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Bursting at the Wemyss

A selection from Wemyss' second batch of single casks.

Even in an age of single malt insatiability such as this one, it is a sad fact that of the 101 malt distilleries operating in Scotland, not all enjoy any real prominence on the shelves. Betrothed to blends or sought after in foreign territories, some whiskies are the proverbial wild goose. Praise be, therefore, to the independent bottlers who track down finite stocks which the distillery owners have often overlooked and make them available to you and me.

The latest company whose delectable discoveries crossed my path are Wemyss Malts. Edinburgh-based bottlers since 2005, they offer a wide selection of single casks, blended malts and even their own blended Scotch in the form of the Lord Elcho expression. A consignment of all of the above found its way to me via Doug Clement, Quaich Society patron and ferociously determined advocate for a distilling operation near the home of golf in St Andrews.

The Kingsbarns Distillery project had looked to have stalled until Doug’s bright idea secured £3m of investment from Wemyss Malts, making the former caddy’s fantasy a reality. Check out this STV report - featuring Doug – about the auspicious beginnings of another Lowland distillery. In a few years there will be a home-grown single malt in the Wemyss stable, but what about those whiskies made by other people? Have they an eye for a hole-in-one?

The Hive 12yo 40%

Nose – Full and attractive: very malty with a toasty sweetness. Milk chocolate with candied ginger and sweet rose. Playful and rounded.

Palate – Honeycomb oak, sticky light malt and a return of the chocolate with dried fruit flavours.

Finish – Increasingly lives up to its name: a dryish maltiness sits above a pot of gentle heather honey. Sweet porridge with apricot. A dab of peat at the end.

Spice King 8yo 40%

Nose – Earthy and lots of woodpsice. Expensive mens’ eau-de-cologne. A full creamy note, like soft goats cheese. Oak is quite prevalent. Watery sweetness at the base. Some roasted chestnuts and pecan, but lacks the guts for true richness.

Palate – Blackberries, a richer earthy maltiness and vanilla pod. Tongue-coating with treacle sponge and other Highland flavours, including a tickle of peat.

Finish – A gentle tarry flavour. Burnt toffee. Woodsmoke. The barley emerges from the scrum of these darker characteristics to lend some pure sweetness.

Peat Chimney 12yo 40%

Nose – Dry smoke: peat stacks in the sun very close to a sandy beach containing lots of empty shellfish shells. With time it gets a little farmy with hay and cow breath. Caramelising brown sugar introduces the peated malt.

Palate – Very dry but pleasingly delicate. Very aromatic peat, softer maltiness than I’d expected and Black Bullet sweets. Becomes quite ashy. On a second sip many more fruits appear, especially orange and pear. Peat has a chilli flake heat. Barbecued pineapple.

Finish – Lemon grass fragrance as the peat filters down (like a pint of Guinness settling) to a dried earthy character. A honeyed edge to the smoke, which is appreciated. Smoked sausage. Long.

 

So…?      I was impressed by these offerings from Wemyss; someone has taken very tasty malts and combined them with sympathy and confidence to elicit a bold flavour profile. I could maybe quibble that there isn’t an awful lot of complexity, but if you have a sweet tooth and a £35 budget, The Hive will not disappoint. Likewise, the Peat Chimney was a harmonious celebration of smoke, and a good contrast to the earthier Peat Monster from Compass Box. It would be my pick. The Spice King made allusions to a deeper complexity, but excited me the least. That being said, its 12yo incarnation has just walked away with the title of ‘Best Blended Malt Scotch’ at the World Whisky Awards, so congratulations are in order.

With three whiskies down, I’ll give you the highlights of four single casks I tried. There was one big disappointment in the shape of ‘Caribbean Fruits’ (a Glencadam from 1990) which had been pretty much raped and pillaged by the oak. Some honeyed cereals, fig rolls and dunnage notes fought their way through but could not overcome the aggressive hogshead. As a fan of the massively underrated Glencadam I had been looking forward to this.

‘Autumn Berries’ (a 1986 Blair Athol) had impressed on first viewing, but alongside a Miltonduff of the same generation (a 1987) it became disjointed. A nose of high-toned bold fruitness, especially overripe pear, prevailed at first on the nose, with heather honey and smoke. The intensity of spirit for one of its years was unusual, and often appealing. The palate extrudes this fruitness further, and a note of coriander intrigued me.

‘Wild Berry Spice’ [Miltonduff 1987] 46%

Nose – Fresh, light and fruity at first with a hint of crisp, dryish barley for balance. Bright and mellow with strawberry compote and vanilla pod. Spoonfuls of dark Muscovado sugar. Ages before your eyes, as dark and rich woodsmoke appears and a pronounced saltiness.

Palate – Good weight, malt and cinnamon spice come forward together with a little Kendal mint cake.

Finish – Honey from the oak, sweetened cream and vanilla. Pleasant richness from the clean barley.

