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January 6, 2012

‘Wet Dog – but in a Good Way’

'Eh?!' 'Mmmmm!'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 30, 2011

Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990

When the online retailers Master of Malt announced last year that they were to launch a constantly expanding and varied range of whisky samples alongside their regular operations, I and many others sat up and took note.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

‘Drinks By The Dram’ is a dedicated service on the part of Master of Malt to allow whisky fans to try before they buy. For folk such as myself, single cask, cask strength independent bottlings which would normally retail at around £75 can now be experienced for a fraction of the cost. However, with tasteful and considered little touches with regards to the packaging with their red wax-dipped tops and faded old-effect paper labels, these 3cl samples powerfully exude the ’boutique’.

In order that word of these products could be more widely circulated, who better to approach than whisky bloggers already familiar with the sample-style trappings of pre-release whiskies. I have to thank Natalie from Master of Malt for my sample: one from a range of single cask vintage releases produced by one of the few truly independent Scottish distilleries that put Diageo’s Managers’ Choice to shame.

To my delight and relief, my 3cl sample of the Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 made it through the snow to my door and so becoming a object was it to behold and to contemplate that I abstained from breaking the wax-covered seal until I sensed my olfactory faculties were firing on all cylinders. It was worth the wait.

This particular bottling of Glenfarclas from 1990 is sold out, but a sample from the Fifth Release of the Family Casks is available here.

Master of Malt on Facebook.

Master of Malt on Twitter.

Read my tour review for Glenfarclas here.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick. Which of course I hadn't been.

Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 Sherry Butt 9246 58.9% ABV

Colour - Blood red. Very striking.

Nose - Careful nosing from a distance reveals velvety soft Sherry influence: darkly nutty with stewed fruits. The biting claws of the high proof are withdrawn and it is possible to enjoy the heavy, spicy-rich vanilla reminiscent of some Bourbons I have had recently (Buffalo Trace comes to mind). It is so sweet with orange, cinnamon, tropical flowers, marzipan, redcurrant and cherries.

      Water lightens the experience with raw malted barley sweetness. Rich, soft toffee and oak notes which reminded me of the heat and woody spice notes which pervaded the Speyside Cooperage. The European oak is medium-dry and intense. More vanilla appears, in addition to dried fruits and fruitcake. There is an impeccable balance between the rich and the sweet, with the heavy juiciness and malt notes of Glenfarclas standing up to the wood.

Palate – This was a first for me. Despite the strength there was ne’er a prickle. The whole thing was delightfully rich and smooth with oak and malt. Mouth-coating and heavily-sherried, it was plain that not much had been done to this from leaving the cask. The texture was astonishing, as it felt as if raw sugar or red liquorice was being sprinkled on my lips.

      Water enhanced the smoothness slightly, and the Sherry, oak and caramel notes remained. Orange appeared, however, as did added dryness. Biscuity with tablet notes, this was unmistakeably Scotch, and Glenfarclas.

Finish – Jam-like and syrupy with such softness and smoothness. Superbly complex and evocative. Rich fruit skins and creamy almond. Orange and mango. Book binding.

      Water revealed more of the nutty sweetness, as well as rich toffee. Dark and smooth maltiness melded into a toasty, rich spiciness. As things began to simmer down, heather, thick clear honey and latterly beeswax appeared. An extremely glossy and sophisticated malt.

So…? I will unquestionably be using the ‘Drinks By The Dram’ option again, and sampling more of the Family Casks. This was one of the most involving and exciting whiskies I have tasted for a long while. Unusually, I left a malt feeling grateful for the wonderful diversity within Scotch: how I can savour the fruity sweetness of Balblair one moment, the fragrance of Linkwood and Longmorn the next, the island power of Lagavulin and Ardbeg afterwards, and the rich complexity of The Dalmore and Glenfarclas at the next convenient opportunity.

This 1990 release had the presence, the depth and the authenticity at cask strength to transport me back to my forays around the Ballindalloch/Aberlour area last year. Especially undiluted, the finish acted like a well-serviced and rapid cable car: tugging me between the rough russet grass and heather of Glenfarclas at the foot of Ben Rinnes, and the rich, leafy mystery and delight of Warehouse No. 1 and the banks of the Spey itself in Aberlour. The wild and the sensuous were epically combined and evoked a particularly auspicious time on the Scotch Odyssey as I began my assault on Speyside. I had the remote and beautiful Glenfarclas all to myself on the Wednesday while I witnessed the wonder of excellent Sherry casks at Aberlour on the Thursday morning. With water the semi-dry spicy and dark leafiness recalled the mellow, fragrant bowers of the Speyside Way. Riverside and heathland in one glass, with the presence of deciduous lichen-clad forest a common quality. I have yet to be disappointed with Glenfarclas, and this is the fourth encounter.

