scotchodysseyblog.com

scotchodysseyblog

Day 8: Brora Bail-Out

I didn’t contemplate stopping until some time after I woke up from a sketchy night’s sleep; while eating my breakfast, despite even sketchier innards, I remained focused on my journey’s end in Brora and the following day’s coast-to-coast ride to Ullapool and, following a ferry transfer, Stornoway.

A three-mile detour, as I followed south-bound cycle route signs to Strathpeffer rather than those which would have taken me north, a series of arrow-straight, 15% gradients out of Dingwall, and an inexplicable clunking noise from the bike all turned my thoughts towards what I was capable of enduring. Was the second half of the Odyssey something I could, something I should, persevere with?

The previous evening’s pizza shop paranoia was the first suggestion that bodily fatigue had at last begun to erode mental resilience. In a reverse of four years ago, the spirit had been willing but only now did I realise how weak the body had become.

A week previously, I had been concerned about the left knee; now, the right joint was stiff and uncooperative. However, as I wheezed above the Cromarty Firth, almost painfully bright blue, I began to suspect that neither knee was really the issue. Instead, both legs were empty – there was no zip, no power, left. For the first time, breathing proved uncomfortable and lung capacity felt reduced. What was I riding for? The answer was revealing: ‘Balblair’.

Along the mazy cycle path through the woods to Alness, I decided that there was nothing for me beyond Balblair visitor centre and my night’s stop at Clynelish Farm B&B. The forecast for Lewis on Wednesday was less than encouraging, the distance – 80 miles – was not something I could entertain overcoming in my current state. Mileage forecasts read like nails in my own coffin: 80 miles, 61 miles, 59 miles, 65 miles. I hadn’t done the training to confidently commit to these distances. My ‘see how you go’ approach had now come to a head. I couldn’t go on.

What remained after Balblair, in any case? A distillery I knew I couldn’t physically get to and one I had visited before (Auchentoshan). In between? If you took Lewis and Harris out of the equation I had more or less covered the Skye to Glasgow route on the first Odyssey. Even assuming I miraculously recovered my touring legs, what would I get out of those ten days? More traffic, more exhaustion and certainly no Laidlaws. With my new job beginning in Dubai in September, I reflected that the right decision was to come home to my family and my girlfriend, savour the companionship I was sorely lacking out here on the sun-blasted tarmac of the Scottish Highlands.

Near Invergordon I cut across to the A9, sprinting a mile or so westward before reaching a turn off to the left which I suspected would take me towards Tain. By this stage, the heat and glare had reached impressive levels and the road followed an upward trajectory once more. This was a real physical low point, with little or no energy to call upon. I just had to grovel up the inclines and numbly roll down the descents. Repeat for the next six miles.

Turning through Tain, I was familiar with the next part of my route: stay as close to the soft drain at the left-hand side of the road as possible, keep your head down and try not to scream. Articulated lorries, forestry trucks, campervans, all sweep past you at alarming rates as you pass through the sweet fermenting fug of Glenmorangie. Then it’s uphill to the Dornoch Bridge roundabout before collapsing down the other side to the quieter, shadier banks of the Dornoch Firth.Far slower progress was made than three years previously, when I cycled from my Tain B&B to Balblair each day for a spot of low-impact work experience. Eventually, the caravan park on Edderton’s outskirts appeared on my right, and the brown signs for the distillery guided me past the Clach Biorach Pictish stone, red brick chimney and pagoda vent just visible beyond.

Life was, if anything, hotter in the courtyard beneath the mashtun and alongside the visitor centre, from where Julie and ‘new girl’ Monica appeared. Their greetings, and the sheer pleasure of being at Balblair, ensured I beamed rather than burned. I changed, ate lunch and then wandered back in the direction of the offices. Redecorated since my last visit, and significantly airier, too, on account of the windows being replaced, between Julie and I we established that the best bet would be for me to have a roam around looking for operators. John Ross I bumped into in the car park, Norman and manager John were in the adjoining office.

From there it was up to the break room where I met Alan More and Mike Ross. It transpires that the biggest change since automation in 2011 was the removal of the wee third still. This little riveted beauty was taken out to make room for an extra wash charger, which allows for extra fermentation space and ups the production capacity. Everyone seemed to be in rude health, and Mike showed me the computer operating system for the distillery. It is incredible to see all the graphs and readings from each step of the process, detailed so exactly. I couldn’t make a great deal of them, but clearly there were no causes for concern.

