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Edinburgh Whisky Stramash 2014

The day is surely not so far away when ‘to stramash’ will be a universally-recognised verb with a highly specific meaning: to spend four hours in Edinburgh at the Surgeons’ Hall sampling exciting whiskies in often exciting ways.

Saturday ushered in the third outing for Scott Martin and Darroch Ramsay’s madcap, monumental whisky festival with a difference – that difference chiefly being a sense of humour. Many of the biggest Scotch whisky brands were in attendance, some of whom were keen to show attendees something out of the ordinary. The world’s best-selling single malt, Glenfiddich, had their ‘Family run since 1887′ installation, essentially a recreation of their warehouse tour at the distillery in Dufftown. This – as it turned out – was what everyone in front of me was queuing to sign up for, meaning that I cannot report on how successful this simulation was after every slot for the 12-4pm session was booked up.

The Black Grouse were offering something called a blending bar (more on that later), Balvenie curated their barley to bottle process in another part of the venue and Drambuie were breaking bad. Having failed to drop in, I don’t know what any of that entailed. Word spread over the afternoon that Bowmore had some single cask samples stashed away somewhere, and that I did manage to infiltrate.

First dram? That I can vividly remember: the new BenRiach 16yo Sauternes Finish. Syrupy, rich and dense, it was impressively fruity and complex. It’s neighbour, the 20yo, has been around for some time but I have never got around to sampling it. I can report that it was a revelation: oodles of fresh American oak and jelly sweets on the nose with a clean, vanilla-rich and shortbready textured palate.

The BenRiach/GlenDronach/Glenglassaugh stand.

Between that and the Glenglassaugh 35yo, finished in a Sherry Hogshead, I signed up for the Black Grouse demonstration. Having detested it the first time I tried it, I was hoping for a more successful introduction this time around. But what of that Glenglassaugh? A mighty popular bottle on the stand, and no wonder: still quite fresh and clean for all its years, with a floral finish.

Life speeded up a little after that, or at least I stopped concentrating quite so hard. The neighbouring building housed many more whiskies than we had first realised, as well as the Dewar’s Theatre and the Drambuie exhibitionism on the ground floor. Here we found Morrison Bowmore and, what piqued my interest, Suntory. Hibiki 12yo (stunning stuff) was available, but so too were the company’s two newest single malts: the Hakushu and Yamazaki Distillers Reserves. I bought the Hakushu a month or so ago on the strength of online reviews and it is delightful, but I wanted to see how the red wine casks had impacted upon the Yamazaki. This is one figgy dram, as it turns out, but very smooth and deep. The younger whiskies take away the spiced poise of the 18yo, for example, but I was mightily impressed.

Across the way, Glen Moray had something of a scrum around them. Much of the core range featured, but my eye was caught by an unlabelled bottle. Allegedly, this is to be a new, non-age statement Port-finished whisky. I can confirm that it is delightful: the wine provides a blackcurrant jelly impression which balances wonderfully with the fresh green apple note from what is clearly a pretty young overall vatting. I preferred it to their 25yo Port Finish, in fact, which to me and my companions tasted too strongly of wood.

Lucy Whitehall unravelling the Black Grouse.

By this point, our turn had finally come for the Black Grouse Blending Bar. Global Brand Ambassador Lucy Whitehall steered us through the component parts of the Black Grouse with a great deal of charm and insight – some of it geeky. I can divulge, for instance, that North British is currently running on 100% maize. Good to know, eh? Before sampling the Black Grouse for ourselves, nosing glasses were passed round of Glenturret new make: the standard unpeated version and a gloriously smoky rendering called Ruadh Moar. I begged a dram of this and it is superb. Of course, only a tiny amount of Glenturret goes in to Famous Grouse but it’s good stuff that makes the cut. Three cask samples followed, showing the affects of European, American and first-fill oak. And what of the Black Grouse? How did we get on? I must say it impressed me far more than initially: a composed, toffee-laden dram with only a smidgen more smoke than the standard Grouse, but attractively so.

My friends and I wended our way back to the BenRiach/GlenDronach stand, this time to sample some of the latter. I wasn’t overly impressed with the latest batch of the Cask Strength (too strong, not enough of the boozy sherry from the first batch with an American oak presence that was a tad cloying) but I adored the 21yo Parliament. This is Rolls Royce stuff if ever a whisky deserved such a billing. Not on the stand, but very near it, was Craig Johnstone, a dear friend of the Quaich Society and a great guy generally. He is enjoying his time in Dubai, working in the whisky industry on the sales/distribution side. Craig confessed that there is much to be learnt from working alongside whisky in the UAE, something that has ramifications for me as I shall disclose in a future post.

