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Blending In, Standing Out

I always endeavour to hang around with creative people (if for whatever reason I’m a little short on creativity myself) because you know that something unexpected is never too far away. You have more fun at the time, and you come away with plenty to think over.

If there is one word to sum up the chaps at Master of Malt, the online drinks retailer, creative would be it. These guys have more ideas for new products while hunting for a pair of vaguely matching socks in the morning than most major distillers do in a month of meetings. In recent weeks they have announced a range of single malts finished in Sherry casks, dubbed Darkness!, revealed a new collection of cocktail bitters created by G-force (Bitter Bastards – you read that right), made available Bramble Bar’s modern classic Affinity cocktail to all and sundry and launched the world’s first super-premium spiced rum. If anything, releasing your own premium Scotch whisky blend smacks of convention.

Master of Malt have form in the blended category, conceiving the Home Blending Kit a few years ago (lots of fun) and getting a whole load of bloggers and journos to combine spirits in a good-natured – but I’m sure, fiercely competitive – blending challenge. Then, earlier this year, their Lost Distilleries Blend walked away with the gong for World’s Best Blended Whisky, beating the illustrious likes of Suntory and Irish Distillers. If it had been me, I’d have organised an open-top bus carnival in my own honour.

To follow up, they have concocted a 10yo blend, Batch 1 at 47.5%, unchill-filtered and natural colour. They were going for ‘rich and complex’. Let’s see if they succeeded.

Master of Malt 10yo Batch 1 47.5% £39.95

Colour – rich full gold.

Nose – yep, rich and full with a hefty truncheon of grain whisky before soft, fudgey peat and rich oak emerge. Quite clean, for all the weight and richness, with sweet walnut and a slug of Sherry. A hint of saltiness, golden syrup and carrot cake.

Palate – cake-rich with carrot cake again, rum fudge and thick oak. Out steps a sweet grassy quality before gooey grains spread over the tongue. A touch of marine-like smoke at the very end.

Finish – spice and richness dry the mouth although muscovado sugar softens things a little. Good weight and structure.

Not to be confused with the Reference Series of bottlings, or the Blended Whisky #1 Batch 1 from That Boutiquey Whisky Co., this is a straight-ahead expression of how Master of Malt envisages blended whisky. I have to say I was impressive, with the dram nosing like something a good few years above its age statement. Grain was old-school fat and juicy, with maybe just a hint of oils and spices, and the malts played a satisfying rich theme.

However, there is stiff competition at the moment, especially when you consider price. I had the Tweeddale 12yo Batch 2 before Christmas and that was suppler, as well as sweeter than the MoM offering. It was also, at the time, cheaper. Even I, blend evangelist that I am, have my reservations about paying £40 for a 10yo blend.

Tweeddale is an obvious comparison, small-scale and ’boutique’, but in terms of flavour, the big problem for Master of Malt comes in the shape of the not-inconsiderable Johnnie Walker Black Label. This, too, does fat oak, smoke and rich malt – and for £26. Tweeddale and JW have the edge, too, when you consider that you have the option to buy in-store, foregoing delivery charges. That £39.95 turns into about £45 for the MoM 10yo with no other option but to buy it through their site.

A little footnote: as engrossing a whisky as this 10yo is, I’m not sure I want to sip a blend that sits at nearly 48% ABV. For me, blends act as drinkable comfort blankets with the textures of the grain-malt interface finding best expression at 40-43%. The argument will be made (and has been on MoM’s uproarious, informative blog) that below 46% lipids and other congeners in the whisky are likely to come out of suspension if water or ice is added but this doesn’t bother Compass Box who bottle their gorgeous Asyla at 40%, despite it being unchill-filtered.

All in all, an interesting experiment and a tasty drop. I’m just not sure what – even if I were prepared to pay for one – I would do with a whole bottle.

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Nose on the Line – Beginning Blending

Is blended Scotch muscling in on single malt’s limelight? When Whisky Magazine publishes two supplements devoted to the aggregated Scotch whisky product in fairly close order, the Caskstrength.net boys choose to release a blend on the route of their A-Z bottling marathon, and Johnnie Walker creates such a song and dance about their swanky yacht experience through big whisky retailers, maybe the huge bias in single malt’s favour amongst professional and amateur commentators is beginning to dissolve. For so long, blends have been explained in terms of economics with single malts scooping all of the column inches for provenance and craftsmanship. Perhaps the tide is turning…

Of course, I am only being flippant. The blogosphere’s infatuation with the singularity of malt whisky is going nowhere fast: let blends make all the money and we shall maintain our vigil around our beloved copper pot stills. Aberfeldy, Strathisla, Cardhu – these are the distilleries we wish to venerate, rejecting their statuses of blend brand homes as so much peripheral marketing.