Back in the office, I could get down to the important business of tasting. Lukasz Dynowiak had been very generous at his Quaich Society tasting the previous winter, so I had tried the 2003 and 1990 already. My chief target was the hand-fill ex-Bourbon cask from 2000, exuding spicy/sweet aromas in the visitor centre. That and the 1983. I got to work on the latter while Julie slipped away to find me a measure of the former.

The nose was warm and leathery with plenty of rich orange, leaf mulch and banana toffee. The weight and clarity was exceptional, recalling my favourite Balblair ever, the 1978. Rich honey and even a light smokiness emerged next with traces of coconut and an almost Japanese dried bark intensity. The palate showcased the waxiness of age together with deep dried fruit, papaya, mango, cinnamon and cream.

The hand-fill (58% ABV) was closed, clean and quite sharp at first. A fragrant, soapy texture developed along with creamy cedar wood. To taste, I didn’t detect much more than hard leather, oak and budding fruits. Water improved matters, exposing grapefruit, lime, washback fruits, turmeric and banana foam sweets on the nose. A malty and citrusy palate was attractive but while it showed more Balblair hallmarks, I couldn’t justify the £90 asking price, which is very high for a 14yo single cask. Conscious that this was my final distillery visit, and that there was a vintage from my birth year in the shop, I went for the 1990 instead. With a bit of ingenuity, it fitted snugly in my pannier.Setting off for the Dornoch Bridge, the body felt a little more pepped and willing. I was even buoyed by a generous tailwind passing over the firth. From thereon in, however, life became difficult again. I allotted myself ten-mile sections of the A9 which I would ride as briskly as possible before pulling over for a rest. Soon, the wide tarmac hard-shoulder vanished and I was at the mercy of the traffic again. Inexplicably, for the third day in a row, the wind hit me full in the face. Saturday: heading east with a headwind; Sunday: heading west with a headwind; Monday: heading north with a headwind. Clearly the weather gods wanted me to throw in the towel.

Twelve miles to Golspie, became 8, then four. I knew Brora was not much further on from Golspie, but couldn’t be more precise until I saw a sign reading ‘Golspie 4; Brora 10′. The traffic was intermittent: congested and irritable one moment, non-existent the next. As I pedalled through the sleepy main street of Golspie, I suddenly recollected the climb out of it. These were miles familiar from Scotch Odyssey 1, but that didn’t make them any easier.

The road swung round to the cliff top once again for the run in to Brora and the full force of the north coastal breeze just about toppled my sanity. Teeth gritted, pushing down a yell of rage, I bumped into the village (no idea what those rumble strips are doing there) and spied the station. If I was getting home the next day, it would have to be by train. Of course, the station was un-staffed - indeed, it was in the process of being boarded up so I pedalled back to the A9 and followed the signs to Clynelish as I knew my B&B was practically in the grounds. I took the wrong road, however, and ended up circuiting the ruins of Brora Distillery, necessitating another short sharp climb back to what could only be Clynelish Farm B&B. Arriving simultaneously with a couple in a car (what wisdom), I was shown to my room by Victoria, the Australian proprietor.That afternoon’s shower was well-deserved, I thought, as I scoured off all the road muck and sun cream, but also philosophical. My next task was not finding dinner and preparing for the next adventure, but plotting my route back home. A couple of abortive phone calls to National Rail and Scotrail occurred as I walked between fields of cows and gorse back into Brora, followed by a confessional call to my parents.

‘I’ve decided to stop,’ I said. They didn’t seem terribly upset by this news and, following two train journeys and a bike ride to St Andrews, a bus and a further train back to Northumberland, I can confirm that I’m not terribly upset, either. Of course there are pangs of longing for the grandeur and adventure of bike touring, and I miss the pared down lifestyle it encourages. However, there is not an ounce of regret that I didn’t carry on to Stornoway. I know my body could not have coped.