If it weren’t for Darroch himself putting a word in my ear, I may have missed the “secret” Bowmore blend-your-own-Small-Batch session happening nearby. I managed to secure our party places on the reserve list, and Bowmore ambassador Ali generously granted us entrance through what turned out to be mock-ups of the Bowmore No. 1 Vaults’ doors. The atmosphere inside was less saline than Islay’s oldest maturation warehouse, but it was warmer and the whisky fug was nearly as potent. Our mission – which we chose to accept – was to recreate the Small Batch which lay breathing in a glass, together with pipettes, measuring cylinders and two sample bottles, on the casks in front of us.

The professionally put-together dram smelt of clove and minerally peat with plenty of leafiness (mint and broom) and charcoal. Clean and lush to taste, with a generous dollop of ex-Bourbon barrel, we had to combine our first-fill and our refill Bourbon samples to approximate this flavour. I could immediately tell that the first-fill would require careful usage; it offered thickness with fudge and coconut, the Bowmore character restricted to soft peat and orange oil. The taste, however, was mostly Bourbony spice and char. I much preferred the second-fill sample. Even at 60.2% ABV the Bowmore soft smoke emerged together with a creamy, ferny character. I also detected Cointreau and porridge. Delicious! Mouth-coating and smoky, I wrote down ‘dense rice pudding’ but I’m not certain what I mean by it. Our trio, after some bickering, presented a version that only narrowly lost out. Too strong apparently…

The Bowmore single cask samples.

We retired from the improvised Vault to find the Stramash winding down. Last pour had been called while we were blending and, if I’m honest, this was definitely a good thing. The cask strength Bowmore had obliterated my palate, not to mention much of my self-awareness. It was with a slack but content grin that I traversed the city back to the New Town for a spot of dinner, completely and utterly stramashed.

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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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The St Andrews Brewing Co. Pub

The new craft brewing pub in St Andrews.

Picture it: you’re an independent brewing collective with a contemporary approach, you focus on craft, quality and novelty, and you have opened your first pub in a notoriously moneyed area of golf-mad Scotland. What whiskies do you source for the back bar?

For Bob, Tim and friends of the St Andrews Brewing Company this was their challenge ahead of opening their new BrewPub on South Street, St Andrews. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to stomach ales, stouts, porters, beers in general. Therefore, the sixteen hand-pulled brews and countless refrigerated bottles were not my main concern when the boys opened their doors last week. I was all about the whiskies.

A couple of weeks beforehand, legendary distiller Eddie MacAffer set up stall in the new BrewPub to guide us through three Morrison Bowmore single malts paired with some choice morsels (salmon smoked with Auchentoshan cask shavings paired with Auchentoshan Threewood; Bowmore Darkest with dark chocolate and Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve with Isle of Mull cheddar). Visitor Centre Development Manager for the group, Anne Kinnes, was also there to tell us a little more about the tourism facilities available at MBD’s outstanding distilleries. The BrewPub accommodated us all superbly: indulgently supple leather chairs, wholesome wood and a couple of log-burning stoves made for a homely evening and when Jordan told me that they intended to stock forty whiskies from opening – building to about a hundred - I sensed it would become my second home.

The main bar at the St Andrews Brewing Co.

So how to kit yourself out with the best spirits and ensure you aren’t playing it too safe? With the help of Graeme Broom (Straight Up Whisky), the guys have a most intriguing selection. The first thing you will notice is the heavy prevalence of Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice bottlings. I counted a Teaninich, Clynelish, Arran and Dailuaine while G&M’s own malt distillery, Benromach had a number of expressions such as the rich, pungent Organic, the smoky, soft 10yo and the bracing Peat Smoke. Another great addition is the rich, vanilla-driven Bruichladdich Scottish Barley.

The whisky cupboard.

Finally, however, I can get Compass Box whiskies at a bar in St Andrews. They carry The Peat Monster, Oak Cross and Great King Street. Checking the list, I clocked a Woodford Reserve for the Bourbon fans, Wemyss Spice King 12yo and The Hive 12yo for blended malts and even a Green Spot to keep those with a taste for Irish whiskey happy (i.e., me). The best news? I think the most expensive dram on the list weighs in at £7. As the evenings darken and the air becomes ever more frigid, the St Andrews Brewing Co. would appear to be the ideal venue to drive out the chills. Once they extend their license beyond 11PM, of course, but I’m assured that will be very soon.

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