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Wemyss Malts at the Quaich Society

May is whisky month in Scotland, in case you had wondered why there was a whisky festival going on everywhere from Speyside to London and Glasgow, to your local church hall. Whisky is everywhere for these glorious 31 days of early summer. Sadly for me, exams have been equally prevalent.

Before revision robbed me of libational liberty, Doug Clement - long-time Quaich Society attendee and now Wemyss Malts ambassador – closed our immensely successful year of tastings. Doug was the man who pushed and pushed (and pushed) for a distillery in the East Neuk of Fife, and his beloved Kingsbarns dream is being made manifest by the investment and stewardship of Wemyss Malts, who purchased the nascent company from him last year. A pro golf caddie ordinarily, Doug donned his kilt rather than a club bag to present a range of Wemyss releases and provide us with an update on the distillery build project.

Working with such an old building – a former baronial pile in days gone by with the ornamental turrets and crenellations to prove it – has presented challenges, but the interior is now fully partitioned off and I understand the roof is weather-tight. Edinburgh architects, Simpson & Brown, have preserved the time-worn exterior of the building. All that remains, essentially, is for the equipment to move in and production is expected to start in December. Doug will live in the grounds, acting as visitor centre manager for the hordes of whisky fanatics and curious golfers who are sure to descend on the distillery upon completion.

Our first pour of the evening was a single cask single malt. Wemyss work with the redoubtable Charles Maclean who selects casks for bottling and bestows upon them a useful flavour moniker by which they are to be known. This one, from Mortlach in Speyside, was dubbed “Vanilla Oak”, a 15yo from an ex-Sherry butt. Looking at the colour one would never have guessed: very pale indeed with light grassy aromas arriving first. A nutty and acidic edge and thick custard also did not point to a European oak maturation vessel. The palate was rather cooling with grassiness again, pear, vanilla (quelle surprise) and spearmint. A light dram, for all its provenance and not entirely my cup of tea.

The next offering was a Scottish premier: the new – non-age statement – Lord Elcho, a blended whisky. I tasted the 15yo a while back and was impressed by its velvety rich and sweet nose and industrial, smoky palate – a most curious Jekyll/Hyde whisky. The latest addition to the range was right up my street: syrupy thick grain, woody spice and an edge of dry, crisp peat smoke at the back rounded out an exuberant and playful nose. It remained bouncy on the palate with tight, clinging grain and again a touch of smoke. Dark chocolate and coffee grounds led into the short, sweet finish.

Moving swiftly on, we came to the much-lauded Spice King 12yo (a World Whisky Awards winner back in 2012). Sixteen different malts are packed in delivering a focused green malt and green apple aroma, with a far deeper taste profile: rich malt, liquorice, turmeric and a touch of peat. A really engaging sipper.

The second single cask release was one I had come across a few weeks previously, and new it was of an exceptionally high standard. The 1997 Clynelish “Apple Basket” went down a storm. A 16yo dram from a Bourbon barrel, the nose offered super thick and indulgent oak with rich red apple and candied ginger. The palate was a joy with a shaving of oak, then caramel and red fruits. A tickle of spice and curry leaf confirmed this as the classically waxy and semi-savoury Clynelish spirit.

I remember being impressed by Wemyss’s other blended malt, Peat Chimney (Spice King, Peat Chimney and The Hive are the company’s core range of blended malts) when I first tried it. Again, I was charmed by the level of integration between biscuit malt and peat. Abundant citrus balance these aromas. Soft and fruity on the palate, the peat gradually grows. Balance is maintained, but it felt a tad underpowered to me, especially when compared with something like Compass Box’s Peat Monster.

The final drink could be mixed if we so chose: Darnley’s View Spiced Gin with Fever Tree Ginger Ale, ice and an orange segment on the side. The aromas were all spicy and Indian: cumin, turmeric, with a sweet and buttery undertow. The flavours were too perfumed and sweet for my tastes, however, but I have heard good things about the ginger ale combination.

Beer, more Spice King and more beer followed in the pub afterwards, and I’d like to thank Doug and Wemyss for their generosity, as well as for the hugely entertaining part they played in what was my final tasting as Quaich Society President.

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Whisky Prices Blast Off into Orbit

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

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

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

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

BenRiach

Bodacious BenRiachs.

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

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

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

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

Glenfarclas

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

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

Bailie Nicol Jarvie

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

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

Signatory

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

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

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Queen Street SMWS bar.

