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A Mighty Bonny Balblair

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

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

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

The Balblair distillery-exclusive.

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

Colour – Clean, fresh gold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Glenmorangie Artein

‘You’d like to visit the Glenmorangie Distillery, Long John Silver, up in Tain?’

‘Arrrrr – Tain!’

Excuse the pun. I’m quite sure it is not how Dr Bill Lumsden would like his latest creation in the Private Editions range to be introduced but I’d much rather fool around with a piratical play on words than go through the Scots Gaelic derivation.

‘Stone’ follows on from Sonnalta and Finealta in the Highland distillery’s more experimental annual releases. The whisky is a vatting of two thirds 15yo spirit to one third 21yo spirit, matured in ex-Bourbon hogsheads and finished in Super Tuscan wine casks. The distillery’s water source is famously hard. I tried to clamber up to the Tarlogie Spring while I was up in the area during the summer, but pulled out of the attempt before I became too sodden. The limestone surroundings are said to ‘contribute to the whisky’s complex fruity aromas’.

The wood finish is one Lumsden is especially interested in. ‘I was fascinated by the role stony ground played in cultivating the vines – therefore influencing the flavour profile of the famed Super Tuscan wines,’ he said. ’I was inspired to experiment with extra maturing Glenmorangie in these wine casks and was thrilled with the result – a rich, outstandingly fragrant whisky – born of stone.’

I sampled the Sonnalta at the distillery, and whilst I admired its citrussy richness, I felt the malt only wore the Pedro Ximenez finish like a sumptuous Parka, without absorbing its characters. Here are my thoughts on the Artein.

Glenmorangie Artein 46% vol. £69.99

Colour – Stunning: rich orange with pinkish depths.

Nose – Hovering around the rim of the glass is a wall of matte, moist barley sweetness, sandiness (like I find with the LaSanta) and veins of oak. There is also a clean, buttery toffee aroma and a warm, rich grapiness halfway between the robust Quinta Ruban and the sweet, crystallised Nectar d’Or. With the nose in the glass, the red grape, winey notes build but what really interests is the silky Bourbon presence: corny and sweet with sugary plums. Clean peach tones in addition to rich vanilla cupcakes. After a sip and some time, mandarin and nectarine emerge along with ever-so-sweet cereals. Iced cinnamon buns.

Water sweetens the experience still further with delicate citrus mousse tones. Perfumed and chunky – yet smooth – maltiness. Bourbon oak returns: heavy, oily corn and eucalyptus. Oozing rich toffee. Mandarin again and milk chocolate. More time reveals orange and marzipan as well as fudge. The whole arrangement boasts a remarkable clarity.

Palate – Fruits come to the fore, although at first they are definitely cask-driven: orange, date and apricot. The cling and sugars all come from the Bourbon casks, but they are lovely examples; so creamy but, yes, corny.

Water does not detract from the clinging quality. It is still sweet with citrus fruits and honey. A rich earthiness builds, before dark oak rolls into view. Chocolate biscuit.

Finish - Much of the Bourbon influence here – in fact, if more of the Bourbons I drank finished as gently and sublty as this I would be a happier man. Long with jammy notes (strawberry and plum). Creamy vanilla suggesting French pastries, although the concluding flavours are cake-like.

Water renders the effect more gentle still with soft, leathery malt and fig rolls. Icing sugar and apple puree. The oak returns and they are fine, rounded casks. Plums and corny Bourbon at the death.

So…?      This is a strange whisky: rich and involving, but not exactly Glenmorangie. Indeed, with such a hefty proportion of well-matured stock I had expected a little more finesse, perhaps with more of that ethereal sweetness which the Nectar d’Or has in spades. A common thread in the tasting notes was the strong Bourbon character and this I found very enjoyable indeed. It reminded me a lot of a more well-mannered version of the Wild Turkey 101 I’ve been drinking in St Andrews: rich, full, creamy and fruity. Of course, the Wild Turkey is about a third of the price.

The Glenmorangie Artein is a very assured – even charming – whisky, but there is far more to be had at a more competitive price from the Quinta Ruban.

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Blair Athol

When I was not setting, turning, spinning and polka-ing during the Celtic Society’s jaunt to Pitlochry, we had just enough time to visit a distillery. We – or at least I – would have contrived some way of fitting Blair Athol in irrespectively.

My previous visit to the home of Bell’s blended whisky was irritating in the extreme. I had discovered that morning that I could expect little more than a video and a dram at the distillery due to maintenance. I rocked up at the reception and exhibition area, got bored, and decided I had better set off for Edradour if I wanted to make it to Brechin before nightfall. I remember it as a smart plant, with an eager burn washing between the buildings.

