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Wemyss Malts at the Quaich Society

May is whisky month in Scotland, in case you had wondered why there was a whisky festival going on everywhere from Speyside to London and Glasgow, to your local church hall. Whisky is everywhere for these glorious 31 days of early summer. Sadly for me, exams have been equally prevalent.

Before revision robbed me of libational liberty, Doug Clement - long-time Quaich Society attendee and now Wemyss Malts ambassador – closed our immensely successful year of tastings. Doug was the man who pushed and pushed (and pushed) for a distillery in the East Neuk of Fife, and his beloved Kingsbarns dream is being made manifest by the investment and stewardship of Wemyss Malts, who purchased the nascent company from him last year. A pro golf caddie ordinarily, Doug donned his kilt rather than a club bag to present a range of Wemyss releases and provide us with an update on the distillery build project.

Working with such an old building – a former baronial pile in days gone by with the ornamental turrets and crenellations to prove it – has presented challenges, but the interior is now fully partitioned off and I understand the roof is weather-tight. Edinburgh architects, Simpson & Brown, have preserved the time-worn exterior of the building. All that remains, essentially, is for the equipment to move in and production is expected to start in December. Doug will live in the grounds, acting as visitor centre manager for the hordes of whisky fanatics and curious golfers who are sure to descend on the distillery upon completion.

Our first pour of the evening was a single cask single malt. Wemyss work with the redoubtable Charles Maclean who selects casks for bottling and bestows upon them a useful flavour moniker by which they are to be known. This one, from Mortlach in Speyside, was dubbed “Vanilla Oak”, a 15yo from an ex-Sherry butt. Looking at the colour one would never have guessed: very pale indeed with light grassy aromas arriving first. A nutty and acidic edge and thick custard also did not point to a European oak maturation vessel. The palate was rather cooling with grassiness again, pear, vanilla (quelle surprise) and spearmint. A light dram, for all its provenance and not entirely my cup of tea.

The next offering was a Scottish premier: the new – non-age statement – Lord Elcho, a blended whisky. I tasted the 15yo a while back and was impressed by its velvety rich and sweet nose and industrial, smoky palate – a most curious Jekyll/Hyde whisky. The latest addition to the range was right up my street: syrupy thick grain, woody spice and an edge of dry, crisp peat smoke at the back rounded out an exuberant and playful nose. It remained bouncy on the palate with tight, clinging grain and again a touch of smoke. Dark chocolate and coffee grounds led into the short, sweet finish.

Moving swiftly on, we came to the much-lauded Spice King 12yo (a World Whisky Awards winner back in 2012). Sixteen different malts are packed in delivering a focused green malt and green apple aroma, with a far deeper taste profile: rich malt, liquorice, turmeric and a touch of peat. A really engaging sipper.

The second single cask release was one I had come across a few weeks previously, and new it was of an exceptionally high standard. The 1997 Clynelish “Apple Basket” went down a storm. A 16yo dram from a Bourbon barrel, the nose offered super thick and indulgent oak with rich red apple and candied ginger. The palate was a joy with a shaving of oak, then caramel and red fruits. A tickle of spice and curry leaf confirmed this as the classically waxy and semi-savoury Clynelish spirit.

I remember being impressed by Wemyss’s other blended malt, Peat Chimney (Spice King, Peat Chimney and The Hive are the company’s core range of blended malts) when I first tried it. Again, I was charmed by the level of integration between biscuit malt and peat. Abundant citrus balance these aromas. Soft and fruity on the palate, the peat gradually grows. Balance is maintained, but it felt a tad underpowered to me, especially when compared with something like Compass Box’s Peat Monster.

The final drink could be mixed if we so chose: Darnley’s View Spiced Gin with Fever Tree Ginger Ale, ice and an orange segment on the side. The aromas were all spicy and Indian: cumin, turmeric, with a sweet and buttery undertow. The flavours were too perfumed and sweet for my tastes, however, but I have heard good things about the ginger ale combination.

