Whisky Over 30 Years – Looking Back

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Slainte, John

by Pat Phipps

These lockdown days have given me time to reflect.

The reflection takes my mind back to the 1990s, the time when I first started to drink single malts.  And I look at how far we (the consumers) and they (the distillers) have come in that thirty years.

I went back to some of my old whisky books from the 90s.  One in particular stood out: “The Single Malt Whisky Companion”, by Helen Arthur. The book goes through the distilleries, and has wonderful pictures of bottlings of the era.

I found that an updated version of the book is still available for on-line purchase.  But going back to my 90s copy, it is fascinating to see that most distilleries have changed not only label styles but frequently also bottle shapes as well – maybe to try and stay ahead of the competition and have Our Product stand out on retailers’ shelves.  There are a few that have bucked this trend, but they are a minority.

One phrase used in the 90s was to define a whisky as “Unaged”.  Today, when a distiller does not wish to declare the age of a whisky, it is known as “No Age Statement” or NAS.

Reading through the book, distillery bottlings of the time were limited in their range of offerings.   However, about 20 years ago things changed.  Today, the offerings of official bottlings can be confusing.  When these are added to the growing range available from independent bottlers, the spectrum of choice is truly delightful!

The Golden Age

The past has been called “The Golden Age of Whisky” for the consumer.  The whisky glut in the early 2000s provided some interesting marketing ploys.  Bruichladdich, for example, had a huge and varied range – of which I had my fair share!  Sadly now, this has been reduced to a core range.

Another was the Ardbeg experiment, with their Path to Peaty Maturity range of Very Young, Still Young, Almost There, and Renaissance.  This was an amazing series of bottlings, and are still talked about in hushed tones by Peat Freaks like me.

So, even though the world has given us a greater selection of distilleries to choose from, I still pine for the long-gone great ones I drank.  I wish some of them would come back.  Mind you, some of the replacements are superb, too.

This was an amazing series of bottlings, and are still talked about in hushed tones by Peat Freaks like me.

Regional “Style”

Whisky discussions sometimes turn to talk about regional “styles”.

I believe this styling was valid in the past.  However, pretty much regardless of location, a lot of distilleries these days have progressed: to gain market share, they will produce styles from sherried to bourbon to peated: for instance, in a blind tasting I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an Islay and a peated Speyside.

For example, the BenRiach distillery range has drams for almost all tastes.

I recently attended a tasting that brought into stark relief why I think “regionalisation” is not so valid today.

The tasting was titled “Islay whiskies”.

There were the usual seven blind drams.  Six were known and identified whiskies from Islay (notoriously, the home of peated whiskies), with the tasting glass number unknown.  The seventh was a mystery dram – origin and glass number both unknown.

We went through the usual nosing, tasting, commenting and scoring each one.  When the scoring was totalled, the winner was a peaty whisky – an Irish Connemara whiskey.

So much for regional styles!

The Visitor Experience

Another recent improvement for the consumer is the distillery visitor experience.  I noted that, in my 1990s book, a lot of distilleries only allowed visitors either “by appointment only” or not all.

Today’s distilleries want visitors, are glad that people are looking for more information and are interested in the tiniest detail of whisky and production.  Distilleries are building Visitor Experience centres to immerse you in their dark arts – with distillery-only bottlings on sale there to complete the experience!

Because of law changes and advances in technology, small boutique distillery numbers are increasing hugely around the world – and visitors are vital to spread these new brands.  The effort is helped immensely by the World Wide Web – a phenomenon which has also developed exponentially in twenty years.  The increased accessibility to information allows you to learn about your favourite distillery.  In some cases, they provide a “virtual” tour, even if you can’t physically get to the place!

You get to see the grounds, the still houses and, of course, the latest bottlings.

And two fantastic parts of lockdown has been the Facebook dram sessions broadcasts and the Zoom whisky tastings – all in the comfort of your own lounge.

Long Live Progress!

 

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Bits and Bobs – Dramfest and beyond

I have decided to stop giving numeric scoring to whiskies.

My change in approach has come from comments that passed my way recently: the first is that the most important thing is “do you like it?”. This was followed by a remark from a whisky writer defied anyone to tell the difference between a whisky with a rating of 8.2 and one rated at 8.4.

So I’m going to grade:
A – love it/want it
B – would drink it, but not spend money to get it
C – you fill in the gap!

Here are a few recent tastings. The first two – fantastic GlenAllachies – were In the Wee Dram corner of Dramfest 2020. My ticket to the tasting was provided free of charge by Kurt, for whose generosity I am deeply indebted! The others are from help Pat come out of lockdown!

Glenallachie Madiera Finish
Cask no 3756, Refill Bourbon
Age: 16yo, distilled 2005, bottled 2015,
Colour 1.1 (deep tan)
Non-chill filtered, non-coloured

Nose:  Fruity and sweet. Softly medicinal, like going out on a date with a nurse (I thought about adding an explanation here about a girlfriend – a nurse – in my late teens. In trying to write the explanation, though, it really only made things worse!)

Palette:  Oily, strawberry, with alcohol heat and Madiera sweetness. No clear bourbon notes, though.

Finish:  Long and rather drying, nutty at the end.

Comment:  At 16 years of age, the whisky heads back to a distilled date in the period when the distillery was owned by Chivas Bros: a good 14 years before current owners Billy Walker, Trish Savage and Graham Stevenson bought the place.

Since that purchase in 2017, I have experienced some varied output from GlenAllachie. One was delightful but a couple were less than memorable.

However, both this Madeira finish and the Sauternes finish below are stunners! Both well in grade A.

Glenallachie Sauternes Finish
Cask No 3727, first fill Bourbon
ABV 58%. Age 11yo, distilled 2009,
Colour 0.7/.0.8 (darker golden),
NC2

Nose:  Soft and sweet

Palette:  Light and pure, not as heated as the Madeira Finish. Honey, tannic and waxy.

Comment:  Shorter finish that the madeira, but still long.

 

From Pat’s lockdowns:

 

Monkey Shoulder
100% malt whisky, blended from “small batches of different Speyside malts” – reputedly Glenfiddich and Balvenie [William Grant & Sons].