Paraphernalia...

However, I for one have changed my mind. Maybe it is the proselytising of Compass Box’s John Glaser, perhaps it is the duo of Meet the Blender evenings I have attended, the ardent penmanship of Dave Broom, or perhaps it is the smattering of articles detailing blended Scotch to be found on other blog platforms (such as this excellent Ballantine’s expose courtesy of Miss Whisky) which have piqued my interest, but I am no longer prepared to ignore blended whisky. It is instrumental in allowing for the diversity of the single malt category which we presently romanticise; it has a history and cast of iconic characters, and it can taste breathtakingly fabulous. I want to write a lot more about it here on the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

...vs. provenance.

I’ll start today with a few tales from my encounters with Master of Malt’s Home Blending Kit (£49.95), the mother of all procrastination tools for the whisky-loving student with exams to prepare for. Upon receipt of my sturdy package, I did indeed turn my ‘once tidy home into the chaotic, bottle-filled, peat-rich laboratory that is a blender’s workshop’, as the introductory letter put it. I could not wait to commence with the combinations, and appreciate just how dramatic the effect of adding tiny portions of this to that could be. MoM’s advice: begin with the grain whisky base and mild malt whisky, build complexity with a marriage of ‘mid-range malts’ and then season with the older samples they had supplied. Only so much blending could be done in theory: I needed to dirty some glasses and measuring cylinders.

Initially, I wanted to make a Dewar’s 12yo-style blend. I love the bold fruit, abundant vanilla and rich yet clean barley flavours of this whisky, but found that I couldn’t replicate it with the profiles of the Speyside and Lowland malts provided in the Kit. I was, however, hearted by the quality of the grain base. My tactic had been to create a ‘mid-range’ malt sample and a top dresser sample, then combine proportions of both until the flavour was right. This is Mr Glaser’s approach, as explained in this videofor the 2012 edition of Flaming Heart. Nosing constantly, I began to suspect that my palette of liquids ought to be confined. I was using my packer malt, the Lowland, Speyside and Highland for the mid-range, while the top dressings attempted to coalesce the better qualities of the Old Highland, Old Speyside Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay. Just because leading blends use 30+ malts did not mean – I gradually conceded – that I should, too.

The building blocks of my blend.

Using the three tier approach of grain, mid-range, and top dressers, I struck on a system of using no more than two malts for the mid-range and a maximum of three whiskies for the blend’s ’seasoning’. I also changed tack, preferring an earthier, richer blend which might make greater use of the Islay offerings.

My specification read: ‘A smoky, rich blend. Money no object!’ With one fifth of the recipe grain, 50% became a Highland and Islay combination, with Old Speyside, Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay creating genuine intrigue on the richer spectrum. Computing my blueprint for future blended whisky world domination onto MoM’s calculator, I was rather crestfallen to discover that my highly drinkable blend which boasted light and smoky peat, allied with fresh and vinous fruit and a building creaminess would cost somewhere in the region of £60. Master of Malt launched the Home Blending Kit in tandem with a blogger’s blending competition and the eventual winner – dubbed St Isidore – had been priced at closer to £45. Even if my blend carried the infinitely superior title of the Elisha Cuthbert Select Reserve, would customers tolerate the premium cost?

I’m not saying a lively, pretty blend cannot be put together from the core ingredients on a lower budget – I just haven’t been able to find the killer marriage yet. John Glaser, Colin Scott, Richard Paterson, Joel and Neil… You’re safe for now.

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Follow the Compass!

If John Glaser were a festive foodstuff he would be Heston’s Waitrose Christmas Pudding: sold out in minutes with everyone wanting a piece. His presence is requested at international whisky functions; his views are cited in seemingly any article discussing innovation, independence, blended whisky, or indeed whisky; his energy drives record-breaking tastings like this summer’s undertaking with Dominic Roskrow across the Whisky Shops of the United Kingdom. And in his spare moments he still manages to craft whiskies of stunning integrity and intrigue under the Compass Box standard, while journeying to the Fife coast annually to deliver the most engrossing and enlightening tastings the Quaich Society has seen.