Beer, more Spice King and more beer followed in the pub afterwards, and I’d like to thank Doug and Wemyss for their generosity, as well as for the hugely entertaining part they played in what was my final tasting as Quaich Society President.

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Kilchoman at the Quaich Society

‘James! Great to meet you at last!’
‘Err, I’m Peter, actually. But don’t worry, it happens a lot.’

When dealing with Kilchoman, plans are likely to change when you least expect them to; new faces emerge, different ways of doing things are trialled out, flavours defy belief. Or at least, this is what I took from Peter Wills’ presentation to the Quaich Society earlier this month. He – and not his brother – arrived at the venue, glanced at our tasting mats and requested a modification to the order. Then our projector refused to have anything to do with his laptop. Still, at least nothing burnt down.

Peter is one of the three sons of Kilchoman founder, Anthony Wills. Together with his brothers, Peter bangs the drum for his family’s whisky with both passion and real insight. This makes sense: he grew up with the distillery as it took shape on Kilchoman farm in the north west of Islay, where relatives on his mother’s side still live.

Wills Senior moved from the wine trade to independently bottling whiskies before deciding that, if he was to make available the kind of dram he aspired to, he was going to have to produce it himself. Peter admitted that, in hindsight, such a decision would not be made again; the rigmarole of building a distillery and making whisky is financially and emotionally sapping. The current estimate is that running Kilchoman costs between £30,000 and £40,000 per month. From December 2005 to September 2009 when the first official single malt whisky was released from the purpose-built warehouse, optimism and resolve were held together with sticky tape and string. Fortunately, the whisky was good – astonishingly good – and Kilchoman has weathered the initial storm.

Peter outlined the production regime at Kilchoman, dubbed on the label ‘Islay’s Farm Distillery’. One third of the roughly 150,000 litres of alcohol produced per year is their signature 100% Islay spirit: from barley to bottle, the whisky doesn’t leave the island. 100 tonnes of barley per year are grown on the farm, malted on their own floors, kilned to impart a bit of smoke but not to the same degree as the malt they buy commercially from Port Ellen, turned into whisky and matured on Islay. Impressive stuff. The remainder of the spirit is heavily-peated (50ppm), used to create a consistent character with which they could test the reaction of the world’s peatheads.

The whisky has been ‘engineered’ by Dr Jim Swan, who has worked with many a start-up distillery since the millennium. The emphasis has been on a smoky but very sweet spirit, filled into fresh oak, especially ex-Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels to accentuate that sweetness and weight on the palate. Overseeing production is former Bunnahabhain distillery manager, John MacLellan.

But I mentioned that plans change or, to use Peter’s words: ‘things break down at Kilchoman’. Whether this is a temperamental boiler or human error, the team at the distillery are forever adapting to changes, nuances and accident. Perhaps the best example of these latter instances would be Peter lighting the kiln as a 16-year-old, heading away to watch the Six Nations rugby and getting a call to say that the whole thing was on fire. This put back 100% Islay production by a week or two.

But what of the spirit itself? When they aren’t putting out fires or laboriously filling 11,000 bottles by hand and can actually focus on making whisky, what comes out at the other end? Peter had six whiskies to show off, the latest multi-vintage Machir Bay (a mix of differently-aged malts from ex-Bourbon, often married in Sherry butts), the latest single vintage 2007, the Loch Gorm all Sherry-matured malt, the second release of the 100% Islay, a single cask 100% Islay and a bottling for the Kilchoman Club.

The 100% Islay Second Release starts life as barley peated to 25ppm, so fairly mild on the smoke-o-meter. The result is a grassy-smelling whisky with pistachio, steamed milk and white chocolate maltesers. The palate reminded me of sea shells, minerally peat and smoked oatcakes with a grassy finish.

The Machir Bay was sweet, zesty and smoky, with a lovely herbal edge throughout. The 2007 is the oldest whisky the distillery has released to date, a 6yo from Bourbon barrels. Thick apple and mossy, turfy smoke on the nose, I then found lemon rind, cough syrup and proper artisanal chorizo. The palate was the smokiest I’ve seen from a Kilchoman: ashy, bonfire smoke with little thrusts of oak. Ardbeg territory.

