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Bruichladdich at the Quaich Society

The Bruichladdich line-up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cask sample of the forthcoming Islay Barley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Highland Park at the Quaich Society

A treat for the Quaich Society: two bottles of Highland Park Earl Magnus.

The art of pillaging has moved on somewhat since the last time an insatiable horde sought the treasures of Orkney. Quaich Society guests were in fact deeply well-mannered as they queued for a welcoming and welcome dram of the Highland Park 12yo to begin the first tasting of the new year. They sensed that riches would come their way without the need for axes or blood-curdling yells, and they were right.

Patsy Christie and David Howe of Maxxium Brands ventured north to St Andrews to introduce the most northerly of Scotland’s single malts. Aided by some multimedia projection, we could appreciate what implications this might have for the whiskies in our Glencairns. Predominating images were of movement: sea and air principally. It is some challenge not to get blown away on Orkney, but Highland Park’s stature has swelled over the years and today it poses dismissively against the gale.

In my tenure at the Society, we have not welcomed a brand which malts a proportion of its own barley. With Highland Park, this affected the style of our tasting profoundly. ‘Orkney is a big part of Highland park,’ David had said, and Patsy produced a bit of the islands themselves forthwith to demonstrate what he meant. With some good-natured flouting of the health and safety laws, this slab of Hobbister Moor peat was ignited and passed around the congregation, a cloud of wraith-like smoke circulating. As it came in my direction, I detected a spent birthday cake candle smell, and a deeper aroma of incence. Placed beneath Highland Park barley for a few hours and this will generate the delicate heathery quality which I found enlivened all of the whiskies on show.

First up was the new make, and one I was desperate to try. I have said elsewhere how much I love this bolshy, raw product and I’m pleased to report that as new makes go, this is up there with Glencadam’s and Glen Garioch’s. It is stunning. On the nose there is orange and lemon, then fabulous buxom barley which blends a creaminess with a lovely, earthy crispness. This leads into a light prickle of sweet smoke.

Full-bodied on the palate, it displays clean and crisp qualities again. Barley sweetness and some honeydew melon. Shortbread and coconut - gently earthy. It really is magically complex.

A revelatory peat moment. My favourite kind of revelatory moments, if I'm honest.

‘When David and I were planning this tasting,’ said Patsy, ‘he asked me whether I wanted to talk about maturation. Of course! I love wood!’ Her impish grin set the Quaich Society a-sniggering but there was more to Patsy’s cask policy lecture than innuendo. With such premium, classically sherried brands as The Macallan and our guest for the evening, Highland Park, owners the Edrington Group had to source the best oak they could. I heard the following detail on Orkney and it was reiterated: the Edrington Group spends more on wood than the rest of the Scotch whisky industry combined. From the Missouri forests, American oak is shipped to Spain, converted into casks, filled with sherry, emptied and returned – whole – to Scotland. They care about what will contain these fine spirits for years to come and have done for sometime, as the recent launch of the 50yo attests.

We could see the results of that excellent new make after a few Orkney summers in these casks with the 18yo. F. Paul Pacult’s opinions may mean nothing to you – and they certainly mean nothing to me – but to his esteemed palate the 18yo is ‘the best spirit in the world’. Fair enough, but I don’t think it is a sufficient basis on which to anchor sales patter. Or maybe I would say that, having always preferred the 12yo. I’m sorry, but it has far more variety and balance than this specimen, which in the past has poured toffee into my nostrils and not much else. It performed admirably on the night, though, and is undoubtedly an impressive dram.

Patsy Christie and a tiny tot of the new Thor. Great things, small packages and whatnot.

A genuine privilege came in the form of the Earl Magnus of which, we were told, none now exist for sale. The character of this 15yo, cask strength individual was nuttier than the 18yo with more vanilla, apple and pear. A dab of water released far more orange and lemon, which, though a fraction peatier, mirrored the profile of the new make closely. The palate delivered with smoke and spice in addition to caramel, red apple and other red fruits.

The final venerable malt was the 21yo which launched itself out of the glass with robust, warm sherry tones. I detected embers in tbe grate, too, continuing the lovely delicacy of peat that the range had supplied hitherto. Red fruits appeared on the palate with a bit of phenolic smoke.

We almost forgot about the 21yo, however, because the normally docile and genial Quaich Society got a bee in its bonnet. The way issues such as ‘chillfiltration’ and ‘artificial colouring’ were hurled back and forth put me in mind of the Houses of Parliament during the Blair years and the words ‘weapons of mass destruction’. They would not give an inch. HP is chillfiltered, but only a little bit, it would appear. They don’t colour at all. Patsy, a whisky nerd up there with the most obsessive, cited research conducted by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute which said that chillfiltration had no effect – zero, nada – on the flavour profile of a whisky. I don’t know what to believe anymore, as I struggle to credit that the residue left on the edges of the glass after a single cask Glenfarclas has no impact on mouthfeel or the behaviour of the malt in your mouth. Never having had the opportunity of tasting the same malt chillfiltered and not, I cannot compare. If regulations are so strict about what you put into whisky, however, I think we need a little more guidance on what is taken out.

Patsy and David evaded the jabs and thrusts of the Quaich Soc’ers with composed, honest answers. Even a loaded comment about the calibre of cask selection and what might make its way into Famous Grouse would not provoke them. They received a raucous round of applause for their efforts, and I would like to thank both of them for bringing their expertise and excellent whiskies along to us. Maybe a few more minis of Thor for next time, though?