With water matters became still more attractive with a sweetly leathery nose, chou pastry and cocoa powder and icing sugar. A hint of sweet cigar smoke then dark chocolate. With time there is pistachio ice cream The palate revealed rich fudge, charcoal from the cask and orange fruit pastels. Then there is concentrated Ribena, honey and smoked fruits. Leafy oak, malt and a coal scuttle unfurl in the complex finish with butter tablet and honey.

‘Lemon Smoke’ [Caol Ila 1996] 46%

Nose – Beach barbecue, olive oil, wood varnish. Hints of seaweed and modroc plaster. More savoury with time: smoked chicken in the sea air. A very focused Caol Ila.

Palate – Light – very light – at first with pear drops and citronella. The peat steps up in intensity very gradually before sherbet lemon appears alongside a gently nutty maltiness.

Finish – Quite quick, leaving gentle peat smoke and honey. The malt is there, too, and has a creamy toffee character.

With a few drops of water the nose became much farmier with burning twigs, lemon and honey, and a Champagne-like yeasty note. This was much truer to the Caol Ilas I’ve known in the past when sipped: malt, green fruit and smoke together with cardamom and buttered popcorn. The finish was quicker again.

So…?      Definitely a mixed bag with these single casks, as is to be expected. Each expression presented a very distinct flavour profile, however, and in this respect they mirrored the blended malts above. Using flavour descriptors to identify your malts can backfire with the contrasting capacities of peoples’ palates and a potential incooperative mood, but to my mind it is a policy that makes as much sense as age statements. Possibly more. Like Tiger in his review for Edinburgh Whisky Blog here, I would go for the Caol Ila. Wemyss and whisky present a formidable combination, and I can’t wait to learn how they shall bring their experience to bear on producing a single malt of their own.

Many thanks to Doug Clement for the liberal dispensation of samples.

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My Unofficial Whisky Fringe

In the ever-expanding pantheon of whisky festivals, there is one that excites uncommonly rabid fervour: the Whisky Fringe. Between August 3rd and 5th, the eleventh outing of this malt extravaganza, organised by Royal Mile Whiskies, absorbed those whisky fanatics who were fortunate enough to come by a ticket (places are more highly sought-after than for the Tattoo, probably) and induced much envy and grumpiness in those who were not. I was one of the latter, and sat at home with my nose pressed up against the window pane that is Twitter, racked with sorrow.

However, and to atone for such a missed oppportunity in the Scottish capital at its moment of peak creativity and colour, I knew that the door to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society would be open to receive me. During a recent visit to the shows of the Festival Fringe, I dragged a few friends with me to the Society’s Queen Street venue where some stupendous acts awaited me.

The SMWS Queen Street bar.

Whereas the Vaults in Leith is confined to one level, and you sit in your fireside leather armchair speculating upon the thousands of litres of extraordinary Scotch whisky sleeping in casks beneath your feet, Queen Street is the epitome of the town clubroom where whisky is conspicuously consumed rather than purveyed. A gorgeous winding staircase takes you to the third floor bar, with views onto the city’s leafier pockets. I scanned the deep green wall of Society single cask bottlings in search of their newest one - 129.1 to be exact. Society newbie Dan was guided to a #35 by the efficient, friendly bar staff.

We found a group of seats in an adjoining room, beside a display of sample bottles which made for a very evocative stained glass window. Here I decided to become better acquainted with the latest distillery to find itself on the Scotch Malt’s books, the only fully independent distillery on Islay and one of my absolute favourites.

Scotch and sunlight conspiring beautifully.

129.1 2006 60.2% 235 bottles

Nose – creamy barley, brown sugar, pear drops and sharp smoke. This is clean but with a marked aggressive streak. Water made for a richer and darker experience with chocolate-dipped ice cream cone, cider apple and chunky tablet.

Palate – vanilla provides lubrication for clean maltiness and rolls of tobacco-like peat which moves into a finish of strong black tea.

In an attempt to show off the diversity of the Society, and their knack for rooting out the finest truffles of single casks, I went in search of a grain whisky. As we were in Edinburgh, I thought a dram from G1 was in order.

G1.5 1984 60.7% 245 bottles

Nose – buxom. Huge vanilla notes with apple and cinnamon. Leathery and rich with toasted coconut and creamy coconut emerging. A gorgeous spicy dryness. This has spent 24 years in very good wood indeed.

Palate – clinging wood oils, coconut and fat cereal grains. Another hit of spice with a spearmint character. Silky and sublime.

As we sipped, the conversation embraced numerous topics but an overarching theme was perhaps the nature of true passion and interest, where they took us and how pursuing, then enjoying them made us feel. For me, reclining with two whiskies of magnificent quality and personality as well as witty and charming people revived the best of memories while sparking new stories and intrigues. Amongst the sumptuous paraphernalia of the SMWS, flavour and fun returned from the fringes to the centre of my world.

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A Place to Gather

‘Community’ is a word endowed with many connotations, leading to its (mis)appropriation by politicians, sociologists, market researchers and Mark Zuckerberg. Whether that community is ‘fractured’, patri-local or online, in the 21st century we still value and are moved by an idea of our collectivity.

