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Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

Today I conclude my run-through of the different Scotches sent my way before Christmas. This pair could not be more different: one of the smokiest single malts on the planet, and an elderly, genteel blend.

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

The original Supernova from 2010 was peated to over 100ppm and caused quite a stir. This new vintage was launched with some rather exclusive blogger miniatures, some of which may or may not have ended up on auction sites… Mine was a common-or-garden clear glass affair with a typed label so no windfall for James…

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

Nose – remarkable focus and angularity - like a cubist piece, blocks of crackly peat meet blocks of lemon sherbet and blocks of creamy American oak (is there an Ardbeg that doesn’t ooze American oak these days?). That quintessentially Ardbeggian oily sheepiness. Toasted hazelnut and salted caramel. Very good indeed.

Palate – dry, hugely phenolic. Spreads steadily over the tongue with a barbecue intensity. A pillar of dense black peat, spinning gently. A hint of dark chocolate, seashells and seaweed.

Finish – peat (obvs) with flecks of ginger. Lightens gradually to a tasty caramel oakiness. Crushed peat, dry peat, peat a thousand ways. Buttery, kippery, seemingly endless.

Adding water reduced the cubist effect of the nose, although it remained powerful. A fuller fruitiness was on display with banana and apple. Youthful but attractive. Marine-like notes and lemon. The palate revealed smooth apple and pear, an IPA hoppiness, and spicier, sweeter peat. Still sharp. Chilli pepper heat and charred ribs. The chilli heat continues into the finish with an oaky creaminess and thick, ashy peat.

Cutty Sark 33YO 41.7% 3,456 bottles GBP 650

An Art Deco blend according to the press release, harking back to the 1920s and 30s when Cutty started to make in-roads on the American market.  This is the oldest blend ever released under the Cutty Sark label, put together by Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell.

Colour – dark honey amber

Nose – initial notes of coconut, egg custard and an epic creaminess. Further in, that creaminess is both Chantilly and patissiere. Then ripe warm apricot but also a firmness and brightness at the edges where a strange but attractive rose and carbolic soap scentedness lies. The super-sweet grains relax and out steps honey-drizzled peaches with lime zest. Passion fruit, now pineapple syrup. Now and again some Bourbon oak spiciness. Warm apple pie with time and clotted cream. Pain d’Epices syrup on raspberries.

Palate - velvety spice and creamy coconut, plenty of presence. Cinnamon, liquorice root and then passion fruit again. Black cherry in the background. Thick but not heavy, there is some seriously good wood gone into this: warmth and spicy sweetness. Maple syrup.

Finish - creamy with vanilla essence but at the core it is surprisingly firm. Creme caramel, toffee apple. A slight tartness develops with lime and rosehip. Cinnamon biscuits.

So…?       I heap praise on a Glenmorangie, having been a little sceptical in the past, and now I must be a little critical of its sister distillery, having been supremely fond of just about everything it’s released of late. I have not tasted the previous two Supernova releases so cannot compare it to earlier efforts, but I have enjoyed a couple of Octomores, its arch-rival. The hyper-peated version of Bruichladdich combines its dense, mossy smoke with a lovely fat, cereal-driven sweetness. Though young, it feels complete. The SN2014 unfortunately did not feel complete; while there were many tasty and exciting dimensions to it, there wasn’t enough that was exceptional. It is a very good, very smoky whisky, but does not justify the price tag in my opinion.

On to the Cutty Sark. Blended Scotch, you say? Had I been told it was a blended grain I’d have believed it. When I first sample it, in a cold Northumbrian bedroom over Christmas, the slight chill pulled out the grain components to the exclusion of all else. No matter, the grains that have gone into this are of the very highest calibre, nearly on a par with a certain 38YO Invergordon bottled by Compass Box a few years ago. Tasting it again at Dubai room temperature, I could at last detect some malt influence but the grains were still the stars, testament to great skill and sensitivity in the blending room to the lighter style that is Cutty. Absolutely outstanding blending and it was a privilege to taste it.

Sincere thanks to Quercus for the Ardbeg, and Wendy Harries Jones at Cutty Sark.

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Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

Incredibly, I may just be in a position to take on a second circumnavigation of Scotland in search of Scotch whisky distilleries to visit.

If April was chock full of coursework, May was the domain of exams, and you can’t memorise the finer points of Kelman, Stevenson or Self (especially Self) if you are physically knackered. Training, therefore, has been rather more opportunistic and far scarcer than it was four years ago, when my ‘Fit For the Glens’ weekly posts updated progress from ten weeks prior to the Grand Depart. No such lead-in this time. I covered about 660 miles in training ahead of April 12 2010; this time we are maybe looking at half that figure, possibly a little more. I have had, as they say, my doubts.

However, I’m presently fed and showered following a 57-mile day of training, which suggests that – when I pedal off in a northerly direction towards Pitlochry on Tuesday – distance shouldn’t be a problem. Neither, it must be said, should inclines scare me. Over the course of recent weeks I have been impressed/dismayed by just how hilly Fife is. Seriously, the kingdom is like a heart rate monitor reading. If you want to acquire solid cardiovascular fitness, Fife is the place to cycle, lurching up single-track precipices and screeching down the other side repeatedly.

