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Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

Today I conclude my run-through of the different Scotches sent my way before Christmas. This pair could not be more different: one of the smokiest single malts on the planet, and an elderly, genteel blend.

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

The original Supernova from 2010 was peated to over 100ppm and caused quite a stir. This new vintage was launched with some rather exclusive blogger miniatures, some of which may or may not have ended up on auction sites… Mine was a common-or-garden clear glass affair with a typed label so no windfall for James…

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

Nose – remarkable focus and angularity - like a cubist piece, blocks of crackly peat meet blocks of lemon sherbet and blocks of creamy American oak (is there an Ardbeg that doesn’t ooze American oak these days?). That quintessentially Ardbeggian oily sheepiness. Toasted hazelnut and salted caramel. Very good indeed.

Palate – dry, hugely phenolic. Spreads steadily over the tongue with a barbecue intensity. A pillar of dense black peat, spinning gently. A hint of dark chocolate, seashells and seaweed.

Finish – peat (obvs) with flecks of ginger. Lightens gradually to a tasty caramel oakiness. Crushed peat, dry peat, peat a thousand ways. Buttery, kippery, seemingly endless.

Adding water reduced the cubist effect of the nose, although it remained powerful. A fuller fruitiness was on display with banana and apple. Youthful but attractive. Marine-like notes and lemon. The palate revealed smooth apple and pear, an IPA hoppiness, and spicier, sweeter peat. Still sharp. Chilli pepper heat and charred ribs. The chilli heat continues into the finish with an oaky creaminess and thick, ashy peat.

Cutty Sark 33YO 41.7% 3,456 bottles GBP 650

An Art Deco blend according to the press release, harking back to the 1920s and 30s when Cutty started to make in-roads on the American market.  This is the oldest blend ever released under the Cutty Sark label, put together by Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell.

Colour – dark honey amber

Nose – initial notes of coconut, egg custard and an epic creaminess. Further in, that creaminess is both Chantilly and patissiere. Then ripe warm apricot but also a firmness and brightness at the edges where a strange but attractive rose and carbolic soap scentedness lies. The super-sweet grains relax and out steps honey-drizzled peaches with lime zest. Passion fruit, now pineapple syrup. Now and again some Bourbon oak spiciness. Warm apple pie with time and clotted cream. Pain d’Epices syrup on raspberries.

Palate - velvety spice and creamy coconut, plenty of presence. Cinnamon, liquorice root and then passion fruit again. Black cherry in the background. Thick but not heavy, there is some seriously good wood gone into this: warmth and spicy sweetness. Maple syrup.

Finish - creamy with vanilla essence but at the core it is surprisingly firm. Creme caramel, toffee apple. A slight tartness develops with lime and rosehip. Cinnamon biscuits.

So…?       I heap praise on a Glenmorangie, having been a little sceptical in the past, and now I must be a little critical of its sister distillery, having been supremely fond of just about everything it’s released of late. I have not tasted the previous two Supernova releases so cannot compare it to earlier efforts, but I have enjoyed a couple of Octomores, its arch-rival. The hyper-peated version of Bruichladdich combines its dense, mossy smoke with a lovely fat, cereal-driven sweetness. Though young, it feels complete. The SN2014 unfortunately did not feel complete; while there were many tasty and exciting dimensions to it, there wasn’t enough that was exceptional. It is a very good, very smoky whisky, but does not justify the price tag in my opinion.

On to the Cutty Sark. Blended Scotch, you say? Had I been told it was a blended grain I’d have believed it. When I first sample it, in a cold Northumbrian bedroom over Christmas, the slight chill pulled out the grain components to the exclusion of all else. No matter, the grains that have gone into this are of the very highest calibre, nearly on a par with a certain 38YO Invergordon bottled by Compass Box a few years ago. Tasting it again at Dubai room temperature, I could at last detect some malt influence but the grains were still the stars, testament to great skill and sensitivity in the blending room to the lighter style that is Cutty. Absolutely outstanding blending and it was a privilege to taste it.

Sincere thanks to Quercus for the Ardbeg, and Wendy Harries Jones at Cutty Sark.

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Glenrothes Vintage Reserve and Craigellachie 13YO

As I mentioned yesterday, my reviewing days on the Scotch Odyssey Blog are, for the time being, numbered. As a whisky brand ambassador, you’re only really supposed to talk up your own brands but, after some very supportive agencies and distillers sent me some liquid last year, I felt I’d take the opportunity to record a few independent views on some new releases.

Glenrothes Vintage Reserve 40% £TBA

This whisky contains malts from three decades, the oldest vintage being 1989. The majority of the product was distilled in 1998. It will be released in Taiwan first before going global this year.

Colour – brown gold.

Nose – at first I get rich, sourish fruits and bold pistachio biscuit. Underneath is a sturdy phenolic quality. Nose fully in the glass now, seashells and a warm sandiness show themselves but soon clear to the draffy maltiness typical of Glenrothes and egg custard with plenty of nutmeg. A little sharp citric note then glace cherries – a bakewell tart in general. With a bit of time pure lemon steps out along with juicy yellow fruit and pistachio/praline again.

Palate – weighty with lots of fudge, malt and a vaguely sulphury backbone – but it works. A tartness but abundantly sweet.

Finish – milk chocolate and golden delicious apples. Medium-bodied.

