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February 8, 2012

The (Really) Good Spirits Co., Glasgow

When plans were first afoot to drop by a few more of Scotland’s excellent whisky shops, I could have had no idea that by the time it came to write about them on the Scotch Odyssey Blog the mood of optimistic malty materialism would have soured to one of grudging destitution.

Whisk(e)y – and this is the honest truth - constitutes my only financial weakness. I don’t own a games console, I don’t buy clothes, I don’t go to concerts more than twice a year or sporting events at all. Yet here I sit, gently shivering in my student flat, more acutely aware than ever before of the dwindling loan money, incredulous at what it costs to be in a position to pour yourself a dram once in a while. Electricity, rent, internet, food, phone: all must take precedence.

Inside the Good Spirits Co.

It was under a cloud of such dark thoughts, on an otherwise spotless Glasgow day, that I ducked into the Good Spirits Co. in the city centre. A few weeks previously I had sent an excited message to Mark Connelly, co-founder of the independent spirits shop, asking for Bourbon or Rye recommendations. His pick was a Noah’s Mill, a brand I had never heard of but which receives rave reviews from what I could glean from a quick traipse across the internet. The batch Mark was so keen on was bottled at 57.15% and would come in at £49. My eyes struggled to ignore the handsome black wax-sealed bottle, but I would have to scan other shelves.

On a single level, just beneath the street, a flight of stone stairs conveys you from the battle royal of Glasgow buses pulling up and roaring off again into the soothing company of fine spirits. I was impressed with its size, a large and long cuboid extending from the door to the far wall, where the only Spanish cedar wood, walk-in humidor in Scotland lurks fragrantly. In whisky shops now, my gaze flicks to particular areas, expecting to see the same brands. Not here. There are some of the usual suspects, but the packaging of independent bottlers enlivens the displays with A. D. Rattray, Hart Brothers and Duncan Taylor well-represented. However, I get the feeling that were I to go back in next month Adelphi, Douglas Laing and Signatory may well have taken their places. Mark told me that his customers are increasingly interested in ‘good spirits’, not ‘the same stuff I have always drank’. This, he says, is especially true with his gins and allowed him to stock different brands of rare or small batch products which would always sell. Gin nudges Scotch for the top seller in the shop.

The impressive selection of world whiskeys section.

The world whisky section is particular impressive also, with two separate offerings from South Africa in the shapes of Bains and Three Ships. From different parts, there is Lark, Mackmyra and a healthy showing from Ireland: Cooley in particular.

As I mentioned before Christmas, my promise to myself and my palate was that no more Scotch would be bought until I had explored one other region first. The Noah’s Mill may have been off-limits, but I was delighted to see a solitary bottle of Four Roses and a legion of Buffalo Trace, both for £26. It would have to be between these two, and Mark made the decision still harder but informing me that the Buffalo Trace was now bottled at 40% abv, but what he had was a consignment of some of the last 45% ers.

It was the Four Roses I ultimately handed over the exquisite counter: a design based around the staves of three Sherry butts with more straightened staves for the counter top. ‘We looked at getting it for the whole floor,’ Mark mused, but then quoted me a three-figure price per square metre and the decision to go with standard wooden flooring looked a sound one.

The Good Spirits Co.'s Living Cask. What Dr Frankenstein was really after, I think.

I was not allowed to leave before having tried their ‘living cask’, a tiny Sherry wood cask which originally held Highland Park and Bunnahabhain but always receives a top-up of something else when the level in the barrel reaches the tap. Batch 4 dribbled into my Glencairn glass and it was rather excellent: coastal with plenty of Sherry fruit and spice on the nose, there were also notes of rich honey and earth – possibly the Ardmore and the Aberfeldy fighting for supremacy. The palate was sublime with red fruits and pale creamy oak leading into plenty of toffee. A second sip revealed an aggressive saltiness and a fizzing sweet cereal quality. £15 will buy you a 20cl bottle and it is certainly worth a look.

With directions to the Chinaski’s Bourbon bar and the Bon Accord lodged in our brains, my friends and I reascended to street level in very good spirits.

 

The Good Spirits Co., 23 Bath Street, Glasgow

0141 258 8427

http://thegoodspiritsco.com

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January 25, 2012

Wordsmiths and Drinkmongers

I fancy that Scotland owes Robert Burns and his progenitors a great deal. The North-of-Border-Bard supplies a seminal date for two of its finest areas of excellence: literature and whisky. Haggis might well be a third entity to benefit from close association with the ‘heaven taught ploughman’.

A stirring Highland-scape.

January 25th can serve as a seminal date for Scottish poetic expression and the spirit to which so much of it is dedicated. Robin Laing has compiled a charming anthology called The Whisky Muse which contains verse recent and ancient celebrating uisquebeatha’s prominent role in the culture of this beautiful country and the lives of the characters within it. Of course, whisky doesn’t exactly need a date each year on which to be so venerated, but who else can the industry and product cleave to as a figurehead? To favour any particular commercial distiller would be to forget the essential roots of whisky, in the bothies and peat sheds of farmers trying to earn a little more from their harvests. To plump for a politician responsible for a piece of legislation that made our favourite drink what it resembles today would be deeply unpopular and somehow, to miss the point. Burns is a personality to which whisky as the potent blood of Scots-hood may gratefully pin its colours, a high priest to a romantic past resurrected by the whisky-laden breath of every Burns Night makar.

Drinkmonger's inviting exterior.

I returned from Pitlochry yesterday having discovered a new outpost for the contemporary whisky industry. Along the road from the tartan and teek of the Blair Athol distillery is Drinkmonger, an offshoot of Royal Mile Whiskies. Inside, I discovered a retail space a little different to what you might expect of a whisky retailer in such a tourism-driven town. It would not look out of place on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Wooden-floored with dark shelving, the layout is clean and tasteful. The staff are especially helpful, and I learnt from the sales assistant that the shop had been open six months and they continued, even in the leaner post-Christmas times, to enjoy local interest in their products and services.

The spirits shelves at Drinkmonger.

From what I could see of the range, there can be few complaints. Drinkmonger came into existence to allow RMW to expand into the wine sector but their malt and bourbon selections are tasteful and extremely interesting. I list Bourbon for several reasons: I am deeply keen to try more of this fantastically innovative and complex spirit, and Drinkmonger has the best range of any retailer I have come across in four years of poking around in Scottish spirits shops. Buffalo Trace distillery was very well represented, with the eponymous expression (£24) in addition to Sazerac Rye (delish) and Eagle Rare (£32). Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek and Wild Turkey were also in evidence.

I am a Scotch blog, though, and I gazed lovingly at a bottle of the new Kilchoman 2006 (under £50), in addition to the GlenDronach 14yo Port finish (£33 if I remember rightly). I was assured, however, that through their extensive connections with distributors the store will attempt to track down any special request you may have.

If you are one who thinks that there is a surplus of whisky shops already, I suspect that even you will forgive Drinkmonger. Between their wines, spirits other than whisky (I was pointed towards the rums whilst noticing their impressive selection of gins) and cigar humidor, this is a highly professional outfit with a few gems certain to surprise. I’m saving my money for a trip to the Good Spirits Co. in Glasgow, but under different circumstances I could have spent many an hour and much currency in Drinkmonger.

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December 3, 2011

Luvians at the Quaich Society

The eclectic line up for the Quaich Society Luvians tasting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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