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July 29, 2013

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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July 24, 2013

Compass Box at the Quaich Society (Again)

For a brand swooping ever onwards and upwards, founder John Glaser is quite prepared to repeat himself now and again. ‘Who here has been to a Compass Box tasting before?’ he asked our assembly of Quaichers. The majority of hands went up. ‘You know what’s coming, then’.

Familiarity breeds anything but contempt when Glaser’s mission is so straightforward in its tenets and so extraordinary in its execution. That most of us had experienced the Compass Box effect previously only made attending this event all the more imperative. I think it’s what John describes as that something which ‘calls you back to the glass’…

The array of melodious glasses at the final Quaich tasting of the year.

There were no less than eight Glencairns to be called back to for every attendee, not all of which contained Compass creations. John’s intention was to move away from brands and to focus on flavour in order to demonstrate the logic of his whisky-making ethos. It was not an auspicious start. ‘Blend X’ boasted a couple of attractive fresh fruit notes on the nose, but the palate had no sooner whispered ‘caramel’ than it had vanished again into a black hole of indifference.

The contrast between it and the plump, fresh and intense Great King Street could not have been starker. Despite the numerous first-fill ex-Bourbon casks, this remained quite a pale whisky in terms of colour; the same cannot be said of the flavour. Great King Street remains one of my all-time favourite whiskies, blend or single malt. We were advised to look out for ‘sweetness, richness and bigness’ and the abundant vanilla character occupied all three camps. To balance I find the juiciest grassy barley, which can only be Longmorn.

Whiskies three and four keep John awake at night. In the case of three, especially, it epitomises the class of spirit he yearns to assemble at Compass Box. He may have to move to Japan. Upon receiving a measure of Hibiki 12yo from the man who made it, the Suntory master blender Seiichi Koshimizu, last summer, I was in the presence of greatness on two counts. The man deserves every accolade for elevating Japanese whisky of all descriptions, while the whisky astonished me with its clarity and richness for such a comparatively young blended whisky.

Although he admired the next dram, John also took it to task when the dragon of artificial colour raised its ugly nut brown head. ‘Forget the colour,’ he implored us, ‘it’s fake.’ For my first – blind – encounter with Ballantine’s 17yo I was fairly underwhelmed, especially when Great King Street continued to sing so beautifully a couple of glasses further back.

The core Compass Box range filled the final four berths of this epic tasting, and all excelled themselves. At my third tasting with the company, I could appreciate how my tastes evolve from one year to the next: in 2011 the Asyla had bowled me over, last year I had fallen for the Hedonism but on this occasion my socks were well and truly blown off by the Peat Monster.

John confessed that the virtue of leading your own bespoke blending operation is that you are free to make the odd tweak here and there, which the men and women charged with preserving the legacy of the biggest names in whisky cannot get away with. The constituent parts have changed significantly in the ten years of the Peat Monster’s life with Caol Ila replaced by Ledaig, and Laphroaig brought in to add even more phenolic devilry. However, John also experimented recently at the bottling hall through the addition of 1% Spice Tree liquid to the latest batches. A tiny amount, but I sensed an added sensuous sweetness to an already extraordinary mouthfeel. It was my pick of the evening.

In a promising aside, John also revealed that they were experimenting with their supply chain. Rather than buy mature casks from distillers when they want to bottle something, Compass Box have instead invested in a more changeable future through the purchase of new make from five sites around Scotland, filling them into their own casks. Spirit from Caol Ila, Blair Athol, Linkwood and John’s favourite malt to manipulate, Clynelish, as well as grain from Cameronbridge, are presently maturing at an undisclosed location. That’s quite an ingredients cupboard.

Relaxed, informative and zealously passionate all at the same time, John put on another astonishing evening of whisky the way it ought to be. Twitter hints suggest Compass Box will be showing the whisky world beyond St Andrews a thing or two next month when a couple of experimental (but how could they be otherwise?) releases hit the shelves, and I for one will be camping outside the off licence.

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July 4, 2013

Cutty Sark Storm

A Storm of flavour.

After detailing my first baby steps into whisky blending, I thought I had better review a new release from the professionals. The modern master blender is not content – as I was – with 11ml of whisky boasting a bit of life and character to it; instead, he or she has their mind trained on cases and cases of consistent, distinctive and tasty liquid.

At the turn of the year, adventurous blenders Cutty Sark wanted something with a little more presence and power. They named the result Storm, a delectable maelstrom of older single malts allied to fresh, clean grain spirit.

Cutty Sark Storm 40% vol. £19

Colour – light honey gold.

Nose – clean, medium-bodied and bright with immediate bold cereal sweetness, scented buttery oak, nuts and pineapple. Comice pear and caramel are followed by honey and fruity, fat malt. Browning butter and nutmeg.

Palate – fresh with plenty of pineapple before the rich biscuity oak takes the palate in a drier direction. Flashes of dessicated coconut and dark sugars.

Finish – peaches in syrup – even a hint of treacle at the back. Fruit salad. Slowly drying.

Adding water adversely affected the exuberance of the blend, offering extra honey, leather and spice on the nose with added emphasis on the clean, firm grain whisky. The grain again held sway on the palate with a chunky, sweet cereal body and dryness. A touch of green tobacco smoke fills the nostrils immediately after swallowing. Whereas – undiluted – fruit had led the way into the finish, now there were only notes of Werther’s originals, honey and a dab of lemon pith.