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Christmas Crackers at Luvians

If you feel like leaving Santa more than milk and shortbread this Christmas, I’m sure the bearded North Pole dweller would point you in the direction of Luvians Bottle Shop, stuffed like an M&S turkey with delicious festive offers. For the purposes of this post, I have only space for a fraction of the whisky deals available, never mind the masses of discounts to be had on their wines and the gins and vodkas they’re so excited about.

A whisky lover's grotto on Market Street, St Andrews.

Stocking most distilleries’ principal outfit, Daniel told me that Luvians also favour the independent bottlers. Adelphi is a darling of theirs, and they also have some of the Cooper’s Choice range on the shelves. A little harder to keep on those shelves at present are SpringbankArdbeg and one of my aboslute favourites, GlenDronach. Plainly the bolder favours are ‘in’ this Christmas.

But what have they for that special whisky-drinking someone in your life? When you consider the breadth of drams which have benefited from Peter Wood’s holiday cheer  with a drop in price, you might think it more prudent to buy your own Christmas presents and get them a nice tie, instead. All of the Glenmorangie wood finishes have £10 off, as has the Old Pulteney 17yo and Glengoyne 10yo. There’s a whopping £20 off the Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 21yo at £45.99.

Elsewhere, the Bunnahabhain 12yo looks an absolute steal at £22.99 and Gordon & MacPhail Glenburgie and Miltonduff are all under £20. The ravishingly pure and sweet anCnoc 16yo is less than £30 and at that price, my private pledge to make my next spirits purchase something other than Scotch is in dire jeopardy.

However, in this season of austerity one can be forgiven for bowing to bang-for-buck considerations, and the Luvians boardroom has anticipated this. ’Why should we give our customers one whisky when we could give them three?’ they may well have asked. Consequently, my pick for this Christmas is their Glenfarclas bundle, which includes not only the stonkingly expressive 15yo, bathed in fine orange-accented sherry tones, sweet fruit and floral characters in addition to velvet-smooth toffee malt, but also miniatures of the 21yo and the 25yo. Add a really good bar of dark chocolate from the Luvians cafe further along Market Street and you’re still looking at less than £42.

Also, if you are in the town on the 23rd of December, head along to the store where Gregg Glass will be conducting a Compass Box tasting. My advice would be to add just that little bit more Hedonism to your Christmas countdown.

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Luvians at the Quaich Society

The eclectic line up for the Quaich Society Luvians tasting.

Tastings at the St Andrews Quaich Society have been coming around faster than I can give any account of them, it would seem. David Fletcher pulled off an excellent evening of Diageo malts a couple of nights ago and still Jamie’s dynamic, diverse and above all different tasting of Luvians’ finest from a couple of weeks ago has had no mention. Allow me to right a wrong.

The epicurean student societies of St Andrews love Luvians and Luvians reciprocate that love with discounts for entitled members on their wines, beers, sherries, vodkas, rums, Bourbons and, for the purposes of this post, whiskies. The independent wine and spirits merchant takes more of an interest in the student body beyond those who frequent their Market Street shop, however, and that is where Jamie comes in. When not coordinating the store’s beer and sherry lists – no mean feat if the plethora of little brown bottles by the door are anything to go by – Jamie takes Luvians to the students which, recently, meant that Quaich Society.

‘Yeah, new make!’ I cooed, when he had unpacked some Glenglassaugh Spirit Drink bottles ahead of the tasting. ‘Not just that,’ he said, opening a polythene bag and shaking its contents beneath my nose. Peaty porridge oats wafted oat again. ‘Ardbeg grist. I want to give you a start to finish tasting tonight.’

Centred around (some of) the Bruichladdich range, in addition to the Ardbeg grist (‘I made some bread with this. It was f****** awesome’) Jamie had also come armed with a block of peat, some chunks of cask and a couple of bottles of Pedro Ximenez. Unbelieveably sample bottles appeared filled with Benromach foreshots and feints. Earth, breakfast cereal, wood, whisky in all its earliest permutations and wine. ‘Start to finish’ was right.

You wouldn't dry a lot of malt with this approach, but it helped to convey the distinctive aroma of Scottish peat.

No sooner had all of the tasters arrived than Jamie shepherded us back out into the November evening again. The plan was to ignite the peat and provide the impression of the kiln. A stiff breeze and an inert clod meant that few gained the complete Laphroaig/Bowmore maltings peet reek, and Jamie burnt his thumb more than the fuel, but performing a process creates a more vivid impression than simply describing it.

Though neither the Glenglassaugh new spirit (pear and pineapple, while incredibly sweet and soft), the trio of Laddies or the Sherry (can you imagine?) boasted a strong peaty character, the find-the-peat-smoke exercise had awakened our senses. The first official whisky of the night was the Classic, a 7-8yo whisky matured in ex-Bourbon barrels. ‘No, really?’ I thought, as dramatic sweet and rich biscuit notes, combined with thick mascarpone, pine and hard sugar leapt out at me. This was like wandering around the Speyside cooperage, so intensely Bourbon woody was it. I don’t mean it was overly oaky, simply that the flavours of the American cask left no space for anything else. On the palate it was a similar story: a strong phenolic note could simply have been the charred cask, but the Laddie firmness of body gained the ascendancy together with a fizz of sweetness. Some water revealed tropical fruits, dried papaya especially, lemon syllabub and cedarwood incense on the nose, with a barley husk character on the palate.