Since January and my two weeks in London with Compass Box I haven’t stopped to rest and attempting a 1,000 mile bike trip two weeks after sitting my final exams was asking a great deal. A great deal too much, as it turned out. Instead, I covered nearly 460 miles in eight days, via six distilleries or distilleries-in-the-making, and ended up 60 miles north of Inverness on the beautiful Sutherland coast. I had my fun and the 1983 Balblair was definitely a dram worth holding out for. We shall have to see what touring opportunities arise in future.

Posted in The Odyssey, The Tours | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The anCnoc Peaty Collection

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

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

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

anCnoc Rutter (11ppm) 46% £52

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

anCnoc Flaughter (14.8ppm) 46% £52

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Pulteney and Balblair at the Quaich Society

The intriguingly complex Duncansby Head from Old Pulteney.

Even above and beyond the extraordinary whiskies we are treated to here at the Quaich Society, the single most important factor in the club is community. However, this all-encompassing term extends beyond the organising Committee, even beyond the whisky faithful who attend each tasting. Community is also about our interactions with the great men and women on the frontline of the whisky industry who generously donate their products and passion.

One of the family by now is certainly Lukasz from Inver House Distillers. Over the last three years he has arrived carrying the most intriguing line ups the Society has seen. In one year Lukasz even managed to squeeze in two tastings for us. He pitches his presentations just right: the whiskies have their moment in the spotlight, there’s a bit of history and a strong emphasis on production values. More than anything else, however, Lukasz is a really top guy whose sense of humour is as self-evident as his love of a good dram.

Last month, to round off our first Semester of superb tastings, Lukasz outdid himself with the breadth and exclusivity of the whiskies he brought. Indeed, so exclusive were they that our post-tasting discounts for attendees in Luvians Bottle Shop could apply to only one of the six single malts on show. We were treated to the Travel Retail Exclusive Old Pulteney Lighthouse Collection (Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Pentland Skerries) and the soon-to-be-released Balblair Vintages of 2003 and 1990 as well as the (slightly) more readily-available 1997.

The Lighthouse Collection is a boldly-packaged, wood-focused range of whiskies from the Wick-based distillery of Old Pulteney. In keeping with their ‘Maritime Malt’ persona, the moniker of each whisky champions a local lighthouse. Their characters are wholly cask-differentiated, however. Lukasz pointed out that it was rare to taste products from the one distillery in which the age was a constant (7-8 years old) but the maturation regime wildly different. The Noss Head is the ex-Bourbon representative. Bubbly, clean and lush on the nose I found plenty of freshly-peeled orange, an oiliness and banoffee pie. The palate was spirity with rich oak and leafy qualities.

The middle whisky was perhaps the best of the bunch for me, and if it is possible for a whisky to boast such a thing, it had real integrity. A Bourbon and Sherry mix, this was softer and more reserved on the nose with salt and sweet oak. Complex and textured. The palate showed fixing fruit, ginger and cardamom.

For his introduction to the Pentland Skerries expression, Lukasz went into a little more detail about Quercus robur - the Darth Vadar of oak. He asserted that coopers and distillers hated working with the stuff since it is prone to splitting, leaking, and all manner of other defects making cask construction and management very complicated – not to mention expensive. Nevertheless, the impact on the finished whisky cannot be replicated any other way and the flavour profile will always be in demand. I must admit, though, that I would not ask for the Pentland Skerries again. While rich and smooth on the nose with plenty of fruit and toffee, sandy notes and wet tweed developed suggesting the cask and the spirit have not quite achieved harmony. The palate was thick and clinging, but beyond the obvious Sherry flavours the engaging depths of the distillery character simply couldn’t surface.

Having eulogised about Sherry casks, Lukasz revealed a little of his own whisky evolution. It wasn’t so very long ago, he told us, that he was a peat freak; the peatier the better, in fact. Then one day, he poured another rich, smoky dram and… was unmoved. Somehow those earthy, fruity beasts simply didn’t push his buttons any more and he rediscovered the joys of an unpeated whisky matured in quality American oak ex-Bourbon casks. To him, he can detect ‘more of the place in my dram’ – ex-Bourbon promotes transparency in a whisky: where it was made, to what brief and by whom.

I have to say I agree. Of the tastings we have had this year, the Tomatin 15yo and Balvenie 12yo Single Barrel have been the stand-out whiskies for me. I began dribbling with anticipation because I know that one of the best spirits to come out of good ex-Bourbon barrels is Balblair, and Lukasz had three vintages lined up for us.

