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My Unofficial Whisky Fringe

In the ever-expanding pantheon of whisky festivals, there is one that excites uncommonly rabid fervour: the Whisky Fringe. Between August 3rd and 5th, the eleventh outing of this malt extravaganza, organised by Royal Mile Whiskies, absorbed those whisky fanatics who were fortunate enough to come by a ticket (places are more highly sought-after than for the Tattoo, probably) and induced much envy and grumpiness in those who were not. I was one of the latter, and sat at home with my nose pressed up against the window pane that is Twitter, racked with sorrow.

However, and to atone for such a missed oppportunity in the Scottish capital at its moment of peak creativity and colour, I knew that the door to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society would be open to receive me. During a recent visit to the shows of the Festival Fringe, I dragged a few friends with me to the Society’s Queen Street venue where some stupendous acts awaited me.

The SMWS Queen Street bar.

Whereas the Vaults in Leith is confined to one level, and you sit in your fireside leather armchair speculating upon the thousands of litres of extraordinary Scotch whisky sleeping in casks beneath your feet, Queen Street is the epitome of the town clubroom where whisky is conspicuously consumed rather than purveyed. A gorgeous winding staircase takes you to the third floor bar, with views onto the city’s leafier pockets. I scanned the deep green wall of Society single cask bottlings in search of their newest one - 129.1 to be exact. Society newbie Dan was guided to a #35 by the efficient, friendly bar staff.

We found a group of seats in an adjoining room, beside a display of sample bottles which made for a very evocative stained glass window. Here I decided to become better acquainted with the latest distillery to find itself on the Scotch Malt’s books, the only fully independent distillery on Islay and one of my absolute favourites.

Scotch and sunlight conspiring beautifully.

129.1 2006 60.2% 235 bottles

Nose – creamy barley, brown sugar, pear drops and sharp smoke. This is clean but with a marked aggressive streak. Water made for a richer and darker experience with chocolate-dipped ice cream cone, cider apple and chunky tablet.

Palate – vanilla provides lubrication for clean maltiness and rolls of tobacco-like peat which moves into a finish of strong black tea.

In an attempt to show off the diversity of the Society, and their knack for rooting out the finest truffles of single casks, I went in search of a grain whisky. As we were in Edinburgh, I thought a dram from G1 was in order.

G1.5 1984 60.7% 245 bottles

Nose – buxom. Huge vanilla notes with apple and cinnamon. Leathery and rich with toasted coconut and creamy coconut emerging. A gorgeous spicy dryness. This has spent 24 years in very good wood indeed.

Palate – clinging wood oils, coconut and fat cereal grains. Another hit of spice with a spearmint character. Silky and sublime.

As we sipped, the conversation embraced numerous topics but an overarching theme was perhaps the nature of true passion and interest, where they took us and how pursuing, then enjoying them made us feel. For me, reclining with two whiskies of magnificent quality and personality as well as witty and charming people revived the best of memories while sparking new stories and intrigues. Amongst the sumptuous paraphernalia of the SMWS, flavour and fun returned from the fringes to the centre of my world.

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King Kilchoman?

Though in the eyes of some it may have a few years of its single malt minority still to overcome, I would suggest that Kilchoman, Islay’s infant princeling, has already staked several bold claims to the crown. That crown is ‘My Favourite Distillery Out There’.

Kilchoman’s sudden surge to prominence and notoriety has, I’ve always felt, paralleled my own passion for whisky. Bubbling away significantly from the later part of the last decade, 2009 onwards witnessed a dedicated assault on the whisky establishment, its institutions and its received wisdom. That last bit is meant to describe the distillery, you understand, although if encountering whisky on two wheels counts as an innovation in discovery I suppose the Odyssey may fall under the same umbrella.

I missed out on the Inaugural Release, but I enjoyed the Autumn 2009, Spring 2010 and Summer 2011 expressions enormously. At times I have been nothing short of astounded by the breadth of flavours this young whisky boasts and I think I am gradually isolating a house style. Gorgeously peaty and seductively sweet, the spirit speaks of Islay and also centuries of whisky knowledge harnessed to best effect, with at times miraculous results from brief maturation regimes. That peat note is at times ‘brown’ and dirty, at other times dry and fragrant. I often detect cow byre. The malt is full, juicy and rounded. Between the two, meanwhile, I find a beguiling herbal quality close to oregano or sometimes green tea. The Autumn 2009 will reside long in my memory for its extraordinary length of finish.

