Level 4 Lock-down – Sampling Time!

Want to get creative during lockdown?

I admit that lockdowns come with a whole range of less-than-wonderful side effects:  queuing to get into the supermarket and everyone watching you buy toilet rolls, not being able to get a proper latte, not being allowed out, and rubbish TV programmes (if you don’t count the Paralympics, which are amazing!).

And some of the postings on social media indicates that a lot of people have way too much time on their hands!

But every cloud has a silver lining.  Not having to dress properly for work means less laundry (who needs to wear pants for a Zoom meeting?), no cars on the road and heaps of empty parking spaces.  And a tank of petrol lasts forever!

To top it off, there is the chance to stretch your metaphorical legs and stroll gently through your whisky stocks without having to drive home. Continue reading “Level 4 Lock-down – Sampling Time!”

Divergence: Kiwi-ness in a bottle

Don’t worry about the state of whisky in New Zealand.

True that our “traditional” Scottish-sourced sauce may be a bit harder to come by while the world recovers.

But sometimes when you go digging, you hit a gold seam.  And that seems a good view of the distillery featured in this article.

The Spirits Workshop

The Spirits Workshop began in late 2015 when four whisky lovers got together and bought a small still, curious to develop distinctly New Zealand spirits.

The company describes itself as ”a small batch, craft distillery” in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Canterbury grain is used to make a range of spirits that include quality single malt whiskies, gins and other spirits.

Researching and talking to the company, I have been extremely impressed with what they do and where they look to be headed!

The Spirits Workshop’s whisky brand name is Divergence.  I recommend that you note that name  – I confidently predict it will become a big player the next few years.  And that opinion is reinforced when I look at the mouth-watering expressions they have in the pipeline.

The Process

The whisky spirit is double-distilled in a 500 litre copper pot still with a horizontal lyne arm and a copper shell and tube condenser.

Divergence Pot Still
The Spirits Distillery Post Still & Condensers

The company currently forecasts capacity to make 8,500 litres of barrel-strength new make annually, operating a single shift, five days a week.

The recently drawn NZ Whisky Guidelines and Definitions  have set a two year maturation minimum for NZ Single Malt Whisky.  However, the distillery has opted for a minimum three year period for their range.  And it looks as if some upcoming production may be held in barrels for longer than that.

Other single cask options include aging in ex bourbon casks, ex Australian and Spanish sherry casks,  and ex Portuguese Tawny Port casks

The mainstay whisky is a multi Gold Medal award winning New Zealand Single Malt expression.  It is double pot stilled, fully matured for 3 ½ years in 50 and 100 litre virgin French Oak casks, and bottled at 46% abv.

Divergence Virgin French Oak

I purchased a bottle of this delightful dram – strictly for research purposes, you understand!

My tasting notes are:

Visual: Orange amber, with good legs.
Nose: Sweet and aromatic, soft poached pip fruit (nashi pears?), a light-weight dark chocolate, musty.
Palette: Tongue heat feels a bit harsh at first then quickly mellows out to sweetness.  Well integrated and balanced.  Oaky wood comes through.
Finish: Tannic drying, and the oak wood remanis.
Comment: Good, at the first glass from the bottle.  But this whisky, like a lot of others, benefits from a bit of breathing.
Score: My initial first dram score was 7.5, but improved to 8.5/8.6 a few breaths of air later.

At the time of writing, the distillery also had stock of their Port Wood expression.  This expression is a 46.3% abv, matured in a 100 litre ex-South Australian Tawny Port barrel.

What to look forward to

Company Managing Director, Antony Michalik, says “Our next bottling will be another single cask, cask strength, release of the Sloe Gin Barrel Finished. This time finished in the Sloe Gin barrels for more than 12 months.

“We also have ex NZ Pinot Noir barrels both finishing whisky (which should be ready for bottling in the next 6 – 12 months) and fully aging whisky (which will be at least 2 years away).”

Also in the mix are ex New Zealand Port barrels both finishing and fully aging whisky at the moment. There is a further range of other single cask options aging in ex bourbon casks, ex Australian and Spanish sherry casks, ex Portuguese Tawny Port casks – some of which may be ready for release in the next couple of years and some of which the distillery may choose to age for longer periods.

I am so looking forward to trying these!

