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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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