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

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

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

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

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Spirit of Speyside

The modern connotations attached to ‘festival’ embrace many things, but mud, masses of people, inadequate sanitation and probably a youth with a guitar all feature in peoples’ minds’ eye. The true root of the custom, of course, is celebration, and a mighty big one is taking place in Speyside at the end of this week.

If you were to believe some of the pronouncements made by those whom I have overheard once or twice in recent years, you would wonder what the good-for-nothing-but-blends region had to celebrate. Incredibly, there are people who dismiss two-thirds of the Scotch single malt industry as grassy, fruity, honeyed and dull. In response, I urge them to do what thousands of international whisky fans are on the cusp of: visit.

Morayshire, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire boast magnificent landscapes (and seascapes), wonderfully varied and high-quality foods and of course, mighty malt whiskies. The Spirit of Speyside Festival touts them all. In past years, Glenfarclas have taken groups up Ben Rinnes, fuelled by their richly sherried liquids; this time around Glenfiddich will host a ceilidh in one of their warehouses.

Delighted with the uptake in tickets, Mary Hemsworth, festival manager, will preside over more than 370 events over the four days. Speaking of the number of enquiries from non-UK attendees, she said: ‘The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is one of the key events in Homecoming 2014, and we hope this trend will lay some very strong foundations on which to grow our international profile and that of Speyside Moray in a very important year for Scottish tourism’.

While in Dufftown last month, just in the one (superlatively excellent) Taste of Speyside I encountered Australian, Dutch and German whisky fans, while three Taiwanese gentlemen had preceeded me around the BenRiach distillery. The latter example demonstrates that it is not just the likes of The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Glenlivet that they are coming to see, but as many of the diverse and dynamic distilleries in the area as they can.

Once again, the normally secretive Mortlach will open its doors to parties over the festival, while the Tamdhu fete sounds especially interesting. The distillery will celebrate its return from the brink of rigor mortis with a ceilidh, whisky tastings, tours and a treasure hunt on May 4th.

Not to be outdone by the IWSC, the ISC, the WWA and numerous others, the Spirit of Speyside bestows its own accolades: the Roving Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards. In a departure from the norm, recipients of the RSOSWFWAs will be decided by those who live, work and visit Speyside, rather than the old hands of an expert panel. Six drams will be judged across three categories (12yo and Under, 13-20yo, and 21yo and Over) by anyone who can make it along to a judging venue with £12 still in their pockets. Tomorrow nosing will take place at the Glenfiddich Distillery; on the 2nd at the Sunninghill Hotel in Elgin; Forsyth’s Coppersmiths in Rothes, and the Aviemore Highland Resort on the 3rd; the Grant Arms in Grantown and Aberlour’s Aberlour Hotel on the 4th. Winners will be announced at a three-course lunch held at Tamdhu on the 5th.

The Speyside community – it should go without saying – rests at the core of this eponymous gathering. On Thursday evening, the Festival will kick off with an Opening Gala and an auction which every connoisseur and collector of Speyside malt whiskies ought to attend. Fourteen rare and limited edition whiskies from the region will go under the hammer to raise as much money as possible for the Moray Immediate Care Scheme, the Festival’s chosen charity for 2013.

Just some of the whiskies include bottle #2 of a 1,000 bottle release of Limited Edition Tamdhu 10yo, a G&M Glen Grant from 1965 not previously on sale in the UK, a three-litre bottle of Glenfarclas 105 and a couple of bottles of Glenfiddich’s Eeu de Robbidou whose non-traditional maturation regime means it is not technically Scotch whisky at all. Commendably, this is whisky’s attempt to give something back to the region.

The events are as numerous as the distilleries, and I would dearly love to forget about revision for a week and get stuck in on Speyside. If you are at a loose end for what to do this week, check out the website at www.spiritofspeyside.com or keep up to date on twitter (I know I will be) with the handle @spirit_speyside.

Experience the beating heart of the Scotch whisky industry for yourself, and encounter the warm hearts of the people who live and work there.

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My Speyside Reboot

BenRiach Distillery on a tempestuous day.

I think we would all agree that 14 months is a ponderous age to be without the means of indulging in your chief passion. That length of time without football, an easyJet flight to somewhere warm, the use of a working television, or sex would try the patience sorely. I had endured 14 months without setting foot in a whisky distillery and righting this wrong last month wreathed me in smiles.

Wriggling from under the barbed wire cage of three assignments in as many weeks, I beheld the prospect of a period of time in which I could plant a project or two. Operation Sniff A Washback was go.