In all facets and at every juncture, the message – and the passion with which it is communicated – remain identical. Quality oak produces quality whiskies which can be married together to create a spirit which is more than the sum of its parts. Never compromise on quality. For more than 12 years Glaser has been as good as his word – perhaps even better if you have been fortunate enough to encounter the irrepressible zeal with which he articulates his mission. Indeed, John can at times overshadow his products.

A long-awaited re-evaluation, and a new acquaintance.

If there is one Compass Box expression that enjoys cult status on a par with its creator, however, it is the Flaming Heart limited release. Now onto its fourth outing, Flaming Heart’s flavour profile demands a highly particular assortment of whiskies, not to mention one of the most striking label designs anywhere in whisky. Glaser states on the Compass Box website that ‘It is unlike any other whisky, owing to the combination of distillery whiskies we use and the variety and quality of the casks.’ This is the first Flaming Heart vatting to contain Sherry-matured whiskies, too.

I first sipped this behemoth of a dram at the Quaich Society in 2011, although by the time we reached the Flaming Heart my palate was listing with exhaustion due to the platoon of fine whiskies Glaser had brought with him. Tragically, the other 10th Anniversary release, and penultimate pour, of Double Single also suffered as a result of my fatigue. Courtesy of those wonderful gentlemen at Master of Malt, however, I was able to track down a Drinks By The Dram sample of both the latest Flaming Heart, and that elusive Double Single.

Compass Box Double Single 53.3% £92.02 here

Colour – straw gold.

Nose – prickly and pickled at first: lush green fruits with a wine-y acidic edge. Abundant softness from the grain with some chewy caramel and fresh spiritiness at the margins. Apple and mango juice drink. Very clean, with the grain component now suggesting pineapple syrup. Some golden rum sugariness and a touch of mint from the cask.

Water – sweeter: vanilla, a sugary texture with freshly sawn oak. Gin-like citrus peels. More mango than apple now, although a touch of pear creeps in. Lovely texture. Final hint of honeydew melon. The malt spirit has wonderful poise and purity, and controls the flavour spectrum embellished by the grain.

Palate – grain and malt in complete harmony: caramel and green apple. Some hefty cask presence. Gristy sugars on the lips before a gentle earthy dryness appears.

Water – lime and apple peel, sweet cereal and gingery oak. Supremely balanced. Lots of apple juice (Innocent apple juice, if you have tried it). Hay and brown sugar. Very clean.

Finish – soft with again a stand-out texture in the shape of lush green fruit. Vanilla biscuit and grassiness. A touch of pineapple on the end.

Water – brought out a spicy character: mustard powder and coriander. Short crust pastry with almond and apple. The flavour development is quite short but the lovely texture endures.

Compass Box Flaming Heart.

Compass Box Flaming Heart Fourth Release 48.9% £69.12 here

Colour – full, burnished gold.

Nose – peat leads the charge: viscous, huge, with rich smokiness and baked wholemeal bread. The singed quality creates a bridge to a waxiness which picks out delicate pear and apple. Crisp, with log fire impressions. Richness and delicacy. Thyme and oregano thrown on a barbecue. Then a massive grist/vanilla sweetness appears underpinning everything.

Water – still peat-driven with a gently singed smokiness. Northern Highland textured lush fruitness. Like smoky rock candy. Greener, with a coniferous needle and sap character. Sweet grist and tablet. Lime and cola. With more time, honey and toffee emerge from the oak with more coastal aromas of turf, rocks and seaweed. Sheer weight of maltiness underneath. Fabulous.

Palate – dry, lightly-peated malt at first, although the peat increases in weight, descending with an oregano hint and a pine tree character. Very full-bodied and fascinating.

Water – mouthcoating peatiness, with pear, cinnamon and lovely rich and smooth malt appearing. Sweetness is the key here, together with chunky peat and a cedar lift.

Finish – the peat and the malt continue to hold court. Some old wood flavours. A spruce Christmas garland.

Water – lush grass and earth, green fruit lends a delicate fleshiness. The smoke is so well-controlled and supplies a thick fragrance in the upper reaches. So much appley and gristy sweetness.

