The Barrel-Maker

photos by Evelyn

“The cooper’s job is the most important part of the whisky industry.  Nae cooper, nae whisky”
Darren Morrison, Cooperage Foreman, Speyside Cooperage, Craigellachie, Scotland

A quick quiz

Q: What are the first three ingredients of whisky?
A: Malt, yeast, and water.

Q: What are the next three ingredients?
A: Distillation, condensation, and maturation.

Very simplistically, maturation is essentially two things: what the spirit is held in, and how long it is held in it for.

And it is maturation that is maybe the most critical stage of getting whisky from paddock to glass.

THE COOPER

`Let me introduce you to Mike Tawse.

Mike Tawse, Master Cooper

Mike is a cooper, a Master Cooper – a man who makes whisky barrels.

Mike is originally from the centre of Speyside in northern Scotland, near Aberlour, and is now the only Master Cooper in New Zealand.

He’s a tall man, strongly built (he looks like he can chuck barrels around – possibly full ones!), softly spoken, and younger than I was expecting.  He followed his father into coopering, completing a four-year workshop-based apprenticeship at Speyside Cooperage (the UK’s largest independent cooperage), located in Craigellachie.  After he completed his time, he spent another five years at the cooperage “doing casks for absolutely everyone”.

Mike and his partner were brought to NZ about 18 months ago by Matt and Celine Johns, the owners of Pokeno Whisky in north Waikato.

In Scotland, by regulation, whisky is matured in oak casks, but as Mike notes, “Matt had the idea of trying some native woods, because it made the spirit 100% New Zealand.  All the (Pokeno Whisky) ingredients come from here.  The only thing left was the cask and that’s basically what brought me over.”

Before he arrived in NZ, the country had not had a qualified practitioner for maybe 30 years.  And the last cooper was reputedly over 90 years old when he retired.

A BRIEF COOPERING HISTORY

Once upon a time each distillery in Scotland pretty much did its own cooperage.

In Britain, the emergence of centralised operations, such as Speyside Cooperage, resulted in the “contracting out” of cooperage services and the subsequent closure of distillery cooperages.

There is a lot of conjecture around the numbers of qualified coopers still working these days, but one thing is certain – a big drop in numbers has brought the trade into the “endangered species” range.

And, as a result, a lot of barrel-stuff may not be getting done.  When he left Speyside Cooperage around 2019 to work in a new cooperage operation, Mike estimates that only about 40% of barrels requiring repair were getting serviced at that stage– the new business “bumped that up” to around 50%, but there are still a lot of casks that sit and don’t get touched.

THE BARRELS

When you go into Mike’s domain at Pokeno Whisky, one of the first things that strikes you is tidiness and order.  Photos and videos from other cooperages have random piles of wood and metal hoops strewn about with seeming gay abandon, narrow cluttered alleyways, in a wet and steamy workshop.

Mike’s workshop is, by comparison, clinically clean and tidy.  The floor is clean, swept concrete and the only piece indicating a working cooperage is a small amount of wood dust and shavings around a barrel that is obviously under construction or repair.

At the back wall is a palette holding a neat pile of timber, each piece about a metre long by 30 mm square, each row stacked tidily crosswise to the row below.

The timber Is swamp kauri.  Mike says, “It was from a local guy who came in and offered us it. He pulled it out of the swamp about 30 years ago.”

I wonder if the fact that the kauri has been swamp-marinating for a long time would made a difference in how it behaved as a barrel timber.

“It could be.”, says Mike.  “It sat for a long time drying as well.  It’s been pulled out, milled, and held in storage.   He wasn’t sure what to do with it.”

After trialling the kauri, Mike made a cask from it.

“It was sort of tracking in the right direction so we thought we’ll try a full cask – a 200-litre one.”  At this stage now, the distillery is waiting to see how it evolves.

“Back home it was just oak. Here you get a chance to work with different material.  It helps to develop your skill as well, knowing how different timbers react.”

As a part of experimenting with NZ native woods, Mike and Pokeno have also done trials with manuka.  However, they discovered that the oils in manuka made the timber too over-powering for whisky maturation.

The Totara Casks
Guess what’s in here

Once the first totara cask barrels were emptied of the whisky, they were refilled – but this time with new spirit.  Mike comments that “we’re trialling it as it goes but, because the spirit is still so young, you’re not getting the taste through yet.”  Pokeno didn’t want to leave the totara casks for a full maturation first time round, as it would be too overpowering.

I express high interest in tasting what the first totara-only maturation will be like.

“It’s the same with us”, agrees Mike.  “We tasted it after the first six months.  It’s new spirit that’s in there and it hasn’t started doing the transition yet.  I mean, very subtle hints of the transition.  We’ll probably try it every six months.”

The totara barrels were not re-charred after the first empty, they were second-filled with the new spirit.

Mike explains that using the casks was “only a finish for the first one.  We’ve not drawn everything out of the casks yet.  It’s more when the cask stops maturing that you’ll rejuvenate the inside.  We might refill it three or four times before they start deteriorating.”

When I asked if making casks of different woods was exciting, Mike said “Back home it was just oak. Even if you were building a new cask, it was just oak.  Here you get a chance to work with different material.  It helps to develop your skill as well, knowing how different timbers react.”

Mike says that the world reaction to the Totara Cask whisky has been very rewarding.  “Not only does it help the brand, but the whisky industry in itself – something new.  Everyone in Scotland – it’s not affecting them, and it gives them something different to try.”

“We’ve not actually tried any more native timbers.  We’ve been looking at doing puriri, but we’ve not done anything with it yet.  It’s just been an idea.”

MAKING THE BARREL
Pokeno Whisky Display Barrel

To the uninitiated, making a barrel is a major!  To the professional it’s maybe a bit easier, but I doubt it.

Mike tells me, “Basically, when I get the wood I’m looking for it to be quarter-sawn, dried down to about 12% moisture.

“I get it just as a rectangular piece of wood, I put six different angles on each individual stave – from the middle to the quarter it’s tapered in, then from the quarter to the end is also tapered in, thus giving you two and then you’ve got to duplicate that on the other side, and then on the front and back of the staves are curved as well to help with the curvature.”

I hope you followed that.  I didn’t!  Even thinking about it now starts a headache.

Mike continues.  “I’ve got my table planer that I work on”, indicating a largish planning machine in the corner of the workshop.  Some samples of timber are near the planer.  “That was New Zealand oak that we were trying working on, but it wasn’t successful.

“We don’t know if it was the correct heart of the tree: that’s what we would look for, as opposed to the sapwood.  This was the same person that supplied us with the totara – “I’ve got oak sitting if you want to try it”.  But it was all milled into boards already and we didn’t know what part of the tree it was.”

THE CRYSTAL BALL

When I ask if he is intending to stay in NZ now, Mike replys “I’ve not really discussed future plans yet.  When I came over I was contracted for two years, but I’ve not made any plans to go home yet.”

I ask if there is opportunity for Mike to train people in New Zealand, starting his own apprentices here.

He replies “We are hoping that we can get to that point, but it will just wait until I’m too busy to do it myself.  We’re hopeful – like, we’ve a few enquiries.  It’s like a waiting game

“With all the distillery services that are opening up, we’re just working our way.  There’s room to grow, and we can grow when they grow – that’s fine.  We’ve done a couple of wine casks for some of the wineries as well.  I mean, a lot of it will come down to when word gets around – once we start doing a couple of jobs for wineries it gets the name out there.”

Mike is also taking the opportunity to learn the whisky production business – and he is a very good learner: he took us for a walk around the distillery, rattling off a huge array of vat and production volumes and timings that made my head spin!

He is in the distillery one day a week “just to keep my skills up in that side of it.  All my training has been done here, I’ve never worked in a distillery up until I came here.  I think because Matt has had 25 years in the whisky industry, it’s like everything we’re doing is going to work almost.”

The aroma is fantastic!

Footnote: the entire distillery is as beautifully neat, clean and tidy as Mike’s workshop – obviously a trait of the distillery.