The Monkey Shoulder website loudly & luridly claims the whisky is “Made for Mixing”. The site provides recipes for a “Lazy Old Fashioned” (Angostura Bitters, sugar syrup and orange zest), a “Ginger Monkey” (dry ginger ale and an orange wedge) and a “Monkey Splash” (replace the dry ginger ale and orange wedge with soda and an orange wedge).

Nose:  Fresh apricots and Airfix plastic model-aeroplane glue.

Palette:  Tongue-numbing, smooth, apple. Peaches and nectarines in custard, held together with the plastic glue.

Finish:  A slight smoke residue.

Comment:  At well under NZ$100, I’d have that. Graded a low A.

The website loudly & luridly claims the whisky is “Made for Mixing”.


Teeling Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey


ABV 46%, no age statement, bottled Sept 2019
Colour 0.9

Nose:  Coffee and golden syrup

Palette:  Peppery (but it’s very short). Drying my mouth, and sour.

Comment:  Single pot still – in Scottish terms, technically a grain whisky and not a single malt.

Finish:  Medium

According to the Teeling website, this is “The first whiskey to be distilled in Dublin in nearly 50 years”. It is 50% malted and 50% unmalted barley, triple distilled, matured in a combination of American Virgin Oak, Bourbon, and Sherry casks.

The website description is very chatty about the nose (hibiscus flowers, grapefruit & citrus), palette (a hint of lychee, white grape notes, white pepper, roasted peaches and baked biscuits) and finish (dry, hints of spice, roasted almonds and maple syrup).

I’m not sure that I got all those, but I did like it and would definitely own one.

Glenfarclas Legend of Speyside SPRINGS Speyside single malt whisky


ABV 46%, No Age Statement,
Colour: 1.3

One of the Legends of Speyside trilogy released for the German market. Aged in ex oloroso casks, with the darker colour suggesting that these were pretty good casks.

Nose:  Grain (brown bread), sweet and rich.

Palette:  Young, with that slightly sour oloroso sherry taste and a bit fizzy on the tongue. Not mouth-filling.

Finish:  It doesn’t stay around. In wine-drinking terms, this is a quaffer.

Comment:  Length is  disappointingly short.

The bottle label is totally in German.  My extremely rudimentary grasp of the language is pretty much limited to “Eine Bier, Bitte” – not a helpful phrase in the circumstances!  However, although it’s not a great comment on the quality of the contents, the tube the whisky comes in is very pretty, arty and attractive.

Mark A-

Benriach 17yo
Casks: Bourbon, then PX finish.
ABV 46%, age 17 yo,
Colour 1.2
NC2

Nose:  Strong. Over-ripe bananas, wood and a wet nappy.

Palette:  Smooth, pepper, caramel, and a musty flavour reminiscent of an old coat cupboard.

Finish:  Tannic (from the bourbon cask?)

Comment:  The label says “PX Sherrywood finish”. Bourbon-matured American oak, then in PX.

Mark A-. At NZ$150, this is too expensive for what it is.

The Price of Fish – Whisky without breaking the bank

Spoiler Alert: this article has got absolutely nothing to do with fish.

And this will probably be the last reference to fish.

However, the article has got quite a bit to do with the price of whisky or whiskey and what you can expect to pay for a palatable drop without breaking the bank.

Think back to the now long-distant memory that was the 2020 Christchurch Dramfest.   Running through the lists of drams in the Dramfest catalogue, there were 321 whiskies on display.  Remember, too, that the lists did not include the “special” bottles that were hidden from view under the tables.

There were 321 drams listed in the catalogue.  120 were priced at under NZ$100 a bottle.  That’s 37% of the offerings.

And, for those who elected to sample a dram or twelve at the event, quite a few of that 120 were very nice whiskies indeed.

From my own experiences, I include (in no particular order):

    • the Loch Lomond Single Grain 46% (NZ$57),
    • the Glen Scotia Double Cask (NZ$83),
    • four of the Wemyss offerings (Flaming Feast, Hive Batch Strength, Spice King Batch Strength, and Blooming Gorse. ABV ranging from 46 to 58%, price NZ$90 to 97), and
    • Teeling Stout Cask 46% (NZ$89)

Outside the delightful Dramfest selection, I have also recently either tasted or come into possession of these interesting items:

    • The South African Bain’s Single Grain 43% at NZ$43 a bottle,
    • Stoke IPA – tasting report in my Christmas Cheer blog. The IPA is cask-strength 59%, Pinot Noir-matured, coming from McCashin’s Brewery out of Nelson.
    • West Cork, an Irish distillery producing Irish single malts and blends ranging up to 62% ABV.  The most expensive available in NZ is a selection of quite nice 12yos (your pick of Port Cask, Rum Cask, or Sherry Cask), each for the massive output of NZ$74.99.

I decided to do some remarkably amateur on-line research to see if my theory about whiskies that don’t break the bank could stand scrutiny.

I picked the websites of two retail outlets.  Shop 1 is a predominantly whisky-oriented one, Shop 2 could be regarded as more alcoholically generalist (although it does keep some pretty good stuff to select from).

In my search parameters I selected “whisky” (all types, including those with an “e”) and sorted them by price.  I was not interested in pricing miniatures or other small bottles, so I ignored bottles that contained less than 700ml.

Shop 1 had 182 offerings that were priced at less than NZ$100, Shop 2 had 59.

Obviously, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that there would be some double-ups on the two lists.  My research was not of rocket scientist quality – sadly not even a Guy Fawkes day one!

It was certainly not scientific enough to remove drams that both shops offered.  But, assuming a 10% “overlap”, that is still more than 210 whiskies to get into!

A lot of the offerings came from “big” distilleries, names that are well known and talked about in reverent tones.  A lot of them are standard bottlings – 10- or 12-year olds, varietals that have been around for a while and not to be ignored.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here.

I am certainly not advocating chucking out all your $200-$300 (or more!) sherry bombs, your esoteric orange-flavoured Amrut, your careful husbanded Batch 35 A’bunadh or your entire Glendronach collection.