The 2003 replaces the delicious, exciting and charming 2002 which is one of my favourite drams. The 2003 kept the faintly straw-like, hamster feed-ish cereal qualities and added a biscuitiness. The palate had amazing feel to it – all barley sugar and syrupy citrus. However, overall I felt it was just a touch too austere and spirity when compared with the 2002.

The 1997 went by many descriptors from Lukasz: blue sky whisky, a lunchtime whisky… For me personally, this is a desert island whisky and not just because of the tropical fruit notes and freshness. It is a seriously high-quality dram. It boasts an absolutely stunning nose: rich yet lush and creamy with orange travel sweets. There is a great undertone of dryness from the oak. On the palate, all is well with an immensely fruity delivery – think travel sweets again – backed up by cumin and nutmeg.

During the Balblair portion of the evening, Lukasz had to field questions of the vintage bottling policy. He emphasised Balblair’s artisanal philosophy and tiny scale – only 5% of the distillery’s 1.75 mla production goes to single malt or as Lukasz put it: ‘we bottle what Glenfiddich spill’. It is a distillery that I admire hugely and this extended to the final whisky of the evening, the new 1990. What is it with Inver House bottling whiskies from my birth year? Are they trying to bankrupt me? I will have to come by some of this soon, though, for this Balblair takes the house style in a dramatically different direction. After 21 years the whisky comes out of those top quality ex-Bourbon barrels and goes into second fill Oloroso Sherry casks for another two. In the glass, this smelt as old as the 1975 Vintage I tried last year. So much cinnamon, pineapple and mincemeat with a lovely earthiness. Dried orange, pot pourri and even a marsala-like kick are additional layers. The palate is true to Balblair’s trademark spiciness. Some burnt orange appears, too, with a salty oaky dryness. It grows to be slightly herbal before the fruity notes come back in.

Another special Balblair was unveiled for the Raffle and I know that was tremendously popular. Every time Lukasz trundles away back to Edinburgh I hope he will return at some point and I wonder how he can top his last selection. So far, he has managed that every time. Our thanks to him again for a potent send-off towards exams and Christmas. I daresay a couple of Old Pulteneys may have been picked up at the airport as some of our international members return home for the Festive period.

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

Old Pulteney 1990 Peated Casks

To boast strength of character sets you apart. You don’t have to shout to be heard; pulling power isn’t about the size of your bank balance or the cheap thrills you promise hangers-on. Strength of character combines expertise, sincerity, idiosyncracy. You don’t have to chase people – they will come to you.

This is how I feel about the Pulteney distillery in Wick. In 1826 it supplied whisky for those who relied on their skill and bravery for a living: the herring fishermen. Today, it continues to produce a spirit which is essentially traditional but unlike anything else. When I went round the distillery in 2010, I couldn’t come to terms with the ramshackle nature of its layout and location. This is a distillery born out of opportunism and a mend-as-we-go mentality, yet the confidence and character impress you.

When Inver House Distillers, Old Pulteney’s owners, invited me back exactly three years ago, I peeked into a few more corners, asked a few more questions and again reflected on the distillery’s infectious pride and personality. Its situation – so far up on the north coast – is said to instil a saltiness into their whiskies which rest in the warehouses by the harbour; its equipment is unique: ugly duckling stills rather than the more graceful swans from elsewhere in the industry feed into worm tubs, both of which build complexity on top of flavour on top of texture. In 2012, Jim Murray recognised Old Pulteney 21yo as the best whisky in the world. Having bought a bottle four months before the announcement, the plaudits came as no suprise.

On that last November visit, manager Malcolm Waring filled a glass with the visitor centre single cask bottle-your-own dram. It was a 1990 Old Pulteney from a Bourbon barrel that had previously held peated Scotch single malt. I don’t remember it all that well, being the final dram of a mammoth sampling, but a bracing freshness, depth and sweetness had been evident. Now, the brand is to release a 1990 vintage marriage of several ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks with that peated wood element in play. As 1990 is my birth year, I was eager to see a) how the whisky had developed over the last three years and b) whether I might need a bottle for a special occasion.

