Tasting: An Introduction to Whisky

You might think that a heading like this would indicate another learned piece on malt, peat smoke, worts, and the effects of  age and barrels.

It doesn’t.

In the late 1950s, before air travel was readily available, Wellington was the geographic centre and transport hub of New Zealand.  The only way to get between the North and South Islands was by the overnight inter-island ferry that sailed daily between Wellington and Christchurch.  Everyone traveling had to pass through Wellington.

The ferry left at 7pm and arrived at 7am the following day, so people who lived in Wellington got a lot of visitors calling as they either waited for the ferry to take them south or recovered from the often bouncy trip coming north.

We lived in Wellington.

Like most men of the era, my father was a returned soldier.  He had seemingly hoards of ex-army mates, all of whom seemed to travel frequently from North to South and back again.  All these “uncles” used to call in on Dad and our family as they passed, and they’d frequently stay overnight.

Part of the ritual of their visit or stay was to have a dram with Dad.  Dad preferred a drop called Black & White, a blend of predominantly grain whisky.  The distinctive label featured a picture of two Scots Terriers on the label, one black and the other white.

The bottle top of Black and White whisky had a strange sort of arrangement to it.  It had a lever mechanism made of twisted wire.   When the lever was pushed down it locked the cap in place and released it when the lever was lifted up.  The bonus was that when the cap was locked down it was spill-proof.  It was a neat arrangement, particularly to a young boy with a slightly technical turn of mind, and I still find it fascinating.

My mother had been brought up through the Depression, a time when things were home-made rather than purchased.  She made a lemonade cordial for us kids, made as a concentrate and kept in a screw-top bottle.  We would pour half an inch (about 10mm) of the concentrate into a tumbler and then add water to taste.

One of our family rituals were picnics on Sundays.  And part of the picnic ritual was to make up a bottle of pre-diluted lemonade cordial to take with us.  And one of the good things about Dad’s whisky bottles was the clever locking, spill-proof cap.  An empty whisky bottle, with black and white doggy label and locking cap, was pressed into service as a container for the kids’ drink.

On the particular Sunday under discussion, an uncle (and possibly an accompanying aunt) were arriving in town on the way to or from somewhere or other, and they were staying overnight.  The family had gone on a picnic for Sunday lunch, accompanied by the pre-owned Black and White Whisky bottle containing diluted lemonade cordial.

When we got home after the picnic some of the diluted lemonade was still left in the old whisky bottle; the bottle was put into the refrigerator for future use by thirsty children.

Uncle (and aunt) had arrived for tea and to stay the night.

About 8:30pm in the evening Dad’s Black and White Whisky had been brought out to help lubricate the visit.

At about 8:45pm I was heading to bed (obedient young lad that I was!) and decided that I needed a drink of lemonade before retiring for the night.

And then I remembered the Black and White whisky bottle of lemonade in the refrigerator.  Aha, I think, I’ll have a glass of that because it’s already made up and I can just pour it out into a glass for myself.

When I arrived in the kitchen, I found the bottle was already out on the kitchen bench in all its canine splendour.

Through the green of the bottle I saw that it was still about a third full.  I remember thinking how quite unusually considerate whichever sister had got the bottle out had been to leave some for me!

I poured myself a nearly full tumbler from the bottle, put the locking cap carefully back on, and even thought to return the bottle to the refrigerator!

Then, as thirsty young boys do, I took a big mouthful and swallowed it in a gulp.

Can anyone see where this is headed yet?

Black and White Whisky these days is a 40% alcohol by volume dram.  I haven’t tasted it for a long time, but I suspect that it was probably 40% alcohol by volume back then, too.  Whatever, even at 40% it was still 39% higher than anything I had ever had to drink before that Sunday evening!  Even cough medicine wasn’t that high!

My anticipated gulp of cool, gentle lemonade suddenly seemed to have acquired a flame-thrower additive that I hadn’t been warned about.

My yell of astonishment/horror/shock brought my parents and the uncle (and probably the aunt) racing into the kitchen at high speed from their rudely interrupted comfort in the lounge.

They conducted a quick check of vital signs to make sure I had managed to regain the ability to breathe, that the screaming had decreased to acceptable levels and that no-one was going to cut themselves on the remains of the glass which I had thrown to the floor in my surprise.

On ensuring that there was no lasting damage, their interest turned to the bottle of Black and White (the whisky bottle, not the cordial one).  Their focus of concern now seemed to to have shifted, that the level of available liquid in their bottle had dropped alarmingly and that there may not be sufficient left for their evening tipples.

