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Whisky Prices Blast Off into Orbit

Whisky whisky everywhere, but so little of it affordable...

A disclaimer from the outset: this is NOT about Diageo’s recent announcement concerning the direction its new range of whiskies from the Mortlach distillery will take and which has got many bloggers VERY hot under the collar. Just head over to Oliver Klimek’s redoubtable ‘Dramming’ if you don’t believe me or are not acquainted with the issue. All I would say is that the decision to price a no-age statement whisky at £55 for a 50cl bottle and £180 for an 18yo whisky is symptomatic of a wider trend: Scotch prices are on the up.

Back in the good old days when I was nobbut a lad (rather, six and a half years ago, when I was 17) you could wander into a good spirits store and even a larger Tesco and pick up a bottle of The Glenlivet 18yo, the first whisky I tried that seduced me with difference, depth and intrigue, for between £36 and £40. When I first peeped into the Garden of Eden that was Scotch whisky, of course, this was no mean sum of money to me. I was used to seeing bottles of alcohol for the £20 mark, maybe a shade over if I was paying attention in the spirits aisle. Now, you are doing very well if you come across an 18yo Glenlivet (re-packaged since 2007) for less than £60. And that is at the competitive end for single malts boasting such an age statement. Bowmore’s 18yo is £67 – Highland Park’s is £88 (using Master of Malt as my price guide). Mortlach’s will be £180 – but the less said about that the better.

I’m not going to go into why this should be in this post – economics, guys, all very unseemly – but what I do want to talk about are the few pockets of comparative shade away from the rising temperatures of Scotch prices more generally. Below are a few of the single malts and blends that offer good drinking for a fee that won’t having you spitting it all back up again.

BenRiach

Bodacious BenRiachs.

Maybe it was the torrent of liquid released when Billy Walker and partners purchased this quiet Speyside giant back in 2004 but the wealth of choice came at an attractively low price. Former owners back in the 80s, Allied, had experimented heavily with the production regimes and releases continue to showcase this shape-shifting ability in complex, characterful and fully-mature expressions. Heavily peated, triple distilled as well as clean and fruity single malts are all available under the BenRiach banner. My picks of the bunch would be:

16yo 40% £36.43 If you like your whiskies quintessentially Speyside, dripping with honey, pear and vanilla, this cannot be improved upon for the price. When I tried this last year I could not believe how lovely it was, showcasing excellent cask management and a beautiful spirit. Master Blender Walker has added a tiny smidgen of smoke into the vatting, too, to add complexity.

Solstice 17yo 50% £58.37 Maybe not quite a full 18yo, but what you have here is a Glenlivet 18yo price tag plus extra ABV, smoke, and a delicious, heavy Port influence. This shouldn’t work, but it just does.

Also on the sensible pricing policy are their single cask releases, which appear a couple of times a year.

Glenfarclas

The Grant family have owned Glenfarclas, beneath the mountain of Ben Rinnes on Speyside, for six generations. Their whiskies are bold, full-bodied, and demonstrate only the best Sherry cask attentions.

15yo 46% £43.21 Every time I come back to this it puts a smile on my face. The spirit within the rich, dry Oloroso drapery is powerful, sweet and completely delightful. There is the juiciest vanilla imaginable and tannic presence. A superstar. Also, a 21yo for £61.49? Unbeatable value.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie

Under the LVMH umbrella with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (although you’d never know it), BNJ is visually anonymous with it’s bland white label. However, what’s inside the bottle is anything but.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie 40% £19.69 waves of melon, caramel and soft oak arrive on the nose while the palate boasts a commendable weight and texture with oodles of vanilla and succulent yellow fruits. Blends are, to my mind, liquid comfort blankets and this one will soothe and invigorate in equal measure.

Signatory

Owned by Andrew Symington, who also controls the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry, Signatory are a mad-cap independent bottler offering their own unnamed expressions from the various whisky regions of Scotland for under £30, as well as their Unfiltered range which includes single malts from all over the country, either as single casks or pairings of casks, reduced to 46%.

Really amazing value is to be had from their Cask Strength Collection range with whiskies typically of between 19 and 25 years of age, bottled at cask strength and usually from single casks, for below £100 in most cases. It must be borne in mind that Signatory have a reputation of sorts for wine finish deviancy (but less so than Murray McDavid) so tread carefully. However, the company is very good at listing the maturation history of the whisky you are buying.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Queen Street SMWS bar.

Okay, I will admit that the upfront costs are definitely on the steep side: this is, after all, a private club whereby the Society bottles whiskies for the titillation of its members (no sniggering in the back). Since 1983, when some Edinburgh-based single malt zealots began sourcing single casks from all over Scotland, the Society has spread to just about every continent and major city around the world. There are more than 130 single malts and 10 single grain whiskies listed on the Society’s coded books with monthly releases of single casks.

I was gifted membership for my 21st birthday and I haven’t looked back. The cost to join is now £122 but for that you receive a welcome pack stuffed with goodies, including 10cl miniatures of Society bottlings and four issues of Unfiltered each year (annual renewal currently at £59), a rather brilliant magazine which covers the more esoteric fields of debate and flights of fancy whisky can engineer. Oh yes, and the opportunity to buy some stunning single cask whiskies (the Society won an Icon of Whisky Award in 2012 for best independent bottler).

This month, for example, my eye was caught by 77.34: a 13-year-old Northern Highland dram at 56.2% and less than £50. Or, on the more mature end of the scale, what about a 29-year-old single cask for £131? The SMWS prefers to root out distinctive and unusual examples of spirit from the various distilleries of Scotland (and even Japan). What you are buying is, in effect, unique and unrepeatable. Even if you don’t buy full bottles, membership also gains you access to members rooms in London and two separate venues in Edinburgh where masses of green bottles await the arrival of your adventurous streak.

