Going Down The Rabbit Hole

I am a bit concerned.

I started this blog-site just over two years ago.

Now there are a lot of people who think my life revolves around things whisky.  Which if does quite a bit, I suppose, but by no means to the exclusion of other things.

From non-whisky friends (yes, I do have them) I receive emails with links to whisky-related items and articles.  The link is often accompanied by a comment along the lines of “as soon as I saw this, I thought of you.”

It is great to know that they think of me, and I would not want to discourage them sending me stuff!  Some of the items I get links to are absolutely fascinating.  They can send me down the biggest, deepest, most convoluted rabbit holes imaginable.

One such link came recently from Michael.  Michael strikes me as a learned person.  I suspect he reads a lot, and absorbs all he reads.  He has an extremely fine, extremely broad, extremely dry and straight-faced sense of humour coupled with a well-developed sense of irony.

Detecting Fake Whiskies

But the article Michael referred me to is neither funny or ironic.

The implications it raises are most unfunny and could be potentially expensive for someone.

It is a fascinating look at scientific developments around an increasing ability (and, sadly, a need) to identify counterfeit whiskies.

Not so much a rabbit hole as an entire industrial-strength warren!

The article is extremely interesting, given the prices people can pay for “collectables”.

One really attention-grabbing line in the article notes “a 2018 study subjected 55 randomly selected bottles from auctions, private collectors, and retailers to radiocarbon dating and found that 21 of them were either outright fakes or not distilled in the year claimed on the label”.

That is one-third of the bottles tested!

… an increasing ability (and, sadly, a need) to identify counterfeit whiskies.

The article  has been written by Jennifer Ouellette, a senior writer on the ARS Technica website, a website for technical news.  Ms Ouellette has very kindly given me permission to link to it from rantandwhisky.com.

And her article is the start of the rabbit warren.

The Artificial Tongue

From Ms Ouellette’s article there is a plethora of hyperlinks to such interesting things as the development at the University of Glasgow of an artificial tongue.  The tongue is reportedly capable of distinguishing between different brands of whisky.

I can do that, but I suspect that the artificial tongue may be a bit more reliable!

As this second article notes, apart from identifying whiskies, the uses of the artificial tongue are potentially immense.  For example, overseeing the quality control of industrially produced food and beverages, or for monitoring water supplies.

On the subject of rabbit holes, it is interesting to recall that the Source Of Truth in my youth was a thumb-breaking set of encyclopaediae (yes, that is the plural of encyclopaedia – I looked it up!).

I was talking to Kevin this morning and he claimed to have had a 24-volume set.  Boy, did he ever know stuff!

But the limit of knowledge was always the back cover of volume 24.

Today’s rabbit holes are way better!

With the benefit of the internet and the hyperlink, knowledge today goes on for ever to the seventh son of the seventh son.

Admittedly not all of it is necessarily strictly accurate or good for you, but a little discernment can sort wheat from chaff.

More Fun Links

So here is another interesting link well worthy of note, sent to me recently by Geoff:

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-england-somerset-54062223

And if you follow the links on the right of that article, you can learn about the effects of Brexit on whisky, a new Yorkshire whisky,  and a £1 million bottle of MacAllan featuring Charles MacLean.

I’m not too sure about whisky that has been aged for 24 hours, and I did have to look up what “minging” means.   Thank you, Uncle Google: that would never have been in a 24-set encyclopaedia!

Eat your heart out, Alice in Wonderland.  Today’s rabbit holes are way better!

The Angel’s Share Returns

The Angel’s Share – that unfortunate percentage of whisky lost to evaporation while the dram is growing better in the barrel.

In Scotland, the angels are relatively frugal and only claim about 2%.

To be fair, though, that 2% is calculated to be in the order of 131.8 million litres each year – the equivalent of 44 Olympic swimming pools.  In anyone’s language, that is a staggering amount of “lost” whisky (pun intended)!

But in other warmer climates the increased humidity means that, comparatively, the angels can be a lot fiercer – in India, for example, it is estimated that the angels reap about 12% of the whisky harvest.

Every now and again the angels take pity and give back some of their ill-gotten gains.  There is no fanfare, brass band or big parade involved, no arrival of Air Force One.   No flashing light.   Not even a lighted match.

Something drops into your lap, in the most unlikely and unprepossessing place at the most serendipitous time.

