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Wemyss Malts at the Quaich Society

May is whisky month in Scotland, in case you had wondered why there was a whisky festival going on everywhere from Speyside to London and Glasgow, to your local church hall. Whisky is everywhere for these glorious 31 days of early summer. Sadly for me, exams have been equally prevalent.

Before revision robbed me of libational liberty, Doug Clement - long-time Quaich Society attendee and now Wemyss Malts ambassador – closed our immensely successful year of tastings. Doug was the man who pushed and pushed (and pushed) for a distillery in the East Neuk of Fife, and his beloved Kingsbarns dream is being made manifest by the investment and stewardship of Wemyss Malts, who purchased the nascent company from him last year. A pro golf caddie ordinarily, Doug donned his kilt rather than a club bag to present a range of Wemyss releases and provide us with an update on the distillery build project.

Working with such an old building – a former baronial pile in days gone by with the ornamental turrets and crenellations to prove it – has presented challenges, but the interior is now fully partitioned off and I understand the roof is weather-tight. Edinburgh architects, Simpson & Brown, have preserved the time-worn exterior of the building. All that remains, essentially, is for the equipment to move in and production is expected to start in December. Doug will live in the grounds, acting as visitor centre manager for the hordes of whisky fanatics and curious golfers who are sure to descend on the distillery upon completion.

Our first pour of the evening was a single cask single malt. Wemyss work with the redoubtable Charles Maclean who selects casks for bottling and bestows upon them a useful flavour moniker by which they are to be known. This one, from Mortlach in Speyside, was dubbed “Vanilla Oak”, a 15yo from an ex-Sherry butt. Looking at the colour one would never have guessed: very pale indeed with light grassy aromas arriving first. A nutty and acidic edge and thick custard also did not point to a European oak maturation vessel. The palate was rather cooling with grassiness again, pear, vanilla (quelle surprise) and spearmint. A light dram, for all its provenance and not entirely my cup of tea.

The next offering was a Scottish premier: the new – non-age statement – Lord Elcho, a blended whisky. I tasted the 15yo a while back and was impressed by its velvety rich and sweet nose and industrial, smoky palate – a most curious Jekyll/Hyde whisky. The latest addition to the range was right up my street: syrupy thick grain, woody spice and an edge of dry, crisp peat smoke at the back rounded out an exuberant and playful nose. It remained bouncy on the palate with tight, clinging grain and again a touch of smoke. Dark chocolate and coffee grounds led into the short, sweet finish.

Moving swiftly on, we came to the much-lauded Spice King 12yo (a World Whisky Awards winner back in 2012). Sixteen different malts are packed in delivering a focused green malt and green apple aroma, with a far deeper taste profile: rich malt, liquorice, turmeric and a touch of peat. A really engaging sipper.

The second single cask release was one I had come across a few weeks previously, and new it was of an exceptionally high standard. The 1997 Clynelish “Apple Basket” went down a storm. A 16yo dram from a Bourbon barrel, the nose offered super thick and indulgent oak with rich red apple and candied ginger. The palate was a joy with a shaving of oak, then caramel and red fruits. A tickle of spice and curry leaf confirmed this as the classically waxy and semi-savoury Clynelish spirit.

I remember being impressed by Wemyss’s other blended malt, Peat Chimney (Spice King, Peat Chimney and The Hive are the company’s core range of blended malts) when I first tried it. Again, I was charmed by the level of integration between biscuit malt and peat. Abundant citrus balance these aromas. Soft and fruity on the palate, the peat gradually grows. Balance is maintained, but it felt a tad underpowered to me, especially when compared with something like Compass Box’s Peat Monster.

The final drink could be mixed if we so chose: Darnley’s View Spiced Gin with Fever Tree Ginger Ale, ice and an orange segment on the side. The aromas were all spicy and Indian: cumin, turmeric, with a sweet and buttery undertow. The flavours were too perfumed and sweet for my tastes, however, but I have heard good things about the ginger ale combination.

Beer, more Spice King and more beer followed in the pub afterwards, and I’d like to thank Doug and Wemyss for their generosity, as well as for the hugely entertaining part they played in what was my final tasting as Quaich Society President.