The red carpet had been laid down for the latest significant Islay 10yo of recent years: the first age statemented Bruichladdich distilled under the present owners and master distiller Jim McEwan. Jamie raved about it. I was eager to find out which camp I was in: devotee or dissenter. For 100% Bourbon maturation, I was surprised by the initial nutty note on the nose. It was exceedingly nutty and rounded, in fact. I wasn’t surprised by what came next, though. See Tiger’s review on Edinburgh Whisky Blog here for a further discussion as to what this aroma might be, but while a neighbour of mine muttered ‘parmesan’, I recognised it as overly buttery, slightly damp shortbread. I have found this on all Bruichladdichs I’ve tasted and I’m not especially offended by it. However, it isn’t the best this dram has to offer as the Santa leftovers fade out to be replaced by pleasant oak notes together with papaya again and lychee. Lemon pith, too. The palate was full, with a slight peat note and brie on wholemeal bread. Vanilla came in later while some spirity notes asserted a degree of youthful vibrancy.

Water improved the nose, lending orange peel and biscuit. Eventually, a sniff depicted the hot summer sun on a ripening barley field. The palate, too, was something of a grower. It filled the mouth and offered very clean, sweet barley with a slight smoky edge. I came to really like this dram for its dazzling purity mixed with idiosyncracies.

The final whisky of the evening proudly sported its PX ballgown. This spirit from 1992 offered roast pepper on the nose with lots of sugar-laden barley and red fruits. Much of the sherry’s sugariness appeared later, with European oak’s lovely deep sappy quality. The palate was smooth and rounded, with a tannic note and then an easy progression into sweet orange notes. This whisky from the old regime was my pick of the night, although I hope to come across the Laddie Ten at some point again in the future.

I massive thank you has to go to Jamie for the thought and imagination he put in to giving us such a rewardingly holistic encounter with whisky. Maybe Luvians might want to invest in a portable kiln and pagoda for the next tasting, though.

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The SMWS at the Quaich Society

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has, when it comes to tastings, adopted the American military’s infamous strategy of shock and awe. Not only are their drams the equivalent of B52s in impact and firepower, their ambassadors together form some sort of Single Malt Navy Seal special forces unit. Essay deadlines had leached my preceding week of colour, life and pleasure. An airstrike from the SMWS squadron explosively repatriated them.

St Doug Clement worked a little miracle for the Quaich Society; by contributing 300 Glencairn glasses we could ensure that the five single cask, cask strength, unchillfiltered, uncoloured (my, oh my) drams Craig Johnstone had retrieved from The Vaults to wreak mass destruction would not be thwarted in their mission by inadequate glassware. ‘To leave no nose upturned’ is the Society’s motto, and when I had a mind to scan the room, every one of the 60 guests appeared to have theirs buried in Glencairns.

Some many-hued delights. 'Horizontal' tastings offer endless possibilities for exploration.

Craig introduced himself to the room, and the room to itself. He enquired of everyone’s places of origin and their taste in drinks. This was no phatic stunt to break the ice, however; it turns out that Craig has been just about everyone, tasted just about everything, and has a ravenous desire to understand how so many of our favourite beverages come to be. We learnt of eccentric Canadian treatments for back pain (Crown Royal if your sciatica is playing up); how India claim to be drinking more Johnnie Walker than Scotland produces, and the extraordinary diversity of flavours being created throughout the world and which Craig has witnessed for himself.

A considerable proportion of this flavour diversity – and maybe all of the 32 primary aromas he talked about – leapt out at us from the glasses in front of us. The first dram of the evening hailed from distillery 121 and it was cask #48. 121.48, then, or ’Let’s get this party started’ as the tasting note excerpt read. I found this light and rounded at first, with crisper, biscuity dry undertones developing. A little bit of braised cabbage and candied lemon, also. The palate was clean and smooth, with a hit of alcohol mid-palate and unripe pear. Water sharpened the nose, bringing out freshly washed cotton on the clothes line. A more strident biscuit note developed in the mouth, with charred oak, thick caramel and dark chocolate. A very fresh and frisky dram from Arran.

Dram No. 2 - or to be more correct, G5.3 – was a revelation. Gasps gusted around the Garden Suite and it was not simply on account of the 65.6% abv. Matured for eighteen years in a toasted virgin oak cask, this was one single grain that, for many, outstripped the single malts that night. I must confess that ‘Extraordinary’ is right. The grain spirit had plucked everything that was superlative from the cask, while keeping its light, clean softness. ’Who thought grain whisky could taste like this?’ Craig enquired. Had most of these Quaich Soc’ers not already been blessed with John Glaser’s proselytising with the help of his Hedonism bottling, more hands would have gone up. This was another weighty case to put to the grain dissenters.

The evening then repaired to an Old Jazz Bar next, a 26yo specimen from #35. I was impressed by the breadth of flavours, although it seemed a tad too discreet and polite at first although perhaps this was due to the strength. At 40.6% another couple of months in this particular ex-Bourbon cask would have robbed it of its whisky identity. Crisp, flaky malt, plain chocolate, ginger sponge and ground coffee comprised the expansive nose while the palate was exceptionally soft, with apple, well-integrated oak and vanilla biscuit. As Glen Morays go, this was a deliciously delicate individual.

