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‘Wet Dog – but in a Good Way’

'Eh?!' 'Mmmmm!'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tomatin 18-year-old

A month or so ago, I finally dropped in to Tomatin. Not having a bicycle in tow, I cannot count it as an official visit, but in the half-light of a November afternoon I could cast an appraising eye over the sprawling heathland situation. At first, however, I really badly needed to use their facilities, not see their stillhouse, having made a hasty get-away from the Balblair Brand Home opening on the other side of Inverness. Cover was provided by Lucas from Edinburgh Whisky Blog and Joel from Cask Strength who charmed the lady behind the desk to such an extent that I received a dram of the 12yo on my re-emergence, to replace some vital fluids.

Back in the car, bouncing over the speed bumps by the enormous warehouses to rejoin the A9, Joel commented that their recent Decades bottling had been a favourite at Cask Strength Towers (indeed, it was shortlisted for their Best in Glass Awards). In the summer, I too had encountered the class of this distillery with half of a miniature of their 18yo, an expression barely recognisable as from the same stock as the fudgy, oaky mess that had comprised the 12yo.

Yesterday, I polished off said miniature and here are my thoughts on it.

Tomatin 18yo 46% (non-chillfiltered, finished in Oloroso sherry casks)

Colour – Rich glossy gold. Quality Street caramel.

Nose – Fresh and quite light at first. The nutty praline squeeze of Sherry oak appears but the insistent sweet spiciness makes me wonder if these aren’t American oak butts. Soft apple and, there it is though it is much improved, fudge. Nose further into the glass, you find the most incredibly juicy barley: bold and firm with a bit of syrupy lemon and star fruit. Heathery, grassy. There is a bit of earthy peat smoke there, too. Liquorice and quite ‘green’, fresh oak. A bit more time reveals Papaya, demerara sugar and apple peelings.

Water reveals the gentle maturity of this whisky as lots of silky though boldly citrussy malt sugars descend. Buttery, floral and fruity with apple and peach. Melted Werthers Original toffees. Apple pie and double cream. Strawberries crushed into toasted oak. Again, more time highlights the crisp sweetness of that malt, but also an alluring depth of honey.

Palate – Nutty and darkly peaty with blackcurrant. Oak to the fore with some incense and dark dried fruits: prune and date. Baileys coffee. Quite strange, somehow.

Water (possibly I added too much) reveals peach and vanilla at first, with a building lavendar-scented maltiness. Sweet oat flakes appear, too, with earthy smoke blending heather and pine flavours. Quite light.

Finish – Blackberry and toffee. Sweetly spicy. Hazelnut and almond. A bit disappointingly disjointed.

Water adds perhaps a fraction more cohesion, with pear and pineapple up first, then fizzy, sugary malt. Olive oil appears on time, with saltiness and deep heather honey.

This is that rarest of beasts: one that can show its years but then, like Ryan Giggs with ball and space, roll back those years to stunning effect. I thoroughly enjoyed sipping this Tomatin, and trying to discover more shades of complex sweetness and richness, and that lovely fragrant earthiness. Recommended.

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First Class First-Fill Caol Ila

No sooner had I submitted my beastly final piece of English coursework for this semester than I was back at my desk, concentrating. The subject was whisky, the work engrossing.

At this time of year in my privately-rented and above all electrically-heated flat, a dram combats the cold far more cost-effectively than the radiators. Even if that dram is a single cask, 15yo stunner from Islay. In fact, my Dewar Rattray Caol Ila can ignite the taste buds not only with its strength, but also in its gorgeous suggestions of peat kilns and beach bonfires. I can put up with the sight of my breath in the chill air providing the charming vapour from my favourite distillery is infused within it.

A zingy, vibrant step up from the standard 12yo, with much of the evolving depth of the astonishing 18yo.

 

Dewar Rattray Caol Ila 1991 15yo Cask #743 56.7% abv.

Colour – Bold lemon gold.

Nose – A curious Manichean dram at first: deep coils of black smoke smoulder at the core while dense, fuzzy sweetness oozes over the top. Bonfire smoke, peat and baked apple emerge. A little bit of heating in the hand (very necessary as I have already said) is certainly worth it as my favourite vision of Islay materialises: wintriness, frost and earth, peaty rivers and pale sunlight forming the backdrop for fruit peel, singed barley and delicate heathery smoke. There is a wonderful defined maltiness, shot through with steely apple and electric vanilla. Sweet lemon rind. Further warming and it’s like putting your head in a log-burner – dense, brown woody smoke. Beneath that, though, and so so gorgeous, is that Caol Ila oiliness and black olive note.