Bottled at 23 years of age or thereabouts, this whisky is 46%, natural colour and not chill-filtered.

Old Pulteney 1990 Vintage 46% (900 cases) £120 (RRP)

Colour – full honey gold.

Nose – slightly musty fruits from above with old yellow apple, papaya and mandarin. A tickle of spice (ginger), syrupy sweet oak with plenty of vanilla and rich earthiness. With nose in the glass it is very self-contained with lush meeting spicy. A waxy weight to this. Seville orange, green fruits, sherry-soaked currants and rich oak sugars. The malt has a soft, perfumed shell, behind which is zesty barley. A bracing salty edge when warmed.

Palate – sparkles around the mouth with a wealth of bubbly fruit: apple, pear, peach and flamed orange zest. In time there is weighty, firm and dark oak as well as rich earthy peat just at the tail.

Finish – the smoke pervades for a time, just drying on the edges of the tongue. Then butterscotch and sherried fruits emerge. Salty with again that weighty, waxy spirit character.

Adding water made this even more expressive: a fraction dryer on the nose as the spice and salt really kick in. The oak is nicely creamy, however, with fudge and vanilla aromas. The peat note is farmy while apricot develops with time. The palate is a show-stopper: age is apparent immediately with dense oak and oily malt. However, it still conspires to be fruity with pear, orange and apricot in alliance with oak, salt and peat. These last three club together in a dazzling triad to grip and structure everything. Far smokier to taste than the straight sample, but it is still a very mild peat influence and only there for a spicy, sweet complexity. The finish is unmistakably dry with salt and hot oranges. The barley is still clean and gristy beside the dried fruit of the oak. That muted aged peatiness from the oak returns.

So…?      As I said, strength of character. This is not a whisky that makes a song and dance about its merits, which are extensive. It hadn’t the lush vigour of the 12yo, or the oily austerity of the 17yo, nor the gloriously expressive orange and spice crackle nose boasted by the 21yo; however, every one of the 23 years shows. When analysing, there was simply so much going on and I worried I hadn’t kept track. Rather than the flirty and the obvious, this evolves in the glass and I can see this being a seriously reliable fireside dram as well as a joy for food pairings: a hard cheese like a vintage gouda or dessert would be my suggestion.

The Old Pulteney spirit does things its own way, which I certainly commend. Weighty, fruity, waxy, spicy, salty – it brings a great deal to the table and is always a malt I relish returning to. This 1990 is possibly a fraction out of my budget for the time being, and I’d still recommend the 21yo in its stead. For those who do make its acquaintance, however, they will not be disappointed.

Thanks go to Lukasz Dynowiak for the sample.

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

Inver House at the Quaich Society (3)

Inver House's third line up for the Quaich Society.

Bingo is not a terribly popular pursuit amongst members of the Quaich Society, but its President isn’t above using an analogy derived from that pastime. Therefore, when Lucas Dynowiak returned to St Andrews in November armed with a trio of Speyburns he made it a full house of Inver House’s single malt brands at the Society. I say ‘brands’: we haven’t seen any Balmenach thus far, but it is still doing much of the grunt work for the Hankey Bannister blends, in addition to manufacturing the exceedingly tasty Caorunn gin. However, Speyburn assumed its moment in the spotlight, succeeding from anCnoc, Balblair and Old Pulteney which had all received a favourable audience on the Fife coast.

Before we arrived at the make from what Michael Jackson believed to be Scotland’s most picturesque distillery, Lucas wanted to institute a little continuity from his previous tasting in May. It was to a couple of anCnoc expressions that we immediately turned our taste buds. Lucas is very much on the Quaich Society wavelength in his presentation style: urging us to explore the liquid first, he provides a judicious quantity of whisky geekery in the way of captions as we go.

Lucas keeps us amused.

The first pour was a ‘picnic dram’, in his words, although the label said ‘Peter Arkle No. 3′. As the name suggests, this is the third anCnoc expression released in conjunction with Scottish artist, Peter Arkle’s work. This one was exclusive to travel retail (how Lucas got these two 1l bottles past customs, I’ll never know) and unlike editions 1 and 2, hailed from Bourbon casks exclusively.