Whisky provides yet another excuse for grouping together. With a single distillery or style we can identitfy with one another, share experiences and profess our loyalty. We can demonstrate how fiercely we fight for flavour. Increasingly, Scotch whisky distilleries have sought to foster such communities. Though they are ostensibly confined by the internet, strongly implied is the suggestion that one’s true point of contact – irrespective of where one lives – is a postcode in Scotland. The personality of a distillery, mediated via its virtual presence, promises the possibility of a connection to bricks, mortar and copper once you have logged off and bought a Caledonia-bound plane ticket.

Courtesy of a few clicks on the internet, you can be a Diurach with Jura, an Ardbeg Committee member, a Friend of Laphroaig, or a Guardian of The Glenlivet. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the next few months, The Macallan Order of the Garter realises its inauguration. Brands are encouraging us to pledge fealty to them on a fractionally more intimate footing. We have bought their whisky, but they want us to participate in their stories, too.

The Clach Biorach standing stone at Balblair.

My old friend, Balblair, has followed suit and underscored this notional encounter all the more powerfully and simply with ‘The Gathering Place’. In recognition of the distillery’s long-standing neighbour, the Clach Biorach Pictish stone around which Highland peoples would assemble millenia ago, and whose swirls and forms find echoes in the Balblair bottle design, there is a new way of connecting to the pair of stills in Edderton, Ross-shire. Balblair fans can sign up for free to receive exclusive web content, expert whisky tasting videos and, perhaps the principal boon of swearing allegiance to one’s lord, spirits for your taste buds only. Tiger over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog has reviewed the first soon-to-be-released vintage from 1990. He rather liked it.

And I rather like this new inclination to transform customers into a community. Whisky inspires deep passions in people, chief among which must be that our favourite drams continue to be of high quality, testaments to integrity and skill. Through these membership schemes, we have the opportunity to communicate with these distilleries and the individuals responsible for them, rather than merely pay our money and consume them. A related point is developed very well by Stuart Robson over at the Whisky Marketplace blog. Philosophy intermingles with financial imperatives and hopefully we customers can make a bolder, more sustainable statement, adding an extra and vocal dimension to those sales figures. Give us a gathering place and we will prove our loyalty. The Gathering Place at Balblair.

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BYOB: Bottle Your Own Booze

Someone working on behalf of The Dalmore thought I might like to know that the Whyte & MacKay-owned Highland distillery has been beasting the competition as far as value growth is concerned. The ‘luxury brand’ is outstripping the other top 25 global single malts, with 69% year-on-year growth playing 12%. Consumers would appear to be fully prepared to throw lots of cash at rarer, more ‘deluxe’ bottlings from The Dalmore over and above other competitors, which is what I take ‘value growth’ to mean: the sumptuous packaging, the clever brand story, the astronomical performances at auction, would appear to be netting those managing the Cromartie Firth distillery vast amounts of money.

To double back and tackle the packaging issue, however. The Trinitas expression could boast crystal, rare woods, and enormous quantities of expertly-wrought silver, all of which nudged the whisky up towards that knee-knocking figure of £100,000. Yes, the whisky inside was doubtless rather special, but fostering the idea that a crack team of craftsmen had exhausted hundreds of hours of labour to manifest this specialness visually seemed to be important.

However, there is a counter-culture sweeping the visitor centres of Scotch whisky distilleries and it is the ‘bottle your own’ phenomenon. Aberlour, on Speyside, has perhaps the highest and longest-standing profile with respect to offering their visitors the chance to get their hands wet and fill, cork, seal and label their own bottle of whisky. Indeed, it was the first distillery at which I got up close and personal with raw whisky to take away.

Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 and the hand-bottling area.

The list of distilleries at which this gimmicky but fun and unusual process can be undertaken is a long one. Over the coming weeks, I hope to have factsheet posts for all of the Scotch whisky regions and sub regions detailing the visitor experience on offer, but for now here are those which I know accommodate hand-bottling: Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Auchentoshan, Balblair, Balvenie, Benromach, Bruichladdich, GlenDronach, Glenfiddich, Glengoyne, Glen Moray, Pulteney, and Tomatin. The spirits available typically hail from ex-Bourbon or ex-Sherry, but some may have occupied an exotic wine cask. They will vary in age and strength, but none are cheap. My Aberlour was £65, and at Auchentoshan you pay up to £100 for the privilege of infiltrating the warehouse and drawing your 70cls.

 

My 'whisky handshake' moment at Aberlour last September.

Why do we stand for it, if we are doing all of the manual labour? Of course, it is to experience that connection with the whisky-making process we have just observed. To see golden spirit exit the cask in front of us constitutes a timely reminder that depsite the often sanitized environments of modern distilleries and the gargantuan bottling lines by which our favourite single malt lands in Tunbridge Wells or Taiwan, whisky can be understood in terms of 250l hogsheads, and can - when emerging from oak - pungently enter the light and air of our personal atmosphere before slipping into a glass bottle. As we hold that bottle steady, and as its proportions slosh with spirit, it is like a whisky hand shake. We see, feel and hear before we taste and smell the personality of the whisky, uniquely developed in its wooden nursery, in a way we cannot do when picking up a bottle from the shelves of our local spirits store.