In a move away from incremental, work-in-progress style releases, late last year the single malt community could celebrate Kilchoman’s fifth birthday with the launch of the 2006 vintage. The significance for the Kilchoman brand was clear: could those ‘clever casks’ which had helped the 3yos taste so magnificent continue to augment and embellish the spirit without showing their hand roo much?

Ahead of our Quaich Society Committee Tasting next week, I grabbed a couple of bottles from Luvians in St Andrews, pouring myself a dram by way of a finder’s fee. Here are my thoughts on the whisky, tasted in parallel with an expression from my existing ‘King’ distillery: a Scotch Malt Whisky Society Caol Ila.

The first 5yo Kilchoman.

Kilchoman 2006 46% £49

Colour – Pale gold.

Nose – Straight away tight, smudgey peated malt, painted in browns and greens. Damp peat. With nose in the glass, there is a remarkable thickness of peat residue: very kippery. Quickly rising above this is toffee malt and incredibly light, creamy green fruits. It is fuller and more engaging than the Caol Ila. Vanilla-coated apple peel. Some shellfish. The oak provides a liquorice-like lift. Garden bonfire – autumnal suddenly. Stunning.

Water adds a gloss to all that sweetness, although the ‘brown’ peat retains its crackle and roughness. So soft and creamy. Sweet apple peel appears beside a beach bonfire. Vanilla toffee. Oregano. Some oiliness, hinting at the phenolic, dark underbelly of this spirit but it disappears the next moment into soft, endless smoke and grassiness. More time reveals sweet butter and a bit of rosemary. Burning turf. There is the kind of toffee malt I would only expect from your more assured 12yo Speysides. Awesome.

Palate – Thick, fruity and lively with bags of thick peat, charred beach bonfire and slivers of sweet malt. There is a concluding interplay between malty sugars and dry, dark peat.

Water provides a sharper tableau: a summer day on a West Coast beach with a storm coming in. Barbecued vegetables and sea scrub. Malt and apple. Coriander and ginger paste. Dry peat and oak hit later on and the sustained intensity is utterly brilliant.

Finish – A little bit of toffee and gingerbread in the oven. Sweetness dominates but the dry peat continues to tickle. Like licking a pencil sharpener. A bit of vanilla. Becomes exceedingly dry.

Water gives the impression of the distillery: malt bins, mill room. Creamy with a balancing dryness.

 

Caol Ila 9yo 66.6% (Scotch Malt Whisky Society, 53.134)

Colour – Clean, full gold.

Nose – Soft and scented to start with, it picks up vanilla custard and a vein of smoke. Pear. With nostrils in the glass, soft butter tablet appears alongside creamy, ‘golden’ oak. Pear switches to green apple. Very oaky, however. Juniper and lime jump out with a bit more time. Dirty smoke and caramel biscuit emerge, too.

Water creates spicy and savoury aromas: cheese and onion crisps. Some oak influence but mostly wash scents at this early stage. Mint humbugs. Sour apples spell the beginning of the end as the shouty, sharp Bourbon cask cannot be held in check any longer. Bin bags. Some burnt toffee appears late on.

Palate – Lots of smoke and alcohol with wood sugars galore. Gently peated malt and apple cores emerge. Ferocious.

Water witnesses a disaster zone with bin liner-wrapped hay bales and shallots. A bit of peat and samphire before resolving into alcohol bite and lethargic, heavy oak.

Finish – Big, clean oak flavours, starting with vanilla and honey. A little green smoke appears.

Water, to persist with a theme, ruins the experience with oak sugars squeezing all but apple pip notes out.

The youngster beats the 9yo all ends up. I still haven’t decided whether the SMWS bottling is an almost excusable momentary aberration, or that the Kilchoman alongside it was simply peerless, but the wrong whisky had come out of the wrong cask and done itself no credit. I goggle at the quality the Kilchoman guys – with the help of Dr. Jim Swan – have achieved here, and seriously skilful stock management is on show. If I had the money, a bottle would be sitting on my shelf now as the spirit has so much going for it. Not only does it generate conversation based on its ‘craft’ and bespoke credentials, but the flavours are so crisp and precise, whilst remaining evocative and complex. I hope our guests at the Quaich Society will agree on Thursday.

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The SMWS Vaults – and Leith’s Labyrinth

‘This isn’t very relaxing at all,’ I raged, stamping past another betting shop, wincing as blisters began to bisect my heels and perspiration pooled beneath my pullover.