So…?      As with the standard Cutty, the neat nose is a joyful mixture of the fresh and the lively. The Storm adds a few percentage points of richness and more impressive malty boldness, however. Whether it would work with Appletiser, the recommended summer serve according to Jason Craig at Cutty Sark, I have yet to see so intrigued was I to try the blend without any sparkling apple flavour.

When my highball glass and carbonated can of fizzy apple juice arrived in the post, it rather stole the thunder (Storm, thunder – geddit?) of my own Cutty cocktail idea. Why not try this next time you are basking in the summer sunshine: 40ml Cutty Sark, 40ml apple juice, 25ml apricot brandy, 10ml grenadine and 10ml of lemon juice. Shake all ingredients and strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. A lot more work than the official proposition, but I believe it remains true to the creative ethos pushed by the brand just now. Not to mention, it tastes jolly nice!

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July 2, 2013

Nose on the Line – Beginning Blending

Is blended Scotch muscling in on single malt’s limelight? When Whisky Magazine publishes two supplements devoted to the aggregated Scotch whisky product in fairly close order, the Caskstrength.net boys choose to release a blend on the route of their A-Z bottling marathon, and Johnnie Walker creates such a song and dance about their swanky yacht experience through big whisky retailers, maybe the huge bias in single malt’s favour amongst professional and amateur commentators is beginning to dissolve. For so long, blends have been explained in terms of economics with single malts scooping all of the column inches for provenance and craftsmanship. Perhaps the tide is turning…

Of course, I am only being flippant. The blogosphere’s infatuation with the singularity of malt whisky is going nowhere fast: let blends make all the money and we shall maintain our vigil around our beloved copper pot stills. Aberfeldy, Strathisla, Cardhu – these are the distilleries we wish to venerate, rejecting their statuses of blend brand homes as so much peripheral marketing.

Paraphernalia...

However, I for one have changed my mind. Maybe it is the proselytising of Compass Box’s John Glaser, perhaps it is the duo of Meet the Blender evenings I have attended, the ardent penmanship of Dave Broom, or perhaps it is the smattering of articles detailing blended Scotch to be found on other blog platforms (such as this excellent Ballantine’s expose courtesy of Miss Whisky) which have piqued my interest, but I am no longer prepared to ignore blended whisky. It is instrumental in allowing for the diversity of the single malt category which we presently romanticise; it has a history and cast of iconic characters, and it can taste breathtakingly fabulous. I want to write a lot more about it here on the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

...vs. provenance.

I’ll start today with a few tales from my encounters with Master of Malt’s Home Blending Kit (£49.95), the mother of all procrastination tools for the whisky-loving student with exams to prepare for. Upon receipt of my sturdy package, I did indeed turn my ‘once tidy home into the chaotic, bottle-filled, peat-rich laboratory that is a blender’s workshop’, as the introductory letter put it. I could not wait to commence with the combinations, and appreciate just how dramatic the effect of adding tiny portions of this to that could be. MoM’s advice: begin with the grain whisky base and mild malt whisky, build complexity with a marriage of ‘mid-range malts’ and then season with the older samples they had supplied. Only so much blending could be done in theory: I needed to dirty some glasses and measuring cylinders.

Initially, I wanted to make a Dewar’s 12yo-style blend. I love the bold fruit, abundant vanilla and rich yet clean barley flavours of this whisky, but found that I couldn’t replicate it with the profiles of the Speyside and Lowland malts provided in the Kit. I was, however, hearted by the quality of the grain base. My tactic had been to create a ‘mid-range’ malt sample and a top dresser sample, then combine proportions of both until the flavour was right. This is Mr Glaser’s approach, as explained in this videofor the 2012 edition of Flaming Heart. Nosing constantly, I began to suspect that my palette of liquids ought to be confined. I was using my packer malt, the Lowland, Speyside and Highland for the mid-range, while the top dressings attempted to coalesce the better qualities of the Old Highland, Old Speyside Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay. Just because leading blends use 30+ malts did not mean – I gradually conceded – that I should, too.

The building blocks of my blend.

Using the three tier approach of grain, mid-range, and top dressers, I struck on a system of using no more than two malts for the mid-range and a maximum of three whiskies for the blend’s ’seasoning’. I also changed tack, preferring an earthier, richer blend which might make greater use of the Islay offerings.

My specification read: ‘A smoky, rich blend. Money no object!’ With one fifth of the recipe grain, 50% became a Highland and Islay combination, with Old Speyside, Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay creating genuine intrigue on the richer spectrum. Computing my blueprint for future blended whisky world domination onto MoM’s calculator, I was rather crestfallen to discover that my highly drinkable blend which boasted light and smoky peat, allied with fresh and vinous fruit and a building creaminess would cost somewhere in the region of £60. Master of Malt launched the Home Blending Kit in tandem with a blogger’s blending competition and the eventual winner – dubbed St Isidore – had been priced at closer to £45. Even if my blend carried the infinitely superior title of the Elisha Cuthbert Select Reserve, would customers tolerate the premium cost?

I’m not saying a lively, pretty blend cannot be put together from the core ingredients on a lower budget – I just haven’t been able to find the killer marriage yet. John Glaser, Colin Scott, Richard Paterson, Joel and Neil… You’re safe for now.

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