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Glenrothes Vintage Reserve and Craigellachie 13YO

As I mentioned yesterday, my reviewing days on the Scotch Odyssey Blog are, for the time being, numbered. As a whisky brand ambassador, you’re only really supposed to talk up your own brands but, after some very supportive agencies and distillers sent me some liquid last year, I felt I’d take the opportunity to record a few independent views on some new releases.

Glenrothes Vintage Reserve 40% £TBA

This whisky contains malts from three decades, the oldest vintage being 1989. The majority of the product was distilled in 1998. It will be released in Taiwan first before going global this year.

Colour – brown gold.

Nose – at first I get rich, sourish fruits and bold pistachio biscuit. Underneath is a sturdy phenolic quality. Nose fully in the glass now, seashells and a warm sandiness show themselves but soon clear to the draffy maltiness typical of Glenrothes and egg custard with plenty of nutmeg. A little sharp citric note then glace cherries – a bakewell tart in general. With a bit of time pure lemon steps out along with juicy yellow fruit and pistachio/praline again.

Palate – weighty with lots of fudge, malt and a vaguely sulphury backbone – but it works. A tartness but abundantly sweet.

Finish – milk chocolate and golden delicious apples. Medium-bodied.

Adding water turned the nose even lighter, revealing icing sugar, lemon rind and a tickle of peppery spice. The palate became very smooth indeed with papaya, a slight saltiness and a rich clotted cream texture. I found the finish to be lighter but still palate-coating. Not terribly exciting, however.
Craigellachie 13YO 46% GBP 41.95

Natural colour and non chill-filtered, I believe.

Colour – bright gold.

Nose – chopped salad leaves on first nosing: green and sweet. There follows thick butter, vanilla wafer and a phenolic maltiness. Incredibly muscular and focused at first: bruising malt and mulchy green fruit packed in to a keg of golden oak. Kiwi, pear, a touch of salty metallic tequila. With time, pure confectionary green apple. Biscuit and a very subtle peat. A whole load of textures.

Palate – full and tongue-coating. Dry rich biscuit, a draffy note, lemon pith. Then spice and a hoppy bitterness develops. Reminds me of Innes and Gunn Blonde!

Finish – shortcrust pastry, green plum. Sweet but with a heavy tartness. A coppery flavour/texture appears.

With water, the nose became cleaner with a Granny Smith apple note. Cooked pastry, rather mead-like with that phenolic weight going nowhere. The palate was rounder with egg custard and the green apple from the nose. A touch of herbalness then, as you swallow, in comes a huge old log you might find in the woods in winter: leafy, fungal. A bit of cheese rind. Incredible! It finishes in similarly idiosyncratic fashion: gala melon, apple, dry autumn leaves and an earthiness.

So…?      I mislaid the press release for the Glenrothes, meaning I could taste it completely blind. I only discovered the multi-vintage genesis in a Drinks Report article today. Its price point in Taiwan is GBP 25 which is very good indeed. It’s a very impressive little performer with pleasing depths. Steer clear of water and you have a very drinkable malt indeed.

I always tell myself that I should favour malts like Craigellachie: worm tubs, a once-hidden blender’s favourite – an interesting single malt, in short. This 13YO opened a very exciting new chapter in the John Dewar & Sons malt portfolio and there may well prove some truth in the tagline for the series of whiskies to be released as ‘The Last Great Malts’. Aberfeldy may have been fairly easily-obtainable, but Aultmore, Royal Brackla and Macduff will be revelations when they fully emerge. And will all carry age statements which these days is chicly retro.

There is a 17YO, a 19YO in duty free, and a 23YO to complete the Craigellachie range and they promise a great deal. The leafy, phenolic weight found here in the 13YO should build oak into itself, growing in power and majesty. I doubt I’ll get to try the others any time soon. To be honest, as interesting as I found this dram, it wasn’t entirely for me. The palate was the fascinating star, and without a doubt it has character, but rather Jekyll and Hyde for me.

Many thanks indeed to Quercus for both samples.

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Scotch Odyssey 2: A Daft Prologue

The gorgeous Daftmill distillery.

Having said I wouldn’t be updating ‘live’, here I am. In truth, I cannot wait another two weeks to give an in-depth account of my time at Daftmill distillery (and I have access to a computer, photo-editing software and a strong cup of tea, so why the hell not?).