A PX cask at rest
rabbit holes

When you start looking at barrel-making, there’s an almost endless but delightful set of rabbit holes to wander down.

Here’s just a couple you might enjoy – the first is the skilled, manual way to make barrels by hand.  The presenter is rather taciturn, but amazing to watch – although I think that Health and Safety will have some concerns!

The second – the modern, mechanised way of barrel-making – may explain why coopering as a trade is threatened.  Rather more machine operators than coopers?

Slainte
John

 

The Glory of the Whisky Cabinet

Behold the Whisky Cabinet!

A polished, glass-fronted, back-lit, glorious receptacle of things whisky. And of all things around the edges of whisky.

The ideal whisky cabinet

I don’t know if this resembles yours – I would hope it might, but then again ….

When I talk about my whisky cabinet, I have to say that the term “whisky cabinet” sounds a whole lot grander in concept than in actuality.

In my mind, mine resembles the picture above.

In reality, it’s really a two-shelf, glass-doored cupboard (not back-lit), let into the bookshelf in the lounge. It is solely dedicated to things whisky, and I’m going to count it as My Whisky Cabinet.  So there!

What’s in it?

But appearance is not everything!  More importantly than how the cabinet looks is what it contains.

My cabinet houses my current crop of open bottles, all standing quietly at attention waiting to be picked out for consumption.

Ian’s Care Package has been lurking on the bottom shelf of my whisky cabinet, quietly whispering “Open Me” for some time.

There are five or six Glencairn glasses (what else?).   Some have stems, others are stem-less and with etched reminders of Dramfests past.

There’s a couple of lanyards for dangling the glasses on, which leaves your hands free to write tasting notes or for the wild gesticulation that tends to go with describing whiskies to your fellow consumers.

There are two or three plastic water droppers, kept there for experimentation purposes.

Most importantly, the cabinet holds the prized quaich that my wife gave me for a major birthday.

A small collection of bottled whisky samples that people have kindly given me is also there waiting to be tasted.  A good problem to have!

Ian’s Pirate Cove

Ian convened a “Pirate Cove” tasting.  Of rum-matured whiskies, me hearties.

Circumstance – and a steep flight of stairs – sadly kept me from the event itself.  However, Ian, being the thoughtful and generous soul that he is, sent me a Care Package of the highlights.

Do you remember me telling you that I (fortunately temporarily) lost my senses of smell and taste?  Timing is everything!

That terrible event coincided with the arrival of Ian’s Care Package of celebrated whisky samples from the Pirate Cove.

Such a Care Package obviously requires ones full concentration.  And full faculties!  Which is why I haven’t written about the contents of the Package until now.

The Care Package has been lurking on the bottom shelf of my whisky cabinet, quietly whispering “Open Me” for some time.

And, from my point of view, the “some time” has been well worth the wait!

Now, I didn’t know much about rum casked or rum-finished whisky.

I still don’t know much about them, but I have definitely added “Like Them” to my knowledge base.

Some Pirate Cove Whiskies
Ardmore 12yo Dun Bheagan

St. Etienne Rum Casks

ABV 58.6%, Age 12, Distilled 2002, Bottled 2014.

Nose: Raisins, Rum & Raisin chocolate, sweet and sherry-ish. Very dusty oak dust.
Palate: Hot!! (alcohol), sweet yet tannic.  Drying. Wide mouthed and oily.  The initial heat dies quickly to leave an oily, soapy feel and taste.  A second sip reinforces first impression, although the tongue heat stays.
Finish: soapy (not entirely unpleasant, but not great either).
Comment: Good, but not spectacular.

Auchentoshen 18 yo Caidenhead

Barbados Rum Cask

ABV 55%.  Distilled 1999, Bottled 2017

Nose: Bourbon?  Rich, brown, caramel.  “High-powered” vanilla ice cream, fruit cake and raisins.  A slight note, strangely reminiscent of new welding.
Palate: Hot and slight peat and maritime flavour (that wasn’t obvious on the nose!).  The underlying sweetness gets stronger and masks the peat.   Well integrated.
Finish: Sourish, peat lingers with throat heat.
Comment: Nice, very nice.  The peatiness jars against my sweet preference, but that’s ok.

Aultmore 11yo Caidenhead

ABV 64.1%  Distilled 2010, bottled 2021

Belize Rum Barrel

Nose: Bacon and sweetness. A note of slightly “off” ham.  Alcohol on the nose.
Palate: Serious peat, serious heat.  Throat-warming, an incongruous thinnish mouth-feel, then tongue heat. Sweet peat.
Finish: Peat lasts well into the distance!
Comment: Not my favourite style, but still a good whisky.  Peat stays.

Springbank 15yo

ABV 51%. Distilled 2003, bottled 2019

Rum Barrels

Eye: It looks a bit watery.  There are some legs but not much.
Nose: Bacon and pea soup at the seaside, peaty (not greatly so, but still obvious).  Alcohol and a bourbon-y note come later when a sweeter note emerges.
Palate: Wide mouth, hot, sweet and peaty (well integrated).  The peat starts to dominate.  Sour, with tannic tongue.  A second sip is sweeter, less peaty.
Finish: Fades off quite quickly.
Comment: Quite a nice dram.

Many thanks for these, Ian!

Some other tastings that happened my way ….
Benriach Single Malt Scotch Whisky

(from Pat’s stock)

ABV 46%, 22 yo

Moscatel Wood Finish

Colour: Dark with a distinct red tinge
Nose: Alcohol, Muscat raisins (not surprising, given the parent barrel!).  Sweet, fruit cake, a sour edge but acceptable.
Palate: Varnish, Oil putty, sweet and oily.  A bit of alcohol burn with bananas in a sugar icing.
Finish: Low-level warmth, gentle.  Tannin understated.
Comment: I would take one, happily.

Glenallachie 12 (Billy Walker vintage) 

Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky

ABV 46%, Age 12, NC2

Nose: Sherry, ripe apricots/stone fruit, a sugar sack with sultanas and faint strawberries.  Chocolate, golden syrup, orange zest and dates
Palate: Beautifully balanced, a bit of tongue heat but not too much.  Sweet Madeira fruit cake.
Finish: Sweetness and sherry
Comment: Typically excellent Billy Walker whisky.

 

Slainte

John

COMING OF AGE – QUALITY AND INNOVATION

Some whiskies stick in my mind.

Some of them stick under a sub-heading of “To Be Avoided”, others stick because they are so good, unusual, rare or innovative.

Pokeno Totara Cask

I recently introduced you to The Pokeno Whisky Company’s Totara Cask whisky, a dram that met me quite by accident at the Kismet Cocktail and Whisky Bar in Nelson.

The Totara Cask sticks in my mind because of all my “best” boxes it ticks.

It’s a capital G good whisky, borne out by a Silver Medal at the 2024 World Whisky Awards.

It’s unusual because I’ll bet you’ve never had a whisky matured in Totara before.

It’s rare because it is out of stock – at least for the moment.

And, beyond all doubt, it is the outcome of total innovation!

The Pokeno Whisky Company

The Pokeno Whisky Company in South Auckland, is owned by Matt and Celine Johns.

Prior to coming to New Zealand, Matt had been in the global whisky industry for over 25 years.  A lot of this was in Scotland, where he was involved in running some leading distilleries.

They started building the distillery in 2018, with production starting the next year.

The distillery’s current operating capacity is 80,000 litres pa, but this is scheduled to increase in 2025.

“It is clearly very different from a traditional oak barrel maturation, so may shock a traditional whisky consumer to some extent”

Pokeno Product Range

Pokeno Whisky has three strands of whisky product.

The first is a core range of three expressions:

    • Origin: a 43% abv matured in first-fill bourbon casks,
    • Discovery: 43% abv from first fill bourbon, oloroso and PX casks (my tasting notes below), and
    • Revelation: again 43% abv, matured in first fill bourbon & NZ Red Wine casks).

Next rung up is the Exploration series, a range of unique and innovative single malts (of which the Totara Cask whisky was one until stocks ran out).