Adding water turned the nose even lighter, revealing icing sugar, lemon rind and a tickle of peppery spice. The palate became very smooth indeed with papaya, a slight saltiness and a rich clotted cream texture. I found the finish to be lighter but still palate-coating. Not terribly exciting, however.
Craigellachie 13YO 46% GBP 41.95

Natural colour and non chill-filtered, I believe.

Colour – bright gold.

Nose – chopped salad leaves on first nosing: green and sweet. There follows thick butter, vanilla wafer and a phenolic maltiness. Incredibly muscular and focused at first: bruising malt and mulchy green fruit packed in to a keg of golden oak. Kiwi, pear, a touch of salty metallic tequila. With time, pure confectionary green apple. Biscuit and a very subtle peat. A whole load of textures.

Palate – full and tongue-coating. Dry rich biscuit, a draffy note, lemon pith. Then spice and a hoppy bitterness develops. Reminds me of Innes and Gunn Blonde!

Finish – shortcrust pastry, green plum. Sweet but with a heavy tartness. A coppery flavour/texture appears.

With water, the nose became cleaner with a Granny Smith apple note. Cooked pastry, rather mead-like with that phenolic weight going nowhere. The palate was rounder with egg custard and the green apple from the nose. A touch of herbalness then, as you swallow, in comes a huge old log you might find in the woods in winter: leafy, fungal. A bit of cheese rind. Incredible! It finishes in similarly idiosyncratic fashion: gala melon, apple, dry autumn leaves and an earthiness.

So…?      I mislaid the press release for the Glenrothes, meaning I could taste it completely blind. I only discovered the multi-vintage genesis in a Drinks Report article today. Its price point in Taiwan is GBP 25 which is very good indeed. It’s a very impressive little performer with pleasing depths. Steer clear of water and you have a very drinkable malt indeed.

I always tell myself that I should favour malts like Craigellachie: worm tubs, a once-hidden blender’s favourite – an interesting single malt, in short. This 13YO opened a very exciting new chapter in the John Dewar & Sons malt portfolio and there may well prove some truth in the tagline for the series of whiskies to be released as ‘The Last Great Malts’. Aberfeldy may have been fairly easily-obtainable, but Aultmore, Royal Brackla and Macduff will be revelations when they fully emerge. And will all carry age statements which these days is chicly retro.

There is a 17YO, a 19YO in duty free, and a 23YO to complete the Craigellachie range and they promise a great deal. The leafy, phenolic weight found here in the 13YO should build oak into itself, growing in power and majesty. I doubt I’ll get to try the others any time soon. To be honest, as interesting as I found this dram, it wasn’t entirely for me. The palate was the fascinating star, and without a doubt it has character, but rather Jekyll and Hyde for me.

Many thanks indeed to Quercus for both samples.

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Glenmorangie Taghta and Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve

Happy new year, everyone! Welcome back to the Scotch Odyssey Blog although I should warn you, activities will be dialled back down to zero following the next couple of posts.

My circumstances have changed quite dramatically in recent months, changes I only hinted at while recounting my second Scotch Odyssey. I now have a job within the whisky industry, working as brand ambassador for some of my favourite whiskies in a very new location for me: Dubai. The Scotch Odyssey has gone international!

This does create a slight conflict of interest of course when it comes to running an independent whisky blog, one that has been quite critical of the industry and some of what it has gotten up to in recent years. I will not change a word of what I have already written on the blog - I want my reviews and above all my accounts of visits around Scotland to remain available to whoever may wish to begin their own journey to the farthest-flung frontiers of Scotch. However, I won’t be writing any more tasting notes – after this week that is!

I flew back to the UK for Christmas to discover that the tenant who succeeded me in my St Andrews flat had quite a lot of whisky mail piled up by the door. As a thank you to Quercus PR and the team at Cutty Sark, who have both been very generous and communicative with me over the years, I will review the samples they sent. I am putting my connection with a major wine and spirits multinational and my own beloved brands to one side for the next three posts – these are my own words as a whisky fan.

Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve 40% GBP 54.95

The first Glenrothes to be released by brand owners Berry Brothers and Rudd that has been entirely matured in first-fill Sherry.

Colour – Light amber.

Nose – punchy purple fruits at first with plum and date. Then follows the classic dense, rich, faintly draffy maltiness which is the signature for this distillery. Seriously rich and dry Sherry on show with dried cranberries, cherry and raisin together with a musky incence-like note. A touch of new rubber.

Palate – full and dense. A little bit beefy. Spicy with cayenne and coconut. Now prune and red apple emerge with a phenolic underpinning.

Finish – more on dried fruits and vanilla, candied peel and orange oil. Quite fruity malt.

With water everything brightened up a touch, the nose becoming more youthful (muscovado maltiness and citrus). The Sherry reminded me of fruitcake. On the palate, vanilla and almond stepped out and then the fruits. Still with a meaty weight, fruit skins and marzipan rounded everything off. The finish was much the same as the straight sample, perhaps with a touch of clove.

Glenmorangie The Taghta 12,000 bottles for Cask Masters 46% GBP 69.99

A ‘crowd-sourced’ whisky, over the last 18 months Glenmorangie fans have assumed responsibility for this dram. From voting for the liquid (I remember there were three options), to choosing the name, packaging and product launch venue, this has been a very democratic whisky indeed. This whisky has been finished in ex-Manzanilla Sherry casks.