As a part of running this website, there is a lot of tasting to be tasted.   I have sampled some whiskies that were good, some not so good, and some absolutely spectacular!

But the more I get involved in the world of whiskies, the more I understand that whisky selection, taste, and choice is an exceptionally personal thing.  What I have found personally is that sometimes I would just like to relax with a whisky, rather than to be challenged by it.

So, there are two stalwarts in my cupboard.  A bottle of Jamieson’s Irish Blend, and a bottle of Glen Grant’s Major’s Reserve.  On the nights when I just want to sit in front of a good TV programme with a relaxing dram, one of these two is a perfectly admirable companion for the evening.

I am certainly not advocating chucking out your sherry bombs or your entire Glendronach collection. 

I came across a quote recently in Ian Buxton’s 4th edition of his book “101 Whiskies to try before you die” [i].   In the introduction, he says “… you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find really great or interesting whiskies.”[i]

I totally agree.

As a side note, if you are thinking of chucking your Glendronach collection please let me know about an hour or so in advance and I’ll be around with a big box to help you.

Happily.

[i] “101 Whiskies to try before you die”, 4th edition, Ian Buxton. Headline Publishing Group, London, 2019

Covid-19 – No Laughing Matter

I’m not the first person to make this observation, but isn’t it weird how the whole world can turn so upside down in such a short time?

Not three weeks ago I was one of 2,000+ people crowded together in the Christchurch Town Hall, revelling in Dramfest and the tasting of whiskies from around the world.  Two-metre separation was impossible – in most parts of the venue, two centimetres was challenging!

Now the world has locked us into our homes for at least the next four weeks, hopefully with someone we want to be locked in with.

And I’m not even allowed to go around to my brother-in-law’s to help him drink his whisky.

“Not three weeks ago I was one of 2,000+ people crowded       together in the Christchurch Town Hall, revelling in Dramfest”

At the start of lockdown, liquor stores were deemed “non-essential” and forced to close.  Sanity has fortunately prevailed and stores are now available again for on-line, “contactless” purchases.

The whole situation is quite typical of the fast-moving nature of this crisis.  And it is a crisis, even before the liquor stores got shut!

Things are changing so quickly it’s hard to keep pace.

I type a really good, fact-perfect, totally insightful sentence.  Then somebody changes something that turns the whole thing into a mockery.  For example, I wrote eloquently about how we could only get our nerve-relaxants from the wine section at the supermarket.  I waxed lyrical about the UK supermarket shelves that stock up-market whiskies.

And what happens?  The Authorities go and allow the liquor stores to open on-line and whole paragraphs have to be consigned to the rubbish tin!

Have some consideration, guys!

One major concern on the alcohol front, though, is that re-cycling in my city has been temporarily halted.  Which means the empties won’t be collected.

Perhaps we could start building a bottle-house with them.  That would fill several gaps – a project to do (pastime), save the re-cycling (conservation), and a new garden shed (utilitarian).

But there are some parts of this New Order which have no humour at all.

The rate and speed of infection spread and the death tolls are horrendous.

The decisions and public pronouncements of some of the world’s “leaders” border on the insane – no names, just think Orange (my last political comment).

The choices of some people to consider that lockdown does not apply to them displays a breath-taking depth of self-entitlement.  And a lot of other similar words, with adjectives.

“Working from home, previously regarded as the ultimate    oxymoron, has become the standard state. ”

However, against that dark background the human condition emerges and lightens the darkness with intense and poignant humour.  Witness:

  • The Youtube video of Jennifer taking her laptop into the toilet during a staff video meeting – forgetting that the camera was still rolling all the while. The looks on her colleagues’ faces was enough!
  • The fake-news item from 2050 which reads “.. and Thomas has just opened the last toilet roll that his parents purchased in 2020”.
  • People reacting classical artworks by playing dressing-ups in their homes.

The communication systems available now have made things possible that could not have happened even thirty years ago.

  • A group of whisky friends have been having email discussions. The chat is enlightening and confirms that tastes in whisky are enormously personal!
  • At 10am last Sunday (International Whisky Day) I Facebooked into a live-video Master Class being broadcast from Bunnahabbhain on Islay. The London Whisky Live had been canned so Derek Scott, Bunnahabbain Brand Director, ran their stand from his living room complete with open fire and Mac the Labrador.   And while the broadcast was going out live to the world, someone from NZ wrote in to say what kind of whisky they were having with their breakfast.  I love that!
  • There are family gatherings on Zoom or Skype, bringing people together virtually. That kind of gathering would normally only be at a wedding or funeral and, sadly, usually the latter!  My sister talked about Skype-reading a book in Dunedin to her five-year-old grandson in Vancouver.  Nice!

Working from home, previously regarded as the ultimate oxymoron, has become the standard state.  And is proving every bit as effective as sitting in an office in the centre of the city.  The 10-minute quiz get-together that used to be held around the morning tea table is now a slightly voyeuristic Skype peep into your colleagues’ homes (or at least that section of it that can be seen in the background of a slightly grainy video picture).

Closing thought

And here is a closing thought for you.  I’ve just been reading about some lovely whiskies that are available as “travel retail only” in exotic airports.

Considering it likely that air travel in the new, post-COVID world will be severely curtailed (and undoubtedly unattractive, too) what will happen to those drams?  Unsold at duty-free, are they likely to start turning up for on-line ordering?

I can only hope!

Dramfest 2020 – Pat’s Point of View

I only went down to Christchurch for the Saturday.  As a result, I had only a limited time to sample, chat and enjoy what is for me the premier event in my whisky life.

My first goal was to head straight to the Floki stand.  Floki is an Icelandic whisky distillery that I was not going to miss.

I was not disappointed.  This is the Eimverk Distillery family founded in 2009.

The two picks for me were the sheep dung smoked reserve Young Malt 47%, a 500 barrel limited reserve whisky.

The Floki website notes that the barley has been “smoked using generations old tradition of smoking using sheep dung”.  It is aged in virgin white oak casks.

The taste is wet grass / wet pine needles with a hint of cherries.  Score: 8 out of 10.

Another interesting bottling from Floki is the Birch finish, again with a unique taste.  Score: 8 out of 10.