Blair Athol Distillery, the home of Bell's.

Perth Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5LY, 01796 482003. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/blairathol/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      The distillery sits beneath the railway line, halfway up the braes that lead in to Pitlochry with the River Tummel at its foot. Beautiful stone buildings house the distillery, which sits within a courtyard. The burn which flows through it provides an extra scenic dimension.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Blair Athol Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Flora and Fauna Tour’: £12.50. A  tour of the distillery with a chance to taste the Blair Athol 12yo and two other expressions from the Flora and Fauna range. Mortlach 16yo and Linkwood 12yo are my recommendations.

‘Allt Dour Deluxe Tour’: £25. The distillery tour plus Blair Athol 12yo, Cask Strength distillery-exclusive and four other malts.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A cask-strength, Sherry-matured Blair Athol. 55.8% vol. and £55. I managed to wangle myself a dram of this and found it much lighter than the standard 12yo with more of an insistent creaminess and first. Delicate floral notes could be detected before planed oak took over. The palate was prickly and nutty with a good dose of vanilla but water didn’t help at all. A strange dram, and I would personally go for the standard bottling.

My Tour – 23/01/2012

The Blair Athol reception and exhibition area.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The tour commences from the courtyard, climbing up a series of steps into the old floor maltings, which now house the mashtun. Two waters only are required to extract the sugars from the grist, which are drained efficiently back down the hill to the four stainless steel washbacks. A short ferment (50 hours) produces the nutty characteristics required, and from there it is on to the stillhouse. Four tall and proud stills sit in the corners of the room, belching heat and a heavy, intriguing spirit. Standing by the ISRs, I could detect old gym crash mats and biscuit. From there it is across the bridge into the filling store for a cooper recruitment drive (there aren’t enough of them, apparently) and into the warehouse. The tour concludes on the balcony of the shop, with a dram.

GENEROSITY:       (Only the one dram is available as part of the standard tour. Asking nicely is the way to do it.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:        *

SCORE:     5/10*s

The shop.

COMMENT:      What hasn’t already been said about a Diageo distillery tour? I was part of a larger group – many first-time whisky drinkers – who said to me later that the ‘patter’ came across as somewhat formulaic and that they didn’t entirely trust some of the claims made. Having done more than 50 distillery tours, I suppose I have become inured to the ‘patter’ but I found our guide to be clear, informative and friendly. To address those odd ‘claims’, though. I only raised an eyebrow when discussions about blending began in the warehouse, the suggestion was that the blender fiddles around with ex-Bourbon casks because colour is more easily managed. There was some discussion of the vanilla elements ex-Bourbon casks lend to a spirit but the focus returned to colour as a reason for master blenders maturing their whisky in these casks. The warehouse itself was something of a disappointment, separated as we were from the sleeping casks in a sealed viewing chamber. No aroma could penetrate, and I feel many missed out on the mystery and magic of those oak-spirit scents, allowing them to guess at the gentle dynamism at work in a dunnage warehouse. The entire distillery, it must be said, was a little denuded of smell. The washbacks were ventilated, the mashtun airlocked, too. For the home of a major blended brand like Bell’s, I found the decor to be a little mundane and thin. It certainly could not hold a torch to the Famous Grouse Experience or Dewar’s World of Whisky. The blend-single malt focus was appropriate, however, and it was made very clear at the beginning that Blair Athol was an element of Bell’s, and was not the producer of it. We are living in different economic times to when I undertook my Odyssey, and I suppose that £6 is what one must now expect to pay for a distillery tour. As such I feel the expense is justified because Blair Athol and its product are undeniably charming. But if you have the means of getting to Edradour above Pitlochry, I would say that was a better bet.

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Tomatin 18-year-old

A month or so ago, I finally dropped in to Tomatin. Not having a bicycle in tow, I cannot count it as an official visit, but in the half-light of a November afternoon I could cast an appraising eye over the sprawling heathland situation. At first, however, I really badly needed to use their facilities, not see their stillhouse, having made a hasty get-away from the Balblair Brand Home opening on the other side of Inverness. Cover was provided by Lucas from Edinburgh Whisky Blog and Joel from Cask Strength who charmed the lady behind the desk to such an extent that I received a dram of the 12yo on my re-emergence, to replace some vital fluids.

Back in the car, bouncing over the speed bumps by the enormous warehouses to rejoin the A9, Joel commented that their recent Decades bottling had been a favourite at Cask Strength Towers (indeed, it was shortlisted for their Best in Glass Awards). In the summer, I too had encountered the class of this distillery with half of a miniature of their 18yo, an expression barely recognisable as from the same stock as the fudgy, oaky mess that had comprised the 12yo.

