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Day 5: Speyside and Spokes

Perhaps it was my super-abundance of full cooked Scottish breakfast, perhaps it was a moment of madness to leave it behind the wheel of my hosts’ car in the first place, but I was four and a half miles beyond Nethy Bridge, about to join the A939, when I realised I had left my bike lock at the Coire Choille bed and breakfast. Fortunately, Jan and Allan Goodall are wonderful people (cyclists themselves) and they were willing to down tools and drive out to meet me with the lock.

While I waited, I could appreciate the stark beauty of this upland landscape as the low cloud began, mercifully, to lift. I also heard a cuckoo. The rest impaired my ascent of the 20% gradient up to the main road, however, which was a fairly upsetting obstacle so early in the day. It would get worse.

When cycling to Tomintoul four years ago, I had snow and the Devil’s Elbow up to the Lecht ski station to contend with; as I pedalled towards sunshine I began to recognise that the road I was on concealed challenges of its own. Bridge of Brown is the settlement perched above a sheer drop and some hairpins. As the gradient warning signs appeared, a flashback occurred to me from having driven in this direction with the parents maybe six years previously.

My first problem was controlling the bike on the abhorrently steep descent: with all the weight, braking achieved only so much. Soon, though, I could whistle to the glen bottom and begin the ascent up the other side which was, if anything, steeper. The hairpin innards were nigh-on verticle, and even in bottom gear I had to stop at flattish sections to hyperventilate before carrying on. Eventually, I hauled myself up to the summit and could appreciate a gentler descent into a sunlit Strathavon.The remainder of the road into Tomintoul was hardly plain sailing, but it was spectacular. Indeed, one section recalled the panoramic photograph that illustrates southern Speyside in Dave Broom’s magnificent The World Atlas of Whisky.

By the time I rolled through the village the sun was rather fierce and what I really needed to do was cool off in the company of Mike Drury in the Whisky Castle. Bombastic as ever, Mike combined a diatribe against the vacuity and rapacity of the modern whisky industry with greetings to locals and taking delivery of consignments from said modern whisky industry.

‘Where were we?’ I asked, as the shop cleared again. ‘Somewhere between truth and non-truth?’ he replied. He then poured me a dram, an extravagantly creamy Dewar Rattray 18yo Braeval which was good, but not £90 brilliant. ‘I’ve sold one hundred and sixty bottles of that!’ Mike blustered.

We then touched on the reasons why the whisky industry is in ‘the shite’: the lack of good quality, old casks. Mike and his wife Cathy are single cask, single malt fanatics and they bottle whiskies under their Whisky Castle label when they find something great. Mike confessed that the casks simply haven’t been up to scratch of late, so he hasn’t bothered bottling any.

The accelerated wood programmes of most distillers, using virgin oak, first-fill Bourbon barrels whose staves hadn’t been air-dried properly in the first place and bottling younger expressions were all exacerbating the dearth of quality single malts. Doom and gloom, therefore. It’s true that the industry has to think very hard about where the oak is coming from to encase the many millions more litres of spirit being produced, but I’m not about to shed any tears just because the heart-stoppingly beautiful single cask Ardbegs, Glenlivets, or Braevals for that matter – and which only ever pleased a handful of enthusiasts – are growing scarcer. Investment in whisky is across the board, from distilleries to bottling plants to cooperages. Distillers are grappling with the problems of the supply chain and I believe that, five to ten years from now, we will be looking at more consistently tasty expressions available from more companies than we enjoy currently. The only question that remains concerns how much we shall be expected to pay for them.

Leaving the Whisky Castle behind, I pedalled off into the Glenlivet Estate below a scorching sun. Soon, I glimpsed the steam chimney of The Glenlivet, ’the single malt that started it all’, and for me in particular. The last time I cycled past a blizzard swept down the glen to engulf the distillery and me; now I was worried about heat stroke.

Late (very late) for my rendezvous with Brian Robinson at Ballindalloch Distillery, I carried on past The Glenlivet following the Avon once again. As I passed a field of cows, on a flat smooth stretch of tarmac, I heard a disconcerting, metallic ‘ping’. Fearing the worst, but carrying on anyway, I reached the A95 and turned down towards Cragganmore and the Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course, where a wee distillery was being built.

The gorgeous location of the Ballindalloch distillery.

Dismounting, I discovered that I had indeed snapped a spoke, two in a week, and my plans for the afternoon were going to have to change. That lovely Imperial 23yo on the Speyside Way? Scratch that, I was going to have to get to Dufftown and try to find the bike shop in Elgin I’d used last time to get the rear wheel structurally sound again.

With mechanical matters in mind, I maybe wasn’t as attentive or curious on my tour of the site with Brian as I could have been. However, key points that emerged were that Ballindalloch, when it opens to visitors (hopefully by September) will not be like other distilleries and visitor centres; the plan is to bring a flavour of the ancestral home of the MacPherson Grants at Ballindalloch Castle into the distillery. Mrs Russell, who has lived in the Castle for 65 years, will oversee interior design.