Water added and my notes say ‘Oh, the sweetness’. It’s a mixture of syrupy fruits, cask contributions and proving bread. Lime smoke comes next – one indivisible from the other. Slices of just ripe, chilled pear. The oak does wonderful sweet and aromatic things: first creamy with the kind of pure, natural vanilla notes you don’t come across very often, then wafts of scented sandalwood. Returns to that classic Caol Ila olive brine character. At last the peated malt makes an appearance.

Palate – Fabulously intense: prickly smoke and bursting fruits: apple, orange and lime. Burning peat and then creamy pale oak sugars drizzle over the tongue. Water did not spoil the cohesion and more of the delicious malt appeared with a friskier fruitiness. The oak is a smooth grip on the tongue now, however, with less of the sweetness.

Finish – Lactic at first, although apple builds. A soft peat reek. Develops a lot of maritime saltiness but is otherwise fairly discreet.

Water pulled out olive and green fruits. Intensely exuberant. Barrages of soft malty smoke and a touch of deisel oil welcome you back to Islay. A triumph.

Different elements of this malt appear with time and water, making for a very rewarding experience. I adore this whisky’s life and potency, which I note quite often in the 15yo region, and shows how well spirit and cask have paired up. Later in the evening I had my Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 ex-Bourbon cask and… well, that was what I tasted most of. The oak murdered my palate on that occasion, where the Caol Ila had delighted it. I’m growing slightly wary of first-fill expressions, especially ones that creep into their mid-teens, and I intend to investigate a few more refill casks in future. Any single cask is a lottery, both for the distillery workers putting the clearic in to it to the customer purchasing its eventual contents but taking heart from the SMWS refill Glen Garioch I marvelled at earlier this month, I shall be on the look-out for those instances where the whisky-wood marriage is a happy one. I’m still partial to an oaky caress from my whiskies, providing it leads to something more, however.

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The SMWS Vaults – and Leith’s Labyrinth

‘This isn’t very relaxing at all,’ I raged, stamping past another betting shop, wincing as blisters began to bisect my heels and perspiration pooled beneath my pullover.

The entrance to the Vaults.

On the subject of my pilgrimage to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Vaults venue in Leith, Edinburgh, I had envisaged whisky’s bard – Mr Robert Burns – supplying a cheerful commentary. Unfortunately, rather than his Scotch aphorisms captioning my expedition, the only refrain I could recognise circulating within my seething brain concerned ‘mice and men…’

What ought to have been a leisurely 25 minute stroll from the bus station in St Andrew Square to 87, Giles Street demanded instead an hour and a half of feverish to-ing and fro-ing, in addition to a testy phonecall to my sister sat in front of Google Maps at home, trying to work out where the hell I was and how exactly I was to get to my hallowed destination.

I successfully found Giles Street and my anti-clockwise stromp around it was to be my final error of the day. A likely-looking building reared up at me, all old chunky bricks and little warehouse-esque windows. The green sign was perhaps the biggest give-away, though. Relief evicted the anger from my system, which had the disadvantage of robbing me of what energy I thought I had. Panting and swaying, I mounted the many steps and continued passed the paint tins and dust sheets to what I had been searching for – the bar.

Worries as to whether I could be fitted in were instantly abolished. Having signed in and handed over my membership card I discovered with delight that there was a surplus of leather sofas, broken in to the point of perfection by the posteriors of many a whisky aficionado. Perhaps. I ordered a 7.67 and sunk into one myself.

The members' room - a dining room-come-bar. And ever so cosy.

I can confirm what my picture suggests: this is the baronial stately home approach to accommodating whisky devotees, alluding to a sepia-tinged yesteryear when, I hate to say it, men repaired to the drawing room for a tumbler of something. Cutting edge the Vaults is not. In fact, I was far closer in ages to the bar staff than I was my fellow members. However, I stuck my nose into my Longmorn, ordered some haggis, neeps and tatties and quickly failed to notice anymore.