I’ve written about the Loch Gorm before, and the latest batch was released last week. The first of the single casks was delightful: vanilla ice cream and barley sugar, pear softness and white chocolate filled the nose while a heavy biscuit sweetness and nudges of oak came into the palate. The Kilchoman Club release benefited from a little water to bring down the strength revealing sticky date, barley, thyme and honey on the nose with a sweeter smoke. The palate was gentle and oaky with banana chips, apple and plum making for a really fruity experience. A trace of peat appeared at the end.

I have said it many a time but this distillery is going places. The charm of the liquid is more than embodied by the people representing it, and Peter was an excellent speaker who could not be ruffled on technical matters. He was even good enough to hint that Kilchoman from Port pipes should be available from September and that there are other wine casks stashed away over on their little patch of Islay. I cannot wait.

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Talisker at the Quaich Society

The five Taliskers on show recently at the Quaich Society.

With twenty-eight distilleries to cherry-pick from, it was perhaps a surprise that David Sinclair of drinks industry giant Diageo arrived in St Andrews with the product of only one of their distilleries. Then again, given Diageo’s recent investment in single malt brands – most notably regarding their Speyside dark horse, Mortlach – the decision to showcase all that is new and interesting in the world of Talisker was understandable.

Back when I first succumbed to whisky’s compulsive charms the extent of the Talsiker ‘core’ range was the iconic 10yo, the devilishly hard-to-find but stunning 18yo and the Amoroso-finished Distiller’s Edition. However, over the last twelve months we have seen a feisty no-age statement Storm, it’s brooding cousin Dark Storm and even a Port-finished offering, the punningly-named Port Ruighe (the Gaelic name for the capital town of the Hebridean island of Skye, where Talisker is made). David – somehow or other – managed to procure two bottles of the 2009 30yo release as well, so it wasn’t just a blooding of the youngsters.

Talisker’s production process is, quite rightly, the place to start when appraising any of the whiskies from this cult distillery. Today using medium-peated barley from the Glen Ord maltings, once upon a time Talisker was triple-distilled; indeed, the still house still boasts the extra copper which would have been used to further refine the spirit back in the old days. These stills are unusual in themselves, with purifiers in the wash stills connecting the u-bend lyne arms back to the body of the stills. All condensation takes place in worm tubs. Basically, this is complex distillation, building in weight and power to the spirit.

There can be no better demonstration of this than in the 10yo: idiosyncratically peppery, with a bit of savoury seaweed on the nose, the whisky has mellowed slightly with generous vanilla and spice from the oak casks used to mature it. This was the first time in years I’d tried the core expression and, to be honest, it wiped the floor with the next two interlopers.

Talisker Storm – or ‘drizzle’ as one wag I spoke to dubbed it – is supposed to be a more potent rendering of the house style, building in extra spice and peat with the use of heavily-charred, rejuvenated American oak casks. These impart no flavour from the liquid which was originally in the cask and allow the fresh oak to penetrate the spirit. I maintain that this is actually quite a soft, floral and mild Talisker by comparison with the 10yo and while not an unpleasant dram by any means, it cannot hide its blatant limitations of depth.

I have stated elsewhere that I am a big fan of Port-finished whiskies – in fact, last night I tearfully savoured the last of my BenRiach Solstice which I bought almost a year ago at the distillery. This is a symphony of dry, aggressive peat and thick hedgerow berry sweetness from the Port. I found the Talisker Port Ruighe disjointed and flat in contrast - the house style, after between three and six months in Port casks, had been consummately butchered, a suspicion only underlined whenever I returned to that bombastic 10yo.

David Sinclair talks us through the impressive 30yo.

This is not to say that Talisker and wine casks ought always to be kept well clear of each other; the Amoroso Sherry-retouched Distiller’s Edition is and to my mind always has been a delight. The peat and spice of the spirit meld with the drier elements of the wine while overall the effect is of fullness, sweetness and decadence, but in balance.