Distilleries lay on a special batch of spirit, and the tools to capture it, so that we can mark our moments in them. We can get involved, cut out the middle men, and escort off the premises a measure of the place itself. The label will bear not only the name of the distillery, but your signature, too, placing you in a new relation to your favourite dram. As far as the distilleries are concerned, I think it demonstrates that they similarly want to establish a new relation to their customers. The life of a cask is enriched by the 200-odd names, from all over the world, who drew spirit from it which I think is a powerful means of appreciating the lengths many whisky drinkers go to for their favourite whiskies, and the stories behind them. When that bottle sits, pride of place, on the shelf in Brussels or Beijing, there will exist a personal connection directly back to a few square feet of Scotland: not bad going for less than a litre of distilled beer.

Keep watching the Scotch Odyssey Blog for precisely what single cask, tasty morsels Scotch whisky distilleries will be offering the visitors this summer. Alternatively, I have found my way onto Twitter, and you can follow me via @WhiskyOdyssey. See you there.

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The Quaich Society at Aberfeldy

The Quaich Society outside Aberfeldy distillery.

Regular readers will notice a change in structure for this post title in comparison with normal proceedings. Yes, the Quaich Society has finally escaped the confines of St Andrews’ hotel function rooms, overcome the complacenct attitude that top brands must come to us, and bagged a distillery of our own.

As a St Patrick’s Day warm up, eleven eager Society members surfaced early on the Saturday morning in readiness for departure to Dewar’s World of Whisky and the Aberfeldy Cask Tasting Tour. Though some were neither bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, they took their seat on the bus in anticipation of a momentous event in Quaich Society recent history. They hid their true feelings well, appearing to be sound asleep from Dundee until we turned off the A9.

As we approached the distillery, the bright spring sunshine picked out squadrons of white-water rafters on the gleaming Tay at Grandtully and thick snow still at the summit of Ben Lawers. This was shaping up to be quite a Highland whisky adventure, and – on a personal note – thrillingly reminiscent of my last encounter with that road: nearly two years ago during the first week of the Scotch Odyssey.

A beautiful Highland distillery on a perfect spring morning. Difficult to beat, I can tell you...

Aberfeldy remains as plush and spartan as I remembered it and we all inspected the neat lawns, strident pagoda, and the new lick of paint the rest of the buildings had received while we waited to begin our tour.

Dewar’s World of Whisky divides brand labour remarkably well. The Dewar’s blended story is dealt with first in the opening film and exhibition area in which the Dewar brothers – John and Tommy – are celebrated for their pioneering salesmanship, before one discovers the blender’s art. Once again, I ran out of patience before completing the computer simulation challenge of recreating the recipe of Dewar’s White Label.

The focus of the guided tour, however, is Aberfeldy distillery and its single malt. With speed and clarity, our guide took us from mill to stills and the eleven tourists inhaled deeply at each new process. In the tun room, we could inspect two of the larch washbacks (switchers were on for the others). ‘As you can see by where the wash has been,’ said our guide, ‘this is just about ready to be pumped across to the stillroom. You could quite happily drink that.’ I know that many Quaich Society regulars approve of a pint, and their eyes shone hopefully, but we were ushered down the stairs to the stills with throats unslaked.

Back in the visitor centre, we awaited with glee the arrival of the valinch-bearer who would withdraw a sample from the American oak hogshead which, for the last 29 years, had harboured Aberfeldy spirit. Cameras flashed and saliva ducts filled. First of all, we could savour the Aberfeldy core range, starting with the sweet, biscuity and appley 12yo, before moving on to the more floral, heathery and slightly smoky 21yo. The group were divided in their preferences, although I adored the firm, almost tarry sweetness of the 21yo.

Extracting the 29yo Aberfeldy spirit from its oak nursery.

Finally, we eached received a Glencairn filled with deep orange nectar. Nosing it, deep oak and rounded vanilla appeared first, followed by red apple peel and some smoke or cask char. The oak notes built and carried with them a rich Bourbon flavour, although the spirit clearly had a bit of liveliness about it after all these years.

Soft and rounded on the palate, chunky toffee and dried apple emerged. I was assured that, even though the whisky was hovering around the 55% abv. mark, its smoothness belied its strength. Up to a point, I agreed, but I wondered whether a drop of water might awaken this sleeping beauty. It sure did.

On the nose, I was overwhelmed by white chocolate aromas and dry heather. There was stronger apple now with rich pot ale scents, too. Biscuity and coconut notes. Orange, fruitcake and tablet.

The palate revealed the signature Aberfeldy honey note, which built in one gorgeous, langorous wave. Vanilla-coated raisins with tarry treated pine. Some grassiness at the end.