If my Scotch Odyssey was the Tour de France, today would be the Prologue, that weird mini time trial right at the start to shuffle the riders into some semblance of hierarchy and provide a stable location for a bit of a party. I left St Andrews at 8.40; I returned at 12.30. I went as far as Daftmill Farm, just beyond Cupar, to meet Quaich Society patron and vanguard farm distiller Francis Cuthbert.

Since its establishment in 2004, Daftmill distillery has kept a low profile. So low in fact, that I had some difficulty in finding it. After darkening the doorstep of someone’s house, I pedalled back to the main road to find another turn off and sailed right on past the correct one. Eventually, I tracked down the discreet pagoda and donned civilian gear.

The mash tun.

Francis adjusted the mash tun while I took photos, then the tour commenced. He has been rather busy this month showing ‘maltheads’ around, usually as they journey to Speyside or Islay. Germans and Swedes are especially keen to have a look round, with whisky-making happening in between times. Below the mash house are ten wheelie bins, filled with grist made from Daftmill’s own concerto barley. Having long grown barley for other distillers, Allied in the old days and Macallan currently, the journey to distilling his own spirit began after much discussion and interrogation. For the Cuthbert family, it was not a decision rushed into. They ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ about installing a mill but chose to forego the expense and have their grist brought in. 100 tonnes (the smallest batch Crisp Maltings in Alloa will service) is sent away and comes back ready to be distilled.

While I was there the first mash of the current season was in progress. Francis likes to recirculate the worts to ensure clarity – as I was reminded over the course of the visit, Daftmill wants to produce a fruity, clean spirit and that all starts in the mash tun. Distillers yeast is then added, and fermentation takes between 72 and 100 hours. If the wort is crystal clear, fermentation goes off like a rocket and the switcher blades are forced to work overtime to control the rising froth, not always successfully. Francis told me that much of the alcohol has already been created after 48 to 50 hours, but longer ferments promote lactic acid build up as dead yeast cells are consumed, again generating those fruity flavours. Ideally, the wash should taste faintly sour or bitter as it is pumped across to the still house: distillation will recover that sweetness.

The Daftmill stills.

Why these stills, Francis? ‘We just picked a shape we liked,’ he replies with a shrug. Francis prefers to determine house style through his manipulation of the stills, rather than trust the shape to influence matters. Daftmill’s short, and very pretty stills are run slowly to maximise copper contact, and after each wash and spirit charge the man-doors are opened to allow the copper to rejuvenate. At every point, he is zoning in on the desired spirit character.

Half of a wash back’s contents goes into the wash still, producing 800-900 litres of low wines at 22-23% ABV. Into the spirit still, then, for a stately distillation. The aim is to capture some lovely succulent oils, but a seven-minute foreshot run clears out the fat and grease from previous feints which is, obviously, not wanted. The spirit cut is tiny, and impressively high: from 78% down to 73% ABV. I can only think of The Macallan and Glen Garioch that have a narrower middle cut. Water is added and the spirit is reduced to 63.5% (‘with the paddle’ – a lumped of wood rest on top of the spirit receiver) before being pumped across to the warehouse which is the final side of the courtyard.

Inside the warehouse.

When I arrived I imagined I smelt fermenting going on. Francis suggested it could the Quaker Oats factory nearby but I think it could be all the fresh Bourbon casks maturing behind the rich green doors. Inside, I was met with that dunnage warehouse aroma that I know and love so dearly: two floors hold Daftmill’s hundred or so casks (there is another warehouse elsewhere on the farm). All of the production from the past ten years stood in front of me and after fielding a farming-related phone call, Francis grabbed a valinch and set to work.

The vast majority of casks are from Heaven Hill in Kentucky: all first-fill ex-Bourbon. In recent years, due to oak demand, some have had to be sourced from Makers Mark and Jim Beam. Francis pulled out a shining measure of liquid from a 2006 barrel before pirouetting and breaking open a Sherry butt from the same year.

The two cask samples.

I nosed the ex-Bourbon sample and was met by a gust of lightly-bruised spearmint, Werther’s Originals, the creamiest, juiciest vanilla I’ve ever come across and sparkly, fudgey malt. The malt character reminded me of some Larks I’ve tasted: a combination of light, smooth and sweet malt and powdery shards of crystallised green fruit. It also bore some similarity to a single cask Kilchoman Peter Wills brought to the Quaich Society recently: clean, fresh and attractive. ‘You’re in good company,’ Francis said. ‘Charlie Maclean reckoned he could smell mint, too’. The palate presented a different face to Daftmill; still clean and fruity, with the spirit resisting the oak, before rich cereal notes entered together with butter on burnt crumpets. A real mouthfilling whisky, this one. Time in the glass revealed fat corn from the oak, lemon posset and banana chips.

