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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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Glenmorangie Taghta and Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve

Happy new year, everyone! Welcome back to the Scotch Odyssey Blog although I should warn you, activities will be dialled back down to zero following the next couple of posts.

My circumstances have changed quite dramatically in recent months, changes I only hinted at while recounting my second Scotch Odyssey. I now have a job within the whisky industry, working as brand ambassador for some of my favourite whiskies in a very new location for me: Dubai. The Scotch Odyssey has gone international!

This does create a slight conflict of interest of course when it comes to running an independent whisky blog, one that has been quite critical of the industry and some of what it has gotten up to in recent years. I will not change a word of what I have already written on the blog - I want my reviews and above all my accounts of visits around Scotland to remain available to whoever may wish to begin their own journey to the farthest-flung frontiers of Scotch. However, I won’t be writing any more tasting notes – after this week that is!

I flew back to the UK for Christmas to discover that the tenant who succeeded me in my St Andrews flat had quite a lot of whisky mail piled up by the door. As a thank you to Quercus PR and the team at Cutty Sark, who have both been very generous and communicative with me over the years, I will review the samples they sent. I am putting my connection with a major wine and spirits multinational and my own beloved brands to one side for the next three posts – these are my own words as a whisky fan.

Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve 40% GBP 54.95

The first Glenrothes to be released by brand owners Berry Brothers and Rudd that has been entirely matured in first-fill Sherry.

Colour – Light amber.

Nose – punchy purple fruits at first with plum and date. Then follows the classic dense, rich, faintly draffy maltiness which is the signature for this distillery. Seriously rich and dry Sherry on show with dried cranberries, cherry and raisin together with a musky incence-like note. A touch of new rubber.

Palate – full and dense. A little bit beefy. Spicy with cayenne and coconut. Now prune and red apple emerge with a phenolic underpinning.

Finish – more on dried fruits and vanilla, candied peel and orange oil. Quite fruity malt.

With water everything brightened up a touch, the nose becoming more youthful (muscovado maltiness and citrus). The Sherry reminded me of fruitcake. On the palate, vanilla and almond stepped out and then the fruits. Still with a meaty weight, fruit skins and marzipan rounded everything off. The finish was much the same as the straight sample, perhaps with a touch of clove.

Glenmorangie The Taghta 12,000 bottles for Cask Masters 46% GBP 69.99

A ‘crowd-sourced’ whisky, over the last 18 months Glenmorangie fans have assumed responsibility for this dram. From voting for the liquid (I remember there were three options), to choosing the name, packaging and product launch venue, this has been a very democratic whisky indeed. This whisky has been finished in ex-Manzanilla Sherry casks.

Colour - syrupy full gold.

Nose - wonderfully generous oak notes immediately – natural caramel from Bourbon and a sweet yet drying nuttiness from the Manzanilla. Cadbury Fruit n’ Nut bar as well as chopped dried apricots. Suggestions of the pure pear-rich distillery character behind. Now honey and warm gorse bushes together with almond and buttery spiced pecan.

Palate - nutty and oaky, a clean minerally malt behind. A lovely firm fruitiness follows, perfectly in balance. Orange peel and fudgy malt.

Finish - dry but also richly sweet. Quite chewy oak at the end with golden raisin. Just enough zip in the fruit to emerge from the velvety malt.

Adding water took an already extravagantly good aroma to still greater heights: rich toffee, floral notes, cool nutty grape, heather and silky malt. A soft orange blossom fragrance and then more lifted citrus. A palate of apricot, vanilla and a gentle dry spice from the Sherry. The finish was very well-judged with milk chocolate and sea salt, a touch of sweet orange and vanilla pod. The fruit from the Sherry is plump and delicious. Smooth honey and a hint of cigar conclude.

So…?      I will review the Glenrothes Vintage Reserve very soon, but both it and the Sherry Cask Reserve represent another move to no-age statement releases from BBR, having been innovators in their vintage expressions. The Sherry Cask Reserve is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable malt, both clearly a Glenrothes and clearly from Sherry. Water on both samplings improved it a touch, but for the money there are more exciting Sherry-matured whiskies out there. A Glenfarclas 15yo, for example.