The VC was some way behind the rest of the distillery, but it will be a space dedicated to making visitors feel very cossetted and special. Brian was at pains to emphasise the love and dedication shown to the project by the local builders, carpenters, electricians, etc. The final say for the build goes to the family at the Castle, however. ‘If they say they want this room to be pink, it will be pink’.

Charlie Smith will be head distiller, and his brief was to produce an oily, weighty spirit. Working backwards, worm tubs were required, squat slender stills installed, a long-ish ferment and cloudy wort will be established. The traditional approach to whisky-making starts with the barley which will be grown on the Ballindalloch estate, but malted in Inverness, and continues to the copper-domed mash tun and those brand new worm tubs. A unique element of the build is that the filling store and warehouses are ‘inside’ the distillery building – guests will be able to fill a cask as they go round on the tour before rolling it into the warehouse.

As I left I spectated on the worm tubs’ installation before getting on the bike. I knew, despite my anxiety, I needed to get some serious calories in me and the Delnashaugh Hotel, just beneath the curl of the A95, was closest. I actually really enjoyed my time there: from the helpful waitress who found me the number for Bikes & Bowls in Elgin, to the huge plate of mac ‘n’ cheese, garlic bread and chips had outside on the patio area, I began to feel more in control. Also, the range of single malts behind the bar is pretty impressive. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Full to the gunnels with carbohydrates, I managed to power through to Aberlour, then time-trial up the hill to Dufftown. I was just in time to catch the bus from the clock tower to Elgin, but I couldn’t travel with the whole bike. This meant I had no choice but to repair the bike tomorrow morning, and that put GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh in jeopardy.

I was despondent for as long as it took to shower, change and visit Sandy at Taste of Speyside. Once again I was bowled over by the Highland hospitality, the venison casserole, and the G&M Glentauchers 1994. I could reflect that, even if the bike wasn’t 100% fit, I had still made it to the malt whisky capital and that wasn’t such a bad place to be.

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Whisky Prices Blast Off into Orbit

Whisky whisky everywhere, but so little of it affordable...

A disclaimer from the outset: this is NOT about Diageo’s recent announcement concerning the direction its new range of whiskies from the Mortlach distillery will take and which has got many bloggers VERY hot under the collar. Just head over to Oliver Klimek’s redoubtable ‘Dramming’ if you don’t believe me or are not acquainted with the issue. All I would say is that the decision to price a no-age statement whisky at £55 for a 50cl bottle and £180 for an 18yo whisky is symptomatic of a wider trend: Scotch prices are on the up.

Back in the good old days when I was nobbut a lad (rather, six and a half years ago, when I was 17) you could wander into a good spirits store and even a larger Tesco and pick up a bottle of The Glenlivet 18yo, the first whisky I tried that seduced me with difference, depth and intrigue, for between £36 and £40. When I first peeped into the Garden of Eden that was Scotch whisky, of course, this was no mean sum of money to me. I was used to seeing bottles of alcohol for the £20 mark, maybe a shade over if I was paying attention in the spirits aisle. Now, you are doing very well if you come across an 18yo Glenlivet (re-packaged since 2007) for less than £60. And that is at the competitive end for single malts boasting such an age statement. Bowmore’s 18yo is £67 – Highland Park’s is £88 (using Master of Malt as my price guide). Mortlach’s will be £180 – but the less said about that the better.

I’m not going to go into why this should be in this post – economics, guys, all very unseemly – but what I do want to talk about are the few pockets of comparative shade away from the rising temperatures of Scotch prices more generally. Below are a few of the single malts and blends that offer good drinking for a fee that won’t having you spitting it all back up again.

BenRiach

Bodacious BenRiachs.

Maybe it was the torrent of liquid released when Billy Walker and partners purchased this quiet Speyside giant back in 2004 but the wealth of choice came at an attractively low price. Former owners back in the 80s, Allied, had experimented heavily with the production regimes and releases continue to showcase this shape-shifting ability in complex, characterful and fully-mature expressions. Heavily peated, triple distilled as well as clean and fruity single malts are all available under the BenRiach banner. My picks of the bunch would be:

16yo 40% £36.43 If you like your whiskies quintessentially Speyside, dripping with honey, pear and vanilla, this cannot be improved upon for the price. When I tried this last year I could not believe how lovely it was, showcasing excellent cask management and a beautiful spirit. Master Blender Walker has added a tiny smidgen of smoke into the vatting, too, to add complexity.

Solstice 17yo 50% £58.37 Maybe not quite a full 18yo, but what you have here is a Glenlivet 18yo price tag plus extra ABV, smoke, and a delicious, heavy Port influence. This shouldn’t work, but it just does.

Also on the sensible pricing policy are their single cask releases, which appear a couple of times a year.

Glenfarclas

The Grant family have owned Glenfarclas, beneath the mountain of Ben Rinnes on Speyside, for six generations. Their whiskies are bold, full-bodied, and demonstrate only the best Sherry cask attentions.

