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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 2

Fruitcake, Frivolity, and Figs

A fraction over a week ago I was to be found skipping through the streets of Edinburgh with Chris Hoban, ducking into coffee shops and chocolateries, trying to recover a sense of our own humanity. Events which took place a larger fraction over a week ago explain why.

John Ramsay marshalling the Q&A.

With our whisky ration cards long since frittered away in various corners of the Scotch Whisky Experience, a halt was called to the Master Blender Meet-and-Greet. I just had enough time to return Chris’ measure of Johnnie Walker Platinum (full and voluptuous with no small amount of smoke and plenty of coconut-laden grains) to him before we were herded up yet more stairs.

I had long since began to suspect my legs, uncertain as to whether they were working with me or against me, but the room into which we plodded revived my spirits. A vaulted ceiling allowed plenty of the last of the Edinburgh light in, and a striking stained glass window at the far end reminded all guests of the route by which those whiskies we had tasted already that evening had arrived beneath the noses of the master blenders, before they passed them along to us. The blenders themselves were sat along the high table to face the room. Only Richard Paterson, however, got to his feet. The show must go on.

In our glasses panted the juicy, dark and rich beauty that is The Dalmore King Alexander III. As chance would have it, this was the whisky I ordered following my first tour of the Experience, poured by Mr Hoban if memory serves. Paterson wanted to unlock the full spectrum of this immensely complicated whisky, which had seen the inside of six different specimens of cask before its tasteful glass bottle with silver embossing, via strong black coffee, fruitcake and dark chocolate. In a performance that blended at least six potent characterstics of its own to match the whisky, ranging from the ebullient to the outrageous, Paterson encouraged us to approach a single malt like never before. We were discouraged from following his lead, however, and hurling the first measure onto the carpet.

The Dalmore food matching tasting, minus the coffee.

‘Mm mm mmmm… Mm mm mmmm… Mmm Mmm MMMMMMMMMM. And swallow,’ he urged, holding the spirit on his palate for a tingling age. Then chocolate followed fruitcake which followed coffee in rapid fire ingestion. I wasn’t convinced. I don’t view the addition of food to a dram as ‘messing around’ but I have yet to come upon the right combination. Though at many turns in his lecture Paterson had the room gasping in disbelief, my scepticism for the food matching exercise could not be dispelled.

Tutored tasting over, Master of Ceremonies for the final portion of what had been a joyous, insightful evening so far, John Ramsay, took the microphone to the audience. The first question probed the panel with regards to their favoured drinks, a fairly uncontroversial line of inquiry one would have thought, until Paterson rebuffed Caroline Martin for pinning her colours to the Johnnie Walker mast. The Whyte and MacKay man paid tribute to David Stewart, and the Balvenie 21yo Port Wood in particular as a whisky of stupendous interest and beauty.

A lady on our table wanted to know next how the master blenders could keep track of the multitude of flavours they encountered on an hourly, never mind daily, basis. Could they offer any tips, she asked, for improving our own olfactory skills? Gordon Motion fielded the debate, asking the questioner how many windows she had in her flat. After a brief flurry of arithmetic an answer was provided. ‘Now how did you go about counting those windows?’ Motion asked. The lady replied that she could see them in her mind’s eye. ‘I do the same thing,’ said Gordon, ‘I have a set of images for certain flavours. For example, peaches will always remind me of a holiday in France when I was young and we were given a bowl of peaches by the roadside.’

As anyone who has read my collaborationwith Keith Wood on Whisky Emporium a little over a year ago will know, this is precisely what fascinates me most about personal encounters with whisky. My hand shot up when the ‘last question’ call came. What, I wanted to know, was the most powerful moment the panel could remember in which they were transported back to an earlier sensory memory when tasting whisky?

Richard Paterson regaling the room.

Chris Morris answered first, stating that the strongest impressions he can receive from nosing Bourbon is of the rickhouses at Woodford Reserve. ‘That’s warehouses for the rest of us,’ interposed Ramsay. David Stewart’s fifty-plus years around the spirit could flag up no particular instance, although he spoke with quiet pleasure of his apprenticeship with single malt Scotch whisky. Angela D’Orazio’s testimony came directly from the heart as she described peat-cutting on Islay. In addition to the peats, Angela noticed the little wild flowers that grew on the bog, and when she had a sip of Islay whisky later, echoes of those floral characters surged back to her.

