeira Finish and Septendecim) and three from GlenDronach (15yo, 18yo and Cask Strength). We were not short of liquid, and it became apparent immediately that that liquid was of a very high quality indeed.

Stewart directed us to the 16yo, a dram ‘designed’ by Billy Walker from the 28,000 casks he and his South African business partners inherited when they acquired the distillery, sited just below Elgin on the A95, in 2004. Five cask styles are used and while I didn’t catch them all, each play their part in the final flavour. And what a flavour. I make no secret of my preference for a pretty, delicate, sweet and intriguing Speysider as a gutsy aperitif, and this may just be the ultimate example of this species. Pear drops, vanilla, lemon sherbet and banana emerged on the nose while the palate was sweet, round and tickled the tongue with spice. It was delightful.

‘Can anyone detect the peat?’ Stewart asked. ‘Some can, some can’t.’ Billy Walker puts peated BenRiach in to the mix, just to add that subtle complexity. This is seriously intelligent cask management and whisky construction, and while I couldn’t find any smoke on the night,  can attest to the quality of the dram.

Former BenRiach manager, Stewart Buchanan, was full of facts and anecdotes.

The Madeira Finish came next, and Stewart confessed regret that it will soon be discontinued. Each time I returned to this whisky I began to partake in Stewart’s affection for it more and more. Having been anxious to try the Septendecim after giving a big thumbs-up to the Curiositas 10yo, I was left marginally disappointed. The crunchy peated malt aromas, together with honey and lemon, were all very pleasant. However, I had hoped for more depth. As an aside, I have recently discovered that BenRiach offer another 17yo peated whisky which is almost hysterically brilliant – but more on that in a later post.

On to GlenDronach, the dram of choice for the discerning lady of the night in 19th century Edinburgh. James Allardice  may no longer peddle the products of his Forgue-based copper still in Scotland’s capital, paying his way in potent clearic, but since Walker’s acquisition of GlenDronach in 2008 the Aberdeenshire whisky has been finding a whole new appreciative audience. I fondly remember the 15yo from a couple of years ago as big, meaty and rich. In St Andrews, it still makes best use of full Oloroso Sherry maturation to lend a caramelised nuttiness to proceedings. The malt spirit is inherently sweet and powerful. It’s older brother strides out in full Sherry regalia at 18yo, but possibly to exaggeratedly.

I was very curious to try the new Cask Strength, which Whisky For Everyone thoroughly approved of when they sampled it in January. It tasted pretty special in February. A nose of orange, tablet and juicy malt, it had a leathery weight with plenty of spice coming through from the Oloroso casks in the shape of nutmeg and paprika, together with plum jam, cinnamon and star anise from the Pedro Ximenez maturation. The palate – even at full strength (54.8%) – was rich, smooth and sweet with creamy malt and chocolate powder. How to pick a winner between this and the 16yo? Though at opposite ends of the tasting spectrum on the night, they came together in terms of exceptional quality.

Stewart led a tasting as relaxed as it was informative. The Quaich Society committee thank him for the calibre of stock he brought with him, and the plethora of gems he left behind for our WaterAid Raffle prizes. To the new owner of a BenRiach Horizons 12yo, congratulations. There was one matter which Stewart did not clear up, however; having hinted that Billy Walker had seated himself on one side of another negotiating table, he declined to drop the disputed distillery’s name. Of course, now we know that joining BenRiach and GlenDronach in Walker’s single malt stable is the Portsoy plant of Glenglassaugh.

He said: ‘We’re really delighted to buy Glenglassaugh, a renowned Highland single malt with a rich and distinguished heritage. It’s an excellent complementary fit with our existing BenRiach and GlenDronach brands. Part of its attraction to us is that it isn’t too large for our portfolio but its potential in contributing to the group certainly is.

‘It’s our intention to bring this iconic distillery fully back to life by giving it the investment, commitment and care it deserves. I believe our whisky expertise, proven brand-building ability and strong routes to market will help take Glenglassaugh to the next level.’

Last week I returned from Speyside with a visit to BenRiach under my belt and a miniature of Glenglassaugh Revival from the Whisky Shop Dufftown in my pocket. Little did I guess that the two were linked by more than the coincidences of my personal whisky travels. I can’t wait to see what Billy Walker will find lurking in those seashore warehouses…

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Distilling and Doodles

The second Peter Arkle anCnoc.

