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March 26, 2013

Bursting at the Wemyss

A selection from Wemyss' second batch of single casks.

Even in an age of single malt insatiability such as this one, it is a sad fact that of the 101 malt distilleries operating in Scotland, not all enjoy any real prominence on the shelves. Betrothed to blends or sought after in foreign territories, some whiskies are the proverbial wild goose. Praise be, therefore, to the independent bottlers who track down finite stocks which the distillery owners have often overlooked and make them available to you and me.

The latest company whose delectable discoveries crossed my path are Wemyss Malts. Edinburgh-based bottlers since 2005, they offer a wide selection of single casks, blended malts and even their own blended Scotch in the form of the Lord Elcho expression. A consignment of all of the above found its way to me via Doug Clement, Quaich Society patron and ferociously determined advocate for a distilling operation near the home of golf in St Andrews.

The Kingsbarns Distillery project had looked to have stalled until Doug’s bright idea secured £3m of investment from Wemyss Malts, making the former caddy’s fantasy a reality. Check out this STV report - featuring Doug – about the auspicious beginnings of another Lowland distillery. In a few years there will be a home-grown single malt in the Wemyss stable, but what about those whiskies made by other people? Have they an eye for a hole-in-one?

The Hive 12yo 40%

Nose – Full and attractive: very malty with a toasty sweetness. Milk chocolate with candied ginger and sweet rose. Playful and rounded.

Palate – Honeycomb oak, sticky light malt and a return of the chocolate with dried fruit flavours.

Finish – Increasingly lives up to its name: a dryish maltiness sits above a pot of gentle heather honey. Sweet porridge with apricot. A dab of peat at the end.

Spice King 8yo 40%

Nose – Earthy and lots of woodpsice. Expensive mens’ eau-de-cologne. A full creamy note, like soft goats cheese. Oak is quite prevalent. Watery sweetness at the base. Some roasted chestnuts and pecan, but lacks the guts for true richness.

Palate – Blackberries, a richer earthy maltiness and vanilla pod. Tongue-coating with treacle sponge and other Highland flavours, including a tickle of peat.

Finish – A gentle tarry flavour. Burnt toffee. Woodsmoke. The barley emerges from the scrum of these darker characteristics to lend some pure sweetness.

Peat Chimney 12yo 40%

Nose – Dry smoke: peat stacks in the sun very close to a sandy beach containing lots of empty shellfish shells. With time it gets a little farmy with hay and cow breath. Caramelising brown sugar introduces the peated malt.

Palate – Very dry but pleasingly delicate. Very aromatic peat, softer maltiness than I’d expected and Black Bullet sweets. Becomes quite ashy. On a second sip many more fruits appear, especially orange and pear. Peat has a chilli flake heat. Barbecued pineapple.

Finish – Lemon grass fragrance as the peat filters down (like a pint of Guinness settling) to a dried earthy character. A honeyed edge to the smoke, which is appreciated. Smoked sausage. Long.

 

So…?      I was impressed by these offerings from Wemyss; someone has taken very tasty malts and combined them with sympathy and confidence to elicit a bold flavour profile. I could maybe quibble that there isn’t an awful lot of complexity, but if you have a sweet tooth and a £35 budget, The Hive will not disappoint. Likewise, the Peat Chimney was a harmonious celebration of smoke, and a good contrast to the earthier Peat Monster from Compass Box. It would be my pick. The Spice King made allusions to a deeper complexity, but excited me the least. That being said, its 12yo incarnation has just walked away with the title of ‘Best Blended Malt Scotch’ at the World Whisky Awards, so congratulations are in order.

With three whiskies down, I’ll give you the highlights of four single casks I tried. There was one big disappointment in the shape of ‘Caribbean Fruits’ (a Glencadam from 1990) which had been pretty much raped and pillaged by the oak. Some honeyed cereals, fig rolls and dunnage notes fought their way through but could not overcome the aggressive hogshead. As a fan of the massively underrated Glencadam I had been looking forward to this.

‘Autumn Berries’ (a 1986 Blair Athol) had impressed on first viewing, but alongside a Miltonduff of the same generation (a 1987) it became disjointed. A nose of high-toned bold fruitness, especially overripe pear, prevailed at first on the nose, with heather honey and smoke. The intensity of spirit for one of its years was unusual, and often appealing. The palate extrudes this fruitness further, and a note of coriander intrigued me.

‘Wild Berry Spice’ [Miltonduff 1987] 46%

Nose – Fresh, light and fruity at first with a hint of crisp, dryish barley for balance. Bright and mellow with strawberry compote and vanilla pod. Spoonfuls of dark Muscovado sugar. Ages before your eyes, as dark and rich woodsmoke appears and a pronounced saltiness.