The entrance to the Vaults.

On the subject of my pilgrimage to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Vaults venue in Leith, Edinburgh, I had envisaged whisky’s bard – Mr Robert Burns – supplying a cheerful commentary. Unfortunately, rather than his Scotch aphorisms captioning my expedition, the only refrain I could recognise circulating within my seething brain concerned ‘mice and men…’

What ought to have been a leisurely 25 minute stroll from the bus station in St Andrew Square to 87, Giles Street demanded instead an hour and a half of feverish to-ing and fro-ing, in addition to a testy phonecall to my sister sat in front of Google Maps at home, trying to work out where the hell I was and how exactly I was to get to my hallowed destination.

I successfully found Giles Street and my anti-clockwise stromp around it was to be my final error of the day. A likely-looking building reared up at me, all old chunky bricks and little warehouse-esque windows. The green sign was perhaps the biggest give-away, though. Relief evicted the anger from my system, which had the disadvantage of robbing me of what energy I thought I had. Panting and swaying, I mounted the many steps and continued passed the paint tins and dust sheets to what I had been searching for – the bar.

Worries as to whether I could be fitted in were instantly abolished. Having signed in and handed over my membership card I discovered with delight that there was a surplus of leather sofas, broken in to the point of perfection by the posteriors of many a whisky aficionado. Perhaps. I ordered a 7.67 and sunk into one myself.

The members' room - a dining room-come-bar. And ever so cosy.

I can confirm what my picture suggests: this is the baronial stately home approach to accommodating whisky devotees, alluding to a sepia-tinged yesteryear when, I hate to say it, men repaired to the drawing room for a tumbler of something. Cutting edge the Vaults is not. In fact, I was far closer in ages to the bar staff than I was my fellow members. However, I stuck my nose into my Longmorn, ordered some haggis, neeps and tatties and quickly failed to notice anymore.

Many have praised the food available from the SMWS kitchens, both in the Queen Street branch and at the Vaults. My plate was certainly stacked high with flavour (I haven’t had Scotland’s national dish served in that style before) and the chocolate mousse for dessert ticked all of my personal boxes for richness, tartness and gooeyness. Mindful after the last mouthful vanished that I still had some serious tasting to do, it perhaps wasn’t the best combination for keeping my senses in optimum condition. Nevertheless, I had reclaimed the calories Leith’s streets had taken from me and within half an hour I was ready for my next dram.

The bar. As it happens, I only explored the left-hand side.

The 19.46 astonished and moved me. This 21-yo whisky from a refill hogshead smelled initially like an ornamental fireplace in an oak-floored Highland house: blackened coal scuttle and an ancient stone and cast iron grate into which some autumn leaves had found their way. There were brass furnishings, too. Then came rich butter and brown sugar, deep oakiness with a green touch and light, crumbly sweet peat. Caramel toffee-accented malt confirmed the high class of the nose. The palate was equally suave and involving: spicy, biscuity, oaky and leafy. In my notes I have ‘a full-on burnished experience’ which I think means that both the brass furnishing character from the nose reappeared as part of the all-round impression of cohesion and quality. Coriander is another mid-palate note. It becomes rich and buttery again after a time, with late hints of candied lemon zest.

The addition of water developed the lemony theme as lemon curd arrived on the nose, spread between two layers of soft, rich flapjack. Heavy butterscotch, together with strawberry and blueberry jam, rounded out a very good and above all different character. The palate revealed more of the cask influence, with a rich, dark char. Coriander can be found in the mix again, with more lemon pieces. Pepper. The abiding impression was of richness, with a gentle chew.

My abiding impression of the Vaults, though? As a base camp for a society like the SMWS, I doubt it could be improved upon. In fact, my navigational headaches buttressed the atmosphere of eclectic sequestration the place exudes. You can’t just pop in off Prince’s Street. It seems to me very appropriate that there should be a venue in the city’s former commercial and goods trading centre, one that is built in to Leith’s abundant wine and spirit heritage. The decor (the final touches to a refit of the reception rooms were taking place during my visit), friendliness of the staff and eye-popping breadth of bottlings promise a permanent reward for those keen enough to make the trek to discover the spiritual home of the Society, tucked into a district where whisky as a viable commercial product was made possible in the first place. Who would have thought that at the centre of the labyrinth there would be an Olympus?