Colour - syrupy full gold.

Nose - wonderfully generous oak notes immediately – natural caramel from Bourbon and a sweet yet drying nuttiness from the Manzanilla. Cadbury Fruit n’ Nut bar as well as chopped dried apricots. Suggestions of the pure pear-rich distillery character behind. Now honey and warm gorse bushes together with almond and buttery spiced pecan.

Palate - nutty and oaky, a clean minerally malt behind. A lovely firm fruitiness follows, perfectly in balance. Orange peel and fudgy malt.

Finish - dry but also richly sweet. Quite chewy oak at the end with golden raisin. Just enough zip in the fruit to emerge from the velvety malt.

Adding water took an already extravagantly good aroma to still greater heights: rich toffee, floral notes, cool nutty grape, heather and silky malt. A soft orange blossom fragrance and then more lifted citrus. A palate of apricot, vanilla and a gentle dry spice from the Sherry. The finish was very well-judged with milk chocolate and sea salt, a touch of sweet orange and vanilla pod. The fruit from the Sherry is plump and delicious. Smooth honey and a hint of cigar conclude.

So…?      I will review the Glenrothes Vintage Reserve very soon, but both it and the Sherry Cask Reserve represent another move to no-age statement releases from BBR, having been innovators in their vintage expressions. The Sherry Cask Reserve is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable malt, both clearly a Glenrothes and clearly from Sherry. Water on both samplings improved it a touch, but for the money there are more exciting Sherry-matured whiskies out there. A Glenfarclas 15yo, for example.

I was quite prepared to pour scorn on the Glenmorangie. On this blog I’ve been less than delighted with Artein and more recently Companta. It is a tribute to this whisky that it got me excited about Glenmorangie again. This is a stupendously good dram, the clarity and quality of the Manzanilla and Bourbon casks that have gone into making this beggars belief. On my first tasting I wasn’t sure I tasted Glenmorangie at all, but such was the excellence of the spirit Dr. Lumsden has created I didn’t care. Second time through, I did detect a few more clues confirming that this malt was made in Tain, and fell even more in love with the nose. I’ve read a few disparaging comments about this whisky that it is ‘simple’ or for ‘beginners’ – whatever your whisky experience, you should be able to appreciate a stunningly well-made and beautifully balanced dram.

Many thanks indeed to Quercus for both samples.

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Ardbeg Auriverdes

There may be some of you – just maybe – who tried to bring up the Scotch Odyssey Blog on your PC, tablet or mobile device last week and could not. Regrettably, I was too snowed under with essays to troubleshoot or indeed even notice that the site had vanished from the Internet. My theme programming had sprung a leak (I use the technical term) and the upshot was that I was a blogger without a blog.

Good intentions for what I wanted to write about when academic pressures eased - of those I had a few. Useful material was also plentiful and, having tasted the sample sent to me by Marcin Miller of Quercus Communications a second time, I’m delighted my tech support web hosting people could fix the problem and restore my soapbox. Because the latest Ardbeg limited edition is worth shouting about.

It may be news to no one that I ride my bike quite a lot, and training is progressing ahead of the second Scotch Odyssey in June. However, I am only just beginning to admit to liking football again. As the stars align for Liverpool to win the Premier League title for the first time since the year I was born, videos on the BBC Sport web page count me down to the start of the World Cup in Brazil this summer. For folk with gear to flog, time is running out to tie it in with the beautiful game’s global competition.

Ardbeg Auriverdes (named in honour of the World Cup host nation’s team) accompanies another mad-cap initiative by the Islay distillery to entertain (and possibly injure) peat freaks. Ardbeg Peat Football will occur (quite how, I don’t know and haven’t dared ask) at various Ardbeg Embassies on Ardbeg Day, which is May 31st for the uninitiated. If you want to don wellies and wade through two feet of peat slurry without obvious gain, but precipitous loss of dignity, check out Ardbeg.com for your nearest Embassy. You should also be able to try the Auriverdes, and that is something you really ought to do.

Another of Dr Bill Lumsden’s creations, and following on from recent smash hits Galileo (one of my all-time favourite whiskies) and Ardbog (a bit of a let down in comparison), this new malt has been matured in American oak barrels with two differently custom-toasted heads. The idea is that one imparts ‘mocha coffee’, the other ‘creamy vanilla’ into the finished whisky. There is no indicator as to age, unlike the Galileo (about 13yo) and Ardbog (about 10yo).

Ardbeg Auriverdes 49.9% £79.99

Colour – dark brassy gold.
Nose – on the top of the glass, this is sweet at first with a seashore saltiness before oily tarry smoke and vanilla pod emerge. Nose in the glass there is plenty of dry and rich biscuitiness and a medicinal edge that I didn’t notice on first nosing. Sooty with capsicum heat and freshly cut grass. Thick, textured wood sugars but well integrated. A crisp, frothy lemon curd lift. Beach bonfire. With time, golden syrup, dried cherry and light zesty oak appear.
Palate – spicy oak immediately: black liquorice and cayenne. Peat is a dry, roiling presence on all sides. Major release of wood sugars on the tongue with crunchy malt and vanilla supporting.
Finish – more maritime Ardbeg character with lots of dry peat smoke and sea shells. Thickens with a stout-like sweet weight. An interesting caramel and carbolic soap fusion.