15yo 46% £43.21 Every time I come back to this it puts a smile on my face. The spirit within the rich, dry Oloroso drapery is powerful, sweet and completely delightful. There is the juiciest vanilla imaginable and tannic presence. A superstar. Also, a 21yo for £61.49? Unbeatable value.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie

Under the LVMH umbrella with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (although you’d never know it), BNJ is visually anonymous with it’s bland white label. However, what’s inside the bottle is anything but.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie 40% £19.69 waves of melon, caramel and soft oak arrive on the nose while the palate boasts a commendable weight and texture with oodles of vanilla and succulent yellow fruits. Blends are, to my mind, liquid comfort blankets and this one will soothe and invigorate in equal measure.

Signatory

Owned by Andrew Symington, who also controls the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry, Signatory are a mad-cap independent bottler offering their own unnamed expressions from the various whisky regions of Scotland for under £30, as well as their Unfiltered range which includes single malts from all over the country, either as single casks or pairings of casks, reduced to 46%.

Really amazing value is to be had from their Cask Strength Collection range with whiskies typically of between 19 and 25 years of age, bottled at cask strength and usually from single casks, for below £100 in most cases. It must be borne in mind that Signatory have a reputation of sorts for wine finish deviancy (but less so than Murray McDavid) so tread carefully. However, the company is very good at listing the maturation history of the whisky you are buying.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Queen Street SMWS bar.

Okay, I will admit that the upfront costs are definitely on the steep side: this is, after all, a private club whereby the Society bottles whiskies for the titillation of its members (no sniggering in the back). Since 1983, when some Edinburgh-based single malt zealots began sourcing single casks from all over Scotland, the Society has spread to just about every continent and major city around the world. There are more than 130 single malts and 10 single grain whiskies listed on the Society’s coded books with monthly releases of single casks.

I was gifted membership for my 21st birthday and I haven’t looked back. The cost to join is now £122 but for that you receive a welcome pack stuffed with goodies, including 10cl miniatures of Society bottlings and four issues of Unfiltered each year (annual renewal currently at £59), a rather brilliant magazine which covers the more esoteric fields of debate and flights of fancy whisky can engineer. Oh yes, and the opportunity to buy some stunning single cask whiskies (the Society won an Icon of Whisky Award in 2012 for best independent bottler).

This month, for example, my eye was caught by 77.34: a 13-year-old Northern Highland dram at 56.2% and less than £50. Or, on the more mature end of the scale, what about a 29-year-old single cask for £131? The SMWS prefers to root out distinctive and unusual examples of spirit from the various distilleries of Scotland (and even Japan). What you are buying is, in effect, unique and unrepeatable. Even if you don’t buy full bottles, membership also gains you access to members rooms in London and two separate venues in Edinburgh where masses of green bottles await the arrival of your adventurous streak.

I would not go so far as to say that good whisky is dying out, but the days of inexpensive whisky are rapidly coming to an end. These guys offer something tasty, individual and not too dear, either. If you have any brands or products offering cracking value which you think I’ve missed out, please comment below.

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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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Spirit of Speyside

The modern connotations attached to ‘festival’ embrace many things, but mud, masses of people, inadequate sanitation and probably a youth with a guitar all feature in peoples’ minds’ eye. The true root of the custom, of course, is celebration, and a mighty big one is taking place in Speyside at the end of this week.

If you were to believe some of the pronouncements made by those whom I have overheard once or twice in recent years, you would wonder what the good-for-nothing-but-blends region had to celebrate. Incredibly, there are people who dismiss two-thirds of the Scotch single malt industry as grassy, fruity, honeyed and dull. In response, I urge them to do what thousands of international whisky fans are on the cusp of: visit.

Morayshire, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire boast magnificent landscapes (and seascapes), wonderfully varied and high-quality foods and of course, mighty malt whiskies. The Spirit of Speyside Festival touts them all. In past years, Glenfarclas have taken groups up Ben Rinnes, fuelled by their richly sherried liquids; this time around Glenfiddich will host a ceilidh in one of their warehouses.

Delighted with the uptake in tickets, Mary Hemsworth, festival manager, will preside over more than 370 events over the four days. Speaking of the number of enquiries from non-UK attendees, she said: ‘The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is one of the key events in Homecoming 2014, and we hope this trend will lay some very strong foundations on which to grow our international profile and that of Speyside Moray in a very important year for Scottish tourism’.

While in Dufftown last month, just in the one (superlatively excellent) Taste of Speyside I encountered Australian, Dutch and German whisky fans, while three Taiwanese gentlemen had preceeded me around the BenRiach distillery. The latter example demonstrates that it is not just the likes of The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Glenlivet that they are coming to see, but as many of the diverse and dynamic distilleries in the area as they can.

Once again, the normally secretive Mortlach will open its doors to parties over the festival, while the Tamdhu fete sounds especially interesting. The distillery will celebrate its return from the brink of rigor mortis with a ceilidh, whisky tastings, tours and a treasure hunt on May 4th.