The last strand encompasses the Pokeno Single Cask expressions.  These drams can only be purchased online from the Distillery Shop.

When I asked if there were plans to extend the core range, Matt said, “For the time being we are focusing on the three products in the core range”.

He adds that it is important to not have too many varieties to sell, as it is difficult to get enough retailer shelf space if the range is too big.

“For the Exploration series we are experimenting with other native woods, and so there could be more editions here in the future.    We regularly bring out single casks and we have some very cool stuff coming out this year, including more of our Prohibition Porter which is a collaboration with Liberty Brewing and already is a bit of a cult product after the first editions last year.”

The Pokeno Whisky Company also has New Zealand’s only working Cooperage, where Cooper, Mike Tawse, makes the Distillery’s casks out of native wood.  All the Distillery’s first fill bourbon casks come from the US, while sherry casks are sourced from Spain.

Totara Cask Whisky

Mike handcrafted what are the world’s first-ever 200-litre totara barrels for maturing whisky, and has given them a light toast and a light char.  Totara is naturally hard and straight-grained, with very sweet and creamy notes when toasted.

Mike Tawse with a Totara Cask

After a full three to three-and-a-half years’ maturation in first-fill bourbon casks, Pokeno transferred the whisky to the Totara barrels for a second maturation period of around six months.

Matt comments “We did not want to leave it longer than that as the Totara casks are virgin wood, and the danger was that we would take too much from the barrel.  Once they have been used for a finishing, we then fill the totara barrels with new make for a full maturation.”

Distribution

The first edition of Pokeno Whisky’s innovative Totara Cask Single Malt Whisky totalled 1,900 bottles.

Distribution of the output went into ten international markets – mainly France, the US, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.  It has also just gone into Duty Free at Auckland.

Matt says that reaction to the Totara Cask Malt Whisky has been really good.  It won a silver medal at the 2024 World Whisky Awards, which Matt (modestly) feels was positive.

“It is clearly very different from a traditional oak barrel maturation, so may shock a traditional whisky consumer to some extent”, he says.   “Generally, people have been very interested though and genuinely appreciate what is a real Kiwi product!”

 Packaging/Presentation

When you get most whiskies home, you take the bottle out of the tube, maybe read the blurb while you have your first taste, and then the tube goes in the rubbish.

Not so the Pokeno Exploration series.  It’s definitely a Keeper!

Each of the series arrives encased in a box that is the most outstanding, mind-blowing presentation I can recall in a lot of years of buying whiskies.

To access the box’s contents, the top half of the box lifts off to reveal an artwork that tells the story of the product.

                    

Matt comments, “As the Exploration series is our range of creative and innovative single malts, we needed to make sure that the packaging reflected this.  We worked on the concept for the box with a specialised packaging company – Think Packaging – and the design was done by Ben Galbraith, who does all of our design work.  This concept will continue with all of the products in this range.”

Pokeno is experimenting with other native wood casks at the moment

Pokeno Discovery   (John’s tasting notes)

ABV: 43%

Casks: Fully matured in first-fill bourbon, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez Casks. Then laid these back down in cask to allow them to marry.

Colour: Dark Gold
Nose: Vinous, stewed fruit and a Dessert Wine.
Palate: Smooth and rich, throat-warming.  Notes of a quality brandy sauce, with tongue heat and dark chocolate.
Finish: A bit peppery, sherry
Comment: Great! Throat heat increases with intake.  A very drinkable dram, indeed.

Totara Cask   (combined tasting notes from John & Pat)

ABV: 46%

Colour: Lightish gold
Nose: An initial very slight Airfix glue note, quickly followed by light bourbon. Crisp, clean, and sweet, like you’ve just bitten into a Royal Gala apple.  Slight vinous (a sweet sauterne).  Reminiscent of the Champagne Ardnamurchan.  Chocolate & passion-fruit.
Palate: Sweet, hot on front of tongue (Pat: “A summer whisky”).  Oily.  A lot of mouth feel, peaches and then more peaches. Tannic but not drying.
Finish: The peaches taste on the front of my tongue stays on.
Comment: This whisky grows on you.  It is a seriously nice dram, with stone fruit, peaches and more peaches.  Pat’s lasting comment: a whisky that I will remember forever.

Summary

If what NZ distilleries such as Pokeno Whisky are doing, the product they are producing and the results and recognition being received are any indication, I think it’s totally reasonable to say that NZ Whisky has come of age.

For me, the Pokeno Whisky Totara Cask is an amazing whisky.  The experience lasts for its full length, right from presentation to drinking.  Personally, I am waiting on the edge of my seat for the next iteration of whisky fully matured in totara to emerge.  Mike also says that Pokeno is experimenting with other native wood casks at the moment.  These are still at the trial stage, as they work to find other woods which interact with the spirit in the way the distillery wants.

I think that what we consumers have to look forward to is a very exciting future!

Footnote:

This article has not been sponsored by The Pokeno Whisky Company 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 owner, Matt Johns.  Matt has been most generous with his time and information, and happy to answer some quite nosey questions.

John

Kismet – And Then Some!

Oh, what a magnificent treat!

On several levels.

Suspecting that I have a interest in things whisky (I don’t know where he got that idea), my Nelson-resident cousin has been telling me for some years about a whisky bar in the city.

A couple of weeks back, my wife and I went to stay for a few days with him and his wife.  Late on the first afternoon we all made a sort of snap decision to go and see the bar.

I finally got to experience the whisky bar.  I was going to say “visit”, but the word visit is very inadequate to describe going to Kismet Cocktail and Whisky Bar.  It is way more than just a visit!

Kismet

Opened around Christmas 2018, the bar is situated about 250m from Trafalgar St, Nelson’s main shopping street.  Owner Nick Widley says that the site was selected so as to not be just another main-street drinking establishment.

Bearing in mind that Nelson is largely a tourist town, Nick aims to provide a welcoming place that people could seek out, rather than just trip over.

Kismet has one of the largest ranges of open whiskies I have ever seen in one place (and I include the Bowmore Hotel on Islay). 

Entering the premises, the first thing that struck me was the huge display of bottle-laden shelving behind the bar.

The First Impression

It is enormous!  Five shelves high and so tall that a nine-runged moveable wood ladder is permanently there to enable staff to reach stock on the upper shelves!

Wooden tables with comfortable chairs occupy the space directly in front of the bar.  Further back is a selection of those magnificent, sumptuously deep leather couches and chairs always pictured in the better Gentlemen’s Clubs.

Sumptuous Leather Couches

I am going to get a bit one-eyed here.  Please excuse me if I gloss over the impressive selection of cocktails on the menu and just concentrate on the whiskies offered.  This is a whisky blog, after all.

Kismet has one of the largest ranges of open whiskies I have ever seen in one place (and I include the Bowmore Hotel on Islay).  The choice currently stands at more than 340 open bottles from a wide variety of countries.  Scotland (obviously), other parts of the UK and Ireland, and Japan feature heavily.  The bar also has the distinction of being an Ardbeg Ambassador (32 of the open bottles are from there) and holds a large stock of peated drams.

But the one thing I found most impressive at Kismet was the very wide range of New Zealand whiskies.

New Zealand Whiskies

Drams from Cardrona, Pokeno, and Waiheke Island distilleries abound.  One of Nick’s aims is to showcase NZ whiskies to whisky-drinking tourists, taking the view that NZ whiskies are totally comparable to the best from other countries.  I am certainly not going to argue against that!

Looking through the menu, and playing “eeny-meeny-miny-moe” to try and find the best from the dizzying range available, Nick suggested a Tamdhu Batch 7.  I’ve not tried this before, so I went with his recommendation – a great choice it was, too.

Tamdhu Batch Strength 007

57.5% abv
Nose: Oloroso sherry and smoke.
Palate: A lot of alcohol, sweet, more oloroso sherry and citrus. A strong fruit cake.
Finish: Medium +, but not quite as long as I might have expected.
Comment:  Descended from the gold 6th edition.  Look for some more of this.
Score: 8.7

Surprise!

Then I had a massive surprise sprung on me from the most unlikely place!