The Sherry cask had contained Oloroso and the colour, as you can see, is spectacular. The nose was as clean and pure as the ex-Bourbon example, but with glace cherry and candied red apple before sultana flapjack and jellied grapefruit appeared. I professed astonishment that the spirit had not been bullied by the first-fill Sherry. Again, the thickness that registered on the palate was impressive: toasty oak with jelly beans and an oily weight. There were some aromatic notes arising from the tannins, like tarragon and bike chain oil (or that could have been me).

Francis hopes to release single casks initially (precisely when, he declined to comment) before bringing a few casks together and bottling at 46%, a la Kilchoman. He confessed that the young Islay distillery’s policy of finishing a vatting in Sherry casks appeals to him but did not say that this would be Daftmill’s approach. Over the whole visit, however, Francis emphasised that while he is still trying to perfect his distillation regime, nothing is unequivocally off-limits. Peated Daftmill may be trialled in future, other casks may be brought in, but for now he is waiting to see how the world will respond to his take on the Lowland single malt style. I’d wager it will be a hit.

I pedalled off in the light rain forecast, my left knee resuming its complaint from the ride in. This is worryingly similar to the pain I suffered from in the run up to the last Odyssey four years ago. That went away with some dedicated rest. Hopefully whatever is wrong can continue healing tonight. The odd thing is that the pain goes away after a few miles so hopefully it is just a temperature problem and a question of getting warmed up. I’d rather not be popping Paracetamol for the next two weeks.

This will be my final blog post for a while, but a lot of the action will hopefully be related on Twitter (@WhiskyOdyssey).

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Kilchoman at the Quaich Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The anCnoc Peaty Collection

An old saying goes: ‘the other man’s grass is always greener’. You glance furtively across at your neighbour and infer from some marginally neater borders and the way their bird bath stands so proudly on the lawn that they are generally better at life and comporting themselves. This is just as common a phenomenon within the Scotch whisky industry when it comes to peat.

Unlike their forebears, distillers these days are not subject to the limitations of their geographical location regarding the type of whisky they can produce. Heavy peat can come to BenRiach if Billy Walker chooses, just as Caol Ila can go peat-free should the need arise. Of course, a bit of peat reek in your whisky is terribly fashionable at the moment, so many mainland distilleries have been staring across to Islay where their grass is greyer and smokier.

The latest to introduce a bit of peat into the equation is the normally fruity and frisky anCnoc. Since 2004 they have devoted a couple of months each year to creating a smokier spirit and the matured results of these were released last month. The Peaty Collection comprises three single malts, christened Rutter, Flaughter and Tushkar, distinguished not by age but by PPM (parts per million of phenols, the scale for measuring how ashy your whisky is likely to be). However, unlike some other brands, where piling on the peat has been the one and only prerogative at the expense of distillery character (Tomintoul Peaty Tang comes regretfully to mind), there is real balance here across the range between those lush waxy green fruits and a farmy smokiness. This is even more remarkable when you consider that this new range is comprised only of peated stocks laid down between 2004 and 2006 – no older, unpeated anCnoc has been added to balance or flesh out the flavours.

anCnoc Rutter (11ppm) 46% £52

Colour – clean lemony gold.
Nose – pleasant thick peat at first recalling turned earth and wood-burning stoves. Next come banana skins and bran flakes with hugely clean, fresh and fruity spirit underneath. Banana chew sweets and just-caught shortcrust pastry. Creamier with time.
Palate – turfy peat, well smoked and rich. Then in comes apple bubblegum, toasted sourdough and grapefruit. Sweet and round.
Finish – impressions of the kiln: brown and damp smoke. Fruity spirit in good balance with the smoke: apple and gooseberry.

anCnoc Flaughter (14.8ppm) 46% £52

Colour – straw gold.
Nose – more minerally peat with a harder edge: wet slate and smoky feints. Key lime pie and brick dust. Focused and expressive. Razor clam shells on a sunlight beach, honeysuckle, apple and redcurrant jelly. More farmy peat with time.
Palate – mouthfilling but gentle at first: puckering cherry and pastry with a rich warming smoke all round the back. Slowly dries.
Finish – drying gradually but there is a magnificent triumvirate of cherry bark, vanilla oak and sweet chilli-flecked peat that builds. A touch of creaminess and smoked fish.