I would not go so far as to say that good whisky is dying out, but the days of inexpensive whisky are rapidly coming to an end. These guys offer something tasty, individual and not too dear, either. If you have any brands or products offering cracking value which you think I’ve missed out, please comment below.

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Bursting at the Wemyss

A selection from Wemyss' second batch of single casks.

Even in an age of single malt insatiability such as this one, it is a sad fact that of the 101 malt distilleries operating in Scotland, not all enjoy any real prominence on the shelves. Betrothed to blends or sought after in foreign territories, some whiskies are the proverbial wild goose. Praise be, therefore, to the independent bottlers who track down finite stocks which the distillery owners have often overlooked and make them available to you and me.

The latest company whose delectable discoveries crossed my path are Wemyss Malts. Edinburgh-based bottlers since 2005, they offer a wide selection of single casks, blended malts and even their own blended Scotch in the form of the Lord Elcho expression. A consignment of all of the above found its way to me via Doug Clement, Quaich Society patron and ferociously determined advocate for a distilling operation near the home of golf in St Andrews.

The Kingsbarns Distillery project had looked to have stalled until Doug’s bright idea secured £3m of investment from Wemyss Malts, making the former caddy’s fantasy a reality. Check out this STV report - featuring Doug – about the auspicious beginnings of another Lowland distillery. In a few years there will be a home-grown single malt in the Wemyss stable, but what about those whiskies made by other people? Have they an eye for a hole-in-one?

The Hive 12yo 40%

Nose – Full and attractive: very malty with a toasty sweetness. Milk chocolate with candied ginger and sweet rose. Playful and rounded.

Palate – Honeycomb oak, sticky light malt and a return of the chocolate with dried fruit flavours.

Finish – Increasingly lives up to its name: a dryish maltiness sits above a pot of gentle heather honey. Sweet porridge with apricot. A dab of peat at the end.

Spice King 8yo 40%

Nose – Earthy and lots of woodpsice. Expensive mens’ eau-de-cologne. A full creamy note, like soft goats cheese. Oak is quite prevalent. Watery sweetness at the base. Some roasted chestnuts and pecan, but lacks the guts for true richness.

Palate – Blackberries, a richer earthy maltiness and vanilla pod. Tongue-coating with treacle sponge and other Highland flavours, including a tickle of peat.

Finish – A gentle tarry flavour. Burnt toffee. Woodsmoke. The barley emerges from the scrum of these darker characteristics to lend some pure sweetness.

Peat Chimney 12yo 40%

Nose – Dry smoke: peat stacks in the sun very close to a sandy beach containing lots of empty shellfish shells. With time it gets a little farmy with hay and cow breath. Caramelising brown sugar introduces the peated malt.

Palate – Very dry but pleasingly delicate. Very aromatic peat, softer maltiness than I’d expected and Black Bullet sweets. Becomes quite ashy. On a second sip many more fruits appear, especially orange and pear. Peat has a chilli flake heat. Barbecued pineapple.

Finish – Lemon grass fragrance as the peat filters down (like a pint of Guinness settling) to a dried earthy character. A honeyed edge to the smoke, which is appreciated. Smoked sausage. Long.

 

So…?      I was impressed by these offerings from Wemyss; someone has taken very tasty malts and combined them with sympathy and confidence to elicit a bold flavour profile. I could maybe quibble that there isn’t an awful lot of complexity, but if you have a sweet tooth and a £35 budget, The Hive will not disappoint. Likewise, the Peat Chimney was a harmonious celebration of smoke, and a good contrast to the earthier Peat Monster from Compass Box. It would be my pick. The Spice King made allusions to a deeper complexity, but excited me the least. That being said, its 12yo incarnation has just walked away with the title of ‘Best Blended Malt Scotch’ at the World Whisky Awards, so congratulations are in order.

With three whiskies down, I’ll give you the highlights of four single casks I tried. There was one big disappointment in the shape of ‘Caribbean Fruits’ (a Glencadam from 1990) which had been pretty much raped and pillaged by the oak. Some honeyed cereals, fig rolls and dunnage notes fought their way through but could not overcome the aggressive hogshead. As a fan of the massively underrated Glencadam I had been looking forward to this.

‘Autumn Berries’ (a 1986 Blair Athol) had impressed on first viewing, but alongside a Miltonduff of the same generation (a 1987) it became disjointed. A nose of high-toned bold fruitness, especially overripe pear, prevailed at first on the nose, with heather honey and smoke. The intensity of spirit for one of its years was unusual, and often appealing. The palate extrudes this fruitness further, and a note of coriander intrigued me.

‘Wild Berry Spice’ [Miltonduff 1987] 46%

Nose – Fresh, light and fruity at first with a hint of crisp, dryish barley for balance. Bright and mellow with strawberry compote and vanilla pod. Spoonfuls of dark Muscovado sugar. Ages before your eyes, as dark and rich woodsmoke appears and a pronounced saltiness.

Palate – Good weight, malt and cinnamon spice come forward together with a little Kendal mint cake.

Finish – Honey from the oak, sweetened cream and vanilla. Pleasant richness from the clean barley.

With water matters became still more attractive with a sweetly leathery nose, chou pastry and cocoa powder and icing sugar. A hint of sweet cigar smoke then dark chocolate. With time there is pistachio ice cream The palate revealed rich fudge, charcoal from the cask and orange fruit pastels. Then there is concentrated Ribena, honey and smoked fruits. Leafy oak, malt and a coal scuttle unfurl in the complex finish with butter tablet and honey.

‘Lemon Smoke’ [Caol Ila 1996] 46%

Nose – Beach barbecue, olive oil, wood varnish. Hints of seaweed and modroc plaster. More savoury with time: smoked chicken in the sea air. A very focused Caol Ila.

Palate – Light – very light – at first with pear drops and citronella. The peat steps up in intensity very gradually before sherbet lemon appears alongside a gently nutty maltiness.