Palate – Good weight, malt and cinnamon spice come forward together with a little Kendal mint cake.

Finish – Honey from the oak, sweetened cream and vanilla. Pleasant richness from the clean barley.

With water matters became still more attractive with a sweetly leathery nose, chou pastry and cocoa powder and icing sugar. A hint of sweet cigar smoke then dark chocolate. With time there is pistachio ice cream The palate revealed rich fudge, charcoal from the cask and orange fruit pastels. Then there is concentrated Ribena, honey and smoked fruits. Leafy oak, malt and a coal scuttle unfurl in the complex finish with butter tablet and honey.

‘Lemon Smoke’ [Caol Ila 1996] 46%

Nose – Beach barbecue, olive oil, wood varnish. Hints of seaweed and modroc plaster. More savoury with time: smoked chicken in the sea air. A very focused Caol Ila.

Palate – Light – very light – at first with pear drops and citronella. The peat steps up in intensity very gradually before sherbet lemon appears alongside a gently nutty maltiness.

Finish – Quite quick, leaving gentle peat smoke and honey. The malt is there, too, and has a creamy toffee character.

With a few drops of water the nose became much farmier with burning twigs, lemon and honey, and a Champagne-like yeasty note. This was much truer to the Caol Ilas I’ve known in the past when sipped: malt, green fruit and smoke together with cardamom and buttered popcorn. The finish was quicker again.

So…?      Definitely a mixed bag with these single casks, as is to be expected. Each expression presented a very distinct flavour profile, however, and in this respect they mirrored the blended malts above. Using flavour descriptors to identify your malts can backfire with the contrasting capacities of peoples’ palates and a potential incooperative mood, but to my mind it is a policy that makes as much sense as age statements. Possibly more. Like Tiger in his review for Edinburgh Whisky Blog here, I would go for the Caol Ila. Wemyss and whisky present a formidable combination, and I can’t wait to learn how they shall bring their experience to bear on producing a single malt of their own.

Many thanks to Doug Clement for the liberal dispensation of samples.

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April 18, 2010

Pitlochry to Braemar

Pitlochry to Kinnaird Castle, 61 miles

As I mentioned in the previous post, my attempts to tour Blair Athol were thwarted. The first I heard about it was when I was shopping for supplies in Robertsons (my kind of grocer: half of shop for fine whisky, the rest for everything else you might need to live on.) It seems their silent season had been brought forward and I’m afraid you won’t be able to tour the distillery until July. The man recommended I head along anyway, because they werew still offering an explanation of the process and a free dram.

I got there but everything was largely shut up. The man in the office said he could call the guides but I didn’t think it was really worth my while to be told about a distillery I was in. I’m all about the showing! The basics are £5 entry, with an exhibition for Bell’s whisky and a dram of the 12YO at the end. 

I headed for Edradour, then, and it is such a beautiful distillery (see tour review below). The sun was out, a fresh breeze was blowing and you feel totally removed from everything. It is your quintessential farm distillery with oodles of character.

That done all I had to do was cover the, as I thought it, 50 miles to Kinnaird Castle outside Brechin, where my aunt is a tenant and had succeeded in securing a room for me in the castle itself which are normally rented out by holiday-makers. So what better motivator was there than great food, my own room and bed, and above all someone familiar?

The route was an exceptionally picturesque one, heading north out of Pitlochry onto seemingly the roof of Perthshire with suitably strained breathing. The sun was strong and ever-present again. I passed many little communities, encountering very few cars. It wasn’t until I joined the road to Blairgowrie that the road deteriorated and the traffic worsened.

My Mum, always with half a mind on my stomach, had found a nice stop on my sparsely-populated course. I pulled up at the Old Cross Inn just within Blairgowrie and as I was getting myself sorted out a man appeared. He asked if he could help and I said I was after a drink and some food. He said that unfortunately the chef was away and the kitchen was closed. Obviously he took pity on my sighs of dismay and generally ragged appearance. “I can put the fryer on and do you a bowl of chips.” It ended up a bowl of chips, a pint of Coke and a cheese and ham toastie. I enjoyed my chat with Liam, for that is his name, just as much. Your hospitality will not be soon forgotten.

So taken was I with the charm of such encounters that upon leaving I neglected to secure my backpack to the rack. A massive honk from a truck behind me told me as much. It was in the middle of the road. Lesson learned, and reflecting on how life is instances of good and bad luck, I carried on to Brechin.