Not to be outdone by the IWSC, the ISC, the WWA and numerous others, the Spirit of Speyside bestows its own accolades: the Roving Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards. In a departure from the norm, recipients of the RSOSWFWAs will be decided by those who live, work and visit Speyside, rather than the old hands of an expert panel. Six drams will be judged across three categories (12yo and Under, 13-20yo, and 21yo and Over) by anyone who can make it along to a judging venue with £12 still in their pockets. Tomorrow nosing will take place at the Glenfiddich Distillery; on the 2nd at the Sunninghill Hotel in Elgin; Forsyth’s Coppersmiths in Rothes, and the Aviemore Highland Resort on the 3rd; the Grant Arms in Grantown and Aberlour’s Aberlour Hotel on the 4th. Winners will be announced at a three-course lunch held at Tamdhu on the 5th.

The Speyside community – it should go without saying – rests at the core of this eponymous gathering. On Thursday evening, the Festival will kick off with an Opening Gala and an auction which every connoisseur and collector of Speyside malt whiskies ought to attend. Fourteen rare and limited edition whiskies from the region will go under the hammer to raise as much money as possible for the Moray Immediate Care Scheme, the Festival’s chosen charity for 2013.

Just some of the whiskies include bottle #2 of a 1,000 bottle release of Limited Edition Tamdhu 10yo, a G&M Glen Grant from 1965 not previously on sale in the UK, a three-litre bottle of Glenfarclas 105 and a couple of bottles of Glenfiddich’s Eeu de Robbidou whose non-traditional maturation regime means it is not technically Scotch whisky at all. Commendably, this is whisky’s attempt to give something back to the region.

The events are as numerous as the distilleries, and I would dearly love to forget about revision for a week and get stuck in on Speyside. If you are at a loose end for what to do this week, check out the website at www.spiritofspeyside.com or keep up to date on twitter (I know I will be) with the handle @spirit_speyside.

Experience the beating heart of the Scotch whisky industry for yourself, and encounter the warm hearts of the people who live and work there.

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A Place to Gather

‘Community’ is a word endowed with many connotations, leading to its (mis)appropriation by politicians, sociologists, market researchers and Mark Zuckerberg. Whether that community is ‘fractured’, patri-local or online, in the 21st century we still value and are moved by an idea of our collectivity.

Whisky provides yet another excuse for grouping together. With a single distillery or style we can identitfy with one another, share experiences and profess our loyalty. We can demonstrate how fiercely we fight for flavour. Increasingly, Scotch whisky distilleries have sought to foster such communities. Though they are ostensibly confined by the internet, strongly implied is the suggestion that one’s true point of contact – irrespective of where one lives – is a postcode in Scotland. The personality of a distillery, mediated via its virtual presence, promises the possibility of a connection to bricks, mortar and copper once you have logged off and bought a Caledonia-bound plane ticket.

Courtesy of a few clicks on the internet, you can be a Diurach with Jura, an Ardbeg Committee member, a Friend of Laphroaig, or a Guardian of The Glenlivet. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the next few months, The Macallan Order of the Garter realises its inauguration. Brands are encouraging us to pledge fealty to them on a fractionally more intimate footing. We have bought their whisky, but they want us to participate in their stories, too.

The Clach Biorach standing stone at Balblair.

My old friend, Balblair, has followed suit and underscored this notional encounter all the more powerfully and simply with ‘The Gathering Place’. In recognition of the distillery’s long-standing neighbour, the Clach Biorach Pictish stone around which Highland peoples would assemble millenia ago, and whose swirls and forms find echoes in the Balblair bottle design, there is a new way of connecting to the pair of stills in Edderton, Ross-shire. Balblair fans can sign up for free to receive exclusive web content, expert whisky tasting videos and, perhaps the principal boon of swearing allegiance to one’s lord, spirits for your taste buds only. Tiger over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog has reviewed the first soon-to-be-released vintage from 1990. He rather liked it.

And I rather like this new inclination to transform customers into a community. Whisky inspires deep passions in people, chief among which must be that our favourite drams continue to be of high quality, testaments to integrity and skill. Through these membership schemes, we have the opportunity to communicate with these distilleries and the individuals responsible for them, rather than merely pay our money and consume them. A related point is developed very well by Stuart Robson over at the Whisky Marketplace blog. Philosophy intermingles with financial imperatives and hopefully we customers can make a bolder, more sustainable statement, adding an extra and vocal dimension to those sales figures. Give us a gathering place and we will prove our loyalty. The Gathering Place at Balblair.

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The Glenlivet Thermostat (Nadurra 16yo)

The debate rages on as to the ethics of putting ice in your whisky. Personally, I think that buying a lovely single malt or blend and throwing some ice cubes in is the equivalent of buying a Lamborghini Aventador, taking it to Silverstone, and driving it at 20mph. The full extent of the spirit’s capabilities and magnificence has been shackled and compromised. But I will concede that, on occasion, there is simply no choice in the matter. For example, when cycling to The Glenlivet distillery in April 2010, the snow and hail with which I had to contend meant that by the time I arrived, wandered around the plant via the warehouse, and eventually creaked into the tasting room, I was the ice with my drink.

That drink, however, was the Nadurra 16yo. ‘Natural’ in Gaelic, this was The Glenlivet at cask strength, straight out of first-fill Bourbon casks without chill-filtration (although the process would have been eminently possible on that day). It slid down my throat like molten shortbread, firing warmth into the very muscles of my legs, or so it felt like. Despite the raw power, I can still remember the delicate malt and floral flavours characteristic of The Glenlivet and which thrilled my soul.