Like previous releases, I felt this needed water. With the alcohol toned down, the Auriverdes came into its exuberant own.

Nose – buttery but with abundant impressions of dry old cottage fireplaces: polished iron fender and coal dust. Autumn leaves in the grate. Then a trace of banana and Black Jack sweets. That dense carpet of black/blue peat that I associate with this distillery unfurls together with pine sap and a “sheepiness”. Pistachio and sugared almonds come next. Pricking the nostrils is a fabulous double-team of peat and smoky oak. Clove and roast sweet peppers appear later.
Palate – sweeter, malt, red liquorice and Chinese sweet chilli sauce. Strong oak presence yielding espresso and Demerara sugar notes. Malt returns with a floral overtone. Dense, bold, drying peat.
Finish – not quite as Ardbeg-like as when undiluted but as with the palate this is a sweeter encounter: chocolate truffles, pot ale and peat.

So…?      This is a characterful whisky, make no mistake about it, and far more straight-ahead with the Ardbeg DNA than the Ardbog, in my opinion. Some have suggested that this is a step up, in nature, from the 10yo and I’d agree. If that whisky is the graceful youth, the Auriverdes is the same entity after a couple of months at the gym on the protein shakes.

With all Ardbeg’s I taste, it is the texture of the peat throughout that captivates me, but it is never overplayed. Here, softer, even fruitier flavours are allowed room to express themselves. This isn’t quite the surprise that Galileo was, but with a dash of water especially the layers of flavour become overwhelmingly vivid. In a good way. Much like the country of your denomination scoring the decisive penalty in the World Cup final would be.

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Glenmorangie Companta – Why I’m Wine Finished

I was panicking, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know what the master distiller wanted from me, why couldn’t he just stop?

‘You will see,’ he said, stalking between the shadows at the far end of the warehouse. ‘It’s the future; you must accept it.’

I fought against the tannins still coating my tongue from the Saint-Emilion-boarding I had received earlier that morning. ’But it’s perfectly good as it is! You don’t have to do this!’

The master distiller stepped up to the cask which lay, defenceless, between us. ‘You will see,’ he repeated and signalled to his henchmen. Heavy boots scuffled over the cement floor as the goons wrestled another cask into view. They placed this newer-looking cask beside the first, then gripped the mottled grey hogshead.

‘Please don’t do this!’ I cried as they began to lift and tip the contents of the first cask into the second.

‘No! No! Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!’

Okay, so it isn’t a scene that’s going to make it into the next Matt Damon espionage thriller. The anxieties of the wider world are still titillated by government surveillance and nuclear war - the whims of the whisky industry are very far down the list of Hollywood’s screenwriters. But that leads me on rather neatly to the whisky anorak’s premonition of the apocalypse: wine finishing.

I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores; how the practice started is of less importance than where it is leading. There were conspiracies in the darker pockets of the internet that wine casks and indeed any oak vessel which had once held something else were drafted in to the Scotch whisky industry to lift sunken stocks. ‘Is your 13-year-old whisky a bit lifeless and bland? Stick it in a tokaji cask and you’ll be laughing.’ I should stress that I am not tarring all finishes with the same brush, nor am I suggesting that this was the policy for the entire industry. I am a big fan of Sherry and Port finishes, and some fortified wine finishes have been stellar: Ardbeg Galileo from Marsala casks, Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or from Sauternes. I reserve my reservations, in fact it is tantamount to a fully-formed aversion, for red wine-finished whiskies.

Over the years I have tried, in no particular order: Auchentoshan 17yo Bordeaux Finish, Bruichladdich Rocks, Bowmore Dusk, Bruichladdich Black Arts, Glenmorangie Artein, Edradour Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Dunedin 10yo Doublewood. All boasted redeeming features (excepting the Black Arts, of course) but the initial taste and recurring faults in the finish – like a repressed memory that keeps fighting back – always upset me.

On taking a first sip, it is as if Tarzan has swung in from nowhere with an offering of semi-decomposed berries and his own leaf mulch mattress. There’s a gruesomely bold ‘ta da! It’s me!’ from the wine, like encountering with a hangover a mostly empty bottle of merlot someone else was drinking the night before sat on a hot windowsill and exhaling exuberantly, which ruins everything else. Fair enough (almost) if your original casks have been stingier than an insurance company in Somerset but what if the liquid was quite charming to start with? This brings me on to Glenmorangie’s latest expression in the Private Edition series, Companta.

Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie, is a big fan of wine. He introduced Super Tuscan wine casks for the Artein release a couple of years ago and has settled in France this time for Companta. Two separate parcels of Glenmorangie were brought together, one lot maturing in Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart and the other in fortified wine casks from the Cotes du Rhone. The idea was to offer something ‘neither too bold nor too tame’. My problem here is that the wine influence is fairly bold, and I suspect they thought the original whisky was on the more mellow side. Rather lovely in its own way, but in need of pep. I fear that, in pursuit of something a little more earnest, they have dressed Cerys Matthews up as Lady Gaga.

Glenmorangie Companta 46% £69.99

Colour – full dark honey with prune tints.

