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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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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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