It’s also bloody windy. If you manage to get to the top of a hill, the breeze blowing out to sea is something you must contend with. Often this week I have been crawling along into the molars of a gale.

In summary, if the quantity of training cannot match 2010, perhaps the quality is a shade higher. I’m hoping so, because I have more than 900 miles filling 17 days, meaning that what I covered today is my average – average – for the tour as a whole. I’m going to need some carrots to get me through all of those, and fortunately the whisky industry has obliged.

I will begin close to home, at Francis Cuthbert’s Daftmill distillery. Long have I wished to poke about in this wholly-independent farm operation and possibly taste something interesting. It is rare these days to be taken round a plant by the person who makes the spirit. From there it is up the A9 to the distilleries which my overly ambitious itinerary ruled out last time: Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I only hope Dalwhinnie is as pretty on the inside as it is to look upon, hurtling by on the main road. Tomatin are releasing stellar whiskies at the moment; hopefully I’ll be able to get a taste of what is on the horizon.

If you can't have Balvenie, then a single cask Imperial from the year you were born is definitely the next best thing.

Speyside is next, a region where I had a very high hit rate four years ago. Sadly – nay, tragically – I have repeated my feat of being too late to book a tour of The Balvenie. I gave them two weeks’ notice in 2010, one month this time. Nothing doing. If you want to get round before the end of the year, my advice is book now and cross your fingers. You’d think it was El Bulli. Of course, I have an excellent fall back option, the soon-to-be-complete single estate distillery at Ballindalloch Castle (like them on Facebook). After that, I’m going to repair to the Speyside Way with an apt dram. A 23yo Imperial, bottled by Hunter Laing, fits the bill nicely. From there I shall peddle gently on to Dufftown to say hello to, and eat the fine food of, Sandy Smart at Taste of Speyside.

Already the mileages start to increase, and the next day I leave for GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Sunday is a distillery-free hike west and then north, before my triumphant return (all being well) to Balblair. I’m banking on Clynelish being open on a Monday, but the site is being expanded so maybe not. I’ll phone ahead this time.

The next section has me petrified and hyperactive with excitement all at the same time. I will have distance, ferry timetables and the whims of the West Coast weather systems to trouble me as I cycle across to Ullapool for a boat to the Outer Hebrides. It is quite a trek to get to Mark Tayburn’s Abhainn Dearg, but if everything runs smoothly it should be spectacular. Long days in the saddle are necessary to get from Stornoway to the bottom of Harris in time for a ferry to Uig, before peddling down the spine of Skye for another stay at the Ratagan Youth Hostel.

From Loch Duich I more or less retrace 2010′s tire tracks to Fort William before omitting the islands (with regret) and pitching up in Glasgow for Auchentoshan. Fired with triple-distilled gorgeousness (but not too much, obviously), I wend homewards with a night in Stirling before stopping off at Strathearn Distillery (another small-scale operation) by way of a rest on the homeward stretch to St Andrews.

If you are travelling in Scotland during the next two and a half weeks, do look out for me. I’m the tall, lean be-spectacled cyclist smelling faintly of wash and pot ale, amongst other things. I’ve decided to pack a bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street Experimental Peat in the hope that I’ll make some new friends. The blog will be silent during that time, but do check Twitter for up-to-the-minute events (@WhiskyOdyssey). I shall expand my experiences to more than 140 characters upon my return. I welcome any comments or queries you may have!

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Ardbeg Auriverdes

There may be some of you – just maybe – who tried to bring up the Scotch Odyssey Blog on your PC, tablet or mobile device last week and could not. Regrettably, I was too snowed under with essays to troubleshoot or indeed even notice that the site had vanished from the Internet. My theme programming had sprung a leak (I use the technical term) and the upshot was that I was a blogger without a blog.

Good intentions for what I wanted to write about when academic pressures eased - of those I had a few. Useful material was also plentiful and, having tasted the sample sent to me by Marcin Miller of Quercus Communications a second time, I’m delighted my tech support web hosting people could fix the problem and restore my soapbox. Because the latest Ardbeg limited edition is worth shouting about.

It may be news to no one that I ride my bike quite a lot, and training is progressing ahead of the second Scotch Odyssey in June. However, I am only just beginning to admit to liking football again. As the stars align for Liverpool to win the Premier League title for the first time since the year I was born, videos on the BBC Sport web page count me down to the start of the World Cup in Brazil this summer. For folk with gear to flog, time is running out to tie it in with the beautiful game’s global competition.

Ardbeg Auriverdes (named in honour of the World Cup host nation’s team) accompanies another mad-cap initiative by the Islay distillery to entertain (and possibly injure) peat freaks. Ardbeg Peat Football will occur (quite how, I don’t know and haven’t dared ask) at various Ardbeg Embassies on Ardbeg Day, which is May 31st for the uninitiated. If you want to don wellies and wade through two feet of peat slurry without obvious gain, but precipitous loss of dignity, check out Ardbeg.com for your nearest Embassy. You should also be able to try the Auriverdes, and that is something you really ought to do.