For various reasons, Speyside is my favourite of all the whisky ‘regions’. Not only is it far enough away from the Central Belt to impress upon me a suitably Highland ruggedness, but the density of high-class, diverse distilleries cannot be bettered. One hopelessly romantic train journey through the snow drifts of Aberdeenshire later and I alighted in Elgin, chilled but thrilled to be back in Morayshire. Thanks to the help of Stewart Buchanan and Ewan George, I knew that there was a whisky hearth of brilliant warmth awaiting me at BenRiach.

One very short hop on the 36 bus brought me to the swift S-bend on which BenRiach sits, the black bulk of the maltings showing up well against shards of snow driven into the grass by the determined wind. I was sent to the stillroom to warm up while Ewan finished off some recurring paperwork where I chewed the stillman fat with Fraser, custodian of the BenRiach spirit for the last four years. The quartet of copper pots pelted me with heat as Fraser told me about the various family members employed within the industry, one as far away as Laphroaig. That brought the discussion on to the peated BenRiach production regime and whether the quality of the final whisky represented satisfactory redress for the clinging cigarette smoker fragrance no worker can escape when the smoky stuff is being distilled. Like the gents at Balblair, Fraser prefers the less aromatically-invasive unpeated production.

The stills at BenRiach.

Trotting in Ewan’s wake, once his ‘t’s had been crossed and his ’i's dotted, we headed into the warehouses. Here I could Get My Geek On with a quick game of ‘Name That Cask’. Hoggies, butts, puncheons, and more than a couple of Port pipes could be discerned in the tepid gloom, teeming with the scents of perhaps the industry’s most heterogeneous whisky stocks maturing. I asked Ewan which of Billy Walker’s discoveries had most excited him when they emerged from dunnage obscurity. ‘To be honest, the Solstice stuff I thought was fantastic. I’d gone off peated whiskies for a few years, but that whisky is top class’.

'Under 25'? Hardly.

With the tour over, Ewan was kind enough to furnish me with one of the missing pieces of my BenRiach puzzle. Stewart had told us in St Andrews that more senior BenRiach acquired a tropical fruitiness, and I wanted to put his claim to the test in the shape of the award-winning 30yo. I found this to be a deeply unusual dram, a class apart from those other whiskies I have tried which can also claim to have been three decades in development.

Red fruit sweetness and rich honey came through at first on the nose, but despite its age there was a remarkable zest and life. Lime pickle came next, and then – right enough – the tropical fruits. I found banana and passion fruit were most evident, with grapefruit in time and a toffee’d weight. To taste, this was full with a spicy attack before the experience lengthened with malt, honey and plenty of vanilla. The 50:50 wood contribution between ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry lent this whisky plenty of richness and complexity, but also enough body and freshness to demand a lengthier sipping session.

Ewan had one final ticket for the BenRiach Bandwagon, however, and when I nosed the second release of the Solstice Heavily Peated Port Finish, I leapt aboard.

BenRiach Solstice 17yo 50%

Colour – toffee apple red: clear and bright.

Nose – surprisingly fresh breezy smoke, like a wintry wind blowing the peat smoke over barley fields. It is a soft (though bold and unmistakable) smokiness, like the last stages of kilning. Beneath is a citrussy cleanliness, then the Port gives a firm base of cooked strawberries and morello cherries.

Palate – tickle of peat, then mouth-coating Port flavours. Flavour everywhere especially heavy, industrial peat. There is a clean, light toffee’d malt for balance.

Finish – drying all the time on black, thick and growly peat. Garden fire fragrance. Some tiny pieces of dried strawberry. Clean green apple on the tail.

With water, the nose hinted at the kiln even more, with fat, dry barley. More of the fruits inherent within the spirit emerged: orange and ripe Comice pears, all beneath a veil of smoke. With that dash of water, the palate was more focused with heat and smoke. A trace of creamy, nutty oak heralded a singeing sweetness in the middle of the tongue: pear drops and strawberry jam. Kippery smoke appeared on the finish with citrussy oak, a satiny sweetness and the sooty smokiness of a fire grate.

At the time, I laughed out loud: by rights, it should not taste as good as it does. The Port finish is so well-executed, and the smoke such a joyous mixture of textures and aromas. Having missed my bus on to Aberlour, I contented myself with buying a bottle, the immediate rapture of my dram at the distillery fortifying me against a fierce – but not unwelcome – blizzard outside the distillery. Though certainly not a summery dram, we were hardly experiencing summery conditions. Irrespective of the time of year, however, the bizarre brilliance of this whisky will make itself felt. I am now besotted with BenRiach.