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The SMWS at the Quaich Society

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has, when it comes to tastings, adopted the American military’s infamous strategy of shock and awe. Not only are their drams the equivalent of B52s in impact and firepower, their ambassadors together form some sort of Single Malt Navy Seal special forces unit. Essay deadlines had leached my preceding week of colour, life and pleasure. An airstrike from the SMWS squadron explosively repatriated them.

St Doug Clement worked a little miracle for the Quaich Society; by contributing 300 Glencairn glasses we could ensure that the five single cask, cask strength, unchillfiltered, uncoloured (my, oh my) drams Craig Johnstone had retrieved from The Vaults to wreak mass destruction would not be thwarted in their mission by inadequate glassware. ‘To leave no nose upturned’ is the Society’s motto, and when I had a mind to scan the room, every one of the 60 guests appeared to have theirs buried in Glencairns.

Some many-hued delights. 'Horizontal' tastings offer endless possibilities for exploration.

Craig introduced himself to the room, and the room to itself. He enquired of everyone’s places of origin and their taste in drinks. This was no phatic stunt to break the ice, however; it turns out that Craig has been just about everyone, tasted just about everything, and has a ravenous desire to understand how so many of our favourite beverages come to be. We learnt of eccentric Canadian treatments for back pain (Crown Royal if your sciatica is playing up); how India claim to be drinking more Johnnie Walker than Scotland produces, and the extraordinary diversity of flavours being created throughout the world and which Craig has witnessed for himself.

A considerable proportion of this flavour diversity – and maybe all of the 32 primary aromas he talked about – leapt out at us from the glasses in front of us. The first dram of the evening hailed from distillery 121 and it was cask #48. 121.48, then, or ’Let’s get this party started’ as the tasting note excerpt read. I found this light and rounded at first, with crisper, biscuity dry undertones developing. A little bit of braised cabbage and candied lemon, also. The palate was clean and smooth, with a hit of alcohol mid-palate and unripe pear. Water sharpened the nose, bringing out freshly washed cotton on the clothes line. A more strident biscuit note developed in the mouth, with charred oak, thick caramel and dark chocolate. A very fresh and frisky dram from Arran.

Dram No. 2 - or to be more correct, G5.3 – was a revelation. Gasps gusted around the Garden Suite and it was not simply on account of the 65.6% abv. Matured for eighteen years in a toasted virgin oak cask, this was one single grain that, for many, outstripped the single malts that night. I must confess that ‘Extraordinary’ is right. The grain spirit had plucked everything that was superlative from the cask, while keeping its light, clean softness. ’Who thought grain whisky could taste like this?’ Craig enquired. Had most of these Quaich Soc’ers not already been blessed with John Glaser’s proselytising with the help of his Hedonism bottling, more hands would have gone up. This was another weighty case to put to the grain dissenters.

The evening then repaired to an Old Jazz Bar next, a 26yo specimen from #35. I was impressed by the breadth of flavours, although it seemed a tad too discreet and polite at first although perhaps this was due to the strength. At 40.6% another couple of months in this particular ex-Bourbon cask would have robbed it of its whisky identity. Crisp, flaky malt, plain chocolate, ginger sponge and ground coffee comprised the expansive nose while the palate was exceptionally soft, with apple, well-integrated oak and vanilla biscuit. As Glen Morays go, this was a deliciously delicate individual.

Mr Craig Johnstone, giving one hell of a lecture.

I would never in a million years have supposed that 76.85, ‘The Antagonist’, might have indicated output from dear old Mortlach. Apple, pear and melon (eh?!) on the nose with some gently buttery barley and crisp oak have never appeared in my tasting notes for this Chthonic distillery. On the palate I did find rich vegetables and a ‘fixing’ quality, but I did not think to equate this with worm tub collusion, still less Dufftown. Water made it more voluble and oaky, with some orange rind tucked underneath to please the nostrils. And they were pleased, just fairly rubbish at the identity parade.

There could be no confusing the next incumbent. 29.90, as all Society peatheads will tell you, is the quite unique Laphroaig and I doubt this particular bottling would disappoint them. Heavy peat, glorious peat. Cigarette ash and bonfire night, spent matches. There were some in the room, however, who were somewhat hostile to this style of spirit but Craig, ever resourceful, had a solution. ‘I promise you this will get rid of the smoke, and you will finish that dram.’ Eyebrows were raised, but Craig persevered. ‘I want you to take a mouthful of water and just keep it there.’ We all obeyed, trying not to drown ourselves or gargle. ‘Now drink the whisky through the water.’ I stared in bemusement and wonder. The equivalent of Sawing the Woman in Half had just happened, in my mouth. The smoke fleetingly appeared as a rich, dry tickle and then disappeared altogether leaving only a caramel-like, barley sugar sweetness that rolled over the tastebuds with every possible flirtation. ‘The phenols dissolve in water first, you see,’ Craig said through a huge grin.