anCnoc Tushkar (15ppm) 46% 449SEK (Swedish exclusive)

Colour – greeny gold.
Nose – very creamy with juicy mango, peach in syrup and apricot flesh. Wellington boots by the Aga and Italian herbs thrown on the barbecue are the only hints of smokiness at first. The spirit is immense: so driven by green apple and with great texture. Baked pineapple, jelly babies and nettle patch, leading into smoked paprika and Pear Drops. Easily my favourite whisky of the three to nose.
Palate – Cullen Skink panacotta - if smoked haddock were sweet and creamy. Smoke and pear, smoke and passion fruit. Just surreal. Finishes on vanilla and coconut.
Finish – lots of juicy, generous oak but a heathery smoke is building. Treacle sponge and blackcurrant. White chocolate.

So…?      I must say I wasn’t sure how this trio was going to fare. A lot of publicity has gone into the launch, both at a special event in Glasgow which featured much in the way of peaty razzamattaz and on blogs and Twitter. Could the whiskies stand up? Oh yes, they could. I first tasted them a couple of weeks ago for the #LightonDark Tweet tasting and I was very impressed by how the smoke progressively built but the core spirit remained devastatingly fruity and attractive. Then, the Rutter was my favourite, along with the creamy, unctuous bizarreness of the Tushkar. Today, however, I would put the Flaughter above it with its brooding smoke but expressive oily citrus zest. The balance between the anCnoc I know and love and this new, non-seaweedy/iodine-y smoke was deliciously well-preserved.

The price is high but just about acceptable. You could argue – and some have – that another NAS whisky range above the £50-per bottle mark is being cheeky. However, anCnoc stress that the bulk of the whiskies used are between 8 and 10 years old. That ppm rating is for the liquid in the bottle, too, not that of the malt used at the commencement of production. Most important as far as I’m concerned, though, is that these new products have not simply been thrown out of the warehouse door – they have been thought about and deliberately engineered. The ambition was to provide peat aficionados with something different, and help those maybe scared by smoke to enter that particular intense flavour camp. I think the Peaty Collection will achieve both handsomely.

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Old Pulteney 1990 Peated Casks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colour – full honey gold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks go to Lukasz Dynowiak for the sample.

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The St Andrews Brewing Co. Pub

The new craft brewing pub in St Andrews.

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

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

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

The main bar at the St Andrews Brewing Co.

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

The whisky cupboard.

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

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The Glenlivet at the Quaich Society

The Glenlivet is one of those whiskies people imagine they know all about. You can come by it in supermarkets the length and breadth of the land and seemingly every bar across the globe. But ubiquity is not the whole story – not by a long way. Indeed, near world domination is merely the result of a number of interesting causes, as Ian Logan dropped by to tell us.

As an International Brand Ambassador for the world’s second best-selling single malt, it was no surprise that Ian’s PowerPoint presentation contained snapshots from Playboy Bunnies in New York to tales from the top of Taipei 101. However, despite all the globetrotting he still spends three-quarters of his working life on Speyside and he couldn’t be happier about it. Before embarking on a series of long-haul flights in support of Chapter, a new expression for The Glenlivet and one that will see consumer interaction on unprecedented levels for the brand, Ian stopped off in St Andrews to share six whiskies with us, and a story or two.

Most whisky histories devote a chapter to Glenlivet, a rugged and - in the late 1700s - lawless landscape where farmers and smugglers were the distillers of their day. The modern Glenlivet still pays tribute to these spirited ‘entrepreneurs’ who evaded the excisemen and, in the shape of George Smith, pioneered a style of single malt that King George IV himself would request by name. The early history of the distillery clearly captivates Ian, as the moment when he described holding Smith’s pistols – a gift from the Laird of Aberlour to defend himself against his former smuggling colleagues – attested.

As we sipped the 12yo, Ian focused on the business nouse and bloodymindedness of succeeding Smiths to cement their distillery in the area and sell their product. The 15yo French Oak took us into more modern territory and how the distillery operates today. 20% of the stocks that will become this whisky is taken out of ex-Bourbon barrels and into Limousin oak casks for two years, before being married together again prior to bottling.