Nose – complex tannic knots of cask, barley sweetness beneath and dark cherry with a dark chocolate shell. Soft, full and inviting. Big note of Port-poached pear, the wine thickening and puckering at the edges. Lashings of blackberry vinegar. A shaving of lightly creamy and spicy ex-Bourbon cask. Earthiness returns and a loss of focus in the mid-range.

Palate – winey fruits and jelly beans collide into each other then firm, sweet baking spice oak arrives. Smooth malt behind. A touch aggressive but pleasant.

Finish – quite light in the finish: apricot flesh surrounds a fading fudgey malt. Budding vanilla fragrance and buttercream thickness.

Adding water improved everything by a fraction. The nose was reminiscent of Jammy Dodgers, sweet hazelnut and stewed apple. There is a lovely malt at its peak texture and sweetness but the wine, I felt, inhibited any attempt to realise the whisky’s depths. With time, strawberry bonbon, acacia honey and peppermint appear. The palate takes the dark cherry note from the neat nose and spins it on a bed of fromage frais. A bit of pear and more winey warmth. Creamy coconut and soft fruit stick to the tongue before earthy cask notes return. All led into a creamy and elusive finish.

So…?      As I said above, there are strong hints of a very lovely whisky here. The high quality Glenmorangie spirit has an exceptional ability to fill the nose and conjure up sweets you had long forgotten about. There are suggestions of the 10yo’s pear and creamy Bourbon character and it’s all rather nice until you have to factor in the wine. In this whisky the dangers of mixing grape and grain came in the form of a warm mulchy earthiness, like making jam in a potting shed. It didn’t dominate, but it was just enough to mar the effect at every stage. The Companta, therefore, is a bright blue sky, with a cloud or two sidling into shot.

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Old Pulteney 1990 Peated Casks

To boast strength of character sets you apart. You don’t have to shout to be heard; pulling power isn’t about the size of your bank balance or the cheap thrills you promise hangers-on. Strength of character combines expertise, sincerity, idiosyncracy. You don’t have to chase people – they will come to you.

This is how I feel about the Pulteney distillery in Wick. In 1826 it supplied whisky for those who relied on their skill and bravery for a living: the herring fishermen. Today, it continues to produce a spirit which is essentially traditional but unlike anything else. When I went round the distillery in 2010, I couldn’t come to terms with the ramshackle nature of its layout and location. This is a distillery born out of opportunism and a mend-as-we-go mentality, yet the confidence and character impress you.

When Inver House Distillers, Old Pulteney’s owners, invited me back exactly three years ago, I peeked into a few more corners, asked a few more questions and again reflected on the distillery’s infectious pride and personality. Its situation – so far up on the north coast – is said to instil a saltiness into their whiskies which rest in the warehouses by the harbour; its equipment is unique: ugly duckling stills rather than the more graceful swans from elsewhere in the industry feed into worm tubs, both of which build complexity on top of flavour on top of texture. In 2012, Jim Murray recognised Old Pulteney 21yo as the best whisky in the world. Having bought a bottle four months before the announcement, the plaudits came as no suprise.

On that last November visit, manager Malcolm Waring filled a glass with the visitor centre single cask bottle-your-own dram. It was a 1990 Old Pulteney from a Bourbon barrel that had previously held peated Scotch single malt. I don’t remember it all that well, being the final dram of a mammoth sampling, but a bracing freshness, depth and sweetness had been evident. Now, the brand is to release a 1990 vintage marriage of several ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks with that peated wood element in play. As 1990 is my birth year, I was eager to see a) how the whisky had developed over the last three years and b) whether I might need a bottle for a special occasion.

Bottled at 23 years of age or thereabouts, this whisky is 46%, natural colour and not chill-filtered.

Old Pulteney 1990 Vintage 46% (900 cases) £120 (RRP)

Colour – full honey gold.

Nose – slightly musty fruits from above with old yellow apple, papaya and mandarin. A tickle of spice (ginger), syrupy sweet oak with plenty of vanilla and rich earthiness. With nose in the glass it is very self-contained with lush meeting spicy. A waxy weight to this. Seville orange, green fruits, sherry-soaked currants and rich oak sugars. The malt has a soft, perfumed shell, behind which is zesty barley. A bracing salty edge when warmed.

Palate – sparkles around the mouth with a wealth of bubbly fruit: apple, pear, peach and flamed orange zest. In time there is weighty, firm and dark oak as well as rich earthy peat just at the tail.

Finish – the smoke pervades for a time, just drying on the edges of the tongue. Then butterscotch and sherried fruits emerge. Salty with again that weighty, waxy spirit character.

Adding water made this even more expressive: a fraction dryer on the nose as the spice and salt really kick in. The oak is nicely creamy, however, with fudge and vanilla aromas. The peat note is farmy while apricot develops with time. The palate is a show-stopper: age is apparent immediately with dense oak and oily malt. However, it still conspires to be fruity with pear, orange and apricot in alliance with oak, salt and peat. These last three club together in a dazzling triad to grip and structure everything. Far smokier to taste than the straight sample, but it is still a very mild peat influence and only there for a spicy, sweet complexity. The finish is unmistakably dry with salt and hot oranges. The barley is still clean and gristy beside the dried fruit of the oak. That muted aged peatiness from the oak returns.