I was quite prepared to pour scorn on the Glenmorangie. On this blog I’ve been less than delighted with Artein and more recently Companta. It is a tribute to this whisky that it got me excited about Glenmorangie again. This is a stupendously good dram, the clarity and quality of the Manzanilla and Bourbon casks that have gone into making this beggars belief. On my first tasting I wasn’t sure I tasted Glenmorangie at all, but such was the excellence of the spirit Dr. Lumsden has created I didn’t care. Second time through, I did detect a few more clues confirming that this malt was made in Tain, and fell even more in love with the nose. I’ve read a few disparaging comments about this whisky that it is ‘simple’ or for ‘beginners’ – whatever your whisky experience, you should be able to appreciate a stunningly well-made and beautifully balanced dram.

Many thanks indeed to Quercus for both samples.

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Blending In, Standing Out

I always endeavour to hang around with creative people (if for whatever reason I’m a little short on creativity myself) because you know that something unexpected is never too far away. You have more fun at the time, and you come away with plenty to think over.

If there is one word to sum up the chaps at Master of Malt, the online drinks retailer, creative would be it. These guys have more ideas for new products while hunting for a pair of vaguely matching socks in the morning than most major distillers do in a month of meetings. In recent weeks they have announced a range of single malts finished in Sherry casks, dubbed Darkness!, revealed a new collection of cocktail bitters created by G-force (Bitter Bastards – you read that right), made available Bramble Bar’s modern classic Affinity cocktail to all and sundry and launched the world’s first super-premium spiced rum. If anything, releasing your own premium Scotch whisky blend smacks of convention.

Master of Malt have form in the blended category, conceiving the Home Blending Kit a few years ago (lots of fun) and getting a whole load of bloggers and journos to combine spirits in a good-natured – but I’m sure, fiercely competitive – blending challenge. Then, earlier this year, their Lost Distilleries Blend walked away with the gong for World’s Best Blended Whisky, beating the illustrious likes of Suntory and Irish Distillers. If it had been me, I’d have organised an open-top bus carnival in my own honour.

To follow up, they have concocted a 10yo blend, Batch 1 at 47.5%, unchill-filtered and natural colour. They were going for ‘rich and complex’. Let’s see if they succeeded.

Master of Malt 10yo Batch 1 47.5% £39.95

Colour – rich full gold.

Nose – yep, rich and full with a hefty truncheon of grain whisky before soft, fudgey peat and rich oak emerge. Quite clean, for all the weight and richness, with sweet walnut and a slug of Sherry. A hint of saltiness, golden syrup and carrot cake.

Palate – cake-rich with carrot cake again, rum fudge and thick oak. Out steps a sweet grassy quality before gooey grains spread over the tongue. A touch of marine-like smoke at the very end.

Finish – spice and richness dry the mouth although muscovado sugar softens things a little. Good weight and structure.

Not to be confused with the Reference Series of bottlings, or the Blended Whisky #1 Batch 1 from That Boutiquey Whisky Co., this is a straight-ahead expression of how Master of Malt envisages blended whisky. I have to say I was impressive, with the dram nosing like something a good few years above its age statement. Grain was old-school fat and juicy, with maybe just a hint of oils and spices, and the malts played a satisfying rich theme.

However, there is stiff competition at the moment, especially when you consider price. I had the Tweeddale 12yo Batch 2 before Christmas and that was suppler, as well as sweeter than the MoM offering. It was also, at the time, cheaper. Even I, blend evangelist that I am, have my reservations about paying £40 for a 10yo blend.

Tweeddale is an obvious comparison, small-scale and ’boutique’, but in terms of flavour, the big problem for Master of Malt comes in the shape of the not-inconsiderable Johnnie Walker Black Label. This, too, does fat oak, smoke and rich malt – and for £26. Tweeddale and JW have the edge, too, when you consider that you have the option to buy in-store, foregoing delivery charges. That £39.95 turns into about £45 for the MoM 10yo with no other option but to buy it through their site.