Caroline Martin focused on ‘lightbulb moments’ in connection with the distilleries she works for. The instant someone told her that Clynelish was a waxy spirit, manipulating it and understanding it became a far easier task. A childhood growing up in Coleraine, near to the Bushmills distillery, abided with Billy Leighton. When going to school or playing with friends, ever-present was ’this smell’. Entering the industry later on, certain Irish whiskeys could successfully evoke that formative atmosphere. Gordon Motion, whose point about the peaches had inspired my question in the first place, related to us a nosing session in which a particular spirit yielded with irresistible potency the garden centre at B&Q. ’Fencing panels was all I could think of,’ he said, ‘but I couldn’t say that, it sounded stupid.’ But a fellow taster noted ‘tarry wood’ in the same sample, and Gordon was galvanised to supply his tasting note. ‘Just write down what you smell,’ he urged us.

The Japanese blenders had been silent for the majority of the questioning, but Koshimizu-san accepted the microphone. He described his experiences in Japanese, and his translator assisted afterwards. The result was a statement of gentle, thoughtful brilliance. In his day-to-day encounters with whisky, every so often a sample will radiate the aroma of figs. Koshimizu-san has not eaten a fig in the last fifty years, not since one particular day at his grandmother’s house where she always had an abundance of the fruit. Nevertheless, that single flavour – when discovered – reconstructs that house, that person and that moment. ‘It is as if time has vanished,’ said the translator.

John Ramsay concluded the evening and told us of how his days in the maltings when he first started with Edrington assisted him as master blender as, for one distillery, the re-occurrence of that green malt aroma signalled that the spirit was on track. Several rounds of applause later, we all had to sadly make tracks of our own. The master blenders had been supremely generous with their time, but the 9am start and hundreds of whiskies looked to have taken their toll by the end. Outside, while raffle winners collected their bottles, a line for the lift formed involving some of the whisky world’s most significant and talented noses and palates who were all deservedly heading to their hotel rooms. For Chris, Chris and I, however, we were off to Bramble Bar, but that will have to wait for another post.

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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 1

I don’t go in for hero worship. Irrespective of how many Tours de France they have won, how many people they have performed in front of or how many Michelin stars they hold, they are still human beings beneath all the Lyrca, cymbals and cauliflower foam. However, at a recent event held within the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE), Edinburgh, I must confess that I could finally empathise a little with Beatle Mania, or whatever it is all those teenage girls succomb to whenever anyone mentions Justin Bieber.

The master blenders and ISC panel.

Together with Chrises Hoban and ‘The Tiger’ White from Edinburgh Whisky Blog, I milled about in the refurbished SWE shop together with many other bright-eyed, excited members of the public for the fun, games and knowledge to begin. For the first time in 17 years, the International Spirit Challenge has devolved from London to Edinburgh. This, to me, seems only right for various coincidences of geography and whisky-producing heritage. As a further innovation, the panel agreed to meet with whisky fans for one night only, talking ticket-holders through one of their bottlings before a whisky and food matching presentation with Whyte & MacKay’s Richard Paterson (or R-Patz as C. Hoban insisted on calling him), to conclude with a Q&A. Courtesy of Mr Hoban, I learnt of the event just in time. Another arrangement for which I am deeply grateful comes courtesy of Mr Hoban as well, and that was permission to crash on his sofa afterwards.

Industry legend John Ramsay kicked off the evening, introducing the decorated individuals to the waiting throng. As they stepped out of the wings onto the new mezzanine floor, my easily-suggestible mind confected a Juliet-on-the-balcony comparison, but I was also struck by how – in this, a peerless collaboration by the Scotch whisky industry – the people responsible for so many of the smartly-packaged whiskies surrounding us on the shelves should also be in full view. Ramsay’s successor at Edrington, Gordon Motion, was introduced first, followed by Caroline Martin of Diageo, Billy Leighton of Irish Distillers, the great David Stewart who will complete 50 years of service for William Grant and Sons in September, R-Patz, Seichii Koshimizu of Suntory, Tadashi Sakuma from Nikka, Mackmyra’s Angela D’Orazio, and Chris Morris from Woodford Reserve. With head spinning, we were ushered upstairs where the chatting and dramming commenced.

Chris Morris, all the way from Woodford Reserve, Kentucky.

