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December 28, 2011

Tomatin 18-year-old

A month or so ago, I finally dropped in to Tomatin. Not having a bicycle in tow, I cannot count it as an official visit, but in the half-light of a November afternoon I could cast an appraising eye over the sprawling heathland situation. At first, however, I really badly needed to use their facilities, not see their stillhouse, having made a hasty get-away from the Balblair Brand Home opening on the other side of Inverness. Cover was provided by Lucas from Edinburgh Whisky Blog and Joel from Cask Strength who charmed the lady behind the desk to such an extent that I received a dram of the 12yo on my re-emergence, to replace some vital fluids.

Back in the car, bouncing over the speed bumps by the enormous warehouses to rejoin the A9, Joel commented that their recent Decades bottling had been a favourite at Cask Strength Towers (indeed, it was shortlisted for their Best in Glass Awards). In the summer, I too had encountered the class of this distillery with half of a miniature of their 18yo, an expression barely recognisable as from the same stock as the fudgy, oaky mess that had comprised the 12yo.

Yesterday, I polished off said miniature and here are my thoughts on it.

Tomatin 18yo 46% (non-chillfiltered, finished in Oloroso sherry casks)

Colour – Rich glossy gold. Quality Street caramel.

Nose – Fresh and quite light at first. The nutty praline squeeze of Sherry oak appears but the insistent sweet spiciness makes me wonder if these aren’t American oak butts. Soft apple and, there it is though it is much improved, fudge. Nose further into the glass, you find the most incredibly juicy barley: bold and firm with a bit of syrupy lemon and star fruit. Heathery, grassy. There is a bit of earthy peat smoke there, too. Liquorice and quite ‘green’, fresh oak. A bit more time reveals Papaya, demerara sugar and apple peelings.

Water reveals the gentle maturity of this whisky as lots of silky though boldly citrussy malt sugars descend. Buttery, floral and fruity with apple and peach. Melted Werthers Original toffees. Apple pie and double cream. Strawberries crushed into toasted oak. Again, more time highlights the crisp sweetness of that malt, but also an alluring depth of honey.

Palate – Nutty and darkly peaty with blackcurrant. Oak to the fore with some incense and dark dried fruits: prune and date. Baileys coffee. Quite strange, somehow.

Water (possibly I added too much) reveals peach and vanilla at first, with a building lavendar-scented maltiness. Sweet oat flakes appear, too, with earthy smoke blending heather and pine flavours. Quite light.

Finish – Blackberry and toffee. Sweetly spicy. Hazelnut and almond. A bit disappointingly disjointed.

Water adds perhaps a fraction more cohesion, with pear and pineapple up first, then fizzy, sugary malt. Olive oil appears on time, with saltiness and deep heather honey.

This is that rarest of beasts: one that can show its years but then, like Ryan Giggs with ball and space, roll back those years to stunning effect. I thoroughly enjoyed sipping this Tomatin, and trying to discover more shades of complex sweetness and richness, and that lovely fragrant earthiness. Recommended.

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December 24, 2011

The Call of the Wort

Perhaps it is the heavy emphasis on the great indoors, induced by the clammy cold, rain, and days which darken before ever having really brightened, that is to blame for my distillery yearning. It struck at the same time last year when glimpses of the snowy Perthshire Hills provoked a pining for the Valley of the Deer, Glenlivet and the delicate camomile tea light of the West Coast as seen from stillroom windows or a visitor centre cafe.

The new, tasteful extension to The Glenlivet.

I long to subsititute the heat of a radiator for a mash tun, the fragrant smoke of a wood-burning stove for the earthy wisps escaping from pagoda vents and their peat kilns beneath. Christmas cake baking in the oven cannot hope to match the curranty richness of a really excellent Oloroso sherry butt. You can see my problem. Life is simply better in a distillery.

Given the choice, therefore, where would I go right at this very moment? If I had my Christmas wish, it would be an amalgam of the very best, most nose-titillating, mouth-watering and compelling whisky-producing spaces, a Franken-distillery tour if you like. Allow me to take you round.