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January 1, 2011

Balblair 1989: a Double Take

The first release is on the left and the second on the right. These are twoo very engaging and distinct drams.

The first release is on the left and the second on the right. These are two very engaging and distinct drams.

No sooner had we bloggers disembarked from the tiny plane and clambered onto the minibus in November than Lucas was pressing goodie bags into our hands full of coveted items from Inver House. In addition to the Old Pulteney polo shirt which I wear on a very regular basis, I have recently had the opportunity to acquaint myself with the Balblair 1989 Second Release which was stashed away, too. As luck would have it, I had half of the contents of a miniature of the first release sitting on my desk. A comparison was called for, and the intriguing results are below.

The people with the keys to the warehouses must have been sure in their convictions that, for the mid-range Balblair expression, they had a truly vintage year on their hands in the shape of 1989. Whereas the entry-level 1997 was replaced by the delightful and fey 2000, we now have another batch of ’89 malt to savour on this occasion.

NB: The bold text is intended to highlight those flavours which I feel are both intrinsically part of the distillery’s character, and also those which I interpret as evidence of ‘a sense of place’.  The technique is partially inspired by Keith’s presentation of his tasting notes, and I think it also makes them more easily-read.

Balblair 1989 (Bottled 2008) 43% abv.

Colour - Lemony gold.

Nose - Very delicate at first with immediate sweetness and some spicy dryness. Honey, vanilla and milk chocolate come next with syrupy sweet citrus flavours in the mix. Toffee, dried cherries and golden raisins present a gorgeous variety of aromas. Clean, sweet and fresh with raw barley.

      Water realises the full potential of the malt, with rich fruit slices and beautiful vanilla, caramel and malty sweetness. Rich oak is extracted which lends a slight grip, with some blackcurrant leaf. Toffee and date pudding, in addition to more citrus, maintains the complexity. Overall, though, this is a lively and delicate malt, and the best way to describe it would be ‘fun’. Its sweet American oak DNA reminds me a lot of the post-tour drams on offer throughout Scotland, an encounter made all the more hedonsitic if your visit has been of sufficient quality to provoke excitement about the whole process and environment.

Palate - Very smooth, rounded and sweet with a delicious malty richness culminating in earthy hay.

      Water does this malt few favours in this department. Fruity, oaky and spicy with some vanilla, light creamy cereals and green fruits. It loses a lot of its assertiveness and becomes just too ethereal for me.

Finish -  There is a great burst of orchard fruit juices at first, and then things settle down with sweet green apple. Malt and oak create a hot chocolate flavour and the dried fruits from the nose return. Heathery earthiness and orange round off a very pleasant experience.

      Water, as occurred with the palate, weakens things. Vanilla and puff pastry appear, some tart green fruits sprinkled with sugar, some milk chocolate, hazelnut and banana are there, too.

Balblair 1989 (2nd Release, bottled 2010) 43%

Colour – Essentially the same, although maybe a fraction older golden tones, with a pale grassy tinge.

Nose – There is a very firm presence of oak in this one, with a richer spiciness than the first release but overall much darker, tighter and closed. There is citrus here, too, although it takes the form of bonbon-like sweetness. Heavy Bourbon wood and a dusty earthiness  are other flavours, in addition to orange peel, rich vanilla and tablet. Dried fruits appear, as with the first release, and there is a rock candy flavour which leads into creamy coconut – gorse bushes.

      Water improves procedings, as it did for the first release, becoming creamier and spicier. I am privileged to as accurate a presentation of a blackened hogshead with its rusted hoops sitting in a cool dunnage warehouse as I have enjoyed with any malt. Toffee cake, dry rich maltiness. Heather honey. Zesty sweet fruits, burnt fruitcake. Cardamom and star anise: very spicy and earthy.

Palate – Rich and mouthcoating, chocolatey with some synthetic fruitiness (jelly sweets).

      Water lightens everything, but not to the extent of the first release. It becomes incredibly smooth but focused with green fruits, spice, richness, more malt and chocolatey toffeed oak. Earthy.

Finish – Rich, with plenty of vanilla. Barley sugar with blackcurrant and apple juice. Toffeed. Fresh fruitiness and ever-evolving dark oakiness. Over-ripe banana. Nutty, chocolatey and spicy.

      Water renders this still more satisfying with vanilla again and caramel. There is fantastic texture to the American oak influence: the cask is very much a three-dimensional suggestion. The sweet spice of a gingerbread latte abides for quite a while.

So…?:      Direct comparison always throws up surprises and these are, despite the identical nature of the included tasting notes on the packaging, two very different malts. The first release is 18/19 years old, the second 20/21 and those two years have done much to influence the development of that stock from 1989. I would rate the second release as a more rewarding and fulfilling malt for the age range it has placed itself in, but I am utterly seduced by the nose of the first: so exuberant and charming with endless sweetness.