If you get a chance to try these two malts don’t try to compare them to a scotch whisky – they are unique and have a completely Icelandic taste profile.

A Wee Dram With …..

I managed to get to two Wee Dram tastings.

The first was Glenlivet with Alan Winchester, MQ.  Alan manages 14 Pernod Ricard distilleries and has 40 years in the industry, so he knows a bit.  It was an amazing tasting and if you shun the big boys you might well be missing out.

We got to try two bottlings at the tasting.

Glenlivet Wee Dram
GlenLivet Wee Dram

The first was a 14 year old single cask (#100160), bottled at 53.1%. The taste was fruity, floral, pineapple, toffee, and banana with an oily mouth feel and a lip smacking 9.8 out of 10.

The second dram was the standard 25 year old at 43%.  It’s spent 23 years of its life in Bourbon barrels and the last two years in first fill Oloroso Sherry barrels.  The taste was Christmas cake, cinnamon, and raisins, very smooth (as you would expect of a 25-year-old).  9 out of 10.

The second tasting session was Arran with Rob Gray.  He brought with him two outstanding bottlings.

Arran Wee Dram

The first was “distillery only” (a whisky crime, in my view) 50ppm Machrie Moor called Fingal’s Cut Sherry Cask.

OMG!

For all those who claim they don’t like peated whisky, you need to try this.  The taste was peat, sherry in loads and licorice, full bodied and lip smacking.  I had three tastings of this (Rob was very generous)!  10 out of 10

The next was a not-yet-bottled release #3 of the 21 year old Explorer series.  This was cask strength at 54.4%, with elements of port, Christmas pudding, sherry and brandy butter.  Another stunner, 9 out of 10.

The opportunities at Dramfest to have conversations with people in the industry are unique.  It is not just for the chance to taste rare and great whiskies, but to get the background on the distilleries and little anecdotes that may never be printed or shared except with whisky fans like you and me.

I had only limited time to go around the tables, so I headed back to the Arran stand (sorry, can’t get enough of the stuff).

I tried the quarter cask Bothy – another amazing dram from the distillery.  Mouth feel and rich taste. I liked it so much and could actually get this one. Easily 9 out of 10.

I bought a bottle.

Overall

There was so much to sample and great fellow whisky drinkers to socialise with.  I had trouble to pick the outstanding drams.

But here we are.  Apart from the tastings I had, I would have to pick the following three drams.

Floki Sheep dung smoked (bought a bottle)

   Glenallachie 15 year old

   The Arran quarter cask Bothy.

The reasons I picked these are simple:  I hadn’t tried them before, and they were all very good.

Yes, there were the old favourites there at Dramfest, and they are good, too.  But that’s not why I go to Dramfest.  I go to try new, weird, or simply overlooked whiskies that deserve my attention.

I am never disappointed.

Slainte

Pat

The Edinburgh Whisky Academy – knowing your Quercus Alba from your elbow

I PASSED!! 

YAY, I PASSED!!!

BRILLIANT!

That’s the first exam I’ve passed for 30 years!

It’s also the first exam I’ve sat in 30 years.  To quote baseball statisticians, I’m Batting a Hundred.

One of the “things” my generation (the Boomers) was taught was not to be boastful.  Hide your light under the biblical bushel.  “Pride cometh before a fall” and congratulations should come to you from others, rather than from within.

Which is all very fine and dandy if others know that you’ve done it.  They don’t, but I do!

In the last 15 years I have spent a lot of my time on whisky – looking at it, reading about it, tasting it, writing about it and even, on occasions, drinking it.

I have been at the far right-hand end of the whisky “chain”.

I knew a little bit about whisky.  The difference between a single malt and a blend, between sherried and peated, between a Bowmore and an Auchentoshen.  I know that this whisky will taste different to that whisky, sometimes just a bit and sometimes a whole lot.

I’ve listened to learned people talk about whisky, people whose opinion I respect.

I’ve been on distillery tours and visited visitor centres: I have the souvenir caps, etched glasses, and tee-shirts to prove it.

And I did have some samples of their whiskies as well, but those seem to have mysteriously disappeared.

However, when all is said and done, I have been at the far right-hand end of the whisky “chain”.

I know a good drop when I taste one, but when I’ve finished the bottle it goes out in the recycling without too much thought as to how the genie got into it in the first place.

It may sound pretentious or big-headed but, as I mature in the world of whisky, I would like to be taken seriously.  But it was growing on me that the more I got “into” whisky, the less I really knew about it.

Thought process:

  • How did the genie get into the bottle?
  • Why can one whisky taste so utterly different from another whisky?
  • Who invented the stuff in the first place? (the ‘Why” is pretty self-evident!)

Enter the Edinburgh Whisky Academy.

The Academy has been on my radar for a couple of years as an interesting learning centre.  Their cause is helped by testimonial from the respected Charles MacLean.

The first thing I saw was a course entitled Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky.

Now there’s an interesting idea – get a diploma for doing what I’ve been doing for 15 years!

Realistically though (and sadly), flitting over to Edinburgh for a one-day whisky tasting is not in the budget (yet), regardless of how esoteric the drams may be.

So let’s see what else is available.

There’s a Diploma in Single Malt Whisky.  That sounds fun!  Two-day course, including a private distillery tour, a breakfast of bacon rolls, classes on the sensory aspects of whisky (look, nose, taste) and a formal assessment.  The course requires me to go to Edinburgh, too.  Sad Face.

An Introduction to Whisky Certificate (On-line).  Now that sounds more like me!

It is certified by the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA), so it’s obviously got some cred.  And it’s an on-line course, so I can do it from the comfort of my own laptop.

The Academy’s website http://www.edinburghwhiskyacademy.com tells me that is a “fun … on-line course exploring the fundamentals of whisky”.

It goes on to say that the course covers whisky from history, business and raw materials to production and maturation.

Well, having just passed it, I can confirm that it certainly does all that.  And then some!

I have learned in-depth things about stuff I knew just a little about (worts, the mash tun, the rules around minimum ABV and age statements), enlarged on condensers and how they work (stuff that I dimly remember picking up by osmosis in college days in those brief periods between chasing girls), and got introduced to things I never knew existed (the 1784 Wash Act and the Illicit Distillation Act of 1822, Analysers and Rectifiers).