So…? The Double Single comprises three quarters 18yo Glen Elgin and one quarter 21yo Port Dundas. Glaser’s intention was to demonstrate the true elegance one can achieve from a sympathetic blending of malt and grain spirit. With this testament to fruit and syrupy sweetness, he has succeeded. Not only did the best of the grain whisky flavour spectrum step forward to be counted, the lush fruity Glen Elgin make pulled the strings so wonderfully and subtly. The real highlight for me, however, was the silken texture achieved from just two different spirits.

John’s own description of Flaming Heart cannot – I feel – be improved upon: ‘a whisky born of fire, yet one with a big heart’. The longer one spent with it, the more this fabulous dualism began to make complete sense. His Northern Highland spirit (Clynelish) melded seemlessly with the bruising Islay South-Coast malt (most likely Laphroaig) to envelope the senses in a flavoursome and textural perfect storm.

Both blends benefited from a little extra time to stretch their legs, and what was abundantly clear about Glaser’s spirits was that strength of personality became more self-evident. Much like the man himself. As we approach January 1st, I can think of no better whisky resolution than to discover Compass Box.

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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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Delicious Luck with Compass Box

Never have I wanted to win the Quaich Society Raffle more.

As I confessed in my previous post, against all probability (and decency in the eyes of some), my ticket was drawn first in our post Compass Box tasting Raffle. When John Glaser had discussed his contributions to the Raffle with us, words such as ‘exceptional’ and ‘one-of-a-kind’ had leapt out at me. ‘When will I next have the opportunity to taste a Compass Box expression in its rawest incarnation?’ I asked myself, and plumped for the ‘Oak Cross ’08 HM – Single Heavy Toasted French Oak’ sample bottle. ‘How will I smuggle me and it out of here tonight without getting lynched?’ was another, more private speculation.

I succeeded, however, and when I escaped from a lecture theatre on this wet and windy Wednesday in St Andrews out came the ruby-tinted rarity by way of consolation.

Compass Box Oak Cross ’08 HM 56.7% abv.

Nose – With a measure poured and the glass far from my nostrils, scents of creamy milk chocolate, vanilla and winey fruits fill the room. Getting started, there is a mass of stewed red fruits, some tannic oak and then fresh, spicy and vibrant American oak casks: a hogshead-packed filling store. Later, snuffed-out birthday cake candles emerge and papaya provides a gentle tropical texture. Fat, oily honey is tucked away, too. I suspect that there is a fair proportion of Clynelish in here with that wonderfully hard to put one’s finger on note of lemon/apple which is at once jellied and crystallised. More time reveals marmalade and gingerbread, in addition to cinnamon and clove.

Adding water evokes glazed biscuits: gingerbread men and custard. Gorgeous spice-accented creamy oak. In the centre is an almost bourbon-like dense core of malty sugars, orange rind and caramel. The orange softens and lightens and separates from the rich malt. With extra breathing time, airy but rich and rounded walnut notes emerge as well as not quite ripe plum. White chocolate, rich, frothy wash, jasmine and bran flake Frosties burst out all at once. It is sublime in its weight and delicacy of aroma. It reminded me of some of the later drams on the Auchentoshan VIP Tour, or the stillroom and warehouse on the Aberlour tour. There is even some gentle fragrant smoke underneath it all, like a cask freshly charred and quietly smoking in a cooperage.

Palate – Full, spicy and fruity with plenty of oak. Lovely, tongue-coating tannins and wood sugars. Adelphi Breath of Speyside-esque. Then toffee and malt surface before releasing, fresh and firm seashore citrus.

Water makes for a ceaseless, joyous barrage of flavour. Nutty and densely fruity initially, I quickly gained the impression of Speyside in summer: slight charred oak, rich barley and strawberry jam. Fronds of crystal malt tickle the palate too. It is a bold spirit, speaking of dark, green leaves and malt husks.

Finish – Chewy/creamy oak: lots of power but there is agility, too. Vanilla and butterscotch ice cream. Final notes of rich and juicy fruitcake with marzipan.

With water the spirit retains the density from the reduced palate, offering toffee and some high-grade dark chocolate. The oak is really stupendous. Heathery honey meets sticky wine cask. Sweetly earthy at the end.

So…?