Manuka Experiments

The company is determined to put as much “Kiwi-ness” into their product as possible.

Antony talked about some experimenting they had done using native manuka wood to create a more NZ flavour.

“Unfortunately we can’t make barrels from manuka but we have experimented with using charred and toasted manuka chunks. The results have been very pleasant and promising of a potential truly NZ flavour profile.”

“However, the newly developed … rules for NZ Whisky do not allow for the addition of free-floating wood in aging New Zealand Single Malt Whisky so we have to find another way to introduce the Manuka wood contact, which we are working on”, said Antony.

The Spirits Workshop distillery is situated a short walk from the centre of Christchurch CBD, open for tours and tastings Monday to Saturday.

As well as the distillery itself, they also have a small cocktail bar at the Riverside Market right in the CBD where you can enjoy their whiskies as individual drams, in a flight of up to three current expressions or in delicious cocktails.

I’ll see you there!

PS:

As I mentioned earlier, The Spirits Distillery make a range of gins under the Curiosity label.  They use the same pot still but with a different lyne arm and a stainless steel condenser.  There is also a 20-plate copper column used to refine barley malt spirit for the base spirit of two of the Curiosity gins.

I recommend trying the Curiosity Pinot Barrel Sloe.

Curiosity Pinot Barrel Sloe

This gin liqueur is something else!  Taken straight without additives, it is the most delightful Christmas Cake like your grandmother used to make.

And that is why I’m hanging out for the Pinot Noir Divergence whisky!

FootnoteThis article has not been sponsored by The Spirits Workshop in any way – the opinions and views expressed are entirely my own.  However, I would like to acknowledge the support and assistance provided to me by the distillery.  They have been most generous with their time and information, and happy to answer some quite nosey questions.

John

 

 

The Joy of Whisky Tastings

If I had to pick just one thing I have gained from going to whisky tastings, it is Knowledge.  With a capital K.

The people I generally share whisky tastings with are drawn from every imaginable sphere of activity and background.

But the common factor across all of them is the love of whisky.  They like whisky and they know stuff about whisky – whether it’s about production or consumption or anything in between.  And they are totally willing to share what they know, unconditionally and for free.

There is a lot to be learned about whisky – the history, how it’s made, what the various flavours are.  The How, the Where and the Why.  Some people have bits of the knowledge, others have a whole lot. Since I have been going to whisky tastings, the biggest thing I’ve learned is how much there is to learn!  But I have never found any preciousness or pretention about the knowledge or about freely sharing it.

I have learned that it pays to keep your ears open at a whisky tasting.  A tasting is a place where, if you want to learn, plenty will be presented to you.  There will always be something new, such as the effect that different production techniques, equipment, ownership or process will have on the final spirit outcome.

Tastings are the place where, for a relatively low cost, you get to taste some whiskies that would otherwise be unaffordable (or unobtainable!)

It may be that you will find out which drams you prefer and – possibly more importantly – which you don’t.  That knowledge alone can save you a lot of grief, purchasing a whisky which you later discover is not really one you fancy.  I can attest that the system is not universally fool-proof, but it’s better than none at all.

Tastings are also the place where, for a relatively low cost, you get to taste some whiskies that would otherwise be unaffordable (or unobtainable!)

Whisky tastings develop long-term friendships.

Stories of tastings past get told and re-told (and probably enlarged): the tasting where the offerings were so poor that the tasters elected to club funds together, go downstairs to the retail shop and purchase something palatable to share.  Or the bottle where the label read “we have bottled this at 40% so more people can get the benefit of tasting our whisky” – when the first sip of this very substandard dram split into two layers in the mouth, the more prevalent layer being the 60% water content!

How do you know it tastes like licking a cricket bat??

Tasting comments from the floor are insightful, very personal, totally random and frequently indelicate.  As are the comments that they engender from the assembled throng.  “How do you know it tastes like licking a cricket bat??”

The humour is high, and frequently neither politically nor socially correct.  It is insightful, unrelenting, unforgiving and very sharp.  Laughter is the key, sometimes laughing at but more commonly laughing with.

Another by-product of whisky tastings I enjoy is the exchanging of small sample bottles of whisky brought from home to be given to others to try.

