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June 23, 2012

The Glenlivet Thermostat (Nadurra 16yo)

The debate rages on as to the ethics of putting ice in your whisky. Personally, I think that buying a lovely single malt or blend and throwing some ice cubes in is the equivalent of buying a Lamborghini Aventador, taking it to Silverstone, and driving it at 20mph. The full extent of the spirit’s capabilities and magnificence has been shackled and compromised. But I will concede that, on occasion, there is simply no choice in the matter. For example, when cycling to The Glenlivet distillery in April 2010, the snow and hail with which I had to contend meant that by the time I arrived, wandered around the plant via the warehouse, and eventually creaked into the tasting room, I was the ice with my drink.

That drink, however, was the Nadurra 16yo. ‘Natural’ in Gaelic, this was The Glenlivet at cask strength, straight out of first-fill Bourbon casks without chill-filtration (although the process would have been eminently possible on that day). It slid down my throat like molten shortbread, firing warmth into the very muscles of my legs, or so it felt like. Despite the raw power, I can still remember the delicate malt and floral flavours characteristic of The Glenlivet and which thrilled my soul.

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo.

So now I knew what my bottle of the Nadurra, which had lain in my whisky cabinet for two years, tasted like. Purchased with the full intention of drinking it, I had noticed on the label the bottling date of October 2007, the very month in which my obsession for whisky materialised, and consequently this was to be a golden-hued time capsule embodying that single glorious moment in my life. I had expected the Nadurra to remain sealed and chaste indefinitely, but then came an invitation to a 21st birthday in Stourbridge, near Birmingham. Siobhan, born in 1991 and being rather fond of whisky, constituted the perfect excuse to unleash this vibrant but subtle beauty of a malt which had itself largely come into being in 1991.

While watching Disney’s ‘Basil the Great Mouse Detective’ and snuggled into my sleeping bag, I poured measures for Siobhan, myself and a couple of other friends. While delicious, I appreciated the other extreme of the temperature spectrum to April 2010 as I sipped. Whisky + sleeping bag + room full of people = lustful contemplation of… ice.

Though now a whisky inseperably associated with a tortured hypothalamus, I poured some in neutral surroundings to see what it could really offer.

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo 57.7% abv. Batch 1007D

Colour - Rich and bright honey gold.

Nose - Bold, fresh ex-Bourbon barrels. Classic syrupy aromas of tablet, pine and coconut. Richness, but of an airy sort: butterscotch, floral notes and creme patisiere. With more time there is a scented, toasted Jack Daniels aroma and a touch of stewed green apple.

With water - Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I thought that might happen. Creamy vanilla pools unctuously in the cracks of the fragrant, golden cask staves. Stewed peaches and vanilla ice cream. Somehow that light, semi-dry sweet malt of the distillery can still be perceived. Firm, wild flavours like a winter burn on the slopes of Ben Rinnes: definitely a brown peaty aroma. That golden barley vista grows ever clearer. Greater exposure to the air unearths syrupy corn, pine again but with zesty orange immediately behind it. Gorgeous coconut and the dusty racked warehouse at The Glenlivet.

Palate - Bursting with mint toffee, oak prickle. Gradually, peat and sweet heather emerge which are then covered with oozing golden caramel. Toffee and ripe pear.

With water - Creamier, banana, still some spearmint but tamer. More impressions of the cask: char, honey, candied lemon. Lots of lemon, in fact. Caramel smoothness and delicate, drying malt.

Finish - Darker, with charred meat-esque sweetness. The coconut dribbles across the tongue but there are also firmer flavours including flowers. Lemon pith.

With water - Deepens into relaxed oaky toffee with a generous waft of heather. Harvest on Speyside. Delicate but purposeful with some sweet and rich corn melting in. Vanilla and green fruits which have plenty of sugar with them but also some juicy freshness.


What a stunning whisky. Indeed, as I nosed it there were shades of Compass Box’s Hedonism and even, could it be, that supreme Aberlour 14yo single cask which I tasted a few days after that Nadurra in April 2010. This is not a spirit that deals lightly with the oak, but those casks are of such high quality and let out enough of the inherently classy Glenlivet flavours that, to this palate, the effect is nearly faultless. This is the only expression I have tasted of The Glenlivet to be bottled at cask strength and whether it is this or the non-chillfiltration that I must credit with the gorgeous sustain and expert flavour development, I’m not sure. The whole marries suaveness and vibrancy with beautiful results. How delighted I am that I opened it after all; a cautionary tale for all those ‘wait-and-see’ purchasers.