And that Something is frequently unrecognisable as a windfall.

The Back Story

I was looking in a small, out-of-the-way liquor shop I infrequently visit.  I have found a few unusual things there previously so, when I can, I go to look because you never know what might turn up.

There was the usual range of standard bottlings – a Bunnahabhain, a couple of Glenfiddichs, a selection of Johnnie Walkers.   Nothing too spectacular.  Nothing too wildly dramatic.

Then, from a dark and rather dusty corner at the back of the bourbons section my wife reached up for a bottle and said “What’s this?”.

“This” turned out to be one of those ecstatically happy drams that the angels give back – a bottle of Old Potrero 18th-century-style 100% rye whiskey.  The label advised that the contents were “aged in uncharred oak barrels”, which means it ain’t no bourbon!

There is no fanfare, brass band or big parade involved, no arrival of Air Force One.   No flashing light.   Not even a lighted match.

“That’s been there for a few years” was the shop owner’s comment when we took the bottle to the counter.

I would love to know how many years a few was – 10 or more, I suspect.

Old Potrero
What is the provenance of Old Potrero?

Old Potrero is made by the Anchor Distilling Company of San Francisco.  Although there is a heap about the company on the internet, researching just what happened to it over the years is like trying to un-make an omelette.

The company founder, Fritz Maytag, bottled his first Old Potrero rye whiskey at what became Anchor Distilling in 1996.  The Anchor Distilling Company bit is now under Hotalings Ltd.

Old Potrero is 100% malted rye, made in a small copper pot still and matured in lightly toasted oak casks.  In the 18th century, barrels were made by heating the staves over a fire of oak chips, allowing them to be bent and formed into a barrel shape.  During this process, the inside of the barrel would become toasted – but not charred.

The (sadly undated) bottle was labelled Old Potrero Barrel Strength, Pot Distilled.  It contained 750ml, bottled over-proof at 61.6% alcohol by volume (abv), with No Age Statement.    However, output from the current distillery owners seems to indicate maturation time at around 30 months – a bit shorter than Scotland.

The whiskey is a good colour for an arguably short maturity!

Notes – by committee

This bottle was such a find that it seemed reasonable to get some knowledgeable whisky-tasting friends to sample it and give me notes.  To limit preconceptions the samples were provided “blind” – no indication on what they were tasting or its origins.

Notes I received were extremely fulsome.  A very abbreviated summary:

Colour: Burnished, golden.
Nose: Sweet, grainy, floral almond croissants with coconut.  “A newly refurbished cricket changing room”, with putty, heat and caramel.
Palette: Sweet (again), spicy cinnamon and vanilla ice-cream.  Dark chocolate and more vanilla with a liquorice background.
Finish: Starts hot, then mellows to well-balanced.  Beautiful, with a slight woody dryness.  Long and consistent.

Comments:
“One of those almost indescribably fantastic drams that come around only too infrequently! “
“I settled on a score of 8.9 but then upped to 9.1 when I found myself still wanting more, long after I’d finished my sampling and note making!”
My overall comment:  Beautiful. One of the top five whiskies I have tasted.

The final:

The Tasting-Notes-by-Panel plan brought me to the rather eccentric titles and tasting notes found on Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottlings.  The Society bottles single cask whiskies from a wide range of distilleries., and each bottling has a very distinctive name that “tells a story”.

Two titles were suggested to me.  I have to say that they were both so evocative of the Old Potrero that I could not pick between them – so both are presented here for you.

“An innings before teatime”

“Passionfruit topping on vanilla ice-cream”

My grateful to the Tasting Crew (in alphabetical order):  Alec, Brian, Bruce, Evelyn, Graeme, Ian, John S, Karen, Matt, Mel, Pat, Peter, and Talia

Footnote

You can still buy Old Potrero.  It is now made by Hotalings Limited and marketed under the Anchor Distilleries name.  These days it seems to be bottled at 48.5% abv, although I have seen it available at 51%.

Get some!

Collecting Whisky Miniatures

By Pat Phipps

The original purpose of miniature bottles (“minis”) – be they a whisky, a rum, or even a liqueur – was to allow the customer the chance to try an inexpensive sample before buying the full-sized bottle.

Too often overlooked on the shelf in the bottle store, collecting whisky miniatures has been one of my passions for over 30 years.