Throughout, Ian’s technical knowledge as well as deference to the illustrious line of men who have managed the distillery, made an impact. Today’s Master Distiller is Alan Winchester, a true industry veteran. The age of the personnel was one thing, but the age of the whiskies was another as the 18yo, 21yo and XXV 25yo hove into view. When whisky suffered a slump in the 1980s, other companies cut back on production. With what must go down as remarkable foresight given the nature of the whisky market today, those responsible for The Glenlivet, Aberlour et al insisted they continued to produce at near capacity. The result is impressive stocks of well-aged whiskies.

Ian’s favourite is the 18yo and I struggle to find a more sensuous, subtle and charming whisky for the same price. It was the whisky, nearly six years to the day of the St Andrews tasting, that had convinced me there was more to this single malt lark. The 21yo, in contrast, came across as a bit too oak-heavy for me on the night. The final dram was the XXV, or a Christmas cake smoothie in Ian’s words. As the only dram of the evening I had not encountered before, this was the only one to have tasting notes recorded for it.

The nose was dense and thick, with red and mixed tropical fruits and dark chocolate. Rich red apple and walnut gave way to turf roofs and an almost phenolic quality. With time a rich soft smokiness did emerge with a tarry pinewood undertone. The palate was rich and oaky but with enough clean spice and fragrance to evoke the Speyside Way in late summer. Blanched almond and gorgeously plump and soft malt came next with a tint of balancing bitter chocolate edge.

Over the course of the evening, Ian underlined The Glenlivet’s consistency, the ability to make a spirit as perfectly as possible day after day. The Glenlivet produces 10.5 million litres of this clean, fruity spirit each year to satisfy global demand. To contrast this he told us about his Sma’ Still which he wheels out for special events at the distillery. In true illicit distiller-style, this is dinky enough to be carried away under one arm. There are three casks maturing in warehouses up at Minmore from tiny distillation runs and it is still RAF whisky: that’s ‘rough as…’ to you and me.

Full of anecdotes and whisky lore, I’m confident the 50 folk who turned up will have gone away with a deeper understanding – not to mention appreciation – of The Glenlivet. Our thanks to Ian Logan for finding time to talk to us.

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Tomatin at the Quaich Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new Cu Bocan.

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

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

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The Glenrothes 2001

‘That’s your local whisky, right?’ During my time at the Road Hole Bar at the Old Course Hotel here in St Andrews, many guests would make this error when I plucked down from the groaning shelves a Glenrothes by way of recommendation. Although there is a Glenrothes 20 miles away from the Old Grey Toon, it cannot lay claim to a 1988 Vintage or a Select Reserve.

Hailing instead from Morayshire in the Speyside whisky region, the Glenrothes distillery pumps out a lot of spirit. Yet despite a prodigious output I had only ever come across an 8yo, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail, prior to their latest vintage landing on my doorstep. The 2001 typifies the unusual channels by which The Glenrothes, as a single malt, enters the market under a proprietary label. Although the Edrington Group, owners of The Macallan and Highland Park, assume responsibility for the distillery’s production (much will go into the company’s blended Scotches, such as Famous Grouse), the branding and distribution fall to London wine and spirit merchants, Berry Bros. & Rudd.

A highly-respected independent bottler in their own right, Berry Bros. have won much acclaim for their approach with The Glenrothes in recent years. Indeed, they have masterminded an encroachment into the duty free market with the Manse Brae collection. These three whiskies do not carry an age statement but showcase the rich, oily but fruity Glenrothes spirit at varying levels – or moods – of maturity.

What of the 2001, though?

The Glenrothes 2001 43% £45

Colour – full gold.

Nose – seriously powerful: the oak is like being hit with a length of 2×4 and the barley has such oily intensity. Shortcrust pastry on top of which is fresh but quite rich and nutty barley as well as a sour apple note in the top ranges, but everything settles into heather honey and lavender. Oak chips introduce spice, especially star anise and sandalwood. Ginger and red fruits come later. Firm and vibrant.

Palate – the malt darkens but layers of spice begin to trickle down. The oak steps in with a mouthcoating grip, then a flash of lemon.

Finish – a complex array of Indian spices melting together. Turmeric. A suggestion of apple cores and natural caramel.

Water accentuated extra fruitiness across nose and palate, with a custard tart note on the nose as well as honeycomb and almond. There was an added fudgey quality to taste before melon and pear freshened the finish.