Worts and Mash Tuns and Lyne Arms are not just words anymore.  They have meaning in themselves now.  I know where they fit into the process and what effect they have on the outcome of production.

And, while it may not be feasible to go to Edinburgh for the tasting course, the things the Introduction Course has given me on the effects of cask and reflux and malt and grain and blending are already having a big impact on my nosing and tasting of whiskies.

The cost of the on-line course is 120 British quid (about NZ$200) and finishes with a self-assessment module.  There is another 80 quid if you want to sit the official SQA Certificate.

And there is also the Time investment.  I didn’t have the stopwatch going but I would estimate my time at around 15 hours (I was hand-writing copious notes as I went).

But whatever time it took I certainly do not regret one second of it!

Would I recommend the course to you?  Whole-heartedly, especially if you’re like me and know just enough to be dangerous.

Would I do it again?  No, I don’t need to.

I PASSED!

Would I go on any of the other courses?  If the opportunity presented itself, stand out of the way!!!!

PS: after I wrote this article I was looking through an old Whisky Magazine.  I came across an article on charring.

In the past, I would have turned the page over quickly, thinking “that’s too esoteric for me”.

Not now.  I stopped and read it.  And understood it!

Three Beauties and A Beast

A Happy New Year to you all, and a huge welcome to the 2020s!

It’s always great to start a bright, shiny new decade, wondering what it will bring.  It started with these!

The three Beauties are just that – beautiful whiskies.  The Beast, on the other hand, is not an ugly beast: on the contrary, it is possibly more beautiful than the Beauties.

But it is the biggest Beast of a Whisky I have ever come across.  And I would happily go out looking for more dragons like that!

BEAUTY No. 1

Bruichladdich, Islay Barley, Rockside Farm 2017, Unpeated Islay Single Malt, 50% abv.

Bruichladdich 2007 Islay Barley

This was Les’s ceremonial opening of a bottle he’d been given.  I managed to wangle myself an invitation to the event.  Glad I did!

Appearance: a light, clear, golden 0.6. Lovely to watch the sun shine through!
Nose: new mown grass, plums, but not a lot of “distinctive” aroma.
Palette: soft, dark, sweet and floral, slightly drying.
Finish: Medium +, a dryness left on the tongue.
Score: 8.8
Comment: Very drinkable.  According to the tube, this is barley from Rockside Farm on Islay.

 BEAUTY No. 2

Johnnie Walker, Pure Malt Scotch Whisky.  15yo, 43%

Johnnie Walker Pure Malt

Another out of Les’s stash, emerging from the darkness just after the Bruichladdich was opened.

It’s another bottle he had been “given”.  It has been sitting unopened for maybe 15 years – it  seemed almost a shame to open it, but sacrifices must be made…..

Nose: nutty, slightly marine/salty, sweet.
Palette: silage, grassy.  Is there PX sherry somewhere in here?  A slight bitter note.
Score: 8.6
Comment:  This is good!  The label is a camouflage green colour, reminiscent of JW Green but darker.

The whisky is a blend.  In consequence, a lot of potential high notes seem to be missing.  But it is definitely one of the top JWs I’ve tried.

BEAUTY No. 3

Bruichladdich, Islay Barley 2010, Unpeated Islay Single Malt, 50% abv.

Bruichladdich 2010 Islay Barley

I discovered this bottle shortly after sampling the 2017 version.  Too good a comparative opportunity!

There are seven barley sources listed on the tube, not just the Rockside Farm of the 2017.

Appearance: The colour is darker than the 2017 – reminiscent of varnished rimu.
Nose: light and sweet with a note of freshly picked apricots.  Salt ash and looking for shellfish in rock pools at low tide.
Palette: Honey.  Soft and more honey!!  A first bell-curve of taste, climbing swiftly then dropping away.  A slight oiliness left coating the mouth.
Finish: Waxy and oily.
Score: 9.1
Comment: Impressive!  As my “holiday dram”, I have been having some of this each night this week.  I could be encouraged to stay on holiday a little longer!

THE BEAST

Images of Ayrshire Dalrymple Bridge, bottled by Malts of Scotland, Sherry Hogshead, teaspoon Ailsa Bay, 68.3%.

Note: A “teaspoon” whisky is where a teaspoon (or more) of another whisky has been added to a cask.  This addition makes the whisky a blend, and therefore cannot be bottled as a single malt.  One reason for doing this may be to protect a particular distillery’s brand.

Commentary:  I have tasted one or two whiskies over the years.  They have ranged from brilliant, through good, OK, and So-So to “Dear-God-why-did-they-bother?”.

But I had never met a whisky that I was physically unable to drink.  Until now!

Ian gave me this sample.  He said I might like it because I like Ailsa Bay whisky.  He omitted to say just how much caution this sample should be treated with!

My usually formulaic noting of whisky tasting could not possibly do this dram the justice it deserves.  So I am going to write this one as a story.

The story

The tasting came as a sample.  I didn’t have the usual advantage of being able to read the tube or bottle blurbs to get a steer as to what I’m about to taste.  No age statement, no maturing notes of any kind to guide me.

I pour the sample into my glass and hold it up to the light.  Its appearance is medium viscosity, quite dark in colour (1.3).  The hogshead must have been a good one.

The initial nose is rather strange.  It has vinegar and rich fruit cake with those little cocktail pickled onions.

The Tasting

The sample’s label says 68.5% abv.  My first sip is judicious (read “timid”) in quantity.

The general tasting practice is to hold the sip in your mouth for the same number of seconds as the year age of the whisky – ten seconds for a ten year old, etc.  The practice is usually dictated by the age.

Not this time.

The length of sip-holding is dictated totally by a rapidly acquired sense of self-preservation! 

The Outcome

I had not presumed it was going to be a soft, cuddly kitten whisky.

I certainly was not expecting a full-grown tiger with its claws out, trying to eviscerate my tongue!

This is HOT!!!  Like licking the barbeque!  Total Firewater!