With snow on the higher Braes and a keen, clean wind ruffling the grass and heather, there can be few more stirring distillery journeys than that to The Glenlivet. I would depart from Tomintoul, pass through Auchnarrow and Tomnavoulin, and skirt the Packhorse Bridge over the river Livet itself before launching into the Cairngorm National Park and trundling into the distillery grounds. I would sprint from the car, up the stone steps to the spacious, warm and welcoming visitor centre which combines the scents of wood and whisky so wonderfully. As this is my ideal Christmas, I can stretch to a bottle from the Cellar Collection prior to the tour.

By some miraculous feat of malty teleportation, I troop up a spiral staircase to the heady, embracing sweetness of the Auchentoshan mash tun. Wood-lined and copper-domed, it dominates the room whilst churning that pure, gentle barley.

I have to negotiate a couple of close-fitting corridors and a flight of metal steps before Aberfeldy’s tun rooms appear, some of the washbacks hidden around the corner. Tropical fruits burst in front of my nose, together with a creamy orange aroma. By happy accident, Glen Grant has some of their vessels in the corner which exhale their juicy apple and biscuity cereal breath, too.

Past the chimney into sensory Nirvana.

Clicking my heels together, I duck through another doorway to the whitewashed still house of Lagavulin. Huge burnished onions squat and sweat in front of me, milking the spirit into their condensers. Like a bullock with a ring through its septum, I’m tugged to my right and the spirit safe. I sag against the pillar and do my level best to drown in that heart-of-the-run fragrance: burnt toast, wood smoke and hedgerow berry conserve. When a decent amount of time has passed – say about a week – Malcolm Waring beckons me outside to a bright Islay south coast afternoon before pole vaulting to Wick.

 

Pulteney manager, Malcolm Waring, in a delicious bonded warehouse.

I’m caught in two states of being, here in the Old Pulteney warehouses. The heavy honey and spicy toffee of so many exquisite ex-Bourbon barrels leaves me slack-jawed – seduced – while the cool, violent saltiness invigorates. A few spot lamps breach the fecund darkness as I caress hoggies and butts, alive now to the sizzling thread of citrus in the air.

Finally, say ten days into my distillery tour, I reach the Balblair distillery office. Highland sunshine slides into the room, adding a gloss to the display cabinets and antique table having bounced off the slick tarmac and the newly-corrugated warehouse rooves outside. John MacDonald has poured a generous measure of the 1978 into my Glencairn – and left the bottle – and I can process its marvellous deep floral aromas, together with honey and dried citrus fruits. I toast Scotland and I toast her whiskies and give eternal thanks that a significant imprint of the former can so readily flow out with the latter no matter where you happen to be.

An exterior shot of a great interior.

Merry Christmas, one and all, and may the new year yield many distillery tours.

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December 12, 2011

A Pat on the Back for BenRiach & Co.

I make no secret of the fact that independent whisky producers have my approval. Independent whisky producers who capitalise on their minimal-strings business models to do something different are the subjects of my most blissful dramy daydreams.

BenRiach: showing the Speyside old dogs some new tricks.

The people behind the purchase of this Speyside distillery in 2004 have lifted the lid on this previously shy dame: there is a lot going on just off the main road between Rothes and Elgin. In 2008, GlenDronach joined the stable and dazzling standard together with bespoke bottlings have appeared in gratifying number. The BenRiach 12yo is as clean, soft and fruity as you could wish a Speysider to be, and its peated Curiositas 10yo takes peat in utterly new directions. I adore the complexity and power of the GlenDronach 15yo, and one of their single casks from a couple of decades ago is on the shopping list for next autumn.

From Batch #4 of the single cask releases, this highly praised specimen is out of my budget.

GlenDronach might stick to its guns with bruising, darkly fruity Sherry monsters, but the BenRiach portfolio is kaleidoscopic with triple distilled spirit having been produced since 2005. They have also reinstated the floor maltings. I can only imagine how extraordinary a heavily home-peated malt will taste like in a few years.