A little footnote: as engrossing a whisky as this 10yo is, I’m not sure I want to sip a blend that sits at nearly 48% ABV. For me, blends act as drinkable comfort blankets with the textures of the grain-malt interface finding best expression at 40-43%. The argument will be made (and has been on MoM’s uproarious, informative blog) that below 46% lipids and other congeners in the whisky are likely to come out of suspension if water or ice is added but this doesn’t bother Compass Box who bottle their gorgeous Asyla at 40%, despite it being unchill-filtered.

All in all, an interesting experiment and a tasty drop. I’m just not sure what – even if I were prepared to pay for one – I would do with a whole bottle.

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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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The Balvenie Fete

The simple ideas are the best. ‘Why not set up shop in one of Edinburgh’s loveliest squares, commission some extraordinary installation pieces which illustrate our craft-centric approach, notify your Warehouse 24 members and pour them whiskies when they show up?’ The marketing meeting at which The Balvenie Fete took shape may have gone something like this; a brilliant idea which, as St Andrews’ Quaich Society discovered, was impeccably well-executed.

Andrew Forrester is one of our VIPs here in Fife, having delivered a terrific opening tasting for us in September 2012. We had hoped he would be available to repeat the feat but this new and exciting series of events called him away. Being the hospitable fellow he is, we were invited along to the Fete in St Andrews Gardens this weekend for a tasting, some mingling, and a thorough crash course in craft.

Ian MacDonald prepares another hogshead in one of the Stave Domes.

The stupendous Stave Domes – like medium-charred wooden igloos – were the focal points of the festivities: four Domes in total offering dedicated spaces for discussing Balvenie. In the first, the one from where all the noise emanated, was the domain of Ian MacDonald, The Balvenie’s Head Cooper in Dufftown. I lost count of the number of casks he assembled and deconstructed while we were there but if anyone epitomises craft, it is Ian. As Andrew commented, he was using some of the oldest tools known to the industry yet the practiced art of coopering revealed a stunning sensitivity and precision which The Balvenie’s owners, William Grant & Sons, acknowledge is central to the success of their spirit.

A sort of 'from the cask' experience.

Speaking of spirit, to our opening dram - the Balvenie Doublewood – via a decorated Bourbon barrel and a copper ‘dog’, the handiwork of Dennis McBain. Dennis is the only coppersmith in Scotland residing at a distillery and his purview extends to Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie’s stills. For the Fete, he whittled off a couple of long slender copper tubes, just like the ones opportunistic distillery workers of yesteryear would knock up for the purposes of ‘whisky liberation’ in the warehouses.

The venue for our tasting.

Inside one of the Stave Domes, constructed by a creative partner of The Balvenie whose craftsman credentials were impressively underlined, Andrew delivered a breezy, informal tasting for us. On show were the new 12yo Single Barrel, the 14yo Caribbean Cask, the 17yo Doublewood, the 21yo Portwood and the Tun 1401 Batch 8. Andrew threw in some new make for good measure, too. In every dram a little of Ian and his team’s handiwork could be appreciated: the oaky stamp is an ever-present in this Balvenie range, although the nature of that imprint changes in numerous complex and satisfying ways.

With the 12yo Single Barrel that was toffee, banana and shortbread with a deliciously fresh yet creamy and spicy mouthfeel. It was perhaps my favourite of the whole selection, although I adore the rich, gentle muscularity of the 17yo Doublewood and the Tun 1401 delighted with dense, complex oak, leathery malt and superb floral hints. The 21yo Portwood will always rank highly on my list of exquisite drams.

The Balvenie range.

Rosy-cheeked on account of the warmth of Balvenie’s hospitality we stepped out into equally balmy sunshine to savour the whisky bustle. Another dram in hand (I went for a top up of the 12yo Single Barrel) the Quaich Society mingled in the precious autumn sun. Had the team put on a hog roast or similar I may just have camped in St Andrews Square until nightfall, begging for more Balvenie at judicious intervals - I certainly didn’t want to leave this Scotch whisky paradise. I’ve mentioned the hog roast idea to Andrew so we shall see what they can come up with.