There is an underlying sweet taste – I was going to say “sweetness”, but you might misconstrue that as “gentleness”.  Gentleness is not a word that can be applied to this whisky!  The alcohol level creates way too much heat for the taste to be appreciated.

When feeling had started to return to my tongue – about four minutes later – I venture another sip.  This is similar to slamming your fingers in the door a second time to see if it really did hurt that much the first time.

It did.

Cowardice being the better part of Discretion, and not wanting just yet to sacrifice my life for whisky tasting, I decide some reduction would be appropriate.   I headed for the water and the dropper.

Normally, my rate of reduction would be four drops of water in a tasting sample – enough to get change in nose and palette, without turning the dram to weasel juice.

I put twelve drops into the Ayrshire.  The nose goes to prickly, with the cocktail onions slightly abated.  The palette becomes dark fruit cake and rich plum duff.  But the whisky is still way too strong to appreciate.  Further reduction needed!

My reduction method is not scientific.  It provides no way of accurately calculating the altered abv: I would guess the final mix would be around 50% abv.  At this point, the whisky becomes a seriously good dram.  The palette is uncomplicated, there is pepper still and heat in the throat.  And there is caramel & beautiful rich fruit cake steeped in dark brandy.

At the end, the finish is lingering sherry, with a slight (not unpleasant) oloroso sourness.  A bit of leather furniture, too.

My score is 8.8, possibly marked down a bit because of the experience.  I will be angling to see if there is another sample lying around unattended somewhere!

Footnote: I had planned to have another whisky before heading to bed that evening.  I decided against it.

Christmas Cheer 2019

Here is a set of six random tastings from the lead-up to Christmas 2010.

The offerings are:

    • Cardrona “Just Hatched” Pinot Noir matured,
    • Glenallachie 12yo PX “Sherrywood finish”,
    • Glendalough Irish Whiskey
    • Stoke IPA whisky, and
    • two from Ireland’s West Cork.

So, without further ado, let’s start tasting.

Stoke IPA Whisky

59% abv, matured in a Pinot Noir cask, from McCashins Brewery in Stoke, Nelson, NZ.

Appearance:  Colour 0.8.  A nice, rugged, squared-off, dark bottle.
Nose: berry fruit, wine cask, and sour washing.
Palette: Smooth, strong, soft honey note, mouth-filling, with a bit of a beer note.  Yummy!
Finish: Short, with the beer note remaining.
Comment: I talk about the beer note, but I was given this dram as a totally blind tasting.  I had no hint at about its background other than it was cask strength, one of only 800 bottles produced and cost NZ$80.

Which was no help at all, really!

And my tasting notes were all written before I knew anything more about the whisky.

It was very hard to pick this whisky’s antecedents from the information I was given.  But once you find out it’s distilled IPA beer everything becomes very clear!  The sour washing note on the nose is hops.

Score: 8.7
I want one, and now I have one!

With only a little bit of gloating, the rest of you will have to wait until the next batch.  If there is one!

Cardrona “Just Hatched” series, Pinot Noir

65.8% abv.  3yo.  Colour 1.3

Matured in pinot noir barrel #283, sourced from the Mount Difficulty vineyard.

Nose: furniture polish with vanilla, golden syrup, salt on sea rocks, parsley.
Palette: Massive spice burst, more parsley, a heat hit and slightly sour (from the wine barrel).
Finish: Medium-long, with a faint vegetal silver beet note.
Comment: The whisky is not as instantly attractive as the first Just Hatched sherry & bourbon versions released in December last year.  The high alcohol content may be masking some of the subtlety of the wine maturation.

Although I’ve marked the Cardrona high, it is a bit disappointing against my expectation for it.

Score: 8.4

Let it get some air – it can make a world of difference

 

Cardrona – The Second Cut

Now, here is an interesting thing.  At a tasting event recently it was mentioned that the second pouring from a bottle is sometimes better than the first.

The theory goes that opening a new bottle, taking a dram or two off the top and putting the cork back has let some air into the mix – sort of like letting wine breathe.

The dram you next pour from the bottle can taste very different to the first one.

A week or so after I did my fist tasting some friends came around for a dram.  I pulled out the Cardrona to give everyone a sample.

This second taste was a lot better than my first try.

Below are my revised notes, made from the second tasting.

Nose: vinous, the aroma of a newly opened packet of cigarettes, a dark nose, and no high alcohol prickle.
Palette: sweet, soft then heat, waxy, raw peas from the pod.
Finish: medium.
Comment:  I am delighted to revise my first view, and to have this second cut erase my first disappointment.  This is a very nice dram indeed, quite in keeping with Cardrona’s other outputs.
Score:  8.9

Glenallachie 12 yo

48% abv, Pedro Ximenes, Sherrywood finish.

Appearance: Colour 1.2 (mahogany).
Nose: sellotape, parsley, grass mown for silage.  No PX nose discernible at all.
Palette: no PX taste, non-descript.
Finish: short and abbreviated, nothing remains.
Comment: drinkable but disappointing.

As I have mused about before, when I see the phrase “finished in…” I wonder just how long “finished” means.  In the case of this Glenallachie, I suspect that it may not be long and that the wording on the bottle is critical to the outcome.

If you’re expecting any kind of a sherry hit, you won’t find it here!

Score: 7.2

Glendaloch Single cash Irish Whiskey

42% abv.  Grand Cru Burgundy cask finish.

Appearance: hangs on to the glass.
Nose: sea shore, grassy, slightly perfume-y, old pipe tobacco
Palette: quiet, slight sour, smooth
Finish: short/medium, with a low late heat.
Score: 7.2

West Cork, Single Malt Irish Whiskey. 12 yo, 43% abv, Sherry Cask (PX) for 110 days

Appearance: Colour 0.8.  The liquid is viscous and hangs onto the side of the glass like a monkey to a palm tree.
Nose: slight floral, crepe bandages and grapefruit peel.
Palette: mandarins, citrus peel and dark chocolate truffles.
Finish: marmalade.  Medium-long
Comment: The marmalade is high.  In my view it’s not a really typical PX, but the influence is definitely there.  The 110 days in PX may be the first indication of truth in advertising for “finished in …. “!
Score: 8.5

West Cork 12yo
West Cork, Blended Irish Whiskey, Cask Strength, 62% abv

Irish Whiskey, blended from Grain and Malt Irish Whiskies.  Blended into Bourbon barrels.