If the portfolio of my own attempts at depicting distilleries or sketching stills is anything to go by, whisky naturally lends itself to art. The Scotch palate is forever inspiring the palette of oils and watercolours (check out these stunningly atmospheric works by Jonathan Wheeler). The gleaming hues of the copper or the vivid richness of whisky straight from the cask imprint themselves on the memory.

anCnoc, the Highland distillery with an arty inclination, has since April 2012 enjoyed a productive partnership with New York-based Scottish artist Peter Arkle. Invited to the distillery in order to deduce for himself what makes anCnoc tick, Peter was then commissioned to represent the myriad mysterious processes occuring in Scotch whisky, which would adorn a series of limited releases bearing his name. There have been three Peter Arkle liquids exhibited in various territories thus far, and a sample of No. 2 found its way through the No-Man’s-Land of postal deposition beneath the Scotch Odyssey Blog Garret.

The artwork for this expression chimed with one of my principal fascinations with malt whisky production: the proving bellies of barrels and butts, undulating in dunnage darkness. ’My illustration aims to capture the essence of what makes the whisky so special – time, as the sense of time passing was almost tangible inside the warehouse,’ Peter explained.

An even split of first-fill Bourbon and Sherry casks, this is a different beast to Peter Arkle No. 1 which came to fruition via 100% American oak Fino Sherry casks. By way of comparison, I had a miniature of the Welsh single malt, Penderyn, on my desk. I estimated this to be of a similar age, to be of the same strength, and it also hailed from esoteric woods. How would the pair measure up?

anCnoc Peter Arkle No. 2 46% £49.99

Colour – full honey gold with a greenish hue.

Nose – sticky orange liqueur pasted onto pale creamy oak at first, with dark, squashed citrus fruits and deep honey in the background. Quite feinty. More orange developed together with a papaya texture. Blanched almond and lemon zest. The spirit underneath the sticky Sherry is lush, fresh and full of pear. Pretty meaty, with an interesting quince jelly accompaniment. Water made for a sweeter aroma with more orange, cinnamon bark and vanilla ice cream. A fragrance of new tennis ball, noted on Peter Arkle No. 1, appeared before giving way to polished wood, beeswax and nearly ripe pear. With more time to get its act together some very pleasant natural barley aromas – medium-rich and dry – appeared, as well as blackberry.

Palate – dark Sherry and quite high in tannins. Meaty malt comes through with orange and bitter chocolate. Some coffee granules. Dry. Water picked out more orange and tamed the tannins. I found a Fruit and Nut bar character. Burnt fruitcake reintroduces the drying element.

Finish – big, almost phenolic. Rather dour and earthy. Powdery grist and boiled sweets after a few more seconds. Water brings out the burnt character still more: malt that has been singed, some ginger. A glance at honey but overall quite disappointing.

Penderyn Madeira 46% £34.40

Colour – full gold with caramel depths.

Nose – rich, thick, creamy barley and squashed black fruits. Intense vanilla pod. Then comes pink grapefruit and mince meat: sparkly citrus-driven sweetness and something richer. An extremely estery spirit with apple and pear, and it receives the best attentions from the oak. Grassy, with some syrupy white grape. Blackcurrant and apricot fromage frais. Broad, lively and juicy with plenty of barley and lime pith. Water intensified the fruit, providing hedgerow berry jam, and more vanilla. Baked biscuit with a hint of stem ginger. Cascades of thick but bright barley sugar. Lime cordial and fresh mint. A dab of cocoa powder. Quite brilliant.

Palate – incredibly sweet, blackcurrant again and vanilla pod. Tongue-coating. After swallowing there is blackcurrant leaf and demerara sugar. Water provided the intensest fruit salad: kiwi, strawberry and white grape followed immediately by a wave of sweet baking spices. Slightly too heavy just on the end.

Finish - dries slightly, the malt becoming a little chunkier. Crisp apple jelly and some lemon peel by way of balancing sharpness. Vanilla marshmallow. Greenness of youth in the background: gooseberry crumble and fresh cream. Water made for a shorter finish but one very close in character to the undiluted sample. Biscuit and fresh citrus, crushed Pear drop.

So…?     The Peter Arkle is a dram for dusk and encroaching darkness – perhaps even for drinking in the warehouse depicted on its carton. It is not without merit, but I grew a little tired of its brooding qualities and overly oaky delivery. This was more pronounced when pitted against the extraordinary little performer that is the Penderyn. A symphony of sweetness, it wasn’t all eager first-fill sugars and high-toned green fruit. This is a spirit with serious character and a beguiling complexity which I enjoyed immensely. It showed its Scotch cousin a clean pair of heels using playful and bright brushstrokes.

