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anCnoc at the Quaich Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Knockdhu Miscellanea

Knockdhu

Spurring each of us on through the miserable murk and drizzle which had clung to us since Tain were each of the green signs sited along the A96, my favourite thoroughfare as you all know, indicating a diminution of mileage twixt us and Knock, and Knockdhu distillery – or anCnoc single malt. Perhaps it was on account of this multiple personality disorder that we were put off the scent of the place somewhat. Whether it was the emissions of the many mash tuns located all around us, or simply the character of late autumn afternoons, but darkness fell in cahoots with a thick gleaming mist. Under these aerial conditions, the hill from which our sought distillery takes its name was indeed black. They were moody, broody conditions, under which anyone, when they have been driving a pack of spirited whisky bloggers around the north and east of Scotland for a day and a half, could be forgiven for doubting their internal GPS.

Halfway down a gravel-strewn farm track, Cathy had a slight crisis of confidence as to our direction. Carrying on, as it turned out, was easier than three-point-turning the minibus, and so proceeding, while hoping for a hint of a main road, what should appear first but the dinky, charming, buildings of Knockdhu distillery, the smallest in the Inver House group. Cathy’s instincts had been right.

It was to be a very speedy tour of the place, and this was a crying shame for the idiosyncratic neuks and crannies of the distillery, together with those of manager Gordon Bruce’s irrepressible personality, could easily have satisfied the rest of the evening and night. Gordon maintained the impossibly high standards of hospitality and good humour set by Malcolm and John; prompting a specific mention in a later email of mine to Cathy after the bloggers had disbanded remarking upon how fortunate Inver House are to have secured the services of such engaging and passionate people.Knockdhu tun and view to spirit safe.

The two-day tour was obviously co-ordinated in an attempt to disseminate the Inver House single malt brands more widely throughout the ether, but what I take away from it, and wish to pass on to the readers of the Scotch Odyssey Blog, is a reaffirmation of the calibre of folk making the whisky you drink on one level, but in so doing also making the whisky experience to be had at their distilleries, and throughout the sector as a whole, such an intriguing and rewarding one. Once again, I was struck by the incomparable, unique and privileged insight into a distillery and distilling that one can only gain from being shown around by those who actually carry out the process first-hand, and have done for many years. Like Robert at Bunnahabhain, Gordon simply belonged in his distillery, and while sharing his company the feeling was that we had been inducted beneath the skin of single malt.

At the now cold and dark kiln fires, Gordon explained that distillers were suckers for hoarding things, the mysterious objects secreted here and there – none more inexplicable than the pair of Wellies dangling from a grains chute above our heads – a testament to this. The complex engineering credentials of his new malt intake machine and state of the art de-stoner (‘like the starship Enterprise’) pleased Gordon to such an extent his grin, as he explained the various modifcations and functions to us, was wider than the Pulteney washbacks had been and he could not suppress a little Highland jig. Plainly this is someone who cares about the How and the Why: substance and functionality over faddish style – the DIY distillery clock is a case-in-point.

Gordon with Knockdhu's only 'computer'.

Gordon with Knockdhu's only 'computer'.

Upstairs we were encouraged to wander about the floor of the mothballed kiln, Gordon jumping enthusiastically up and down on the metal mesh in order to dispel any doubts we may have had as to the resilience of its contruction. I stood near the entrance door, leading back into the distillery -not, I must stress, because I doubted his confidence - but because this allowed me to fully appreciate the remarkable properties of the pagoda roof and chimney design. Air was being forcibly sucked from over my left shoulder directly upwards into the dark. This is how peat smoke would have been efficiently drawn through the barley in the past at Knockdhu, and how it still operates for Bowmore, Highland Park, Springbank et al.

Elsewhere I learnt that Gordon considers spirit drawn from the stills in winter to be of better quality, the distillery being much easier to manage; that too much raking in the mash tun will create a cloudier wort and so inhibit the cultivation of certain esters in the washbacks, and that for the peated anCnoc spirit, produced for a few weeks a year, the boundaries at which the middle cut is taken sinks somewhat.

Time was getting on and we hadn’t the chance to explore one of the warehouses. The impossibly hard winter had claimed the three dunnage structures which formerly stood adjacent to the distillery: too much snow and no wind had left the warehouses covered for more than a third of the year. Without such freak conditions, they would have provided safe service for many more years. Rubble is all that remains of them, although Gordon promised that they would be rebuilt to their former specification. Inver House’s wealth of warehousing space ensures that there will be no need to erect racked facilities instead which are, to Gordon’s way of thinking: ‘horrible, soulless, godless places.’ I’m inclined to agree.Knockdhu stills

Our gang clustered round a table in the office spaces of the distillery, and I’m afraid far too many expressions of anCnoc were circulating at any one time and I failed to keep up. Every one that passed my nose and lips, though, was either clean, fruity and fresh with lots of sweet hay and barley sugar; or richer and spicier with more buttery notes. Never having tasted the single malt from Knockdhu distillery (not to be confused with KnockANdo) before, I was suitably impressed. I shall certainly take the opportunity, should it come again, to hunt out some of the vintage releases.