Appearance: thinner than the single malt, probably from the grain component.
Nose: floral (blossom), perfumed, sour/green citrus – grapefruit and /limes.  New, machined wood.
Palette: a bit fizzy on the tongue, slightly oily, hot chilli and grapefruit.  A big mouth & warming.
Finish: Medium/long and warm., but with no distinctive flavour.
Comment: very drinkable.
Score:
8.4

 

So that’s it for the 2019 scribblings.

I am continually delighted, impressed and thankful for the companionship that the world of whisky and whisky tasting has brought me.

My great thanks to all those friends who have contributed words, thoughts, and whiskies to this site.

I wish you all a safe & merry Christmas, and I look forward to seeing you all back in 2020!

Slainte!
John

 

Scotch 22: The Second Sitting

These are tasting notes from the second Scotch 22 invitation event held in Christchurch.

The notes are again provided by Ian Stopher and Mel Bromley.  As before, I am very grateful to them both for allowing me to use their writings here on the site.

I have identified each writer with bold lettering & colour.

Ian:
We started at Whisky Galore with an introductory dram and some Bee Gees. This was a clue to what had been kept a secret from us. But rewind 45mins because, of course, I had preloaded with an Scotch Malt Whisky Society code 64.97 at The Last Word:

Mannochmore 9yo Partner Bar exclusive 64.97

 Nose: delicious malty sweetness with soft lemon cif
Palate: still sweet but with some dryness as well in the reaction with the mouth; Opal Fruits
Finish: medium; not so much citric as white and green fruits like green melon and lychees. Malty as well but not spicy (Barrel rather than Hogshead)
Overall: impressive whisky pointed out by staff at The Last Word. Not spectacular but a solid consistent nose and delivery
Score: 8.3

Back at WG the introductory dram was an official 12yo Dalmore bottled c.1979:

Dalmore 12yo

Nose:  spirity with sherry
Palate: muted sharpness
Finish: a little thin and clinging
Overall: the dram was bottled in the 70s, in keeping with the theme of the evening
Score: 7.8

The Main Course

The Main Course
Colour-matching

6 drams distilled in the 1970s.  Total pricing just under $15,000. Ouch! I will not be buying any of these bottles, then. Unfortunately, I really wanted more time to go over the drams but as it was I was the slowest and I still didn’t have time to write very lyrical notes.

It looks a weird order: 3 peaty whiskies first and then 3 heavy sherry whiskies. But as we got into it we saw it made sense. The final three were more overwhelming than the first three.

Glass 1:   Brora 8th Release 30yo 1979  53.2%

Brora 8th Release 30yo

Nose:
Ian: oily, a little bit closed; distinct licorice notes
Mel: salted caramel, hints of vegemite, seaweed, and raisins
Palate:
Ian: quite soft and a little queasy
Mel: Sweet caramel, licorice, icing sugar, honey  [I can’t taste any peat!]
Finish:
Ian: thin-tasting at the end
Overall:
Ian: Bottle No. 2218 of 2,656; perhaps unfairly placed but this was the weakest whisky of the line-up
Mel: it was too saccharine-type sweet for me
Score:
Ian: 8.3
Mel: 7.5

Glass 2:   Bowmore 21yo 1973 43%

Bowmore 21 yo

Nose:
Ian: sweet and slightly sickly
Mel: salted caramel again, very smooth, raisins “love this nose” – does not smell at all peaty!
Palate:
Ian: very soft with some floral orange
Mel: Some peat, oily, liquorice, sweet, light smoke
Finish:
Ian: medium
Overall:
Ian: quite tasty and impressive for a 43% whisky
Mel: advertised as having been selected from casks in Warehouse #1 – the oldest)
Score:
Ian: 8.4
Mel: 8.5   There you go!  An unusually high score for me for an Islay these days!

Glass 3:   Ardbeg OMC 60th anniversary 36yo 43.5% (1 of 94 bottles)

Ardbeg OMC 36yo

Nose:
Ian: still very peaty and still sharp
Mel: marshmallow, smoke, sweet toffee, peat, cheezels
Palate:
Ian: quite impressive for the abv; softness and peat
Mel: Very Islayish – oily, sweet, smoky, peaty, but still very smooth
Finish:
Ian: medium+; delicate peat and maybe sherrywood as well
Overall:
Ian: a bit repetitive but surprises by the amount of peat after 36 years
Mel: apparently one of the oldest Ardbegs ever bottled!
Score:
Ian: 8.5
Mel:7.5, but only because I’ve drifted away from the peaty whiskies.

Glass 4:   Mortlach G&M 1971-2012 43%

Mortlach G&M

Nose:
Ian: heavy with the sherry, tarry; cough syrup
Mel: Chocolate, raisins, apricots, caramel, prunes, hint of vegemite (in a good way), figs, sweet, but not saccharine sweet.
Palate:
Ian: again that heaviness and already clearly very woody before even getting to the finish
Mel: bitter chocolate, prunes, liquorice, apricot, meaty, hint of vegemite … rolling flavours. OMG!
Finish:
Ian: long; with burnt cherry
Overall:
Ian: some might go for this extremal whisky but I find it is too much to make it a pleasant drink. Mel REALLY loved this one, even more than the Glendronach!
Mel: Oh Yes I Did!!!  Admittedly, I may have got carried away, but it is what I wrote down on the night!
Score:
Ian: 8.3
Mel: 10/10.