Another of Dr Bill Lumsden’s creations, and following on from recent smash hits Galileo (one of my all-time favourite whiskies) and Ardbog (a bit of a let down in comparison), this new malt has been matured in American oak barrels with two differently custom-toasted heads. The idea is that one imparts ‘mocha coffee’, the other ‘creamy vanilla’ into the finished whisky. There is no indicator as to age, unlike the Galileo (about 13yo) and Ardbog (about 10yo).

Ardbeg Auriverdes 49.9% £79.99

Colour – dark brassy gold.
Nose – on the top of the glass, this is sweet at first with a seashore saltiness before oily tarry smoke and vanilla pod emerge. Nose in the glass there is plenty of dry and rich biscuitiness and a medicinal edge that I didn’t notice on first nosing. Sooty with capsicum heat and freshly cut grass. Thick, textured wood sugars but well integrated. A crisp, frothy lemon curd lift. Beach bonfire. With time, golden syrup, dried cherry and light zesty oak appear.
Palate – spicy oak immediately: black liquorice and cayenne. Peat is a dry, roiling presence on all sides. Major release of wood sugars on the tongue with crunchy malt and vanilla supporting.
Finish – more maritime Ardbeg character with lots of dry peat smoke and sea shells. Thickens with a stout-like sweet weight. An interesting caramel and carbolic soap fusion.

Like previous releases, I felt this needed water. With the alcohol toned down, the Auriverdes came into its exuberant own.

Nose – buttery but with abundant impressions of dry old cottage fireplaces: polished iron fender and coal dust. Autumn leaves in the grate. Then a trace of banana and Black Jack sweets. That dense carpet of black/blue peat that I associate with this distillery unfurls together with pine sap and a “sheepiness”. Pistachio and sugared almonds come next. Pricking the nostrils is a fabulous double-team of peat and smoky oak. Clove and roast sweet peppers appear later.
Palate – sweeter, malt, red liquorice and Chinese sweet chilli sauce. Strong oak presence yielding espresso and Demerara sugar notes. Malt returns with a floral overtone. Dense, bold, drying peat.
Finish – not quite as Ardbeg-like as when undiluted but as with the palate this is a sweeter encounter: chocolate truffles, pot ale and peat.

So…?      This is a characterful whisky, make no mistake about it, and far more straight-ahead with the Ardbeg DNA than the Ardbog, in my opinion. Some have suggested that this is a step up, in nature, from the 10yo and I’d agree. If that whisky is the graceful youth, the Auriverdes is the same entity after a couple of months at the gym on the protein shakes.

With all Ardbeg’s I taste, it is the texture of the peat throughout that captivates me, but it is never overplayed. Here, softer, even fruitier flavours are allowed room to express themselves. This isn’t quite the surprise that Galileo was, but with a dash of water especially the layers of flavour become overwhelmingly vivid. In a good way. Much like the country of your denomination scoring the decisive penalty in the World Cup final would be.

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Kilchoman at the Quaich Society

‘James! Great to meet you at last!’
‘Err, I’m Peter, actually. But don’t worry, it happens a lot.’

When dealing with Kilchoman, plans are likely to change when you least expect them to; new faces emerge, different ways of doing things are trialled out, flavours defy belief. Or at least, this is what I took from Peter Wills’ presentation to the Quaich Society earlier this month. He – and not his brother – arrived at the venue, glanced at our tasting mats and requested a modification to the order. Then our projector refused to have anything to do with his laptop. Still, at least nothing burnt down.

Peter is one of the three sons of Kilchoman founder, Anthony Wills. Together with his brothers, Peter bangs the drum for his family’s whisky with both passion and real insight. This makes sense: he grew up with the distillery as it took shape on Kilchoman farm in the north west of Islay, where relatives on his mother’s side still live.

Wills Senior moved from the wine trade to independently bottling whiskies before deciding that, if he was to make available the kind of dram he aspired to, he was going to have to produce it himself. Peter admitted that, in hindsight, such a decision would not be made again; the rigmarole of building a distillery and making whisky is financially and emotionally sapping. The current estimate is that running Kilchoman costs between £30,000 and £40,000 per month. From December 2005 to September 2009 when the first official single malt whisky was released from the purpose-built warehouse, optimism and resolve were held together with sticky tape and string. Fortunately, the whisky was good – astonishingly good – and Kilchoman has weathered the initial storm.

Peter outlined the production regime at Kilchoman, dubbed on the label ‘Islay’s Farm Distillery’. One third of the roughly 150,000 litres of alcohol produced per year is their signature 100% Islay spirit: from barley to bottle, the whisky doesn’t leave the island. 100 tonnes of barley per year are grown on the farm, malted on their own floors, kilned to impart a bit of smoke but not to the same degree as the malt they buy commercially from Port Ellen, turned into whisky and matured on Islay. Impressive stuff. The remainder of the spirit is heavily-peated (50ppm), used to create a consistent character with which they could test the reaction of the world’s peatheads.