Yesterday, I polished off said miniature and here are my thoughts on it.

Tomatin 18yo 46% (non-chillfiltered, finished in Oloroso sherry casks)

Colour – Rich glossy gold. Quality Street caramel.

Nose – Fresh and quite light at first. The nutty praline squeeze of Sherry oak appears but the insistent sweet spiciness makes me wonder if these aren’t American oak butts. Soft apple and, there it is though it is much improved, fudge. Nose further into the glass, you find the most incredibly juicy barley: bold and firm with a bit of syrupy lemon and star fruit. Heathery, grassy. There is a bit of earthy peat smoke there, too. Liquorice and quite ‘green’, fresh oak. A bit more time reveals Papaya, demerara sugar and apple peelings.

Water reveals the gentle maturity of this whisky as lots of silky though boldly citrussy malt sugars descend. Buttery, floral and fruity with apple and peach. Melted Werthers Original toffees. Apple pie and double cream. Strawberries crushed into toasted oak. Again, more time highlights the crisp sweetness of that malt, but also an alluring depth of honey.

Palate – Nutty and darkly peaty with blackcurrant. Oak to the fore with some incense and dark dried fruits: prune and date. Baileys coffee. Quite strange, somehow.

Water (possibly I added too much) reveals peach and vanilla at first, with a building lavendar-scented maltiness. Sweet oat flakes appear, too, with earthy smoke blending heather and pine flavours. Quite light.

Finish – Blackberry and toffee. Sweetly spicy. Hazelnut and almond. A bit disappointingly disjointed.

Water adds perhaps a fraction more cohesion, with pear and pineapple up first, then fizzy, sugary malt. Olive oil appears on time, with saltiness and deep heather honey.

This is that rarest of beasts: one that can show its years but then, like Ryan Giggs with ball and space, roll back those years to stunning effect. I thoroughly enjoyed sipping this Tomatin, and trying to discover more shades of complex sweetness and richness, and that lovely fragrant earthiness. Recommended.

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‘Balblair (vc)’ – Excellent

My malt whisky literature shelf normally expands by at least one volume at this time of year. One would have thought that, between Dave Broom’s peerless World Atlas of Whisky, two editions of the Malt Whisky Companion and a number of other hardbacks salvaged from second-hand bookshops, together with my subscription to Whisky Magazine and the raft of blogs I endeavour to keep up with, any more published works on the subject would be plain extravagance. When it comes to Invar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, however, the title of Dedicated Whisky Geek starts to look a little fragile without the latest edition.

As a compendium of every significant development at each of Scotland’s – and indeed most of the world’s – malt whisky distilling sites, it is unparalleled. If there has been a new washback installed, a still neck replaced, or a new bottling released, it will tell you. I flicked to page 90 and Balblair’s entry, mindful of their single-man, automated production regime introduced this summer and the imminent release of a new core range vintage. What I saw in the green sidebar, however, cheered my distillery-touring heart. ‘Status: active (vc)’.

‘At last!’ laughed John MacDonald, Balblair Distillery manager, when I described this moment to him last week. ‘How long have I been going about a visitor centre?’

The unassuming entrance to the new Brand Home.

Earlier, when he had welcomed a cohort of bloggers and drinks journalists, by that point sated by bacon rolls, to the distillery, he had been more circumspect. ‘It’s quite a significant day [for Balblair] and one that I have been looking forward to for a number of years now.’ Balblair, at last, has a dedicated facility to welcome those eager to discover this distinctive Highland malt, and it is my belief, having spent some time at the Brand Home house-warming, that Serge Valentin’s fears were groundless. He praises Balblair as ‘a wonderful little distillery’ with the semi caveat ’where no ugly visitor centre was built (please don’t!)’ in a profile piece written in 2007. It is now 2011, it is still a wonderful little distillery, and you would have no idea that a visitor centre even existed!

The 'snug', single cask and shop.

As I talked about in a post earlier in the year, the investment and the time had been promised to convert the former floor maltings into a space to accommodate, educate and entertain visitors. The finished product is discreet, smart, and entirely in keeping with the functional, unusual nature of the distillery to which it is attached. Divided into two rooms, you will find the shop, toilets, the bottle-your-own single cask and some indecently comfortable chairs immediately through the little red door, and the larger area for tastings and displays in the floor maltings proper.