Filling in the gap between this and Peter Arkle No. 1 which we had sampled in May was Peter Arkle No. 2. A milder-mannered beast in Lucas’s opinion, many people appreciated its exuberant sweetness and heavy orange flavours. My subsequent review was a little more severe.

Fairly racing along in the procedings, Speyburn stepped up to address our gathering of whisky fans following the brace of anCnocs. If Lucas had his way, it would also be Speyside malt whisky’s ambassador to best convey that region’s style to a visiting alien. While I entertained the notion of an extra-terrestrial sporting Charles MacLean’s moustache, Lucas explained that the whisky hailed from the heart of Speyside, had been constructed in 1897 at the peak of distillery construction in the area, and produced a typically fruity, fresh spirit.

The proof was in the whisky, where no ‘Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’ Babel fish were needed to understand the sweetness of the spirit. The first expression was the Bradan Orach, meaning golden salmon in Gaelic. The fifth best-selling single malt in the States, Lucas joked that it was more commonly enjoyed from hipflasks rather than Glencairns, as it was unashamedly a dram for the outdoorsman. Matured in Sherry casks, the Bradan Orach was meaty at first on the nose, with a growing sweetness suggesting lemon and caramel. The palate was reminiscent of boiled sweets and baked apple, while the finish was exceptionally quick. Overall, a charming little performer.

The same couldn’t be said of the 10yo, which came across as distinctly world-weary; a salmon after the ferocious fight upstream to spawn, if you will. Boasting a sharp citrussy nose, it was very restrained and carried a fragrance of ‘bathroom’. The palate revealed a clean and clinging spirit with a touch of green fruit to commend it.

A glowing anecdote arrived to lift our spirits from the dismal 10yo, and most fitting for the year, it was too. Speyburn, when first constructed, wished to produce a whisky in Queen Victoria’s diamond Jubilee year of 1897. Overbudget and dangerously close to the deadline (not unlike we students on occasion), on Old Year’s Night and without any doors or windows in the distillery, spirit flowed from the copper pots into a single Sherry butt. No-one knows what became of the cask. I suggested the barrier-less facade of the distillery may have been to blame. Still, it just goes to show that – even then – whisky makers had an eye for a marketing opportunity.

Our final whisky was the relaunched 25yo. We had been lucky enough to sample the last of the award-winning 25yo earlier in the year and I was curious as to how this one would compare. The nose initially presented treated wood and forests in summer heat. Creamy orange and banana gave way to Vicks chest rub, a slight farminess and a balsamic vinegar acidity. Orange returned on the palate (no doubt a result of the Pedro Ximenez Sherry butts used in maturation) along with vanilla, grassiness and a puckering sweetness. There was mild disappointment voiced around my table, however, that it failed to reveal deeper treasures.

On behalf of all who braved a chilly night, I thank Lucas for plundering the Inver House inventory once again to put on a most comprehensive evening of whisky. My favourite encounter of the night was the anCnoc retrospective, and especially Peter Arkle No. 3. Super sweet, clean and bright, it had taken on the most flattering Bourbon cask attributes.

A few weeks ago, I learnt of another addition to the anCnoc range. Weighing in at 22-years-of-age, I must confess that this whisky quickens my pulse. I’m blessed with rapturous memories of Inver House and master blender Stuart Harvey’s skill at managing old stocks of whiskies and for evidence I give to you the Old Pulteney 21yo, the Balblair 1989 and 1978, and the anCnoc 35yo (terrific!). This mix of Bourbon and Sherry casks, bottled at 46% abv., has some fine stablemates for company, therefore. The press release claims that it ‘displays complexity and the wealth of character expected of all single malt whisky from Knockdhu, but the leathery, smokey and smoothly tannic manifestation of maturity makes anCnoc 22-Year-Old different from the Distillery’s younger offerings.’ Priced at £85, it isn’t half bad for a whisky of this age profile and I may need to come by a bottle before it – and I - turn 23.

 

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

Distilling and Doodles

The second Peter Arkle anCnoc.

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

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

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

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

anCnoc Peter Arkle No. 2 46% £49.99

Colour – full honey gold with a greenish hue.

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

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

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

Penderyn Madeira 46% £34.40

Colour – full gold with caramel depths.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Balblair Rolls Out the Years

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

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

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

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

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

Balblair 2002 (sample A) 46% £TBC

Colour – very pale gold. Lemon pith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Balblair 1975 46% £TBC

Colour – full yellow gold with honey in the depths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Comment, Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

anCnoc at the Quaich Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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.