The whisky has been ‘engineered’ by Dr Jim Swan, who has worked with many a start-up distillery since the millennium. The emphasis has been on a smoky but very sweet spirit, filled into fresh oak, especially ex-Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels to accentuate that sweetness and weight on the palate. Overseeing production is former Bunnahabhain distillery manager, John MacLellan.

But I mentioned that plans change or, to use Peter’s words: ‘things break down at Kilchoman’. Whether this is a temperamental boiler or human error, the team at the distillery are forever adapting to changes, nuances and accident. Perhaps the best example of these latter instances would be Peter lighting the kiln as a 16-year-old, heading away to watch the Six Nations rugby and getting a call to say that the whole thing was on fire. This put back 100% Islay production by a week or two.

But what of the spirit itself? When they aren’t putting out fires or laboriously filling 11,000 bottles by hand and can actually focus on making whisky, what comes out at the other end? Peter had six whiskies to show off, the latest multi-vintage Machir Bay (a mix of differently-aged malts from ex-Bourbon, often married in Sherry butts), the latest single vintage 2007, the Loch Gorm all Sherry-matured malt, the second release of the 100% Islay, a single cask 100% Islay and a bottling for the Kilchoman Club.

The 100% Islay Second Release starts life as barley peated to 25ppm, so fairly mild on the smoke-o-meter. The result is a grassy-smelling whisky with pistachio, steamed milk and white chocolate maltesers. The palate reminded me of sea shells, minerally peat and smoked oatcakes with a grassy finish.

The Machir Bay was sweet, zesty and smoky, with a lovely herbal edge throughout. The 2007 is the oldest whisky the distillery has released to date, a 6yo from Bourbon barrels. Thick apple and mossy, turfy smoke on the nose, I then found lemon rind, cough syrup and proper artisanal chorizo. The palate was the smokiest I’ve seen from a Kilchoman: ashy, bonfire smoke with little thrusts of oak. Ardbeg territory.

I’ve written about the Loch Gorm before, and the latest batch was released last week. The first of the single casks was delightful: vanilla ice cream and barley sugar, pear softness and white chocolate filled the nose while a heavy biscuit sweetness and nudges of oak came into the palate. The Kilchoman Club release benefited from a little water to bring down the strength revealing sticky date, barley, thyme and honey on the nose with a sweeter smoke. The palate was gentle and oaky with banana chips, apple and plum making for a really fruity experience. A trace of peat appeared at the end.

I have said it many a time but this distillery is going places. The charm of the liquid is more than embodied by the people representing it, and Peter was an excellent speaker who could not be ruffled on technical matters. He was even good enough to hint that Kilchoman from Port pipes should be available from September and that there are other wine casks stashed away over on their little patch of Islay. I cannot wait.

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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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A Day in the Life of a Compass Box Intern

6am      My second alarm erupts beside me (I’m one of those people who likes to give myself a 30-minute warning) and I collapse upright. In term time I can usually greet the new day on my own terms - anywhere between 8.30 and 10 I would deem acceptable. 6am in Enfield had, for the first couple of weekday mornings, felt like an incursion into my human rights. Now I seem to have adjusted and I’ve even stopped swearing under my breath.

6.30am      Cereal in the process of being munched, toast to follow. Heart FM witters away by my right ear. I now know what has become of Jamie Theakston.

7.30am      I manage to pick my way through the slush of yesterday’s Metros and board the Greater Anglia service from Southbury.

7.42am      Disembark at Seven Sisters. After a few days I start to get the hang of platform positioning: in seconds I scythe between commuters still half-asleep and then, for the next eternity, shuffle down the stairs to the Victoria Line escalators.

7.48am      Duck into the Tube train and grab on to a pole. Slowly adjust facial features to apathetic hostility. Summarily fail to find a position that will not leave me vulnerable to the next influx of passengers to left and right.

8.06am      Disembark at Victoria, misread platform notices and head on to the Piccadilly Line. About turn and find the District Line platform. Feel like a mouse in a lab experiment.

8.16am      Ears ringing to ‘MindtheclosingdoorsMindtheclosingdoors’, I take my position on – but not beyond – the Yellow Line for the next train bound for Richmond. During the journey, daylight appears.

8.35am      Disembark at Gunnersbury. Wander through the cigarette smoke of other commuters trying to squeeze a final one in before the office. Check Twitter. Arrive at 9, Power Road, Compass Box HQ.

8.45am      Enter the office and nod to Chris, signalling both: ‘Good morning’ and ‘Extraordinary outfit’. Spectate on the Coffee-Making Ritual. Coffee is very important to office morale, as fastidious and passionate in its preparation as the whisky arm of the business. Hot, rich percolation aromas rise over the glass partition of the kitchen/blending lab area to where I sit at Brian’s Desk. I don’t partake of coffee since it makes me paranoid. I check my emails instead, which makes me paranoid.

Coffee. The Compass Box office boasts somewhat better beans.