I have described previously the awe inspired by stepping into the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection, but skipping between soaring cabinets of seriously old, seriously rare Scotch whisky – both blended and malt – there was added significance as I contemplated meeting the individuals resposnible for continuing the legacy of those brands which were so well-represented all around me. However, my first port of call was outside of Scotland. Since the beginning of the year my fascination for all things Bourbon has mooched into the kind of territory once upon a time open only to the likes of Lagavulin and The Glenlivet. With a recent pub in my local town boasting Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases – the William Larue Weller expression I had tried a couple of days before – I wanted to learn from one of the masters.

With a big smile and a cheery How-do-you-do? Mr Morris poured me a measure of Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. Though hardly an uncommon Bourbon, even in my less than cosmopolitan drinking circles, to sip and listen to an exposition from the man who makes it trumped all previous tumblers of this rich, spicy and floral whiskey. At 43.2% the spirit spoke eloquently of glorious American oak and six to eight baking Kentucky summers. In fact, that was the analogy Chris used when trying to differentiate Bourbon from Scotch in the maturation stakes: in the rackhouses, the intense heat forces the spirit into and out of the oak, and exacts an Angel’s Share of 7% per annum. Though Woodford goes into barrels at 55%, it comes out again at 63%. Chris revealed that he had even found a cask whose long tenure unnoticed had seen alcohol by volume reach 90%. It was, of course, ‘undrinkable’.

The mashbill for Woodford Reserve is 72% corn, 18% rye from Dakota and 10% malt. Mr Morris revealed that a new expression would be on the market in the US soon, and will eventually make its way to Europe. He has taken batches of fully-matured Woodford, reduced the spirit back down to 55% and put the whiskey back into Chardonnay casks for 6 months to a year. The result is infinitely darker than the standard expression and reviews so far are highly complimentary.

Richard Paterson in suitably rarefied surroundings with the new Cigar Malt from The Dalmore.

I headed over to the Edrington stand where the quietly spoken but forthright Gordon Motion introduced me to the Famous Grouse Wade Decanter. Constructed to celebrate the pre-eminence of Grouse in the UK market for the last 30 years, I found it to be a very gingery, biscuity spirit, with clean cereals and a hit of earthy smoke. I rather liked it, but appreciated the conversation I overheard between Gordon and Charles Maclean regarding his new film star status still more.

I managed to catch The Nose as the last of his consignment of the latest The Dalmore Cigar Malt disappeared. He had just put in an order for a replacement when the MC tapped him on the shoulder – the next stage of the evening had to begin promptly. He just had enough time to tell me that my date of birth and body mass index could provide vital clues as to how a blend personalised for me might taste (and to pose for a photograph) before strutting off upstairs.

The tutored tasting and blenders’ question and answer session would take place next, but that is for another post.

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The Dalmore Gets Ancestral – Again

Making history is something The Dalmore brand does very well. This eclectic distilling complex on the Cromarthy Firth north of Inverness has released such sumptuous, sought-after and eye-wateringly expensive drams over the last five years or so that its imprint on the single malt landscape is certain to remain profound for the foreseeable future.

The latest release from The Dalmore.

The latest release from The Dalmore.

Basking in the mahogany glow of their iconic, ultra-premium, 50yo+ releases, however, has never been master blender Richard Paterson’s style. The cult status afforded by the 64yo, Selene and Trinitas amongst others grants them license to explore and mark their distinguished history. The distillery, in operation since 1839 and under the control of the Mackenzie clan for significant periods since then, has now come to the aid of their ancestral bonds: Castle Leod, seat of the Mackenzies since the early 17th century, is in need of care and attention. The Dalmore Castle Leod is part of the rescue package, with proceeds of the £100 price tag going towards the restoration of the building.

‘I’m honoured that Richard Paterson has created this extraordinary single malt in tribute to Castle Leod, which is both my home and the spiritual home of the Mackenzie clan,’ affirms John Cromartie Caberfeidh of the Mackenzies. ‘The castle is filled with rich heritage and history, but more importantly, it has stood the test of time, and I have no doubt that in years to come The Dalmore’s Castle Leod will equally be recognised as a timeless classic.’

The Dalmore spirit has been aged initially in American oak before an 18-month period finishing in Premier Cru Cabernet Sauvignon barrels from Bordeaux and the producer’s tasting notes are fairly wonderful, promising a deeply enthralling experience: ‘exhilarating romantic notes of Rose de Mai’ on the nose, with ‘flirtation’ promised on the palate together with a ’sensual fusion’ renders this a ‘passionate love affair’. If only my history lectures were quite this fervent. 

