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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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Movember – Edinburgh Whisky Blog style

‘I expect Charles Maclean will be there,’ I thought to myself as I power-walked along a drizzly Princes Street in Edinburgh last week. Tiger from Edinburgh Whisky Blog had invited me to a whisky tasting in aid of Movember, a cause close to the blog’s heart with Hoban, Lucas, Turbo and Tiger sprouting a mo’ every November. We would be sampling the rarest and most outlandish bottles they could come by (legitimately) and the venue would be Ruffians Barbers. Whisky and expressive facial hair. Definitely Charlie Maclean territory.

The opening cocktail, courtesy of Solid Liquids.

 

I ducked into the uber-modern though somehow classic decor of Ruffians and grasped my bearings. I’ve passed the Barbers so often on the bus from St Andrews: it’s rich blue exterior promising relaxation and professionalism. What I hadn’t previosuly glimpsed from the X59 was Martin Duffy and Alan Fisher from Solid Liquids hand-carving stainless ice to deposit into giant glass tumblers, nor row upon row of stemmed blenders glasses receiving their measures of precious spirit. If I’m honest I hadn’t spotted Charles Maclean on the premises before, either, but there he was, lending a proprietorial air.

The Edinburgh Whisky boys arrived and the place gradually filled up. Martin pushed one of the tumblers into my hand: a Talisker 10yo infusion, ahed in a tiny oak barrel seasoned with Sherry to which charred pineapple syrup and bitters had been added, finished off with a candied grapefruit peel moustache. Almost simultaneously, I made the acquaintance of Ruffians owner, Ian Fallon. A charming chap, and I wish them luck with the opening of their London shop next month.

A kilted-Hoban and Tweed-bedecked Tiger opened proceedings. Chris explained why we were all there: to get behind the Movember initiative which raises awareness of the No. 1 and 2 most common male-specific cancers: prostate and testicular cancer. From humble beginnings in Australia, the charity has raised millions for research and publicity, aided by a platoon of global moustached-activists.

Tiger and Hoban spreading the word.

Back in Edinburgh, we lathered up with the whiskies, starting with a very special, historical whisky from Chris Hoban’s collection. In June last year, Chris and a select group of other bloggers (not yours truly, sadly) were invited up to Glenfiddich to ‘help’ Grant’s Master Blender, Brian Kinsman, recreate the Stand Fast blend as detailed in William Grant’s own ledger dated June 1912. As Chris pointed out, legislation has changed since Willie Grant’s time and they couldn’t use 2-year-old whisky in their blend but some sensitive nosing and lateral thinking – or maybe chucking a lot of whisky into a measuring cylinder and hoping for the best – resulted in Stand Fast. Never commercially released, Chris had donated his own bottle to delight the crowd. I found this a lovely blend: sharp barley, very rich, firm vanilla tones and a thick carpet of peat smoke.

Tiger admitted that, even with a single cask, he could not match the rarity of Chris’s Stand Fast. The sharp, malty and feisty Glenfarclas from the SMWS took they evening into a burlier direction, one only confirmed with the Sherry-soaked wonders of Karuizawa, Spirit of Asama. I had never experienced this cult Japanese single malt before but Hoban furnished us with a bit of background. Built in the 1950s, its owners wished to make a whisky as close to Scotch – and the Macallan especially – as possible. Small stills, floor maltings, everything about Karuizawa was designed to pile flavours on top of flavours. I liked it a lot.

We were well-stocked with thought-provoking whiskies.

To the final dram of the evening, officially at least, and it was one to put hairs on the chest if not the upper lip. David Sinclair of Diageo bestowed a bottle of Talisker 30yo, for which I for one was deeply grateful. A Special Release from a couple of years back, this was Talisker extruded through a Viscountess’s drawing room: time in cask had added layers of exotic dried fruit, a delicate waxiness and polished oak. The smoky side had relaxed into yesterday’s Russian caravan tea. Just exquisite.

The £10 entry fee had garnered each attendee some Raffle tickets and the prizes had been winking at us all night like quiz machines with an improbably high jackpot. These comprised the contents of EWB’s drinks cabinets: everything from duty free Balblair, Glenfarclas for the Belgian market, new Glenfiddichs and many more whiskies you just can’t find down at your local Tesco. Unfortunately I had to leave for a train, but I’m confident the money rolled in with bountiful donations and big smiles. No one does a charity whisky tasting quite like Edinburgh Whisky Blog. Many thanks to the guys for inviting me, and I wish them luck with their personal sponsorship drives – and the resulting taches.

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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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Inver House at the Quaich Society (3)

Inver House's third line up for the Quaich Society.

Bingo is not a terribly popular pursuit amongst members of the Quaich Society, but its President isn’t above using an analogy derived from that pastime. Therefore, when Lucas Dynowiak returned to St Andrews in November armed with a trio of Speyburns he made it a full house of Inver House’s single malt brands at the Society. I say ‘brands’: we haven’t seen any Balmenach thus far, but it is still doing much of the grunt work for the Hankey Bannister blends, in addition to manufacturing the exceedingly tasty Caorunn gin. However, Speyburn assumed its moment in the spotlight, succeeding from anCnoc, Balblair and Old Pulteney which had all received a favourable audience on the Fife coast.