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‘Wet Dog – but in a Good Way’

'Eh?!' 'Mmmmm!'

And then I thought John MacDonald was going to hit me. My tasting note of ‘guinea pig hutch’ had not gone down well.

When nosing and tasting whisky, our brain has a habit of surprising us with a suggestive vista of just what sensory memories we have folded away in the darkest recesses. The conversion by our imaginations of these hints and fragments which those few molecules of distilled, oak-matured malt spirit disturbed when they pottered past our hypothalamus into an image or reel of footage can, however, appear so far removed from anything you might wish to detect in a fine single malt, bourbon or blend once we concretize them in writing.

The exercise of producing tasting notes works on association, putting into a system of signs for mass-consumption and comprehension what is only a deeply private impression. Tasting notes, therefore, work best only for the taster who can unlock the subtext and allusions to the words on the page. This is not quite on the same topic as Keith Wood and I discussed at the beginning of last year whereby particular scenes and whole memories are triggered by a mysterious aroma or flavour but instead aims to broach the subject of the unexpected – but appreciated – when encountering whisky. As I have said before, it is powerfully rewarding when the surface level of our awareness is broken by a whisky, and we can go beyond ‘malty’, ‘honey’, ‘vanilla’, ‘smoky’ in our evaluations to something that challenges how we perceive and contemplate sensory information. When sharing that whisky with others – as should always occur - it can be fun and illuminating to compare our most outlandish impressions, to explain how as individuals in the same sensory world we could possibly have ‘come up with’ that particular tasting note.

To return to that ‘guinea pig hutch’ descriptor above. It referred to the cask strength sample of the new Balblair 2001 and, as I tried to placate the distillery manager, I did not mean it as a criticism. Simply, in that moment my mind had stamped a sign on what I am by now used to finding in younger Balblairs – a sweet cereal character with light wood and a grassy/spicy aroma. For whatever reason, these had combined and reformed into an image of a rodent residence.

Mortlach is another that can generate some fairly unusual descriptors: rotting logs, lamb stock – what are these doing coming out of a whisky? What is important is the atmosphere these objects suggest to me, of late winter forest walks in Northumberland or left-overs from the Sunday roast.

Drams from Islay have more than a little drama to their personalities, with endless interpretations of just what quality of smoke there is in evidence possible. Bowmore Legend pushes out damp cigarettes while Kilchoman blends smoke with peat, which in turn evokes muddy farmyards and cowsheds. Pleasant? Absolutely. The classic case-in-point is ‘TCP’ for the likes of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Some shrink away in fear of a pungent and oft-abused medicine cupboard, while others revel in the aromatic challenge.

All I would say is, put down what feels right to you. Why play it safe with what you worry you ‘ought’ to notice? You will come to understand the whiskies you come across far more intimately and meaningfully if those deeper and more esoteric responses are not repressed but are instead celebrated. After all, they acknowledge how diverse each of our experiences with food, drink and anything else that might have caught our noses or tastebuds over a lifetime are and with any luck might bring them into the discussion, too.

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Christmas Crackers at Luvians

If you feel like leaving Santa more than milk and shortbread this Christmas, I’m sure the bearded North Pole dweller would point you in the direction of Luvians Bottle Shop, stuffed like an M&S turkey with delicious festive offers. For the purposes of this post, I have only space for a fraction of the whisky deals available, never mind the masses of discounts to be had on their wines and the gins and vodkas they’re so excited about.

A whisky lover's grotto on Market Street, St Andrews.

Stocking most distilleries’ principal outfit, Daniel told me that Luvians also favour the independent bottlers. Adelphi is a darling of theirs, and they also have some of the Cooper’s Choice range on the shelves. A little harder to keep on those shelves at present are SpringbankArdbeg and one of my aboslute favourites, GlenDronach. Plainly the bolder favours are ‘in’ this Christmas.

But what have they for that special whisky-drinking someone in your life? When you consider the breadth of drams which have benefited from Peter Wood’s holiday cheer  with a drop in price, you might think it more prudent to buy your own Christmas presents and get them a nice tie, instead. All of the Glenmorangie wood finishes have £10 off, as has the Old Pulteney 17yo and Glengoyne 10yo. There’s a whopping £20 off the Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 21yo at £45.99.

