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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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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 2

Fruitcake, Frivolity, and Figs

A fraction over a week ago I was to be found skipping through the streets of Edinburgh with Chris Hoban, ducking into coffee shops and chocolateries, trying to recover a sense of our own humanity. Events which took place a larger fraction over a week ago explain why.

John Ramsay marshalling the Q&A.

With our whisky ration cards long since frittered away in various corners of the Scotch Whisky Experience, a halt was called to the Master Blender Meet-and-Greet. I just had enough time to return Chris’ measure of Johnnie Walker Platinum (full and voluptuous with no small amount of smoke and plenty of coconut-laden grains) to him before we were herded up yet more stairs.

I had long since began to suspect my legs, uncertain as to whether they were working with me or against me, but the room into which we plodded revived my spirits. A vaulted ceiling allowed plenty of the last of the Edinburgh light in, and a striking stained glass window at the far end reminded all guests of the route by which those whiskies we had tasted already that evening had arrived beneath the noses of the master blenders, before they passed them along to us. The blenders themselves were sat along the high table to face the room. Only Richard Paterson, however, got to his feet. The show must go on.

In our glasses panted the juicy, dark and rich beauty that is The Dalmore King Alexander III. As chance would have it, this was the whisky I ordered following my first tour of the Experience, poured by Mr Hoban if memory serves. Paterson wanted to unlock the full spectrum of this immensely complicated whisky, which had seen the inside of six different specimens of cask before its tasteful glass bottle with silver embossing, via strong black coffee, fruitcake and dark chocolate. In a performance that blended at least six potent characterstics of its own to match the whisky, ranging from the ebullient to the outrageous, Paterson encouraged us to approach a single malt like never before. We were discouraged from following his lead, however, and hurling the first measure onto the carpet.

The Dalmore food matching tasting, minus the coffee.

‘Mm mm mmmm… Mm mm mmmm… Mmm Mmm MMMMMMMMMM. And swallow,’ he urged, holding the spirit on his palate for a tingling age. Then chocolate followed fruitcake which followed coffee in rapid fire ingestion. I wasn’t convinced. I don’t view the addition of food to a dram as ‘messing around’ but I have yet to come upon the right combination. Though at many turns in his lecture Paterson had the room gasping in disbelief, my scepticism for the food matching exercise could not be dispelled.

Tutored tasting over, Master of Ceremonies for the final portion of what had been a joyous, insightful evening so far, John Ramsay, took the microphone to the audience. The first question probed the panel with regards to their favoured drinks, a fairly uncontroversial line of inquiry one would have thought, until Paterson rebuffed Caroline Martin for pinning her colours to the Johnnie Walker mast. The Whyte and MacKay man paid tribute to David Stewart, and the Balvenie 21yo Port Wood in particular as a whisky of stupendous interest and beauty.

A lady on our table wanted to know next how the master blenders could keep track of the multitude of flavours they encountered on an hourly, never mind daily, basis. Could they offer any tips, she asked, for improving our own olfactory skills? Gordon Motion fielded the debate, asking the questioner how many windows she had in her flat. After a brief flurry of arithmetic an answer was provided. ‘Now how did you go about counting those windows?’ Motion asked. The lady replied that she could see them in her mind’s eye. ‘I do the same thing,’ said Gordon, ‘I have a set of images for certain flavours. For example, peaches will always remind me of a holiday in France when I was young and we were given a bowl of peaches by the roadside.’

As anyone who has read my collaborationwith Keith Wood on Whisky Emporium a little over a year ago will know, this is precisely what fascinates me most about personal encounters with whisky. My hand shot up when the ‘last question’ call came. What, I wanted to know, was the most powerful moment the panel could remember in which they were transported back to an earlier sensory memory when tasting whisky?

Richard Paterson regaling the room.

Chris Morris answered first, stating that the strongest impressions he can receive from nosing Bourbon is of the rickhouses at Woodford Reserve. ‘That’s warehouses for the rest of us,’ interposed Ramsay. David Stewart’s fifty-plus years around the spirit could flag up no particular instance, although he spoke with quiet pleasure of his apprenticeship with single malt Scotch whisky. Angela D’Orazio’s testimony came directly from the heart as she described peat-cutting on Islay. In addition to the peats, Angela noticed the little wild flowers that grew on the bog, and when she had a sip of Islay whisky later, echoes of those floral characters surged back to her.

Caroline Martin focused on ‘lightbulb moments’ in connection with the distilleries she works for. The instant someone told her that Clynelish was a waxy spirit, manipulating it and understanding it became a far easier task. A childhood growing up in Coleraine, near to the Bushmills distillery, abided with Billy Leighton. When going to school or playing with friends, ever-present was ’this smell’. Entering the industry later on, certain Irish whiskeys could successfully evoke that formative atmosphere. Gordon Motion, whose point about the peaches had inspired my question in the first place, related to us a nosing session in which a particular spirit yielded with irresistible potency the garden centre at B&Q. ’Fencing panels was all I could think of,’ he said, ‘but I couldn’t say that, it sounded stupid.’ But a fellow taster noted ‘tarry wood’ in the same sample, and Gordon was galvanised to supply his tasting note. ‘Just write down what you smell,’ he urged us.

The Japanese blenders had been silent for the majority of the questioning, but Koshimizu-san accepted the microphone. He described his experiences in Japanese, and his translator assisted afterwards. The result was a statement of gentle, thoughtful brilliance. In his day-to-day encounters with whisky, every so often a sample will radiate the aroma of figs. Koshimizu-san has not eaten a fig in the last fifty years, not since one particular day at his grandmother’s house where she always had an abundance of the fruit. Nevertheless, that single flavour – when discovered – reconstructs that house, that person and that moment. ‘It is as if time has vanished,’ said the translator.

John Ramsay concluded the evening and told us of how his days in the maltings when he first started with Edrington assisted him as master blender as, for one distillery, the re-occurrence of that green malt aroma signalled that the spirit was on track. Several rounds of applause later, we all had to sadly make tracks of our own. The master blenders had been supremely generous with their time, but the 9am start and hundreds of whiskies looked to have taken their toll by the end. Outside, while raffle winners collected their bottles, a line for the lift formed involving some of the whisky world’s most significant and talented noses and palates who were all deservedly heading to their hotel rooms. For Chris, Chris and I, however, we were off to Bramble Bar, but that will have to wait for another post.

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