Charming!

Other than the broken glass, there was no lasting damage that I remember.  But it took some years for me to be able to look whisky in the eye again.

And I never gulp it!

Tasting: The Midlands

Tasting: The Midlands

Held at: Regional Wines, Wellington

Presenter: Daniel Mclaren Moon

Offerings:      Aberfeldy Gordon & McPhail Connoisseurs’ Choice, 14yo, 46% abv

Blair Athol Connoisseur’s Choice, 9yo, 46% abv

Glenturret Sherry Cask Edition, 43%

Deanston 18yo (the mystery)

Deanston Old Malt Cask 21yo 50% abv

Glengoyne Cask Strength 59.1%

Edradour Straight From The Cask 10yo, 58.8% abv

Format: Blind tasting, 6 of the 7 bottles are known, but not which glass each is in.

*******

Where are the Scottish Midlands, you ask?  And well you might.

According to Wikipedia, the Scottish Midlands (or Central Belt) is the triangle defined by the M8, M80 motorway and M9 motorways stretching from Greenock and Glasgow in the west to Edinburgh in the east.

I hope that makes things clearer, but it might not.

Whisky drinkers in New Zealand would probably refer to it as the Southern Highlands.

It’s not an area that I’ve had a lot of sampling from until now.  Apart from having a couple of Edradour whiskies in the past it would be fair to say that this would be my first real introduction to the area.  But there is an interesting array of distilleries operating in the region, and some of the whiskies coming from them are very attractive.

Usually the blind tastings at Regional Wines follow the format of nosing all the offerings first and inviting tasters to give their views.  It is only after that nosing round that the whiskies are tasted, with more comment invited.

However, at this tasting the known bottles were in two quite distinct groups.  The first group of three were in the standard strength range of 43 to 46% abv.  The mystery also fell into this group.

The second group of three were all cask strength at 50% and above.

To save the tasting from being unbalanced the presenter made the choice to taste in two flights, with the lower four being nosed and tasted first.  The second flight of three were also nosed and tasted in isolation.

My notes and scoring:

Aberfeldy Gordon & McPhail Connoisseurs’ Choice, 14 year old, 46% abv, First fill sherry.

Nose: Canvas tent, leather. Score 7.8

Taste: Peppery, but nice, Fruit

Finish: Medium/long

Overall Score: 8.5.

Blair Athol Connoisseurs Choice, 9 year old, 46% Refill sherry butt.

Nose: one matchhead.  Score 7.4

Taste: smoky. Not to my personal taste.

Overall Score 7.4

Glenturret Sherry Cask Edition, 46% abv

Nose: Dirty cookies.  Score 7.0

Taste: Fruit (from the sherry cask)

Overall score 7.8

Deanston 18 yo, 46.3%

Nose: Wood wool, tobacco.  Score 7.8

Taste: Citrus peel, peppery

Overall score: 7.6

Deanston Old Malt Cask, 21 year old, 50% abv

Nose: Lemon peel, honey, slighty soapy, very pleasant.  Score 8.4

Taste: Honey again, fruit.  A very nice drop, indeed.

Overall score: 9.1

Glengoyne Cask Strength 59.1% abv, non-coloured, non-chill filtered

Nose: strong!, smell of an old rubber ball

Taste: Sweet, honey and wax

Overall score: 7.9

 Edradour Straight From The Cask 58.8% abv, Sherry butt

Nose: Hessian sacking, very sherry.

Colour: 1.8

Taste: Wood, leather, a bit of tannin at the end

Overall score: 9.2

 

One of the interesting side bars of a blind tasting is to see how many of the drams you can guess correctly.  In the past money has changed hands on this aspect of the evening – not a lot of money: the ante is usually $2 per person – but it can be extremely satisfying to pick up the cost of tomorrow morning’s coffee from your fellow tasters.

So, how many of the seven did I get right?  A rather embarrassing three.

In my rather thin defence, the gamblers all had the same score so there was no winner on the day this time.

Recent Opening: Amrut Spectrum

Recent Opening : Amrut Spectrum

I always feel a little bit guilty when I open a bottle that one of only 1,000 released.  It seems almost criminal to consume such a rare animal that only a few have seen or will get the chance to sample.

But there you go.  We all have to make sacrifices in the interests of knowledge, and I’m quite prepared to lay my lofty sentiments on the line!

The reality is that various recent family events have worked to empty the open bottles in the cabinet and the stocks need replenishing from the cellar.  The Amrut Spectrum has been hiding away for maybe a couple of years, and the magnificent black box it comes in was just a little bit too tall for the shelf where the unopened bottles sit awaiting invitation.