Here are a few examples of recent exchanges …

G&M Caol Ila (Islay), from Mel

Cask Strength 57.8% abv.
Bottle 6 of 223
Refill Sherry Butt
Distilled 27 Nov 1988, Bottled 10 Jul 2002 (14 yo)

Colour: Dark Amber
Nose: Dull peat, but not over the top. A matured cow pat.  Alcohol heat comes through (not surprising, given the abv).  A medium-rare steak.
Palette: Alcohol burn, brown & dark, sweeter and with slight smoke.  With reduction, sweeter still & radishes.
Finish: Warming.
Comment: This quite surprised me.  Normally I have found Caol Ilas a bit too earthy and peaty for my preference.  But this one is quite subdued peat-wise and I could get very used to it.  Very yummy.

Score: 8.8

  SMWS 76.126 “Racy Lady, Wearing Leather”.  From Mel
Mortlach, refill bourbon hogshead, 57% abv, no age statement.  Distilled 22 Sep 1987.

Nose: Laundry powder. Alcohol is up, sandsoap and a grassy meadow.
Palette: Alcohol burn, soap, fencing timber and a hot tongue.  A big mouth, sweet and sourish.  No obvious bourbon influence (eg no vanilla note).  Dusty leather.
Finish: Long heat, tannic, dries off and slightly waxy.  Thorax-warming, the pepper mouth stays.
Comment: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society do not reduce the abv of barrels they get – that option is left to the consumer.  This Mortlach could tolerate some reduction to lower the effect of high alcohol and let the flavours through.

Score: 8.4

  Bruichladdich Octomore 8.1.  From Brian

8 years aging in ff American oak bourbon, 167 ppm*, 59.3% abv

Colour: Light
Nose: Smoky, uncooked bacon (with no eggs).  Sweetish.
Palette: Soft and a bit fizzy.  Bacon & black pudding for breakfast, ash & high alcohol
Finish: The smoky bacon lingers on (and on). And on.
Comment: I can sort of understand why people go for this, but it’s considerably too peaty-laden for me.
Score: 7.5

*ppm: Parts Per Million – a measure of the phenols (the “peaty-ness”).

  G&M Mortlach 15yo, 43%.  From Graeme

FF and RF sherry casks

Colour: Amber
Nose: Peaches (stone-fruit peel), sweet sherry, fresh cookies, tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce.
Palette: Leather polish, sourish (oloroso?), not as sherry-sweet as I had expected.  Wood, tannic (drying mouth)
Finish: Fades off early (from the low abv?).  Dark, slight smoke towards the end.  Raisins from a packet.  The sourness stays, although it is not unpleasant.  Warms the throat and chest.
Comment: Totally different from the SMWS Mortlach earlier.  This is nice as a relaxing whisky, without the over-the-top alcohol level.

Score: 8.5

Cragganmore 12yo 58.4%, donated by Thomas (Pat’s tasting notes)

Matured in American oak

Colour: Light
Nose: Coastal, seashore, salty, barbeque plate, sweet bourbon
Palette: peat, sweet & warming, smooth
Finish: Medium
Comment: I could quite happily buy a bottle.

Score: 8.0

Toki (Suntory) 43%, donated by Thomas (Pat’s tasting notes)

‘Toki’ means ‘time’ in Japanese.

Toki is a blended whisky from Suntory’s three distilleries.  Its main components are Hakushu single malt and Chita grain whisky.  This is a round and sweet blend with a refreshing citrus character and a spicy finish.

Colour: Very light
Nose: Soft peach, beeswax polish, honeycomb
Palette: Oily mouth feel, smooth, cherry
Finish: Short, with soft tannin
Comment: A “quaffer”.  Pleasant enough, but not challenging, run-of-the-mill

Score: 7

 

Opportunities Abound – a Glimpse into the Future

Some time ago I commented on the effects that a lack of international travellers would likely be having on the duty-free market.

There is recent estimation that airport passenger traffic dropped nearly 40% in 2020 during lockdowns world-wide.  That is 3.6 billion passengers!  And it is likely that the travel industry will one of the last to return to “normal” – if indeed it ever does.

With the opening of our travel bubble with Australia some of the duty-free markets in NZ will have resumed, albeit to a limited extent.

But I suspect the most limiting factor is now going to be the supply line, especially in the alcohol arena.