There are to be 5000 bottles of the Castle Leod released.

Richard Paterson (L) with John Cromartie Caberfeidh with The Dalmore Castle Leod.

Richard Paterson (L) with John Cromartie Caberfeidh with The Dalmore Castle Leod.

These are fairly exciting times for The Dalmore, as my ringing-round the industry reveals that they are also renovating themselves. The visitor centre and the plant itself is experiencing a thorough overhaul and polish-up at present which, if I am honest, was required to bring the visitor centre into line with some of its other competitors which, in the luxury market, means The Macallan. The former manager’s house was a quaint venue in which to begin the tour, but the fairly cramped and dark conditions did not display the magnificence of the various Dalmores enshrined within.

I’m excited to see how this highly idiosyncratic site is to be opened up: the still house in particular is a ‘jungle-gym’ of copper and piping which cannot very easily be re-shuffled. My sources tell me that, to commerorate this expansion process, there will be a distillery-exclusive single cask released which, I don’t mind telling you, I want very badly indeed.

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Ben Nevis

 

Well worth a visit: maybe after you have conquered the mountain which is its namesake.

Well worth a visit: maybe after you have conquered the mountain which is its namesake.

Lochy Bridge, Fort William, PH33 6TJ, 01397 700200. Ben Nevis Distillery Ltd. (Nikka). www.bennevisdistillery.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      The distillery itself is rather industrial in its character and appearance, with a facade that puts me in mind of a fairly dour bank. It is also immediately off the very busy road into Fort William. However, its position at the very foot of Britain’s highest mountain earns it an extra star.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £4. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 10/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      Ben Nevis is quite a quirky distillery as it happens. The still room is in fact split into two: one pair of stills and a spirit safe, and another pair of stills with a spirit safe at the other side, one working 12 hours behind the other. Going back a little way, they say they have the purest water source in Scotland, and that this is (grudgingly) conceded in other quarters. They have two silent seasons, one just after Christmas and the other in the summer. Their wash is unusually strong at 11%abv and their new make spirit has an average strength of 76%, again very high indeed. The appearance and lay out of the distillery is largely down to its Canadian owner in the 1930s. He built out-buildings and extensions as if they were going out of fashion, but without foundations. He thought the distillery sat on granite. It has its own on-site cooperage, athough we don’t see that, and the cafe is reputed to be excellent, once you have finished with your nip of the 10YO.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

COMMENTS:      This was another instance where you encounter one of those people who are the industry and who know it inside out. John Carmichael took me round and had in fact sent me an email offering his guest house, which is only a stone’s throw from the distillery, as accommodation for my stay in the area. It seems he’s a reader of the blog, too, so Hi John! His father worked in the industry before him and the assurance and knowledge, together with some exceedingly dry wit, captivate on the tour. He was equally interested in my own exploits and I cannot, unfortunately, relate all of the anecdotes one of my answers would provoke; I can’t remember them all! He gave an impassioned lecture about how to drink whisky: not with a chip on his shoulder or with an axe to grind before any particular demographic, but with a profound understanding of the make-up of the spirit. He also gave me new tips for tasting, and for deducing the age, provenance and many other characteristics of any malt I may have before me. For example, begin the nosing of your dram with your nostrils a few centimetres above the rim of the glass. If you simply stick your snooter into the glass, you will only ever find the top notes. For drinking cask strength whiskies, he advised firstly to tip just a tiny amount onto your tongue, a quantity that doesn’t even require swallowing, and take that as your undiluted sample. He told me about his whisky heroes, one of whom is in my personal whisky hall of fame: Richard Paterson. He told me about “a show” Richard does in his ambassador capacity: standing on stage and asking someone who doesn’t like blends to come down. He will then mix up a blend for them personally, based on their tastes and even interests and hobbies. Then he will put it before them. After the volunteer has taken his or her first sip, he will then slap £1000 down on the table and say: “if that isn’t the best whisky you have ever tasted, take the money.” No-one has yet, apparently. John goes against Mike from The Whisky Castle: he argues that chillfiltration was brought about by the consumer to begin with, and that can you ever really drink more than one of those big, oily cask strength brutes. Personally, one is just fine for me, so I will source out those single casks with nothing added or taken away. A fascinating man, who was kind enough to see the potential in my undertaking and waived the entrance fee for me!