Many have praised the food available from the SMWS kitchens, both in the Queen Street branch and at the Vaults. My plate was certainly stacked high with flavour (I haven’t had Scotland’s national dish served in that style before) and the chocolate mousse for dessert ticked all of my personal boxes for richness, tartness and gooeyness. Mindful after the last mouthful vanished that I still had some serious tasting to do, it perhaps wasn’t the best combination for keeping my senses in optimum condition. Nevertheless, I had reclaimed the calories Leith’s streets had taken from me and within half an hour I was ready for my next dram.

The bar. As it happens, I only explored the left-hand side.

The 19.46 astonished and moved me. This 21-yo whisky from a refill hogshead smelled initially like an ornamental fireplace in an oak-floored Highland house: blackened coal scuttle and an ancient stone and cast iron grate into which some autumn leaves had found their way. There were brass furnishings, too. Then came rich butter and brown sugar, deep oakiness with a green touch and light, crumbly sweet peat. Caramel toffee-accented malt confirmed the high class of the nose. The palate was equally suave and involving: spicy, biscuity, oaky and leafy. In my notes I have ‘a full-on burnished experience’ which I think means that both the brass furnishing character from the nose reappeared as part of the all-round impression of cohesion and quality. Coriander is another mid-palate note. It becomes rich and buttery again after a time, with late hints of candied lemon zest.

The addition of water developed the lemony theme as lemon curd arrived on the nose, spread between two layers of soft, rich flapjack. Heavy butterscotch, together with strawberry and blueberry jam, rounded out a very good and above all different character. The palate revealed more of the cask influence, with a rich, dark char. Coriander can be found in the mix again, with more lemon pieces. Pepper. The abiding impression was of richness, with a gentle chew.

My abiding impression of the Vaults, though? As a base camp for a society like the SMWS, I doubt it could be improved upon. In fact, my navigational headaches buttressed the atmosphere of eclectic sequestration the place exudes. You can’t just pop in off Prince’s Street. It seems to me very appropriate that there should be a venue in the city’s former commercial and goods trading centre, one that is built in to Leith’s abundant wine and spirit heritage. The decor (the final touches to a refit of the reception rooms were taking place during my visit), friendliness of the staff and eye-popping breadth of bottlings promise a permanent reward for those keen enough to make the trek to discover the spiritual home of the Society, tucked into a district where whisky as a viable commercial product was made possible in the first place. Who would have thought that at the centre of the labyrinth there would be an Olympus?

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A Moustache-tickler of a Malt

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

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

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

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

Colour – Toffee apple red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four years of fanaticism. And counting…

Maturity, supposedly, is defined by the ability to learn from mistakes. Politicians are forever assuring the electorate that shortcomings in the decision-making process have been apprehended and addressed, and that government is a savvier place as a result. Perhaps, on second thoughts, this isn’t the most clear-cut example of the development I am talking about as endemic errors have the habit of undermining whatever edifice of wisdom even the most adept spin doctors can construct. Therefore, I offer up an instance from my own life to illustrate how redemption is possible.

When the 25th of October hove into view for the second time on my higher educational calendar I improved upon my strategy for the first occurrence in a number of key areas. Firstly, I circled the date in thick red pen, which instantly lodges it in the medium-term prioritisation agenda. Secondly, I ensured that I would not lament the lack of any outstanding malts for company on that evening. Thirdly, with a proud fist and booming voice I cried ‘Essays be damned!’ With these simple measures I had no reason to fear a frazzled repeat of 25/10/2010 and could have a lot of fun instead.

Four years and here is one shelf I can be happy with.

Between my flat mate, Gareth, Camel, Aerosmith and Dream Theater and a potent delegation from the whisky community, I raised a thoughtful glass to my fourth year since shuffling, wide-eyed, into The Glenlivet. In fact, I raised three. Beginning with the pale, unctuous fruitiness of the Aberlour 16yo Warehouse No. 1 bottling, moving to a sociably spicy Balblair 1989 (supplied by Gareth), and concluding my meditation with the Dewar Rattray Caol Ila, I could not reproach myself for not having taken the time to recognise and celebrate the inescapable hold malt whisky has over almost every aspect of my world view - and practically my identity, too.