‘Why don’t they bottle this?!’ one member of the group asked. I pointed out that the cost would be extraordinary, but remembered how eagerly I would have parted with cash after my last Aberfeldy single cask encounter, a 24yo, in 2009.

Whilst refuelling in the cafe, I was told that the reason our cask tasting had taken place in the visitor centre and not the warehouse as advertised was because of interior alterations being made. A strong hint was dropped that Aberfeldy may be about to join the single cask, hand-bottling brigade and that other John Dewar & Sons single malts may also feature in addition to the flagship brand. I will of course let you know more about this when details are confirmed.

All that remains to be said is a massive thank you to the staff at Dewar’s World of Whisky for looking after us so well, and the bus driver who turned a blind eye to the healthy measures of White Label being poured and enjoyed at the rear of the vehicle.

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Bruichladdich at the Quaich Society

The Bruichladdich line-up.

Lazarus-style reappearances are not unheard of at the Quaich Society; last year, for example, Diageo’s Duncan showed up for a return fixture with a lot of Clynelish and some Johnnie Walker Blue Label, building upon Talisker 57 Degrees North on West Sands (we couldn’t quite get the geography right) the previous semester.

However, Craig Johnstone’s second stint in St Andrews was, if anything, still more eagerly anticipated. The kind of extraordinary, surprising arsenal of  whiskies he had brought along with him then from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society could only be matched by one Scottish distiller and that just so happens to be the one now employing him: Islay mavericks, Bruichladdich.

The first innovation of the evening was Craig pouring and distributing the tasting’s drams. This is normally something the Society Committee busies itself with 15 miunutes prior to commencement. The second was enlisting an ambassador from a rival company to help with the set-up. We were delighted to see Patsy Christie of Highland Park, but also of ‘Patsy and Craig’, on hand for support and – at times – an extra element of dialogue during the tasting. Without Patsy’s ruthlessly efficient harvesting, cleaning and filling of glasses, we would not have been able to enjoy our sixth dram of the evening, but more of that later.

Craig’s opening statement concerning Bruichladdich: ‘we’re pretty unstandard – the only consistent thing about us is our inconsistency’. The tasting roster epitomised this. We opened with the Organic, a roughly 7yo whisky under the Bruichladdich name, although ’I didn’t bring this because it says ‘Organic’ on the label,’ Craig asserted. ‘I brought it because it is an excellent whisky.’

Very sweet on the nose, it added aromas of heavy butter and cream before light floral tones emerged, together with shortbread. Very firm overall. The palate was clean, sharp and firm with plenty of malt while vanilla built in the finish. 53% of Bruichladdich’s barley consumption is organic, the rest coming from Islay farms where organic practices have to be dropped if the plants are to withstand the West Coast gales. The company aims for absolute traceability of one’s bottle in the very near future which would make for a most intriguing drive around Islay, spotting the fields which contributed to your bottle of Laddie Ten, or Black Arts.

‘I thought this was a whisky tasting?!’ piped up a voice in the corner when we arrived at the next spirit. What we had instead was The Botanist, a gin produced by Bruichladdich using 22 native Islay botanicals. That might sound like a lot, and it did to many people who know far more about gin than I do, but the result was magnificent. Incredibly lemony on the nose, it had the flavour of a Gin & Tonic without the Tonic added. Other notes included struck matches and coriander. The palate, for all its 46% delivery, was remarkably soft with waves of citrus and perfumy flowers. To those unique minds on Lochindaal, this is their tribute to whisky back in the unverifiable mists of time, when their uisquebeatha would have tasted a lot like our gin now.

A cask sample of the forthcoming Islay Barley.

Returning to the traceability theme, Dram #3 promised much. A single cask sample of 5yo spirit produced with barley harvested solely on Islay. This will be released, in vatted and reduced form, very soon. Despite measuring 66% on the Richter scale, it was remarkably well-mannered and I detected chocolate sauce mixed into vanilla ice cream on the nose: very spicy, rich and creamy. A little bit of char emerged, also. The palate began with a promising dark earthiness with a sinew of cereal. Then rich oak developed, developed some more and ultimately killed the thing, for me. An active cask had been relied upon to provide the spirit with a life-raft of sweetness and guts, but the barley experiment was unfortunately nullified as a result. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to hear Craig describe the skilled, human adjustments every varietal change demands at the distillery. From the mill to the spirit still, distillery workers have to adapt their processes to ensure the best whisky and the right flavours result from whichever strain of malt they are using.

I’ve talked about the Laddie Ten previously and suffice it to say that it remains in my mind a solid, charming customer with presence beyond its years. While underlining the significance of a first age milestone achieved by the new Bruichladdich regime, Craig discussed how the frankly bewildering range would evolve in the next 18 months. Presently, they have 31 products, excluding special releases. This number will diminish to 15.