9am      Start as I mean to go on with the Great PR Filing Project. Beside Brian’s Desk is a plastic trough full of binders containing press cuttings of Compass Box praise. Not all of this is in English, neither is it all from publications I recognise. However, the editorial staff of The Sex Herald really liked Oak Cross back in 2004. Scan and digitise, scan and digitise. Celine pretends the scanner beeping isn’t driving her insane.

10am      An email has come through from The General (John Glaser) re. The General. I have to get in touch with some Missouri-based distributors ahead of the whisky’s launch in America in March. I print off the letters, address and seal the envelopes, return to the Chiswick high street Post Office, exchange cheery waves of recognition with the staff.

11.15am      I return to the office. Gregg ‘Hurricane’ Glass has a query about samples (I have also been consulted on snooker and haggis). I rummage in the Room of Doom for bottles before filling them with the Signature Range: Asyla, Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster, Hedonism, Great King Street, Orangerie (Orangerie always spills). Label, bubblewrap, pack. Coordinate delivery with a well-known courier service. Check Twitter.

12noon      Eat lunch. Elif, Celine, Chris and Inga take turns to microwave something wholesome and tasty. To my recollection, not once did I see John or Gregg eat anything for lunch (lovely olives, dates and pistachios aside).

12.30pm      Scan and digitise, scan and digitise. These binders won’t get the better of me. Succomb, mentally, to the arcane rhythms of Radio Paradise, commercial-free, listener-supported radio.

2.30pm      It’s about time I was providing some vital feedback for Gregg ‘Hurricane’ Glass on one of the new whiskies he’s concocting. One of these is the result of their Experimental Great King Street Batches. Will it be smoky? Will it be sherried? Will it have passion fruit in it? Dear SWA, It will NOT have passion fruit in it. Feel like Dave Broom for a bit, all cool, insightful and influential. I’ve neglected my scanning.

3pm      Scan and digitise, scan and digitise.

4pm      Take bottles out of cardboard boxes and put them in the Liquid Library cabinet or vice versa. As you enter Compass Box HQ there is a giant cabinet on the right filled with bottling run samples of all the core range and the Limited Releases. I have to unearth the duplicates and lay them aside for office Neknomination videos (I don’t). I’ve never handled so many Oak Crosses in my life. Speculate on the wonders of Eleuthera and Last Vatted Grain. Contemplate having a bath in Hedonism.

5pm      Depart from Chiswick bound for either Alexandra Palace for Masters Snooker, Soho to meet up with friends, Shoreditch for a cocktail and beard watching, or Enfield to sleep.

That was a representative snapshot of a working day during my two weeks with the Compass Box crew. I loved my time there nearly as much as Celine loves Mezcal – no, in truth I had a brilliant fortnight and I’m grateful for every act of kindness, be it a headtorch for the Room of Doom, a How Not to Get Lost on Chiswick High Street lecture, permission to roam through Borough Market, a frame of snooker, a pep talk from Jonathan Driver, some cured meat, and a cocktail or seventeen. Thanks for putting up with me, guys, and I hope the cake went some way to derailing your January diets.

White chocolate sponge with orange and passion fruit curd. Delicious cake for a delicious whisky company.

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Old Pulteney 1990 Peated Casks

To boast strength of character sets you apart. You don’t have to shout to be heard; pulling power isn’t about the size of your bank balance or the cheap thrills you promise hangers-on. Strength of character combines expertise, sincerity, idiosyncracy. You don’t have to chase people – they will come to you.

This is how I feel about the Pulteney distillery in Wick. In 1826 it supplied whisky for those who relied on their skill and bravery for a living: the herring fishermen. Today, it continues to produce a spirit which is essentially traditional but unlike anything else. When I went round the distillery in 2010, I couldn’t come to terms with the ramshackle nature of its layout and location. This is a distillery born out of opportunism and a mend-as-we-go mentality, yet the confidence and character impress you.

When Inver House Distillers, Old Pulteney’s owners, invited me back exactly three years ago, I peeked into a few more corners, asked a few more questions and again reflected on the distillery’s infectious pride and personality. Its situation – so far up on the north coast – is said to instil a saltiness into their whiskies which rest in the warehouses by the harbour; its equipment is unique: ugly duckling stills rather than the more graceful swans from elsewhere in the industry feed into worm tubs, both of which build complexity on top of flavour on top of texture. In 2012, Jim Murray recognised Old Pulteney 21yo as the best whisky in the world. Having bought a bottle four months before the announcement, the plaudits came as no suprise.

On that last November visit, manager Malcolm Waring filled a glass with the visitor centre single cask bottle-your-own dram. It was a 1990 Old Pulteney from a Bourbon barrel that had previously held peated Scotch single malt. I don’t remember it all that well, being the final dram of a mammoth sampling, but a bracing freshness, depth and sweetness had been evident. Now, the brand is to release a 1990 vintage marriage of several ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks with that peated wood element in play. As 1990 is my birth year, I was eager to see a) how the whisky had developed over the last three years and b) whether I might need a bottle for a special occasion.

Bottled at 23 years of age or thereabouts, this whisky is 46%, natural colour and not chill-filtered.