Finish – Quite quick, leaving gentle peat smoke and honey. The malt is there, too, and has a creamy toffee character.

With a few drops of water the nose became much farmier with burning twigs, lemon and honey, and a Champagne-like yeasty note. This was much truer to the Caol Ilas I’ve known in the past when sipped: malt, green fruit and smoke together with cardamom and buttered popcorn. The finish was quicker again.

So…?      Definitely a mixed bag with these single casks, as is to be expected. Each expression presented a very distinct flavour profile, however, and in this respect they mirrored the blended malts above. Using flavour descriptors to identify your malts can backfire with the contrasting capacities of peoples’ palates and a potential incooperative mood, but to my mind it is a policy that makes as much sense as age statements. Possibly more. Like Tiger in his review for Edinburgh Whisky Blog here, I would go for the Caol Ila. Wemyss and whisky present a formidable combination, and I can’t wait to learn how they shall bring their experience to bear on producing a single malt of their own.

Many thanks to Doug Clement for the liberal dispensation of samples.

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Duncan Taylor at the Quaich Society

The outstanding Duncan Taylor selection for their Quaich Society tasting.

I owe a few fine whisky orators an apology: ‘neglect’, ‘oversight’, ‘disregard’ – these are just some of the accusations Lucas Dynowiak and Chris Hoban could level at me on account of my blog-based silence concerning their tastings for the St Andrews Quaich Society. First, however, I must beg the forgiveness of Andrew Shand, who visited as far back as October to present some fabulous Duncan Taylor whiskies to we thirsty students.

When Andrew’s father, Euan Shand, took over the whisky business in 2001, single malt Scotch was on the up. Sitting on warehouses full of casks from as far back as the 1930s, with 80-90% of the industry’s distilleries represented on the books, it was ‘a sound move’. Today, Duncan Taylor are one of the more innovative independent bottlers around, boasting a portfolio of not only single casks and small-batch vattings, but a blended whisky and blended malt offerings, too. And onto those now.

We kicked off the evening with a couple of whiskies from the Dimensions range. This in turn is subdivided into two branches: one of whiskies between 10 and 18-years-of-age bottled at 46% with natural colour and no chillfiltration; the second celebrating whiskies which have amassed between 18 to 45 years in cask, bottled at cask strength. Our first two drams were from the former range. Two to four third fill ex-Bourbon casks of Aultmore from 2001 had been vatted together, and the fragrance was fresh yet rich with dominant aromas of banana cream pie, honey and sticky oat bars. Firm and malty on the palate, a grassiness grew into the finish.

Ever since John Glaser and then Dave Broom extolled the virtues of the Glen Elgin make (check out my review of Compass Box’s Glen Elgin-driven Double Single here), I have been drawn to its understated elegance and intensity. This one followed suit with an old sweet shop, sugar syrup and green pear on the nose. Water brought out cherry bakewell tart with a grassy kick. The palate was dryish, gristy, with a Bourbon-y popcorn quality and a curious saltiness.

The following whisky demonstrated the spirit of experimentation Duncan Taylor brings to its business. The Octave range is an ever-changing line-up of whiskies – single malt and, intriguingly, single grain – which have been plucked from the ex-Bourbon beginnings and deposited lovingly into an Octave Sherry cask. This is 1/8 the size of an original Sherry butt and a smaller cask, as Andrew explained, means more oak contact for the spirit with more dramatic oak flavours being absorbed in a shorter space of time. When I first bumped into Andrew at WhiskyLuxe in September, he plied me with an Octave Cardhu, which was stunningly drinkable. On this occasion a 1998 Macduff had been given the Octave treatment. At 55.3%, the nose was deep and luciously rich with a curious gin-like presence: citrus peel and juniper. The palate revealed treacle and gingerbread with dry spice. A powerful offering, a slight astringency let it down.

To continue the theme of doing something that little bit different, dram four was Black Bull blended whisky. A 19th century brand which Duncan Taylor restored to prize-winning glory in 2008 with a bullish 30yo, the standard release is the 12yo in front of us. Comprising 50% malt and 50% grain whiskies, the recipe is blended and then additionally matured. Andrew hinted that there were hopes to launch a Black Bull range, with perhaps an 18yo and even a 21yo. A smoky Black Bull? That could happen, too. On the nose, the 12yo had buttery grain in abundance as well as a vinous, sherried veneer. Mixed berry jam and vanilla sugar emerged with water. To taste, this blew the doors off: fresh and zesty but with real weight, a hint of smoke was followed by fruit peels and vanilla sweetness. Outstanding blending with some characterful raw ingredients.

And finally, a little something for the peat freaks. ’We do a couple of different versions of Big Smoke,’ began Andrew. ‘There’s a 40% one and a 60% release. I thought I’d bring the 60% for you guys.’ Cheers erupted around the room.

For me, Big Smoke was a little underpowered. Pleasant enough on the nose, the tar and creosote aromas yielded too soon to the green herb and olive fragrances. Much like the Black Bull, however, sipping this revealed a restrained sweetness at first before thick peat hove into view. Well balanced indeed.

Andrew’s final surprise saw many donations to the end-of-tasting Raffle: a ticket entitling the winner to a tour and tasting of Duncan Taylor’s facilities in Huntly. A rare treat if the liquids of that October night are anything to go by.

The Committee would like to thank Andrew for making the journey to St Andrews and providing such a thorough, amiable tasting. Judging by how many people came up to me afterwards, asking with an avid gleam in their eye where they might come by some bottles, Duncan Taylor have a committed fan club in the Kingdom of Fife.

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The Bloggers’ BenRiach

The whisky blogosphere can be both intoxicating and intimidating. On the one hand, to see so many people pursue their passion as far as maintaining a little corner of the internet in which to display their views I find tremendously inspiring. Appreciating how others drink so deeply of the spirit of the subject provokes a redoubling of my efforts at comprehension and communication.