During my big OE in 1989, among other countries my brother and I ventured to Scotland where we visited Glenturret, Scotland’s oldest working distillery.

A tour of the distillery and a tasting afterwards was the start of my love affair with whisky.

At the distillery shop I bought my first minis – the full range.  I still have them, unopened.

The Glenturret Miniatures

At the time, I thought to myself that surely there can’t be many miniatures around.

How wrong can you be?

The great thing about collecting miniatures is that they don’t take up that much physical space.  Unless of course, like me, you let them!

I recently found a Macallan 1824 series of four miniatures for a cool $2,000 – at $500 for a 50cl bottle, well past my tipping point!   

Over time I have accumulated over 1,000 examples, laid out in display cases to show them off.  Each case is complete with felt backing and a clear poly-carbonate front so that the contents won’t succumb to a passing earthquake.

Pricing

When I first started collecting minis the price was about $2 – 3 each.  But, like just about everything, inflation has got to that and now a mini price is generally north of $10 a unit.  The price of some gems that I’ve bought, I admit, have made me wince and I’ve had to remind myself of their rarity – such as a 40-year-old Glenfarclas at $150.

These days, miniatures are not really provided as samples.  They are aimed squarely at marketing and at collectors.

Minis come in widely varied shapes.  Wild Turkey produce 50cl ceramic turkeys in different poses filled with Bourbon.  St Andrews did ceramic golf bags clad in different tartans; some with gold-plated golf balls to celebrate famous players.

I recently found a Macallan 1824 series of four miniatures for a cool $2,000 – at $500 for a 50cl bottle, well past my tipping point!    Obviously, some distilleries put out these sets purely to go straight for the collectors’ jugular, which I don’t think really meets the original purpose of the miniature.

Collector “Specials”

In my collection I have golf balls, golf bags, barrels, stills and ceramic jugs.  When times were not so Politically Correct, even cigarette companies had offerings made for them: I have a Dunhill Cigarette Company scotch whisky mini in a pot still-shaped bottle.

Another is a Balvenie whisky in a cognac bottle shape which I picked up on a Pacific Island trip.  This bottling shape, sadly, is long gone.

I take great pleasure in finding a mini that comes with a tube or box.  Putting the bottle next to the tube adds a delightful extra dimension to the display.

An entire distillery core bottling range of minis, displayed in line, really makes the labels stand out in a way that you might not notice if you only had one or two.

We know that distilleries change their core range labels from time to time.  A selection of minis of the same bottlings, but with labels from different times, becomes an excellent reference library.

As time goes on and you add new bottlings to existing lines you get a history of how the marketers have tried to get their offerings to stand out. As miniatures usually don’t get opened and consumed, the result is acquiring historical significance as an archive

There is an amazing website for miniature collectors as well.   The site has thousands of images from people who have sent in pictures of their unique collections and once you get past the wow factor – enjoy.

FAKES

Believe it or not, another collecting line are fakes minis.  These come from all sources.

Fake Minis

The first two I purchased from Vanuatu about 20 years ago.  One was a rum, the other a whisky in the loosest of terms.  It was more like neutral spirit with flavouring and imaginative labels such as Captain Cooks No. 1 rum and McBrewsters fine old whisky.

Another source of fakes is Egypt.  Whisky Magazine did an article on fake miniatures a few years ago with mainly Johnnie Walker bottlings being produced.  The writer, possibly wisely, was not anxious at all to taste the products, but was very interested in collecting them.

The labels were badly misspelt so it was easy to spot them as fakes.  Labelling such as John Warder, John Whler and Chefas Rijal were a big clue, although the bottle shapes and label quality were good judging by the photos.

A Minis Display in an Edinburgh Whisky Shop

Next time you are in your favourite spirits shop take a moment to look at the miniatures they have.  There might be something to try for a fraction of the price of a full size one!

The Affordable (and Available) Whisky List

Earlier this year we had an article on whiskies that won’t break your bank.

We observed that over a third of the total advertised drams on offer in the 2020 Dramfest Catalogue were priced below $100 retail.    Note: we didn’t count the ones hidden underneath the tables!

It was interesting that a lot of these “cheaper” offerings were from established mainstream distilleries, were not from start-up operations trying to make a name.

