Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

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

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

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

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colour – dark honey amber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Whiskies of Oz

It was ever thus: you wait ages for an Australian single malt and two come along at once. Well, not exactly at once.

I have had a review sample of Release the Beast, courtesy of Australian independent bottlers Heartwood, for a number of weeks now – I even had notes prepared. But I would not release the beast, partly because Honours level university assessment coupled with part time work at a hotel whisky bar leaves one with precious little free time, but mostly because Doug Clement of the Kingsbarns distillery project in Fife insisted he had a gem with which I might compare it. He was right, but a little more about Heartwood first.

The company began sourcing whiskies from Australian distillers in 1999, and they are very particular about their requirements for the spirit they mature, and what casks they use. Evidently this is the advantage of an independent bottler working with the raft of independent and ambitious Australian distilling movement: specifications can be negotiated and results speedily assessed in this category which explores the limits of whisky’s definitions. As the leading quote on their website reads: ‘We are not limited by tradition. Isolation often leads to innovation.’ Check them out online here.

Release the Beast is more than just an accident of assonance. Heartwood took spirit distilled at Lark in Tasmania, the product of two port casks, then married them together in an Australian sherry cask and bottled the result at 65.4%. On first tasting, I was intrigued by the taut, intense nose, but could not coexist with the aggressive flooding of the finish with Sherry and sugar flavours. Alongside another Lark, however - Doug’s Lark Single Cask #205 - its true character emerged.

The two young Aussies side-by-side.

Heartwood Release the Beast 65.4%

Colour – a rich, deep and thick red. Toffee apple.

The Heartwood label.

Nose – at first, musty and creamy with nutmeg. Then the spirit reveals itself: very young and not exactly integrated with the ‘old’-seeming oak. Coffee filter paper. Closed. Walnut, some spice and spring onion. Plump dates.

Palate – sweet and nutty at first with some candied orange rind. And then all is lost as tannic ferocity gouges the tongue.

Finish – absolutely fascinating: perfumed and scented with Olbas oil cold remedy, purple fruit skins. Rich biscuit flavours build into the foreground.

Adding Water emphasised the wood and the spirit on the nose, which surge to the fore again with so much Sherry. Maple syrup and a dash of an aroma I will come to fall in love with: a scented smokiness which may be the cask or light Tasmanian peat. Against this is a meaty flavour like smoked back bacon. That scented Olbas oil-like aroma. A log fire with cinnamon and clove.

Palate - Sherry, alcohol heat and texture. It doesn’t bloom with richness as I had expected but contracts on bitter orange, oak and some warming sweet spice.

Finish – aromatic oils return, but with more tannic dryness – almost dusty. Meatiness again.

This whisky still remains an intractable character, like the socially-awkward one who doesn’t know when to hold back and when to engage. The spirit and wood properties never quite meet in the middle, unfortunately, and the heavy tannins combined with the eyewatering strength make this nearly undrinkable neat. The warming spice and fixing sweetness of Lark is discernible here and there, but the overloading of Sherry sweetness at the close mars the experience.

Lark Single Cask #205 Bott. 2011 58%

A lovely Lark.

Doug tells me that this is a 7yo whisky distilled using peated Franklin barley from Australia (Tasmania supplies the peat for the malting process). It has been matured in a cut-down 100 litre Australian port cask, apparently, which is a lot of details to take in. None of these particulars were known to me when I tasted the whisky, for Doug’s sample came in an unmarked chemist’s bottle.

Colour – rich full gold, verging on amber.

Nose – sharp, citric, junipery. Spiciness immediately, too: coriander seed. Cooking jam: fruit (plums, strawberries, raspberriess) with a heady sugariness. Some sweet hay as it warms up with red liquorice. Lemon and honey, boiled sweets. Pastries.

Palate – initially gin-like but the honey arrives in time. Lemon and clove. Really expressive and fresh. Light malt, and it is clear that the cereal provides a lot of the spice characteristics.

Finish – clean, sharp. A little vanilla sugar. Shortbread biscuits. Lemon and lime peel linger.

Adding water pulled out a weightier spirit on the nose with leathery characteristics but also – weirdly – more acidic citrus tones. Floral. The citrus resolves into lemon sherbet and icing sugar. A sense of hot, sweet earth. Warm Granny Smiths apples. Pooling yellow fruits and spice (like a sharper Balblair 1989). Some anise in the background, taking us back to the gin comparisons of earlier. Overall, very bright and warm.

Palate – parched grass, maltier. Sharpens again, only on barley which I described as ‘brown’. Spice in abundance (coriander leaf) then lime.

Finish – considerably shortened but still with a candied citrus focus.

This is more like it. I like my whiskies bright and assertive and this Lark boasts impressive scores in both categories. It still has the ability to fix the nose and palate with crystal-clear aromas and flavours which speak so eloquently of a very well-made spirit. It lost a chunk of its va-va-voom with water, and I rated it much closer to the Beast bottling under these circumstances, but the Port casks (didn’t see that coming beside the Beast) added complexity rather than screaming of their presence.