Our thanks to Andrew for including us in the Fete’s schedule and we hope to tag along on the next beautifully straightforward Balvenie event. If they can craft another peach of a day, all the better.

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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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The Macallan 1824 Series

The 1824 Series at the Pompadour by Galvin, Edinburgh.

I suppose my attire told much of the story. One does not simply walk into a Macallan launch event in jeans, a t-shirt and flipflops. On some level, you sense that a little professionalism – a touch of seriousness – is your due to Scotch whisky’s foremost luxury brand. Somehow the suit, the waistcoat, the polished (ahem) brogues are all required if an audience with the spirit of Easter Elchies is to be granted. You won’t pass muster if the packaging isn’t right.

With the Pompadour Restaurant by Galvin, part of the 5* Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh, The Macallan certainly succeeded as far as their packaging was concerned. The new 1824 Series fitted snugly – and beautifully – into a colossal Art Deco sarcophagus of a cocktail cabinet, in front of which two neat and polite bartenders prepared the brace of on-arrival malt whisky cocktails with unhurried efficiency.

Sipping my Amber Glow, I pretended I was mingling with some of the whisky celebrities in the Pompadour room itself. The incongruity of encountering a living, breathing Charles Maclean in the Pompadour - a combination of place and person I had last seen on Ken Loach’s film ’The Angel’s Share’ – threw my composure. Reality and Macallan’s magic dust seemed to have parted company.

The beautiful cocktail station.

Ken Grier, Director of Malts at Edrington, and Peter Sandstrom, Marketing Director of Maxxium UK,  cordially invited us to venture down the rabbit hole. For tonight, colours are flavours.

To provide a bit of background, The Macallan 1824 Series comprises four expressions: Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby. They replace the long-standing 10yo and 12yo in The Macallan age range, together with the Fine Oak expressions up to 18-years-of-age. In the UK market, The Macallan wish to champion the quality of the oak casks they deploy, as well as the dexterity and skill with which their Whisky Maker, Bob Dalgarno, selects the single malt that results irrespective of age. Care and craft – rather than calendars – decide The Macallan.

The Edrington Group who own The Macallan, as well as Highland Park, are proud – justifiably – of the epic and expensive supply chain over which they preside in order to guarantee oak casks fit to mature their spirit. From harvesting the wood to coopering it, loaning it to the Sherry industry, and returning the casks whole to Scotland, the distillery have elected to trumpet their pursuit of excellence in this sector.

Macallan ambassador, Joy Elliot, who presented the new range to us.

My press release states: ‘The casks chosen for the range deliver a gradation of colour from light to dark, with the wood character defining each expression’s flavour, moving from lighter, lemon citrus to richer, dried fruit notes’. At the event, a chart accompanied each whisky on its display stand allowing us to see which industry-recognised colour tint corresponded to the citrus or the dried fruit flavours. In this way, we could see the cross-section of colours/flavours chosen for each expression.

These charts hinted at the kaleidoscope of Macallan characteristics at Dalgarno’s disposal. Why, therefore, settle on only four expressions of them? Why homogenise all of that natural colour variation into a few choice hues? There is another clue in the press release: ‘As the whiskies become darker and richer, so the pool of casks able to deliver this character becomes smaller and rarer’. At the sharp end, this refers to the £120-per-bottle Ruby which showcases the darkest whiskies of the range. Implicitly, the Macallan message is that darker whiskies are rarer whiskies. When priced to coincide with their premium expressions, sold with a strident age-statement such as the 18yo, I fear that the consumer will assume that the darker whiskies are akin to the older expressions in The Macallan stable. ‘But you and I both know that, with a first fill Sherry butt, you can get that depth of colour [ruby] in five years’. The words of Charles Maclean.

Some of the countless glasses ferried about the room on launch night.