Old Pulteney 1990 Vintage 46% (900 cases) £120 (RRP)

Colour – full honey gold.

Nose – slightly musty fruits from above with old yellow apple, papaya and mandarin. A tickle of spice (ginger), syrupy sweet oak with plenty of vanilla and rich earthiness. With nose in the glass it is very self-contained with lush meeting spicy. A waxy weight to this. Seville orange, green fruits, sherry-soaked currants and rich oak sugars. The malt has a soft, perfumed shell, behind which is zesty barley. A bracing salty edge when warmed.

Palate – sparkles around the mouth with a wealth of bubbly fruit: apple, pear, peach and flamed orange zest. In time there is weighty, firm and dark oak as well as rich earthy peat just at the tail.

Finish – the smoke pervades for a time, just drying on the edges of the tongue. Then butterscotch and sherried fruits emerge. Salty with again that weighty, waxy spirit character.

Adding water made this even more expressive: a fraction dryer on the nose as the spice and salt really kick in. The oak is nicely creamy, however, with fudge and vanilla aromas. The peat note is farmy while apricot develops with time. The palate is a show-stopper: age is apparent immediately with dense oak and oily malt. However, it still conspires to be fruity with pear, orange and apricot in alliance with oak, salt and peat. These last three club together in a dazzling triad to grip and structure everything. Far smokier to taste than the straight sample, but it is still a very mild peat influence and only there for a spicy, sweet complexity. The finish is unmistakably dry with salt and hot oranges. The barley is still clean and gristy beside the dried fruit of the oak. That muted aged peatiness from the oak returns.

So…?      As I said, strength of character. This is not a whisky that makes a song and dance about its merits, which are extensive. It hadn’t the lush vigour of the 12yo, or the oily austerity of the 17yo, nor the gloriously expressive orange and spice crackle nose boasted by the 21yo; however, every one of the 23 years shows. When analysing, there was simply so much going on and I worried I hadn’t kept track. Rather than the flirty and the obvious, this evolves in the glass and I can see this being a seriously reliable fireside dram as well as a joy for food pairings: a hard cheese like a vintage gouda or dessert would be my suggestion.

The Old Pulteney spirit does things its own way, which I certainly commend. Weighty, fruity, waxy, spicy, salty – it brings a great deal to the table and is always a malt I relish returning to. This 1990 is possibly a fraction out of my budget for the time being, and I’d still recommend the 21yo in its stead. For those who do make its acquaintance, however, they will not be disappointed.

Thanks go to Lukasz Dynowiak for the sample.

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The St Andrews Brewing Co. Pub

The new craft brewing pub in St Andrews.

Picture it: you’re an independent brewing collective with a contemporary approach, you focus on craft, quality and novelty, and you have opened your first pub in a notoriously moneyed area of golf-mad Scotland. What whiskies do you source for the back bar?

For Bob, Tim and friends of the St Andrews Brewing Company this was their challenge ahead of opening their new BrewPub on South Street, St Andrews. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to stomach ales, stouts, porters, beers in general. Therefore, the sixteen hand-pulled brews and countless refrigerated bottles were not my main concern when the boys opened their doors last week. I was all about the whiskies.

A couple of weeks beforehand, legendary distiller Eddie MacAffer set up stall in the new BrewPub to guide us through three Morrison Bowmore single malts paired with some choice morsels (salmon smoked with Auchentoshan cask shavings paired with Auchentoshan Threewood; Bowmore Darkest with dark chocolate and Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve with Isle of Mull cheddar). Visitor Centre Development Manager for the group, Anne Kinnes, was also there to tell us a little more about the tourism facilities available at MBD’s outstanding distilleries. The BrewPub accommodated us all superbly: indulgently supple leather chairs, wholesome wood and a couple of log-burning stoves made for a homely evening and when Jordan told me that they intended to stock forty whiskies from opening – building to about a hundred - I sensed it would become my second home.

The main bar at the St Andrews Brewing Co.

So how to kit yourself out with the best spirits and ensure you aren’t playing it too safe? With the help of Graeme Broom (Straight Up Whisky), the guys have a most intriguing selection. The first thing you will notice is the heavy prevalence of Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice bottlings. I counted a Teaninich, Clynelish, Arran and Dailuaine while G&M’s own malt distillery, Benromach had a number of expressions such as the rich, pungent Organic, the smoky, soft 10yo and the bracing Peat Smoke. Another great addition is the rich, vanilla-driven Bruichladdich Scottish Barley.

The whisky cupboard.

Finally, however, I can get Compass Box whiskies at a bar in St Andrews. They carry The Peat Monster, Oak Cross and Great King Street. Checking the list, I clocked a Woodford Reserve for the Bourbon fans, Wemyss Spice King 12yo and The Hive 12yo for blended malts and even a Green Spot to keep those with a taste for Irish whiskey happy (i.e., me). The best news? I think the most expensive dram on the list weighs in at £7. As the evenings darken and the air becomes ever more frigid, the St Andrews Brewing Co. would appear to be the ideal venue to drive out the chills. Once they extend their license beyond 11PM, of course, but I’m assured that will be very soon.