On the other hand, however, there are the likes of Caskstrength.net, a blog so professional, so influential and so damn readable I wonder how my attempts can be in any way comparable. It would be easy to become downhearted – even petulant – if Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, the blog’s founders, were not such lovely people and performed such a sterling whisky service by providing comment, controversy and creativity.

Creativity, thinking outside the box, is the focus of my post today. Caskstrength.net enjoys a standing few other blogs can boast because Caskstrength.net has done things few other blogs have attempted. In 2011, to celebrate the three year anniversary of the blog’s inception, Joel and Neil took a risk: they approached the Isle of Arran distillery, purchased a cask from them, and bottled it for their readership. They told me in November last year that those 96 bottles had given them plenty of sleepless nights. Would it be popular? Would they all be sold? Would they have to flee the country as the traditional independent bottlers made pariahs of them for discrediting their profession? I made that last one up, but dipping a toe in the financial realities of whisky distribution, rather than simply writing about it, was a serious step to take.

The Caskstrength BenRiach.

They needn’t have worried, of course. Former A&R men for the music industry, they can sense a hit when they hear it. The Arran sold out, and as 2012 rolled around their prescient noses sought a second project. Nothing if not thorough in their approach, Joel and Neil thought that an alphabetical system worked as well as any other and hence the Cask Strength and Carry On BenRiach was released through online retailer Master of Malt last week. I placed my order within minutes of receiving the press release, having got wind of the bottling on Twitter. I like to show my support for creative enterprises, after all. Please take a look at Chris’ excellent side-by-side review of last year’s Arran with this BenRiach over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog.

Cask Strength and Carry On BenRiach 1996 cask #5614 55.2% 296 bottles. Available here for £54.95

Colour – rich chestnut orange.

Nose – restrained at first with ripe banana and a cereal bar stickyness: raisins and dates. Dark but sweet liquid honey. Sundried tomato. Suddenly, weighty toffee and sweet bubblegum step out as well as some lovely herbal sweetness: patchouli. Sweet leather and gentle smoke. Oily citrus freshness interchanges with toastier, burnt rich flavours. A saltiness.

Water turns the spotlight onto the Pedro Ximenez influence: a heavy, lichen-like oak aroma with purple raisin and marzipan. Some gooseberry-like tartness. Iced gingerbread men and the booziest of Christmas mince pies. Caramel and a nuttiness, like pecan. Stewed dates with a wrapping of soft smoke.

Palate – soft, nutty and mouthfilling. Medium-dry and sweet malt rolls over the tongue with a suggestion of singed grasses. Then unctuous, creamy oak sugars pour over everything. For all this, it is surprisingly delicate and superb for it.

Water revealed dried fruits galore, all against clean but not obstructive oak. Creamy vanilla, orange and syrupy flapjack. Yellow fruit and icing sugar.

Finish – still with a soft creaminess, there is plenty of oak but also honey. Some dryish bruised apple flavours give way to glazed almonds.

Water enlarged the experience with suave richness. Bold pear, almond butter and biscuity, cinnamon-accented malt. Perfect sherry oak contribution with sultana and vanilla caramel.

So…? As I breathlessly declared on Twitter, this was not the malt I was expecting. In the past I have always gazed with longing upon the Batches of single cask releases BenRiach and sister distillery GlenDronach indulge in each year, hoping to come by one of these rich, fruity and generous expressions. A 16yo single cask, with four years of PX maturation behind it, fitted the bill perfectly and I knew Joel and Neil would not sign their names to a duff bottling. Whilst it might not – on first impressions – wear its heart on its sleave, I believe this BenRiach is an example of what Martine Nouet calls ‘whispering whiskies’.

It is composed, brilliant, complex, challenging and utterly delicious but it does not shout to be heard. Water accentuates some of the distillery’s inherent fun-loving fruitiness, but this is a dram to spend a long evening with – do not expect cheap, quick thrills.

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Peat: the Smell of Fear

While still in my whisky nappies, as it were, I made the adventurous but ill-informed progression from The Glenlivet 18yo I had relocated from the distillery on Speyside to a nascent dramming cupboard, to another single malt we happened to have in the house. My Mother had confessed to a certain bias with regards to a distillery I could not pronounce and was grateful for her instruction: Laff-Roy-G. ‘How different could it be?’ I wondered.

To this day I remember the savage abuse that dram of the 10yo wrought upon me. As far as a flavour is concerned, it was not etched upon my memory so much as gouged into my tongue. Rather than The Glenlivet’s rounded, floral and honeyed gentility, this potion reeked of Chemistry cupboards and my next door neighbour’s chimney when he is burning something suspect. It was not whisky as I had only recently come to know it, but an encounter with something primeval, dangerous and dirty. When the idea to tour Scotland’s distilleries came about, I labelled Islay on the map with a big red cross and a ‘here be dragons’ note. I did not want any more of this whisky region’s fire and brimstone.

Of course, today I would happily sprinkle peat on my breakfast cereal, or substitute it for black pepper. Caol Ila is (probably) my favourite distillery - Kilchoman is fast catching up – and sometimes, only a Laphroaig will do. Increasingly there are more folk like me, who relish the taste of earth and burning in their spirits and more companies eager to supply them with cutting, ashy loveliness. Douglas Laing released Big Peat a few years ago, and now Fox Fitzgerald Ltd. have shown up for the party with Peat’s Beast. I would say that they are a bit late, but the next Ardbeg Committee bottling and Feis Ile will demonstrate just what popular punch peat still boasts.

Dubbed ‘a sublime single malt scotch that’s packed with a big bite of untamed peatiness’, it also ticks the Whisky Geek boxes by being bottled at 46% abv. and without chill-filtration: ‘as it should be’ it bellows on the label. Dare I approach the Beast again? Have my Laphroaig Quarter Casks from earlier in the week been adequate acclimatisation?