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo.

So now I knew what my bottle of the Nadurra, which had lain in my whisky cabinet for two years, tasted like. Purchased with the full intention of drinking it, I had noticed on the label the bottling date of October 2007, the very month in which my obsession for whisky materialised, and consequently this was to be a golden-hued time capsule embodying that single glorious moment in my life. I had expected the Nadurra to remain sealed and chaste indefinitely, but then came an invitation to a 21st birthday in Stourbridge, near Birmingham. Siobhan, born in 1991 and being rather fond of whisky, constituted the perfect excuse to unleash this vibrant but subtle beauty of a malt which had itself largely come into being in 1991.

While watching Disney’s ‘Basil the Great Mouse Detective’ and snuggled into my sleeping bag, I poured measures for Siobhan, myself and a couple of other friends. While delicious, I appreciated the other extreme of the temperature spectrum to April 2010 as I sipped. Whisky + sleeping bag + room full of people = lustful contemplation of… ice.

Though now a whisky inseperably associated with a tortured hypothalamus, I poured some in neutral surroundings to see what it could really offer.

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo 57.7% abv. Batch 1007D

Colour - Rich and bright honey gold.

Nose - Bold, fresh ex-Bourbon barrels. Classic syrupy aromas of tablet, pine and coconut. Richness, but of an airy sort: butterscotch, floral notes and creme patisiere. With more time there is a scented, toasted Jack Daniels aroma and a touch of stewed green apple.

With water - Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I thought that might happen. Creamy vanilla pools unctuously in the cracks of the fragrant, golden cask staves. Stewed peaches and vanilla ice cream. Somehow that light, semi-dry sweet malt of the distillery can still be perceived. Firm, wild flavours like a winter burn on the slopes of Ben Rinnes: definitely a brown peaty aroma. That golden barley vista grows ever clearer. Greater exposure to the air unearths syrupy corn, pine again but with zesty orange immediately behind it. Gorgeous coconut and the dusty racked warehouse at The Glenlivet.

Palate - Bursting with mint toffee, oak prickle. Gradually, peat and sweet heather emerge which are then covered with oozing golden caramel. Toffee and ripe pear.

With water - Creamier, banana, still some spearmint but tamer. More impressions of the cask: char, honey, candied lemon. Lots of lemon, in fact. Caramel smoothness and delicate, drying malt.

Finish - Darker, with charred meat-esque sweetness. The coconut dribbles across the tongue but there are also firmer flavours including flowers. Lemon pith.

With water - Deepens into relaxed oaky toffee with a generous waft of heather. Harvest on Speyside. Delicate but purposeful with some sweet and rich corn melting in. Vanilla and green fruits which have plenty of sugar with them but also some juicy freshness.

So…?

What a stunning whisky. Indeed, as I nosed it there were shades of Compass Box’s Hedonism and even, could it be, that supreme Aberlour 14yo single cask which I tasted a few days after that Nadurra in April 2010. This is not a spirit that deals lightly with the oak, but those casks are of such high quality and let out enough of the inherently classy Glenlivet flavours that, to this palate, the effect is nearly faultless. This is the only expression I have tasted of The Glenlivet to be bottled at cask strength and whether it is this or the non-chillfiltration that I must credit with the gorgeous sustain and expert flavour development, I’m not sure. The whole marries suaveness and vibrancy with beautiful results. How delighted I am that I opened it after all; a cautionary tale for all those ‘wait-and-see’ purchasers.

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Majestic Glenlivet

The word on the street is that there is some sort of royal shindig going on? Lizzie has reigned over us for 60 years and we Brits think that deserves bunting, scones, a few elderly gentlemen playing guitars, that sort of thing. The Macallan has grasped the spirit of the occasion a little better, I feel, with a new bottling from its regal stocks, although it cannot match – at least in terms of years – the Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 60yo. Either way, whisky as a fit means of honouring important occasions, usually with a calendrical application, cannot be disputed.

This brings me on to whisky as a fit means of marking notable moments in my life, and The Glenlivet in particular. It shall always be bound up with October 25, 2007, as the distillery I visited on that bright but chilly day and which launched my interest in whisky into the stratosphere. I don’t know whether this fact was consciously recalled by my friends when, in anticipation of my 21st birthday in September of last year, they pitched in for a bottle of The Glenlivet 21yo Archive (I should mention that it has shot up in price since). Upon opening it, I was ever so glad they did. Upon receiving it, I could only marvel at what a tremendous group of people I call friends. Lizzie will, doubtless, enjoy her scones this weekend and today I intend to tell you how much I enjoyed a measure of this whisky recently.

The Glenlivet 21yo Archive

The Glenlivet 21yo Archive 43% vol. £99.95

Colour – Boldly rich and burnished amber. Toffee apple.

Nose – A few choice aromas initially: clean, sweet and creamy ex-Bourbon wood with plenty of vanilla, sugary yellow fruits and fruitcake. With nose in the glass, I found the delivery a little timid at first but it was gentle and medium rich with a lovely freshness. Maltiness eventually appeared which boasted a certain oiliness whilst being wrapped in nougat and caramel. Terrific firmness of body with a fragrance like heather. The aroma seems to become ever richer with toffee and vanilla, in addition to nutty sherry and dark honey.