Mr Craig Johnstone, giving one hell of a lecture.

I would never in a million years have supposed that 76.85, ‘The Antagonist’, might have indicated output from dear old Mortlach. Apple, pear and melon (eh?!) on the nose with some gently buttery barley and crisp oak have never appeared in my tasting notes for this Chthonic distillery. On the palate I did find rich vegetables and a ‘fixing’ quality, but I did not think to equate this with worm tub collusion, still less Dufftown. Water made it more voluble and oaky, with some orange rind tucked underneath to please the nostrils. And they were pleased, just fairly rubbish at the identity parade.

There could be no confusing the next incumbent. 29.90, as all Society peatheads will tell you, is the quite unique Laphroaig and I doubt this particular bottling would disappoint them. Heavy peat, glorious peat. Cigarette ash and bonfire night, spent matches. There were some in the room, however, who were somewhat hostile to this style of spirit but Craig, ever resourceful, had a solution. ‘I promise you this will get rid of the smoke, and you will finish that dram.’ Eyebrows were raised, but Craig persevered. ‘I want you to take a mouthful of water and just keep it there.’ We all obeyed, trying not to drown ourselves or gargle. ‘Now drink the whisky through the water.’ I stared in bemusement and wonder. The equivalent of Sawing the Woman in Half had just happened, in my mouth. The smoke fleetingly appeared as a rich, dry tickle and then disappeared altogether leaving only a caramel-like, barley sugar sweetness that rolled over the tastebuds with every possible flirtation. ‘The phenols dissolve in water first, you see,’ Craig said through a huge grin.

The tasting over, and a queue of people around the front table for the purposes of either thanking our host or putting their name and credit card details in his membership ledger, I could reflect on the marvel we had all witnessed. Craig Johnstone is the Kilchoman of the whisky ambassador world. For one so young it astonishes me that he should have acquired so much knowledge, science, anecdote and authority in so short a space of time. In fact, many a wily and more senior ambassador has laid light fingers on his show-stopper tricks without attribution, a tactic that does wrankle him a little. Of course, he is a couple of decades ahead of them already, and who knows what heights will be attained with a few more years around casks regarding the Craig Johnstone package?

‘Had any of you heard about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before tonight?’ Craig had asked at the top of the evening. ’Did any of you think we were a cult?’ Perhaps expansion into the religious sect business would not be a disastrous idea: I know that many in St Andrews were converted.

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The Whisky Conversation

Many of the most passionate devotees across numerous diverse pursuits would agree with me when I say that, irrespective of the favoured activity in question, cogitating upon and talking about it contribute enormously to maximising appreciation and enjoyment. Every interest – and I feel this is especially true of whisky - benefits from equal portions of anticipation, evaluation and participation. I am only too aware – and if I forget, the twice-monthly Quaich Society meetings and their aftermaths remind me – that one cannot be forever drinking whisky; but one can sure as hell natter on about the subject indefinitely.

I will go into far greater depth in a later post, but the Scotch Malt Whisky Society rolled into St Andrews for this week’s tasting with five bottles of single cask, cask strength, distilled discussion. The epithets for each expression assert this quality, and as we tucked into Old Jazz Bar and The Antagonist, tongues were loosened. I had Quaich Soc old-timers come up to me afterwards and beam that it was the best tasting they had been to. Ever. Much of the credit – maybe around 99.9% – must go to our host, Craig Johnstone. With charm, affability, professionalism and frankly frightening levels of knowledge and expertise, he imparted the confidence I suspect some of the 60 tasters were in search of when contemplating the wild beasts in their Glencairns. That production details and histories were interspersed with Craig’s own extensive encounters with the drinks industry internationally, with many of these boasting hilarious consequences, the entire room could put their trust in his juggernaut of an interest.

And without a doubt this is what makes whisky such an eminently-discussable topic. Those who speak for whisky, when hangovers, deadlines or time of day preclude sipping the stuff and communing with it personally (although on the latter criteria, Craig was very forthright in his condoning of “breakfast whiskies”), are so often engaging and dynamic also. To nurture a fledgeling hobby they brought their powers of curiosity and investigation to bear; to transform it into a pre-eminent passion they sought out personal interactions with the spirit, its people and process, to sustain the obsession they battled to make it their job. Who wouldn’t want to talk to those who suit up to go to work, but for whom the whole exercise is simply constructive, engrossing leisure time with a pay cheque at the end of it?

I’ve been very fortunate over the last couple of years to tap into this whisky conversation, encountering people who go beyond the off-licence for their drams. With distillery managers and staff, brand ambassadors, shop owners, other bloggers and even fellow students I am engaged in a free-flowing, richly-layered dialogue, not just about whisky in the bottle, but about how we have been compelled to experience whisky in the distillery, in the landscape, in the bars, in the trade shows, in the homes of those who make it.

Whisky is a launch pad to other matters – other cultures, other flavours, other ways of seeing the world. The borders of a love of whisky are contiguous with an appreciation of all artisanal products; when the plethora of pockets of Scotland have been explored, there is always the rest of the globe, and the people you meet in the process will continually amaze and surprise you with their generosity, knowledge and enthusiasm.