Gordon’s commitments switched from us and his distillery to his daughter, who needed ferrying to a parents’ evening. We all signed the guestbook, exchanged cards, shook hands and dolefully left Knockdhu behind. If you are in the area, do not be put off by the lack of an official visitor centre. In Gordon’s own words, ‘no-one is turned away’ so phone ahead and treat yourself to a first class education in Scotch.Knockdhu range

Our route to Aberdeen airport persisted with the ‘horrible, soulless and godless’ A96. I was delighted, however, that it furnished me with the opportunity to contextualise for my fellow bloggers what that singular day in April had entailed and how it had affected me. I was also doubly contemplative of just how that day, half a year away, had made my previous two possible. Distillery personnel on that occasion had fortified my spirit and urged me on, and Malcolm, John and Gordon had simply upheld the glorious traditions of fine treatment I seem to have been fortunate to receive in distilleries.

Mine, then, was a humble and obsequiously grateful countenance for the remainder of the drive back to Dundee, where I was to be dropped off. I was enormously thankful for Lukasz’s invitation and the many hours of creative stress that must have been required of both he and Cathy to have made the tour the triumph it was. In the process of working backwards, I offered yet another vote of appreciation to Fiona and Jane, superlative emissaries of the wonderful whisky characters I met during the tour, and I thanked George Smith for having established The Glenlivet distillery almost two hundred years ago so that I could wander into it on the 25 October 2007 and get the journey underway.

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Whisky Bloggers Check-in

‘It took me three weeks to get from Edinburgh to Wick the last time,’ I said to Keith somewhere over Perthshire.

So joyously exuberant was I being on a plane, flying to Wick, in the company of some of the most respected and dedicated bloggers out there, with two days of tastings and tours to commence upon landing, that I didn’t care one jot that, according to the itinerary, we should have already arrived.

When Lukasz Dynowiak of Alembic Communications (and Edinburgh Whisky Blog) contacted me at the beginning of last month it took significantly less time for me to say yes to his proposed two-day tour of the Highlands care of Inver House Distillers than it did getting to the airport in the first place. Crashes, road rage, low sun – I’m not sure why the roads around the Forth Bridge were snaggled up but I was adamant that I was not going to miss my flight on their account and told my taxi driver so. He rose to the challenge magnificently, and while happier in mind, though lighter in pocket, I arrived at the departure terminal - wondering as I strolled into the check-in area whether our faces would appear on a forthcoming episode of Traffic Cops for our improvised passage through the tailbacks.

We all took it rather well, I thought, and World Duty Free profited, too. L-R: Keith Wood, Mark Connelly, Jason Johnstone-Yelling, Karen Taylor and Ben Ellefsen of Master of Malt. Chris and Matt are absent from the photo.

We all took it rather well, I thought, and World Duty Free profited, too. L-R: Keith Wood, Mark Connelly, Jason Johnstone-Yelling, Karen Taylor and Ben Ellefsen of Master of Malt. Chris and Matt are absent from the photo.

The seductive knowledge of World Duty Free and a bacon roll lured me upstairs. After the latter and a rather degrading passage through the millrace of airport security, I could indulge in the former. Indeed, I had three times the period of time I had been anticipating in order to do so.

Ordinarily I would not be so perturbed by a two hour delay to a flight. There is nothing the put-upon traveller can do but sit and wait it out and this was as true this week as in any other instance. However, I’m not normally inducted into an intensive itinerary of whisky-centric diversions, and a two hour delay would effectively tear up Lukasz’s lovingly-crafted timetable and cast it into Wick harbour. The boat trip around the Caithness coast, or lunch, was in jeopardy.

After circumnavigating the shelves of the World Duty Free, so was my bank account. On the Monday I had successfully handed in all three of my first cycle of essays for university and was feeling rather good about it, keen to reward myself in the only fitting manner with a tasty but modestly-priced dram. A Strathisla from Luvians had been top of the list, but it could no longer compete with the duty-free wondrousness. The prospect of the Dewar’s 18-year-old, which I had had at the Aberfeldy distillery the previous autumn and been nothing less than astonished by it, with £15 off was simply irresistable, and before we eventually boarded the plane, it was clutched in my mits.

There were some seriously lovely items to be glimpsed here - certainly not for my budget. The Balvenie 40yo is perhaps the highlight.

There were some seriously lovely items to be glimpsed here - certainly not for my budget. The Balvenie 40yo is one of the highlights.