Andy Hannah, Balblair brand manager, talked about Balblair’s new front room as the ultimate destination for those with ‘a genuine interest’. He said: ‘we’re not about bussing in hundreds and hundreds of people – that will never happen’. An intimate mode of making whisky has been transferred to their approach for educating people about the brand. ‘The physical experience of Balblair is really really key.’ I crowed with joy – inwardly – to hear that. A visitor centre or brand home is not about trading in marked-up tartan, baseball caps or fudge. Rather, it represents both the genesis of a brand identity which must - like the whisky - result from the equipment, personnel and location, and its apotheosis when individuals insist on making the journey to discover where and how those flavours and philosophies originated.

The bottle-your-own from 1992.

Visitors will indeed be richly rewarded. Though not yet confirmed, the tour structure is expected to follow that of Old Pulteney with a standard tour, a further package with the option to taste additional expressions and a deluxe, in-depth manager’s tour when John MacDonald can be yours for the afternoon. John’s knowledge and passion are quite extraordinary, as his weeks of late-night painting sessions leading up to the Brand Home launch testify. Having taken you round the plant, the whiskies he will put in front of you are of the highest calibre, too, and it was on that subject that we were all principally invited.

In conjunction with the Brand Home, Inver House have released the successor to the 2000 vintage. However, there is a more significant departure in the 2001 vintage bottle than the additional year on the label would perhaps suggest. In a move Andy Hannah described as ‘bold’, and in keeping with their radical decision to launch a core range of vintage expressions in 2007, the entry level Balblair joins its older brothers in being natural colour, non-chillfiltered and 46% abv. ‘We think it’s the right time,’ said Mr Hannah, ‘really re-affirming our boutique brand credentials.’ Some small but telling packaging alterations have also been made.

The trendy, atmospheric 'tasting pod'.

We bloggers and journos, sat in the glass, wood and leather luxury of the ‘tasting pod’ as I call it, were fortunate enough to evaluate an undiluted sample, and experience what John described as ‘a taste odyssey’. On the nose my first response was ‘guinea pig hutch’, developing light creaminess, pale oak, buttery toffee and heather honey. The palate exploded with barley sugar, lime and mango. As an introduction to the new spirit, the multimedia system was powered up and we absorbed the ‘sights and sounds’ of 2001 projected onto the pod’s glass panels, making for a very striking and engaging effect. As we went from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, starring a very junior-looking Daniel Radcliffe, to the election of George ‘Dubbya’ Bush, a little bit of Destiny’s Child teased our ears. This was indeed a ‘Bootylicious’ Balblair. I’m not sure about the extent to which it gave off the impression of the War on Terror, but that’s probably a good thing.

With the 2001 launch discussed and enjoyed, the Balblair representatives of John, Andy, Karen Walker, Derek Sinclair, Malcolm Leask and Lucas Dynowiak could decompress, a job well done, and savour the superb three course lunch. I must give a personal mention to Mike and the team from Good Highland Food who put a trio of delicious plates in front of us. A cold smoked trout and hot smoked salmon terrine preceeded an eye-poppingly superb fillet of Caithness beef, rounded off with a Balblair-infused chocolate torte which was very probably sinful.

It was nothing short of a joy to be back at Balblair in the first instance, but also to see the confident new direction the brand is taking both with their juice, and with their accessibility to the public. There is more than one distillery on the Dornoch Firth worth visiting, don’t you know. I urge you to make the trip – Balblair will make it worth your while.

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Go to Glengoyne – everyone else is doing it

Flocking to the Trossachs National Park, out of Glasgow’s northern back door,  is nothing new. People have been tramping up the hills and cooing at the lochs for a couple of hundred years now since the Victorian fetish for the Highland tableau established the area as a prime tourist spot. It would appear, however, that Glengoyne Distillery has succeeded in luring vast quantities of these souls out of the great outdoors and into its visitor’s book. Maybe the hill of Dumgoyne is the demographically-astute decoy.

The bottle-your-own facility and re-orientated shop.

Ian Macleod Distillers have invested £300,000 in upgrades to the visitor centre and shop to more appropriately welcome the 48,500 people who have traipsed Highland mud and gravel onto their carpets so far this year. More modifications are planned for 2012. These efforts, they say, maintain there position at the forefront of whisky tourism. Between their snug shop, tucked away behind the production buildings, and the sumptuous Manager’s House squatting further up the steep glen, Glengoyne has the facilities to accommodate all levels of interest and knowledge.

In the words of Stuart Hendry, Glengoyne Brand Heritage Manager: ‘The old shop area was very dark and didn’t make good use of space. Our brief to retail design agency Contagious was to create a brighter, more organised shopping area which showed off our award-winning range but without losing the distinct Glengoyne character.