At Dramfest we also put ourselves out to doing some personal research into the quality of some of the less costly whiskies.  We checked them against their more highly-priced cousins and remarked pretty favourably on their quality.

Whisky Books

There are a lot of whisky books that encourage you to try this whisky or that other one.

Sadly many of whiskies they recommend are not available in New Zealand.   And the ones that you can buy can often be too expensive for what they are.

And that started us thinking – why don’t we do some more investigation into the whiskies that may not have seemed “elite” enough to own up to drinking?

The issue of Availability

There are a large number of whiskies available in NZ that deserve to be noticed but that are not at all expensive.  So why not create a list f some of the ones we’ve found as a starter-for-ten guide for others to try?

Stepping out of our comfort zone has been an enriching experience.  Letting your taste buds do the walking may make your whisky world become a fuller colour palette.

One dram well-worth trying is the Loch Lomond 12 year-old.  This won a Platinum at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year.  It also has garnered two Golds and a Silver from other competitions, plus a Gold spirits business award.  That is no mean feat for a 12 year-old!

The Loch Lomond distillery also has an outstanding Single Grain, on show at Dramfest.   Another award-winning dram at San Francisco, it also won the world whisky awards best Scotch grain and a Gold at the Berlin International Spirits Competition 2017.  the Inchmurrin range of whiskies is another product of Loch Lomond distillery.

Non-Scottish

I went out and purchased three bottlings of West Cork Irish whiskey.

Because they were new to the market, I knew nothing about them other than the labels looked pretty cool and the price was right.

West Cork

They were very nice indeed.

With a little assistance I’ve emptied two different bottles already.  Now I only have the blend left – at a whopping 62%, it’s the highest abv blend I have tasted and, much to my surprise, very smooth.

On a whim – because it was distilled in Wellington, South Africa, – I decided to try the Bains single grain.  From the Sedgwick Distillery, this dram is double matured in ex bourbon barrels for five years.  Again, it is a super smooth drop with loads of vanilla. This entry level grain was awarded the world’s Best Grain Whisky at the 2018 World Whisky Awards.  Bains also produce a 15 year-old and three 18 year-olds, currently only available through travel retail.

Blends

Our list includes some really impressive blends.  They have broken the traditional mould for exploring flavour, most made deliberately to be mellow and served over ice.

The first of these is Cutty Sark Prohibition.  This is a healthy 50% abv, and described as full flavoured and complex.  You might well think you’re having a single malt.

Next up is the West Cork blend.  At 62%, the flavour is loads of grapefruit, mouth feel and very smooth.

The Skibbereen Eagle blend took me by surprise.  It is reasonably cheap and from the same distillers as West Cork but has a completely different flavour profile.  It is sweet, with caramel, toffee notes with green fruit, chocolate and cocoa.

Antiquity Blue is a cheap Indian blend at 42.8%.  This was awarded “Silver Best in Class” in the Spirits Tasting competition by the International Wine and Spirit Competition WSWA in 2012.  At its price point it gives many other blended Scotches a run for their money.

So here, in no particular order, are our picks of reasonably priced (NZ$40 to $105) bottlings that are usually available in New Zealand. For convenience the list has been divided into whisky types.

Single Malt, Scottish, Irish and world

Glenlivet 12 year old
West Cork Irish sherry finish
West Cork Irish Port Wood finish
Tomatin 12 Year old
Benriach 12 year old sherry wood finish
Glenlivet Nadurra oloroso cask strength
Loch Lomond 12 year old
Arran Bothy Quarter Cask
Glen Grant 10 year old
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve
Paul John Classic Indian Whisky
Glendronach 8 Year old The Hielan
Bunnahabhain 12 year old
Glen Scotia Double Cask
Inchmurrin Madeira Wood Finish

Single Grain Whisky

Bains Single grain South African Whisky
Teeling Single grain Irish
Loch Lomond Single Grain

Blended Malt Whisky

Wemyss Treacle Chest Blended malt
Wemyss The Hive
Wemyss Family Collection Flaming Feast
Wemyss Family Collection Blooming Gorse
Wemyss Spice King Batch Strength

Blended Whisky (Malt and Grain)

Cutty Sark Prohibition 50%
West Cork Blended cask strength 62%
Skibbereen Eagle Irish
Antiquity Blue Indian

The Singleton

by Pat Phipps

Never heard of The Singleton?