Posted in News, Press Tours, Whisky Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inver House at the Quaich Society

Between the six of us committee members, my ironing board and some Benromach whisky fudge, we must have succeeded in getting the message across. You cannot go far wrong with the Quaich Society, St Andrews’ whisky tasting club, for a Thursday night of top drawer dramming. When discussing the academic year’s first tasting last week, I’m delighted to say the expression ‘auspicious start’ doesn’t do it justice.

Two vertical tastings, of Old Pulteney and Balblair, proved a popular format.

Lucas, acting Brand Ambassador for Inver House Distillers, provocative co-author of Edinburgh Whisky Blog and new father, arrived with the whiskies a matter of moments before the inundation of whisky anoraks who watched, beady of eye, as the Quaich committee poured out the evening’s chief talking points. That two decidedly premium expressions, in addition to the present entry-level bottlings, from both the Old Pulteney and Balblair stables had materialised successfully got tongues wagging.

Having squeezed as many souls around the tables as was decent, Lucas launched into the serious business of our congregation: the whiskies. He began with the Old Pulteney 12yo, one of my very favourite drams in the age category by merit of its punchy salt and fruit palate and ludicrous drinkability. Next came the 17yo, which Lucas, I must interpret, rather liked. He praised it’s citrusy character, extra smoothness and poise. ‘Going back to the 12yo from this,’ he said, ‘it comes across as a dirty dram.’ However, a few patrons were concerned that their measure of the 17yo might not have been a dirty dram, too. Indeed, the disparity in colour between samples poured from the newly re-packaged batch of 17yo and those hailing from the older bottling was striking. What we had here was batch variation in practice, and a perfect example of why major brands adjust the complexions of their whiskies with the help of spirit caramel to preclude any confusion or suspicion. Lucas assured us that nothing sinister was afoot. Perhaps the brand sparkly new packaging has given the whisky a sun tan.

I won’t speak to much of the 21yo, as I intend to publish tasting notes of my 21st birthday present to myself soon. It’s rich, spicy Sherry notes and deep toffee flavours were a hit with many on our table, however.

Lucas with the newly re-packaged 17yo. A new canister - and also a new hue.

We now turned to Balblair and the fresh face of youth again. I have had the 2000 bottling maybe four times, but never has it had the power to recall the distillery so particularly and thrillingly. The bolshy, jellied citrus fruit notes leapt out at me straight away and for a moment I was standing with Martin by the spirit safe as the low wines began to dribble through, then by the feints receiver. The incredibly dense spiciness and clean barley flavours evoked the malt bins, and my cleated clatter between them to the changing rooms each morning. As the aroma developed my nostrils duped my brain into believing that I was back in the courtyard beside the draff lorry, and then in the mash house itself. I was stunned by the clarity and idiosyncracy of smells which I could identify with the help of the 2000, that within my little wine glass Balblair’s scent-filled nooks and crannies could be rediscovered.

For my thoughts on the Balblair 1989 I would simply direct you to this post of earlier in the year. Suffice it to say that for those who could not be made to swear oaths of fealty  to the Old Pulteney 21yo, this was their champion of the evening and received plenty of plaudits. It was the 1978, however, that made my night.

When Lucas mentioned that column condensers hadn’t made it to Balblair until the early 1980s, my ears pricked up. When he spoke of Sherry maturation my legs began shake. When I raised the glass and inhaled, the rest of my anatomy damn near went into catatonia. Whiskies pushing passed 30 are always difficult to dissect. They have that langorous ease of age which melds all elements of its production and ingredients list into one glorious whole. So it proved with the 1978 as rich dried fruits and deep oak aromas blended with dark, smooth maltiness and a dried floral note. The grip on the palate was mightily impressive and creamy vanillins curled around drying tropical fruits as the finish developed. I adored it. And stole the canister so that its purply handsomeness could commemorate another precious encounter with one of my favourite malts.

Massive thanks are owed to Lucas and Inver House whose generosity and estimation of Quaich Society tastes proved to be most astute. Lucas hinted that anCnoc might merit a tasting all of its own next year… We shall see.

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