‘I think we have hit the nail on the head and we are extremely happy with the outcome. Feedback from customers has been great and we have seen an increase in sales as a result.’

The alterations are not just in the aesthetic of the facilities, however, Glengoyne have also joined the bottle-your-won battalion. I would argue that there are quite enough single cask Glengoynes sitting, pre-packaged, in the shop already to agonise over, but it is jolly good fun all the same. At the moment spirit is from a first-fill American hogshead, distilled in 2000, and promioses heavy ’tropical fruit flavours’. At £75 it is towards the ‘premium’ end of the pricing structure.

Ian Macleod are fans of inovative whisky marketing and flavour possibilities (Smokehead anyone?) and have not rested on their laurels with their single malt distillery. They have added a raft of new multi-media in addition to their VC spruce-up with a series of films following custodians of Glengoyne’s flavour about their work. Duncan McNicoll is one such individual who can be spotted on screen before the tour and tending the stills during it. Stuart Hendry again: ‘The feedback from viewers is hugely positive. They enjoy getting behind the scenes and meeting the people. Visitors take particular pleasure in speaking to the stars as they meet them around the distillery yard.’

Well done, Glengoyne. With these alterations they can only have improved a whisky tourism experience which was already high up in the Premier League. I welcome any effort to reward fans of the dram who bother to make the journey in search of it with an experience that is just a little bit different. Whisky generally is in a confident place right now. I believe that by re-evaluating the role and character of a visitor centre that confidence can be better translated to the particular brand and those with an interest in it.

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GlenDronach – New Releases

GlenDronach 1971 VintageIf the maxims of my single malt creed are not crystallised by now, I’ve no doubt the style in which I report the fourth batch release of single cask vintages hailing from the GlenDronach distillery, Aberdeenshire, will clarify a few items of my faith.

Independently-owned by the BenRiach Distillery Co., GlenDronach has for a long time been a cult make enthralling devotees with its bruising muscularity and rich fruitiness, enhanced by diligent sourcing and filling of prime sherry casks. Since new management introduced their singular philosophy to the range, beginning in 2008, this sub 1.5 million litre-per-year distillery has enjoyed resurgent fortunes. A veritable spate of special wood-finished malts in the 14/15-year-old region, though modest when compared with the quantity escaping from partner distillery BenRiach, conveyed diversity while the re-mixed 15yo in the core range garnered 90 points in the latest Malt Whisky Companion. Add to this innovative marketing ploys such as the Cask In A Van tours of Belgium and the revamped visitor centre with hand-bottling facilities and it is plain that those responsible for GlenDronach care passionately about reconnecting with pre-existing enthusiasts in addition to winning new fans for the brand. Their strategy for achieving this is simple but powerfully effective: invest time and expertise hunting out those stocks which demonstrate GlenDronach at its GlenDronach-y best.

Enter, therefore, six single casks which span the age spectrum from a formidable 40-years-old to an energetic, ebullient 17-year-old. All six were exclusively matured in either Oloroso sherry butts or Pedro Ximenez sherry puncheons. One of the latter housed GlenDronach spirit since 1971, endowing it with spicy notes, dark berries and coffee aromas with Mediterranean fruits on the palate.

There is something intoxicating about excellent single cask bottlings from Sherry butts. I would put this down to the increasing scarcity of the wood itself and how few spirits can withstand such highly-tannic attentions for a meaningful length of time. I must confess to being sorely tempted by the 1992 vintage with a nose which promises ‘complex toasted oak aromas with an almost earthy presence’, together with ‘treacle nuts and wild honey’. The palate is said to provide ‘a solid platform of sherry spiced fruit and toasted nuts with a surreal balance of vanilla and honey’. At 59.2% abv., there is enough depth to explore, too.

The other issue concerning sherry-matured whiskies is their asking prices. While not excessive in anyway, that 1992 is £80 and therefore on the farthest reaches of what I personally am prepared to pay for a whisky right now. The 40-year-old is £430, however, which is altogether very reasonable indeed (if you aren’t me). The other vintages are the 1972 (£385), the 1989 (£89), the 1990 (£83), and the 1994 (£70). Single casks are by their very natures finite entities, and the 1971 puncheon yielded a respectable 582 bottles. The 1971 butt coughed up just 464. Available internationally, each market can offer only a percentage of those totals and Loch Fyne Whiskies, in the UK, are expecting their contingent soon.

I have still to visit the GlenDronach distillery, but their commitment to releasing characterful, individual drams means I am very much looking forward to what I might find when I finally get there.

