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May 28, 2013

The Best of Blends

Revision, I have come to learn, is an exercise in segregation. No matter how often professors bandy about the word ‘holistic’, post-colonial readings of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the crisis in Victorian masculinity as Marxist resistance really ought to be cognitively kept apart. At least, such unholy mixtures seldom earn the better marks in examinations. However, feminist issues in the plays of Middleton persisted in forming unhelpful fusions with sexual subjection in Jane Eyre and I decided it was time for a break, and to muse on the best results of blending.

The pre-eminent panel of master blenders.

In April, I had reconvened with the International Spirits Challenge judges at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience, a body of men and women towards whom I feel something like hero worship. For the second time, these illustrious master blenders – from Scotland, the USA, Japan and Sweden – had kindly agreed to an evening meet-and-greet, despite the demands of assessing some 200 whisky samples during the day. I start to tire after about eight whiskies (and that number decreases concerning new human acquaintances) so my admiration for their effort, energy and wisdom reached precipitous heights.

Brian Kinsman takes us through the SWE 25yo blend.

Prior to roaming the MacIntyre Gallery, we were treated to an on-arrival dram of the 25yo Scotch Whisky Experience blend. Put together by William Grant & Sons’ Brain Kinsman, this lush, mature offering contains whiskies from every shareholding company at the Experience, and commemorates the 25th Anniversary of the venue which is very much Edinburgh’s chief whisky tourism and education facility.

Upstairs, I wished to right a wrong perpetrated in the summer when I had failed to visit Billy Leighton at the Irish Distillers stand. At a given time of day, I am rather fond of Jameson, and at approximately 19:55 on Wednesday April 25th I was deeply impressed by the Jameson Gold Label Reserve. Apple, cinnamon and unctuous honey led the way on the nose, with an abundance of fresh grain. With time, the nose became buttery, with a trace of salt. The palate delivered: a big nectarine and barley punch, before vanilla led me into a drying finish.

Angela D'Orazio with the very special Mackmyra #10.

Billy revealed the economics behind the 100m euro Midleton expansion, which will push capacity up to 60 million litres of alcohol per year. In addition, he told us how crucial cask selection is to Jameson’s success, and that he remains central to cask monitoring, and ensuring no sulphur enters the system. Recent marketing meetings have focused on ‘creating craic’, and the warm, welcoming and loquacious Mr Leighton certainly ensuring there was a surfeit of that at his stand over the course of the evening.

Another omission from the previous Meet the Blenders line-up was Mackmyra. Here I shared in Chris ‘Tiger’ White’s wonderment at Angela D’Orazio’s latest creation, the Mackmyra Special #10. A Swedish exclusive for the time being, this whisky has been part matured in casks that have contained coffee bean-infused spirit: the beans macerated in whisky, casked for two weeks, then turned into a liqueur. I was stunned by the obvious coffee notes on the nose, but also marvelled at the crushed strawberry and fudgey malt character which was equally prominent. Add a glug of this to a short Americano and there can be no complaints.

Next door, I was drawn to the latest Balvenie, the 17yo Doublewood. The expression of the same name but five years its junior is something of a cult, and I was fascinated by this. Oppulent oak and stewed fruits surrounded a candy cane thread of fresh barley sugar for a whisky of admirable richness and engaging liveliness. As I said to Brian Kinsman, this is a whisky for which ‘effortlessness’ is the only adequate descriptor.

The beautifully simple Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition bottle.

Elsewhere, Caroline Martin presented the Johnnie Walker Gold Route, and Gordon Motion’s two bottles of the Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition vanished very quickly indeed. This was the first time I had seen the packaging for this impressive, feisty blend, and very taken with it I was, too.

Finally, the congregated whisky fans appraised The Dalmore Custodian – vibrant orange, vanilla and clove, with the distillery’s classic coffee overtones (although that could have been the last of the Mackmyra sitting in my nostrils), this was a fine final pour. Afterwards, the panel fielded questions from the floor, with one barbed comment concerning the lack of innovation in Scotch when compared with the likes of Mackmyra and the Japanese blends wringing an impassioned defence of Scotch whisky in the 21st century from Richard Paterson. While acknowledging the duty of care he and his colleagues shared regarding the proud heritage of the blended category in Scotland, Richard assured us that every possible permutation of whisky-making that is permitted by legislation is being presently investigated.