The imposed down-turn in duty-free shopping since March 2020 has created some interesting workarounds for the industry.

With the market now gasping for new breath, a goodly part of the stock-holding is no longer there, sold to retail and leaving big spaces in the shelves of duty-free.

The glorious DNS duty-free at Singapore’s Changi Airport has been opened to on-line shopping with free delivery (if you live in Singapore).

In Brisbane, the Brisbane Airport Corporation launched an on-line trading platform called BNE Marketplace.  That allowed duty-free shops to continue trading, even though the airport was closed.  It’s brilliant:  the place is open 24/7 and seems to have the range of stocks that were in Brisbane Duty Free.  Downside is that it only ships to what the Australians define as “Oceania” – just the states and territories of Australia.

And the same approach was in NZ too.

In the concourse of the Auckland Airport domestic terminal, in the little corner shop next to the bar, I spotted a pop-up shop that appeared to contain the contents of the Auckland duty free but with duty added.

These have been really good ideas, effective during assorted lockdowns.

But, with the market now gasping for new breath, a goodly part of the stock-holding is no longer there – it has been sold to retail and leaves big spaces in the shelves of duty-free.

The assumption has to be that distilleries are mashing, distilling, fermenting and  bottling their hearts out trying to catch up

Stock availability

The latest reports from Scotland indicate that things are slowly returning to normal over April.

Businesses are back in business – the pubs and bars and restaurants are up & about and, although information is a bit hard to come by, the assumption has to be that distilleries are mashing, distilling, fermenting and (especially) bottling their hearts out trying to catch up.

A quick discourse on human behaviours.  You’ve been in and out of lockdown (mostly in) since mid 2020, stuck indoors with not a whole lot to do, bored rigid, and trying to entertain screaming kids.  Two things are likely to increase as a result: the birth rate and the consumption of mind-numbing liquids.

The getting of stock levels back to normal will be a long and slow process.

Stocks of whisky are dwindling on shelves around the world.   A recent (and highly unscientific) survey of whisky stock in NZ indicates that your choice of dram here is at least 35-40% down on normal levels.  Given that there has been a severe restriction in the production of whisky over the last 12 months and that there has been heightened consumption through lockdowns, it is my guess that the getting of stock levels back to normal in NZ will be a long and slow process.

Where will production go first?

In the UK super markets there are some very good whiskies available in Waitrose, Marks & Sparks, and Tescos,  But their stocks have been under tremendous pressure in the last six months.

Let’s face it – if you’re producing whisky in Scotland and a UK chain of supermarkets is screaming for stock, are you going to put all your hard-gotten bottles in a container and send them halfway around the world?  Or will you opt to fork-lift them on to a truck and driving them down the road to London?  Economically, really a no-brainer!

And with the US now tariff-free, there’s another place to try to recoup the estimated £500m the Trump years cost the Scottish whisky industry.

So, where is NZ in all this?  And what do we do now?

Local producers

There are suppliers closer to home and now is the time for New Zealand whisky distillers to take the initiative, get their product to market and build their brand awareness within NZ.

In no particular order, there is Cardrona in Central Otago, Thomson Whisky, Canterbury’s Divergence, Kiwi Spirit in Takaka and the Reefton Distilling Co currently claiming to produce whisky.  And I don’t believe that is an exhaustive list!

Other recent local output has come from Stoke Distilling Co in Nelson.

There are some seriously nice drops of whisky emerging from NZ’s West Island

And there is opportunity, too, for some Australian distillers to help.

Fannys Bay maturing room

Aussies may have issues with rugby and cricket skills, but there are some seriously nice drops of whisky emerging from NZ’s West Island – Lark, Fannys Bay, Nant and any one of the other 30-odd Tasmanian operators just for starters.

How about Starward Australian whisky?  They have just released some new expressions and are backed by Diageo as the distillery showed promise.  Judging by what I have tried they aren’t wrong: a particularly interesting offer is their Two-Fold double grain bottling or a batch-numbered Single Malt called Fortis at 50%.

The next year or two might well be very exciting in the New Zealand whisky world!

Les’s Damson Plum Gin, Batch 2, the Lockdown Gin, guaranteed Covid-free.

In November 2019 we brought you the exclusive story of Les’s Damson Plum Gin,  homemade from homegrown damson plums and a couple of bottles of London Dry.