So…?      As I said, strength of character. This is not a whisky that makes a song and dance about its merits, which are extensive. It hadn’t the lush vigour of the 12yo, or the oily austerity of the 17yo, nor the gloriously expressive orange and spice crackle nose boasted by the 21yo; however, every one of the 23 years shows. When analysing, there was simply so much going on and I worried I hadn’t kept track. Rather than the flirty and the obvious, this evolves in the glass and I can see this being a seriously reliable fireside dram as well as a joy for food pairings: a hard cheese like a vintage gouda or dessert would be my suggestion.

The Old Pulteney spirit does things its own way, which I certainly commend. Weighty, fruity, waxy, spicy, salty – it brings a great deal to the table and is always a malt I relish returning to. This 1990 is possibly a fraction out of my budget for the time being, and I’d still recommend the 21yo in its stead. For those who do make its acquaintance, however, they will not be disappointed.

Thanks go to Lukasz Dynowiak for the sample.

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Compass Box Experimental Great King Streets

The two new Great King Streets.

Blending whiskies together is an art, a challenge and also a lot of fun. I mentioned recently that I would be hosting a blending workshop in St Andrews for the Quaich Society’s keen beans, those who obsess over single malt but for whom blends are foreign – possibly benign - territories at best. Over a couple of hours of pipetting and measuring, nosing and adjusting, I think my ten candidates for Master Blender began to appreciate the finer details involved. At any rate, they gave it their all to win the first prize: another craft blend with startling depths in the shape of the Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Sherry.

Great King Street is both an address and a mission. When John Glaser released the first Great King Street (named after Compass Box’s Edinburgh HQ) in 2011 its gorgeous packaging and even more gorgeous contents won plenty of praise and proved that an inexpensive blended Scotch could compete with older, more widely-available single malts on texture, flavour and story. Dubbed ‘the Artist’s blend’, John pitched it as the ultimate mixer, forming the core of his hiball renaissance; it could also act as an aperitif with ice or some cold water. Frankly, I drank it any which way I could. I found it unbeatable as the Scotch component for any number of classic whisky cocktails.

The Great King Street monicker had always been intended to adorn a range of whiskies, not just one, however, and in September this year two contenders for the next instalment arrived. One took the unctuous, fruity and bold style of blended Scotch in a more sherried direction – a rare move for Compass Box who favour their first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels and new toasted French oak, while the other laid on the peat. Great King Street focuses on art, inspiration and craft: awesome whiskies take care of the art, inspiration comes from the 19th century heyday of Scotch blends with a modern twist and craft is all about balance. All Great King Streets are natural colour, without chill-filtration.

What of the whiskies, then? As Scotland shuttles into winter, both the rich fruit of a sherried whisky and the belligerent thrust of peat become welcome flavours to drive out the cold.

Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Batch #00-V4 43% (3,439 bottles)

Colour – nutty amber with light malt tones.

Nose – a stirring of malt followed by sweet fruitiness and candied peels. Plenty of rich dark honey and green fruits. There then builds a rich veneer of dryish Oloroso: mostly fruity but grows maltier with a touch of lively cereal citrus. Sugar-coated almond and dried apricot. Pink marshmallow. Energy and richness beautifully combined. Mascarpone and dark chocolate lead into bitter orange and nuts.

Palate – chocolate-y sherry oak… oh, and the rich, lazy, muscular malt. So rich, smooth and delicious with the grain supplying adundant creaminess at the end. Outstanding.

Finish – dries a touch with persistent creamy grain and dark cocoa powder. Banana fritter. Verges on possibly being overly sweet. The standard GKS re-introduces more oaky spicy for balance at this point.

 

Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Batch #TR-06 43% (3,805 bottles)

Colour – clean full gold.

Nose – phenolic and rich at first with seashore peat and razorclam shells. Buttery vanilla behind. In the glass it is all dry smoke at first: big but without threatening. Glossy tropical fruits with melon and especially passion fruit. Vanilla ice cream with a ripple of caramel. The smoke comes in drifts revealing firm, chewy cereals, turmeric and cloves. Maltier with time.

Palate – big turmeric at first with some lemon peel. Peat starts as a wisp of smoke but dries and enlarges to become turf-like and dense.

Finish – remarkably dry and ashy but there is incense in there as well as vanilla. Spent fireworks. Still weighty and sweet.

The Sherry had the edge over the Peat on the nose and palate but the finish of the Peat was a delight.

Adding water harmed the Peat a touch. It became more marine-like on the nose with beach pebbles. Then custard tart aromas developed from the American oak: nutmeg and vanilla. The palate was almost unaffected, still big on the soft peats and soft creamy grain. The Sherry, on the other hand, upped the ante on the chocolate with vanilla biscuit in there, too. Overt patisserie indulgence! Even some smoke appeared. The vision I received was of an exquisite gingery Sherry butt beneath which the malt thundered away on a honeyed theme like a Balvenie might. The palate became more honey-driven with some floral tones and plenty of malt. Liqueur chocolates and European oak added further weight. Again, the thick, sweet grains are wonderfully alert and busy amidst the dark oaky tannins.

So…?      I had thought that these might be a revolution in blended Scotch. However, while they don’t reinvent the wheel they are strikingly brilliant and outscored every blended Scotch I have tasted bar the Chivas Regal 25yo. In both cases the intensity of the malt compenents (67% of the total blend for the TR-06 and 72% for the 00-V4) was beautifully harnessed by the silky beauty of the grains. If you concentrate, the mechanics of on-the-money blended Scotch are there to see, but if you just want to relax and treat yourself to something a little more gutsy but which still boasts shades of subtlety these can soothe all manner of cares.