The Caol Ila in particular, possibly the most richly phenolic specimen from that distillery I have ever been fortunate enough to come across, delineated and hyper-extended the critical moments in my whisky life so far, and stoked the fires of my passion for the stuff once again. Indeed, I rather suspected it might have been the blackened, oily residue of that very engine room of distilled spirit enthusiasm so intensively potent, rib-tickling and galvanising was it. Lime cordial and heavy thick peat on the nose gives way to tart, caramel-covered influences from the first-fill Bourbon cask, and a finish as delicately sweet yet fragrantly dry as you could wish for in a dram.

Sipping the water of life while head-banging to ‘Learning to Live’, I had a malt-soaked manifesto thrashed out there and then. Durkheim, Milton and Homer, I decided, proffer only one perspective on the world. Within and around them is a universe of flavour no less surprising, instructive or eternal. Indeed, as Housman said: ‘malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man’. We’ll see how well that goes down with my tutors.

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A Taste of Speyside with Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Malty Moral Compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer of Scotch

The Scotch Odyssey Blog is something of a medical marvel. Having appeared to have been in a persistent vegetative state since early May - there is life!

My University modules made it perfectly clear that whisky revision would gain me no credit in the immediate term, and for far too long preoccupations with the anthropology of religion have trumped matters of reflux; the Black Douglases have inhibited my interest in Sherry butts, and contemplation of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner has obscured my focus on all things cask strength. But no longer. I am, for a few months yet, at liberty to learn more about whisky in its many charming iterations and the only form of continuous assessment shall be those little essays which appear on here: processing and passing on the most interesting nuggets of knowledge that come my way.

Compass Box AsylaWhilst the last few weeks have been unpleasant, they have scored significantly over the equivalent exam period at the beginning of the year. It is warmer, sunnier, and everything is alive. If there was a whisky which epitomised this joyous time of year, it would be Compass Box’s Asyla and I thought I would share my tasting notes of this stunning little blend with you now.

Compass Box Asyla 40%. £29.50

Colour - Lemon pith gold.

Nose - Initially there is a fragrant cereal toastiness which I would guess is the grain spirit talking. After this is an intense green and white fruitiness which just begs to be bitten into so textured and juicy does it appear. Spiciness, black vanilla pod and a concentrated lemoniness all appear on first nosing. A little deeper into the glass and a meatier toastiness appears. The aroma is somewhat closed with a mulchy leafiness, eventually yielding to millefeuille, succulent oak and cranachan.

      Water - just a little - enacts the chrysallis effect: suddenly russet baked apple sweetness is there, gorgeously soft and creamy. There is the very essence of vanilla. I note cream-filled eclairs and an airy fruitiness like orchards during a warm evening. Dried flowers, melting toffees and lemon. With more time to breathe the nose kicks on again: freshly sawn oak, all golden and syrupy with pine. There is an added spiciness, heat and focus. Later on again I get unripe pears, creamy cereal aromas and strawberry jam. Wonderful.

Palate - Gorgeous. The mouth fills with sensual softness: creamy vanilla with heaps of delicate white fruits. Gently sweet and sophisticated.

      Water enriches the mouthfeel which becomes all mascarpone creaminess, still with masses of vanilla. There is a semi-rich mid palate and then the chewy biscuity grain whisky comes in for a lovely counterpoint. Dries slightly.

Finish – Fruity, especially with mild citrus which keeps things fresh. Hedgerow honey and light oak finish off a whisky of extraordinarily intense delicacy.

      Water adds softness, creaminess and – yes – vanilla. There is an added richness at the expense of the fruitiness and a mighty tasty juicy oak/pine note appears. The finish is still drying, this time to a deeper toasty richness.

This is one of my absolute favourite whiskies right now, and far far FAR to much has been consumed already. As I mentioned in my review of our superlative tasting with John Glaser earlier in the year, the man understands wood. Only with such sympathetic knowledge could he balance so much of the sweetness of first-fill Bourbon with the necessary firmness and dryness. It is a sweet whisky, but it has so many fresher and spicier notes that the nose in particular never stops giving you more diverse and complimentary flavours. This is a fantastic whisky which has given me a new-found respect for its constituents. I think my bottle is from a different batch to that had at the March tasting – then there was malt from ‘Alness’ and on this occasion it is ‘Ballindalloch’ – but  there are still healthy measures of ‘Glen Elgin and Longmorn’ to make the former a ‘must next’ on my list.

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Highland Park 13yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

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

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

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

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

Colour – Clean intense gold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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