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July 23, 2011

My Malty Moral Compass

In the evolutionary progress of the whisky blogger, the likes of John Hansell and Tim Forbes have adopted the Darwinian role in extrapolating histories, motives and likely mutations for the species. As the blogging population expands, institutions become established and competition for resources intensifies, blog-based discussions are increasingly about… blogging.

One could say, cynically, that this new self-awareness and inclination to stratify the blogosphere into the obsequious and the high-minded is little more than paranoia and sour grapes. However, I tend to think that any call to personal reflection is a positive move for it reinforces the attitude that blogging is and ought to remain a valid and efficacious platform from which to discuss whisky matters. Blogging lends so many commendable attributes to the exploration and interpretation of whisky such as immediacy, interactivity and multiple media options to accomplish something truly creative and original. In addition to this, however, I would like to attach the word ‘sustainable’, and have it stick.

In last month’s Whisky Roundtable, a potent coalition of blogging minds devised by Jason Johnstone-Yellin, Jason himself  raised the issue again of what the future held for blogging. He suggested that there were certain unscrupulous individuals, self-styled experts and those suckling at the teat of distillers’ PR companies, guilty of muddying the water for the rest of the blogosphere. Has the democratic nature of the media worked against quality control? With whisky bloggers having experienced such terrific growth in stature over the last few years largely because of committed self-publicity, where has this left blogging ethics? How can the best, and by this I mean those writers endowed with a genuine passion built for the long haul as well as proper care for the factual integrity of their content, distinguish themselves from the tech-savvy upstarts capable of grabbing all the attention in this fast-paced world?

The responses from the twelve blogging platforms were revealing and considered and I would recommend you read both them and the equally thoughtful comments posted by other readers and bloggers. For me personally, however, it provoked some soul-searching. Have I been as transparent as I could have been? The answer, regrettably, is no. The bulk of my content never was intended to be comprised of tasting notes and that, together with my small stature in the blogging community and especially in the eyes of those PR companies, has meant that the necessity for cross-examining the pros and cons of writing about all the ‘free stuff’ simply never arose. My content has not been driven by a few companies sending me oodles of booze. However, I feel I owe you further clarification on what appears on the Scotch Odyssey Blog and why.

I have received some samples. Master of Malt have sent me three: one from their Drinks by the Dram selection and two of their own independently-bottled whiskies. One of these, the Highland Park, I wasn’t keen on and said so. The other, a Caol Ila, I absolutely adored and said so. I reviewed the Glenfarclas, and the DbtD service, because it was one I intended to use myself as a budding connoisseur. However, Master of Malt in their correspondences with me have overtly stated that there is no obligation on my part to provide a good review. Had they done so, I would have consumed the whisky in private and details of it would never have made it as far as the Scotch Odyssey Blog. The only other samples to date were the Hankey Bannister range from Inver House. They didn’t light my fire at the time but proved useful in bulking out a piece on blended whisky inspired by a superlative Compass Box tasting.

Speaking of Inver House, what about that press trip late last year? Unquestionably I was flattered to be invited, but I hope my trio of write-ups express most explicitly my appreciation of the team involved comprised of the distillery managers, Cathy and Lucas, and my fellow bloggers. On the subject of the juice, I have had a bottle of Old Pulteney in my cupboard long before I knew of Inver House as a company and I fell in love with Balblair as a spirit eight months before I would be invited to visit it. Regarding my recent work experience, that was entirely financed by myself and the potential blog content was neither suggested nor restricted by anyone at the distillery or in Airdrie.

Ultimately, though, we bloggers have to watch our steps: analyse the offer on the table at any one time and evaluate how relevant and unencumbered any potential freebie will be to the platform you have put together and built up. That I have specialised perhaps makes that boundary even clearer for me and the Scotch Odyssey Blog. If it hasn’t anything to do with whisky tourism or the experience of encountering Scotland and its flavour-creating and flavour-capturing distilleries then why discuss it at all? But what of those occasional tasting notes, then; what is the deal with them?

I have already gone into some depth (and verified my views with the help of Keith Wood) on the matter of ‘sensings’ here, but I would like to add that whisky appreciation is increasingly a form of meditation and, if it is not so extravagant a claim to make, self-knowledge for me. When nosing a whisky, I venture under the skin of my world and learn more about it and my previous interactions with it on a sensory level. When these findings surprise or delight me, I want to share such discoveries.