The character of Balblair is said to lend itself to more mature, spicy and fruity whiskies, courtesy of the clear wort and the plain stills and that is certainly what is on show here. I can’t quite stretch to a bottle of the ’89 (and I would if I could) but the 2000 is a gem of a dram, and on the list.

Many thanks to Lucas, Cathy and Inver House for the sample. Also, a very happy new year, one and all.

On the nose, after dilution, this was where the second release transported me back to.

On the nose, after dilution, this was where the second release transported me back to.

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December 25, 2010

Ballantine’s Christmas Reserve

While the goose is in the oven, working its magic, I thought I ought to get the Glencairn out and evaluate the new Ballantine’s Christmas Reserve – and they mean ‘Reserve’: this is a limited annual release – whilst under the influence of the festive spirit. Many thanks to Chris from Edinburgh Whisky Blog for my sample.

Ballantine’s Christmas Reserve 40% £27

Colour – Dark, rich amber – almost Sherry nut brown.

Nose – Dried fruit peel floats out of the glass initially, a sweet grainy quality following on. Oakiness is in evidence, too, and in keeping with the brief I get sweet buttered gingerbread as an associated aroma. Dark juicy fruits are heavily involved, too, with orange, rum and raisin ice cream, and toffee. Dark chocolate is also present.

     Water reveals Scottish tablet, in addition to the toffee. Red apples appear later on. It is less Christmas-y than when undiluted but a rich fragrant Speyside malt is plainly in there directing the aromas.

Palate – Light, sweet and grainy at first, building toffee, nut and wine notes.

    Water accentuates the dark malty qualities, in addition to a little rich earthy peat. Ginger wine.

Finish – Rather short, both with and without water, with toffee a mainstay and some dried fruits. Some sweet apple appears first time round, cinnamon and chocolate Swiss roll with a few drops of water.

So…?: A different, well put-together whisky, although I feel it loses some of its ‘Christmas’ credentials with water. The blended sector is expanding at a rate of knots, and it is one I would like to see more of in affordable miniatures. I wouldn’t buy a whole bottle of this, but it is a pleasant drink.

Tasting notes…? On the Scotch Odyssey Blog?! I know, not very long ago I was passing the buck as far as tasting notes were concerned to other bloggers kicking around. I still maintain that there is no reason why you should listen to my opinion any more than the teams of others reviewing single malts like they’re going out of fashion, but my Odyssey was a while ago now, and besides my photographs, drams are the only mediums through which I may experience again something of the atmosphere and spirit of my travels.

I won’t post tasting notes – or ‘sensings’, a distinction I shall explain shortly - regularly, but when I come across a malt (or blend) that transports me back to a distillery, a grass verge, B&B or restaurant, I’ll let you know. Chris, when we met last month, suggested I might like to experiment with posting my reviews out into the blog-sphere, and talking to newly-inducted Malt Maniac Keith Wood (Whisky Emporium) and hearing his approach to composing tasting notes obliged me to consider the proposition still further. So for all my travels shook my belief in terroir as in inviolable concept, rather than abandon it altogether I have modified this most subjective of sensory factors. Terroir, or ‘a sense of place’, just as it is unique to each distillery, it is also wholly unique to each of us and our own personal interpretation. It will not manifest itself to the same degree, in the same sense, for every person. All the same, I have six weeks’ worth of memories which the single malts of Scotland are primed to trigger, and when they do I hope you will be interested to learn the context and the nature of these echoes – hence ‘sensings’; I hoped it wouldn’t sound quite so pretentious once I explained it.

In the meanwhile, and though I won’t be scoring the malts which prompt a post, I would like to adopt the approach of Jeff Hershauer(Scotch Hobbyist - a truly excellent blog if you haven’t found it already) and state my preferences straight off the bat in order that you might get to know what I am about and how my tastes may differ from yours.

Flavour explorer - not expert.

Flavour explorer - not expert.

My favourite malts:

Anything from Caol Ila; Highland Park 12, 18 and 25YO; Bowmore 18YO; Talisker 18YO; anything from Balblair (the new releases); Ardbeg Uigeadail; Kilchoman; every Glenfarclas I have ever had (10; 15 and 30YO); Longmorn 15YO; Linkwood 12YO; Mortlach 16YO; The Glenlivet; The Dalmore 15YO (with just a smidgen of water).

There is a fair amount of variety there, I suppose, with both rich and fragrant malts on show. In the main, I will always respond to a malt that speaks up about its raw materials: I love a bit of oak in a whisky, and rich earthiness is always a welcome flavour. To step fairly boorishly on my original statement, however, as much as I may strive for consistency there is every likelihood that those malts which make it up here will, on account of my earlier criteria, possess wildly conflicting merits. We’ll see how it goes…

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