 

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A Place to Gather

‘Community’ is a word endowed with many connotations, leading to its (mis)appropriation by politicians, sociologists, market researchers and Mark Zuckerberg. Whether that community is ‘fractured’, patri-local or online, in the 21st century we still value and are moved by an idea of our collectivity.

Whisky provides yet another excuse for grouping together. With a single distillery or style we can identitfy with one another, share experiences and profess our loyalty. We can demonstrate how fiercely we fight for flavour. Increasingly, Scotch whisky distilleries have sought to foster such communities. Though they are ostensibly confined by the internet, strongly implied is the suggestion that one’s true point of contact – irrespective of where one lives – is a postcode in Scotland. The personality of a distillery, mediated via its virtual presence, promises the possibility of a connection to bricks, mortar and copper once you have logged off and bought a Caledonia-bound plane ticket.

Courtesy of a few clicks on the internet, you can be a Diurach with Jura, an Ardbeg Committee member, a Friend of Laphroaig, or a Guardian of The Glenlivet. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the next few months, The Macallan Order of the Garter realises its inauguration. Brands are encouraging us to pledge fealty to them on a fractionally more intimate footing. We have bought their whisky, but they want us to participate in their stories, too.

The Clach Biorach standing stone at Balblair.

My old friend, Balblair, has followed suit and underscored this notional encounter all the more powerfully and simply with ‘The Gathering Place’. In recognition of the distillery’s long-standing neighbour, the Clach Biorach Pictish stone around which Highland peoples would assemble millenia ago, and whose swirls and forms find echoes in the Balblair bottle design, there is a new way of connecting to the pair of stills in Edderton, Ross-shire. Balblair fans can sign up for free to receive exclusive web content, expert whisky tasting videos and, perhaps the principal boon of swearing allegiance to one’s lord, spirits for your taste buds only. Tiger over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog has reviewed the first soon-to-be-released vintage from 1990. He rather liked it.

And I rather like this new inclination to transform customers into a community. Whisky inspires deep passions in people, chief among which must be that our favourite drams continue to be of high quality, testaments to integrity and skill. Through these membership schemes, we have the opportunity to communicate with these distilleries and the individuals responsible for them, rather than merely pay our money and consume them. A related point is developed very well by Stuart Robson over at the Whisky Marketplace blog. Philosophy intermingles with financial imperatives and hopefully we customers can make a bolder, more sustainable statement, adding an extra and vocal dimension to those sales figures. Give us a gathering place and we will prove our loyalty. The Gathering Place at Balblair.

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Balblair Rolls Out the Years

I like anniversaries. I like them still more when someone else arranges the party for you.

Just this very circumstance occurred last week as a result of browsing Twitter (follow me @WhiskyOdyssey for my summer whisky and distillery hunt). Balblair, it turned out, would be releasing two new vintages to supplement their excellent range on Tuesday July 10th and would anyone like to volunteer to taste them live on Twitter? Would anyone like a million pounds may as well have been the query.

My affair with Balblair began with their 1997 vintage way back in 2009 but has since blossomed into a long-term relationship via the Bloggers Press Trip of 2010, a week’s work experience there last summer, and a further visit to Edderton in November 2011 for the official Brand Home opening. The Twitter tasting would coincide exactly with my six days strolling about the distillery, smelling washbacks and lounging by the spirit safe a year ago. It turned out to be a glorious reacquaintance.

Balblair one year ago. One beautiful distillery on one beautiful day.

Lucas D sent a couple of sample bottles my way, one marked ‘A’ and the other ‘B’. The identities of the two liquids would be revealed during the tasting. Deeply excited, and keen to commence with the detective work (although slightly apprehensive that my knowledge of the Balblair spirit would prove less dependable than I had thought), I poured away.

Balblair 2002 (sample A) 46% £TBC

Colour – very pale gold. Lemon pith.

Nose – medium to full with an immediate confectioner’s aroma: vanilla rock candy. Next comes trademark green fruit with real waxy/leathery textures: all pulped green apple and hot lime. Very creamy with icing sugar and chewy banana sweets. Lively and engaging with a dash of mint, dusty malt bins and orange and coconut cake. Quintessential Balblair for me.

Adding water turned up the volume on the pear with extra sweet grassiness. Fresh and lively, with a spirit so boisterous it almost fizzes. Apple, orange and honeycomb. Hard toffee. Lovely balance and juicy weight. Sweet leather and buttery vanilla biscuit.