Our final whisky was a rare treat. I last sampled a 30yo Talisker at Edinburgh Whisky Blog’s Movember tasting – again courtesy of David. I described it as a lady’s boudoir extruded through the ashes of a peat fire. This one was marginally less sophisticated and surprising but still impressive. The nose offered a pronounced creaminess with some candied zest. Behind came a perfumed smokiness and tropical fruits with a growing spice and coconut character. A trace of cedar oil ramped up the aromatics. The palate, even at cask strength of 53.1%, was leathery and amazingly rounded. I detected almond milk, menthol and eucalyptus and a more overtly herbal finish with plenty of invigorating barley sugar. Excellent.

In the past it hasn’t always been possible to go ‘vertically’ through a Diageo distillery’s range. When there are three or four to choose from the latter drams are normally prohibitively expensive and elusive. To see Talisker in its many costumes was hugely instructive for me, and I know a number of others found the flavour bridge they’d been searching for between smoke-free and heavy peat whiskies. The Storm and Port Ruighe just didn’t do it for me, but I look forward to more experimentation with this powerful and versatile spirit. Hopefully David Sinclair will be able to come by again and curate them for us.

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Old Pulteney and Balblair at the Quaich Society

The intriguingly complex Duncansby Head from Old Pulteney.

Even above and beyond the extraordinary whiskies we are treated to here at the Quaich Society, the single most important factor in the club is community. However, this all-encompassing term extends beyond the organising Committee, even beyond the whisky faithful who attend each tasting. Community is also about our interactions with the great men and women on the frontline of the whisky industry who generously donate their products and passion.

One of the family by now is certainly Lukasz from Inver House Distillers. Over the last three years he has arrived carrying the most intriguing line ups the Society has seen. In one year Lukasz even managed to squeeze in two tastings for us. He pitches his presentations just right: the whiskies have their moment in the spotlight, there’s a bit of history and a strong emphasis on production values. More than anything else, however, Lukasz is a really top guy whose sense of humour is as self-evident as his love of a good dram.

Last month, to round off our first Semester of superb tastings, Lukasz outdid himself with the breadth and exclusivity of the whiskies he brought. Indeed, so exclusive were they that our post-tasting discounts for attendees in Luvians Bottle Shop could apply to only one of the six single malts on show. We were treated to the Travel Retail Exclusive Old Pulteney Lighthouse Collection (Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Pentland Skerries) and the soon-to-be-released Balblair Vintages of 2003 and 1990 as well as the (slightly) more readily-available 1997.

The Lighthouse Collection is a boldly-packaged, wood-focused range of whiskies from the Wick-based distillery of Old Pulteney. In keeping with their ‘Maritime Malt’ persona, the moniker of each whisky champions a local lighthouse. Their characters are wholly cask-differentiated, however. Lukasz pointed out that it was rare to taste products from the one distillery in which the age was a constant (7-8 years old) but the maturation regime wildly different. The Noss Head is the ex-Bourbon representative. Bubbly, clean and lush on the nose I found plenty of freshly-peeled orange, an oiliness and banoffee pie. The palate was spirity with rich oak and leafy qualities.

The middle whisky was perhaps the best of the bunch for me, and if it is possible for a whisky to boast such a thing, it had real integrity. A Bourbon and Sherry mix, this was softer and more reserved on the nose with salt and sweet oak. Complex and textured. The palate showed fixing fruit, ginger and cardamom.

For his introduction to the Pentland Skerries expression, Lukasz went into a little more detail about Quercus robur - the Darth Vadar of oak. He asserted that coopers and distillers hated working with the stuff since it is prone to splitting, leaking, and all manner of other defects making cask construction and management very complicated – not to mention expensive. Nevertheless, the impact on the finished whisky cannot be replicated any other way and the flavour profile will always be in demand. I must admit, though, that I would not ask for the Pentland Skerries again. While rich and smooth on the nose with plenty of fruit and toffee, sandy notes and wet tweed developed suggesting the cask and the spirit have not quite achieved harmony. The palate was thick and clinging, but beyond the obvious Sherry flavours the engaging depths of the distillery character simply couldn’t surface.