Progress and innovation is very much at the forefront of the Scotch priority list in response to committed global competition. John Ramsay, ISC chairman, related something Diageo’s Caroline Martin had said to him over the course of judging the Japanese expressions earlier that day: ‘this is getting a bit scary, John’.

A thoroughly convivial evening confirmed that blended whisky is very much leading the charge for flavour, personality and craft at the moment.

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July 30, 2011

The Whisky Apostles

Maybe I’m just more prone to it on account of the age group in which I find myself, but surely many of my readers can empathise with the seething washback of possible rebuttals provoked by the outburst: ‘Urghh! How can you like whisky?’

First up, and an attitude which must always be stamped down again, is the cutting and dismissive inference – entertained privately – that circumstances alone must take the blame for pairing you with this apparent dunce lacking in any sense of adventure, imagination or taste. As much as you adore whisky, and however stingingly upsetting it may be to encounter someone with a noisy aversion to it, exercise patience and remember that this is your chance to champion the single malt cause and maybe convert the heathen – I mean the unfortunate soul – in the process.

Too often have I heard grim tales from disenchanted individuals whose first and only encounter with the spirit involved a) a cheap blend b) a hyperactive environment, and c) large quantities. I can only nod in sympathy when they describe ‘the burn’, ‘the harshness’ and ‘the headache’. So how should you launch into your proselytising evangelism? How can you begin to clear the junk and grime of associated experience from the glorious edifice of possibility whisky presents?

These are questions I have been mulling over for the last few years, well aware as I am that I cannot reproduce exactly the preconditions for my own initiation into whisky’s majesty. Whisky is a personal entity, and perhaps it is best to start by asserting this very fact. You may yammer on about landscapes, history and flavours – and I do – but in all likelihood promising, calmly and confidently, that there will be a whisky out there for them if they could only overcome their shocking memories of metallic, rough and caramel-smothered brown messes, will recast all the negative debris in a new, impermanent light. There is no point in listing the makes of distilleries likely to please because they won’t remember them. There is no point in explaining the differences between a brashly young, indifferently-matured and adulterated entry-level blend and a prime single malt because it will adorn whisky with complications unnecessary for them in the here and now. Suggest a few places which, in your experience, take best care of those maybe a tad intimidated by whisky but with a genuine curiosity to try it: a favourite bar, maybe, or somewhere like the Scotch Whisky Experience. If the jarring bleat of whisky antipathy sounds in your own home, perhaps a tour of your drinks cabinet is in order, but adopt the same gentle authority and above all else, choose conservatively. Passion can be easily transmitted from master to apprentice but peat smoke and TCP are liable to erode whatever trust the latter holds in the former.

As devoted whisky drinkers, for whom a compulsion to know more was engendered together with our first auspicious sips, it can be severely tempting to lecture. However, as significant and enlightening as the innumerable facts accumulated over many years of reading and visiting are, they are for the novice to absorb along their own way, should they choose to follow it. We must exercise restraint and simply impart whisky’s true reality as a universal church, capable of embracing and thrilling all.

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February 16, 2011

Whisky Folk

An apology with a reservation coming up: I have been something of a wandering whisky soul of late and that has meant not a great deal has been visibly happening on the pages of the Scotch Odyssey Blog. However, general exploration in whisky circles is what this blog has been based upon from the very beginning. I have not been idle.

My inter-semester break from University was more than productively spent, in fact - although I had to make the pragmatic decision to abstain from a stint in Dufftown, Scotland’s ‘Whisky Capital’. NB: ‘Pragmatically’ relates to an absence of ‘Money’. Nevertheless, I read, I tasted, and I arranged a meeting with Top Bloke and ever-increasingly my Malt Guru, Chris Hoban, in Edinburgh. In order of appearance, Dave Broom’s World Atlas of Whisky has been an utter joy to digest (I want more Linkwoods in my life so very very badly); the Glenfarclas 1990 Family Cask lived up to billing and then some, and Chris introduced me to all the best places and all the best people during my afternoon in Auld Reekie.

Whilst I know it isn’t, Chris’s recommendation of Coco Chocolate on Brunstfield Place may have been directed squarely at me. What became very much apparent during the whisky bloggers’ Inver House tour in November, as I jabbed a finger in the direction of notable cafes we were passing, was that I am very fond of cake. Jason and Chris are running with this one, suggesting there could be a supplementary blog in there somewhere. Coco did not disappoint my sweet tooth and the Aztec blend (one of seven hot chocolate mixes they have on the counter for you to select) was one of the most exciting hot frothing mugs of just about anything you can think of I have had for a very long time. The brownies are fairly awesome, too.Scotch Whisky Experience Find Coco Chocolate online here.