Peat’s Beast 46% £34.99 available here.

The singeing effect of Peat's Beast.

Colour – Very pale (suggesting natural colouring, too) with wet straw and lemon pith shades.

Nose – With the glass a little way below the nose, homebaked bread appears first: yeasty, sweet and savoury. Beneath this is a grimey, industrial earthy smoke. Close to I find Italian salami, green fruits and certainly a full-bodied character. Whether it is necessarily ‘fierce’ I am not yet certain. With time, crackly bonfire appears, and this will change from its original moorland setting to the beach. Vanilla pod and ‘green’ peat. Later still grapefruit jelly appears with the impression of barley on the malting floors.

With the addition of water, the nose becomes slightly smoother and slippery. Burning straw and spicy malt. Develops into a smouldering charcoal barbecue. Orange peel comes with an emerging sweetness. Gentle earthy, crumbly smoke wafts around. Time reveals stables, a slight sweatiness and baked bread again.

Palate – That sure is a ‘bite’, but I don’t want to recoil in pain. Sweet malt sugars appear at the front of the tongue before a cayenne and chilli heat take over. This falls back onto smoky/sweet charred oak and eventually a deep softness.

After some water the palate grows sootier with charcoal. Another sip reveals turmeric and smoky toffee. Medium-dry, it boasts residual chilli-like heat but loses some of the nuances of the straight sample.

Finish – Some oak sugars survive, but mostly the impression is of grains of peated malt. Apple cores and smoke. Peat bog is a growing impression, but in a naturalistic, not kilned character. Vanilla returns with paprika at the end.

Water lengthens and deepens the experience. Texturally, the whisky is of real interest blending creaminess and a rough firmness. Honeyed at first, with a bit of lemon, before becoming – there’s no other word for it – medicinal. Strong vanilla and caramel from the oak and a little of the Islay iodine character. Cured meats are the final act.

So…?

Let’s be clear on this one point: this is a very capable and charming single malt. It blends youthful vibrancy with richness and sophistication and I think it is very good value indeed. However, I tried it with a couple of friends of mine and we were all in agreement: it doesn’t blow your mind with peatiness. Ordinarily that would not be a compliant. Octomore and Supernova are all very well, but would you turn to them on a daily basis? However, neither of these two expressions claim the title of Peat’s Beast and it is in the spectrum of peat that we must judge this whisky. This is not widely available, those who choose to buy it will most likely do so with a few tours of duty already completed in Islay’s smokiest expressions and they are likely to come to the same conclusion: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Kilchoman all go peatier. 35 ppm is not a beastly phenol content; in fact, I would rename this whisky Peat’s Boisterous Labrador.

I am fairly certain this is not an Islay whisky, however, and hails instead from the mainland’s consistently peaty distillery: Ardmore. My evidence is the industrial grime I noted on the nose, in addition to the cured meats and orange, and the strong, fresh barley impression it retains through the palate and finish. Provenance is not vital, though, because this is a superb whisky. Peat – by its own mission statement, however – is, and it falls some way short of sticking your head inside the Laphroaig kiln. Therefore, buy it for the skilful manipulation of richness, spirit integrity and attractive earthiness, but bear in mind that there are bigger peaty beasts out there.

Many thanks to Pauline Graham for the sample.

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The SMWS at the Quaich Society

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has, when it comes to tastings, adopted the American military’s infamous strategy of shock and awe. Not only are their drams the equivalent of B52s in impact and firepower, their ambassadors together form some sort of Single Malt Navy Seal special forces unit. Essay deadlines had leached my preceding week of colour, life and pleasure. An airstrike from the SMWS squadron explosively repatriated them.

St Doug Clement worked a little miracle for the Quaich Society; by contributing 300 Glencairn glasses we could ensure that the five single cask, cask strength, unchillfiltered, uncoloured (my, oh my) drams Craig Johnstone had retrieved from The Vaults to wreak mass destruction would not be thwarted in their mission by inadequate glassware. ‘To leave no nose upturned’ is the Society’s motto, and when I had a mind to scan the room, every one of the 60 guests appeared to have theirs buried in Glencairns.

Some many-hued delights. 'Horizontal' tastings offer endless possibilities for exploration.

Craig introduced himself to the room, and the room to itself. He enquired of everyone’s places of origin and their taste in drinks. This was no phatic stunt to break the ice, however; it turns out that Craig has been just about everyone, tasted just about everything, and has a ravenous desire to understand how so many of our favourite beverages come to be. We learnt of eccentric Canadian treatments for back pain (Crown Royal if your sciatica is playing up); how India claim to be drinking more Johnnie Walker than Scotland produces, and the extraordinary diversity of flavours being created throughout the world and which Craig has witnessed for himself.

A considerable proportion of this flavour diversity – and maybe all of the 32 primary aromas he talked about – leapt out at us from the glasses in front of us. The first dram of the evening hailed from distillery 121 and it was cask #48. 121.48, then, or ’Let’s get this party started’ as the tasting note excerpt read. I found this light and rounded at first, with crisper, biscuity dry undertones developing. A little bit of braised cabbage and candied lemon, also. The palate was clean and smooth, with a hit of alcohol mid-palate and unripe pear. Water sharpened the nose, bringing out freshly washed cotton on the clothes line. A more strident biscuit note developed in the mouth, with charred oak, thick caramel and dark chocolate. A very fresh and frisky dram from Arran.

Dram No. 2 - or to be more correct, G5.3 – was a revelation. Gasps gusted around the Garden Suite and it was not simply on account of the 65.6% abv. Matured for eighteen years in a toasted virgin oak cask, this was one single grain that, for many, outstripped the single malts that night. I must confess that ‘Extraordinary’ is right. The grain spirit had plucked everything that was superlative from the cask, while keeping its light, clean softness. ’Who thought grain whisky could taste like this?’ Craig enquired. Had most of these Quaich Soc’ers not already been blessed with John Glaser’s proselytising with the help of his Hedonism bottling, more hands would have gone up. This was another weighty case to put to the grain dissenters.