Before we arrived at the make from what Michael Jackson believed to be Scotland’s most picturesque distillery, Lucas wanted to institute a little continuity from his previous tasting in May. It was to a couple of anCnoc expressions that we immediately turned our taste buds. Lucas is very much on the Quaich Society wavelength in his presentation style: urging us to explore the liquid first, he provides a judicious quantity of whisky geekery in the way of captions as we go.

Lucas keeps us amused.

The first pour was a ‘picnic dram’, in his words, although the label said ‘Peter Arkle No. 3′. As the name suggests, this is the third anCnoc expression released in conjunction with Scottish artist, Peter Arkle’s work. This one was exclusive to travel retail (how Lucas got these two 1l bottles past customs, I’ll never know) and unlike editions 1 and 2, hailed from Bourbon casks exclusively.

Filling in the gap between this and Peter Arkle No. 1 which we had sampled in May was Peter Arkle No. 2. A milder-mannered beast in Lucas’s opinion, many people appreciated its exuberant sweetness and heavy orange flavours. My subsequent review was a little more severe.

Fairly racing along in the procedings, Speyburn stepped up to address our gathering of whisky fans following the brace of anCnocs. If Lucas had his way, it would also be Speyside malt whisky’s ambassador to best convey that region’s style to a visiting alien. While I entertained the notion of an extra-terrestrial sporting Charles MacLean’s moustache, Lucas explained that the whisky hailed from the heart of Speyside, had been constructed in 1897 at the peak of distillery construction in the area, and produced a typically fruity, fresh spirit.

The proof was in the whisky, where no ‘Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’ Babel fish were needed to understand the sweetness of the spirit. The first expression was the Bradan Orach, meaning golden salmon in Gaelic. The fifth best-selling single malt in the States, Lucas joked that it was more commonly enjoyed from hipflasks rather than Glencairns, as it was unashamedly a dram for the outdoorsman. Matured in Sherry casks, the Bradan Orach was meaty at first on the nose, with a growing sweetness suggesting lemon and caramel. The palate was reminiscent of boiled sweets and baked apple, while the finish was exceptionally quick. Overall, a charming little performer.

The same couldn’t be said of the 10yo, which came across as distinctly world-weary; a salmon after the ferocious fight upstream to spawn, if you will. Boasting a sharp citrussy nose, it was very restrained and carried a fragrance of ‘bathroom’. The palate revealed a clean and clinging spirit with a touch of green fruit to commend it.

A glowing anecdote arrived to lift our spirits from the dismal 10yo, and most fitting for the year, it was too. Speyburn, when first constructed, wished to produce a whisky in Queen Victoria’s diamond Jubilee year of 1897. Overbudget and dangerously close to the deadline (not unlike we students on occasion), on Old Year’s Night and without any doors or windows in the distillery, spirit flowed from the copper pots into a single Sherry butt. No-one knows what became of the cask. I suggested the barrier-less facade of the distillery may have been to blame. Still, it just goes to show that – even then – whisky makers had an eye for a marketing opportunity.

Our final whisky was the relaunched 25yo. We had been lucky enough to sample the last of the award-winning 25yo earlier in the year and I was curious as to how this one would compare. The nose initially presented treated wood and forests in summer heat. Creamy orange and banana gave way to Vicks chest rub, a slight farminess and a balsamic vinegar acidity. Orange returned on the palate (no doubt a result of the Pedro Ximenez Sherry butts used in maturation) along with vanilla, grassiness and a puckering sweetness. There was mild disappointment voiced around my table, however, that it failed to reveal deeper treasures.

On behalf of all who braved a chilly night, I thank Lucas for plundering the Inver House inventory once again to put on a most comprehensive evening of whisky. My favourite encounter of the night was the anCnoc retrospective, and especially Peter Arkle No. 3. Super sweet, clean and bright, it had taken on the most flattering Bourbon cask attributes.

A few weeks ago, I learnt of another addition to the anCnoc range. Weighing in at 22-years-of-age, I must confess that this whisky quickens my pulse. I’m blessed with rapturous memories of Inver House and master blender Stuart Harvey’s skill at managing old stocks of whiskies and for evidence I give to you the Old Pulteney 21yo, the Balblair 1989 and 1978, and the anCnoc 35yo (terrific!). This mix of Bourbon and Sherry casks, bottled at 46% abv., has some fine stablemates for company, therefore. The press release claims that it ‘displays complexity and the wealth of character expected of all single malt whisky from Knockdhu, but the leathery, smokey and smoothly tannic manifestation of maturity makes anCnoc 22-Year-Old different from the Distillery’s younger offerings.’ Priced at £85, it isn’t half bad for a whisky of this age profile and I may need to come by a bottle before it – and I - turn 23.