With a bar of Organic Dark Chocolate with Organic Earl Gray and Organic Bergamot Oil stashed in my bag, it was to the Scotch Whisky Experience that we repaired for lunch. I did my best to follow the many interesting and complicated things Chris is now involved in as part of the Master of Malt sales team while enjoying a magnificent soup-and-sandwich in the relaxing environs of the Experience’s Amber Restaurant. I grabbed a dram of The Glenlivet 21yo Archive at the bar, scribbled some thoughts down (so reminiscently Glenlivet-y with biscuit, toffee, stewed apple and creamy malt. It was as if I had returned to Ballindalloch), and then we were off again to Robert Graham’s.

Chris ushered me into a little shop on Canongate which I had cycled past twice on the first day of my Odyssey but cannot recollect spotting. Andy, on his employers’ behalf, evidently forgave me as plentiful samples emerged from under the counter and disappeared down my throat. Another former Experience tour guide, Andy has been working at Robert Graham Treasurer for only a few months, but his enthusiasm and professionalism ensured that their product range was as familiar to him as the face of my companion, Mr Hoban. As I sniffed and swallowed, I learnt that the shop’s independent bottlings have done very well for themselves indeed: finding their way in front of Jim Murray and Whisky Magazine, they have been handsomely praised.

With neither camera nor receptacles conducive to tasting, nor the presence of mind to keep track of the whiskies I was sampling, all I can say with confidence was that some of their Islay’s are very interesting and their own-brand labels (provenance highly-classified) were intriguing, too. I really enjoyed one of their Tobermorys, in fact: clean, sweet with a spring onion/shallot quality. Their miniature selection is not massive, but there are some surprises lurking. I had to have a Graham’s-own 5cl sample of Allt a Bhainne, keen as I am to explore the make from this most anonymous of distilleries but with such an extraordinary location. Thank you, Andy, for your knowledge and hospitality. Robert Graham website.St Andrews


By the end of the week I had returned to Whisky Country and student digs. The first Quaich Society tasting of the semester appeared with startling rapidity – so startling that I was late for it. A happy accident as a result was that the first seat I came to following my surreptitious entrance was on the committee table beside our host for the evening, Graeme Broom (a Dave Broom, A Robert Graham, and now a Graeme Broom).

Descending on us thirsty students in the capacity of his personal project, Straight Up Whisky, he had brought along three ‘finished’ whiskies and the wines whose former barrels had been snapped up by the various distillers to complete the maturation of their product. The challenge was to match the three different wines to the whiskies their personalities had helped to ‘finish’. I’ll be quite honest, I was rubbish, but some succeeded in matching Whisky A (Auchentoshan Three Wood) to the Oloroso Sherry; Whisky B Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban) to the Port, and Whisky C (the new Springbank Claret Finish) to the red wine.  Allowing us to debate each pairing first, Graeme would then describe the various processes involved in creating the wine, how materials were then adopted by the whisky industry and finally what impact it was intended to have on the final whisky. I say intended. Healthy debate ensued as to how successful the various finishes were (I don’t remember the Springbank being so expressive) and Graeme gave us some hard facts behind the general lament that there are comparatively few good wine casks out there. The ‘treating’ of American oak within the Spanish Sherry bodegas is a practice I knew about from my visits to The Macallan and Highland Park, is an example of how companies seek to circumvent these barriers.

Heavily-involved in the wine industry and a passionate exponent for those doing things right in the whisky industry, Graeme provided a very refreshing perspective on matters. Details of Straight Up Whisky can be found here.

As I hope I stress often enough, whisky is about the people involved in making, selling and teaching it. Be sure that when I cross paths with the very best ambassadors for the drink, those who devote themselves to providing something distinctive, unique and personal, you will here about it from me.

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August 18, 2010

The Scotch Whisky Experience

The Scotch Whisky Experience

Discreetly tucked away in prime location on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile since 1988, The Scotch Whisky Experience benefitted in 2009 from a £3-million renovation, bringing its brand, mission statement, and experience overall, in line with the expansive and diverse nature nof Scotch whisky in the 21st Century. Since my very first visit in July of last year it has become one of my favourite Scotch whisky establishments.