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Glenfarclas at the Quaich Society

Glenfarclas rangeThe penultimate tasting of the academic year finally arrived after a two-week Spring Break intermission, and we Quaich Soc’ers were delighted that the supremely high calibre of outfits pitching up in St Andrews for the purposes of sloshing the water of life around a bit was to be maintained following March’s superlative visit from Compass Box.

Glenfarclas is, as some of you may know, one of my absolute favourite whiskies. My first heavily-sherried whisky was their multi-award winning 15yo – a firm favourite of Michael Jackson and Jim Murray. I found that, straight out of the bottle, there was an aroma of sweet, treated wood and a velvety, clinging mouthfeel which were unlike anything I had come across in whisky until then. More time spent in its company revealed a rich fruitiness, balanced as it was by an earthy spiciness. Only latterly did I appreciate the wonderful dark nuttiness and fat vanilla flavours. I was satisfied with my tour of the distillery, keen to escape the caprices of violent wind and hail which had been coiling about Ben Rinnes that day. Peter Donnelly, brand manager, was on a mission to bring some of this heritage, critical acclaim, unique location and strong family values to bear upon us students, through a mightily impressive inventory of whiskies with the final three far older than anything that has been put before the Quaich Society this year.

After some very brief background, Peter was anxious that we should be drinking some of his whisky. We all turned to the 10yo, one I have had before and was quite impressed with. Surrounded on all sides by its older siblings, however, it came across as somewhat limp: a clean, sweet nuttiness, grassiness and vanilla all that could really distinguish it. Not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination - and as Peter asserted, it is more of an introductory malt – but the guests in the Scores Hotel function room were keen to continue exploring.

The 15yo I effectively described above, and I shall only add here that in a comparative context, much more biscuity flavours emerged on the palate and finish beside the richer, older expressions.

Peter Donnelly

Peter Donnelly

Of especial interest was Peter’s emphasis on the maturation process, and how it is uniquely influenced by the microclimate generated in and around Ben Rinnes. It cannot be ignored. As I alluded to earlier, even in mid-April it is possible to experience a disorientating white-out as snow and sleet bucket out of the sky. Winter temperatures at the distillery can be as low as minus 22 degrees Celcius – extreme is the only word for it. Glenfarclas, however, have stuck by their traditional maturation techniques. Thick, ancient, stone-walled warehouses with slate rooves and earthen floors ensure that the worst of the heat and cold is avoided and provides the perfect consistency of ambient conditions to aid in fully-interactive maturation with minimal evaporation. Indeed, Glenfarclas can boast some of the lowest evaporation by volume in the industry. Strength is largely unaffected, too, as the extraordinary proofs many of the very old Family Casks have retained demonstrates.

To the wood, though, and this is where little, family-run Glenfarclas has to muscle in alongside the big boys - the likes of The Macallan, Highland Park, Laphroaig – all of whom want top quality Sherry casks in which to mature their drams. Demand of such casks vastly outstrips supply and hence why so many distillers have switched to ex-Bourbon barrels, more plentiful and crucially, much much cheaper. When the Grants head over to Spain each year, each cask will cost them between 600-700 euros. That Glenfarclas nevertheless abstains from charging Highland Park and Macallan prices, however, is what is so remarkable, considering the quality of the product that leaves those venerable, dear, Sherry butts.

Our next whisky was the 21yo, one I have not previously come across and was grateful to do so here. I found it rather unusual for a Glenfarclas, with a lightness to it as to which I’m still unsure whether the pronounced mulchy earthiness balanced. Initially, I found planed oak, quite spicy and sweet. Then came fragrances of a damp ornamental garden: sweet earth, wet waxy leaves and lush grass. Potato peelings yielded to white grape notes and then a toffee yoghurt character. On the palate there was more sweetness, with an assertive dryness. Earthy again, the experience concluded with floral and fruit notes. Peter revealed that the 21yo batches have become much more consistent, and of a higher quality, now that they have sourced casks from a smaller, more artisanal producer. I was intrigued by this whisky, but not wholly won over.

In stark contrast, the 25yo came blustering along with a challenge painted on its richly-hued face. This was the first of Peter’s ‘occasion whiskies’ – not for everyday drinking but a damn good thing to have tucked away. I couldn’t agree more. Marvellously focused, I discovered more of the apple notes than I had been able to with the others, together with oranges. Lush grass melded into a firm, spicy oakiness. The experience moved into the panelled library, with old books a suggestive aroma. Finally, crystallised orange peel confirmed the age and the Sherry behind this excellent dram.

On the night, the 25yo even outshone a whisky which had for a long time been remembered as one of those ‘Malt Moments’, when your immediate surroundings have no other recourse than to take a back seat as the dram in your hand moves centre stage. That had been the 30yo when I had it at the Scotch Whisky Experience in 2009. Though still impressive, the 25yo showed it a clean pair of heels for pace and agility.