The evening then repaired to an Old Jazz Bar next, a 26yo specimen from #35. I was impressed by the breadth of flavours, although it seemed a tad too discreet and polite at first although perhaps this was due to the strength. At 40.6% another couple of months in this particular ex-Bourbon cask would have robbed it of its whisky identity. Crisp, flaky malt, plain chocolate, ginger sponge and ground coffee comprised the expansive nose while the palate was exceptionally soft, with apple, well-integrated oak and vanilla biscuit. As Glen Morays go, this was a deliciously delicate individual.

Mr Craig Johnstone, giving one hell of a lecture.

I would never in a million years have supposed that 76.85, ‘The Antagonist’, might have indicated output from dear old Mortlach. Apple, pear and melon (eh?!) on the nose with some gently buttery barley and crisp oak have never appeared in my tasting notes for this Chthonic distillery. On the palate I did find rich vegetables and a ‘fixing’ quality, but I did not think to equate this with worm tub collusion, still less Dufftown. Water made it more voluble and oaky, with some orange rind tucked underneath to please the nostrils. And they were pleased, just fairly rubbish at the identity parade.

There could be no confusing the next incumbent. 29.90, as all Society peatheads will tell you, is the quite unique Laphroaig and I doubt this particular bottling would disappoint them. Heavy peat, glorious peat. Cigarette ash and bonfire night, spent matches. There were some in the room, however, who were somewhat hostile to this style of spirit but Craig, ever resourceful, had a solution. ‘I promise you this will get rid of the smoke, and you will finish that dram.’ Eyebrows were raised, but Craig persevered. ‘I want you to take a mouthful of water and just keep it there.’ We all obeyed, trying not to drown ourselves or gargle. ‘Now drink the whisky through the water.’ I stared in bemusement and wonder. The equivalent of Sawing the Woman in Half had just happened, in my mouth. The smoke fleetingly appeared as a rich, dry tickle and then disappeared altogether leaving only a caramel-like, barley sugar sweetness that rolled over the tastebuds with every possible flirtation. ‘The phenols dissolve in water first, you see,’ Craig said through a huge grin.

The tasting over, and a queue of people around the front table for the purposes of either thanking our host or putting their name and credit card details in his membership ledger, I could reflect on the marvel we had all witnessed. Craig Johnstone is the Kilchoman of the whisky ambassador world. For one so young it astonishes me that he should have acquired so much knowledge, science, anecdote and authority in so short a space of time. In fact, many a wily and more senior ambassador has laid light fingers on his show-stopper tricks without attribution, a tactic that does wrankle him a little. Of course, he is a couple of decades ahead of them already, and who knows what heights will be attained with a few more years around casks regarding the Craig Johnstone package?

‘Had any of you heard about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before tonight?’ Craig had asked at the top of the evening. ’Did any of you think we were a cult?’ Perhaps expansion into the religious sect business would not be a disastrous idea: I know that many in St Andrews were converted.

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Medicine with Uncle Mike

You may have heard of the description, ‘a shrinking violet’. They tend not to make good sales people. Mike Drury, of the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, is a very good sales person. He is not a shrinking violet. The shop is run as a private church to his evangelical faith that whisky ought to be better than the standard which most official bottlings, to his mind, settle for. Mike is vehemently, unapologetically passionate about single malt Scotch, and when taken together form one formidable duo.

Hopefully I can make annual visits to this tantalising apothecary shop of astounding, individual whiskies.

My staunch refusal to countenance anything other than a Mortlach last year had evidently pained him – ‘there are much better whiskies than that in here…’ he had sighed – and so last week I vowed to submit to his tutelage. Despite a rapidly congesting nose, I begged to know what was good at that moment. ‘He’s come to Uncle Mike for a cure,’ beamed Mr Drury, and I had a Douglas Laing Mortlach in my hand inside 25 seconds.

I explained my Project – cask strength, preferably single cask, non-chillfiltered: a whisky with genuine personality – and away he went to forage in the forest of bottles behind the counter. He produced a Gordon & MacPhail-sourced, Whisky Castle-bottled Arran. ‘This,’ winked Mike, ‘is one sexy whisky – if you like toffee.’ A first-fill ex-Bourbon barrel had held Arran spirit for 11 years, and the result was a bonanza of the best that wood can offer: butterscotch galore, creamy, unctuous, with a suggestion of green fruits and spring blossoms in a cool mist. We had our benchmark.

There followed many others: amongst them a Bunnahabhain (heavy lactose notes at first, then a more mature maritime character and a complex oak-malt interchange on the palate) and a ‘diverting’ A.D. Rattray melange of malts. Nothing flicked any switches, however, and I began to worry that my Cinderella whisky was simply a fantasy.

This 15yo first-fill ex-Bourbon will hopefully prove to be the ultimate Caol Ila experience.

However, Cathy – Mike’s wife, who all this time had been surfing the net calling out cruise trip options further along the counter – spoke up in support of another G&M/Whisky Castle collaboration: a Sherry-matured Caol Ila. The moment those gloriously familiar peat notes reached my nose – a mixture of peat bog and the lightest smoke eddying on the Islay breezes, my mission changed and I was acquainted with a Dewar Rattray 15yo.

Meanwhile, others were getting the Mike treatment: controversial declarations which gently put the customer’s nose out of joint. However, his bluster is always backed up by a stunning malt the customer would never have thought of. I reflected as I counted out seven ten-pound notes how effective Mike’s approach is. Whisky is a complicated matter: a wood wilfully obscured by the trees at times. I would wager that Mike’s particular methods, by starting from the customer’s own tastes and challenging them with good-natured abuse and tenacity, induce new opinion in his punters. To defend your predilections is to gain a more rounded understanding of them and with a new conviction comes new confidence. By establishing a dialogue, aided and abetted by those glorious drams I talked about, people become genuinely interested in what whisky is and can be. A steady stream of samples shows that there is no harm – only greater rewards - in exploring.