Having eulogised about Sherry casks, Lukasz revealed a little of his own whisky evolution. It wasn’t so very long ago, he told us, that he was a peat freak; the peatier the better, in fact. Then one day, he poured another rich, smoky dram and… was unmoved. Somehow those earthy, fruity beasts simply didn’t push his buttons any more and he rediscovered the joys of an unpeated whisky matured in quality American oak ex-Bourbon casks. To him, he can detect ‘more of the place in my dram’ – ex-Bourbon promotes transparency in a whisky: where it was made, to what brief and by whom.

I have to say I agree. Of the tastings we have had this year, the Tomatin 15yo and Balvenie 12yo Single Barrel have been the stand-out whiskies for me. I began dribbling with anticipation because I know that one of the best spirits to come out of good ex-Bourbon barrels is Balblair, and Lukasz had three vintages lined up for us.

The 2003 replaces the delicious, exciting and charming 2002 which is one of my favourite drams. The 2003 kept the faintly straw-like, hamster feed-ish cereal qualities and added a biscuitiness. The palate had amazing feel to it – all barley sugar and syrupy citrus. However, overall I felt it was just a touch too austere and spirity when compared with the 2002.

The 1997 went by many descriptors from Lukasz: blue sky whisky, a lunchtime whisky… For me personally, this is a desert island whisky and not just because of the tropical fruit notes and freshness. It is a seriously high-quality dram. It boasts an absolutely stunning nose: rich yet lush and creamy with orange travel sweets. There is a great undertone of dryness from the oak. On the palate, all is well with an immensely fruity delivery – think travel sweets again – backed up by cumin and nutmeg.

During the Balblair portion of the evening, Lukasz had to field questions of the vintage bottling policy. He emphasised Balblair’s artisanal philosophy and tiny scale – only 5% of the distillery’s 1.75 mla production goes to single malt or as Lukasz put it: ‘we bottle what Glenfiddich spill’. It is a distillery that I admire hugely and this extended to the final whisky of the evening, the new 1990. What is it with Inver House bottling whiskies from my birth year? Are they trying to bankrupt me? I will have to come by some of this soon, though, for this Balblair takes the house style in a dramatically different direction. After 21 years the whisky comes out of those top quality ex-Bourbon barrels and goes into second fill Oloroso Sherry casks for another two. In the glass, this smelt as old as the 1975 Vintage I tried last year. So much cinnamon, pineapple and mincemeat with a lovely earthiness. Dried orange, pot pourri and even a marsala-like kick are additional layers. The palate is true to Balblair’s trademark spiciness. Some burnt orange appears, too, with a salty oaky dryness. It grows to be slightly herbal before the fruity notes come back in.

Another special Balblair was unveiled for the Raffle and I know that was tremendously popular. Every time Lukasz trundles away back to Edinburgh I hope he will return at some point and I wonder how he can top his last selection. So far, he has managed that every time. Our thanks to him again for a potent send-off towards exams and Christmas. I daresay a couple of Old Pulteneys may have been picked up at the airport as some of our international members return home for the Festive period.

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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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Tomatin at the Quaich Society

Perhaps I’ll embarrass him for saying so, but Alistair Mutch wins gold as far as replying to emails is concerned. No sooner had the proposal for a Tomatin tasting been composed and fired off than an email of acceptance duly returned. Alistair would be there, and he would be bringing seven whiskies. Job done. Why couldn’t all tastings be so straightforward to arrange?