Chris and Lukasz were exchanging texts and phonecalls as the situation worsened and, unaccountably, every so often improved. While Lukasz and Cathy chopped, changed, and wrung their hands in Caithness, it was the perfect opportunity for a young blogger wishing to find out how it is done to pick the brains of the illustrious souls slumped alongside him in gate 10. In addition to Chris of Edinburgh Whisky, Matt and Karen of Whisky For Everyone, Jason of Guid Scotch Drink, Keith of Whisky Emporium (he had flown in from Munich to make the connection to Wick) and Mark from Whisky Whisky Whisky and the Glasgow Whisky Festival were near at hand. There was a hell of a lot of ‘Whisky’ floating around and the joke was made that if the plane went down a significant percentage of the whisky blogosphere would be lost to the North Sea. When we weren’t exchanging our meal vouchers for paninis and croissants, we all got to know one another and what a fascinating, hilarious bunch of people.

Myself, Mark, Keith and Jason descended on the sample bottles at the front of the duty-free store, half of us trying the Highland Park 1998, the other the new peated Bunnahabhain. Mark couldn’t resist picking up a bottle of the latest Lagavulin 12-year-old cask strength, and this he very kindly donated to the whole group as we sped from Wick to Tain that night.

The call to board, when it finally came, was something of a surprise to me. I had been having quite a splendid time as it was. Squeezed into the body of the plane was our blogging party and a band of Scousers who slept as we chatted. I found Keith, my neighbour across the aisle, still more diverting than the Scottish coast. His approach to whisky and sensory descriptions for it mirror my own quite closely and his project to taste whisky from every distillery still or only just beginning to produce was, to my mind, a most noble cause. He was the first, simply in the act of talking, to offer me some advice to my advantage and, most gratifyingly, appeared impressed by my own undertaking.

With a jolt and heave, the plane smashed through the clouds to reveal Caithness at its most visually arresting, drowning in golden sunshine. It was the most glorious spectacle as we banked, swooped, and barrelled in to land: the red cliffs, the sage green fields; Wick harbour and the faint vision of John o’ Groats: all too briefly beheld as we now made our approach. Upon touching down the captain applied the brakes with no small amount of urgency before the plane’s momentum carried us to Scrabster. The freshness of the air once released from our sardine tin revived me, and the informal nature of baggage reclaim was rather charming, too.

With a rainbow dangling from the clouds like a silk bookmark away to the north, we entered the ‘terminal’ to be greeted by Lukasz and Cathy, looking uncommonly chilled out, and endeavoured to make up for lost time.

For the varied and entertaining accounts from the other participants on the tour, check out their exemplary blogs: Edinburgh WhiskyGuid Scotch Drink; Onversneden; Whisky Emporium, and Whisky For Everyone.

Let business begin...

Let business begin...

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Three Years and a Day…

My Metaphor 1

I like to think that, on October 26 2010, I could empathise on a level of singular profundity with Anthony Wills and how he had felt on December 15 2008. Last week I marked my most significant whisky anniversary to date – the obsession conceived with unexpected suddenness and violence in the slender stills of The Glenlivet in 2007 had, by measure of the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988, achieved official ‘whisky’ status.

It is fairly evident that, to persist with the metaphor, my personal cask of single malt curiosity and exploration has been stacked fairly high up in the palletised warehouse. As I have described elsewhere on this blog, I possess two bottles which demonstrate by their associated dates just how extraordinarily Scotch whisky has acted on my consciousness and imagination: hooked as an ignorant 17-year-old (the 10/07 bottling date of my Nadurra manifesting this moment for me), I had circumnavigated Scotland by bike, dropping in on more than forty distilleries before I had reached 20 (the Glengoyne 17-year-old with its personalised label, presented to me at the distillery on May 21 2010). That is one hell of a rapid maturation.

Tragically essay deadlines precluded an appropriate toast – at least on the day in question. The rigours of a Scottish univeristy did not allow me to partake of the Scotch drink there and then, but I was in a pleasantly wistful mood on the 25th and the 26th.

A little over a week later, however, the bung was withdrawn and a liberal sample taken to assess how my dedication, understanding and character were progressing. I returned, as a guest of Inver House Distillers, to areas of the country I had not visited since my tour and some others which I had; I took another peek around Pulteney into previously unseen darkened corners in addition to Balblair and Knockdhu, and mingled with some of the loveliest people I have ever been fortunate enough to encounter. I would urge you to check out the many diverse reports of the two day tour on Edinburgh WhiskyGuid Scotch Drink; Onversneden; Whisky Emporium, and Whisky For Everyone. It was a true privilege to meet the people behind these exceptional platforms, to encounter their passion and expertise and – good-naturedly – disagree from time to time. I hope to bring you my account of the trip in instalments over the week from a Scotch Odyssey perspective. I shall say at this point, however, that it was a fantastic experience, and confirmed that the whisky wood has been having no small influence on my whisky mania contained within. This is a refill hoggie at the least in which I’m ‘casked’. 

I’m still a very young whisky, however, with some rough edges to be smoothed. I have a fixed idea of where I aim to take myself and this blog, however, and if I can attain the heights of the above blogs - Glenfarclases, Ardbegs and Highland Parks in my eyes - then there shall be another IWSC winner, I’m sure.

Fecund and fabulous - I'm very pleased with my progress so far.

Fecund and fabulous - I'm very pleased with my progress so far.

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