Water releases the creamy soft barley which makes powerful surges on a bed of vanilla. Peach, syrupy and running with juice, also Scottish tablet. The nose settles into an image of dunnage warehouses and top notch old Bourbon casks. The cereal notes are quite sharp and still somewhat oily. Plenty of nuttiness appears. With more time, shortbread, sweet mash tun and some dunnage again. Full, fresh and juicy malt.

Palate – Sweet, heavy fruits at first before oak and a slight earthiness break in. A malty flavour that combines vanilla and biscuity richness. Nutty oak dominates towards the finish.

Water heightens the creaminess, as it did for the nose. More toffee and sharp cereals. A good deal of weighty oak. A puff of vanilla after swallowing. Prune and almond.

Finish – Semi rich, oaky, but with a dusty floral note. Plum jam/ figgy residue and vanilla toffee. Quite basic and closed.

Water lent the finish real expressiveness. A crystallised sweetness to the malt introduced the oak once more, only on this occasion it had relaxed a fraction, allowing some tropical fruits to emerge: passion fruit, orange. Butterscotchy/ biscuity richness characteristic of the distillery.

So…? This is a whisky that just about succeeds in balancing delicacy and robustness. Some elements are as fresh and juicy as you could wish for with a Glenlivet, while the extra years have granted it a subtle, dark weight. The wood types have been juggled very impressively with controlled emphasis on Sherry oak but with some very high-quality refill Bourbon barrels in there, too. This is a very good whisky indeed, which does not require your full attention all the time but rewards closer inspection, too.

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Cups o’ Kindness: Celebrating with Whisky

Whisky conquers all.

University Year 2 of 4 has come to a conclusion! [Whoops and shrieks and similar noises conveying relief and joy.] But once the giddiness, writers’ cramp and the last haunting echoes of Samuel Beckett have left my person, what do I use to fill the academic void? What whisky does my newly-liberated self demand?

As it happens, the decision is not in any way straightforward. My choice following the final exam of Semester One reflected my needs at the time: a comfort dram was the order of the day, as it would be on any other occasion in which I am expected to write about Marxism for forty minutes. A double Caol Ila 12yo embraced my palate and soothed my mind, and went some way towards pacifying me having been asked by the bar staff for ID. Obviously St Andrews is riddled with deep-voiced, 6’3” bearded 17-year-olds requesting marginally lesser-known Islay single malts. Anyway, the familiar dry barley sweetness and delicate crumbly peat served to put the horrors of the exam period behind me.

I escaped from my last exam this time around on Thursday at 11.30, however, and have still yet to savour a distilled spirit. This has created a concern, because the dram in question has to be rather superb now. Delayed gratification, and whatnot. More than enough lager has been consumed to wash away – Lethe-like - the memories of English and Classics assessment, and I feel like something which can coax me into anticipating the summer of freedom with some crisp, buxom flavours. My Aberlour single cask? Definitely unctuous, creamy and apricot-y, but far too heavy on the oak, I’ve decided. My Glenlivet 21yo? Apt, but more of a soothing fireside whisky. My Balblair single cask? Jolly excellent, but a little over-familiarised in these last months.

The answer, I feel, has to be the remnants of my Compass Box cask sample. This decidedly different time in my life (last year’s post-exams high was a tad more stressful than it ought to have been, hurtling down to Newcastle for a Rush concert while quaffing some Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve) calls for a seriously singular spirit. Failing that, I can get a measure of Laphroaig Quarter Cask at my local for £2.40 so I have options.

It is a nice problem to have, of course, selecting which of your favourite whiskies you ought to pour. But can we sometimes become too caught up in having the right drink at the right time, for the right reasons? Do we intimidate ourselves with respect to our own drinks cabinets? Shouldn’t any whisky well-earned taste sweetest? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether or not we create impossible pedestals for our drams and impose too many restrictions and caveats about which pleasures we ought to find in what whiskies at which times?

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Peat: the Smell of Fear

While still in my whisky nappies, as it were, I made the adventurous but ill-informed progression from The Glenlivet 18yo I had relocated from the distillery on Speyside to a nascent dramming cupboard, to another single malt we happened to have in the house. My Mother had confessed to a certain bias with regards to a distillery I could not pronounce and was grateful for her instruction: Laff-Roy-G. ‘How different could it be?’ I wondered.

To this day I remember the savage abuse that dram of the 10yo wrought upon me. As far as a flavour is concerned, it was not etched upon my memory so much as gouged into my tongue. Rather than The Glenlivet’s rounded, floral and honeyed gentility, this potion reeked of Chemistry cupboards and my next door neighbour’s chimney when he is burning something suspect. It was not whisky as I had only recently come to know it, but an encounter with something primeval, dangerous and dirty. When the idea to tour Scotland’s distilleries came about, I labelled Islay on the map with a big red cross and a ‘here be dragons’ note. I did not want any more of this whisky region’s fire and brimstone.