What came next was to be possibly the oldest whisky the Quaich Society has ever seen at its tastings, but before I move on to that, Peter related a fascinating story of the oldest whisky Glenfarclas has. This is not one of the Family Casks – it isn’t even for sale. During the 1980s, a call was patched through from America. The caller had discovered a case of Glenfarclas whisky behind the chimney fixtures of his late father’s house, and offered the Grants the opportunity to buy back their stock, if they so wished. Further investigation through distillery records revealed that what was being described was not old whisky in terms of the spirit (between 8 and 10 years at most) but it had been bottled before Prohibition even got going. For three quarters of a century this whisky had been tucked out of sight, but sadly no-one had got round to drinking it. Perhaps they had forgotten where they had put it. The plain white case is now in the keeping of J & G Grant.

But, to that mature gentleman in our final glass. Peter had treated us to their 40yo, at £300 a bottle far out of reach of most of the tasters in the room that night, even with a misappropriated student loan, but as we couldn’t help recognising, considerably good value for money. Aware that lots of and lots of heavily-sherried whiskies might exhaust my olfactory senses, I had in fact turned to this dram first and discovered an intense, sherried red fruitiness with a creamy and rich sweetness. Dried cherries were in there, together with sweet spice, soft leather and heathery peat. The palate was rich, dark and tongue-coating, with peach and plum. Returning my nose to the glass revealed an added nutty sweetness with hedgerow berries. A touch of water brought out vanilla and big, boozy and juicy fruitcake. Oaky resin emerged, together with delicate heathery smoke. Big, but soft red apple rounded out a very rich and fruity nose. The diluted palate was very drying and rich with a spicy earthiness and somewhat too short finish. I had expected more from this whisky, I must confess. I feel it could have benefited from a little more abv, just to give it a bit of life. Who am I to argue with the wishes of John Grant, however, the one who put the whisky together? If he feels the best of the whisky is drawn out at 43% abv then so it shall be.

For a family-run business, Glenfarclas are hardly cautious in the big bad world of whisky. Peter described the dramming session of 2007 which would result in the release of the Family Casks. ‘So,’ says one, ‘what is the oldest whisky we’ve got?’

‘Ah well,’ says another, ‘I think there are a few casks from 1952.’

‘Huh… And what’s the next oldest after that?

’1953.’

‘And after that?’

’1954.’

Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.

Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.

In short, they discovered that they had casks from every year between 1952 and 1994 so what did they do? Rather than feeling rather smug and secure – as they had every reason to do – the cry went up: ‘Release ‘em!’ Peter makes out that this move was made ’just for a laugh – honest to God’. He reasons that the folks behind Glenfarclas have ‘made their money a long time ago’, and if they could offer something different, they ought to. No sooner was the release announced that 14 complete sets were immediately sold – that’s 43 individual bottles, the most expensive of which is nearly £1100. It has been phenomenally successful, the aim being to supply spectacular whisky, at prices that people can manage. Glenfarclas all over, really.

For the raffle, as Glenfarclas 105 circled about the room, Peter had a special prize for the first ticket out of the cannister: a bottle of the 175th Anniversary. A vatting of 18 casks from across five decades, bottled at 43% abv - just 6,000 bottles are available worldwide. Again, the whisky was intended to be the star of the show, hence packaging that is no different to the standard range – affordability ‘over crystal boxes and chandeliers and all this nonsense.’ The winner certainly looked happy with himself, and my three strips of tickets utterly redundant.

Many thanks go to Peter for breaking out the seriously rare stuff for us, and for the Quaich Society team for putting together another sell-out tasting.

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Glenglasaugh

     The first I heard of Glenglassaugh’s tour schedule was at the Glen Garioch distillery last April where I also discovered that a change in their own policy, unbeknownst to me, equated to the Oldmeldrum distillery opening for tours on Saturday after all. Both pieces of news were greeted with a mixed reaction: in the case of the former it was another distillery I could have visited but now wouldn’t, and in the case of the latter I had spent a morning rejiggling logistics some time in October in order that I could make it to Glen Garioch by the Friday for nothing. As it turned out, of course, the effort and stress were more than made up for in other unforeseen respects and Glenglassaugh, from the looks of things presently, isn’t going anywhere soon.

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The distillery from the north, over the Moray Firth. Quite a setting.

The distillery from the north, over the Moray Firth. Quite a setting.