The tasting over, and a queue of people around the front table for the purposes of either thanking our host or putting their name and credit card details in his membership ledger, I could reflect on the marvel we had all witnessed. Craig Johnstone is the Kilchoman of the whisky ambassador world. For one so young it astonishes me that he should have acquired so much knowledge, science, anecdote and authority in so short a space of time. In fact, many a wily and more senior ambassador has laid light fingers on his show-stopper tricks without attribution, a tactic that does wrankle him a little. Of course, he is a couple of decades ahead of them already, and who knows what heights will be attained with a few more years around casks regarding the Craig Johnstone package?

‘Had any of you heard about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before tonight?’ Craig had asked at the top of the evening. ’Did any of you think we were a cult?’ Perhaps expansion into the religious sect business would not be a disastrous idea: I know that many in St Andrews were converted.

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The Whisky Conversation

Many of the most passionate devotees across numerous diverse pursuits would agree with me when I say that, irrespective of the favoured activity in question, cogitating upon and talking about it contribute enormously to maximising appreciation and enjoyment. Every interest – and I feel this is especially true of whisky - benefits from equal portions of anticipation, evaluation and participation. I am only too aware – and if I forget, the twice-monthly Quaich Society meetings and their aftermaths remind me – that one cannot be forever drinking whisky; but one can sure as hell natter on about the subject indefinitely.

I will go into far greater depth in a later post, but the Scotch Malt Whisky Society rolled into St Andrews for this week’s tasting with five bottles of single cask, cask strength, distilled discussion. The epithets for each expression assert this quality, and as we tucked into Old Jazz Bar and The Antagonist, tongues were loosened. I had Quaich Soc old-timers come up to me afterwards and beam that it was the best tasting they had been to. Ever. Much of the credit – maybe around 99.9% – must go to our host, Craig Johnstone. With charm, affability, professionalism and frankly frightening levels of knowledge and expertise, he imparted the confidence I suspect some of the 60 tasters were in search of when contemplating the wild beasts in their Glencairns. That production details and histories were interspersed with Craig’s own extensive encounters with the drinks industry internationally, with many of these boasting hilarious consequences, the entire room could put their trust in his juggernaut of an interest.

And without a doubt this is what makes whisky such an eminently-discussable topic. Those who speak for whisky, when hangovers, deadlines or time of day preclude sipping the stuff and communing with it personally (although on the latter criteria, Craig was very forthright in his condoning of “breakfast whiskies”), are so often engaging and dynamic also. To nurture a fledgeling hobby they brought their powers of curiosity and investigation to bear; to transform it into a pre-eminent passion they sought out personal interactions with the spirit, its people and process, to sustain the obsession they battled to make it their job. Who wouldn’t want to talk to those who suit up to go to work, but for whom the whole exercise is simply constructive, engrossing leisure time with a pay cheque at the end of it?

I’ve been very fortunate over the last couple of years to tap into this whisky conversation, encountering people who go beyond the off-licence for their drams. With distillery managers and staff, brand ambassadors, shop owners, other bloggers and even fellow students I am engaged in a free-flowing, richly-layered dialogue, not just about whisky in the bottle, but about how we have been compelled to experience whisky in the distillery, in the landscape, in the bars, in the trade shows, in the homes of those who make it.

Whisky is a launch pad to other matters – other cultures, other flavours, other ways of seeing the world. The borders of a love of whisky are contiguous with an appreciation of all artisanal products; when the plethora of pockets of Scotland have been explored, there is always the rest of the globe, and the people you meet in the process will continually amaze and surprise you with their generosity, knowledge and enthusiasm.

After having given me five single cask, cask strength drams of his, I thought I had better show my appreciation for Craig’s performance by offering him one of mine. The Aberlour 16yo was uncorked, and the conversation continued.

 

Keep track of what whisky matter Craig is presently mulling over via his blog – it’s as diverse (and brilliant) as he is: Whisky Adventures.

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