Elsewhere, the Bunnahabhain 12yo looks an absolute steal at £22.99 and Gordon & MacPhail Glenburgie and Miltonduff are all under £20. The ravishingly pure and sweet anCnoc 16yo is less than £30 and at that price, my private pledge to make my next spirits purchase something other than Scotch is in dire jeopardy.

However, in this season of austerity one can be forgiven for bowing to bang-for-buck considerations, and the Luvians boardroom has anticipated this. ’Why should we give our customers one whisky when we could give them three?’ they may well have asked. Consequently, my pick for this Christmas is their Glenfarclas bundle, which includes not only the stonkingly expressive 15yo, bathed in fine orange-accented sherry tones, sweet fruit and floral characters in addition to velvet-smooth toffee malt, but also miniatures of the 21yo and the 25yo. Add a really good bar of dark chocolate from the Luvians cafe further along Market Street and you’re still looking at less than £42.

Also, if you are in the town on the 23rd of December, head along to the store where Gregg Glass will be conducting a Compass Box tasting. My advice would be to add just that little bit more Hedonism to your Christmas countdown.

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A Taste of Speyside with Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Small Matter of a Mortlach

 

Do not miss this shop if you are anywhere near north east Scotland. It is relatively accessible (between May and November!) and contains malts and people unlike any others.

Do not miss this shop if you are anywhere near north east Scotland. It is relatively accessible (between May and November!) and contains malts and people unlike any others.

Re-visit Glen Garioch: check; dine at Sandy’s: check – I had been very efficient in my completion of whisky-related objectives so far on my Scotch Odyssey plenary, and with the previous night’s Speyside Platter still handsomely fueling my faculties, we made the journey into the Cairngorms to Tomintoul for my third mission.

As far as whisky emporia which I encountered over the course of my tour, none could match the Drury’s Whisky Castle. For the two days I enjoyed Tomintoul as my base camp, I spent a good deal of time in the shop and not nearly enough money. Mike and Cathy are passionate, generous, and often outspoken, but in the main fabulous ambassadors for whisky – although I don’t expect The Macallan or The Glenlivet to be employing Mike as sales director any time soon, but more of that later.

A sample of the varied bottlings to be found here.

A sample of the varied bottlings to be found here.

Where else could I have gone to purchase a most significant bottle? Who else could more instructively and entertainingly me guide me through the plethora of independent expressions available inside? Mike was my man for Mortlach.

He did not at first understand why I should be so determined to limit myself within the biodiverse jungle of his shop to one species of distillery alone. I had to explain that Mortlach was a special place for me, producing a special dram appreciated by special people. He grabbed a 12-year-old Provenance from the phalanx of sample bottles behind the till and tipped some into the bulbous Whisky Castle tumblers, which worked well for the tasting. I sensed conifer branches and burnt toffee, with plenty of phenolic character. Rich oak and sweet barley sugar emerged, too, along with a little shortbread. It was a clean nose, leading into a big, sulphury palate which filled the mouth with sweetness and a hint of peat smoke. A worthy start, but it hadn’t the guts at 46% ABV that I was really seeking.

This was a thoroughly pleasant way of spending a Thursday morning. I mean afternoon...

This was a thoroughly pleasant way of spending a Thursday morning. I mean afternoon...

Mike’s next suggestion was a Douglas Laing of the same age as the Provenance. At 50% ABV it was approaching the heady heights of raw whisky and certainly propounded plenty of oaky flavours on the nose: vanilla, new oak and a dry sweetness, extra rounded stewed fruit notes appearing after a time with greener fruits behind them. Toffee was present in the mouth, as well as more oak. Chewy and fruity, this reminded me quite a lot more of the 16-year-old official expression, one of my very favourites.

As I was nosing, scribbling and pondering, people were continually being sucked through the door. Whisky drinkers are chatty people – even at 11AM – and what was as a harmless remark on the part of one couple that they had visited The Glenlivet the previous day caught Mike’s attention. Yes, he said, The Glenlivet was a nice place to visit, it wasn’t really very good. He had plenty of malts which could kick the standard bottlings into touch.

‘I’d like to see you prove that,’ was the retort, and while he poured me further Mortlachs, he attended to these new customers and, I rather fancy, he did.