You will.  And if owners Diagio plc have any say in it you will hear a lot more!

Diagio is a British -based multinational beverage company, headquartered in London.   The company operates in over 180 countries and it produces more than 140 sites around the world.

UK£26,400 will get you a taste of “scented hand-cream, rose water and exotic tropical and berry fruit’ notes on the nose, with dried figs and a suggestion of toffee

With whisky brands including Talisker and Lagavulin, Diagio’s aim is to have the Singleton brand at the top of worldwide sales in whisky to rival the likes of Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet.

Side Bar – The Dufftown 53 year old

Recently a cask of a 53-year-old whisky was found at Dufftown.

Laid down in 1964, it is said to be one of those types of casks that was more or less found lying around.

117 bottles at 40.6 % were filled and if you have a spare UK£26,400 lying around you can have a one – at that price, probably just to look at!.

This rather costly bottling forms part of the new Paragon of Time collection.

According to one commentator, your UK£26,400 will get you a taste of “scented hand-cream, rose water and exotic tropical and berry fruit’ notes on the nose, with dried figs and a suggestion of toffee.  Another commentator notes that the finish is very elegant and sweet, and with a slight smoky, ginger spice aftertaste.

Make of that what you will.

For me, though, I’m still trying to get over the £26,000!

So what exactly is The Singleton?  

The Singleton (reputedly Gaelic for “single malt”) is a cover-all brand name for a range of single malts from three Speyside distilleries – Glen Ord, Glendullan and Dufftown.

These three distilleries can each boast great lineage.   Glen Ord was established in 1838, Dufftown in 1895 and Glendullan in 1897.   Both Dufftown and Glendullan have an entry level Non-Aged Statement whisky, and all three distilleries have 12, 15 and 18 years old on offer.

I wanted to check the Singleton whiskies out to see if they were any good and to compare them to their market rivals.  So off I toddled to a local liquor store to purchase two entry level Singletons to try.

My purchases were The Singleton Speycascade and The Singleton Tailfire.  Both are from Dufftown, both non-age statement single malts, both 40% abv.

And both involved the princely outlay of NZ$68 each – another blow for the Whiskies Under $100 crusade!

In line with other distilleries at the entry level, neither has comment on the label about being non chill filtered or coloured.

The Singletons

I have read some mixed reviews of these two drams on other tasting web site.  Overall they have favourable ratings that are similar to most competitors in the field.

The Singleton Speycascade

The label on the bottle describes Speycascade as “Rich Balanced Smooth”.

My notes are:

Colour: medium golden a combination of ex Bourbon and Sherry casks
Nose: green apple, honey and vanilla and leather polish
Palate: soft and oily with mouth feel very smooth
After Taste: Slightly dry and mildly tannic with a short finish

The Singleton Tailfire

The label description comments “Vibrant Fruity Fresh”.

My notes:

Colour: medium Golden a combination of European and American Oak casks
Nose: Fruity, fresh, dark fruits and slight grapefruit
Palate: oily with mouth feel and sweet, slightly thin, fruity
After Taste: sweet and coats the mouth nicely

 Would I buy The Singleton again?

The two entry-level whiskies are completely different to each other.   And I like that.  It gives the consumer (me) the chance to try two very different styles from the same distiller at very competitive pricing. As expected, the Singletons are non-challenging, but they are a good introduction to single malts.

I could easily see myself drinking one after work as a go-to dram – something we all need at some stage or another!

I am looking forward to trying other Singleton whiskies in the future.  A particular interest will be in the age statement expressions to see how they measure up.

QR Codes and Blockchains

Sounds like the title of a 60s’ pop song?

It’s not about pop songs.  It’s about the advances and utilisation of technology.

 

Remember the bottle of Ardnamurchan that I opened during lockdown?

Ardnamurchan has been an innovative distillery since it began production in 2014.  And one of their major innovations has been the adoption of QR codes and blockchains.

At a dinner held in Wellington a while back the Honourable Alex Bruce, MQ, of Adelphi and Ardnamurchan fame talked about blockchain technology that was planning to be put in place around the Ardnamurchan products.  The subject meant very little to me –  pretty much went right over my head.

Hold that thought, and fast-forward to the opening of my bottle of Ardnamurchan.

On the bottom left hand corner of the label is a QR code.