Remaining on the roster will be the Black Arts. This batch came off the still in 1989, but since then has been in more different woods than Bear Grylls. Bourbon, wine, sherry – you name it, Jim McEwan will have stashed some whisky in it. The undiluted nose oozed with red fruits, especially grape while the palate was full and oily. However, the word ‘butyric’ came to mind, which to you and me is a welcome euphemism for ’baby sick’. The acidic flavours from the Euopean woods curdled the creaminess from the American oak with less than successful results. Water improved matters, however. Charred on the nose with lots of dark honey, while rich oak, malt and toffee developed in the glass. With its sandy aroma and orangey tar qualities, it reminded me of a Mortlach. On the palate, I could still detect some acid reflux, but fat, booze-soaked sultanas rescued the performance. I don’t mean to be controversial (my neighbour and many others around the room raved about it) but the Black Arts did not enchant me.

The final dram of an enthralling evening appeared before the Quaich Society members courtesy of Patsy and we could get our teeth into Port Charlotte. This provoked a discussion on Bruichladdich’s peating policy. The latest Octomore exhibits – in Craig’s own words – ‘a stupid amount of peat’: Sauternes-finished and coming in at 61%, it boasts a peating level of 167 ppm. ‘At what point do you stop drinking whisky and start eating peat?’ one person asked. ‘We’ll let you know,’ Craig replied.

The Port Ellen maltsters experience genuine headaches providing Bruichladdich with peated malt. At one stage, before McEwan started prodding them, they believed the highest they could achieve would be 60ppm. But Jim wanted more. ‘How high a level do you want?’ they ask. ‘What is the highest you can do?’ asks Jim. ‘Well, to be honest up to now we have been peating barley for two weeks and then cutting that with unpeated malt to reach your specifications.’ ‘How peaty is the uncut stuff, then?’ ’305 ppm.’ The whisky arms race, my friends, has been won. Last year, barley peated to 305 ppm came of the stills at Bruichladdich and vanished into a cask, not to reappear for another five years.

In the meanwhile, we have Octomore and our specimen the other night: Port Charlotte. At 40 ppm, we are still talking Laphroaig territory, but it does not taste like it courtesy of the dramatically different distillation regime in taller pots. Buttery digestive biscuit malt on the nose, together with very sweet peat, apricot and vanilla. Fish on the barbecue. The palate and finish are marvellous: at first chunky peat and gooey barley, before drying and concluding with notes of honey and fresh peated malt. Superb.

Mr Johnstone once again proved to be excellent value, as intriguing and assured as the whiskies he brought along to us. We hope to see him and the Bruichladdich experiments back again very soon. Once again, many thanks indeed to Patsy for her selfless pouring and distribution work, without which efforts to accommodate a sixth dram would have been far more shambolic.

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A Mighty Bonny Balblair

If I can put a positive spin on the well-documented delay and the yearning of those connected with Balblair for a facility in which to welcome visitors, it is that a couple of decades were necessary to allow cask no. 2990 to realise its full potential before making it exclusively available to Balblair pilgrims.

In November, I was one such pilgrim to the dinky, delightful distillery on the Wick-Inverness railway line and I discovered said ex-Bourbon hogshead in the new brand home, pride of place. After the blockage in the valve had been cleared, the not so orderly queue of whisky bloggers and journalists could set about disgorging its contents with gay abandon. I defy anyone to hand-fill their own bottle of 19yo single cask Highland whisky with a scowl on their face.

Bottle number 10 bore my signature and joined the phalanx of other dumpy bottles on the bench beside the cask – like puppies plucked from their mother and placed close by. My pedigree pup arrived on my doorstep having received its kennel cough injections (a duty stamp) just before Christmas and I finally got around to opening it as a toast for completing semester 1 of year 2 at university. Here are my (extensive) tasting notes for this gorgeous specimen.

The Balblair distillery-exclusive.

Balblair 1992 DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE SINGLE CASK, 60.9% abv., #2990

Colour – Clean, fresh gold.

Nose – Firm, sharp and gristy with nose above the glass. Thin pale oak lends a daffodil-like floral edge. Cumin, turmeric and a touch of runny peach. Closer to, I get butteriness, seeds and perfume all at the same time. Lemon and lime marmalade. An intriguing note of creme anglaise. The power starts to build: pure pear drops and apple peel. Tropical fruit bon-bons: pineapple and papaya. The lemon and malt are rapier-like. There is quite a masculine scent, like aftershave. With a bit of air and time, there is a flash of coastal aromas then hay and ripe pear, with rich and swet biscuit.

      Water ratchets up the sweetness that little bit more: jellied apple and pear with lime drizzle cake. Biscuity again. The body of the whisky is so Balblair: firm and crisp simultaneously. Almond and yoghurt-coated pinenut. It becomes exceedingly creamy. A hint of banana also confirms its heritage. Intensely fresh with a repeat of that aftershave note. With more time it becomes a true delight: pineapple, toffee tablet and liquorice.

Palate – Full with more of the buttery, toffeed oak. Then there is an astonishing surge of citrussy sweet fruits: apple, passion fruit, pineapple and then more ex-Bourbon cask notes of biscuit and vanilla.

      Water places the sweet malt to the fore, with the fruits surging round and over. Impressions of the mash tun: chunky and aromatic. Vanilla and ‘golden’ cask flavours and these come to direct the occasion. Plenty of guts.

