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.

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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

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.