I’d said in my phone call to my aunt that I’d arrive by 5PM. Kirriemuir only just went by at 4.45PM. The road out of Forfar, connecting with the one to Montrose and Brechin, seemed to go on forever. 55 miles came and went on my odometer. I began to notice familiar views, however, and I took the turn off to Farnell knowing I was home.

The food was extraordinary, the room palatial and the bath lovely and hot. The company, though, was what I began pining for even before I left the next morning.

***

Kinnaird Castle to Fettercairn, 15 miles

A very necessary shorter day, this one. Had the itinerary been any more severe, I might not have left at all. Why leave such comfort for more stress, exhaustion and strangeness? I didn’t answer this inward enquiry, just saddled up and left.

Before Glencadam which my aunt had arranged for me, I wanted to check my brakes. The descent into Pitlochry the day before had reminded me that brakes wear out, and having that happen coming down a Cairngorm would not be advantageous. The man in Tayside Cycles reassured me that they had bags of life left.

After my Glencadam tour (see below) it was a very short – and pleasant – ride to Fettercairn. I had been promised by my Dad, who works in Aberdeen and stays in Fettercairn when he does so, that the treatment to be had with Mike and Denise at Kishmul, my B&B for the night, was second to none. The road on which it sits was divine, and the atmosphere of the place so very tranquil. I’d already got some excellent photos of the distillery against the mountains and the daffodil crops but went for a walk to get a closer look.

I had my lunch beneath a majestic monkey puzzle tree, watching the light breeze tickle the early cherry blossom on the tree just in the distillery yard. After a cup of tea and some carrot cake at ‘the arch’ (no capital letter), and asking at the Ramsey Arms for public computer access (no chance) I returned to the distillery for my tour. For the second time that day I was accompanied solely by the guide and what a nice tour it was. Being part of the same group as the wonderful Dalmore made the trip to the shop especially interesting. I shall post up my review of the tour later.

After dinner at the Ramsey Arms (super scrummy) I retired for the night, but not before checking out my route to Aviemore on my maps. I knew that the following three days would be tough, and that if I survived them then my continuation of the tour would be with some momentum, the worst being, for now, over. Obviously those three days which had troubled me so greatly in mental preparation will now look very different. The first of them, however, went ahead (almost) as planned.

***

Fettercairn to Braemar, 54 miles

Denise, as promised, set me up as best she could with a stonkingly excellent breakfast. I’m not sure that’s an official adverb but it ought to be when associated with that kind of food. She had also taken my request for a packed lunch (just a couple of sandwiches) and gone to whole new levels of accommodation. There were three sandwiches, a banana, apple and two chocolate bars. Without such a sack of vittels, I don’t think I would have made it.

Cairn o’ Mount is a famous hill in the area, often closed in winter. I wish it had been closed on Friday. Long, and unreasonably steep in parts. I’d like to brag and say I didn’t get off and push. That’s true, but only because to have done so would have been far more dangerous than simply carrying on. The gradient was so severe and the camber of the road in the final bend before the merciful parking area so inhospitable, I had to ignore my screaming legs bursting lungs and incoherent thoughts and just push on. I rolled into the car park and let the wall at its perimeter stop me. I have never been quite that destroyed.

The view south and east from the parking area on Cairn o' Mount.

The view south and east from the parking area on Cairn o' Mount.

I carried on after a few minutes, the view from the top sea and farmland on one side, the snow-capped Cairngorms on the other.

Royal Deeside: simply spectacular. Murderous to cycle through, however.

Royal Deeside: simply spectacular. Murderous to cycle through, however.

Until Aboyne the road did nothing but writhe up and down. There were many hobby cyclists out for a spin, and from either direction they all looked as if they would rather be mowing the lawn. The wind was what did for me. As I continued to head west, so it continued to gust at me. This only became a physical problem after I finally made it to Royal Lochnagar. Despite the sandwiches and banana I had finished with the distillery cat before the exemplary tour (more details later), I came out deeply tired. The nine miles to Braemar were some of the longest I had ever attempted. The road followed the banks of the Dee, so was fortunately flat, but was essentially long straight sections, with a cheeky bend at the end which I prayed would reveal the town, but instead promised more trees.