At the last Dramfest, I had heard that some cask experimentation was mooted.  But I was certainly not aware that it had come to fruition.

We were chatting about NZ whiskies and particularly the activity at Pokeno Distillery.  Nick happened to ask if I had tried the Pokeno Totara Cask.  No, I had not had that pleasure.  And, yes, it does exist!

Nick then very kindly offered me a taste from a bottle he had.  And what an experience that was!

That’s a huge vote of thanks, Nick!

Pokeno Totara Cask

Pokeno Totara Cask

46% abv.

Colour: Light gold
Nose: Roses chocolates, sweet and spicy with ripe stone fruit.  A lovely nose.
Palate: Initial tongue heat and spice.  Dark chocolate notes continue.
Finish: tongue heat stays, as does the stone fruit taste.
Comment: This needs a whole lot of further investigation.  And tasting!

 

Very sadly, the distillery is now reporting it out of stock,

Things to do in Nelson

I know the travel advisory websites will give you lists of stuff to do.  But if you want a phenomenal whisky (and/or cocktail!) experience in Nelson, take yourself to Kismet Cocktail and Whisky Bar.

And if you need a reason to go to Nelson, Kismet is also one of the best reasons you will find!

Please make sure you introduce yourself to Nick.

A visit to the East – Suntory and Qinghau

The House of Suntory – The Nature and Spirit of Japan

Despite an obvious preference for single malts, and usually those of a Scottish persuasion, we have talked previously about the tremendous talents of whisky blenders.  And it doesn’t matter what part of the world they operate in – that they can combine very different component whiskies into great blends demonstrates amazing skill.

Pat recently attended a Japanese whisky master-class.

Under the impression that he was going to a tasting of the range of Japanese whiskies on sale.  Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that he was attending a very informative presentation on Hibiki whisky and the components that go into the various versions of Suntory’s Hibiki blends.

Suntory Samples

The Japanese multinational brewing and distilling company group, Suntory Holdings Ltd, was first established in 1923.  The company now turns out more than 50 whiskies, including the flagship offerings of The Yamazaki single malt and the popular leading blend range, Hibiki.

Contributing Distilleries

Suntory comprises five separate distilleries – Yamazaki in Kyoto, Hakushu, Chita, Osaka, and Osumi.  Hibiki Japanese Harmony Blend is made from key components from the Yamazki, Chita and Hakush distilleries.

Five of the six whiskies presented at the tasting are exclusive to Suntory’s blending process.  The whiskies normally never leave the distillery, so it is a great rarity to try them.  All of the drams were 50% abv, natural colour and non-chill filtered.

The first whisky to taste was a white oak cask offering from the Yamazaki distillery.  Golden yellow colour.  On the nose, wetness, sweet, bourbon and apricot.  Palate is clean, mushroom, dry at the end with tannins.

Second was a Chita heavy double distilled.  This is a grain whisky showing sherry, golden syrup, wood chips on the nose, a clean taste, tannic and sweet.

Third, a Chita French red wine cask.  On the nose smooth, slight bicycle rubber, sweet, a palate of mushroom, and light tannin.

Fourth,  a heavy peated from Hakushu.  On the nose there is blue cheese, peat, sweet, bacon.  Taste is sweet, salty, tannin, pepper like a Kilkerrin heavy peated and tons of character.

Fifth was a Yamazaki Minzunara cask, on the nose sweet, red fruits, cherries and wine gums,.  Palate: dry, vaguely sweet and mushroomy,

And then the final product –  the Hibiki Japanese Harmony at 43%,  super smooth and refined

This was indeed a very special tasting.  The Wellington Suntory rep, Rory Donnelly, was extremely knowledgeable of the history and processes of Suntory whisky.  He did the presentation without benefit of screen or notes to refer to and was passionate about the product he sells.

For translation …

In my opinion, it is a very great shame that the component drams aren’t bottled separately – each one had plenty of character to be a stand-alone whisky.

Qinghau Fenjiu

Qinghau Fenjiu presents as a whisky.

The box looks like a whisky, the bottle looks like an upmarket whisky bottle.  It smells like a whisky ….

And that’s really where any similarity ends.

My son was taken by my daughter-in-law elect ( my apologies to W.S. Gilbert and The Mikado) to meet her parents in Shanghai.  On their way back to NZ they purchased  a bottle of Qinghau Fenjiu from DutyFree  at Shanghai airport for me to try, as you rightly should.

There is just one less-than-helpful factor – all the information is in Mandarin!

One out of the Box

Qinghau Fenjiu has a very striking visual presentation.

Qinghau Fenjiu – a beautiful presentation

A reflective electric blue box, contains a tactile ceramic bottle with brush-sweep decoration in the same electric blue.

As with Scottish malts, the box has a lot of product detail information written on it.

There is just one less-than-helpful factor – all the information is written in Mandarin!

Non-speakers can find an isolated bit that says “53%”. which the discerning  rightly assume is the percentage abv.  Also, a number “20” in big print subsequently proves to be the matured age.

Getting at it – an exercise in frustration

Opening the box to release its contents is an exercise that escalates through ingenuity and frustration to tantrum and brute force: pretty much in that order and mostly brute force.  To plagiarise the American poet, Ogden Nash, the total exercise and the outcome is reminiscent of a lioness opening up an antelope – although I doubt that lionesses use that much bad language getting at their lunch.  The task was not aided by the resident Mandarin-translating daughter-in-law elect missing the bit of very small calligraphy that translated as “Open Here”.

Who knew?

The Contents

After all the trials of getting to the damned thing, opening the bottle and having a drink to calm the spirit had become a necessity!

But hang on.  This stuff looks more like Japanese saké than whisky.  It’s as clear as mountain spring water.  But the nose is something else entirely: grassy, sweet honey, chocolate powder, apples, pears, greengages, and feet.  With enough alcohol content to eat its way out of the side of the glass.

Take a sip and hold it in your mouth for the requisite 20 seconds.

When your eyes have stopped watering from the massive alcohol hit, sufficiently to allow logic to be applied to what you’ve just swallowed, the honey notes continue into the palate.  The heat mercifully fades a bit to leave a sweet, strong honey flavour, and a slightly oil-coated mouth and tongue.

For a very long time!

What a drop!  If I was to whisky-score it, it would have to be a straight-up 9.5.  Magnificent!

Background Research

Qinghau Fenjiu is not whisky.  It is a colourless liquor – known in China as baijiu .

If baijiu is not something you have previously experienced, here’s a bit of background research done after my world had returned to a more level keel.

Baijiu is the most-consumed hard liquor on the planet (north of US$95 billion worth in 2022).  The global market size of whisky for the same period was US$64 billion.  It reportedly can turn an innocuous game of Mah Jong into an hilarious blood sport!

The Fenjiu baijiu is a grain drink, made from organic sorgum.  It is the oldest baijiu in China, with a history reportedly dating back 6,000 years.  It is double fermented, with corn husks added to the fermented grain, and a long maturation in ceramic pots (which explains the clear colour – no wood contact).

Solid State Fermentation & Ceramic Maturation

Baijiu relies on a “solid state” fermentation.

Unlike whisky, a liquid is not boiled in a still and the vapour re-condensed.  Rather, yoghurt-like bricks of wet rice or sorghum are heated in a still so that the alcohol vapourises.

The resulting liquid is then matured in ceramic jars that allow micro-oxygenation of the spirit and impurities removal, all without adding flavour or colour.

A Little Lie-Down

If you haven’t already been on the receiving end of baijui, I can strongly recommend you lay your hands on some to try.  You may also want to check that you are handy to somewhere to have a little lie-down afterwards.

A little lie-down

As a result of the experience, my opinion of Chinese bravery has increased considerably!

Lost it – and getting it back

It’s an age thing, apparently.

I started losing things.

“Losing it” started small – my hair, what day of the week it was, knowing why I’d come into a room, my eyesight (never really been that good), hearing, the keys, my memory and my temper.

Then the losses spread to my balance, what direction I was headed in, reality and – some have been overheard to say – good taste.