Alistair had started the day at the Tomatin Distillery just south of Inverness and consequently there was an air of authenticity and provenance to the small off-licence he brought with him. Kicking off with The Antiquary 12yo we could appreciate the blended side of the Takara Shuzo Co., Tomatin’s Japanese owners. Indeed, as Alistair stressed, the history of Tomatin is closely tied to the fortunes of blends. Once the biggest distillery in Scotland, Alistair boasted that once upon a time every blended Scotch would have had a wee drop of Tomatin in it. Fast forward to the 1980s, and this business model proved the distillery’s downfall. The global demand for Scotch unaccountably tailed off and in the new, bleaker economic climate Tomatin had been overproducing. The owners went into liquidation, and Tomatin did not put its head above the parapet again for some years.

The whiskies and backdrop for the Quaich Society's Tomatin tasting.

Nowadays, of course, they have the Antiquary brand all to themselves. Amongst the very high malt content, the majority is Tomatin. The blend started life in Edinburgh, the name reputedly conferred by John and William Hardy in the nineteenth century as a tribute to favourite author, and near neighbour, Sir Walter Scott. On the night I found the 12yo very interesting indeed: smooth in the extreme, with plenty of malt and natural caramel notes. Gristy barley and lemon peel leapt out on the nose.

The Tomatin range itself began exuberantly. The new Legacy is the group’s contribution to the NAS market-place and has, according to Alistair been winning over many punters at Europe’s numerous whisky festivals. There is a proportion of virgin oak in there, and it showed with dazzling vanilla and lush fruit tones.

On to the 12yo, and Alistair discussed how Tomatin embarked upon constructing a stable of whiskies to tempt the consumer. Age was important as a point of difference, of course, but since 2000 successive distillery managers have put their stamp on old favourites, or introduced new ones. The 12yo has been around for a while, but the addition of some Sherry oak to the mix is a more recent innovation. I must admit this is not for me: wafer biscuit, a bizarre pear note, then heavy chocolate… It tastes muddled, in my opinion, but others around me enjoyed it.

The smile returned to my face with the 15yo, however. Only the delicate attentions of refill Bourbon have interacted with the naturally fruity Tomatin spirit and what a dazzling display of honey, white peach and ginger. A sweet whisky, and no mistake, but one I could happily have spent more time with.

Sherry oak returns to the range in the shape of the 18yo, but at this age there is sufficient leathery weight to the malt to carry the gaudier overtones. It has grown in to the dried fruits and moccha depths. At 46% and unchillfiltered, this dram compels your attention. Perhaps a shade too much oak for my tastes on the night, and this belief became stronger when I could appreciate the staggering performance of the next whisky.

‘Now you might taste pineapple on this one,’ warned Alistair. Far from suggestive skullduggery, the 30yo was indeed a wicker basket of tropical fruits. The palate screamed pineapple and passion fruit, but there was not a single overbearing oak note. Obviously a mature whisky was in front of us, but it could still give my taste buds the run-around.

Most distilleries produce a peated make these days (which poses problems when trying to work out what sort of Bunnahabhain you are likely to get) but despite laying down stocks some time ago, Tomatin have been slow to launch their smoky alter ego. The Cu Bocan, aptly enough for a man of Alistair’s story-telling abilities, started with a tale: Tomatin legend has it that the last wolf in Scotland was killed on the site of the existing distillery, and that the ghost of this lonely canine occasionally stalks the village. A research student, after discussions with retired distillery workers, uncovered more of the beast’s behaviour. When spotted, it will rush at you before vanishing harmlessly in a wisp of smoke.

The new Cu Bocan.

Cu Bocan, from its bottle design to its contents, manifests this myth. Alistair told me that the malt is peated to only 15ppm, which does not so much batter you with ash and brimstone as beguile you with a choice coil or two of wood smoke. I enjoyed it immensely: softer and sweeter than the Benromach 10yo (which posts a similar peating level) and with none of the rubberiness that Fettercairn Fior can exhibit, that peat character rests comfortably in the mix. A very well-made malt.

Having offloaded plenty of WaterAid Raffle goodies, Alistair made his excuses and departed as duties called him back at the distillery that night. A full Quaich Society house will remember his unhurried demeanour, riotous sense of humour and pearls of wisdom from more than 20 years in the whisky industry for some weeks yet, however. We shall also fondly recall the whiskies he showered upon us, of course.