Palate – smooth but with a core of firmness. Lots of cerealy/biscuity malt on swallowing with sweet dryish oak and vanilla toffee.

With water the spicy character of Balblair really shines: coriander and cumin with lemon. Some rich ginger biscuit. Tongue-tingling and firm. A lovely performer.

Finish – the sweet citrus ramps up and fills the mouth. Excellent poise and development, although the light malt/American oak interchange is fairly conventional. Green apple slides in at the end, though.

With water it’s an explosion of lush juices: peach, pineapple. Lime zest, too, overcomes a threat from dryish cereal. Clean and sweet.

 

Balblair 1975 46% £TBC

Colour – full yellow gold with honey in the depths.

Nose – soft and deep at first with a richness that only just tiptoes over the line from rounded sweetness. Fat barley malt with a crystallised orange peel husk. The spirit and the oak are in a cool stand off, with papaya and physalis in the gap. Like walking into a room in which birthday candles have been snuffed out a few minutes before. Creamy with autumnal spice. Tight charring – ex-Bourbon for sure. Black liquorice and old magazines.

Adding water pulls out more of that ethereal mossy smoke which was birthday candles before. I have an Auchentoshan Three Wood pack which includes little pots of cask shavings and the aroma is of ex-Bourbon fragments at first, but with some of the raisiny sweetness of the PX shavings. Wax candles and vanilla. Essential oils of orange and lavendar. Becomes a little peppery but always dark and waxy.

Palate – rich, smoky oak, some jellied orange and pink grapefruit before earthy, dark barley and crushed dusky flowers appear.

With water oak is prominant with some of the dried fruit/incence character from the nose. However, the fruits interplay more freely with orange and baked apple. Soft smoke at the back this time, but extra waxiness.

Finish – clearly old, 25 years plus, this is all brooding darkness and mystery. Some moccha notes and sweet barbecue flavours. Very dense.

With water it remains extraordinarily deep, but tropical fruits come out together with vanilla pod and a cypress/cigar aromatic hint.

The Struie Hills: there were hints of these bleak, misty conditions with the 1975.

When tasting these, I was struck by the youthfulness but also coordination of ‘A’. While not as creamy as the 1997, its full juiciness with none of the sharpness of the 2000 made me think of something between 12 and 14 years of age. When Lucas revealed this was a 2002 whisky, I was stunned, but bowled over by such a fresh and fun whisky.

The ‘B’ sample growled with age and the unflinching darkness and softness of the oak put me in mind of something older than 30 years. Ultimately, I hedged my bets and thought it might be an early ’80s bottling to replace the 1978 with which it shared some of the brooding intensity and delicate, mysterious richness. To hear 1975 didn’t surprise me, nor did the news that the release was comprised of six ex-Bourbon hogsheads. The charred notes and gentle smoke, together with dustings of dried fruit, suggested prime old hoggies. In the end, though, the spirit was a touch too aloof and lacked the articulacy of the outstanding ’78. Whilst an exciting, thought-provoking malt, I couldn’t resist the exuberance of the 2002, and I doubt I will be able to when it finally arrives on the shelves of spirits stores throughout the land.

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anCnoc at the Quaich Society

The selection of anCnocs waiting to charm the Quaich Society in their final tasting of the year.

With a feat of endurance the gain-sayers could scarcely believe, the Quaich Society held its second whisky tasting in as many weeks ast Thursday. To the plaintive sobs of all, however, it was to be the last of the 2011/12 academic year. Solace of sorts came in the form of Lucas Dynowiak, acting-brand ambassador for the charming and recently highly-commended Inver House single malt stable. Having kicked off our tasting year in September with Old Pulteney and Balblair, including the 21yo expression from the Wick distillery just days before Jim Murray announced it as his Whisky Bible Whisky of the Year, hopes were high and mouths were moist for what might appear on this occasion.

Though I could hardly feel otherwise after Inver House’s superlative hospitality towards myself and my fellow bloggers in November 2010, I arrived at Knockdhu distillery near Huntly and fell in love with the place. In the process, I acquired a keen appreciation for their creamy, unctuous but somehow clean and fresh make. The New York-based Scottish artist Peter Arkle obviously holds that little pocket of Aberdeenshire in high regard too, because a couple of weeks ago Inver House announced their partnership with a series of limited bottlings bearing Peter’s artwork, and furthering anCnoc’s affiliations with the creative arts industry. Armed with a couple of bottles of the brand spanking new Peter Arkle Limited Edition, Lucas’ arrival could not have been better timed.