It is Mike’s policy to slyly rub you up the wrong way: juxtaposing your apprehension of the industry with that of his. His experience informs what can come across as incendiary – even sacrilegious – remarks about the state of the industry at present, and such disappointment is derived from his knowledge of better, more exciting days of flavour and distinction; these, he says, are behind us. His argument is that single malt whisky in its readily available, big-brand form, is dull. Not bad, he says, just consistent; uniform. He hurls his invective on chill-filtration and 40% ABV bottlings, claiming it sucks the life out of a once idiosyncratic spirit. He takes issue with the scale of the industry, too, bemoaning the lack of really good wood and this is where the Macallan comes in. The husband of the couple, when asked by Mike what he normally drank so that a suitable challenger could be selected, nominated the Speyside megastar. Mike argued that their wood management, whilst extensive and sophisticated, was dealing fundamentally with a threatened, finite resource and the resulting whisky was not a patch on that being bottled fifteen or twenty years ago. The Fine Oak range was a prime example of how the paucity of good Sherry casks was afflicting the X-factor of the output of distinguished malts today.

With the aid of a single cask 18-year-old Longmorn, the lack of protest from his patrons would suggest that he had made his point.

Meanwhile I had been savouring an Adelphi which Mike had put in front of me which, in his opinion, was a Mortlach. Technically, it proceeded under the rubric solely of ‘Breath of Speyside’ but his suspicion was that it was Dufftownian in origin. Single cask, cask strength (57.9% ABV): this was what I was here for. On the nose, sweet and powerful oak flavours dominated with plenty of toffee and a resinous character. Smooth and chocolatey, its dark richness put me in mind of dunnage warehouses – an instant hit for any whisky. Lightly charred notes came forward, with thick vanilla. Barley sweetness, like with the Provenance, appeared, too, with caramel shortbread. The palate was epically enthralling, evocative of the majestic Flora and Fauna bottling so rich, dark and fruity was it. The presence of more chocolate and toffee made this just the decadent example of Speyside I am particularly partial to.

The A D Rattray 16-year-old could not quite measure up to this delightfully rich mystery dram. Whilst being deeper and fuller, with more resinous dark fruits, it was a little too musty for my liking – very drying indeed. Caramel toffee and orange teased the nose, with some honey and rich barley. Those phenolic notes appeared on the palate with more fruit and vanilla. Nuts and sugar presented an authentic Mortlach experience.

It had to be the rich, sweet, oaky power of the Adelphi, though. Its spirited dynamic exhibition of the best of Sherry cask maturation ensured I would be taking this back home to Northumberland.

Requiring a walk to clear the old head of whisky vapour, my Dad and I wandered in the Glenlivet Estate, the same route we took, in fact, the day immediately prior to stumbling into the eponymous distillery. The weather, just as it had been three years ago, was as delicious as the malts I had been quaffing, and as the track took us beyond the tree line we could appreciate the rugged isolation of the Cairngorms and Tomintoul tucked within them. Scanning the valley bottom, I found the road which I had agonisingly toiled along only five months earlier: blizzard-blasted and hamstrung. All that came after had its steel, optimism and endeavour rooted in that day. My reward then had been an hour in The Whisky Castle, with a super meal at the Clockhouse Restaurant. It was there that we reconvened with my Mother and Aunt for another extraordinary feast.

Tomintoul

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‘A Taste of Speyside’ – My Second Helping

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, the distillery shall always recall Dufftown; the whisky Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, Mortlach shall always recall Dufftown, and particularly Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it was a good birthday. While certain social pressures preside over turning 21-years-of-age, and may lead to some degree of short-term memory loss next September, the location and the company which my birthday of 2010 embraced were sufficiently distinctive to preserve them in my mind, hopefully forever.

In the style of one who is especially hard to please (although I’m not, really), my gift to myself comprised a return to Dufftown. With my parents driving, of course. I had booked the family (my aunt – saviour of the Odyssey’s first week – had joined us) into ‘A Taste of Speyside’ for dinner, and we chugged into Dufftown, past the gargantuan Glenfiddich on the left and the symbolic still neck on the right, tickled by weak sunshine. A box of Northumbrian goodies sat beside me on the back seat - my Hamper of Limitless Gratitude.

Within said hamper (it was a cardboard box, in truth, although it had once been appropriated by the Doddington Dairy, makers of superb ice cream) were Piperfield Pork bacon, a selection of homemade preserves and an array of products from the Northumbrian Cheese Co. Northumbria’s are distinctive cheeses, and some of the loveliest I have ever tasted. I had hoped these would appeal to Sandy’s passionate interest in local produce, and whilst the topic of many of our conversations in April had been whisky-flavoured, he could acquire plenty of this himself. It would – as indeed it had for us – require quite a commute to purloin these note-worthy, delicious items (Piperfield supply Heston Blumenthal at ‘The Fat Duck’).