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The Balvenie Fete

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

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

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

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

A sort of 'from the cask' experience.

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

The venue for our tasting.

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

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

The Balvenie range.

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

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

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Compass Box at the Quaich Society (Again)

For a brand swooping ever onwards and upwards, founder John Glaser is quite prepared to repeat himself now and again. ‘Who here has been to a Compass Box tasting before?’ he asked our assembly of Quaichers. The majority of hands went up. ‘You know what’s coming, then’.

Familiarity breeds anything but contempt when Glaser’s mission is so straightforward in its tenets and so extraordinary in its execution. That most of us had experienced the Compass Box effect previously only made attending this event all the more imperative. I think it’s what John describes as that something which ‘calls you back to the glass’…

The array of melodious glasses at the final Quaich tasting of the year.

There were no less than eight Glencairns to be called back to for every attendee, not all of which contained Compass creations. John’s intention was to move away from brands and to focus on flavour in order to demonstrate the logic of his whisky-making ethos. It was not an auspicious start. ‘Blend X’ boasted a couple of attractive fresh fruit notes on the nose, but the palate had no sooner whispered ‘caramel’ than it had vanished again into a black hole of indifference.

The contrast between it and the plump, fresh and intense Great King Street could not have been starker. Despite the numerous first-fill ex-Bourbon casks, this remained quite a pale whisky in terms of colour; the same cannot be said of the flavour. Great King Street remains one of my all-time favourite whiskies, blend or single malt. We were advised to look out for ‘sweetness, richness and bigness’ and the abundant vanilla character occupied all three camps. To balance I find the juiciest grassy barley, which can only be Longmorn.

Whiskies three and four keep John awake at night. In the case of three, especially, it epitomises the class of spirit he yearns to assemble at Compass Box. He may have to move to Japan. Upon receiving a measure of Hibiki 12yo from the man who made it, the Suntory master blender Seiichi Koshimizu, last summer, I was in the presence of greatness on two counts. The man deserves every accolade for elevating Japanese whisky of all descriptions, while the whisky astonished me with its clarity and richness for such a comparatively young blended whisky.

Although he admired the next dram, John also took it to task when the dragon of artificial colour raised its ugly nut brown head. ‘Forget the colour,’ he implored us, ‘it’s fake.’ For my first – blind – encounter with Ballantine’s 17yo I was fairly underwhelmed, especially when Great King Street continued to sing so beautifully a couple of glasses further back.

The core Compass Box range filled the final four berths of this epic tasting, and all excelled themselves. At my third tasting with the company, I could appreciate how my tastes evolve from one year to the next: in 2011 the Asyla had bowled me over, last year I had fallen for the Hedonism but on this occasion my socks were well and truly blown off by the Peat Monster.

John confessed that the virtue of leading your own bespoke blending operation is that you are free to make the odd tweak here and there, which the men and women charged with preserving the legacy of the biggest names in whisky cannot get away with. The constituent parts have changed significantly in the ten years of the Peat Monster’s life with Caol Ila replaced by Ledaig, and Laphroaig brought in to add even more phenolic devilry. However, John also experimented recently at the bottling hall through the addition of 1% Spice Tree liquid to the latest batches. A tiny amount, but I sensed an added sensuous sweetness to an already extraordinary mouthfeel. It was my pick of the evening.

In a promising aside, John also revealed that they were experimenting with their supply chain. Rather than buy mature casks from distillers when they want to bottle something, Compass Box have instead invested in a more changeable future through the purchase of new make from five sites around Scotland, filling them into their own casks. Spirit from Caol Ila, Blair Athol, Linkwood and John’s favourite malt to manipulate, Clynelish, as well as grain from Cameronbridge, are presently maturing at an undisclosed location. That’s quite an ingredients cupboard.

