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The Blend Bibliography – Isle of Skye

Quietly, consistently, the word spreads. On the blogs especially, between the single malt pangeyrics and cocktail correspondence mention is increasingly made of blended Scotch whisky. And the coverage is informed, open-minded and – heaven forfend – positive.

If the principle barrier to blended appreciation has been, as Casktrength.net put it, ‘ubiquity’ I have come to realise that however recognisable the faces of Scotch blends may be, my familiarity with them is only skin deep. Far from demonstrating discernment, comprehensively passing over entry-level blends exposed a yawning chasm of ignorance for me. How could I claim to know anything about Scotch whisky when the category of Scotch whisky that 90% of the world chooses to drink was entirely alien to me?

Over the past two months platoons of samples have passed under my nose and what an enlightening process it has been. In many cases, the supposedly Plain Janes of the whisky world boast a subtle beauty, blessed with sparkling repartee and disarming charm. In a new feature, I want to focus on some of the blended Scotch whiskies you may have overlooked and detail the histories and personalities; the enterprise and innovation, and finally the flavours at their heart.

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Recently, I returned to Skye in the Scottish Hebrides for a week of walking, gastronomy and whisky. The Waternish peninsula would take care of the former, fine food would be guaranteed at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel and the Three Chimneys, and fortunately – three days prior to leaving for my holiday – I found a contender to satisfy most requirements on the latter front.

Isle of Skye is a blended Scotch under the control of Ian Macleod Distillers. Other notable brands of theirs include Glengoyne and Smokehead while they have recently revitalised Tamdhu Distillery in Speyside. The blend lies at the heart of the business, however, with the recipe ‘in the family’ from the 19th century and acquired by Ian Macleod along with the Isle of Skye name in 1963. The Skye connection is an obvious one: over the course of my week in the Dunvegan area it was almost impossible to move for Macleods and Dunvegan Castle, which we visited on a foul Wednesday morning, is the spiritual home of the Clan. Now based in Edinburgh, courtesy of the Isle of Skye blend the company retains this ancestral bond to the West Coast.

Today’s blend harnesses the honeyed body of Speyside malts and the peated pace of one or two island distillates to good effect. The standard expression is the 8yo, but it is also possible to come across a 12yo and a 21yo as part of the core range. They have even released a 50yo, although stocks are very limited.

The UK and USA remain core markets, but in-roads are being made with the whisky-drinking publics of Ukraine and Russia.

The bottle design takes its cues from the Cuillin Hills – the awe-inspiring geological razor blade which dominates the island’s skyline (or should that be Skyeline). The Cuillins represent one of the longest and most testing ridge walks in the British Isles and their moods alter depending on the time of year and the weather; the 8yo highlights their red russet phase, while at other times the prospect can be a furious, Mordor-like black – alluded to by the 12yo.

When I contacted the company they hinted at a significant new sponsorship agreement to be announced at the beginning of next month. In the past, however, Ian Macleod’s blend has headlined at the 135th Year of the Isle of Skye Highland Games in Portree as well as partnering with the revamped Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh during last summer’s Festival Fringe.

I picked up my bottle of the 8yo at my local Tesco for £17.50 having been surprised by its robust but rounded nature and intriguing fruity depths, discovered in a sample from Master of Malt.

Isle of Skye 8yo 40%

Colour – honey with deep orange tones

Nose – light and crusty peat grafted on to rich, fruity Sherry oak at first. With nose in the glass the grains take the lead and their luscious body, zest and rich vanilla qualities suggest some are older than the stated 8 years. Behind this is impressively sensuous honey and berry fruit hints, as well as caramel made from condensed milk. Jelly sweets, soft grassy smoke and suggestions of cigar wrapper. Rounded and assured.

Palate – rich and peaty textures before honey, redcurrent and plum take matters into sweeter, rounder territory. The grain is predominant throughout but adds lovely, potent and above all clean body. A crackle of spice to close.

Finish – very grain-driven again with fleshy fruit (papaya, mango) and a background of ginger, cinnamon and raisin.

While I might not always agree with him, Jim Murray does write with ardent eloquence on the subject of blended Scotch and he rates this expression very highly indeed. For me, it is a perfect example of a blend that is on the one hand very ‘different’ yet soothingly familiar.

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The Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

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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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