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

Our dinner was not as alchemical or psychedelic as one might find in Bray, but just as lauded. Having nipped down the hill to Mortlach for the purposes of yet more distillery photography – I had neglected to capture its eclectic visage when I was last in the area, and indeed my comparative lack of pictorial variety preserved on my SD card is one of my bigger regrets of the tour - I hiked back along Fife Street, passed the Co-op where I had purchased so many highly-calorific morsels to the Clock Tower and Balvenie Street.

Ducking through the front door of No. 10 to witness Sandy holding court before my relatives was tremendous. I had hoped to introduce The Mother to him, but he came to appreciate what I had alluded to in April of his own accord. My dear Mum has enroled herself in an exclusion diet to mitigate symptoms of early-onset osteo-arthritis in the right elbow, an important joint for a chef. Sandy’s menu is fabulously rich in places, celebrating the apparent unpretentiousness of natural Scottish ingredients. The consequences of indulging in flour and dairy my mother agonised over extensively. “I can’t have potatoes, either,” said Mum. “Well don’t have them,” replied Sandy.

Following my Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15-year-old (not my wisest choice as an aperitif but they hadn’t any Tomintoul 14-year-old) I had the Cullen Skink – a creamy, potato-laden fish soup – to start, and then the Speyside Platter which amalgamated many of the finest foods from the Spey valley and the Moray coast. As it turned out, they hadn’t any of the rabbit casserole on this occasion, either. Both were extraordinarily delicious: the Skink pure comfort food and the Platter an insight into the diveristy of produce from the area. Smoked salmon, chicken liver paté, smoked venison, herring, oatcakes and cheeses – my designs on rounding off my meal with the cranahan cheesecake had to be redrafted! I haven’t any photos, by the way, because each course vanished too quickly.

As a digestif I indulged in the 21-year-old PortWood from the distillery whose namesake is the street I was dining on. This was wonderfully spicy and rich, with marzipan sweetness and creaminess. The oaking was assertive but deliciously so and the tannic fruitiness mingled with the textures of the crème brûlée I had managed to despatch. Once again, superlative Scottish hospitality had put the world to rights.

So unexpected and plentiful had Sandy’s support and generosity been at the time I first encountered him - a juncture of huge significance and precariousness - that to dine in his restaurant under entirely different circumstances and yet to discover him unchanged, baffled me no end. This man had made self-belief possible at a time when I had lost my way, badly. What I now accredit as my most treasured achievement to date had at one stage been in serious, ignominious jeopardy. Circumstance and despondency had coalesced on the morning of April 27th, but the potentially debilitating and restricting legacy of each had been banished by a simple demonstration of humanity. A change of mentality was desperately required, and duly arrived as a surprise side dish at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The man himself, of course, continually dismisses his own pivotal role. Be assured, Sandy, it was not ”nothing.”

For the account of my first encounter with the folk at ‘A Taste of Speyside’, please view my original blog post, typed on his computer. For further information about the restaurant, please visit Dufftown’s website. You can also “add them” on Facebook.

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Moments for Malt

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

You wouldn’t take a howler monkey to Wimbledon. You wouldn’t show up at work on Monday morning wearing only your swimming trunks (or would you?). You wouldn’t eat beef bourguignon for breakfast. Time and Place is the discrepancy in operation here, and particularly in our Western society the failure to observe what is appropriate in any given circumstance is liable to invite ridicule upon oneself. There are things which are simply not done and if you are unfortunate enough to be caught doing them you are castigated as tactless, benighted - even a savage.

Equally, there are pairings which share an indestructible complimentary tie, combinations which are both wholesome and pleasing: Stephen Fry and any television programme with a cultured or intellectual subject; Emma Watson and Chanel; English football on the international stage and crushing, embarrassing disappointment. These work.

It is the same with malt whisky, only the time and place for a dram is not prescribed by social stigma but by deep personal discoveries. As I’m sure a lot of malt lovers can appreciate, after a certain point some brands and expressions become mainstays of a special hour in the day or location in the world. Treating them like Steven Gerrard and playing them out of position simply comes over all wrong.