Portsoy, Banffshire, AB45 25Q, 01261 842367. Glenglassaugh Distillery Co. (Scaent Group). www.glenglassaugh.com

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘The Spirit Tour’: £7.50. Conducted around the plant with one of the workers (in my opinion the folk most qualified to tell you about the equipment they operate, in addition to possessing a hefty reserve of hilarious anecdotes), the tour ends after the spirit still, newly returned to gushing torrents of life (as in the water of life). It is some of this that will be offered to you in the form of a complimentary dram. One of the Spirit Drink range can be sampled which, though not legally whisky yet, is Glenglassaugh in its truest form – its DNA.

‘Behind the Scenes Tour’: £30. In the capable hands of a senior manager, the ‘Spirit’ experience is on offer in addition to an exploration of the obscure nooks and crannies one finds in old distilleries. The dusty corners may not see a huge amount of the action now, but whisky-making in its earliest days was never a wasteful process, and these forgotten spaces can tell you much about the provenance and history of the place. Pace the closed malting floors, imagining barley from the local fields spread upon them quietly turning to malt. Then head to the warehouse for a rarer privilege: the nosing of whisky-laden casks and encounter the silent but intense process of maturation. After the tour, enjoy a dram from the Spirit Drink range in addition to the 26yo and 30yo single malt whiskies.

‘The Ultimate Tour’: £80. This sounds like a lot of money, and it is pitting itself against the likes of the Magnus Eunson Tour at Highland Park and the Cask Idol Tour at Glengoyne. The stops do appear to have been pulled out, however. Distillery manager Graham Eunson will take care of you on the route of the Behind the Scenes tour to the spirit receiver vat where a lesson in recording alcoholic strength awaits. I am given to understand that there is more to it than giving you a sample of the new make and waiting for you to say ‘Phwoar! That’s strong!’ or similar. Take a peak at racked warehouses 2 and 3, then the bottling hall and then assume your honorary position on the Glenglassaugh cask selection scheme. Your opinion is desired on a range of single cask samples to assist in the decision of the next Glenglassaugh release. The tutored tasting includes the drams as for the Behind the Scenes tour in addition to the IWSC Trophy-winning 40yo. Regarding this last, should you decide to buy a bottle of it there and then, the cost of your tour will be refunded.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A   

CASK OWNERSHIP:      That there are no distillery exclusives is a bit disengenuous: there is the opportunity to own your very own cask of new make Glenglassaugh and watch it mature with the Octave programme. Unpeated (£500) and Peated (£600) Glenglassaugh spirit is filled into a 50 litre Octave cask make from staves previously used to mature Scotch whisky at 63.5% ABV. The filling process can be done by a distillery employee or by yourself. Choose the inscription on the cask head and you are presented with a certificate of ownership in addition to a photograph of your cask to take away with you. Progress is monitored annually, with a sample sent to you. Better yet, phone ahead and visit your cask in person/ As to how long your cask rests in Glenglassaugh’s coastal warehouses is up to you but when you do decide to bottle your whisky (at natural or reduced strength is also your decision), Glenglassaugh are there to hold your hand with their on-site facility. It is even possible to design your own label, although this must be formally approved. With the whisky now bottled, the Octave vessel is yours to keep. I can imagine it working very well, turned on its head, as a side table for supporting your evening dram.

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GlenDronach

      Awaiting an official visit by me, this is the first of the other nine distilleries throughout Scotland offering tours for whom I haven’t any official details but shall be amending in time for the distillery-touring season. This Highland distillery has experienced quite a ‘Revival’ in recent years since it was taken over by the folk behind BenRiach. Their range of single casks and special releases are impressive and their 15-year-old was one of the most sensuous drams I tasted in 2010.

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A handsome distillery producing some handsome malts under some very dynamic ownership.

A handsome distillery producing some handsome malts under some very dynamic ownership.

Forgue, Aberdeenshire, AB54 6DB, 01466 730202. The BenRiach – GlenDronach Distillers Co. Ltd. www.glendronachdistillery.co.uk

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3. A tour of the distillery, excluding warehouse visit, although there is a viewing window in the VC. A dram of the 12yo is included.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £20. An in-depth tour of the distillery, followed by a tutored tasting of the GlenDronach range in the company of Frank Massie. Mondays and Wednesdays only, booking essential.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The Distillery Manager’s Cask: a bottle-your-own facility from a single cask chosen by distillery manager, Alan McConnachie. The particular cask on offer will change as each is emptied, but to gain an insight into the calibre of whisky on offer, current as of October 2010 was an Oloroso sherry cask from 1993 at 58.4% abv. £54. There is also a 1996 single cask (no. 197) priced at £52.

Distillery Manager's Cask

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