Of 2011, however, Managing Director for the two distilleries, Billy Walker said: ”we have been very fortunate to win a couple of top awards this year which reflect the passion our people bring to the art of whisky creation. They are also testament to the huge amount of time and energy we dedicate to our wood management programme.”

The awards he alludes to include the 2011 Malt Maniac Awards, the logistics of which I learnt from Keith Wood and that these are dedicated, passionate and discerning people singling out areas of the industry for special mention there can be no doubt. In addition to two gold, four silver and three brinze medals, the GlenDronach 1972 #712, from Batch 4 of the single cask releases, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.

Praise came not only from the collective of the whisky appreciation world but one of its solo grandees. Jim Murray was especially complimentary about the company’s products. Billy Walker’s response was:

“Jim made a number of very kind comments in his new book, but the highpoint was his singling out GlenDronach as the distillery with the most consistently impressive output throughout 2011.

“He very generously concluded by saying: ‘If there was a Whisky Bible Scotch Malt Whisky Distillery of the year, GlenDronach would be it.’ That was very special.”

Between the pair of distilleries, they claimed nine awards at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge, two of which were top gongs and went to the BenRiach 12yo Sherry-matured. “For a small independent distillery like BenRiach, to win two trophies for the same single malt is astounding,” said Alistair Walker, Sales Director. “IWSC is the one every whisky producer wants to win.”

Congratluations, then, to the men and women behind these rejuvenated distilleries, whose products have always been recognised as distinctive, but are only now coming before a global audience.

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December 7, 2011

Christmas Crackers at Luvians

If you feel like leaving Santa more than milk and shortbread this Christmas, I’m sure the bearded North Pole dweller would point you in the direction of Luvians Bottle Shop, stuffed like an M&S turkey with delicious festive offers. For the purposes of this post, I have only space for a fraction of the whisky deals available, never mind the masses of discounts to be had on their wines and the gins and vodkas they’re so excited about.

A whisky lover's grotto on Market Street, St Andrews.

Stocking most distilleries’ principal outfit, Daniel told me that Luvians also favour the independent bottlers. Adelphi is a darling of theirs, and they also have some of the Cooper’s Choice range on the shelves. A little harder to keep on those shelves at present are SpringbankArdbeg and one of my aboslute favourites, GlenDronach. Plainly the bolder favours are ‘in’ this Christmas.

But what have they for that special whisky-drinking someone in your life? When you consider the breadth of drams which have benefited from Peter Wood’s holiday cheer  with a drop in price, you might think it more prudent to buy your own Christmas presents and get them a nice tie, instead. All of the Glenmorangie wood finishes have £10 off, as has the Old Pulteney 17yo and Glengoyne 10yo. There’s a whopping £20 off the Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 21yo at £45.99.

Elsewhere, the Bunnahabhain 12yo looks an absolute steal at £22.99 and Gordon & MacPhail Glenburgie and Miltonduff are all under £20. The ravishingly pure and sweet anCnoc 16yo is less than £30 and at that price, my private pledge to make my next spirits purchase something other than Scotch is in dire jeopardy.

However, in this season of austerity one can be forgiven for bowing to bang-for-buck considerations, and the Luvians boardroom has anticipated this. ’Why should we give our customers one whisky when we could give them three?’ they may well have asked. Consequently, my pick for this Christmas is their Glenfarclas bundle, which includes not only the stonkingly expressive 15yo, bathed in fine orange-accented sherry tones, sweet fruit and floral characters in addition to velvet-smooth toffee malt, but also miniatures of the 21yo and the 25yo. Add a really good bar of dark chocolate from the Luvians cafe further along Market Street and you’re still looking at less than £42.

Also, if you are in the town on the 23rd of December, head along to the store where Gregg Glass will be conducting a Compass Box tasting. My advice would be to add just that little bit more Hedonism to your Christmas countdown.

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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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