But losing things recently took a huge turn for the worst!

Looking Down In The Mouth

It started when I wanted to write to you about a particular whisky I was going to taste.

I poured it out and, in the best tradition, took a big nose-full to check it out.

Strange!  I was expecting much more nose presence than than I am getting, but the nose is almost non-existent.  Water?  Odd for a high-end, high abv whisky to have no aroma at all.

Her weapon of choice has a cotton bud at the business end which she proceeds to shove up my nostrils

Now I come to think about it, food hasn’t had a whole lot of taste recently.  I wonder …….

What have I got that has a strong smell that I would recognise?  I go and pour a couple of drops of my wife’s Lavender Essential Oil into the palm of my hand and take a big sniff.

Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch and Zero.

My nose has gone on strike!

And so have all the taste buds.  Out to lunch – a totally flavour-free, rather boring lunch!  My sense of smell and taste have left the room.  Totally.

To test or not to test

Fortunately I don’t have the dreaded sore throat.  Three home Covid RATs over the next 24 hours are all negative.

These are followed by an ocean-going Covid test at the doctor’s.

Coming for you!

The nice nurse lady wipes an unnecessarily long stick around inside my mouth.  Her weapon of choice has a cotton bud at the business end which she then shoves so far up my nostrils that I’m sure I can feel a small bump the back of my head.

Now I understand the stick’s length.  It’s so she’s got a little bit to hold on to and she can get it back!

And my eyes are watering enough to make the world appear to be viewed through rained-on window pane.

Again, this test is negative too.

Turns out the no smelling/tasting is the result of a sinus infection,  That’s shelved for a while the plan to make whisky tasting an enjoyable passtime!

A Tasteless Joke

Having no taste sensation is really no joke, but it’s funny the way my mind plays tricks on me; not so much with smells, but certainly with tastes.  Like the sporting muscle-memory, taste seems somehow to be attached to my awareness of what I’m eating: for example, bacon has no discernible taste at the moment.  But I know from life experience how bacon should taste, so in my mind this tasteless bacon has a bacon taste to it.

Generally speaking though, all food has no identifiable taste.  There’s only sensation – the sensation of eating polystyrene.  When all the food feels like polystyrene, it tastes like polystyrene.   Breakfast feels like polystyrene, so does morning tea, lunch, dinner, between meal snacks.  Sometimes the food crunches, sometimes it’s soft and pliable.  But it’s till universally polystyrene,

And when any liquid tastes like water, I may as well drink water.  Sometimes heated and called coffee

Getting it back

My wife’s immediate answer  is a course of her garlic-and-horseradish-and-liquorice-and-vitamin-C tablets.  Daily.

The good side to losing my taste is that I can’t taste garlic-and-horseradish-and-liquor-and-vitamin-C tablets.  Believe me, that’s a blessing.

Another good side is that the tablets are gradually making me better.

As I start to get better, though, the bad news is that I can start to taste the garlic-and-horseradish-and-liquor-and-vitamin-C tablets.  Not quite such a blessing, there!

The good news is that, at the time of writing, the polystyrene is fading.  Smell and taste are slowly returning.  At this late stage there’s not much I can do about the other losses, but there is whisky to look forward to!

Some Tastings

These notes were made before my senses of smell and taste departed (well, smell anyway.  My taste has always been a matter of opinion).

Douglas Laing’s Provenance

From Benrinnes Distillery

Provenance

Alcohol By Volume (ABV): 46%,  Age: 12 yo, (distilled 7/07, bottled 2/22)

Colour: Light Amber, Non-coloured and non-chill filtered  (NC2)
Nose: Raw green beans and fainted fried eggs, old rusty tin can, a “low voltage” nose (not much action), brown toast.
Palate: Heat, Black peppercorns, sweet, nutty, cloves.  Sours.
Finish: Hot pepper stays around mouth edges.  Bitter, but no tannin.
Length: Medium/long
Comment: Simple but pleasurable.  You can’t go past a Benrinnes!

Craigellachie
Craigellachie

A Speyside dram

ABV: 46%, age 13 yo
Colour: Dark Amber
Nose: Wood on a hot summers day, dried fruit peel.  Mouth-watering and makes me want to drink it.
Palate: Soft, smooth.  Well integrated, sweetens.
Finish: An oily finish on lips and tongue.  The taste drifts away.  Very drinkable dram, but it doesn’t stay around long.
Comment: Session whisky.  Dangerous – I could drink too much quite quickly.

Glencadam Reserva
Glencadam Reserva

Andalucia single malt (Andalucia is an orange-growing area of Spain) (sample supplied by Pat)

ABV: 46%, no age statement, NC2.
Colour: gold
Casks: Oloroso & Bourbon, then oloroso finish.
Nose: Oloroso sourness.  Citrus peel and golden syrup.  An astringent note.
Palette: Heat in the middle of tongue.  Sour oloroso.  I keep wanting to go back and re-nose it.
Finish: Drops off quite quickly.
Comment: A quaffable dram.

Tamdhu First Edition

ABV: 59.9%, Age: 14 yo,  Single Cask Sherry Butt

Colour: Dark Gold.  Hangs on to the glass, light legs.
Nose: Rich, nose prickle, Sweet sherry, Manuka honey.  Cloves!!  Fruit steamed pudding.  Gorgeous nose!
Palate: Soft and hot, The cloves cut in, and the initial tongue heat settles.  There is a slight dirtiness in first sip.  A wee bit tannic later and a bit white peppery.
Finish: Heat & dry tongue stays.  Clove flavour overlay, but nice.
Comment: where can I get this?? Love it!

Bendromach 15

ABV: 43%,  Age: 15yo.

Colour: Light gold.
Nose: Sherry, medical (bandages), sweet.  Oak sawdust.
Palate: Smooth, peat (that was not expected!), tannic.
Finish:: First peat taste dies quickly, at the second sip it stays!
Comment: The peat starts to over-ride, with nothing to ease it.

Slainte!

 

 

Eight Australian Whiskies – and Price-point Scoring

According to the inter-web, there are currently 120 whisky distilleries in Australia.

And 80 of them are in Tasmania – which is a lot more than the 31 I had heard of about 10 years ago.

As an obvious consequence of this number of manufacturers, stocks of Aussie drams are starting to be more available on NZ shelves.  Like any whisky selection some of them are good, some less so.  And some are attractively priced while others suffer under the weight of transport costs – or maybe delusions of grandeur as to worth.

I recently attended a promotional tasting of a selection of Australian whiskies held at Glengarry Wines in Wellington, hosted by Aroha Jakicevich.

Aroha.

There were eight samples on offer: three from Victoria’s Port Melbourne Starward Distillery, three from Tasmania’s Callington Mill and the last two from Overeem Distilleries (also Tasmanian)

The line-up (photo courtesy of Pat)                                         
Glass 1:  Starward Nova

41% ABV, No age statement, but probably 3-4 yrs. Non-coloured and non-chill filtered, Red Wine cask from Yarra and Barossa valleys.  Fermented with brewers’ yeast.

Nose: Poached fruit, ripe bananas and a slight sour edge – possibly influence from the red wine cask. Madeira cake with lemon-tinted icing, spicy.  Buttery.
Palate: Soft, then sweet, then a hot edge.  A peppery note.
Finish: Peppery, with heat at the back of the throat.
Comment: Quite nice.  The peppery notes are not off-putting.  A Nova-based “cocktail” with bitter lemonade was served as a welcoming drink – a good choice.
Score: 8.4  

Glass 2: Starward Fortis

50% ABV, nas.  American Oak casks from Barossa Valley wineries

Eye: Dark, and somewhat watery.
Nose: Vanilla and brown toast.  Sweeter than Nova, with a light perfume and an overlay of, Muscatel raisins, cocoa dust, sawdust and dark chocolate.
Palate: Smooth, then a short burst of ABV heat on the centre of the tongue with sweetness and spice.
Finish:  That spicy sweetness sticks around.
Comment: perhaps the best of the presented range.
Score: 8.8 

Glass 3: Starward Unpeated Single Malt

48% ABV

Nose: Light, surgical and rich, with pickled gherkins.
Palate: Sweet, then peaty going to vegetal.  A bit of heat, and faintly drying on the tongue.
Finish: Peaty.
Comment: It is interesting that this dram is titled “Unpeated Single Malt”.  Why would you say that? it’s a bit like saying this pie doesn’t have gravy in it.