Very recently I reached this juncture myself. In his Malt Whisky Companion, Micheal Jackson speaks of the “particular” pleasure of the stuff: “the restorative after a walk in the country or a game of golf; the aperitif; even, occasionally, the malt with a meal; the digestif; the malt with a cigar, or with a book at bedtime.” I have sampled whisky in all of the above situations (although stroke out golf and cigars) at some point and can now declaim that, for me, a dram pre-dinner is my absolute favourite ‘Moment for a Malt’. The exploration of flavour in liquid form is a marvellous prelude to the more substantial main event. The olfactory and digestive mechanisms, in moist anticipation, make to intensify the properties of whichever whisky I’m sipping. This is especially true on Sunday evenings when my malt has medicinal qualities, too (even when it is not an Islay), remedying the fever symptomatic of the atrocities endured over the course of a Sunday Lunch shift at the pub where I work. At such a time, the delicate, smooth, captivating sweetness of youthful Speysiders is highly prized. The Glenlivet 12-year-old and Tomintoul 16-year-old used to do the job in the past. These now long empty, I look to my bottle of the superb Longmorn 15-year-old and the majestic Linkwood 12-year-old. Vanilla, oak, flowers and fruit, and a touch of peat compose an irresistible flavour profile.

Perhaps still more extraordinary, however, is Caol Ila. Although memories of cycling around the gorgeous distilleried stretch between Rothes and Elgin endows these two malts made on the Lossie with more favourable significance, I rate Caol Ila an unbeatable aperitif. The balance of soft fruity sweetness, crisp, deep peat and supreme malty delicacy is wonderful. At present, I find the Distillers’ Edition with little or no water a joy to drink.

Of course I shall continue to experiment. I suspect my dearth of support for a post-prandial malt is because I have so few bottles whose contents fit the bill. I haven’t many aged, Sherry-matured bruisers. Dark and bewitching cannot be readily applied to the inductess of my drinks cabinet. Mortlach 16-year-old works well with music after a meal but less so with television; Ardbeg Uigeadail demands commitment and certainty to be poured and savoured; the Auchentoshan 1978 is very powerful indeed at 59% ABV. All are complex malts, but haven’t yet seemed to marry with my after dinner moods. The 30-year-old Glenfarclas, however, could without a doubt address matters, and the Gordon & MacPhail Strathisla 49-year-old Sandy poured me in Dufftown to round off my fillet steak and clootie dumpling was revelatory. This last is of course a ‘Malt Moment’ in its own right.

As for whisky with a meal, testing has proven inconclusive. Glenfarclas 15-year-old with dark chocolate? Not a winner. Oban 14-year-old with salmon? Well, I’ll try almost anything once. Auchentoshan 3Wood with Christmas cake? Scoreless draw. Whisky and food pairing is an avenue many are keenly striding down, and there are some persuasive articles around to tempt me, but I feel that, for the time being, I won’t risk spoiling the impact of my whiskies when the inclination to have one arises.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

If the evening is wearing on, however, now may well be the time for another malt. Though not as appealing as aperitifs, “Twilight Whiskies” can be fantastic. The Dalmore 15-year-old is an astonishingly lovely and easy-drinking dram. I adore its opulent, richness, firmness, nuttiness, fruitiness and light dab of ground coffee-esque peat. For a late-night malt, it is without equal and indeed I polished off my bottle, with regret but with friends, earlier this week. Highland Park 12-year-old is a steely competitor, though, as the light dies from the sky. I sipped some as Iniesta secured the World Cup for Spain and delighted in the echoes of my drizzly Orkney causeways which slid out of my glass.

Of course, these are no more than hunches, and most likely are all subject to change. I welcome modification, in fact, because there are few simpler joys than a blissful half-hour with just the right-tasting malt – whenever and with whichever style of whisky that happens to be. If tomorrow I discover that my precious Longmorn actually works rather splendidly immediately after a mid-morning chocolate croissant then for such future occasions shall I reserve and savour it. Although maybe I ought not to make a habit of doing so, and definitely it should be out of sight of disapproving parents. When are your favourite Moments for Malt? Have they evolved over the years? I’m made dizzy by future possibilites for my whisky-drinking: Ardbeg Corryvreckan with Power Bar energy gels post half-marathon? You never know how mood and malt may conspire to create sensory wonderment.

So then, for means of reflection, conversation, restoration or an endless list of other purposes, at any time find an excuse for a wee dram. Even if it is in the manner of those monkeys slapping at typewriters, you may hit upon the perfect marriage of whisky and circumstance. It is so very rewarding. Houseman wrote: “and malt does more than Milton can. To justify God’s ways to man.” Meditating on that aphorism alone would be apt inspiration to root around in the cupboard for something tasty.

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