Of course, today I would happily sprinkle peat on my breakfast cereal, or substitute it for black pepper. Caol Ila is (probably) my favourite distillery - Kilchoman is fast catching up – and sometimes, only a Laphroaig will do. Increasingly there are more folk like me, who relish the taste of earth and burning in their spirits and more companies eager to supply them with cutting, ashy loveliness. Douglas Laing released Big Peat a few years ago, and now Fox Fitzgerald Ltd. have shown up for the party with Peat’s Beast. I would say that they are a bit late, but the next Ardbeg Committee bottling and Feis Ile will demonstrate just what popular punch peat still boasts.

Dubbed ‘a sublime single malt scotch that’s packed with a big bite of untamed peatiness’, it also ticks the Whisky Geek boxes by being bottled at 46% abv. and without chill-filtration: ‘as it should be’ it bellows on the label. Dare I approach the Beast again? Have my Laphroaig Quarter Casks from earlier in the week been adequate acclimatisation?

Peat’s Beast 46% £34.99 available here.

The singeing effect of Peat's Beast.

Colour – Very pale (suggesting natural colouring, too) with wet straw and lemon pith shades.

Nose – With the glass a little way below the nose, homebaked bread appears first: yeasty, sweet and savoury. Beneath this is a grimey, industrial earthy smoke. Close to I find Italian salami, green fruits and certainly a full-bodied character. Whether it is necessarily ‘fierce’ I am not yet certain. With time, crackly bonfire appears, and this will change from its original moorland setting to the beach. Vanilla pod and ‘green’ peat. Later still grapefruit jelly appears with the impression of barley on the malting floors.

With the addition of water, the nose becomes slightly smoother and slippery. Burning straw and spicy malt. Develops into a smouldering charcoal barbecue. Orange peel comes with an emerging sweetness. Gentle earthy, crumbly smoke wafts around. Time reveals stables, a slight sweatiness and baked bread again.

Palate – That sure is a ‘bite’, but I don’t want to recoil in pain. Sweet malt sugars appear at the front of the tongue before a cayenne and chilli heat take over. This falls back onto smoky/sweet charred oak and eventually a deep softness.

After some water the palate grows sootier with charcoal. Another sip reveals turmeric and smoky toffee. Medium-dry, it boasts residual chilli-like heat but loses some of the nuances of the straight sample.

Finish – Some oak sugars survive, but mostly the impression is of grains of peated malt. Apple cores and smoke. Peat bog is a growing impression, but in a naturalistic, not kilned character. Vanilla returns with paprika at the end.

Water lengthens and deepens the experience. Texturally, the whisky is of real interest blending creaminess and a rough firmness. Honeyed at first, with a bit of lemon, before becoming – there’s no other word for it – medicinal. Strong vanilla and caramel from the oak and a little of the Islay iodine character. Cured meats are the final act.

So…?

Let’s be clear on this one point: this is a very capable and charming single malt. It blends youthful vibrancy with richness and sophistication and I think it is very good value indeed. However, I tried it with a couple of friends of mine and we were all in agreement: it doesn’t blow your mind with peatiness. Ordinarily that would not be a compliant. Octomore and Supernova are all very well, but would you turn to them on a daily basis? However, neither of these two expressions claim the title of Peat’s Beast and it is in the spectrum of peat that we must judge this whisky. This is not widely available, those who choose to buy it will most likely do so with a few tours of duty already completed in Islay’s smokiest expressions and they are likely to come to the same conclusion: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Kilchoman all go peatier. 35 ppm is not a beastly phenol content; in fact, I would rename this whisky Peat’s Boisterous Labrador.

I am fairly certain this is not an Islay whisky, however, and hails instead from the mainland’s consistently peaty distillery: Ardmore. My evidence is the industrial grime I noted on the nose, in addition to the cured meats and orange, and the strong, fresh barley impression it retains through the palate and finish. Provenance is not vital, though, because this is a superb whisky. Peat – by its own mission statement, however – is, and it falls some way short of sticking your head inside the Laphroaig kiln. Therefore, buy it for the skilful manipulation of richness, spirit integrity and attractive earthiness, but bear in mind that there are bigger peaty beasts out there.

Many thanks to Pauline Graham for the sample.

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Le Malt 24 Hours – part 2

As I mentioned in the previous post, for our 24 Whiskies in 24 Hours Challenge Mark and I understood that company would be an important factor in the undertaking. Good morale would ensure positive malt moments. With this in mind, for our eighth whisky Xander, Quaich Society Secretary, joined us in Mission Control.

Out came Peat’s Beast, an independent bottling of a peaty whisky recently released and for which I had a 70cl sample. I hope to bring you more detailed information on this dram soon, but for now suffice it to say that it galvanised our spirits for the night ahead. ‘Just remember,’ Xander replied, ‘alcohol is a depressant’. And then he bounced out the door.

01.30: Four Roses Small Batch and Dervish pizzas.