This year sees a raft of new releases from Compass Box: these in the Great King Street stable, the Delilah’s blend constructed in partnership with a Chicago institution, the Peat Monster 10th Anniversary and something called The General. Watch this space.

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The Glenrothes 2001

‘That’s your local whisky, right?’ During my time at the Road Hole Bar at the Old Course Hotel here in St Andrews, many guests would make this error when I plucked down from the groaning shelves a Glenrothes by way of recommendation. Although there is a Glenrothes 20 miles away from the Old Grey Toon, it cannot lay claim to a 1988 Vintage or a Select Reserve.

Hailing instead from Morayshire in the Speyside whisky region, the Glenrothes distillery pumps out a lot of spirit. Yet despite a prodigious output I had only ever come across an 8yo, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail, prior to their latest vintage landing on my doorstep. The 2001 typifies the unusual channels by which The Glenrothes, as a single malt, enters the market under a proprietary label. Although the Edrington Group, owners of The Macallan and Highland Park, assume responsibility for the distillery’s production (much will go into the company’s blended Scotches, such as Famous Grouse), the branding and distribution fall to London wine and spirit merchants, Berry Bros. & Rudd.

A highly-respected independent bottler in their own right, Berry Bros. have won much acclaim for their approach with The Glenrothes in recent years. Indeed, they have masterminded an encroachment into the duty free market with the Manse Brae collection. These three whiskies do not carry an age statement but showcase the rich, oily but fruity Glenrothes spirit at varying levels – or moods – of maturity.

What of the 2001, though?

The Glenrothes 2001 43% £45

Colour – full gold.

Nose – seriously powerful: the oak is like being hit with a length of 2×4 and the barley has such oily intensity. Shortcrust pastry on top of which is fresh but quite rich and nutty barley as well as a sour apple note in the top ranges, but everything settles into heather honey and lavender. Oak chips introduce spice, especially star anise and sandalwood. Ginger and red fruits come later. Firm and vibrant.

Palate – the malt darkens but layers of spice begin to trickle down. The oak steps in with a mouthcoating grip, then a flash of lemon.

Finish – a complex array of Indian spices melting together. Turmeric. A suggestion of apple cores and natural caramel.

Water accentuated extra fruitiness across nose and palate, with a custard tart note on the nose as well as honeycomb and almond. There was an added fudgey quality to taste before melon and pear freshened the finish.

So…?      I don’t share the opinion of some writers that this is a fresh, delicate whisky. Despite the ex-Bourbon heritage this, for me, is definitely a malt to chew over perhaps after a walk in the woods. I am not complaining, however, and I found it a delight to spend some time with a malt that truly knows what it is about. The Glenrothes 2001 pursues its aims unswervingly and stays true to its character; there are limitations but within those self-imposed parameters you are looking at a very engaging whisky.

 

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The Blend Bibliography – Isle of Skye

Quietly, consistently, the word spreads. On the blogs especially, between the single malt pangeyrics and cocktail correspondence mention is increasingly made of blended Scotch whisky. And the coverage is informed, open-minded and – heaven forfend – positive.

If the principle barrier to blended appreciation has been, as Casktrength.net put it, ‘ubiquity’ I have come to realise that however recognisable the faces of Scotch blends may be, my familiarity with them is only skin deep. Far from demonstrating discernment, comprehensively passing over entry-level blends exposed a yawning chasm of ignorance for me. How could I claim to know anything about Scotch whisky when the category of Scotch whisky that 90% of the world chooses to drink was entirely alien to me?

Over the past two months platoons of samples have passed under my nose and what an enlightening process it has been. In many cases, the supposedly Plain Janes of the whisky world boast a subtle beauty, blessed with sparkling repartee and disarming charm. In a new feature, I want to focus on some of the blended Scotch whiskies you may have overlooked and detail the histories and personalities; the enterprise and innovation, and finally the flavours at their heart.

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Recently, I returned to Skye in the Scottish Hebrides for a week of walking, gastronomy and whisky. The Waternish peninsula would take care of the former, fine food would be guaranteed at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel and the Three Chimneys, and fortunately – three days prior to leaving for my holiday – I found a contender to satisfy most requirements on the latter front.

Isle of Skye is a blended Scotch under the control of Ian Macleod Distillers. Other notable brands of theirs include Glengoyne and Smokehead while they have recently revitalised Tamdhu Distillery in Speyside. The blend lies at the heart of the business, however, with the recipe ‘in the family’ from the 19th century and acquired by Ian Macleod along with the Isle of Skye name in 1963. The Skye connection is an obvious one: over the course of my week in the Dunvegan area it was almost impossible to move for Macleods and Dunvegan Castle, which we visited on a foul Wednesday morning, is the spiritual home of the Clan. Now based in Edinburgh, courtesy of the Isle of Skye blend the company retains this ancestral bond to the West Coast.

Today’s blend harnesses the honeyed body of Speyside malts and the peated pace of one or two island distillates to good effect. The standard expression is the 8yo, but it is also possible to come across a 12yo and a 21yo as part of the core range. They have even released a 50yo, although stocks are very limited.