Relaxed, informative and zealously passionate all at the same time, John put on another astonishing evening of whisky the way it ought to be. Twitter hints suggest Compass Box will be showing the whisky world beyond St Andrews a thing or two next month when a couple of experimental (but how could they be otherwise?) releases hit the shelves, and I for one will be camping outside the off licence.

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Morrison Bowmore at the Quaich Society (2)

The six super serves at the Morrison Bowmore Quaich Society tasting.

If ‘Holy Triumvirate’ is going a tad too far, I do get rather excited at the prospect of Morrison Bowmore’s tantalising trio of fantastic distilleries paying a visit and so do the whisky drinkers of St Andrews. Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch have all acquired a recent reputation for quirky but high-quality releases, many of which landed in our Glencairn glasses – courtesy of Gordon Dundas – earlier this month.

Over the course of a very enjoyable 6-dram tasting, Gordon was the perfect foil to the whiskies under his stewardship: plain speaking, but full of warmth and humour, it was a fiery, engaging evening.

We kicked off with Auchentoshan, a brand doing great things with their younger, fruitier releases. The first of our whiskies on the night, the Three Wood, takes centre-stage in a new transatlantic cocktail competition. Auchentoshan Switch is the brand’s attempt to engage bartenders in America and Europe, switching them on to the powerful flavours in this delicate Lowland malt before switching around the creators of the winning Auchentoshan cocktails to work in the bars on their counterparts: Europe goes to America and vice versa. Read more about the competition – and vote for your favourite cocktails – here.

The Three Wood made a favourable impression on most in the room, but I was interested in its stablemate, the Valinch 2012. As Gordon said, these two expressions could not be further apart on the flavour specrum: soft, sweet and rich Sherry oak plays creamy, fruity ex-Bourbon oak at cask strength. This had a sparkly nose, the barley boasting a boiled sweet character in addition to apple and orange. Lemon, banana and vanilla shortbread showed themselves. The palate also ‘sparkled’ somewhat with maltiness again and clean nutmeg from the cask. Lovely.

Those who don’t know about my abiding, dutiful love for the Glen Garioch distillery are obviously recent readers of the Scotch Odyssey Blog. Hence, while people were picking apart the variously sensuous and scintillating flavours of the Auchentoshan offerings, I was some way ahead, courting the Glen Garioch 1995.

Another of the acclaimed vintage releases, the 1995 represents the last litres produced prior to the distillery’s closure by Suntory in the same year,. At this time, there was also a trace of peat smoke to be found in Glen Garioch from the malting process, which was not the case after the reopening of the plant in 1997. This I found to be a highly accomplished dram with the best of first fill Bourbon characteristics coming through. I felt, however, that the butterscotch and coconut drowned out the complex honeyed dustiness of the distillery profile. It was good, but not a Glen Garioch as far as I was concerned. In answer to a question about different peating levels and cut points in the three distilleries’ production regimes, Gordon had said that ‘we produce the same spirit and let the casks do the talking’. This had happened quite spectacularly with the 1995.

Skipping over the fourth pour – the always majestic Bowmore Darkest – we arrived at a unique compare-and-contrast opportunity. More or less on a whim, Gordon had decided to bring along two Tempests to the party: Batch 3 and the not-yet released Batch 4.

Bowmore Tempest 4 55.1%

Nose – swimming pools and cloudy lemonade. Very salty. Sandalwood and a gentle cigar-ash smokiness. Thyme honey. Leathery, very smooth and clean.

Palate – full and rounded with plenty of sweetness and fruits. Fudge and river rushes, before it becomes more and more honeyed.

The balance of this latest release over Batch 3 was evident, with a harmonising interplay between smoke, oak and spirit. I think I preferred the punch of Batch 3 on the night, but can attest to this as another exemplary bottling from the Bowmore team.

Gordon’s generosity extended to the Raffle: the revelation that a full bottle of the latest Tempest would find a lucky new owner forced hands back into pockets for donations. On behalf of the Quaich Society we would like to think him for an extremely informative and entertaining tasting during which the standard of whisky and anecdote never dipped.

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BenRiach and GlenDronach at the Quaich Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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