‘I feel you can only judge a distillery on their entry level malt,’ said Lucas. ‘For me, this 12yo is fantastic.’ The Quaich Soc’ers set to work on the first of only two core expressions which bear the anCnoc name and I for one loved the up-front sweetness, with tempered but ominous darkness underneath. The nose was firm and fixing with fresh barley, bold vanilla and candied orange. The palate revealed the slightly feral richness that worm tubs convey to a spirit: rich barley and building vanilla toffee skirted around the darker flavours which reminded me of malting floors and the dustier corners of the distillery.

If there was one dram that captured the popular imagination over the course of the night, however, it was the 16yo. Glasses containing this pale gold spirit were the first to be scavenged from unattended tasting mats and little wonder. Lucas suggested there were some ‘tired’ Bourbon casks in the vatting for this whisky, but all I found was malt and vibrant oak working in sublime harmony. Seriously honeyed on the nose, there grew aromas of caramelised, candied yellow fruits, soft but deep floral tones and cookie dough. The oak made the mouth water, while elevating all of the other flavours packed in to the soirit. Peach and coconut emerged with a bit of water. The palate boasted fullness and richness with plenty of fruit and Werther’s Original toffee maltiness. Stunningly good, all-round.

On then, to the more singular sideshow of anCnoc, and one which makes it highly popular with connoisseurs. Released a short while ago, the 1998 Vintage exhibits partial Bourbon and Fino sherry cask maturation. On the nose this produced heavy red raisin aromas and macerated green fruits. The belief is that worm-tub-condensed spirits often require a little bit longer in the cask for sulphur-masked flavour compounds to completely blossom into more attractive aromas and flavours and despite being two years older than the standard 12yo, low wines and feints receiver scents came across more forcefully in this expression. With a bit of time, though, hedgerow berry conserve and nettles predominated. Full on the palate, there was a pronounced nuttiness which I interpreted as walnut and peanut. Dark and grungey overall.

A close-up of the label for anCnoc's new Peter Arkle Limited Edition.

What of the boldly-packaged Peter Arkle then? Was the eye-catching black-on-white design disguising an inferior product? Far from it, as this was to be a handful of peoples’ favourite of the tasting. All-matured in Fino sherry casks, the nose was creamily nutty with masses of golden raisin. Green pear and so much fudge appeared next. Grape skins emerged, too, and a waxy feel which must hint at the drams youthfulness (8 years in oak, roughly). The palate was markedly different from the others of the night: fruity and sulphury with cider apples and mango. Dried fruits took over into the medium-length finish. I must confess that my colours were pinned to the 16yo, but this is one intriguing bottling.

For the fifth dram, Lucas opted for an ‘informal’ policy. Guests had the option of a measure of the Speyburn 25yo, decorated at the recent World Whisky Awards, and the third instalment from Balblair’s 1989 stocks. Attendance numbers meant that most, as fortune would have it, succeeded in wangling a dram of both. The Speyburn blended aromas and flavours of old country houses and libraries, with an oily and fresh maltiness that made yours truly sit up and take notice. The Balblair delivered its usual creamy citrus and banana-toffee notes with, if anything, still more elan and softness than previous releases.

To the Raffle, therefore, and the impossible very nearly happened. If John Glaser had outdone himself with the previous tasting’s prizes, Lucas’ donation exceeded many of the company’s happiest whisky dreams. Held aloft was a pre-release, pre-just-about-anything bottle of the forthcoming anCnoc 35yo – the oldest expression ever bottled by the distillery. I was forbidden in no uncertain terms from posting images of this beauty, but I can tell you what it tasted and smelt like.

On the nose, this whisky echoed the 12yo with its cleanliness but also with its hints of the deeply dark. Like the single cask Aberfeldy of our Society tour in March, oak held sway but to gorgeous effect: interspersed with the charcoal were glossy orange sweets and rich honey. A mint fudge note alluded to the redoubtable age of this dram. The palate was a slow build: candle wax, honey, floral notes and spice filling the mouth. Dense mossy oak hove into view and the finish revealed clean, malty sweetness.

Our thanks go to Lucas for his generosity and improvisation. anCnoc may not have been firmly established in the subconsciousnesses of our members beforehand, but I suspect there are some new converts who won’t be looking too far over The Hill for their next whisky purchase.