The mystery is explained when you discover that this Australian malt is matured in Islay barrels, reputedly from Lagavulin and Bowmore – which goes a long way towards explains the peaty palate!
Score: 8.6 

Glass 4:  Callington Mill (Tasmania)  Emulsion Single Malt

46% ABV.  Casks 100L Apero plus one 700L Tawny (Port?).   Triple distilled.

Colour: Strawberry Gold
Nose: Sherried, and a sweaty strawberry sock with brown bread crust.
Palate: Not what you would expect.  Light and smooth, undoubtedly helped by the triple distillation.
Finish: Warming. Slightly sour.
Score: 8.5 

Glass 5:  Callington Mill Symentry Single Malt

46% ABV

Colour: Light Amber
Nose: “Raspy”, slightly astringent, bandage, honey
Palate: Smooth, with late heat, a slightly acidic edge at front of tongue.  Ripe.  Stewed orchard fruit.
Finish: Sours
Comment:  Won Silver at 2022 Worlds, double gold at San Francisco Worlds
Score: 8.5 

Glass 6: Callington Mill Entropy Single Malt

52% ABV.  Casks: Tawny, Apero, Muscat

Colour: Red tinge.
Nose: soapy/laundry smell.  Sour, medicinal (surgical)
Palate: Smooth (again!!)
Finish: Sours off
Comment: Small batch (handcrafted)
Score: 8.7 

Glass 7: Overeem Single Malt Sherry Cask Matured

43% abv

Nose: Vanilla (from a sherry cask???), rum & raisin
Palate: Does not taste like a sherry-matured whisky, unless it’s an oloroso.
Finish: Sour
Comment: Too sour for its price point (refer to Thomas’ Price Point scoring)
Score: 7.8 

If I like the dram and its price is acceptable, I will mark it higher.  If it’s not an appealing whisky or if I think it is too expensive for what it is, then those views will adversely influence affect the price point score I allocate.

Glass 8: Overeem Single Malt Port Cask Matured

ABV 43%

Nose: Sherry, Raisins, Chocolate
Palate: Smooth, edgy but no heat
Comment: Priced at NZ$250, but doubtful if it’s worth it. Might be more attractive to buy at early $100s.
Score: 8.6 

Thomas’s Price Point scoring

Somewhere around the last two samples, comment was passed on the impact of freight costs on the NZ shelf bottle price.

Thomas introduced us to a concept where he sometimes includes a “value for money” rating in his bottle scoring to add to nose, palate and finish.  Price.

It is an interesting idea.

If I’m going to base a purchase on how much I like the nose or the palate or the finish what the cost is has got be a consideration, doesn’t it?

All scoring is subjective – I may love the nose of this dram, but you may think it’s horrid and smells like stale washing or an old bike seat.    And we score the nose accordingly.  We do the same with the palate.   It’s all done based on our individual views.

Price point scoring is done the same way.

If I like the dram and its price is acceptable to me then I will mark it higher.  If it’s not an appealing whisky or if I think it is too expensive for what it is, then those views will adversely influence affect the price point score I allocate.

If a price point score were to be applied, the measurement would need to be divorced from the ‘traditional’ nose/palate/finish score

Think about the last bottle you bought.  At any stage in the transaction did you consider how much you were paying?   I’ll bet you did, even if only fleetingly.

And this is where the subjectivity comes in.  Are you going to buy something you really like at a cost of say $120, or are you going to fork out for something that you scored as only a “pass” but which will set you back north of $300?  It’s my guess that you’ll leave the shop clutching the former – and feeling really good about it.

What you feel is OK to pay for a bottle of whisky may send me into a major panic attack when I consider how many heated evenings, tanks of petrol or cans of catfood are being exchanged!

Now we’re back to the methodology of any scoring – individual viewpoint.

But in order to get a group consensus on a dram, if a price point score were to be applied to a particular bottle the measurement would need to be divorced from the ‘traditional’ nose/palate/finish score.  There does need to be a relativity between the traditional score and the price point one – if two drams score 8.5 traditional points but vary in price by a significant amount, on a like-for-like basis the cheaper one would tend to get a better price point score.

And if we’re going to add a price score into the measurement for this dram, won’t we have to do it for all of them?

How’s the headache?

 

Dramfest – Chapter 3 – The Monday After

From Pat

An interesting and informed motto:
“Don’t make Whisky to get rich in New Zealand, do it for love”

When in Rome, do what the Romans do.

Now, Romans may be in short supply in Christchurch, but a smart pastime for whisky lovers is to book a tour of the local distillery.  Just out of the Christchurch CBD is The Spirits Workshop, the home of Curiosity Gin and (more importantly) of Divergence Whisky.

As we were brought up on the Boy Scout manual, we had prepared for the Monday afternoon after Dramfest by booking ourselves a distillery tour.

We had deliberately decided against the idea of a Monday morning tour.

This booking was a two-pronged process.  We thought it would be kind to let the good people from Spirits Workshop get back to earth from their tough weekend of revelry at Te Pae.  On a more personal level, we thought to let the revelers from the same weekend get back to some semblance of order and cohesion.

Note to self: On a smartphone’s Google Maps it looks just a short and simple pleasure stroll through the shops and attractions to The Spirits Workshop.  The reality is actually long enough for an Uber ride.

Getting there is half the fun

The walk from our hotel was about four lengthy blocks south, through a largely commercial area with precious few redeeming scenic attractions.  We trekked (later becoming “trudged”) along a very busy multi-lane street, across three very busy multi-lane pedestrian crossings and over a very busy multi-lane bridge.

We finally made it to the distillery, located in an anonymous commercial building off Durham Street.  No big, bold Islay distillery lettering – the only clue that we had found the right place was the pretty Curiosity logo in gold on the building’s gable end.

Our little party was warmly invited in by Founder, Chief Gin Officer and Managing Director, Antony Michalik.

The Presentation

Not counting Antony, there are six of us sitting around sitting around a large, very solid and imposing board table:  four dedicated whisky drinkers, two dedicated gin drinkers and a couple who could swing either way depending on what was being offered.

Antony started his wide-ranging presentation on the development of Curiosity gin and Divergence whisky with a slide show.  He covered the history of first setting up the Spirits Workshop, the owners’ previous incarnations and experience, and starting to make distilled spirits.  As the presentation progresses, he hands everyone a sample of all of Curiosity’s range of gins – Classic, Ruby, Dry, Pinot Barrel Sloe, Recipe #23 and Negroni. My personal favourite is the Classic, but as with any group we all have different choices.

Walking around

We started on a guided walk around the distillery, beginning at the still room with its lovely polished copper bits.  The stills, all bought from China,  appear to be very good quality.

Antony and Pat inspecting the equipment
Peter admiring the still,

But the most exciting room for me was the barrel-aging room, containing a selection of very small barrels which are aging for private owners.  There are custom engraved casks with capacities ranging from about 10 litres up.

I oddly found myself wanting to be very quiet in this room – it looked like a nursery with rows of babies sleeping.  Just beautiful!

Pat’s “Nursery” at The Spirits Workshop

As we were the only people in the distillery we took our time on the tour.

The Whiskies

Walking finished, it was back to the boardroom and the unleashing of Divergence whiskies on this over-eager audience.

First dram up is the Virgin French Oak, the stock distillery expression.   This is followed by the latest edition of Port Wood (matured in Tawney Port barrels) and then FIVE (Spirits Workshop’s capitals, not a misprint)

Then Antony brought out his Big Gun, his last bottle of Pinot Noir Finish.  This expression officially sold out ages ago.  The Pinot Noir Finish is fantastic stuff, and Antony politely declined my asking really nicely if I could buy the open bottle: so now I’m left to  look forward to a new bottling being released some time in the future.