Certain distilleries and certain places are invested with more personal significance for me and these are far more likely to be and indeed have been woven into the fabric of the blog. When an expression from one of these distilleries does receive a review, an accompanying explanation has not been fudged to justify my commenting on a whisky in preference to distillery visitor centres or tours, it is instead part and parcel of my ethos for the blog. I have been fortunate and determined enough to explore Scotch whisky in an unusual manner and to particular depth and this has instilled me with powerfully emotive ideologies and memories. It was inevitable that these should often be attached to certain brands and I am not about to apologise for this. It was the people, place, circumstances and spirit itself that wooed me, not marketing bumfph. Such experiences and the resulting preferences simply make me a passionate whisky drinker, just like all the rest of the most principled whisky blog writers and readers.

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December 11, 2010

The Scotch Odyssist’s Handbook

If you are tired of waiting for me to produce the definitive tome to the world of Scotch whisky tourism (and I know I am) then please allow me to do the next best thing and point you in the direction of two men who have done just that.

Not content with contributing to a thorough, and to my mind successful, revision of malt whisky’s seminal work – the Malt Whisky Companion of Michael Jackson - Gavin D. Smith, in partnership with Graeme Wallace, has released a gem of a book which does not follow the whisky out of the distillery to the bars and shops, but stays behind to take a closer look around.

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries may have been the subject line in my correspondences with Scottish Field prior to their publishing an article of mine in October, but I learnt earlier this week that it is also the title of a pioneering work concerned with informing the whisky enthusiast of how he or she might get the most out of their time amongst the towns, hills and pagodas of Scotland’s whisky landscapes. I am delighted to see this work appear, because it confirms in my mind how the attentions of the industry, and of the whisky-drinker, have become increasingly focused on the idea of provenance. Nothing was more crucial to me when I elected to sit on a slender saddle for six weeks and pedal to as many distilleries as possible. We now wish to make a journey and plenty of discoveries beyond the drinks cupboard and the nation of Scotland is eminently well-euipped to accommodate such urges.

Rather than the ‘coffee-table books’ you may find lauding the Scottish landscape and the romantic, artisanal industry within it, this is a slender volume (195mm by 120mm) to be thrust into an overnight bag or coat pocket for use out ‘in the field’. The rigidity of its thick card cover would suggest it would withstand even my abusive shovings into backpacks and panniers. In fact, I rather wish I had had it to hand prior to and during my Odyssey.

Divided into a general introduction covering whisky history, the geographical regions which, for all the concept has been questioned of late, is still highly relevant to the traveller, and a very evocative passage on the present state of distillery tourism. Congratulations are in order to Gavin Cunningham and company at Tullibardine who lured in the most thirsty tourists during 2008.

There follows a series of thoughtful suggestions as to combining a distillery visit with a general excursion in Scotland, focusing on the major cities and also outlying rural districts. Some of these I undertook by bike: the accessibility of the ’Eastern Perthshire Trail’ I can attest to - even on two wheels! Together with how you might work your day around a peep at Glenturret and Tullibardine, for example, are listings of bars, hotels and eateries. These sections really are fine pieces of research, although I’m quite certain they do not cater for the budgetary considerations I was obliged to observe!

Both this and the section detailing those distilleries which offer tours take a counter-clockwise route around the country (in much the same manner as I did). From the relatively accessible malts and distilleries of the Lowlands, the book is structured to reflect the increasingly intrepid nature of getting to the far-flung birthplaces of some of the other malts you may have encountered. For each distillery with a regular tour in operation (fifty are listed) there is a double-page spread with information, on the left-hand leaf, regarding ownership, the malt itself and the production, in addition to distillery and local history. The right-hand page deals solely with the ‘Visitor Experience’ with an extended prose commentary in addition to listings of times and tour specifications. It is all so up-to-date it is quite unnerving, and proves my suspicion that many distilleries were set to upgrade the tourist experience shortly after I passed through.

The remainder of the book approaches the other half of the industry which, officially, don’t provide an established tour. However, there is the suggestion that, with perseverance and charm, you may be able to arrange a look around.

I’m still waiting on some page proofs from the publishers to illustrate much of what I had to explain above, and when they arrive I shall return and slot them in. Of course visitor centres function, on the most basic, cynical level, as the most immediate and stylishly-furnished extensions of the owners’ marketing departments, but there has been a committed, coordinated response to the increased interest in where one’s whisky comes from, and as a result there are some truly memorable experiences on offer to cater for all tastes – and which the Scotch Odyssey Blog can still help you to distinguish between!

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries is available from Amazon and Waterstones at GBP £9.99.

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