The Heartwood was a fascinating bottling, which maybe tried a little too much too soon. The official Lark release, however, shows that Bill and family are really on to something Down Under.

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Knowing the Clearac

What does oak do for whisky? Now, I’m not about to embark upon yet another exposition of the science at the heart of the maturation process, the like of which can be found in every other magazine or blog. I’m not even going to refigure my many previous eulogies composed to exalt the profoundly powerful impressions shuffling through a dunnage warehouse elicits, or at least not entirely.

Instead, I’m going to begin with the claim that oak is PR, that it is the romantic dressings to whisky’s true inception. This thorny reality is that, for most single malts, their start in life betrays the clatter, hiss and heat of industrialism. When whisky floods through the spirit safe, what can really separate it from gin or vodka to the lay consumer? It is new make, a white dog; it is brutal and challenging. But it is honest, too.

The spirit safe: incubator of formative flavour.

Ten years later, however, with a bit of money thrown at some wood, the sales and marketing team can recoup some of their investment with packaging that declares, with all the sincerity of a sickly maitre d’, that your whisky has been matured in the ‘finest oak casks’. In the vast majority of cases, a lot of it has been thrown into whatever American oak hogshead has arrived into the filling store, or has been delivered to the central warehousing complex if new make is put into cask off-site.

Not enough, to bring this tirade to some sort of point, is said about the process at the distillery and the practiced nuances required to ensure the right character of spirit goes into the wood policy lucky dip. It seems strange to praise the maturation regime, one which few – if anyone – understands completely, whereas mashmen and stillmen have consistently precise calls to make to ensure that the whisky is up to scratch. My week at Balblair testified to this, and so too did in-depth visits to Benromach and Bruichladdich where infinitesimal adjustments to malt batch, peating levels and wash density must be made to guarantee that the appropriate flavours will sing out years down the line.

New make after a bit of ex-Bourbon blusher.

Dave Broom, in his World Atlas of Whisky, explains this accrual of marginal gains (to quote British Cycling) exceedingly well. Distillers must assume control over those parts of the whisky-making process which will yield to their influence. Though 60-70% of a single malt’s flavour will be owed to the cask, that 30-40% of direct distiller interference is keenly contested. To return to the dog metaphor, it is like training a two-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier that will ultimately have to adjust to a new owner. The example set at the beginning will prove critical. For Broom, our readily available single malts cannot be comprehended without that most limited and secretive of substances: new make. In the nature or nurture debate, a spirit’s encounters with oak incorporates and rejects both sides to varying degrees in order to assume its eventual character.

Recently, the Whisky Roundtable discussed new make, and so too did Joel and Neil in an excellent article for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Unfiltered magazine. More distillers are marketing single malts in their infancy to the delight of mixologists and whisky geeks. I still think, however, that more distilleries should provide a measure as part of their end-of-tour tastings. How better to bridge the gap between the smells of the distillery and the mature product on the shelves? New make can babble brilliantly, echoing the grist, the wort, the CO2 at the washbacks and those complex, heavy and heady aromas of esters and congeners coming into being at the spirit safe. Glencadam did, and that remains my favourite new make: puckeringly sweet and clinging, some of the soft yellow and green tropical fruits from the stainless steel washbacks could be detected.

Last week, however, I tried Auchentoshan’s new make spirit. Triple distilled, this was joyously intense with strawberry jam and pear on the nose, yellow citrus on the palate. Water pulled out plum yoghurt and sticky pot ale, a combination which recalled the delicate balance of waste and gain at the heart of distilling. In the mouth, I found cider apple and coconut. It was a fabulous insight into the selection process that three stills necessitates and how a delicate but full-throated flavour can be teased into existence and magnified.

When surveying the classifications of single malt species, knowing the new make makes a big difference. You always begin with a highly individual and complex animal which, whether dressed in Pedro Ximenez or Carribean rum or Sauternes, can never completely change its spots. To not hide those spots is another challenge for the distiller altogether.

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Are the Glorious Dead?

John Hansell, editor of American whisky magazine Malt Advocate, prolific blogger via the What Does John Know? interface and whisky connoisseur for longer than my own personal tenure on this earth, asked this week what has happened to the truly great whiskies. Evidentally this was something John didn’t know and he solicited the opinions of his readers.

This question, and the responses to it, make for fascinating contemplation. That it is on one level merely a reincarnation of the “What whiskies are ‘the best’ and who is allowed to say so?” debate, one that really makes my blood boil, is not even important. Whether it is sycophancy or long memories and deep pockets, others have noticed the same thing: new whiskies just aren’t floating their boats.