Finish – Fixing, with a building spongecake maltiness and spoonfuls of mascarpone and vanilla cream. Tropical fruits again. Sugar crystals melt on the tongue. Very late spice adds superb balance: the turmeric from the nose.

Water accents the spongecake quality further although there is added complex richness. Lemon mousse, shortbread biscuit maltiness. More of the cask, as on the reduced palate, with creamy sweetness and flecks of toasted spice.

So…?      I adore the breadth of this malt, which if anything has a larger scope than the impeccable 1990 I had at the distillery. This holds the fruit and firm spiciness in balance with the rich creaminess of the oak magnificently. That being said, I had the impression when nosing and tasting it that water might unleash the promising tension of the unreduced spirit. I anticipated still softer fruits and an added richness. It didn’t quite happen. The nose came on a fraction but the Balblair body would not yield and the oak, as good a job as it has done, nudged its way into the picture more than I would have wanted. On the other hand, it is in no way the oak massacre that ensues when water is added to my 1995 Aberlour single cask. When savouring this whisky, it succeeds in exciting me, making me revel in the power of a personable malt. I see again that strking distillery and I allow the spirit to lead me into its obscure, fragrant corners.

The extreme indigenousness of this whisky means that it works in reverse to most other malts. Rather than coming across it and being duly inspired to visit Edderton, Ross-shire, this 1992 expression constitutes your reward for having made the journey. The glorious quality of this whisky, however, means that you will be certain to return.

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A Pat on the Back for BenRiach & Co.

I make no secret of the fact that independent whisky producers have my approval. Independent whisky producers who capitalise on their minimal-strings business models to do something different are the subjects of my most blissful dramy daydreams.

BenRiach: showing the Speyside old dogs some new tricks.

The people behind the purchase of this Speyside distillery in 2004 have lifted the lid on this previously shy dame: there is a lot going on just off the main road between Rothes and Elgin. In 2008, GlenDronach joined the stable and dazzling standard together with bespoke bottlings have appeared in gratifying number. The BenRiach 12yo is as clean, soft and fruity as you could wish a Speysider to be, and its peated Curiositas 10yo takes peat in utterly new directions. I adore the complexity and power of the GlenDronach 15yo, and one of their single casks from a couple of decades ago is on the shopping list for next autumn.

From Batch #4 of the single cask releases, this highly praised specimen is out of my budget.

GlenDronach might stick to its guns with bruising, darkly fruity Sherry monsters, but the BenRiach portfolio is kaleidoscopic with triple distilled spirit having been produced since 2005. They have also reinstated the floor maltings. I can only imagine how extraordinary a heavily home-peated malt will taste like in a few years.

Of 2011, however, Managing Director for the two distilleries, Billy Walker said: ”we have been very fortunate to win a couple of top awards this year which reflect the passion our people bring to the art of whisky creation. They are also testament to the huge amount of time and energy we dedicate to our wood management programme.”

The awards he alludes to include the 2011 Malt Maniac Awards, the logistics of which I learnt from Keith Wood and that these are dedicated, passionate and discerning people singling out areas of the industry for special mention there can be no doubt. In addition to two gold, four silver and three brinze medals, the GlenDronach 1972 #712, from Batch 4 of the single cask releases, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.

Praise came not only from the collective of the whisky appreciation world but one of its solo grandees. Jim Murray was especially complimentary about the company’s products. Billy Walker’s response was:

“Jim made a number of very kind comments in his new book, but the highpoint was his singling out GlenDronach as the distillery with the most consistently impressive output throughout 2011.

“He very generously concluded by saying: ‘If there was a Whisky Bible Scotch Malt Whisky Distillery of the year, GlenDronach would be it.’ That was very special.”

Between the pair of distilleries, they claimed nine awards at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge, two of which were top gongs and went to the BenRiach 12yo Sherry-matured. “For a small independent distillery like BenRiach, to win two trophies for the same single malt is astounding,” said Alistair Walker, Sales Director. “IWSC is the one every whisky producer wants to win.”

Congratluations, then, to the men and women behind these rejuvenated distilleries, whose products have always been recognised as distinctive, but are only now coming before a global audience.

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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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‘Balblair (vc)’ – Excellent

My malt whisky literature shelf normally expands by at least one volume at this time of year. One would have thought that, between Dave Broom’s peerless World Atlas of Whisky, two editions of the Malt Whisky Companion and a number of other hardbacks salvaged from second-hand bookshops, together with my subscription to Whisky Magazine and the raft of blogs I endeavour to keep up with, any more published works on the subject would be plain extravagance. When it comes to Invar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, however, the title of Dedicated Whisky Geek starts to look a little fragile without the latest edition.

As a compendium of every significant development at each of Scotland’s – and indeed most of the world’s – malt whisky distilling sites, it is unparalleled. If there has been a new washback installed, a still neck replaced, or a new bottling released, it will tell you. I flicked to page 90 and Balblair’s entry, mindful of their single-man, automated production regime introduced this summer and the imminent release of a new core range vintage. What I saw in the green sidebar, however, cheered my distillery-touring heart. ‘Status: active (vc)’.