I left with my Dewar Rattray after all, similarly bristling with single malt bombast. Mike knows his own mind, and he knows whisky, and consequently I believe that it is possible at the Whisky Castle to purchase drams as they should be drunk: in lively, enlightening conversation.

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A Taste of Speyside with Friends

Perhaps the most profound and extraordinary aspect of whisky’s character is how expertly it manipulates and distinguishes precious moments. One distillery, one dram, can bridge many months and miles and can muster disparate souls together to a degree that is startling yet also immensely heartening. When I purchased the Adelphi ‘Breath of Speyside’ 16yo in September last year, I had hoped for just such a moment and, a couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in it.

If Jane and Fiona employed something akin to maternal care for the purposes of chivvying me back on my way last year, Sandy of Taste of Speyside, Dufftown, wielded more paternal power to forcibly shake me from my exhausted and deflated stupour. In both instances, the distilleries they championed today recall a bond as near to kinship as makes no difference. Glen Garioch and Mortlach respectively connote laughter, security and friendship: they are like second homes. With a bottle of the former already in the cupboard, I needed a bottle of the latter as a representative in liquid form of Sandy’s humour and generosity. Mike in the Whisky Castle, Tomintoul, poured a measure of this for me, which he was certain could only be spirit from the desired distillery. For eight months it lurked in the darkness of the sideboard but with the completion of my first year at St Andrews and the imminent departure of a very dear friend to Alabama, USA, I felt the time was right to uncork all that pent-up conviviality.

As I explained to my malt-mad counterparts, I couldn’t imagine sharing the Adelphi with any other persons. Justin, possibly the most infectiously enthusiastic and erudite individual it has ever been my good fortune to attend a whisky tasting with, had swooned upon discovering the 16yo Flora & Fauna earlier in the year and Gareth, whose whisky experience has been swelling at a considerable rate of knots and absorbs the brasher, more aggressive flavours Scotch has to offer with relish, both succombed to wide-eyed rapture upon tasting. I, too, was delirious with delight at how perfectly the dram sang of Speyside’s earthier, richer, woodier landscapes and for a time I was back in a sparkly sunny Tomintoul withstanding Mike’s woe about how hard it is to find a good whisky these days. The dram, which we all agreed matched the distinctive power of Dufftown’s first distillery, communicated a great deal more effectively than I could my feelings both for single malt whisky in general and the two gentlemen who had supped so much of it with me in particular.

Adelphi Breath of Speyside‘Breath of Speyside’ 1991 16yo 57.9% cask no. 4229.

Colour – Fierce: soaked Sherry oak. Rich maple syrup.

Nose – Red fruits squashed into dusty dark earth at first, then a lot of the heady oaky ‘tang’ I associate with first-fill Sherry wood. Blackcurrant cordial. Closer to, the big, dark and powerfully sweet Sherry really leaps out. However, this whisky’s theme emerges immediately alongside this as I smell Chinese stir fry: groundnut oil and soy. Then I detect a log store: damp, bark-like and darkly aromatic. Leaf mould. Fragrance of light, leafy smoke completes this walk in the woods.

      Water conjures up a sweet meaty note straight away. This is roast leg of lamp straight out of the oven with crisp skin and running juices. Behind the meat is soft, muscular fruitiness. Rotting plums. Incredibly dense and feral. Earthily smoky and very rich maltiness suddenly emerges, with lavendar oil close behind. More breathing time pulls out toffee and nuts.

Palate – Attacking, fruit from the cask and then just cask. Serious tannic grip. Mulchy smoke and then sweeter malt steal in.

      Water rounds it out slightly, with the fruit now permitted to stand alone. The oak is tamed although there is still a dark richness that reminds me of beef stock granules.

Finish – Lovely, deep deep vanilla notes. Light and creamy citrus, too. The cask lends all the right flavours here. Meaty. Gently drying with orange pith.

      Water heightens the drying fragrance exerted by the cask: oak branches. Hot darkness comes next with blackened Sherry fruits. Creamy toffee, some green malt and then more impressions of living oak.

This is a powerful, challenging whisky which asserts the continued existence of a darker, more primeval Speyside than the one too many people now write off as light, fruity and honeyed. I can imagine the Speyside Way projecting similar aromas to this wonderful malt from the exceptional Adelphi on a wet November day. Maybe it is a conversation whisky, for I have not been amazed by it to the same degree as when I sipped it with Gareth and Justin. Of course, on the breath of this Speysider will carry the whispers of that particular night to which it bore witness, and I will prize it all the more as long as there is some of it left in the bottle to listen to.

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Mothballed? Why?! Glen Keith 1993

Way back in icy January I mentioned I raft of lesser-spotted Speysiders I had come across courtesy of Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice range, the foundation line of whiskies demonstrating the extraordinary variety Scotland, and especially her pre-eminent independent bottlers, have at their disposal.

Gordon & MacPhail Glen Keith 1993Of the five malts I purchased, the Glen Keith was really startlingly good, and tasting notes are below. Glen Keith, although mothballed since 2000, is still a significant site for Chivas Brothers. Located in the town of Keith, it is just down and across the river Isla from Strathisla, whose spirit is filled there. When I passed from tun room to still house during my tour of Strathisla last year, I remember seeing pipes arrowing away down stream to another pagoda. The two distilleries are intrinsically connected. Glen Keith also malted its own barley until 1976, providing itself and Strathisla with malt. Chivas Bros. still use Glen Keith for important experimentation into the whisky-making process. 

Purchase this little star in 70cl form here.