If Mr Glaser was prepared to bottle this, price would have to be no object. With the addition of water, this is one of the most complex but satisfying whiskies I have had the pleasure of encountering in many months; you are persistently aware that there is more to find, but far too relaxed by the langourous sequence of mighty oak flavours and the magnificence of well-made, well-matured Speysiders that sing of summer to worry about looking too hard. The alcohol simply does not exist on the nose, and only a little water removes any brashness from the palate. In terms of poise and power, this Oak Cross/ Spice Tree sample cannot be surpassed. It confirms the genius of Glaser, and hints at the supreme quality of whiskies coming from lesser-known distilleries throughout Scotland. A triumph.

Exciting news for those of you who cannot wait to run out and buy a bottle of fine Compass Box whisky. Master of Malt are running a competition at the moment in which the first 250 people to purchase one of Mr Glaser’s creations will be entered into a draw to win the eceedingly rare Canto Cask 48, the now Illegal Spice Tree and Canto Cask 20. Also, in addition to your purchased bottle, Master of Malt will throw in a 3cl Drinks by the Dram sample of another Compass Box whisky! Follow the links, and get buying.

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A Moustache-tickler of a Malt

November is something of an oddity, ecologically speaking. On the one hand, the last of the leaves are falling to earth in stunning heaps of biodegradable fire, and yet at the same time new growth is appearing. A frenzy of foliage is breaking out over top lips everywhere.

At this time of year, the Gregorian calendar is upstaged by allusions to facial hair. Movember is the charity mo-vement raising awareness for all matters concerning mens’ health, harnessing the power of the ‘tache to fight prostate and testicular cancer. Both genders can get involved in sporting some eccentric style of face fuzz and sponsoring others in their pursuit of the most outlandish, striking beards imagination (over and above good taste, usually) can conceive.

The charity has raised more than £106m globally so far and online whisky retailer Master of Malt, together with the very gentlemanly Speyside distillery Glenfarclas, have decided to lend their characteristically good-humoured muscle behind this year’s campaign. A 9yo bottling from two Oloroso sherry casks, at cask strength, is available now to purchase with £10 from the £39.95 RRP going directly to the charity. MoM promise that both parties are working at cost price to maximise donations for Movember. You ought to buy it anyway (do so here), but in case you were swithering, here are my tasting notes.

Glenfarclas 9yo Master of Malt Movember Bottling 2011, 53% abv.

Colour – Toffee apple red.

Nose – Straight away a pleasing toasted sweet malt aroma emerges. It wields a sticky fragrance reminiscent of the Whey Pat, St Andrews’ premier whisky pub: it’s all rich clean malt, polished wood, leather and nacho spice. Sticking your nose in further you encounter a bold - but not brazen – Oloroso sherry punch with an icing sugar-like sweet core. Marmalade is in there, too, along with heathery, big dark honey flavours. Mostly, though, that rich, ginger biscuit malt, with a touch of toffee, steals the show.

Water renders this dram even stickier: toffee and baked red fruits. Lovely candied citrus (orange and lemon) skips out with a bit more time. The oakiness builds, too, with floor polish. It is one lively whisky.

Palate – Playful across the palate at first with blueberries, redcurrents and strawberries. Then there is a light cling from the oak imparting vanilla, Spanish oak raw sweetness and prune.

With water the palate keeps the floor polish headiness, with a lick of sherry cask. Then the softness returns with orange-accented, smooth and rich maltiness. Fire lighters in the background. Punchy oregano and tomato sauce in the empty glass.

Finish – Jaffa Cakes, sticky dark sherry notes and treacle-like malt round off a stonking little dram. With water it is winey and oaky.

So…?     This was always going to be a winner with me. Previous experiences with cask strength Glenfarclases have not disappointed, and the closer one gets to a solitary cask bottling, the better they become. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so charming and assured, however. The maturation is absolutely perfect: not overpowering but still with enough intense Oloroso notes to create the true Glenfarclas experience. It was more coherent and personable without water, I would say, but either way a delightful and delicious reunion with this consistently excellent distillery.

Many thanks indeed to the guys at Master of Malt for sending me the sample.

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My Malty Moral Compass

In the evolutionary progress of the whisky blogger, the likes of John Hansell and Tim Forbes have adopted the Darwinian role in extrapolating histories, motives and likely mutations for the species. As the blogging population expands, institutions become established and competition for resources intensifies, blog-based discussions are increasingly about… blogging.