Les – master of the damson plum

The basic, very simple premise is that you put a whole lot of damson plums into a jar.  Then you add the majority of the contents of a bottle of gin and a bit of sugar to taste, screw a lid on the jar and go away for a while.

When you come back, about nine months later, with luck you will have a jar of a ruby-red, plum flavoured gin.

And a whole lot of very gin-flavoured plums that look wrinkly like your skin does when you’ve spent too much time wallowing in a hot bath.  The plums feel like prunes to eat, but they taste way better!

Not much more to it than that, really.

The first batch of Les’s Damson Plum Gin was most successful.

It had a fairly limited circulation.  It was consumed mostly by the manufacturer, his immediate enclave and a few cognoscenti.  To my knowledge most of the batch was used up by these worthies, and only a skerick of the Batch 1 Damson Plum gin remains.  The by-produced gin-infused plums found another lease of life as a foundation for a boozy dessert at a local eating establishment.

The 2020 – LockDown Gin

Now we come to the second tranche.  The 2020 expression.

This has been dubbed the Lockdown Gin.  It was constructed in February 2020, just before the shutters came down on NZ.  It was exposed to air again just after Auckland was released from its second lockdown in October last.

Hence Lockdown Gin.

In the Lockdown Gin, Les has increased the repertoire to three London Dry gins – a Tanqueray 40% abv, a traditional Gordon’s at 37.5% and a repeat of last year’s Greenall’s, also at 37.5%.  To ensure that the relativities between components was maintained, the damson tree in the back yard was called upon for greater productivity.  It obliged.

The decanting of the rubied gin has become quite a ritual, with photographs, note-takers and a range of admiring on -lookers.

The audience awaits!

The audience for the Official Opening of Batch 2 was also enlarged from those present at the first release.  The guest list was increased to three couples who, I am sure. were chosen for their discernment in matters alcohol.  Or possibly for their air of mild inebriation.

Or the lack of it. (the discernment, not the mild inebriation)

The jars of damson gin are carefully aligned with their donor bottle to ensure that there is no confusion as to sauce source – sorry, my American roots sometimes die hard!

Undoing the lid requires determination and strength!

Then begins the painstaking decanting of the liquid and plums into a bowl via a clean muslin filter cloth to keep the plums out of the new gin.  This is, in turn, followed by tipping the bowl’s liquid contents into a sealable bottle – all, meanwhile, being kept with the parent gin to avoid confusion.

Decanting

As with the first batch in 2019, all the new damson gins display a beautiful, stained-glass window ruby red and a flavour predominantly of almonds.

The output:

The output.

Tanqueray:

Nose: sweet, almonds and honey
Palette: almonds and stewed rhubarb, plums but no gin flavour.
Finish: tart. But not unpleasantly so.
Score: 8.5

Gordons:

Nose: lighter almond than the Tanqueray
Palette: tarter, but smoother and well balanced.  The gin taste is apparent.
Finish: Plum in the flavour lingers
Score: 8.7

Greenalls:

Nose: the almond flavour is present, but greatly reduced.
Palette: slightly harsher than the other two.  The plum crumble that your Gran used to make.
Finish: More acerbic and biting.
Score: 8.5

Et voila! The finished products.

There is a school of thought that Les might consider broadening the gin base for batch 3.

Following the success of his first two batches, it would seem fitting to include a wider range of gins – The Botanist from Islay’s Bruichladdich distillery, or perhaps a good NZ gin such as Island from Great Barrier Island or a Reid & Reid.

Les took an unmarked bottle to the annual wine club barbeque on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  It was very popular, especially amongst those who might have wondered where the CleanSkin Rosé came from.

Under the Influencers

Uisge Beath

Not the usual title destined to attract attention.

But Uisge (pronounced “oosh-gae”) Beath was the original Scottish name for whisky.  It is the Scottish Gaelic translation of “acqua vitae” – the Latin phrase meaning Water of Life.

 

Looking back over influences and influencers, my interest in whisky seems almost to have had a pre-determination for interaction with the water of life.

I interest in whisky didn’t really start until my later life, but the influences go back a long way.  So here’s some observations about the influencers.

Aunty

My maiden great-aunt was one of those people generally described as “larger than life”.