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Tomatin at the Quaich Society

Perhaps I’ll embarrass him for saying so, but Alistair Mutch wins gold as far as replying to emails is concerned. No sooner had the proposal for a Tomatin tasting been composed and fired off than an email of acceptance duly returned. Alistair would be there, and he would be bringing seven whiskies. Job done. Why couldn’t all tastings be so straightforward to arrange?

Alistair had started the day at the Tomatin Distillery just south of Inverness and consequently there was an air of authenticity and provenance to the small off-licence he brought with him. Kicking off with The Antiquary 12yo we could appreciate the blended side of the Takara Shuzo Co., Tomatin’s Japanese owners. Indeed, as Alistair stressed, the history of Tomatin is closely tied to the fortunes of blends. Once the biggest distillery in Scotland, Alistair boasted that once upon a time every blended Scotch would have had a wee drop of Tomatin in it. Fast forward to the 1980s, and this business model proved the distillery’s downfall. The global demand for Scotch unaccountably tailed off and in the new, bleaker economic climate Tomatin had been overproducing. The owners went into liquidation, and Tomatin did not put its head above the parapet again for some years.

The whiskies and backdrop for the Quaich Society's Tomatin tasting.

Nowadays, of course, they have the Antiquary brand all to themselves. Amongst the very high malt content, the majority is Tomatin. The blend started life in Edinburgh, the name reputedly conferred by John and William Hardy in the nineteenth century as a tribute to favourite author, and near neighbour, Sir Walter Scott. On the night I found the 12yo very interesting indeed: smooth in the extreme, with plenty of malt and natural caramel notes. Gristy barley and lemon peel leapt out on the nose.

The Tomatin range itself began exuberantly. The new Legacy is the group’s contribution to the NAS market-place and has, according to Alistair been winning over many punters at Europe’s numerous whisky festivals. There is a proportion of virgin oak in there, and it showed with dazzling vanilla and lush fruit tones.

On to the 12yo, and Alistair discussed how Tomatin embarked upon constructing a stable of whiskies to tempt the consumer. Age was important as a point of difference, of course, but since 2000 successive distillery managers have put their stamp on old favourites, or introduced new ones. The 12yo has been around for a while, but the addition of some Sherry oak to the mix is a more recent innovation. I must admit this is not for me: wafer biscuit, a bizarre pear note, then heavy chocolate… It tastes muddled, in my opinion, but others around me enjoyed it.

The smile returned to my face with the 15yo, however. Only the delicate attentions of refill Bourbon have interacted with the naturally fruity Tomatin spirit and what a dazzling display of honey, white peach and ginger. A sweet whisky, and no mistake, but one I could happily have spent more time with.

Sherry oak returns to the range in the shape of the 18yo, but at this age there is sufficient leathery weight to the malt to carry the gaudier overtones. It has grown in to the dried fruits and moccha depths. At 46% and unchillfiltered, this dram compels your attention. Perhaps a shade too much oak for my tastes on the night, and this belief became stronger when I could appreciate the staggering performance of the next whisky.

‘Now you might taste pineapple on this one,’ warned Alistair. Far from suggestive skullduggery, the 30yo was indeed a wicker basket of tropical fruits. The palate screamed pineapple and passion fruit, but there was not a single overbearing oak note. Obviously a mature whisky was in front of us, but it could still give my taste buds the run-around.

Most distilleries produce a peated make these days (which poses problems when trying to work out what sort of Bunnahabhain you are likely to get) but despite laying down stocks some time ago, Tomatin have been slow to launch their smoky alter ego. The Cu Bocan, aptly enough for a man of Alistair’s story-telling abilities, started with a tale: Tomatin legend has it that the last wolf in Scotland was killed on the site of the existing distillery, and that the ghost of this lonely canine occasionally stalks the village. A research student, after discussions with retired distillery workers, uncovered more of the beast’s behaviour. When spotted, it will rush at you before vanishing harmlessly in a wisp of smoke.

The new Cu Bocan.

Cu Bocan, from its bottle design to its contents, manifests this myth. Alistair told me that the malt is peated to only 15ppm, which does not so much batter you with ash and brimstone as beguile you with a choice coil or two of wood smoke. I enjoyed it immensely: softer and sweeter than the Benromach 10yo (which posts a similar peating level) and with none of the rubberiness that Fettercairn Fior can exhibit, that peat character rests comfortably in the mix. A very well-made malt.

Having offloaded plenty of WaterAid Raffle goodies, Alistair made his excuses and departed as duties called him back at the distillery that night. A full Quaich Society house will remember his unhurried demeanour, riotous sense of humour and pearls of wisdom from more than 20 years in the whisky industry for some weeks yet, however. We shall also fondly recall the whiskies he showered upon us, of course.