One could say, cynically, that this new self-awareness and inclination to stratify the blogosphere into the obsequious and the high-minded is little more than paranoia and sour grapes. However, I tend to think that any call to personal reflection is a positive move for it reinforces the attitude that blogging is and ought to remain a valid and efficacious platform from which to discuss whisky matters. Blogging lends so many commendable attributes to the exploration and interpretation of whisky such as immediacy, interactivity and multiple media options to accomplish something truly creative and original. In addition to this, however, I would like to attach the word ‘sustainable’, and have it stick.

In last month’s Whisky Roundtable, a potent coalition of blogging minds devised by Jason Johnstone-Yellin, Jason himself  raised the issue again of what the future held for blogging. He suggested that there were certain unscrupulous individuals, self-styled experts and those suckling at the teat of distillers’ PR companies, guilty of muddying the water for the rest of the blogosphere. Has the democratic nature of the media worked against quality control? With whisky bloggers having experienced such terrific growth in stature over the last few years largely because of committed self-publicity, where has this left blogging ethics? How can the best, and by this I mean those writers endowed with a genuine passion built for the long haul as well as proper care for the factual integrity of their content, distinguish themselves from the tech-savvy upstarts capable of grabbing all the attention in this fast-paced world?

The responses from the twelve blogging platforms were revealing and considered and I would recommend you read both them and the equally thoughtful comments posted by other readers and bloggers. For me personally, however, it provoked some soul-searching. Have I been as transparent as I could have been? The answer, regrettably, is no. The bulk of my content never was intended to be comprised of tasting notes and that, together with my small stature in the blogging community and especially in the eyes of those PR companies, has meant that the necessity for cross-examining the pros and cons of writing about all the ‘free stuff’ simply never arose. My content has not been driven by a few companies sending me oodles of booze. However, I feel I owe you further clarification on what appears on the Scotch Odyssey Blog and why.

I have received some samples. Master of Malt have sent me three: one from their Drinks by the Dram selection and two of their own independently-bottled whiskies. One of these, the Highland Park, I wasn’t keen on and said so. The other, a Caol Ila, I absolutely adored and said so. I reviewed the Glenfarclas, and the DbtD service, because it was one I intended to use myself as a budding connoisseur. However, Master of Malt in their correspondences with me have overtly stated that there is no obligation on my part to provide a good review. Had they done so, I would have consumed the whisky in private and details of it would never have made it as far as the Scotch Odyssey Blog. The only other samples to date were the Hankey Bannister range from Inver House. They didn’t light my fire at the time but proved useful in bulking out a piece on blended whisky inspired by a superlative Compass Box tasting.

Speaking of Inver House, what about that press trip late last year? Unquestionably I was flattered to be invited, but I hope my trio of write-ups express most explicitly my appreciation of the team involved comprised of the distillery managers, Cathy and Lucas, and my fellow bloggers. On the subject of the juice, I have had a bottle of Old Pulteney in my cupboard long before I knew of Inver House as a company and I fell in love with Balblair as a spirit eight months before I would be invited to visit it. Regarding my recent work experience, that was entirely financed by myself and the potential blog content was neither suggested nor restricted by anyone at the distillery or in Airdrie.

Ultimately, though, we bloggers have to watch our steps: analyse the offer on the table at any one time and evaluate how relevant and unencumbered any potential freebie will be to the platform you have put together and built up. That I have specialised perhaps makes that boundary even clearer for me and the Scotch Odyssey Blog. If it hasn’t anything to do with whisky tourism or the experience of encountering Scotland and its flavour-creating and flavour-capturing distilleries then why discuss it at all? But what of those occasional tasting notes, then; what is the deal with them?

I have already gone into some depth (and verified my views with the help of Keith Wood) on the matter of ‘sensings’ here, but I would like to add that whisky appreciation is increasingly a form of meditation and, if it is not so extravagant a claim to make, self-knowledge for me. When nosing a whisky, I venture under the skin of my world and learn more about it and my previous interactions with it on a sensory level. When these findings surprise or delight me, I want to share such discoveries.

