Going Down The Rabbit Hole

I am a bit concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

Detecting Fake Whiskies

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is one-third of the bottles tested!

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

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

And her article is the start of the rabbit warren.

The Artificial Tongue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s rabbit holes are way better!

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

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

More Fun Links

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

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

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

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

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

The Angel’s Share Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that Something is frequently unrecognisable as a windfall.

The Back Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Potrero
What is the provenance of Old Potrero?

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

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

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

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

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

Notes – by committee

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

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

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

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

The final:

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

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

“An innings before teatime”

“Passionfruit topping on vanilla ice-cream”

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

Footnote

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

Get some!

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.