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The Quaich Society at Aberfeldy

The Quaich Society outside Aberfeldy distillery.

Regular readers will notice a change in structure for this post title in comparison with normal proceedings. Yes, the Quaich Society has finally escaped the confines of St Andrews’ hotel function rooms, overcome the complacenct attitude that top brands must come to us, and bagged a distillery of our own.

As a St Patrick’s Day warm up, eleven eager Society members surfaced early on the Saturday morning in readiness for departure to Dewar’s World of Whisky and the Aberfeldy Cask Tasting Tour. Though some were neither bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, they took their seat on the bus in anticipation of a momentous event in Quaich Society recent history. They hid their true feelings well, appearing to be sound asleep from Dundee until we turned off the A9.

As we approached the distillery, the bright spring sunshine picked out squadrons of white-water rafters on the gleaming Tay at Grandtully and thick snow still at the summit of Ben Lawers. This was shaping up to be quite a Highland whisky adventure, and – on a personal note – thrillingly reminiscent of my last encounter with that road: nearly two years ago during the first week of the Scotch Odyssey.

A beautiful Highland distillery on a perfect spring morning. Difficult to beat, I can tell you...

Aberfeldy remains as plush and spartan as I remembered it and we all inspected the neat lawns, strident pagoda, and the new lick of paint the rest of the buildings had received while we waited to begin our tour.

Dewar’s World of Whisky divides brand labour remarkably well. The Dewar’s blended story is dealt with first in the opening film and exhibition area in which the Dewar brothers – John and Tommy – are celebrated for their pioneering salesmanship, before one discovers the blender’s art. Once again, I ran out of patience before completing the computer simulation challenge of recreating the recipe of Dewar’s White Label.

The focus of the guided tour, however, is Aberfeldy distillery and its single malt. With speed and clarity, our guide took us from mill to stills and the eleven tourists inhaled deeply at each new process. In the tun room, we could inspect two of the larch washbacks (switchers were on for the others). ‘As you can see by where the wash has been,’ said our guide, ‘this is just about ready to be pumped across to the stillroom. You could quite happily drink that.’ I know that many Quaich Society regulars approve of a pint, and their eyes shone hopefully, but we were ushered down the stairs to the stills with throats unslaked.

Back in the visitor centre, we awaited with glee the arrival of the valinch-bearer who would withdraw a sample from the American oak hogshead which, for the last 29 years, had harboured Aberfeldy spirit. Cameras flashed and saliva ducts filled. First of all, we could savour the Aberfeldy core range, starting with the sweet, biscuity and appley 12yo, before moving on to the more floral, heathery and slightly smoky 21yo. The group were divided in their preferences, although I adored the firm, almost tarry sweetness of the 21yo.

Extracting the 29yo Aberfeldy spirit from its oak nursery.

Finally, we eached received a Glencairn filled with deep orange nectar. Nosing it, deep oak and rounded vanilla appeared first, followed by red apple peel and some smoke or cask char. The oak notes built and carried with them a rich Bourbon flavour, although the spirit clearly had a bit of liveliness about it after all these years.

Soft and rounded on the palate, chunky toffee and dried apple emerged. I was assured that, even though the whisky was hovering around the 55% abv. mark, its smoothness belied its strength. Up to a point, I agreed, but I wondered whether a drop of water might awaken this sleeping beauty. It sure did.

On the nose, I was overwhelmed by white chocolate aromas and dry heather. There was stronger apple now with rich pot ale scents, too. Biscuity and coconut notes. Orange, fruitcake and tablet.

The palate revealed the signature Aberfeldy honey note, which built in one gorgeous, langorous wave. Vanilla-coated raisins with tarry treated pine. Some grassiness at the end.

‘Why don’t they bottle this?!’ one member of the group asked. I pointed out that the cost would be extraordinary, but remembered how eagerly I would have parted with cash after my last Aberfeldy single cask encounter, a 24yo, in 2009.

Whilst refuelling in the cafe, I was told that the reason our cask tasting had taken place in the visitor centre and not the warehouse as advertised was because of interior alterations being made. A strong hint was dropped that Aberfeldy may be about to join the single cask, hand-bottling brigade and that other John Dewar & Sons single malts may also feature in addition to the flagship brand. I will of course let you know more about this when details are confirmed.

All that remains to be said is a massive thank you to the staff at Dewar’s World of Whisky for looking after us so well, and the bus driver who turned a blind eye to the healthy measures of White Label being poured and enjoyed at the rear of the vehicle.

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