My knees had been registering some complaints intermittently all day, and now it was the re turn of my face. My lips felt rather raw, so I stopped to apply some well-known petroleum jelly. My fingers came away covered in blood. I was bleeding, and a lot. Mercifully, finally, I wobbled into Braemar. The hostel was at the other end of the town, of course, and I rasped up the steep drive to the front door. Abandoning the bike, I went to find the reception. It was busy, so I checked my appearance in a car window. I looked like I’d been in a fight. Congealed blood came from my nose, my face was ashen white and unsightly build ups of goodness-only-knows were at the corners of my mouth. Had I been in a fight? I felt like I had, only I was mssing the adrenaline. As I said to my parents, surprisingly matter-of-factly, when they phoned, I was at zero. Languishing at the bottom of the barrel, utterly spent, is not as unpleasant as many people make out. My exhaustion shielded me from many haunting realisations. I had a shower, then an enormous pizza from the Hungry Highlander and was in terrific spirits. I’d encountered my first real set-back. This tour felt like it was my own at last, after I had no option but to make the pragmatic decision to change the route. It was almost a relief to be so run-down, liberating that it truly was my decision to sacrifice my grand plans for the sake of the whole experience I can still have. Yes, I wanted to do a full tour. But these things happen when one is on the road.

Unfortunately, I could not maintain such equanimity into this morning. It dawned grey, cold and snowing so had yesterday been a normal day, I probably would still have had to call off my trip to Aviemore. Coming to terms with my fatigue and the imperfect nature of my journey, however, I couldn’t see any of the pluses anymore, hence the post of earlier today. My aim is to get to next Sunday (for my Speyside distances are largely quite modest) and then see how I am. I’m keen to be moving again, and Diane at Tomintoul sounds like she can sort me out.

***

As for the photos, dear readers, I have done what I can. An hour (£3) of uploading and only the picture of Glenkinchie would load onto my photostream – check it out, it’s beautiful. I have deleted four fifths of the pictures on my camera so that I had less to upload, but still, the other nine images I wanted to show you wouldn’t transfer. I tried again and zilch. I have done my best folks. Technology is just not on my side.

Apologies also for ay typos or tautology. I’m writing these posts straight onto the computer – no drafting – and haven’t time to read back through. With less than two minutes of credit left, I shall see you all when I see you.

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Glencadam

This isn't fitted out like the other distilleries which are officially open to the public. I think this lends a feel of authenticity to it, though.

This isn't fitted out like the other distilleries which are officially open to the public. I think this lends a feel of authenticity to it, though.

Brechin, Angus, DD9 7PA, 01356 622217. Angus Dundee Distillers. www.glencadamdistillery.com

Cost: Free, but tours must be pre-arranged.

Time: Roughly 45 minutes

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      **

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Within the filling store are large stainless steel vats with lots of casks at their feet. Here is where lots of the stock components for the Angus Dundee blends are created.

GENEROSITY:      **   (Three drams: a taste of the new make, the 10YO and the 15YO.)

There were some very delicious aromas in here.

There were some very delicious aromas in here.

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      8/10 *s

OTHER TOURS: N/A

SPECIAL MALTS:      The distillery doesn’t have a shop so if you want something exclusive head down to your finest spirits store and have a root around in there. In 2009 two limited releases were released, one a 25YO and the other a 30YO.

COMMENT:      Having the distillery manager take you around on a one-to-one basis makes for a very different experience indeed. Douglas Fitchett took time out of his busy 7-day week to take me round and it is clear just by trying to find the reception that this is a working distillery first, visitor attraction second. The tour itself was very brief, from the mill (working and noisy) to the stills took next to no time at all. In the tun room, he lifted a washback (stainless steel) lid in which the switcher was working and out flew spumes of frothy wash. He inspected it for a few moments and then replaced the lid. Out we went to one of the warehouses where casks were emerging and being rolled down the concreted slope to a waiting truck. Inside the smell of Bourbon wood was very strong. This wasn’t one of the maturation warehouses, though. This was where the Angus Dundee blends are conceived (they are then sold to others who put their own brand on the label.) On the way to the dunnage warehouses, I asked Douglas about maturation. His opinion was voiced in the same manner as his others that day: forthright and no-nonsense. He rubbished the romantic ideal I hold that the site of maturation affects the flavour. Douglas believes (and who am I to argue with a distillery manager?) that because of the pressure in the casks, air isn’t circulating as much as Islay distillers (these he singled out) would have us believe. In the warehouses the atmosphere was top class, whether he thinks it influences his spirit or not. Jim Murray, it turns out, chose the casks for the new 15YO and recommended bottling at 46% abv. “I don’t like it at that strength,” says Douglas, “I prefer 40%.” There was a wee tirade against the “lawless” Diageo, one he is qualified to make having worked for them. He predicts dire things should the new and gargantuan Roseisle go into full production. They can make eight different malts there, and Douglas feels there is a real risk of five Speyside distilleries shutting down as Diageo juggles with overproduction and cost-effectiveness. He is a fascinating character, with none of the words coming out of his mouth put there by the marketing men. This was a very differently different distillery tour, and one I appreciated very much.

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