So…?      I don’t share the opinion of some writers that this is a fresh, delicate whisky. Despite the ex-Bourbon heritage this, for me, is definitely a malt to chew over perhaps after a walk in the woods. I am not complaining, however, and I found it a delight to spend some time with a malt that truly knows what it is about. The Glenrothes 2001 pursues its aims unswervingly and stays true to its character; there are limitations but within those self-imposed parameters you are looking at a very engaging whisky.

 

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Ardbog After a Hard Slog

Many people ask for ‘no fuss’ on their birthdays, but you aren’t supposed to believe them. Perhaps British reticence and conditioned modesty compel this caveat, but everyone secretly wants others to take notice of their special day.

Ardbeg operates more from the US ‘Super Sweet 16′ model for throwing an annual look-at-me jamboree, however, swapping the hideous convertible sports cars of the MTV shows for a tractor, and supplanting the yappy youths with bearded Germans and barrel-chested Swedes. No other Scotch whisky can muster quite such a hullabaloo.

June 1 dawned with the reek of peat thick in the air. Around the globe, Ardbeg disciples uncorked their Corryvreckans and guzzled their Uigeadails in sacramental whisky worship of their favourite distillery, while in London inflatable sheep were driven about the streets, culminating in one almighty party. Meanwhile, Ardbeg distillery closed the Feis Ile festival of malt and music with much frivolity and fun. I, however, was working.

Nevertheless, Ardbeg wanted me to feel part of the occasion, and sent a sample of the new Committee release my way. Ardbog was also available for the general public to try at the numerous international Ardbeg Embassies on Ardbog Day itself. Bottled without an age statement, all we have to go on is that this whisky is roughly 10-years-old, with dual maturation in American oak and ex-Manzanilla casks. It is also cask strength. Is it a fit toast for this cult distillery?

Ardbeg Ardbog.

Ardbeg Ardbog 52.1% £79.99

Colour – rich caramel gold.

Nose – at first, a tickle of ashy peat with freshly sliced apricots and a fat maltiness drizzled with honey and syrup. With nose really wedged in the glass I find a classic Ardbeg arrangement: a rich cummerbund of peat, echoes of the kiln and dark, medium-sweet malt. Treated fenceposts, worn leather and spice gradually, with Manchego rind (a hard Spanish sheeps’ milk cheese) and pink peppercorn-laden white chocolate later. With more time, I get wholemeal bread from a wood oven.

Palate – thick with a boiling blackcurrent depth to the peat. The peat element dries and darkens before lemon and honey fill the palate. Just at the end is a rock salt and rosemary savouriness.

Finish – the star of the procedings: rich dark chocolate torte, with a sulphorous match note coming next for complexity. Bonfire night. For a while, flavour defers to impressions and sensations, although at the end there is bold, smouldering wood ash and shards of honeycomb malt. Complex and evocative, as the best Ardbegs are.

Adding water weakened the experience, where it had engineered lift-off with the Galileo. The nose was sharper with the malt and oak stabbing up through the peat. I found a central aroma of gooey sweetness, like the fruity-caramel combo of a tarte tatin. Over the peat was an invigorating menthol presence with hints of almond flour and cherry stones. Overall, it didn’t express itself quite as well. On the palate, there was greater smoothness and more fruit, with the peat and a vanilla note closely aligned. A puff of smoke dried everything before chantilly cream trickled back in. Wholemeal returned on the finish with salty vegetal notes, like sea cliff top verdure. Hay introduces a wispy smoke and the rich honeycomb returned together with the sulphur. However, it failed to hit the allusive heights.

So…?      I must confess that, first time through, this was a crushing disappointment. Tasted alongside Kilchoman’s Loch Gorm this appeared lazy, incoherent and uninspiring while the younger whisky boasted dynamism, energy and originality. Indeed, I found this distinctly un-Ardbeg-like, the finish excepted. The Manzanilla had adulterated the overall character, rather than enhanced it.

On a second tasting, I found more to like, and – praise be – more that was unmistakeably Ardbeg. I do worry that it has set its sights on earthlier pursuits, while Galileo sought for the stars, but this is certainly above average liquid. I remain conflicted about the sample, but my anxiety to taste the next Committee release when it comes along will remain undimmed. More Marsala wood, Bill, that’s all I’ll say.

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