I believe in Scotch whisky using its limited assets intelligently, but – to build an analogy out of Macallan ambassador Joy Elliot’s recent experience at a bi-partite London event – it strikes me that there are two messages circulating around The Macallan brand at the moment. When Dalgarno is quoted as saying: ‘the key thought in this range is that a great single malt doesn’t need to be a 30 years old to taste like a 30 year old’, that rather begs the question of why The Macallan 30yo needs to be 30-years-old. When Ken Grier talks about ‘challeng[ing] perceptions about bottling at arbitrary ages’, I agree with him. However, I would also suggest that he has been hoisted by his own petard, given that the £860 price tag demanded for the Fine Oak 30yo (Master of Malt) is anything but arbitrary.

The whiskies ought to be the star subjects of this post, however, but sadly they cannot overcome the marketing speak. I rate the Gold quite favourably (see here), but on the night I found the Amber to be disappointingly inconsistent. Occasionally dazzling on the nose, the palate yielded a big oak grip with final suggestions of marmalade, but little else.

The Sienna was, I must confess, superb. Essentially a combining of Gold/Amber styles of spirit with richer Ruby-esque liquid, the abundance of spice (especially a seductive sandalwood), fruit and vanilla on the nose, together with the sweetly velvety mouthfeel which allied insistent grape and dried fruits with honey, vanilla and bold barley hit the brief. ‘Persistent yet not overpowering’ sums it up nicely. At £66, though, I will need a strong Macallan craving to make the purchase.

The Ruby confused and disappointed in equal measure. It was at this point that Ken Grier chaired the age debate, fending off Charles Maclean, Vince Fusaro and Darroch Ramsay who all took exception to the £120 asking price. As the pinnacle of the range, the embodiment of the European oak narrative, it simply did not have the depth, finesse or richness I was expecting. Some pleasing autumn woodland notes, as well as aromas of chocolate truffles and candied orange emerged, but I longed for the old Sherry Oak 10yo on the palate. Rum and raisin ice cream could best sum it up. Why, I asked Chris Hoban on the night, why would you not buy three bottles of Aberlour a’Bunadh instead?

I sped away from The Caledonian to catch my train north, my brogues pinching slightly and my waistcoat uncomfortably constraining. The look had been achieved, but with one or two niggling drawbacks.

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My Speyside Reboot

BenRiach Distillery on a tempestuous day.

I think we would all agree that 14 months is a ponderous age to be without the means of indulging in your chief passion. That length of time without football, an easyJet flight to somewhere warm, the use of a working television, or sex would try the patience sorely. I had endured 14 months without setting foot in a whisky distillery and righting this wrong last month wreathed me in smiles.

Wriggling from under the barbed wire cage of three assignments in as many weeks, I beheld the prospect of a period of time in which I could plant a project or two. Operation Sniff A Washback was go.

For various reasons, Speyside is my favourite of all the whisky ‘regions’. Not only is it far enough away from the Central Belt to impress upon me a suitably Highland ruggedness, but the density of high-class, diverse distilleries cannot be bettered. One hopelessly romantic train journey through the snow drifts of Aberdeenshire later and I alighted in Elgin, chilled but thrilled to be back in Morayshire. Thanks to the help of Stewart Buchanan and Ewan George, I knew that there was a whisky hearth of brilliant warmth awaiting me at BenRiach.

One very short hop on the 36 bus brought me to the swift S-bend on which BenRiach sits, the black bulk of the maltings showing up well against shards of snow driven into the grass by the determined wind. I was sent to the stillroom to warm up while Ewan finished off some recurring paperwork where I chewed the stillman fat with Fraser, custodian of the BenRiach spirit for the last four years. The quartet of copper pots pelted me with heat as Fraser told me about the various family members employed within the industry, one as far away as Laphroaig. That brought the discussion on to the peated BenRiach production regime and whether the quality of the final whisky represented satisfactory redress for the clinging cigarette smoker fragrance no worker can escape when the smoky stuff is being distilled. Like the gents at Balblair, Fraser prefers the less aromatically-invasive unpeated production.

The stills at BenRiach.