Glen Keith 1993 46% (Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice). £40.

Colour – Candy yellow. Light honey gold.

Nose – At first it seems quite bold with very clean characteristics and sweet citrussy oak. Lemon butter icing and butterscotch maltiness. Closer to it is oaky and grassy with apple, chunks of tablet and a just-ripe banana note. Lemon curd. Shortbread dough – raw pastry. Soft and creamy. After a sip, deeper vanilla toffee emerges, along with poached pears and cinnamon. Toasted ex-Bourbon oak and thick whipped cream.

      Water renders the whisky softer and sweeter still. The shortbread has been cooked and topped with praline. Lemon accented vanilla cream. Clean, ‘golden’ American oak. Intense heathery aromas appear and a darker rich spice. Apple turnover. Not complex: there are simply acres of delight to be accommodated. Aberfeldy-ish.

Palate – Round, quite rich and toffeed with a sweet spiciness. Citrus appears (lemon and orange) together with drying spices.

      Water makes for a softer experience again, with gristy malt and then oak. Lemon pastries, an intense dried grassiness then clean fruitiness. Slight charring.

Finish – Butterscotch sauce. Clean and soft malt in perfect harmony with a light juicy oakiness. More lemon. Medium length. Sponge cake mixture.

      Water perhaps fractionally improves matters: clean malt and soft sweet oak combine nicely. Fruity with white grape and green apple. Rich biscuit.

So…?      The advice when collecting is to go for the closed distilleries and those bottlings which taste nice. While I haven’t heard anything from anyone else about this particular vintage, it would be no skin off my nose to purchase a couple of these and, if nothing happens price-wise, I at least have the insurance of a lovely dram. This is not complex, but shows what pleasant, sweet and fresh heights some lighter Speyside malts can reach when paired with a damn good cask. The American oak does make this malt, but it does not predominate and allows some delicious biscuit and fruit notes through.

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Caol Ila 30yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Caol Ila from Master of Malt.

A single cask Caol Ila from Master of Malt.

We all have our own idiosyncratic methods of getting through the day: overcoming the arduous, tedious or simply mystifying duties whose application to ourselves is impossible to account for, and yet equally impossible to escape. Instead of model-building, gardening, recreational drug use or wandering about with a concealed weapon, I reach for a sample of whisky to reconnect me with a region of satisfaction and fulfilment.

With exams not at all far away, therefore, I need all the help I can get and fortunately enough, those charming people at Master of Malt are doing all they can to provide that assistance. Having already encountered their own expression of Highland Park, I had a wax-sealed jar of seriously mature Inner Hebridean nectar in the desk drawer. Perhaps my favourite distillery, I was anxious that this Caol Ila would represent an improvement on the Orcadian malt. Find this wee dram for yourself here.

Caol Ila 30yo 57.4% Distilled in 1980, filled into refill Bourbon wood. £99.95

Colour - Reasonably rich full gold/amber.

Nose - This one came in a trio of waves, each more involving than the last. The notes go on and on but I shall summarise: intense and quite dry golden apply sweetness at first with an assertive waft of crisp and quite deep fruity peatiness. This peat note is the first to develop, turning industrial with soot-blackened Islay jetties with impressions of a cool warehouse filled with old hogsheads. Lemon and orange sneak in. Finally it becomes perfumed with spearmint chewing gum. Very soft and creamy with grist and salt. Cow shed-like peatiness appears with bonfire wood and there is also a very fetching baked earth sweetness.

      Water accentuates the seaside much more with fresh fishy sweetness – all seared scallops with a delicious liquid tablet quality alongside. Stewed green apple and almond/hazelnut. The oak is very generous but not overpowering, allowing masses of sweet flavours to emerge such as lemon and lime tart, barley sugar and grape with jellied sweets. More time does this dram every possible favour, becoming – to my mind – a classic Caol Ila: peaty with dry husky-sweet malt, nuttiness, wet logs and a touch of stem ginger.

Palate - Peppery and spicy with plenty of peat and soft, chewy-sweet citrus. The peat is more evident in this expression than a Bladnoch Forum Caol Ila 30yo I have had.  Caramelising sugar sweetness comes along, too.

      Water ramps up the fruitness to the point where it is acetone-esque. Hot, very sweetly spicy with smooth peat and Earl Grey. Clean and not as cutting, with a little toffee. Rich and complex.

Finish – Warming and extremely smooth. Delicate soft fruits and maritime. Peated wash. Grassy and gentle with a conifer-like sweetness.

      Water transformed this malt, for me. Beginning with a medium-sweet maltiness it builds into gently earthy phenolics and sloe gin. Clean and syrupy, it coats the tongue and continues to enthrall long after it has gone down. It lent me the impression of May in the Hebrides, beginning on the beach with the dunes and sun-bleached shells. A spirit of adventure draws you towards the low-lying cliffs, however, surrounded by rocks and covered in tough, new-green and wind-clipped turf. This Caol Ila, once the fireworks have died away, is exactly like lying on one of those wild lawns. I felt the sun’s heat and the earthy aromatics released from the dark soil beneath. Fantastic.

So…?      As the biggest producer on Islay by some distance (and with expansion plans approved it will only get bigger) it goes some way to explaining why so many Caol Ilas appear under independent labelling. That they appear to be all so intriguing is testament to the inherent quality of the spirit produced in such quantities. and after 30 years? Caol Ila doesn’t age like other whiskies. There is none of the darkness velvety richness I have noted in other 25yo+ drams - just, as I said, never-ending panoramas of sweetness. I would quite happily go for a full bottle of this – so deftly-handled is the Caol Ila signature I love so much.

Master of Malt have chosen a stonkingly good cask to bottle for their customers and with only 154 bottles emerging from that hogshead, I’d be quick. I’m extremely grateful to Master of Malt for giving me the opportunity to try such a marvellous whisky – and forget about exams for half an hour.

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