Certain distilleries and certain places are invested with more personal significance for me and these are far more likely to be and indeed have been woven into the fabric of the blog. When an expression from one of these distilleries does receive a review, an accompanying explanation has not been fudged to justify my commenting on a whisky in preference to distillery visitor centres or tours, it is instead part and parcel of my ethos for the blog. I have been fortunate and determined enough to explore Scotch whisky in an unusual manner and to particular depth and this has instilled me with powerfully emotive ideologies and memories. It was inevitable that these should often be attached to certain brands and I am not about to apologise for this. It was the people, place, circumstances and spirit itself that wooed me, not marketing bumfph. Such experiences and the resulting preferences simply make me a passionate whisky drinker, just like all the rest of the most principled whisky blog writers and readers.

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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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Highland Park 13yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

The text from home read: ‘there’s a parcel for you down here. I think it’s whisky.’

It was just about the only news which could have perked up the nauseous, limping and suffering agglomeration of body parts which some suspicious dried apricots had rendered me. It might not have been the apricots, but either way it hadn’t been an easy morning.

Having been authorised to rummage, I was told that Master of Malt had been kind enough to send me out their two latest independently-bottled single malts. One was the Caol Ila 30yo, which Chris had airily mentioned over a Coco Aztec hot chocolate in January might be on its way. The second was a single cask Highland Park, and one I was only to eager to try. A favourite of independent bottlers, it is also a favourite of mine following a peerless distillery tour last May. Never having had the fortune to come by an expression drawn from a single cask – and being profoundly partial to those, too – I shattered the ever-so-cute wax seal during my break from university and poured. Find this dram for yourself here. I would urge you to read Graeme’s review of this malt on Edinburgh Whisky. A much more exciting venue for a tasting!

Highland Park 13yo 57% Distilled in 1997, filled into refill Bourbon wood. Bottled 2010. £44.95

Colour – Clean intense gold.

Nose – At first very light with intense sweetness. I find honey-accented peat with creamy vanilla from the cask. Gristy in texture. Dipping my nose into the glass, there are freshly-baked white rolls with a lush grassiness and root vegetable sweetness. This sulphur unfortunately persists a little too long: dark grains plant, mushroom ketchup. However, it clears at last to reveal maritime character: like kelp-covered malt. Cow sheds make a not unwelcome appearance together with coal smoke, bonfires and appley citrus.

      Water plucks out delicate and rounded pear notes with more characteristic Highland Park heathery peatiness. It’s spicy, too, with creamy oakiness. The earthy peat notes are attractive, but the alcohol just intrudes a little too much. Slowly, the nose freshens with more of that maritime sweetness. I detect some charred cask, too, and nail polish.

Palate – This is very intense indeed with dark maltiness, peat and smoke. Creaminess from the American oak gives way to an equally intense char.

      Water creates a more balanced and integrated experience with peat, soft malt and drily oaky citrus. However, it loses much of its oomph in the process.

Finish – Burning logs and eventually embers. There is an interesting blend of hard and soft textures, with cereal sweetness being of the latter sort. Bread on the barbecue. Quite short.

      Water confuses things: flavour is delayed but it does come. Double cream, wood chippings and faint peat. Stewed apple appears with barley, charred oak and crumbly earth.

So…?      A metaphor for this dram came quite quickly to mind: imagine an over-enthusiastic schoolboy rugby player – maybe a flanker or centre – who has spent more time in the gym than honing his skills on the pitch. The intensity is there, but it isn’t coordinated and ultimately lacks endurance in the final quarter. It is great for the big hits but the savvier off-loads and distribution is not there yet. Whisky-wise, then, I think a few more years in cask may have worked wonders. The Highland Park spirit appears more rambunctious than the standard bottlings have led me to believe, and the cask here has not yet been allowed to perform its subtractive and interactive functions. I would stick to the standard 12yo.

I owe a massive thank you to Natalie and co. at Master of Malt for the samples, and I shall see how the Caol Ila measures up, both to the Highland Park and another 30yo single cask I have had the good fortune to come across from the Bladnoch Forum.

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Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990

When the online retailers Master of Malt announced last year that they were to launch a constantly expanding and varied range of whisky samples alongside their regular operations, I and many others sat up and took note.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

‘Drinks By The Dram’ is a dedicated service on the part of Master of Malt to allow whisky fans to try before they buy. For folk such as myself, single cask, cask strength independent bottlings which would normally retail at around £75 can now be experienced for a fraction of the cost. However, with tasteful and considered little touches with regards to the packaging with their red wax-dipped tops and faded old-effect paper labels, these 3cl samples powerfully exude the ’boutique’.