Trotting in Ewan’s wake, once his ‘t’s had been crossed and his ’i's dotted, we headed into the warehouses. Here I could Get My Geek On with a quick game of ‘Name That Cask’. Hoggies, butts, puncheons, and more than a couple of Port pipes could be discerned in the tepid gloom, teeming with the scents of perhaps the industry’s most heterogeneous whisky stocks maturing. I asked Ewan which of Billy Walker’s discoveries had most excited him when they emerged from dunnage obscurity. ‘To be honest, the Solstice stuff I thought was fantastic. I’d gone off peated whiskies for a few years, but that whisky is top class’.

'Under 25'? Hardly.

With the tour over, Ewan was kind enough to furnish me with one of the missing pieces of my BenRiach puzzle. Stewart had told us in St Andrews that more senior BenRiach acquired a tropical fruitiness, and I wanted to put his claim to the test in the shape of the award-winning 30yo. I found this to be a deeply unusual dram, a class apart from those other whiskies I have tried which can also claim to have been three decades in development.

Red fruit sweetness and rich honey came through at first on the nose, but despite its age there was a remarkable zest and life. Lime pickle came next, and then – right enough – the tropical fruits. I found banana and passion fruit were most evident, with grapefruit in time and a toffee’d weight. To taste, this was full with a spicy attack before the experience lengthened with malt, honey and plenty of vanilla. The 50:50 wood contribution between ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry lent this whisky plenty of richness and complexity, but also enough body and freshness to demand a lengthier sipping session.

Ewan had one final ticket for the BenRiach Bandwagon, however, and when I nosed the second release of the Solstice Heavily Peated Port Finish, I leapt aboard.

BenRiach Solstice 17yo 50%

Colour – toffee apple red: clear and bright.

Nose – surprisingly fresh breezy smoke, like a wintry wind blowing the peat smoke over barley fields. It is a soft (though bold and unmistakable) smokiness, like the last stages of kilning. Beneath is a citrussy cleanliness, then the Port gives a firm base of cooked strawberries and morello cherries.

Palate – tickle of peat, then mouth-coating Port flavours. Flavour everywhere especially heavy, industrial peat. There is a clean, light toffee’d malt for balance.

Finish – drying all the time on black, thick and growly peat. Garden fire fragrance. Some tiny pieces of dried strawberry. Clean green apple on the tail.

With water, the nose hinted at the kiln even more, with fat, dry barley. More of the fruits inherent within the spirit emerged: orange and ripe Comice pears, all beneath a veil of smoke. With that dash of water, the palate was more focused with heat and smoke. A trace of creamy, nutty oak heralded a singeing sweetness in the middle of the tongue: pear drops and strawberry jam. Kippery smoke appeared on the finish with citrussy oak, a satiny sweetness and the sooty smokiness of a fire grate.

At the time, I laughed out loud: by rights, it should not taste as good as it does. The Port finish is so well-executed, and the smoke such a joyous mixture of textures and aromas. Having missed my bus on to Aberlour, I contented myself with buying a bottle, the immediate rapture of my dram at the distillery fortifying me against a fierce – but not unwelcome – blizzard outside the distillery. Though certainly not a summery dram, we were hardly experiencing summery conditions. Irrespective of the time of year, however, the bizarre brilliance of this whisky will make itself felt. I am now besotted with BenRiach.

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BenRiach and GlenDronach at the Quaich Society

All aboard for six of the best from Scotland's Highlands.

Bens and Glens characterise the Scottish landscape. Bens are the high bits, and the glens the gaps in between them. That’s Scotland pretty much explained, geographically. As far as Scotch whisky is concerned, Bens and Glens can cover an equally wide spectrum, as Stewart Buchanan demonstrated when he introduced the Quaich Society to BenRiach and GlenDronach. The expression goes that there is a whisky out there to suit every one; as it happens, chances are you will find it in one of the ranges of these fine distilleries.

Weighing down Stewart’s car were three separate releases from BenRiach (the 16yo, 15yo Madeira Finish and Septendecim) and three from GlenDronach (15yo, 18yo and Cask Strength). We were not short of liquid, and it became apparent immediately that that liquid was of a very high quality indeed.