After having given me five single cask, cask strength drams of his, I thought I had better show my appreciation for Craig’s performance by offering him one of mine. The Aberlour 16yo was uncorked, and the conversation continued.

 

Keep track of what whisky matter Craig is presently mulling over via his blog – it’s as diverse (and brilliant) as he is: Whisky Adventures.

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Inver House at the Quaich Society

Between the six of us committee members, my ironing board and some Benromach whisky fudge, we must have succeeded in getting the message across. You cannot go far wrong with the Quaich Society, St Andrews’ whisky tasting club, for a Thursday night of top drawer dramming. When discussing the academic year’s first tasting last week, I’m delighted to say the expression ‘auspicious start’ doesn’t do it justice.

Two vertical tastings, of Old Pulteney and Balblair, proved a popular format.

Lucas, acting Brand Ambassador for Inver House Distillers, provocative co-author of Edinburgh Whisky Blog and new father, arrived with the whiskies a matter of moments before the inundation of whisky anoraks who watched, beady of eye, as the Quaich committee poured out the evening’s chief talking points. That two decidedly premium expressions, in addition to the present entry-level bottlings, from both the Old Pulteney and Balblair stables had materialised successfully got tongues wagging.

Having squeezed as many souls around the tables as was decent, Lucas launched into the serious business of our congregation: the whiskies. He began with the Old Pulteney 12yo, one of my very favourite drams in the age category by merit of its punchy salt and fruit palate and ludicrous drinkability. Next came the 17yo, which Lucas, I must interpret, rather liked. He praised it’s citrusy character, extra smoothness and poise. ‘Going back to the 12yo from this,’ he said, ‘it comes across as a dirty dram.’ However, a few patrons were concerned that their measure of the 17yo might not have been a dirty dram, too. Indeed, the disparity in colour between samples poured from the newly re-packaged batch of 17yo and those hailing from the older bottling was striking. What we had here was batch variation in practice, and a perfect example of why major brands adjust the complexions of their whiskies with the help of spirit caramel to preclude any confusion or suspicion. Lucas assured us that nothing sinister was afoot. Perhaps the brand sparkly new packaging has given the whisky a sun tan.

I won’t speak to much of the 21yo, as I intend to publish tasting notes of my 21st birthday present to myself soon. It’s rich, spicy Sherry notes and deep toffee flavours were a hit with many on our table, however.

Lucas with the newly re-packaged 17yo. A new canister - and also a new hue.

We now turned to Balblair and the fresh face of youth again. I have had the 2000 bottling maybe four times, but never has it had the power to recall the distillery so particularly and thrillingly. The bolshy, jellied citrus fruit notes leapt out at me straight away and for a moment I was standing with Martin by the spirit safe as the low wines began to dribble through, then by the feints receiver. The incredibly dense spiciness and clean barley flavours evoked the malt bins, and my cleated clatter between them to the changing rooms each morning. As the aroma developed my nostrils duped my brain into believing that I was back in the courtyard beside the draff lorry, and then in the mash house itself. I was stunned by the clarity and idiosyncracy of smells which I could identify with the help of the 2000, that within my little wine glass Balblair’s scent-filled nooks and crannies could be rediscovered.

For my thoughts on the Balblair 1989 I would simply direct you to this post of earlier in the year. Suffice it to say that for those who could not be made to swear oaths of fealty  to the Old Pulteney 21yo, this was their champion of the evening and received plenty of plaudits. It was the 1978, however, that made my night.

When Lucas mentioned that column condensers hadn’t made it to Balblair until the early 1980s, my ears pricked up. When he spoke of Sherry maturation my legs began shake. When I raised the glass and inhaled, the rest of my anatomy damn near went into catatonia. Whiskies pushing passed 30 are always difficult to dissect. They have that langorous ease of age which melds all elements of its production and ingredients list into one glorious whole. So it proved with the 1978 as rich dried fruits and deep oak aromas blended with dark, smooth maltiness and a dried floral note. The grip on the palate was mightily impressive and creamy vanillins curled around drying tropical fruits as the finish developed. I adored it. And stole the canister so that its purply handsomeness could commemorate another precious encounter with one of my favourite malts.

Massive thanks are owed to Lucas and Inver House whose generosity and estimation of Quaich Society tastes proved to be most astute. Lucas hinted that anCnoc might merit a tasting all of its own next year… We shall see.

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Glenfarclas at the Quaich Society

Glenfarclas rangeThe penultimate tasting of the academic year finally arrived after a two-week Spring Break intermission, and we Quaich Soc’ers were delighted that the supremely high calibre of outfits pitching up in St Andrews for the purposes of sloshing the water of life around a bit was to be maintained following March’s superlative visit from Compass Box.

Glenfarclas is, as some of you may know, one of my absolute favourite whiskies. My first heavily-sherried whisky was their multi-award winning 15yo – a firm favourite of Michael Jackson and Jim Murray. I found that, straight out of the bottle, there was an aroma of sweet, treated wood and a velvety, clinging mouthfeel which were unlike anything I had come across in whisky until then. More time spent in its company revealed a rich fruitiness, balanced as it was by an earthy spiciness. Only latterly did I appreciate the wonderful dark nuttiness and fat vanilla flavours. I was satisfied with my tour of the distillery, keen to escape the caprices of violent wind and hail which had been coiling about Ben Rinnes that day. Peter Donnelly, brand manager, was on a mission to bring some of this heritage, critical acclaim, unique location and strong family values to bear upon us students, through a mightily impressive inventory of whiskies with the final three far older than anything that has been put before the Quaich Society this year.