Glass 5:   Glenglassaugh Batch 2 42yo 47.3% Massandra Madeira Puncheon #2125 (1 of 124 bottles)

Glenglasshaugh 42yo

Nose:
Ian: fruity and spicy
Mel: Prunes, chocolate, aniseed, almond icing, Christmas cake, (something floral? Lavender?)
Palate:
Ian: sweet, delicious with a touch of mintiness
Mel: Old, prunes, varnish, sweet, aniseed
Finish:
Ian: medium; just a little dry
Overall:
Ian: This really hit the spot for me; I like my fortified wine maturation to bring some sweetness and fruit, and this one delivers. Strangely this was the oldest but also the cheapest bottle at $1,300.  Shame I still cannot justify buying a whole bottle but it makes it onto my 2019 Best of the Best list.
Score:
Ian: 8.7
Mel: 9.3

Glass 6:   Glendronach Batch 2 39yo 48.8% Oloroso Butt #489

Glendronach 39yo

Nose:
Ian: vinegar; heavy oloroso
Mel: Toffee, caramel (not sweet), woody, prunes, pepper, sulphur
Palate:
Ian: heavy and chewy
Mel: Chocolate, sherry, sulphur notes, licorice, almonds, intense, oranges
Finish:
Ian: medium to long; very tarry. It is not tart or sharp in the finish, fortunately.
Overall:
Ian: a bit of a technical score; not especially the brown&gold Glendronach I would go for normally. At $4,000 this was the most expensive purchase for the evening. Happy Birthday, Daniel!
Mel:  This was unexpectedly my second favourite, after my surprise love affair with the Mortlach … but for most people in the room this one came top!
Score:
Ian: 8.6
Mel: 9.6

The After-match Function

Ian: Following all this, we headed off for a meal. Many carried on with some drinking but after the above eight drams, everything would have seemed a little underwhelming.
Mel: my glass of red wine was certainly unnecessary.)
Ian: Besides, I had an early flight to catch and another set of whiskies the next night.
Mel: Ditto – although I caught the early afternoon flight that landed in a massive blustery storm.
Ian: Some work is never done.   
Mel: Too true – it is tough work indeed – lucky we are up to the challenge.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – or Damson in Distress

This article is a departure for this generally a whisky-themed website, but the the project fascinated me.

Les has appeared in this site before, as the co-founder of “How to remove unwanted bits of cork from wanted whisky”.

From that, you would have gathered that Les is a resourceful character.  With a well-defined sense of inquisitiveness and experimentation.

Les had planted a damson plum tree.  He’d turned the output into damson plum jam, damson plum (and rhubarb) tart,. Damson plum this, that and the other thing.  The uses for damson plums quickly became exhausted.

Then damson plum gin hove into view.

Damson Plum Gin

For those of you who have never heard of damson gin, the full recipe that Les used is to be found at the end of this article.

In the abbreviated version, the construction is quite simple.

It is gin. To which have been added some damson plums.

Or, more accurately, damson plums to which has been added a lot of gin.

And sugar.  End of ingredient list.

The Brewing

The parts are amalgamated in large jars, the whole then left pretty much unmolested for nine months or so.  The only attention in that period involves turning the jars over (like whisky barrels, but lighter) to help dissolve the sugar and encourage maturation.

The recipe requires just under a kilogram of plums and 1.5 litres of gin.  Les went for two gins – Seagars and half a bottle of Greenalls London Dry.  According to rumour these selections were made on a price basis, to keep costs down should the experiment fail. The two brews were kept separate, on the basis that if one failed the other would remain to hopefully take the pain away.

As my grandmother used to say, “Belt, braces, a safety pin and a piece of string.”  Although I think that quote related more to trousers than gin.

The Reveal

Les asked if we wanted to be observers at the ceremonial decanting of the finished liquid on a sunny afternoon.  You can’t turn down an invitation like that, especially when you have already experienced Les and his wife’s hospitality.

When we arrived, the large jars were arranged on the kitchen counter.  The source gin bottles, along with a large plastic funnel and a piece of clean muslin cloth, stood ready.

The Sorcerer – with Sauce

Gin is usually a clear liquid.  Like oily tap water, with Attitude.

Les’ damson plum gin was a lovely ruby colour.  Not an opaque dark ruby like a pinot noir, but light and translucent like the ruby red glass in a stained glass window.

There followed a bit of nosing, tasting and some note taking.  This was just to make sure that the project was worth continuing with, you understand.  The consensus was that it was.

Considerably.

Looking at the two original donor gin bottles, the thought was also raised that the addition of plum juice and sugar had likely increased the volume of liquid available.  And it might be practical to have another receptacle or two on standby, just in case.

So the decanting began.  The Seagars-based product was returned to its bottle via the muslin and the funnel, with the predicted surplus put into a passing wine bottle.

The Sorcerer, and Apprentice

The Greenalls version was decanted into a rapidly pressed-into-service crystal decanter – which the lovely ruby damson gin which really suited.  Especially with the light from the kitchen window coming through behind it!

The left-overs

With the decanting completed and the liquid removed, there remained the residue.

In the bottom of each jar was a collection of dark brown orbs.  Not smooth and round like plums, but wrinkly like fingers too long in hot water.

The Residue

Discussion ensued around how the orbs might taste and what use they could possibly be put to.  The first question was easily resolved by the Taste Test.  Unsurprisingly they tasted just like damson plums that had been steeped in gin – a lot of gin, some which had been reminded after the decanting process.

What to with them was a bigger issue.

Various options were mooted.  The contenders included:
– Keeping them for handing out to unsuspecting visitors;
– Taking them to nest month’s Wine Club meeting for evaluation; or
– Retaining them for after-dinner treats.

Les works at a local French café chain.  There is an in-house chef of undoubted skill – the winning suggestion was to pass the remaining gin-soaked plums to him to see what inventive ideas he might find for them.  It is encouraging to report that some have since appeared as a component of a rather nice dessert.

To the bottlings

Seagars (NZ) Gin, 37.2% abv

Nose: Almonds, Christmas cake
Palette: Plum (slightly sour from the Damsons) like plum jam on toast, liquerish, with a sweetness.
Finish: tannic drying, stays sweet but the plum taste remains.
Score: 8.7

Greenalls London Dry Gin, 37.5% abv

Nose: the plum flavour is stronger, with only a slight aroma
Palette: sweeter, with less sourness
Finish: the plum taste remains
Score: 8.5

The Recipe

The Recipe, as downloaded.

Overall:  I’m not a gin drinker.  I know little about the product.  But Les’ Damson Gin is one nice drop.