Stewart directed us to the 16yo, a dram ‘designed’ by Billy Walker from the 28,000 casks he and his South African business partners inherited when they acquired the distillery, sited just below Elgin on the A95, in 2004. Five cask styles are used and while I didn’t catch them all, each play their part in the final flavour. And what a flavour. I make no secret of my preference for a pretty, delicate, sweet and intriguing Speysider as a gutsy aperitif, and this may just be the ultimate example of this species. Pear drops, vanilla, lemon sherbet and banana emerged on the nose while the palate was sweet, round and tickled the tongue with spice. It was delightful.

‘Can anyone detect the peat?’ Stewart asked. ‘Some can, some can’t.’ Billy Walker puts peated BenRiach in to the mix, just to add that subtle complexity. This is seriously intelligent cask management and whisky construction, and while I couldn’t find any smoke on the night,  can attest to the quality of the dram.

Former BenRiach manager, Stewart Buchanan, was full of facts and anecdotes.

The Madeira Finish came next, and Stewart confessed regret that it will soon be discontinued. Each time I returned to this whisky I began to partake in Stewart’s affection for it more and more. Having been anxious to try the Septendecim after giving a big thumbs-up to the Curiositas 10yo, I was left marginally disappointed. The crunchy peated malt aromas, together with honey and lemon, were all very pleasant. However, I had hoped for more depth. As an aside, I have recently discovered that BenRiach offer another 17yo peated whisky which is almost hysterically brilliant – but more on that in a later post.

On to GlenDronach, the dram of choice for the discerning lady of the night in 19th century Edinburgh. James Allardice  may no longer peddle the products of his Forgue-based copper still in Scotland’s capital, paying his way in potent clearic, but since Walker’s acquisition of GlenDronach in 2008 the Aberdeenshire whisky has been finding a whole new appreciative audience. I fondly remember the 15yo from a couple of years ago as big, meaty and rich. In St Andrews, it still makes best use of full Oloroso Sherry maturation to lend a caramelised nuttiness to proceedings. The malt spirit is inherently sweet and powerful. It’s older brother strides out in full Sherry regalia at 18yo, but possibly to exaggeratedly.

I was very curious to try the new Cask Strength, which Whisky For Everyone thoroughly approved of when they sampled it in January. It tasted pretty special in February. A nose of orange, tablet and juicy malt, it had a leathery weight with plenty of spice coming through from the Oloroso casks in the shape of nutmeg and paprika, together with plum jam, cinnamon and star anise from the Pedro Ximenez maturation. The palate – even at full strength (54.8%) – was rich, smooth and sweet with creamy malt and chocolate powder. How to pick a winner between this and the 16yo? Though at opposite ends of the tasting spectrum on the night, they came together in terms of exceptional quality.

Stewart led a tasting as relaxed as it was informative. The Quaich Society committee thank him for the calibre of stock he brought with him, and the plethora of gems he left behind for our WaterAid Raffle prizes. To the new owner of a BenRiach Horizons 12yo, congratulations. There was one matter which Stewart did not clear up, however; having hinted that Billy Walker had seated himself on one side of another negotiating table, he declined to drop the disputed distillery’s name. Of course, now we know that joining BenRiach and GlenDronach in Walker’s single malt stable is the Portsoy plant of Glenglassaugh.

He said: ‘We’re really delighted to buy Glenglassaugh, a renowned Highland single malt with a rich and distinguished heritage. It’s an excellent complementary fit with our existing BenRiach and GlenDronach brands. Part of its attraction to us is that it isn’t too large for our portfolio but its potential in contributing to the group certainly is.

‘It’s our intention to bring this iconic distillery fully back to life by giving it the investment, commitment and care it deserves. I believe our whisky expertise, proven brand-building ability and strong routes to market will help take Glenglassaugh to the next level.’

Last week I returned from Speyside with a visit to BenRiach under my belt and a miniature of Glenglassaugh Revival from the Whisky Shop Dufftown in my pocket. Little did I guess that the two were linked by more than the coincidences of my personal whisky travels. I can’t wait to see what Billy Walker will find lurking in those seashore warehouses…

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X-Years-Gold

The Macallan Gold.