In order that word of these products could be more widely circulated, who better to approach than whisky bloggers already familiar with the sample-style trappings of pre-release whiskies. I have to thank Natalie from Master of Malt for my sample: one from a range of single cask vintage releases produced by one of the few truly independent Scottish distilleries that put Diageo’s Managers’ Choice to shame.

To my delight and relief, my 3cl sample of the Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 made it through the snow to my door and so becoming a object was it to behold and to contemplate that I abstained from breaking the wax-covered seal until I sensed my olfactory faculties were firing on all cylinders. It was worth the wait.

This particular bottling of Glenfarclas from 1990 is sold out, but a sample from the Fifth Release of the Family Casks is available here.

Master of Malt on Facebook.

Master of Malt on Twitter.

Read my tour review for Glenfarclas here.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick. Which of course I hadn't been.

Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 Sherry Butt 9246 58.9% ABV

Colour - Blood red. Very striking.

Nose - Careful nosing from a distance reveals velvety soft Sherry influence: darkly nutty with stewed fruits. The biting claws of the high proof are withdrawn and it is possible to enjoy the heavy, spicy-rich vanilla reminiscent of some Bourbons I have had recently (Buffalo Trace comes to mind). It is so sweet with orange, cinnamon, tropical flowers, marzipan, redcurrant and cherries.

      Water lightens the experience with raw malted barley sweetness. Rich, soft toffee and oak notes which reminded me of the heat and woody spice notes which pervaded the Speyside Cooperage. The European oak is medium-dry and intense. More vanilla appears, in addition to dried fruits and fruitcake. There is an impeccable balance between the rich and the sweet, with the heavy juiciness and malt notes of Glenfarclas standing up to the wood.

Palate – This was a first for me. Despite the strength there was ne’er a prickle. The whole thing was delightfully rich and smooth with oak and malt. Mouth-coating and heavily-sherried, it was plain that not much had been done to this from leaving the cask. The texture was astonishing, as it felt as if raw sugar or red liquorice was being sprinkled on my lips.

      Water enhanced the smoothness slightly, and the Sherry, oak and caramel notes remained. Orange appeared, however, as did added dryness. Biscuity with tablet notes, this was unmistakeably Scotch, and Glenfarclas.

Finish – Jam-like and syrupy with such softness and smoothness. Superbly complex and evocative. Rich fruit skins and creamy almond. Orange and mango. Book binding.

      Water revealed more of the nutty sweetness, as well as rich toffee. Dark and smooth maltiness melded into a toasty, rich spiciness. As things began to simmer down, heather, thick clear honey and latterly beeswax appeared. An extremely glossy and sophisticated malt.

So…? I will unquestionably be using the ‘Drinks By The Dram’ option again, and sampling more of the Family Casks. This was one of the most involving and exciting whiskies I have tasted for a long while. Unusually, I left a malt feeling grateful for the wonderful diversity within Scotch: how I can savour the fruity sweetness of Balblair one moment, the fragrance of Linkwood and Longmorn the next, the island power of Lagavulin and Ardbeg afterwards, and the rich complexity of The Dalmore and Glenfarclas at the next convenient opportunity.

This 1990 release had the presence, the depth and the authenticity at cask strength to transport me back to my forays around the Ballindalloch/Aberlour area last year. Especially undiluted, the finish acted like a well-serviced and rapid cable car: tugging me between the rough russet grass and heather of Glenfarclas at the foot of Ben Rinnes, and the rich, leafy mystery and delight of Warehouse No. 1 and the banks of the Spey itself in Aberlour. The wild and the sensuous were epically combined and evoked a particularly auspicious time on the Scotch Odyssey as I began my assault on Speyside. I had the remote and beautiful Glenfarclas all to myself on the Wednesday while I witnessed the wonder of excellent Sherry casks at Aberlour on the Thursday morning. With water the semi-dry spicy and dark leafiness recalled the mellow, fragrant bowers of the Speyside Way. Riverside and heathland in one glass, with the presence of deciduous lichen-clad forest a common quality. I have yet to be disappointed with Glenfarclas, and this is the fourth encounter.

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