Coronavirus and social distancing has made the QR code quite familiar – the weird little spotty squares that you scan with your cell phone when you have to register for contact tracing at a café these days.

A QR Code

But I don’t remember ever having seen one on a bottle of whisky before.  Especially one that lead to such a fascinating world – the world of the blockchain.

If you thought the production of whisky was a complicated and complex subject, you’ve not met blockchains!  I’m pretty sure that, after 70 years of absorbing information ranging from good to totally useless I no longer have enough brain-space left to get my head completely around how blockchaining works.

Coronavirus has made QR codes quite familiar– the weird little spotty squares that you scan with your cell phone when you have to register for contact tracing at a café.

Forging ahead …

To quote Alexander Pope,

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep , or taste not the Pieran spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Here is a (very) little learning on blockchains.

Blockchain technology was created for the crypto-currency market.  Didn’t help me much, knowing that – bitcoin is an area just as obscure as blockchains themselves.

The general idea is that every single little activity (an ‘event’) that goes into something – in this case, the production of a bottle of whisky – is recorded in order to create an unchanging record.

This record is known as a “trust layer” and, according to Ardnamurchan, is “…creating an unbreakable link with the physical product and the digital data that describes its creation.”.

So, when I used my cell phone to scan the QR code on my bottle I got transported into this netherworld of information.

Ardnamurchan

First to the Ardnamurchan Distillery site, and a page encouragingly headed ‘We found your bottle’ – number 871 of 5,000, bottled by Lewis Hamilton on 2 Oct 2018.

Next I am asked for my name, address & bath-night to prove that I am old enough to be reading about whisky.

I am.

We go to a page headed ‘Your spirit’s production’.

And here the rabbit-hole begins in earnest!

You will have to accept my apology now –  I have never tried to interpret blockchain data before.  So I only hope I am reading the information correctly, and doing it justice.

My bottle seems to be the outcome of three lots of unpeated concerto barley.  The first was supplied by Broomhall Farm in the Mid Mills and Gracewells fields on the 01 Jan 2014, the second and third came from Bairds Inverness on 02 Jan 2015.

Mashing for the production run was managed by Gordon MacKenzie.  There is detail of how many mashes were included in the unpeated spirit for that week, how many kilograms of Anchor Yeast was added to each batch to aid fermentation and the length of fermentation.

Now the juicy bit:

Batch 1 was filled into 1 American oak Oloroso Butt.  Batch 2 went into 17 American oak Pedro Ximenes Octaves, and Batch 3 went into another three PX Octaves.  The casks were moved to the upper floor of the Adelphi Warehouse for maturation.

An absolutely amazing level of information and detail!  When did you ever know that much about what was in your glass – unless you were on the site actually making the stuff?

“… we look forward to seeing how other brands follow suit …”

Ailsa Bay

Pat discovered that the Lowlands Ailsa Bay Distillery has also adopted blockchain technology for a recently-released Travel Retail Only whisky.

William Grant & Sons own Ailsa Bay.  They also own Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Tullamore, Kininvie, and Girvan Grain distilleries.  Unsurprisingly, they are the third largest producer of Scotch whisky.

On the Ailsa Bay website, Dominic Parfitt, head of e-commerce at William Grant & Sons, is quoted as saying: “We’re constantly looking to evolve our offering and learn new things in order to push the boundaries within the drinks industry.

“We’re doing something now that we hope will set the bar for the future experience of spirits, and we look forward to seeing how other brands follow suit as innovation within the industry continues to develop in the next few years.”.

As Ardnamurchan say at the end of all my bottle data:  “Each step of this journey from barley to bottle has been carefully recorded and written to the blockchain as a guarantee of transparency and authenticity”.

Will William Grants stop at blockchaining Ailsa Bay?  I very much doubt it!

So I will be looking forward to seeing more QR codes and blockchain data on my whiskies!

Getting Back to Normal

The restrictions we embraced so willingly during lock-down all those innumerable weeks ago have started being replaced now with “Getting Back To Normal”.

I’m not entirely convinced, though, that I want to quite so quickly replace all of that new “normal” stuff that we found in lock-down.  There were lots of quite positive changes, some of which I have been quite looking forward to keeping in the Brave New World.

I’ve enjoyed looking out of my office (read “spare bedroom”) window at the trees and listening to the tui singing.