1824. It’s an important number for many reasons: 1) it was at about this time that Scotch whisky production became a licenced operation, after which you either went legit, or went to prison, 2) The Macallan distillery on the banks of the River Spey took out its licence in this year, 3) at one point, it seemed that there may have been 1,824 whiskies in the brand’s core range, and 4) it is the tag now attached to their principle single malt portfolio. In the UK market, 1824 announces The Macallan’s new Gold standard.

Anyone even marginally acquainted with whisky will know that the world’s second most popular Scotch took a risk late last year. Controversial? Misleading? Economically necessary? There are cases to be made under either heading, and – via a shameful pun – therein lies the problem. Macallan want to carry on shifting cases of mature malt whisky, but they have a finite amount of spirit which qualifies, despite 2009′s mammoth expansion.

To moisten as many new lips in emerging markets – especially those in the Far East – as possible, the brand have decided to prioritise more aged whisky in those territories and have gambled on their established strongholds, such as the UK, taking to their bosoms NAS – or Non-Age Statement – expressions.

The Macallan 10yo, a formative single malt encounter for me, has gone, along with its 12yo and 15yo stablemates. The Fine Oak range? Gone, too. If you want a Macallan with a number on it below ’18′, you are going to have to buy an expensive air ticket. Financing a flight to the Far East is as nothing, however, compared with the ‘oligarch’ prices demanded of the half-century bottlings The Macallan can present with much fanfare and notable frequency. If so much mature stock wasn’t being squeezed into Lalique decanters maybe – but Chris over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog can debate the economics more effectively than I can here. The question is: what medal do I give the new Gold?

The Macallan Gold 40% vol. £35.95

Colour – erm… gold. Maybe with impressions of bruised apple.

Nose – grippy clean and tight oak at first with bruised banana and granola bar, backed up by vanilla fudge. Orange and peach squash drink, full and biscuity oak with fat, caramel-accented malt towards the top. Muscovado sugar and a dark fruitiness. With time, the Sherry oak makes its presence felt with golden raisin.

Palate – chocolate-y breakfast cereal, before some burnt fruitcake and dark malt come in. Big and pleasantly drying, with hints of candied orange peel.

Finish – semi-rich with brown sugar and baking spice from the oak. Brief, however, with a dash of green apple peel and hints of sticky toffee pudding.

With water, extra sweetness was found on the nose with a touch of lemon and the return of the vanilla. Marmite and fruitscones was an unexpected aroma. Flapjack, tilled fields and autumn leaves suggested a more typical, buxom Speyside panorama. The palate became grippier, with malt and oak leading the charge. Red apple and cinnamon appeared. Brown sugar dominated the finish once again with added pot ale flavours and vanilla-driven creaminess. The oak hovers into view, bringing sultana and Sherry sweetness, before it disappears.

So…?

I rather liked this. As a well-mannered Speyside with some body and charm, it leaves little room for improvement. However, as the flagship expression from the most gentrified of single malts? For £36? While undoubtedly well-constructed, I would still have the old Sherry Oak 10yo on the shelf, which wasn’t afraid to thrust its head into those bolder territories to which this whisky alludes but never really treads. It supplies a fleeting glimpse of this distillery’s pedigree and treasures, but it has the feeling of Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’: prodigious wares and finery being tugged out of shot.

By happy accident, however, I discovered it makes a damn fine Old-Fashioned. Or Gold-Fashioned, if you will.

The Macallan Gold-Fashioned

The Macallan Gold-Fashioned.

50 ml The Macallan Gold

2 healthy dashes Angostura Bitters

3 dashes Bitter Truth orange bitters

splash of soda water

1 barspoon brown sugar

Put the bitters, sugar and soda into a tumbler and whisk until you have a paste. Add 3-4 ice cubes and 25ml of the whisky. Stir. A lot. Add another 3-4 ice cubes and the rest of the whisky. Stir some more. Garnish with a slice of orange peel and cherry.

The result? A cocktail that is dangerously drinkable, with a leathery richness and strong cereal quality providing the necessary firmness. The Sherry hints from the single malt conspire with the orange bitters for a lovely sweet finale.

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