After some very brief background, Peter was anxious that we should be drinking some of his whisky. We all turned to the 10yo, one I have had before and was quite impressed with. Surrounded on all sides by its older siblings, however, it came across as somewhat limp: a clean, sweet nuttiness, grassiness and vanilla all that could really distinguish it. Not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination - and as Peter asserted, it is more of an introductory malt – but the guests in the Scores Hotel function room were keen to continue exploring.

The 15yo I effectively described above, and I shall only add here that in a comparative context, much more biscuity flavours emerged on the palate and finish beside the richer, older expressions.

Peter Donnelly

Peter Donnelly

Of especial interest was Peter’s emphasis on the maturation process, and how it is uniquely influenced by the microclimate generated in and around Ben Rinnes. It cannot be ignored. As I alluded to earlier, even in mid-April it is possible to experience a disorientating white-out as snow and sleet bucket out of the sky. Winter temperatures at the distillery can be as low as minus 22 degrees Celcius – extreme is the only word for it. Glenfarclas, however, have stuck by their traditional maturation techniques. Thick, ancient, stone-walled warehouses with slate rooves and earthen floors ensure that the worst of the heat and cold is avoided and provides the perfect consistency of ambient conditions to aid in fully-interactive maturation with minimal evaporation. Indeed, Glenfarclas can boast some of the lowest evaporation by volume in the industry. Strength is largely unaffected, too, as the extraordinary proofs many of the very old Family Casks have retained demonstrates.

To the wood, though, and this is where little, family-run Glenfarclas has to muscle in alongside the big boys - the likes of The Macallan, Highland Park, Laphroaig – all of whom want top quality Sherry casks in which to mature their drams. Demand of such casks vastly outstrips supply and hence why so many distillers have switched to ex-Bourbon barrels, more plentiful and crucially, much much cheaper. When the Grants head over to Spain each year, each cask will cost them between 600-700 euros. That Glenfarclas nevertheless abstains from charging Highland Park and Macallan prices, however, is what is so remarkable, considering the quality of the product that leaves those venerable, dear, Sherry butts.

Our next whisky was the 21yo, one I have not previously come across and was grateful to do so here. I found it rather unusual for a Glenfarclas, with a lightness to it as to which I’m still unsure whether the pronounced mulchy earthiness balanced. Initially, I found planed oak, quite spicy and sweet. Then came fragrances of a damp ornamental garden: sweet earth, wet waxy leaves and lush grass. Potato peelings yielded to white grape notes and then a toffee yoghurt character. On the palate there was more sweetness, with an assertive dryness. Earthy again, the experience concluded with floral and fruit notes. Peter revealed that the 21yo batches have become much more consistent, and of a higher quality, now that they have sourced casks from a smaller, more artisanal producer. I was intrigued by this whisky, but not wholly won over.

In stark contrast, the 25yo came blustering along with a challenge painted on its richly-hued face. This was the first of Peter’s ‘occasion whiskies’ – not for everyday drinking but a damn good thing to have tucked away. I couldn’t agree more. Marvellously focused, I discovered more of the apple notes than I had been able to with the others, together with oranges. Lush grass melded into a firm, spicy oakiness. The experience moved into the panelled library, with old books a suggestive aroma. Finally, crystallised orange peel confirmed the age and the Sherry behind this excellent dram.

On the night, the 25yo even outshone a whisky which had for a long time been remembered as one of those ‘Malt Moments’, when your immediate surroundings have no other recourse than to take a back seat as the dram in your hand moves centre stage. That had been the 30yo when I had it at the Scotch Whisky Experience in 2009. Though still impressive, the 25yo showed it a clean pair of heels for pace and agility.

What came next was to be possibly the oldest whisky the Quaich Society has ever seen at its tastings, but before I move on to that, Peter related a fascinating story of the oldest whisky Glenfarclas has. This is not one of the Family Casks – it isn’t even for sale. During the 1980s, a call was patched through from America. The caller had discovered a case of Glenfarclas whisky behind the chimney fixtures of his late father’s house, and offered the Grants the opportunity to buy back their stock, if they so wished. Further investigation through distillery records revealed that what was being described was not old whisky in terms of the spirit (between 8 and 10 years at most) but it had been bottled before Prohibition even got going. For three quarters of a century this whisky had been tucked out of sight, but sadly no-one had got round to drinking it. Perhaps they had forgotten where they had put it. The plain white case is now in the keeping of J & G Grant.

But, to that mature gentleman in our final glass. Peter had treated us to their 40yo, at £300 a bottle far out of reach of most of the tasters in the room that night, even with a misappropriated student loan, but as we couldn’t help recognising, considerably good value for money. Aware that lots of and lots of heavily-sherried whiskies might exhaust my olfactory senses, I had in fact turned to this dram first and discovered an intense, sherried red fruitiness with a creamy and rich sweetness. Dried cherries were in there, together with sweet spice, soft leather and heathery peat. The palate was rich, dark and tongue-coating, with peach and plum. Returning my nose to the glass revealed an added nutty sweetness with hedgerow berries. A touch of water brought out vanilla and big, boozy and juicy fruitcake. Oaky resin emerged, together with delicate heathery smoke. Big, but soft red apple rounded out a very rich and fruity nose. The diluted palate was very drying and rich with a spicy earthiness and somewhat too short finish. I had expected more from this whisky, I must confess. I feel it could have benefited from a little more abv, just to give it a bit of life. Who am I to argue with the wishes of John Grant, however, the one who put the whisky together? If he feels the best of the whisky is drawn out at 43% abv then so it shall be.