Little did Mark and I realise that, ordering pizzas aside, we would enjoy no other outside human interaction for the next 17 hours. We decamped to his flat where a Speyside period developed: two malt whiskies with bipolar developments in both Sherry and ex-Bourbon oak. The Macallan Fine Oak 10yo and The Balvenie Doublewood proved delicious, despite the incoming seismic waves of another sinus headache for me. From there, arrangements became somewhat comical as we tramped to and fro, grabbing whiskies (Balblair 1992, Four Roses Small Batch) and a DVD (Rat Race) so that whisky and adequate distraction should be in the one place.

A very truncated verticle tasting of Aberlour followed as Mark’s 10yo introduced my 16yo single cask. It was at this point, dear readers, that despite the fortifying ham pizza, I confess I hit the wall. 03.30 had arrived entirely unexpectedly and found me pschologically unprepared. We had, when discussing the endeavour, always admitted that fatigue and not inebriation would be the greatest threat to completing the Le Malt 24 hours but I had not expected the agonising, bleary-eyed and ponderously-stomached horror of it all. I sat, slumped, on my sofa and could not revive myself with a pragmatic appraisal of the situation: we were two whiskies beyond halfway, if I could only endure until 5am or thereabouts, I could conquer the challenge.

Mercifully, our itinerary came to the rescue. Mark’s coastal collection of Jura Superstition and Clynelish 14yo would see us through until dawn, and we had agreed that we would take the Challenge to the beach. SAS-style, I grabbed everything warm I possessed, in addition to an Easter Egg. The trek that followed I remember neither as brief nor straightforward but we belatedly arrived at the Old Course. En route, we had exchanged greetings with a hedgehog which Mark entirely failed to photograph. I think this multi-species interaction gave me new heart, however, for I navigated my way between the 17th and 18th, then the 2nd and 1st – avoiding the Swilken Burn by some miracle – and placed boot on sand with firmer resolution.

We pitched ourselves on a bit of dune, poured the Jura, and became entranced by the wonders of the universe above our heads. I sipped the whisky which, at pre-dawn temperatures, reminded me of the Jura and ice cream experiment we had indulged in at 16.30: a smoky, butterscotch frozen treat. As I lay on the dune, I noticed a satellite sliding over the sky, and traced its progress with slack-jawed wonder. The Milky Way could be seen, too.

Astoundingly beautiful on both counts: the 15yo Caol Ila and sunrise on St Andrews' pier.

Because it was cold, and unbeknownst to ourselves we now sported a significant layer of light sand courtesy of the seaside breeze, we moved on to East Sands. By this point, light had begun to build in the lower reaches of the sky and hope renewed. Mark and I slouched to the end of the pier which was no less chilly or exposed than West Sands had been, but the insistent swells coming from the horizon broke against it in the half-light with a mesmeric beauty. Black and blue, the waves kept on melting against the structure on which we stood, with textures I well knew my camera could not capture.

Clynelish and that Easter Egg ushered in the dawn, and we poured the Caol Ila single cask in time to encourage the burning slit of red that announced the return of the sun. Despite this being the 17th dram of the day, that Caol Ila in that moment will always remain a particular privilege to have savoured.

The terrors of the night vanquished, we returned to my flat where an unusual breakfast awaited us. The Glenlivet 21yo at 07.30 in the morning beat a bowl of Crunchy Nut cornflakes any day, and when I opened the Redbreast 12yo an hour later, it was infinitely preferrable to fruit muesli and yoghurt.

 

Into the finishing straight: Mark pours the Glenmorangie Original.

Breaking the 20 whiskies barrier would require another stagger back to Mark’s. There, Glenmorangie Original witnessed a fit of laughter on my part as I speculated on what members of the public passing Mark’s sitting room window should think were they to look in at us. The laughing quickly stopped, however. At 10.25, our finishing line seemed further away than it had at 06.45. We put The Departed on the DVD player and poured, drank, washed glasses, poured and drank again. Mark professed to be struggling by this stage, and I had started to worry about what that gentle tug in my lower abdomen might indicate as to the status of my liver. Damon, Di Caprio and co. shooting each other passed some critical time and eventually, with wry smiles and rasped ‘slainte‘s, the penultimate whisky entered the glasses. Incredibly, and Mark agreed, I could still find the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban enjoyable. I could still stand whisky.

Walking back into the Whey Pat, I fixed my gaze upon their wall of whiskies in a manner that the barmaid would have been forgiven for judging as ‘unnecessarily aggressive’ or ‘mad’.

‘What do you fancy?’ asked Mark. I slumped against the bar.

‘Old Pulteney 12yo, please.’

And so Lavinia, our companion from the Bruichladdich tasting but 21 hours previously, discovered us half an hour later a pitiful, morose pair. There was a plate of nachos I could not finish, despite having drawn upon them as my motivational energy in the small hours. There were blood-shot eyes. There was a notable failure of communication as I could think of nothing besides my bed. However, there was real cameraderie between myself and my fellow expeditionist. We had done what had at certain points seemed impossible and we could still look at a bottle of whisky without yelping in fright. 24 whiskies, 24 hours – a vast number of singular memories, and the written promise that we will never do anything like it again. At least, my signature is on there; Mark is thinking he might give it a shot with ale.

The completion photograph. I should have done - but could not do - more damage to those nachos...

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