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The Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

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A Place to Gather

‘Community’ is a word endowed with many connotations, leading to its (mis)appropriation by politicians, sociologists, market researchers and Mark Zuckerberg. Whether that community is ‘fractured’, patri-local or online, in the 21st century we still value and are moved by an idea of our collectivity.

Whisky provides yet another excuse for grouping together. With a single distillery or style we can identitfy with one another, share experiences and profess our loyalty. We can demonstrate how fiercely we fight for flavour. Increasingly, Scotch whisky distilleries have sought to foster such communities. Though they are ostensibly confined by the internet, strongly implied is the suggestion that one’s true point of contact – irrespective of where one lives – is a postcode in Scotland. The personality of a distillery, mediated via its virtual presence, promises the possibility of a connection to bricks, mortar and copper once you have logged off and bought a Caledonia-bound plane ticket.

Courtesy of a few clicks on the internet, you can be a Diurach with Jura, an Ardbeg Committee member, a Friend of Laphroaig, or a Guardian of The Glenlivet. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the next few months, The Macallan Order of the Garter realises its inauguration. Brands are encouraging us to pledge fealty to them on a fractionally more intimate footing. We have bought their whisky, but they want us to participate in their stories, too.

The Clach Biorach standing stone at Balblair.

My old friend, Balblair, has followed suit and underscored this notional encounter all the more powerfully and simply with ‘The Gathering Place’. In recognition of the distillery’s long-standing neighbour, the Clach Biorach Pictish stone around which Highland peoples would assemble millenia ago, and whose swirls and forms find echoes in the Balblair bottle design, there is a new way of connecting to the pair of stills in Edderton, Ross-shire. Balblair fans can sign up for free to receive exclusive web content, expert whisky tasting videos and, perhaps the principal boon of swearing allegiance to one’s lord, spirits for your taste buds only. Tiger over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog has reviewed the first soon-to-be-released vintage from 1990. He rather liked it.

And I rather like this new inclination to transform customers into a community. Whisky inspires deep passions in people, chief among which must be that our favourite drams continue to be of high quality, testaments to integrity and skill. Through these membership schemes, we have the opportunity to communicate with these distilleries and the individuals responsible for them, rather than merely pay our money and consume them. A related point is developed very well by Stuart Robson over at the Whisky Marketplace blog. Philosophy intermingles with financial imperatives and hopefully we customers can make a bolder, more sustainable statement, adding an extra and vocal dimension to those sales figures. Give us a gathering place and we will prove our loyalty. The Gathering Place at Balblair.

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2010: The Scotch Odyssey Review

‘Tis the season for rumination, reflection, and the airing of hour-long compilations taking an irreverent retrospective on the smorgasbord of the year’s events. At the Scotch Odyssey it is no different, so pour yourself a dram (preferrably one of those listed below) and join me for a root around my panniers of memory and an appraisal of what has been stuffed into them.

My 2010

No one remembers last winter now that the present one is showing itself to be so appalling and ghastly, but January and February were not conducive to outdoor riding. I had a tour to prepare for, but snow and ice were determined to stick around. Hours on the turbo trainer and a regime of running substituted serious cycling until the weather could string a sunny spell together. I saw the colour green for the first time in months, I amassed an OS map for every inch of Scotland and my relationship with the bike deepened auspiciously.The Whisky Trail

Six weeks of liberation, education, ingestion and exploration followed. Scotch whisky, like an age-restricted carrot on a stick, lured me from south to north and east to west; preserving me through all manner of meteorological phenomena; profound levels of fatigue and uncertainty, and many a crowded bunkhouse. The extraordinary, the execrable and the passionately insane coloured my quest, an expedition which may not have been quite as complete as I had initially hoped, but was made more precious on account of those unforeseen circumstances.

The Odyssey has introduced me to many peerless people and almost as many marvellous malts, both in April and May and since then. My many miles of pedalling in the name of Scotch secured me an invite for two days with Inver House Distillers. To be dry and conveyed by spark plugs and pistons to a host of desirable whisky destinations was a true pleasure, although I couldn’t shake off feelings of fraudulence without my Lycra’d attire. Meeting Lucas, Chris, Jason, Keith, Mark, Karen, Matt and of course Cathy were the pre-eminent highlights.Orkney

At university I am a fully paid-up member of the whisky society, and though weather scuppered our date with Compass Box’s John Glaser, Adelphi entertained us all marvellously in October.

The opportunity to catch up with Jane (congratulations, Cattanachs) and Fiona at Glen Garioch and Sandy in Dufftown was eagerly taken in September, and I hope they feature again in 2011. Further plans for the forthcoming year are not as yet concrete but some creative thinking will be done as to how I can make the Scotch Odyssey Blog more unique and indispensable to the Scotch malt tourist.

Favourite Five (My Moments):

#1   The visceral, unflinching, incomparable Isle of Skye. When the prospect of cycling to Scotland’s whisky distilleries began to make sense again.