Antony also mentioned that they also make an Absinthe as well – at about 70% abv.  They haven’t yet sold very many as they didn’t know quite how to market it.  He offered us each a small nip to try – a tiny sip nearly blew my eye balls out! One of us was so excited and loved it so much that he bought a bottle.

After a lot of semi-informed questions from the tourists and a lot of very informed answers from the Director, the tour drew to a reluctant close.  With formalities completed, we all bought a bottle or two to take away or be delivered by courier.

I can totally recommend taking a visit to The Spirits Workshop.  We couldn’t have wished for a better host who made us all feel very welcome,  answered all our pesky questions as whisky fans are bound to ask and left us in high spirits.

Contact The Spirits Workshop for to arrange your own tour, please click here.

Note: Since this article was written, both the Divergence FIVE and the Virgin French Oak have been awarded gold at the NZ Spirit Awards 2023.

Some Random Tastings
Inchmurran Highland Single Malt

Sample from Pat

Distiller: Loch Lomond
46% ABV.   NAS,  NC2

Colour: Gold.
Eye: Good viscosity
Nose: Sherry, oranges, Vanilla, Old leather boots
Palette: Smooth, Soft.  Black Jellybeans.  Oloroso sherry?  Sawdust (oak).  Not much heat.
Finish: Smooth
Comment: A quaffer.  Right up with the standard we’ve come to expect from Loch Lomond.  I would definitely have one.
Length: S/M
Score: 8.3

The Dalmore

12 year old, 40% ABV.

Colour: Dark
Eye: Medium viscosity.  The legs seem a bit weak.
Nose: Sherry.;  Slight nose prickle.  Citrus Juice.
Palette: Hot tip and centre of tongue.  Tannic-y.  Sour.  Well integrated,  Golden Syrup/Treacle.  Soft
Finish: Sweetness stays for the duration.  Very slight smoke.
Comment:  Other than the bald 12 yo note on the label, there is very little info on casks or maturation etc, and the dram is almost anonymous.
Length: M+
Score: 8.2

SMWS 16.54 (Glenturret)

Age: 10 year old
Sample from Ian

Colour: mid-gold
Eye: Medium viscosity, wide legs
Nose: Strong, wood, high nose prickle. Rum & Raisin ice cream, oak sawdust, slightly “dirty” aroma, back of the nose hit of alcohol
Palate: Sweet marine. Hot tongue!  Sharp at first.  Rich and hot.  Very  nice.
Finish: Long & spicy.  Yummy, want to take another sip (moreish).  Slight smoky (a bonfire breath – interesting that there has not  been a hint of smoke anywhere else before this!
Comment: Nice!
Length: long
Score: 8.6

Cotswald Reserve

50% abv, NC2

Barrels: First fill ex-Bourbon, NC2
Nose: Prickle, Red Wine on nose, honey, butterscotch, bit of vanilla.  Promising!
Palate: Smooth and HOT!  Wow Factor right through.  Tongue Heat, and then drying.  Coconut. Dark caramel.  Promise kept.
Finish: Tongue slightly drying, but not a problem.
Length: Medium/long
Comment: Wow Factor! Would get a bottle (around $110
Score: 8.2 – 8.5

Disclaimer:
All writings on rantwhisky.com are the work of Real People.
No AI has been used.

Bet you couldn’t have guessed that!

Dramfest 2023 Review – Chapter 2 – The Adventures of Pat

Over the weekend of 4th and 5th of March I got to go to New Zealand’s premier whisky event, Dramfest.

Before I went, my wife told me to treat this like an adventure – very good advice, as you will see.

Saturday morning flight to Christchurch and off to the Te Pai Convention Centre at 12:30 to be meet a queue of other Whisky addicts.  Te Pai has plenty of space and the show was well laid out on one level (t as the afternoon went on, that was good as everybody became relaxed in various degrees of inattention).

After a lovely bagpipe intro, the stands were allowed to pour.

The Show

This year I decided to forgo the master classes and instead just do the stands. At previous Dramfests I have gone to every master class available; this time I wanted to spend more time just mingling.

On Saturday I managed to try about forty drams, the majority cask strength (the Wellington Curse).

Saturday picks

My pick for the day – and indeed as one of the stand outs for Dramfest – was the Cotswolds Founders Choice at a hefty 60.5% ABV.  My notes record just the word “Wow” under Nose, with the same recorded in Taste.  I don’t usually limit myself to a few words, but this was fantastic.

Cotswalds Founders’ Choice

The next memorable stand was the Alistair Walker Whisky Company. They had two drams that stood out: the Infrequent Flyers Benriach at 57.2% and the Glenrothes at 62.8%.  I feel the Benriach nudged ahead and indeed shares my first equal as the best dram of the weekend with the Founders Choice.

Infrequent Flyers Benriach

The impact of 40 high-strength whiskies during Saturday afternoon created a few internal GPS issues.

 A surprising Saturday find for me was the Sagamore Spirit stand.  Sagamore make Rye whiskey, and I like Rye whiskey.  Two drams on the stand stood out, mainly by not having that minty taste you sometimes get with Rye.  I found one not listed in the menu but that had a very much a Wow moment – the Sherry Finish Rye finished in PX sherry barrels at 52%.  It came at you in two layers on the taste, and I hope Whisky Galore gets more in!

Sagamore Rye – Sherry Finish

The Adventure – aka Pat’s Magical Mystery Tour

The Te Pai venue is 200 metres in a straight-ish line from our hotel – a short walk.  However, the impact of 40 high-strength whiskies during Saturday afternoon created a few internal GPS issues, and getting to the hotel became a much greater challenge than anticipated.

I had walked four blocks past my hotel before I encountered another Dramfest attendee.

“Pat, you’ve gone too far.  You need to turn around and go back into town.”

So I went back three blocks, then sat down thinking “This is hard work!”

There followed a text conversation with my wife (who was waiting with deteriorating patience in the hotel lobby) – refer photos below.  My part in the conversation was rather confused, and my wife was not amused in the slightest.  I walked  the last block and saw a large neon sign identifying the hotel.  Bliss.

Screen Print 1 – Blue messages are from Mrs Pat.

For clarity, the phrase “No funding idwa” contains typing errors.

Screen Print 2
Screen Print 3

Sunday

I started the Sunday session with the Kavalan 58.6% Port finish.  It is amazing, and surprisingly better than their Sherry finish.

The New Zealanders

I was taken aback with delight by the New Zealand offerings at Dramfest, and my Sunday tour of various NZ distillers’ stands revealed some new delights.

I visited the stand of Christchurch’s own Spirits Workshop, with their 5-year-old Divergence 5 and the new bottling of the Portwood in tawny casks.

Next was the Pokeno Whisky stand.  The Origin was a lovely smooth dram, but the pick was the Prohibition Porter from a first fill bourbon single cask – dark chocolate all the way and very smooth indeed.  I had to leave the stand; staying was far too far too tempting.

Then on to Waiheke Whisky.   I had sort of written Waiheke off a few months back after tasting some of their sample minis.  After tasting their offerings at Dramfest, I admit I definitely was wrong.  They gave me the Dramfest special bottling at 46%.  There is amazing mouth feel and, typical of NZ peat, just a hint of sea, smooth with a long finish.

I was then given a dram called Cantankerous which they said was for a cantankerous person.  Moi???  Again, this dram was not on the menu.  It is excellent and well worth finding – if you can.

Going home

No worries getting back to the hotel this time.

It is always a pleasure to go to a world class event here in NZ and, as usual, the team at Whisky Galore have done an superb job in a great venue.

 

Silly Statistics

Because we were interested (and a little bit bored) we analysed some of the numbers in the Dramfest catalogue.  They make for quite interesting reading.

The total price of all bottle in the catalogue:  $34,320.76

The average prince: $138.39

The highest orice: the Glenfiddich “Grand Cru” 23yo 40% $592.00
Second: the Buffalo Trace Stagg JR 64.2% $401.00
Third: The Whisky Cellar  Cambus Single Grain33yo 52.5% $386.00

On the (probably slightly under attended) Black Tot rum stand on Sunday, we used three bottles of each of the two drams we had.  Assuming the same level of consumption for all the other stands over the two days, that is $205,900 worth of whisky consumed!