 

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Morrison Bowmore at the Quaich Society

The broad range of Morrison Bowmore whiskies.

We on the Quaich Society committee have worked out by now that our members, while impressed by a five-dram verticle tasting encompassing the most senior reaches of a distillery’s range, especially love ‘horizontal’ tastings. Hopes were high, therefore, for Morrison Bowmore. A company that can boast the most balanced or Islay malts, with sea spray, peat and fruity toffee, the only exclusively triple-distilled single malt in Scotland and the only distillery that has let me strip off in its still room was sure to go down well with the Quaich Society. The only pity was that, due to a change of date, more people couldn’t attend.

When Paul Goodwin needed a second trip to the car to bring in the last of the expressions he hoped to present before us, we interpretted it as a good sign. In the end, we hadn’t the glassware to sneak in the Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve, too.

Paul Goodwin, modelling jacket and waistcoat in Bowmore Tweed.

Debonair in Bowmore Tweed (‘I thought St Andrews was the right place to try it out,’ he replied wittily), Paul guided us through the dizzying range of styles on offer, starting with the Auchentoshan. The jump from the dried apple and biscuit scents of the Classic to the punchy crushed red fruits and almost earthiness of the Three Wood was startling. Gratifying was how both recalled my 18th birthday and the VIP tour of the distillery. With the Classic there was a delicacy of sweetness, balanced by a burly dryness. On the palate, the first fill Bourbon barrels made their presence felt with a charred quality and creaminess.

The Three Wood was to be many peoples’ favourite dram of the night, including an ever-curious Doug Clement who kept Paul busy fielding questions. Despite having announced pre-tasting that he was more heavily involved in the sales side of the business, Paul’s whisky knowledge was exceptional and our resident industry insider and glass patron returned to his drams, satisfied with the information received. A little snippet I hadn’t been privy to was the cost to whisky of the Second World War. Due to its proximity to Glasgow, wee Auchentoshan must have looked to the Luftwaffe like a weapons-grade storage facility (a mistake the British government repeated in the last decade in Iraq, funnily enough) and bombed the place. 300,000 litres of maturing spirit were lost.

To Islay now, however, and the peat heads in the room started to get excited. The Bowmore 12yo is a great whisky to start with period, but as in introduction to Islay’s delights it works very well. Ferny, heathery peat on the nose developed into sea shore aromas with sharp, crunchy malt. The palate was balanced and rich, with a sweet sootiness and honey. Paul recommended it with seafood.

The Bowmore Darkest chocolate.

‘I’m sorry I didn’t bring along any oysters,’ Paul continued as we turned to the 15yo Darkest, but he handed out some dark chocolate instead. The Lindt was felt to compliment the heavy Sherry tones the whisky picks up from its three-year finish in European oak. The potent result gained a rum-like quality when paired with the chocolate. Separately, I got a very strong chorizo aroma at first with a lot of paprika. This became salty with an undertow of gooey-ness. Red apple, too. On the palate the saltiness and chorizo continued with brown, almost dirty peat and burning straw. I wasn’t sure about this one, although others were won over by its distinctive personality. The Tempest releases for me still hold greater interest than the Sherry-accented Bowmores.

When selecting the Glen Garioch component, Paul had been in a very generous mood. Despite being a spirit many had not come across – and many more could not pronounce – the core range had been overlooked in favour of one of the latest vintages. The 53.9% 1994, all Bourbon-matured was the final dram of the evening and was it different. Very creamy on the nose at first, there was oak grip and alcohol depth. Apricot and wholemeal bread appeared. With water the delivery was sweeter with orange as well as a creaminess. Pepper, lime and shortbread came later. The palate provided barley sugar, banana, charred cask, biscuit and gentle smoke, vanilla emerging with the addition of water.

In his delivery for the distillery, Paul mentioned the ’craft’ word more than once. With a capacity of 1,000,000 litres, it is actually producing below this so certainly isn’t a behemoth of a plant. While not in the Kilchoman league – as Paul admitted when challenged by Mr Clement - there is greater scope for doing something different with the brand as the 48% bottling strength of the Founder’s Reserve and 12yo, together with the vintage releases, confirm.

What I wanted to know more about was the consequence to these brands of the highly-publicised transfer of Rachel Barrie to Morrison Bowmore. ‘Would she,’ I asked, ‘have the same scope to create different expressions like she did with the Glenmorangie Signet etc.?’ Paul’s answer was the measured, but promising, ‘watch this space’.

Masses of Morrison Bowmore merchandise was very kindly donated by Paul for our raffle, and Quaich Society members dug in their pockets to be in with a chance of walking away with a whole bottle of Glen Garioch 12yo or a Bowmore polo shirt as well as other prizes. Our thanks go to Paul for a superb tasting, and we hope to see him back again with more expressions from these diverse stables – perhaps bearing the Barrie signature.

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