The revamped tour begins in the bowels of the building as you clamber into a ghost train-style truck in the shape of an enormous whisky barrel. This will cart you, like a little grain of barley, on a linear journey through the premises and the whisky-making process. Appropriately, there is in fact a ghost on-hand to explain each stage of production to the visitor: lang deid distiller, Douglas McIntyre. He is authentic and diverting company, venting the occasional harmless Scots imprecation whenever he comes off a little worse-for-wear along the way, in the mill or the stills. His narration is contextualised by smells, sights and sounds. Even for the seasoned distillery tourer, this ride from grain to cask is rather fun.

You take leave of your oak cask transportation for ones that don’t move – at least, not until duty is paid on them. The Cooperage area attempts to describe what occurs over the course of maturation after you have put new-make spirit into a wooden barrel or butt. To illustrate this magical transformation and chiefly the acquisition of colour in the spirit, there are samples of whiskies drawn from ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks at various increments of ascending age.

Though invariably led by an enthusiastic twenty-something and highly engaging, the Sense of Scotland talk is one for the novice or casual tourist. However, as your (corporeal) guide discusses the classic characteristics and provides a potted history of Lowland, Highland, Speyside and Islay malts there is one very innovative feature. Each region is denoted a coloured jar and all four sit before you on the bench, placed over corresponding coloured plastic inlays. Within each of these jars is something that approximates that region’s defining or most prominent aroma - malted biscuits for the Lowland malts, for example. At the conclusion of the lecture (which covers blending very comprehensively, too), you simply place your Glencairn glass (yours to take away with you) over the coloured circle relating to your preferred fragrance and a malt from the region it simulated is poured into your glass.

Be careful not to drop it as you are ushered into the next room, or to be more precise the Aladdin’s Cave that is the Diageo Claive Vidiz Scotch Whisky Collection. It is a jaw-dropping altar of whisky, and an extraordinary manifestation of the drink’s history, told in every faded and sometimes peeling label. There are 3,384 unopened bottles of Scotch, a world record, each with their own personal back-stories, and the collection is a more than suitable subject for contemplation as you sip your own dram.

In the McIntyre Whisky Gallery are housed some of the most valuable, unique or just plain odd examples in the Vidiz Collection. (Cans of whisky and cola stand out in my memory for all the wrong reasons.) Against the opposite wall, however, you can find almost equally rare and desirable malts for consumption at the bar. This is my second tasting room, and my favourite part of the Experience. On two occasions I have come to analyse whiskies I would be unable to source and sample by any other economical means. My love for The Dalmore was cemented when I tasted the 1263 King Alexander III and I was nearly overcome by the loveliness of the Glenfarclas 30-year-old. To begin with, the purchase of a Gold Tour ticket entitles you to a tasting tray of four malts to compare and contrast as well as 10% off the list price of any other malts you wish to try.

Down in the sublime shop the same ticket will, on the day of your visit and for twelve months thereafter, secure a £3 discount against any 70cl bottle of whisky. The Amber Restaurant on the floor below serves top-quality and reasonably-priced food from light lunches to substantial meals, many dishes with a dash of whisky in the recipe.

Whilst Whisky Heritage is responsible for the coordination of the Experience, almost all of the industry’s major players have a share in the enterprise. Part of the arrangement is that they pitch up in the shop from time to time and ply the public with free samples of their product. Had I known that such was the definition of “Tasting”, I would most likely not have bothered venturing up to Edinburgh for the Morrison Bowmore event on the 7th of August. To my disappointment, having wrestled my way up the Royal Mile through the invading armies of Festival-goers, I found only one man pouring out measures of Auchentoshan Classic and ThreeWood, as well as Bowmore 12 and 15-year-olds into plastic cups no larger than thimbles. No Glencairn glasses and, most regrettably, no Glen Garioch, either. This was a shame, but I’ll know better next time.

This wasn't how I had pictured it. I had hoped for all of the MB malts, with maybe the Glen Garioch 1990.

This wasn't how I had pictured it. I had hoped for all of the MB malts, with maybe the Glen Garioch 1990.

The Scotch Whisky Experience Tours:

Silver Tour – £11.50

Gold Tour – £19.95 (the Silver Tour plus one year’s membership of the Scotch Whisky Appreciation Society, numerous discounts at the Experience and future entry on a two-for-the-price-of-one basis.)

Collection Tour – £20 (from what I can work out, this is a more in-depth encounter with the Claive Vidiz Collection.)



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