The UK and USA remain core markets, but in-roads are being made with the whisky-drinking publics of Ukraine and Russia.

The bottle design takes its cues from the Cuillin Hills – the awe-inspiring geological razor blade which dominates the island’s skyline (or should that be Skyeline). The Cuillins represent one of the longest and most testing ridge walks in the British Isles and their moods alter depending on the time of year and the weather; the 8yo highlights their red russet phase, while at other times the prospect can be a furious, Mordor-like black – alluded to by the 12yo.

When I contacted the company they hinted at a significant new sponsorship agreement to be announced at the beginning of next month. In the past, however, Ian Macleod’s blend has headlined at the 135th Year of the Isle of Skye Highland Games in Portree as well as partnering with the revamped Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh during last summer’s Festival Fringe.

I picked up my bottle of the 8yo at my local Tesco for £17.50 having been surprised by its robust but rounded nature and intriguing fruity depths, discovered in a sample from Master of Malt.

Isle of Skye 8yo 40%

Colour – honey with deep orange tones

Nose – light and crusty peat grafted on to rich, fruity Sherry oak at first. With nose in the glass the grains take the lead and their luscious body, zest and rich vanilla qualities suggest some are older than the stated 8 years. Behind this is impressively sensuous honey and berry fruit hints, as well as caramel made from condensed milk. Jelly sweets, soft grassy smoke and suggestions of cigar wrapper. Rounded and assured.

Palate – rich and peaty textures before honey, redcurrent and plum take matters into sweeter, rounder territory. The grain is predominant throughout but adds lovely, potent and above all clean body. A crackle of spice to close.

Finish – very grain-driven again with fleshy fruit (papaya, mango) and a background of ginger, cinnamon and raisin.

While I might not always agree with him, Jim Murray does write with ardent eloquence on the subject of blended Scotch and he rates this expression very highly indeed. For me, it is a perfect example of a blend that is on the one hand very ‘different’ yet soothingly familiar.

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Chivas Regal 25yo

If I were to draw a distinction between how the two chief categories of Scotch whisky communicate, I would say that single malts prattle on about place, while blends portray themselves in terms of personality and occasion. For the latter, what matters is not where you come from but where you want to end up: character and creativity beat credentials every time. A prime example would be the Chivas Regal 25yo.

In 1909, Charles Howard and Alexander Smith envisaged a new clientele for their blend and to secure it they engineered a whole new whisky. What had started life in a little grocer’s shop in Aberdeen suddenly had aspirations on the other side of the Atlantic: on top of skyscrapers or beside the Hudson, they believed that Chivas 25yo could accompany a new wave of American ambition and glamour.

The glitterati guzzled Howard and Alexander’s creation, right up until Prohibition pulled the rug out from under them and countless other entrepreneurial blenders. Chivas 25yo ceased to be, a relic of the Roaring Twenties.

Fast forward nearly a century, and introduce a new person behind the blended story. Colin Scott resurrects the Chivas Regal 25yo as an attempt to replicate ‘the delicate intensities and subtle textures’ of the 1909 original while creating a new super-premium figurehead for one of the most popular blended Scotch brands in the world. I purchased myself a sample and set about investigating.

Chivas Regal 25yo 40% vol. £177 from here.

Colour – deep amber.

Nose – first nosing reveals immediate ermine-coated grains which lend a ‘squidgy’ cereal sweetness. Some high-toned peat and baked apple. Deeper inspection reveals stunning age: full-bodied, rounded and sweetly rich. Coconut and corn oils balance the American oak banana cream pie effect. Beeswax, soft fruits: a little mango and caramelised pineapple. Spices emerge with time: cinnamon stick and nutmeg. Creamier depths with tangerine sharpness and sweetness. A magical Sherry note: apricot, golden raisin and cherry. Stunning.

Palate – weighty oak informs the delivery but doesn’t menace the tongue. The malts build a dark, oily texture with the grains contributing firm sweetness. Flashes of almond and dried fruit.

Finish – more about poise than all-out flavour. Tablet, creamy rich vanilla. Touches of flowers (rose, violet) before plump echoing malt makes the final flourish.

Adding water increased the impression of seniority on the nose still further with leather, coconut panacotta and egg custard tarts with plenty of nutmeg. A multifaceted honey character embraces floral tones one minute and light caramels the next. Figs unfurl before your eyes. With time a deep dunnage panorama surfaces. Great seams of maturity anchor the aroma: raisins, cooperages and vanilla pods. The palate is still more impressive: fruit skins, leathery malt with glorious sherried back notes. Waxy, demerara sugar, polished oak. Garden apples and turned earth. The finish presented honey on buttered toast, and unctuous sweet vanilla. One mentholated wheeze of oak reconfirmed that there are some seriously old whiskies in here.

So…?      It’s pretty clear I enjoyed this one, I’d say. ‘Enjoy’ is putting it mildly, in fact: I was in raptures. I am awe of those who have the ability to combine whiskies such that every moment spent with the finished product reveals new evolving complexities and the most satisfying, choreographed delivery. I would happily pay the asking price for a whisky this skilfully realised, and which embodies some of the highest quality raw ingredients you will find anywhere. Some stupendous Strathislas, Benriachs and Longmorns have contributed to a liquid of singular beauty and richness. Blends testify to skill, vision and sensitivity: Colin Scott, you are my new whisky hero.

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