To my 10-year-old self she was a tall and imposing woman, of strong opinion and will.  She was also equipped with a booming, authoritarian voice that shook the crockery and brooked no argument.

But she was always very welcoming, of a positive disposition and always happy to see you.

Aunty played golf quite well and drank whisky – also quite well.

Aunty was in the habit of ending a round of golf with rounds of whisky in the 19th hole, then driving home some ten miles in her green Austin A40 Countryman with the wooden trim along the sides and around the rear doors.

This was the “olden” days, when driving under the influence was not as antisocial as it is today.

Austin A40 Shooting Brake

But Aunty’s whisky habit eventually was the demise of the Austin.

One wet & dark evening, after the golf and the whiskies, she and the car met a telephone pole that had interfered with her intended line of travel.  The pole, having previously been the victim of other similar attacks, had been reinforced by strapping a spare length of railway track to it.

Aunty and the Austin hit the pole smack on the car’s hood ornament.

The pole snapped.  Then lowered itself none too gently along the length of the Austin’s geometric centre, starting at the bonnet and ending at the back doors.

Neither the Austin nor Aunty were improved by the experience.  The Austin sadly was terminal.  Aunty was appreciably damaged but fortunately survived, possibly as a result of having been more relaxed.

shortly after she recovered, she had a house built on the eastern side of Waikanae, looking down over the Main Trunk railway line.

My father offered to help her with the interior painting of cupboards and the like, taking me along as “helper” for the lower bits.  My enduring memory of Aunty was arriving, paint-brush in hand, at her house at about 9am on a Sunday morning to be greeted by the booming voice enquiring whether my father would care for a whisky and milk, as she had just finished her first one!

My father declined.

Those of you who know of the brand will know that it was not of a quality to be giving as a gift to anyone who knows anything about whisky.

Grandad

Not my granddad.  Another grandad.

This gentleman was odd.  I don’t remember ever meeting him, but I knew him from photos and the most interesting reputation- some parts of which have gone into family folklore and will likely remain there for years to come.

Grandad was born somewhere around the late 1800s, when things were slightly more rustic than they are now.  His rural lifestyle required that he purchase diesel oil in 44-gallon drums and whisky in cases of two dozen bottles.

Disposing of the empty whisky bottles involved putting them into the empty 44-gallon drums and returning the drum to the supplier.

The Piper

James was a gentleman.

He was a lawyer by profession.  He was exceptionally mild-mannered, and extremely proud of his Scottish and Roman Catholic background.  Apart from the lawyering, he was also very knowledgeable in matters single malt.

Knowing of his interest in whisky, a grateful – if slightly mis-guided – client expressed gratitude by presenting James with a carton of a whisky that was produced in the South Island in the 1960s and 70s.

Those of you who know of the brand will know that it was not of a quality to be giving as a gift to anyone who knows anything about whisky.  It was more of a quality that would encourage anyone interested in taking up whisky drinking to switch to gin.

James’ problem with this gift was several-fold.

He couldn’t return it, as that would be insulting to the donor.

He couldn’t offer it to guests: he knew that you could only offer your best whisky to guests, and this stuff certainly was not in that class!

He couldn’t give it away, as that would be insulting to the recipient.

His very elegant solution?

He drank it.

For Lent.

Footnote:  Aunty’s house in Waikanae had an unrestricted view of a lengthy section of the Main Trunk Railway Line.  From her concrete deck you could see the smoke from the steam trains from the Waikanae River to Peka Peka, and the whole train for the best part of a mile.

I could sit there for hours.

And possibly for days, if I’d been old enough to have whisky.

Slainte.

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 it 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!

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!

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – or Damson in Distress

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

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

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

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

Then damson plum gin hove into view.

Damson Plum Gin

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

In the abbreviated version, the construction is quite simple.

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

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

And sugar.  End of ingredient list.

The Brewing

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

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

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

The Reveal

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

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

The Sorcerer – with Sauce

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

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

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

Considerably.

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

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

The Sorcerer, and Apprentice

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

The left-overs

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

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

The Residue

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

What to with them was a bigger issue.

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

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

To the bottlings

Seagars (NZ) Gin, 37.2% abv

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

Greenalls London Dry Gin, 37.5% abv

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

The Recipe

The Recipe, as downloaded.

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