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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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’101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die’

What would 101 days of Christmas be like? This question is not purely rhetorical, of course, due to the militarised encroachment of Festive cheer (or perhaps uninterest, verging on febrile rage) into the month of September or even earlier. How fortunate we are, therefore, that Ian Buxton has a solution should tradition ever be rewritten to reflect consumerist reality; he has provided an itinerary a good deal more delicious – if less catchy – than the Patridge-In-A-Pear-Tree variety in the shape of his latest book, ’101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die’.

I caught up with Ian at a recent talk here in St Andrews to promote the new tome, which follows on from ’101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’ (‘Police Academy II’ as Ian dubbed the sequel). Although it is not a title I own, it was responsible for initiating a whisky-based friendship with a Swedish gentlemen who was sitting next to me on one of my many train journeys to and from university and reading all about Compass Box. I have since associated Mr Buxton’s work with my favourite kind of whisky fellowship, and having met the man himself I can confirm that he is every bit as sociable and engaging as his Twitter account (@101Whiskies).

For an hour and a half, Ian waxed lyrical about whiskies at home and abroad while little morsels of those he has listed in his books appeared before our lips. It was a struggle to cling onto our thimbles and juggle the various props Ian circulated throughout the room, in addition to paying close attention to the torrent of fact and opinion he produced.

Beginning at the beginning, Ian’s point of departure from the traditional heartland of whisky production focused on the explosion of farm-scale distilling in America. He eulogised about the potential for flavour innovation these start-up distillers symbolise. In subsequent correspondence, Ian revealed the fun he had had exploring Swiss and Finnish whisky. When I asked which book he had preferred writing – this one, or its predecessor – Ian replied that both had been a lot of fun, but with the latest focus on whisky counter cultures, he hoped to ‘open a few people’s eyes to the great quality and great value that’s out there if you step off the ‘big brand luxury’ path for a moment (though that delivers some surprises too).’

The final reveal of the whiskies we had been sampling took a few by surprise, including myself. I had selected the final whisky as my favourite, as had my neighbour Doug Clement who could announce on the night that Kingsbarns Distillery had at last secured the financial backing necessary to begin its own farm distilling story. Dram #5, however, hailed from an operation that is more than 210 years old: Highland Park.

Ian holding court - and an empty bottle of Highland Park.

Of greatest curiosity – and supplying what was tantamount to a committee of world whiskies in one bottle – was Orbis. A blend of whiskies from Canada, the US, Ireland, Japan and Scotland, the nose was lemon-accented before heavy brown grist appeared and took the whisky in a different direction. Aromas of oregano, tomato puree and red wine materialised, before a hint of peat smoke made its presence felt. On the palate, there was blackcurrant juice and chocolate, with a return of the gristiness and the peat. I had thought this was Scotch – an unusual and young Bunnahabhain perhaps. How wrong I was.

Some days after the tasting, I solicited the Buxton perspective on tourism in Scotch whisky distilleries – the raison d’etre for the Scotch Odyssey Blog, after all. Ian has worked as a consultant on projects such as Dewar’s World of Whisky and the visitor centres at Highland Park and Glenfiddich; curiously enough, all of these feature in a list of my top 10 whisky visitor attractions in Scotland, with Highland Park picking up the top gong, and Glenfiddich not far behind with their supreme (and free) standard tour. Ian’s advice: “to thine own self be true”. Don’t try to position your whisky or your distillery into a gap in the market which they are not destined to fill, but with any marketing activity remain faithful to a core and authentic principal. ‘When building and operating a centre you need to engage and seduce the visitor, not beat them to death with branding,’ he says, ’People know where they are and why they came, so you don’t need to ‘sell’ to them. Get the right people working there and let them engage with the visitors, then those visitors go away as ambassadors and bring more visitors.’

His own picks for distilleries to visit include The Macallan with their revolutionary presentation on the subject of all things wood, and also Bruichladdich for the commendable reasons that it is ‘so down to earth and a faithful representation of the brand, company, place and people’.

Another ’101′ format book in the offing, maybe? I should warn him that the Scotch Odyssey Blog will defend its niche – even if ’42 Whisky Distilleries to Visit Before You Die’ hasn’t quite the same ring to it.

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