‘At last!’ laughed John MacDonald, Balblair Distillery manager, when I described this moment to him last week. ‘How long have I been going about a visitor centre?’

The unassuming entrance to the new Brand Home.

Earlier, when he had welcomed a cohort of bloggers and drinks journalists, by that point sated by bacon rolls, to the distillery, he had been more circumspect. ‘It’s quite a significant day [for Balblair] and one that I have been looking forward to for a number of years now.’ Balblair, at last, has a dedicated facility to welcome those eager to discover this distinctive Highland malt, and it is my belief, having spent some time at the Brand Home house-warming, that Serge Valentin’s fears were groundless. He praises Balblair as ‘a wonderful little distillery’ with the semi caveat ’where no ugly visitor centre was built (please don’t!)’ in a profile piece written in 2007. It is now 2011, it is still a wonderful little distillery, and you would have no idea that a visitor centre even existed!

The 'snug', single cask and shop.

As I talked about in a post earlier in the year, the investment and the time had been promised to convert the former floor maltings into a space to accommodate, educate and entertain visitors. The finished product is discreet, smart, and entirely in keeping with the functional, unusual nature of the distillery to which it is attached. Divided into two rooms, you will find the shop, toilets, the bottle-your-own single cask and some indecently comfortable chairs immediately through the little red door, and the larger area for tastings and displays in the floor maltings proper.

Andy Hannah, Balblair brand manager, talked about Balblair’s new front room as the ultimate destination for those with ‘a genuine interest’. He said: ‘we’re not about bussing in hundreds and hundreds of people – that will never happen’. An intimate mode of making whisky has been transferred to their approach for educating people about the brand. ‘The physical experience of Balblair is really really key.’ I crowed with joy – inwardly – to hear that. A visitor centre or brand home is not about trading in marked-up tartan, baseball caps or fudge. Rather, it represents both the genesis of a brand identity which must - like the whisky - result from the equipment, personnel and location, and its apotheosis when individuals insist on making the journey to discover where and how those flavours and philosophies originated.

The bottle-your-own from 1992.

Visitors will indeed be richly rewarded. Though not yet confirmed, the tour structure is expected to follow that of Old Pulteney with a standard tour, a further package with the option to taste additional expressions and a deluxe, in-depth manager’s tour when John MacDonald can be yours for the afternoon. John’s knowledge and passion are quite extraordinary, as his weeks of late-night painting sessions leading up to the Brand Home launch testify. Having taken you round the plant, the whiskies he will put in front of you are of the highest calibre, too, and it was on that subject that we were all principally invited.

In conjunction with the Brand Home, Inver House have released the successor to the 2000 vintage. However, there is a more significant departure in the 2001 vintage bottle than the additional year on the label would perhaps suggest. In a move Andy Hannah described as ‘bold’, and in keeping with their radical decision to launch a core range of vintage expressions in 2007, the entry level Balblair joins its older brothers in being natural colour, non-chillfiltered and 46% abv. ‘We think it’s the right time,’ said Mr Hannah, ‘really re-affirming our boutique brand credentials.’ Some small but telling packaging alterations have also been made.

The trendy, atmospheric 'tasting pod'.

We bloggers and journos, sat in the glass, wood and leather luxury of the ‘tasting pod’ as I call it, were fortunate enough to evaluate an undiluted sample, and experience what John described as ‘a taste odyssey’. On the nose my first response was ‘guinea pig hutch’, developing light creaminess, pale oak, buttery toffee and heather honey. The palate exploded with barley sugar, lime and mango. As an introduction to the new spirit, the multimedia system was powered up and we absorbed the ‘sights and sounds’ of 2001 projected onto the pod’s glass panels, making for a very striking and engaging effect. As we went from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, starring a very junior-looking Daniel Radcliffe, to the election of George ‘Dubbya’ Bush, a little bit of Destiny’s Child teased our ears. This was indeed a ‘Bootylicious’ Balblair. I’m not sure about the extent to which it gave off the impression of the War on Terror, but that’s probably a good thing.

With the 2001 launch discussed and enjoyed, the Balblair representatives of John, Andy, Karen Walker, Derek Sinclair, Malcolm Leask and Lucas Dynowiak could decompress, a job well done, and savour the superb three course lunch. I must give a personal mention to Mike and the team from Good Highland Food who put a trio of delicious plates in front of us. A cold smoked trout and hot smoked salmon terrine preceeded an eye-poppingly superb fillet of Caithness beef, rounded off with a Balblair-infused chocolate torte which was very probably sinful.

It was nothing short of a joy to be back at Balblair in the first instance, but also to see the confident new direction the brand is taking both with their juice, and with their accessibility to the public. There is more than one distillery on the Dornoch Firth worth visiting, don’t you know. I urge you to make the trip – Balblair will make it worth your while.

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