And that wildly undependable calculation:
– undoubtedly understates the number of bottles used on many of the stands,
– does not include the values of the “under the counter” bottles, or
– the value of merchandise sales from the front shop.

Dramfest 2023 Review – Chapter 1

Event Overview

A very happy, well-oiled crowd.

That was Dramfest 2023, New Zealand’s largest whisky event.

NZ whisky enthusiasts have been waiting for three years to get back to Dramfest.  The last festival, in 2020, took place on the weekend before NZ’s first Covid lock-down, when Dave Broom got “kept in” in NZ and had to receive care packages of whisky to keep him going!.

And then came Dramfest 2022.  Sort of.

We had all our entry tickets sorted.  Airfares and beds were booked, and we were eagerly awaiting the exciting range of Dramfest Sessions to come up for grabs.

Then, just as the starting gun was about to fire, the rug was brutally snatched from under our collective feet by yet another bloody lock-down!

It all seemed a diabolical plot, like someone telling a 5-year-old that Santa Claus doesn’t exist!

Patience gets its Reward, though: Dramfest 2023 (2022.5?).  And it has been well worth waiting for!

Putting whisky aside for a moment (just a moment), what a magnificent venue Christchurch’s new Te Pae Convention Centre is.

The Te Pai Convention Centre

And the Whisky Galore team added a mouth-watering 68 stands, with over 70 brands of whisky and rum on offer this year.  Happiness and smiles all around.

My very rough count of this year’s assembly was 324 drams available to sample, plus those at the Sessions and a few “under the table” ones that I missed in the reckoning.

Dramfest 30 minutes BC (Before Customers)

My Dramfest Highlights (View from the Chair)

Travelling in Style

Compared with previous Dramfests, my intake of alcohol at this year’s event was minute.  Maybe something to do with drink-driving.

Instead of tasting everything available, I took the opportunity to spend my time introducing myself to the owners of New Zealand distilleries.  I had previously met quite a few of them by email or telephone but not in person.  It was great to meet them, introduce myself and shake a hand or two.

I was delighted to get a warm welcome from everyone I spoke with.  As a result, I am looking forward to being able to provide this Blog with many more articles on NZ distilleries and the local whisky scene.

I did weaken a bit during the tripping around and took the chance to test-drive a few NZ-produced drams.  Here are my views:

Lammermore Distillery, The Jack Scott Single Malt, 46%

Nose: Sweet and floral.  A slight tinge of sweaty shearing shed.
Palette: Tongue bite at first, but that drops away quickly.  Young and plenty of alcohol heat, vinous from the Pinot Noir barrels.
Finish: The tongue sting stays.  The taste sours at the end (again, the influence of the pinot noir barrel?), but then again so do a lot of whiskies.
Score: 8.1

Cardrona whisky Pinot Noir, 52% ABV

Nose: Vanilla custard with dried stone fruit.  The pinot noir barrel gives the expected vinous note.
Palette: Sharp, and not too alcohol hot.  Under the sharpness the whisky is smooth and even, with pip fruit on the tongue.
Finish: A heat stays on the tongue, roof and walls of the mouth.  The vanilla custard note remains.
Comment:  This is the second iteration of Cardrona to be matured in pinot casks.  We reviewed the first “Just Hatched” Pinot Noir-matured whisky is Dec 2019.  This second one is way better.  I have tried this before Dramfest, and I was just as impressed then.
Score: 8.7

Waiheke Whisky, Peat and Port, 46%, 5-yrear-old, 40ppm peat.  Dramfest bottling.

Nose: Marine, like rock pools.  Citrus peel with vanilla
Palette: Rich and sweet.  Slightly “sheepy”, but not in a bad way.
Finish: The sweetness stays.
Comment: This is capital N Nice!  Actually, a whole lot better than nice.
Further comment:  Although the 40ppm of phenols is accurate, if you are expecting this to be like one of Islay’s more heathen expressions you will be disappointed.  In all the New Zealand peated whiskies I have tasted from Waiheke Whisky the peat notes are there, but they are way more subtle than Scottish peated drams – with Waiheke whiskies I really have had to look to find to find them.
Score: 7.9

And then I spent Sunday working on the Black Tot Rum stand.  For an ardent (and sober) people watcher, manning the stand is so much fun.

Graeme’s Dramfest Sessions

Email traffic in Wellington prior to Dramfest, getting tickets to the sessions was a bit of a  keyboard lottery.  Some punters won Powerball, others were left bemoaning their poor fortune.

Graeme got particularly lucky.  He scored entry both the Arran and the Glen Scotia mini sessions.  He then followed that streak by getting into Sunday’s Top Shelf session, led by Dave Broom and Michael Fraser Milne.

Graeme has kindly provided his tasting notes from those events.

The Arran mini-session

Arran 17yo rare batch Calvados cask 52.5% ABV.

Matured for full 17 years in second fill casks previously used to mature Calvados.

Nose and palette: Both apples and pears dominate, spiciness.
Finish: Medium-long with flavour persisting.
Score: 8.5

Lagg release one ex-bourbon  50% ABV. 

Matured in bourbon cask, peating at 50 ppm.

Nose: light peat.
Palette: more pronounced peat, otherwise undistinguished.
Finish: long, peat dominant.
Comment: In no way measures up to the Arran Fingal’s Cut tasted at last Dramfest.
Score:  6.5

The Glen Scotia mini –session

Glen Scotia 25yo, refill ex-bourbon casks, but finished in first fill ex-bourbon.  48.8% ABV 

Nose:  Standard vanilla.
Palette:  Chocolate, vanilla, sweetness.
Finish:  Medium-long with flavour lasting well.
Comment:  This won whisky of the year at the 2021 San Francisco spirits forum.
Score: 8.5

Glen Scotia 9yo first fill ex-bourbon  Cask no 9.  56.7% ABV

Distilled 2013.  Specially selected for Dramfest, six  bottles only taken straight from the cask still sitting in the warehouse.

Nose:  Standard vanilla.
Palette:  Oily, salty, fruity.
Finish:  Long flavour persistence.
Comment:  Watch out for the release of this one.
Score:  9.0

The Top Shelf

The theme of the Top Shelf tasting was reviewing the traditions of whisky-making.

Daftmill 15yo first fill American oak  55.7% ABV cask strength

A Lowlands distiller, Daftmill is from the traditional farmer distiller, making whisky in his spare time from on-farm materials.

Nose:  Oaky, vanilla, spice.  Palette: buttery, mouth-filling, well integrated flavours.
Finish:  Everlasting flavour.  So long that it was necessary to drink some water before moving on to the next whisky!
Score: 9.8

Glenturret 30yo matured in ex-sherry cask  42% ABV. 

One of 750 bottles from this Highlands distillery.

Nose:  Sherry, spice, geranium (the last Dave Broom’s comment).
Palette:  Soft, floral, sherry, dark fruit and dates.
Finish:  Long and subtle flavours (but not as long as the Daftmill).
Comment: A light whisky, well-integrated and soft.
Score:  9.0

Springbank 22yo from Adelphi, 46.3% ABV.

One of 239 bottles.  Easily the oldest Springbank anywhere in Dramfest.

Nose:  Sherry, new-made bread.
Palette:  Sherry, low-level peat evident.
Finish: Medium-long, fades more rapidly than first two.
Comment: Slightly disappointing after the first two.
Score: 8.0

Caol Ila 40 yo Director’s Special bottled by Whisky Exchange. 49.1% ABV.

Nose:  Fruity, grapefruit, very light peat in the background.
Palette:  Fruit, salty, peat remain light and in the background.
Finish: Long, with lasting flavours, peat finally becoming more evident but beautifully integrated.
Comment:  the bottler loves tropical fruit whiskies.
Score:  9.5

Overall Tasting Comment: Fully lived up to very high expectations.