For a family-run business, Glenfarclas are hardly cautious in the big bad world of whisky. Peter described the dramming session of 2007 which would result in the release of the Family Casks. ‘So,’ says one, ‘what is the oldest whisky we’ve got?’

‘Ah well,’ says another, ‘I think there are a few casks from 1952.’

‘Huh… And what’s the next oldest after that?

’1953.’

‘And after that?’

’1954.’

Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.

Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.

In short, they discovered that they had casks from every year between 1952 and 1994 so what did they do? Rather than feeling rather smug and secure – as they had every reason to do – the cry went up: ‘Release ‘em!’ Peter makes out that this move was made ’just for a laugh – honest to God’. He reasons that the folks behind Glenfarclas have ‘made their money a long time ago’, and if they could offer something different, they ought to. No sooner was the release announced that 14 complete sets were immediately sold – that’s 43 individual bottles, the most expensive of which is nearly £1100. It has been phenomenally successful, the aim being to supply spectacular whisky, at prices that people can manage. Glenfarclas all over, really.

For the raffle, as Glenfarclas 105 circled about the room, Peter had a special prize for the first ticket out of the cannister: a bottle of the 175th Anniversary. A vatting of 18 casks from across five decades, bottled at 43% abv - just 6,000 bottles are available worldwide. Again, the whisky was intended to be the star of the show, hence packaging that is no different to the standard range – affordability ‘over crystal boxes and chandeliers and all this nonsense.’ The winner certainly looked happy with himself, and my three strips of tickets utterly redundant.

Many thanks go to Peter for breaking out the seriously rare stuff for us, and for the Quaich Society team for putting together another sell-out tasting.

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Compass Box at the Quaich Society

Compass Box at the Quaich Society

The whisky-drinking fraternity of the University of St Andrews had not taken well December’s showing of Snow Blight and the Seven Sacrificed Drams. Last-minute cancellations due to the ice rink that was the runway at Edinburgh Airport had kept Compass Box grounded in London and that, we feared, was that for 2010/11.

Not so: Domino, Society President, had reviewed, reshuffled and doubtless deployed many other arcane strategies known only to members of student committees to secure a slot for the boutique blender in the Quaich Society schedule. The date was set, posters and Facebook groups went live, all sixty places in the Garden Suite of the Scores Hotel were taken. John Glaser was here.

It would be sorely tempting simply to reproduce the snippets of quotes I managed to scribble down during a superlative tasting. Erudite, eloquent and passionate, John guided us through the Compass Box range in a manner only the man who made them can. There could have been no better candidate to advocate the potential of Scotch blends to a hoard of single malt swilling students, and so prolific were his mantras from the ‘margins’ that a dedicated platoon of us tramped off at high speed after the tasting to purchase some bottles before Luvians, the local wine and spirits store, closed. However, as enthralling as, if not even better than, John’s presentation were his whiskies, seven of the most distinctive and thought-provoking I have had in quite a long while.

Respectfully borrowing some of John’s idiosyncratic inclination, I shall end at the beginning. Unusually, our first pour of the evening was perhaps my very favourite, and this is in part thanks to the extent to which it exemplifies John’s philosophy for his company.

John holding court.

John holding court.

Leaving Whisky #1 aside for the moment, then, let us contemplate the evolving, absorbing nature of Whisky #2. My initial snufflings of Oak Cross were uncertain: I thought it a little musty with lots of earthy cereals verging on a drying peatiness, hard sticky toffee and banana bread. A tad muscle-bound, perhaps. On the palate, however, enlightenment – just what John had been so particular about stressing up to this point and for the remainder of his time with us. After his various malts have spent around 10 years (he looks for ‘roughly’ a certain age profile for the business of constructing his whiskies) in quality American oak casks (first- and re-fill casks only), they are allowed six months in casks with new French oak heads. ‘Why French oak?’ was one of the first of many questions John fielded from a lively audience. ‘Richness, complexity, and spice’ was the reply, John’s background in the wine industry furnishing him with privileged insights into oak-and-alcohol interaction in a wide variety of contexts. The vatting of Clynelish, Teaninich and Dailuaine created a deep, soft fruitiness at first with blackberry and sweet oat biscuits. The finish was outstandingly long with chewy, stewed fruits and heavy, sticky sulphuriness – in a good way. A little water (John had supplied pipettes for the ultimate in geeky levels of spirit-cutting exactitude) pulled out maritime flavours with more vanilla. A stonking dram.

Compass Box rangeThe next whisky exemplified John’s passion for the ‘craft approach’, something he described as ‘trying to do something for the sake of it’ quality-wise, and not to consolidate a brand identity. Spice Tree made the Scotch Whisky Association very nervous when it was first released and was indeed effectively banned. John had to re-engineer his approach to introducing French oak from the Vosges forest to his whiskies. The result is now legal as far as the SWA is concerned, married in 80% new French oak casks rather than hogsheads with staves of French oak secured to the interior.