Skye

#2   How it feels to pull on and zip up dry cycling clothing, having been revived by two lovely women in an Eastern Highland distillery after a thorough, dispiriting drenching. Huntly looked a great deal better in the fogged up euphoria of ’Mission Accomplished’.

Not my clothes, but the same clothes rack.

Not my clothes, but the same clothes rack.

#3   We left Wick at… some time in the evening. We arrived in Tain… later. In the intervening period, in the darkened minibus tanking through Caithness and Sutherland, I understood what a great bunch of people are out there writing about whisky.

The Minibus

#4    A little whisky shop in Tomintoul has some big personalities bottled inside it. The Druries know how to guide their customers around the gems of Scotland: Aultmore, Bowmore – what a way to toast having made it to Speyside.

#5   Bladnoch and Dumfries and Galloway. Inexpressible joy. I’ll be back.

Bladnoch

Favourite Five (Drams): 

#1   Mortlach 16-year-old. I do miss its rich, fruitcake and nut flavours.

#2   Lagavulin 12-year-old Cask Strength. Astonishing at the distillery on a scorching May day, almost as good in the back of a minibus in November.

#3   Aberlour 14-year-old Single Cask Bourbon-Matured. The dram I dream about from time to time. No sense asking what I’m going to be doing as part of my 21st birthday celebrations: in Warehouse #1, salivating.

#4   Kilchoman Autumn 2009 Release. This is one serious little malt: so peaty, so sweet with that faint whiff of the farmyard.

#5   Redbreast 15-year-old. I know, it isn’t Scottish, but its really quite extraordinary. The whisk(e)y horizons are broading, and a bike belongs in the picture.

Favourite Five (Malt Moments of 2010):

#1   Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 70-year-old. An historic whisky moment, presided over and made possible by an iconic Scottish company.

#2   Feis Ile 2010. I was on Islay and Jura a week before things got underway, and the sense of anticipation was extraordinary. I hope to make the trip myself at some stage.

#3   Chivas’s ‘The Age Matters’ campaign: a step in the right direction and some healthy debate prompted.Ardbeg

#4   Whisky on the box: Oz and Hugh, Dara, Griff and Rory have all got exposure for various brands on the television.

#5   Dramming literature: a vintage year for whisky books, with the typically excellent Malt Whisky Yearbook hitting the shelves again. Dave Broom, Gavin D Smith and Dominic Roskrow have added their considerable weight to my collection.

*      *      *

Thank you for all your support and interest this year, and I hope to hear from you in 2011.

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Three Years and a Day…

My Metaphor 1

I like to think that, on October 26 2010, I could empathise on a level of singular profundity with Anthony Wills and how he had felt on December 15 2008. Last week I marked my most significant whisky anniversary to date – the obsession conceived with unexpected suddenness and violence in the slender stills of The Glenlivet in 2007 had, by measure of the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988, achieved official ‘whisky’ status.

It is fairly evident that, to persist with the metaphor, my personal cask of single malt curiosity and exploration has been stacked fairly high up in the palletised warehouse. As I have described elsewhere on this blog, I possess two bottles which demonstrate by their associated dates just how extraordinarily Scotch whisky has acted on my consciousness and imagination: hooked as an ignorant 17-year-old (the 10/07 bottling date of my Nadurra manifesting this moment for me), I had circumnavigated Scotland by bike, dropping in on more than forty distilleries before I had reached 20 (the Glengoyne 17-year-old with its personalised label, presented to me at the distillery on May 21 2010). That is one hell of a rapid maturation.

Tragically essay deadlines precluded an appropriate toast – at least on the day in question. The rigours of a Scottish univeristy did not allow me to partake of the Scotch drink there and then, but I was in a pleasantly wistful mood on the 25th and the 26th.

A little over a week later, however, the bung was withdrawn and a liberal sample taken to assess how my dedication, understanding and character were progressing. I returned, as a guest of Inver House Distillers, to areas of the country I had not visited since my tour and some others which I had; I took another peek around Pulteney into previously unseen darkened corners in addition to Balblair and Knockdhu, and mingled with some of the loveliest people I have ever been fortunate enough to encounter. I would urge you to check out the many diverse reports of the two day tour on Edinburgh WhiskyGuid Scotch Drink; Onversneden; Whisky Emporium, and Whisky For Everyone. It was a true privilege to meet the people behind these exceptional platforms, to encounter their passion and expertise and – good-naturedly – disagree from time to time. I hope to bring you my account of the trip in instalments over the week from a Scotch Odyssey perspective. I shall say at this point, however, that it was a fantastic experience, and confirmed that the whisky wood has been having no small influence on my whisky mania contained within. This is a refill hoggie at the least in which I’m ‘casked’. 

I’m still a very young whisky, however, with some rough edges to be smoothed. I have a fixed idea of where I aim to take myself and this blog, however, and if I can attain the heights of the above blogs - Glenfarclases, Ardbegs and Highland Parks in my eyes - then there shall be another IWSC winner, I’m sure.

Fecund and fabulous - I'm very pleased with my progress so far.

Fecund and fabulous - I'm very pleased with my progress so far.

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