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Auchentoshan Presents: The Taste Experiments

The contrast between the Balvenie Fete and Auchentoshan’s Taste Experiments could not have been more glaring. Where one had been relaxed, timeless and traditional, the Glasgow leg of the triple-distilled Scotch whisky brand’s Presents series upped the ante on the cutting edge front. The word ‘molecular’ may even have been used…

Billed as part cocktail masterclass, part food matching, part taste bud examination with a bit of whisky thrown in, I didn’t begrudge the two and a half hour bus ride to Glasgow required to attend the event. As far as I could make out, Auchentoshan wanted to step away from the tried-and-tested modes of introducing people to whisky and incorporate a bit more science, a bit more mystery, a bit more variety. It was a whisky tasting for those who don’t do whisky tastings.

Mr Lyan kicks off the Auchentoshan Taste Experiments.

The London event in July called upon the considerable talents of Rachel Barrie, master blender for Auchentoshan, cocktail consultant extraordinaire Ryan Chetiyawardana (AKA Mr Lyan), coffee experts DunneFrankowski and Rebel Dining Society. Read Miss Whisky’s review of the first jamboree here.

The personnel were stripped down for the Glasgow event, held at the sumptuously Classical Corinthian Club on Ingram Street. Food pairings were out, and Rachel Barrie was also sadly absent, but Mr Lyan’s cocktails – a masterclass if ever there was one in creative simplicity – still featured on the menu. In the ground floor bar, we sipped our Auchentoshan Classic julep (enlivened with chocolate bitters and grapefruit peel) and chowed down on the mighty haggis balls in preparation for kick off. Attendees numbered at least 30 – Tiger and Turbo from Edinburgh Whisky Blog amongst them – and Ryan’s crushed ice must have been on its last legs, the bar spoon worn to a stub with all the frantic stirring.

The Auchentoshan Classic julep.

With the final table cocktailed, Ryan could step out from behind the bar wearing a natty Auchentoshan apron. We were promised that he and the DunneFrankowski boys would be playing ‘a few experiments on you’ but I sensed that none in the room was deterred.

Even a hike up the stairs to a more out-of-the-way chamber did not alarm anyone. Before us were Glencairn glasses filled with what looked very much like whisky. So far so familiar. The little plastic vials had not made it to any previous tasting of mine, however, nor had the glass pots filled with cotton wool. Balloons were completely out of my comfort zone.

The DunneFrankowski 'lab'.

Victor Frankowski stepped forward to outline the evening’s itinerary which began with puncturing that balloon. The smell of Bourbon oak descended softly to focus the mind. Next, we nosed those seven different cotton wool swabs, steeped in chemical compounds supposedly found in whisky. Rob Dunne urged us to focus on first impressions and lock in to our visual memory. I’m hopeless at these exercises, and with the exception of Pot 5 was way wide of the chemically-determined mark. Throughout I found everything from honey to carpet; we were promised that these compounds did occur in single malt whisky, although in varying concentrations and were all desirable when combined intelligently. I confess – sitting a good way down one of the tables as I was, with a talkative chap on my right – I could not catch every essence by its official title. As it turned out, this wasn’t the point. Our sense of smell is highly individuated, and each of us will have a separate interpretation for the chemical stimulus: the sweet will give rise to different impressions, as will the heavier or sharper compounds. That there was broad consensus, but not outright agreement, fitted the pattern.

Rob’s personal mission was to ensure we differentiated between taste and flavour: the one objective, the latter subjective. Taste, he said, could only be one of five properties according to Western standards. There then ensued ten minutes of guests passing round little droppers, holding noses with one hand while squeezing liquids onto tongues with the other and registering the geography of their impact. So far, so silly, but it did underline the advantages to pushing whisky around the mouth.

My highlight was the PTC test: the plastic vials on our tasting mats were at last employed yet they contained no cotton wool, or liquids – not even another smaller balloon - but rather paper. The PTC strip divided the room. Some, incredibly, could not taste the rubberised, acrid bitterness of the middle vial but it would seem this is genetics in action. 20% of the population cannot detect this compound, which means that Campari shouldn’t phase them. Others were aware of the taste but could tolerate it. I thought I might be one, but the horror worsened.

With this insight into our palates, we turned to the whiskies with Mr Lyan as our compere: Auchentoshan Classic, Valinch and Threewood. I have discussed these whiskies before so shall move on to the cocktails, also courtesy of Mr L: a delicious Classic Hi-Ball made with the Auchentoshan, Creme de Poires, lemon juice, syrup and ginger ale. Three further bottles accompanied them, however: labelled Sweet, Sour and Bitter, these concentrates could be added by ourselves to adjust the cocktail according to our preferences.

'Salt and pepper' for my hi-ball.

I had to run out on the Threewood Old-Fashioned as I my parole from the Central Belt bus network had expired. The Taste Experiments proved enlightening, surprising and entertaining, however. The interdisciplinary approach worked very well as the coffee and cocktail meisters came at the topic unencumbered by tradition or marketing. That being said, Rachel Barrie’s chemical background and experience in the industry would have been greatly appreciated. The future of whisky tastings? Taking people to another sensory dimension alongside whisky definitely has merit as a technique for illuminating the rewarding complexity of the spirit. I’m just not sure where I would store all that ice, or whether Holland & Barrett stock PTC…

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