A snowy white mountain and snowy white cherry trees. Japan and Scotland collaborating.

A snowy white mountain and snowy white cherry trees. Japan and Scotland collaborating.

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The Dalmore

Not one design scheme, but several. Some Czech folk who were touring found it a little claustrophobic and noisy.

Not one design scheme, but several. Some Czech folk who were touring found it a little claustrophobic and noisy.

Alness, Ross-shire, IV17 0UT, 01349 882362. Whyte & Mackay. www.thedalmore.com

NB: Due to large-scale refurbishment of the entire distillery, there will be no tours until the first week in May.

The coveted 62YO Dalmore.

The coveted 62YO Dalmore.

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      Higgledy-piggledy is a good way of describing this distillery. For those who don’t know this term, the general feeling is one of fitting things in any-old-how, with architecture adapting to accommodate as and when required. There are a number of ramshackle buildings and odd connecting corridors and extensions. In short, it is the archetypal farm distillery gone big. The location right on the bansk of the Cromarty Firth is truly lovely. The Black Isle glowed and emerald green on the day of my visit.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £2. See ‘My Tour’ below, but best to contact the visitor centre prior to your visit for full details and options.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Wait and see: current as of the 26/01/2011, four casks are under consideration for a single cask release. Richard Paterson will get the final say-so as to what will be bottled, but it will be available only at the distillery. Early price indicator is between £100-200. TBA.

My Tour – 30/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The spirit run at The Dalmore must be a complicated one to co-ordinate. The still house is in two parts, and there appear to be a whole range of different-sized stills. The spirit stills have waterjackets and the wash stills have flat tops. In both cases the reason behind their designs is due to the cramped conditions: ceiling height is low so the tops of the wash stills have effectively been lopped off and the waterjackets, by cooling the neck of the still, effectively replicate the conditions found in a much taller still as only the lightest vapours can travel up the neck without condensing and returning to the bottom. The warehouse is stupendous: all of those exotic woods holding big, rich, Dalmore spirit right by the tidal firth is quite an orgy of aromas.

I could not be trusted with the key to this vault of delight.

I could not be trusted with the key to this vault of delight.

GENEROSITY:      * (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      7/10 *s

COMMENTS:      It was a joy to finally arrive at this distillery whose profile has risen since the sale of the 62YO for a record figure and the work of master blender Richard Paterson. The distillery is right down by the Cromarty Firth, and its construction is wonderfully hap-hazard. It started off as a farm distillery and grew and grew when money allowed. The tour did not disappoint, either. The still house is deeply unusual: a mixture of short and tall wash stills. The spirit stills have their waterjackets, which trick the alcohol vapours into thinking the still is taller than it really is. As I said above, the unusual dimensions of the equipment was due to considerations of space and it is one of the most idiosyncratic distilleries I have come across so far. It was a little too idiosyncratic for my fellow tourists from the Czech Republic. As I ate my lunch in the blazing sun by the shore, the butter I’d purloined from my B&B melting fast, one of the gents came across and asked if I could recommend somewhere for them to visit that was a bit less noisy and more open. For them, they found it difficult to hear and understand over the noise of production and couldn’t follow the chain of the process I got the map out and pointed to Glenmorangie. My first request for advice! The warehouse visit was very special for me, and was the first time a guide has ever mentioned that most significant of extra ingredients: terroir. The melange of casks used by The Dalmore added greater complexity to the delicious, sweet fug of the darkness. There were the Matusalem butts that go into my beloved 15YO – the first filled in the new millenium. There was a big party to mark the occasion, apparently, and volunteer rates to police the event were at a higher level than normal. Their oldest barrel was on the bottom level of a rack just in front of us: a 1951 Bourbon hoggie. They weren’t there for my tour, but normally there are casks to nose. This is a tour worth taking, although maybe not if you are Czech and new to the process! As an aside, not even The Macallan can match this distillery’s self-promotion as a luxury brand. The opening DVD is sumptuous and very professional, but you are left in no doubt as to the lifestyle element in The Dalmore marketing. When they deal with the range, only the most expensive are dealt with. They also talk about that famous 62-year-old. You look to the front right, and there’s a bottle, kept for posterity. Oh yes…

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