I’ve loved a tank of petrol that lasted for five weeks instead of five days.

I’ve enjoyed walking to work each day – all three metres of it, with a coffee in hand – instead of braving unreliable public transport, gridlock, and inexcusably astronomical parking fees.

I’ve greatly enjoyed Zoom whisky tastings with friends of an evening, without the hassle of having to arrange a ride home or pay cab fare.

And I’ve enjoyed “killing off” some of the longer-serving bottles in my whisky cabinet (I think at last count I’d emptied about six).  Some of them I was a bit sad to see go, others not quite so much.

But Nature abhors a vacuum.  When you kill things off – like whisky bottles – their departure creates a vacuum in the cabinet.

And that vacuum needs to be filled.

The obvious filler is new whisky bottles.

As a result. some whiskies have been promoted from the Reserves Bench to the First Team – I was going to say First Fifteen, but I thought that sounded rather pretentious.  Or greedy.   Or suspiciously alcoholic.  Or all three.

Among those that caught my eye for promotion have been a Loch Lomond Inchmurrin Madiera Finish and a G&M Bunnahabbhain  2009 Cask Strength.

But the two standouts have been the Ardnamurchan 2018/AD Limited Release No 03 and an Arran “The Laird’s Quiache”

Ardnamurchan

The tasting notes on the bottle talk about “earthy mango & waxy orange peel, HobNobs and distant Clyde Puffer smoke”.

The bottle has been covered almost head to toe in a matt grey coating which, in the normal course of events, would make it impossible to see just how much remained in the bottle.

The Ardnamurchan, with sight-glass panel.

But a bit of thoughtfulness has added two narrow viewing panels – one on either side of the bottle.  The panels remind me of the sight-glass on an antique car’s radiator cap.  But, most importantly, through these you can see the liquid level against a graduated scale.  Clever!

Casks: Oloroso, PX

ABV: 55.3%

Nose: Silage grassy, with a dusting of cocoa powder.  Peat, sour mash and rock pool marine salt.

Palette: It starts with sweet lollies, then heads straight to smoke with bacon & eggs cooked over an open outdoor fire.

Finish: Eskimo lollies with a slight peat overlay.  The finish is long, with the peaty lollies staying on.

Comment:  Having vicariously watched from the sidelines the genesis of Ardnamurchan over the last few years, I was waiting to be seriously impressed with the whisky.  Initially, though, I found it to be a bit less impressive than I had hoped. and the first two or three drams left a vaguely disappointing feeling.  Almost a let down.

As so often happens, however,  when the level in the bottle drops a dram or two, the whisky seems to improve.  Now, with a third of the bottle gone, it is a whisky I look forward to having another glass of.

Overall, my view is that it is a whisky to have for the experience of having it.

Arran Private Cask, The Laird’s Quaiche.
From Malts of Distinction.

Arran – The Laird’s Quaiche

Age: 11yo, ABV: 53.5%

Cask: Ex-sherry Hogshead.  Bottle no 116 of 305.

Colour: Dark!

Nose: This is a sherry bomb on the nose.  Muscatel raisins, sweet brown sugar and maple syrup.  And to follow for dessert is fresh peaches in an old leather armchair.  This whisky has sooo much nose and so many complex aromas going on.

Palette: Dark almond chocolate and a big hot mouthful with fresh nectarine peel.

Finish: The finish is slightly tannic and drying, but the heat stays. There is a long finish, with the beautiful flavour lingering in the mouth.

Comment: Stunning.  Simply stunning!

However, as so often happens, when the level in the bottle drops a dram or two the flavour seems to improve.  Now, with a third of the bottle gone, it is a whisky to look forward to having another glass of. 

Post script:

The killing-off exercise has engendered some interesting ideas, the most obvious of which is using the tail-end of bottles for a kind of Teapot Whisky.

But my sister, Alex, came up with what I think may be the best one yet – Whisky Jelly.  I haven’t quite figured out yet how it’s going to work, but the basic idea is that you use the last inch or so in the whisky bottles as the liquid section of jelly.

It sounds fun, and I’ll let you know how it pans out!  With luck, the result might go quite nicely with Les’s Damson Plum Gin – the next batch of which, I understand, should be due to make its debut very soon!

Slainte!

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!

 

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