For a number of reasons, chiefly financial means and age, I am not in a position to be able to lament the passing of Springbanks and Balvenies from the 1960s. Having never drifted into the orbits of these meteors, their craters have not appeared on the relatively virgin surface of my whisky experience, denying me their context and reference. So I should probably just shut up, then, and go away: I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Except I left my own comment underneath John’s polemic suggesting another side to the story, as did other new whisky converts. We have been drawn into the same discursive and appreciative environment, inhabitted by these old malt stagers where we seem to embody similar passion and dedication, not by those Springbanks and Balvenies but by these newer, slighted, whiskies. As John himself confessed: “If you’re relatively new to whisky drinking and all you’ve tasted are “80s” whiskies, then that’s the perspective you have on whisky in general. Maybe you think they’re all great? I suspect that I was like that when I first started out.” Of course you were, John. We all must start somewhere. Mr Hansell’s impressively long list of encounters with the astounding, the mediocre, and the downright hideous, accumulated over the thirty years since his first dram, has created a playing field of such breadth that any bottling, released in 2010 or any other year, is increasingly unlikely to be capable of expanding its touchlines.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean whisky is sliding into mediocrity. He has simply been fortunate enough to sample malt that has been as good as it is possible for a whisky to be. To his tastes. He came by whisky that had realised its full potential. So profoundly can such an encounter with what our past experience would suggest is perfection act on us, abide with us and hold our hearts, imaginations and memories hostage, that of course any whisky that fails to reproduce the amazement, euphoria and desire of that unprecedented malt moment is destined to disappoint; it might not be a bad whisky at all, but because it isn’t as awesome we grow despondent. Had we tasted the latter dram prior to the former, it might have occupied that berth of Exalted Benchmark. We must remember that how we appreciate and favour whisky is deeply personal and unpredictable. It seems to me that these battle-scarred old whisky aficionados are hankering after their adolescent first loves. They miss the rawness, purity and breathless hedonsitic excitement of the new discovery. Well sorry, guys, but we all evolve and move on. It’s obligatory. To don our rose-tinted spectacles and reminisce from time to time is not wrong, its human nature. John will say that he still has his 1974 Longrow and 1966 Balvenie kicking around to decimate the field of challengers. But eight years separate those two malts. I would say it is a little premature to condemn the whisky industry after only twelve months with nothing to match these individual drams, no doubt paragons of their generations and regional styles. ‘Lagavulin 1967′ is right, we must “re-tune our expectations”.

I also believe that whisky is like anything else in the scope of human achievement: there will come a point when we cannot run the 100 metres any faster; cannot express love any more powerfully; cannot travel any farther in space. There will come a time when we reach the ceiling of how good barley, yeast, water and oak married together can taste, and we can bump our heads against it as much as we like, the limits of excellence have been set by the capacities of nature.

I think this explains our ambivalence towards all this recent distiller tinkering. We know that greatness can be charmingly simple and isn’t predetermined by ppm and an exotic finishing wood. In my mind, this is the industry attempting to recreate the singularity and diversity which characterised the dram from the past, before each facet of the production process was analysed, modified and controlled to death. Prior to the 1980s, the quality, yield and character of batches of malt, made on-site, varied; conditions in the wooden washbacks varied; stillmen’s judgements as to when to take the middle cut varied; casks varied. You could be unlucky and the resulting whisky could be loathesome. Or each little inconsistency could conspire and add up to something extraordinary.

However, this “winging it” approach to quality control is not how you maintain market share. Whisky’s apotheosis over the last two decades is astonishing. It is no longer just the fanatical connoisseur who buys malt, it is now a product bankrolled by the masses. Whether it is a lifestyle purchase or an interest in trying something different, the requirement is still that it tastes good.

Encouraged by the popularity of their distilleries’ single malts, to make the maximum returns Head Office increases the proportion of annual production bottled as single malt to quench the thirst. We have seen almost a complete reversal of policy in this regard. Whereas once 95% plus of production would go to blenders, there are now some distilleries not a drop of whose spirit can be found in a blend. Previously it would be easy to hold back five from every hundred casks which were really exceptional and bottle them for the cognoscenti who knew about single malts. Times change, and now everyone knows about malt whisky. Suddenly fifty casks from every hundred must end up in a bottle with only the distillery’s name on the label, and the greatness of a limited number of individual casks must be sacrificed to pep up the majority of plainer spirit. Despite all this “wood management” business, the reality is that some casks yield better whisky than others. You don’t have to be an economist to see that the master blender is obliged by his bosses to throw the majority into a vatting for the next ten- or twelve-year-old, then bottle the tiny fraction of what is left in a fancy wooden box with a smart label, a natty little scroll and a price tag of £400. Whisky is a business now. If we don’t like the sea of pleasant but unexciting drams in our local supermarket and that truly artisanal and antiquated nectar comes at a premium, we only have ourselves to blame.

Whisky, like the British monarchy, has been re-modelled for the 21st Century. For mainstream survival, both have had to appear more moderate, more civilised, more uniform and more approachable. That doesn’t mean that Lizzie, with her stamps and corgis, doesn’t have the bombastic blood of her forebears running in her veins. It is quite simply that the Alfred the Greats and Henry VIIIs are difficult to market these days. Constructing empires and reforming churches is all very well, but beheading a lot of women and being quite insane is not a reputation quickly brushed off. Single malt is no longer single-minded and must appeal to a broader range of palates. Those iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove whiskies are not gone forever, just the world in which they first came to prominence has. The good news is that there is every likelihood the consumers will, like each and every one of us at some stage, start to demand complexity and greatness, and by then the distillers should have the stocks to satisfy them.

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