In a very measured and reasonable rant, John bemoaned the legislation which abides doggedly by ‘traditional’ at the expense of innovation for quality’s sake. Any time spent with Compass Box whiskies reveals what a ludicrous position this is to take for any body ostensibly in existence to champion and thereby preserve the status of Scotch whisky. While the SWA, commendably, protects against fraudulent manipulations of every aspect of Scotch - and maintaining sanctity of origin together with assurances that the process is as natural as possible are immensely important - one cannot help but experience something of Glaser’s mystification at the extent to which whisky’s deliciousness is factored out of the rule book. Together with his cooper, John estimates that the typical cask is used by the Scotch whisky industry a frankly unbelievable six times. There is a quantity of extremely tired wood out there which some companies yammer are still fit to mature whisky. His little ‘magic trick’ involving spirit caramel reversed the natural v. traditional debate. With a wry smile, John described how artificial colouring of whisky was ‘traditional’, but could hardly claim to be natural.

'And for my next trick...' John is dead against 'Farbstoff'.

'And for my next trick...' John is dead against 'Farbstoff'.

Anyway, Spice Tree offered sweet woodsmoke, cayenne pepper and citrus on the nose, with a palate remarkable initially on account of its mouthfeel. Firm, oaky, fruity and spicy, it exploded on the tongue. Vanilla, orange and creamy dark chocolate came along soon afterwards to soothe again.

I shall briefly mention Peat Monster and Double Single – not because I didn’t enjoy them, but because there were more drams than can be conveniently accommodated in one blog post. Suffice it to say that the former was bathed in fragrant and complex smoke with a delicious balancing sweetness and the latter all strawberry sauce for ice cream and summer pine forests. It was at this juncture that John revealed that the recipe for Peat Monster was set to change: Ledaig in for Caol Ila and more Laphroaig in the mix with batch code numbers soon to appear on all Compass Box whiskies – ‘for all you geeks’. ‘Amen!’ piped up my neighbour.

Forgive me for glossing over Flaming Heart, too. By this point my olfactory senses were drowning in lactic acid and the fog of 46% abv drams had claimed the brain. However, it reminded me of a big and dark yet clean Bowmore: all smoke and balancing fruity sweetness. It was a mightily impressive whisky, and its label – very soon to be if not already an icon of whisky packaging – adorned the t-shirts and posters John dispersed to raffle winners and correct responses to his rhetorical questions.

Another cause of my sensory fatigue was that I could not leave alone whiskies #1 and #5. Rounding out the core range was the whisky that launched Compass Box ten years ago: controversial, daring, but utterly brilliant, it has been through several renditions since then and goes by the name of Hedonism. A vatting of grain whiskies of an average of 20 years old, this bottling demonstrates just how awesome that ‘blend filler stuff’ is when treated sympathetically in, as John reinforced, great casks. Light, floral, woody and sappy, the cereal formed the shapely body on top of the oak chasis – like an Aston Martin DB9. Coconut and creaminess came next, with a snapshot of pine forests in spring: all mist and blueberry bushes. Caramel popcorn rounded out a truly glorious nose which water did not harm one bit. Leafiness jumped out as did more coconut once a few drops of water had been added. On the palate there was plenty of oak and butterscotch, spice and dryness. A heart-stopping whisky.

My favourite, however, was the opening dram. Though the lightest, Asyla had such grace, depth and distinctiveness that I drained the glass last of all. A blended whisky for – as I discovered following the race to Luvians – under £30, this was simply astounding. Confessing that it was the dram he drank at home, John’s genius is present to the same degree in this as in the likes of Spice Tree and Oak Cross. Described on our cards as ‘Sweet, delicate, fruity and smooth’, I added to this butteriness, rounded sweetness with soft fruits (melon) and citrus (lemon). Charred oak and earthy peat showed themselves in addition to raw barley and apple. Water lightened the experience still further with spice and barley sugar and in addition to sponge cake qualities, I detected that magical signature of first-fill Bourbon: soft white pine syrup sweetness. The fresh green oaky scents flicked a switch in my brain and for a moment I was nosing my exalted malt: that Aberlour single cask. The palate was equally beautiful: light and sweet, it exhibited spice, jellied fruits with plenty of vanilla. After dilution it became peppery with toffee, black cherry, dark chocolate, more of that vanilla and a grassiness. Goooood wood.

Even 1500 words cannot communicate the brilliance, assurance and knowledge of Mr Glaser. Questions came from all around the room, and each answer revealed some obscure fact of the whisky-making and marketing process which John has discovered, explored and adapted. His mission statement is to create whiskies that are exceptional and balanced, that exhibit the best of the raw materials that comprise the spirit and encourage the drinker to return again and again to the glass. ‘Few other drinks are as compelling as whisky,’ he says. ‘It is something you will never tire of.’ With this uncommon insight into a whisky company headed in unpredictable but undoubtedly exciting directions, I’m sure that this will prove true. The fantastic materials John has at his disposal, the sympathetic imaginings which he indulges concerning them and the passion he has to take them around the world for discussion ensure that Compass Box shall henceforth be at the forefront of my mind. Not only that, but in such a capacity John performs a tremendous service to the multi-billion pound blending industry as a whole, too.

Sincerest thanks go to John for coming along to talk to us and all credit to the Quaich Society committee for securing this incredibly busy man.

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