So the Amrut’s time had come to be introduced to an eagerly waiting public – me.

I’ve tried quite a few of Amrut Distilleries expressions over the last ten or so years since they first started arriving in New Zealand.  Some, like the beautifully orange-flavoured Naarangi and the rare Kadhambam are quite spectacular, and the cask strength single malt is a good standard dram.  The peated version I’m not quite such a fan of, but that’s OK.

But I think the Spectrum is in a very different league!  It’s not just the box lined in royal blue velvet that is magnificent – the contents are a very big step up from anything else from Amrut that I’ve tasted.

Technical details (from the writing on the box and the bottle):  700mls, 50% abv.  No identifiable age statement.

Initially matured in ex-bourbon barrel, then in a custom-built barrel made from five varieties of oak – new American, French and Spanish oaks, ex-oloroso stave and ex PX stave.:

Colour: 1.8.  Very, very dark, darker than Glenfarclas 105 and about the same as Aberlour A’Bunadh.  There is a slight pinkish-red tinge at the edges which is reminiscent of a port finish, but I suspect it comes from the sherry staves.

Nose: Spicy, brown sugar, strong Christmas cake with brandy.  Maple syrup.  Nose score: 9.

Palette: Round and full.  The whisky tastes just like it noses, with the rich Christmas cake coming through strongly.  There is a very slight hint of vanilla, probably coming from the initial bourbon barrel, and there is pepper on the tongue.  The finish is long (and delightful!).

Overall impression:  I had heard good stories about the Spectrum from those who had been lucky enough to try it at a tasting.

But Wow!  That was not what I was expecting at all!  Quite an amazing top quality dram, well worth its advance publicity!  It may have to be put in a quiet back corner of the cabinet where hopefully others on the prowl may overlook it and I can just have it myself.

Sadly, knowing my family, that’s not likely to happen.  So I’ll just have to keep my eyes open for the next expression!

Overall score: 9.3

Tasting Notes

Tasting Note explanation:

I mark on the 1-10 system for both nose and palette where over 9 is exceptional, 8-9 is great, 7-8 is OK, 6-7 is so-so and lower than 5 is “why bother?”.

In my world, a mark of 10 is not achievable because by definition it cannot be beaten and giving that mark would not leave room for something even better to turn up next week – which I continually hope it might!

Colour marking is based on the Whisky Magazine’s colour chart of 0.0 (light, “gin clear”) to 2.0 (dark, “treacle”)

The Tasting Experience

The Tasting Experience

I like whisky tastings.

That’s not true.

I LOVE whisky tastings.

I stalk websites looking for whisky tastings.  And when I find one, all life stops until I’ve managed to get myself a booking to it!

I’ve been going to tastings now for about 12 years, and in all that time I really can’t remember a bad one.

They’re places for bonhomie, for laughter, for meeting old friends and making new ones, for learning, for bad taste jokes and sometimes even worse taste descriptions.  For discovering what’s good and what’s not so good, what you’d like to add to your collection next or what really should have not been put in bottles.

I’ve heard of a whisky tasting where the offerings were so average that the tasters all clubbed together, went downstairs and collectively bought a different bottle to take the taste away.  For the record, the bottle they bought was a Bowmore Legend – and it was subsequently declared the top dram of the night!  Apparently by a clear margin.

I went to a tasting a couple of years ago in Edinburgh.  The event was called a Stramash, which I understand is Scottish for a disturbance or racket – a fair description, really.  I went because it was my birthday, because we happened to be in Edinburgh at the time, and because my wife lovingly bought me a ticket to it for my birthday present.

It was held at the Surgeon’s Hall on a lovely warm, sunny, late spring day.  I went on my own, so I knew no-one there.

By the time the queue of whisky fans had reached the gate I was good friends with a couple of likely and chatty lads from Rothes. Two hours, a lot of samples, and a curry and rice dish later we had become life-long friends.  They were great company for the afternoon.

I wish I could remember their names.

Over my tasting life there I have been to three or four tastings that will go down in the records of Memorable Whisky Tastings.  One in particular was of a degree that set the all-time benchmark.  That mark is unlikely to ever be beaten but if it is I would surely want to be there!

Three of us came out of that tasting together: only one if us noticed that it was raining beyond belief.   It wasn’t me.

I think every form of tasting has its pluses and minuses.  In the early days, when I first started going to tastings, I knew nothing about whisky other than I generally liked the taste.

I found it best to know in advance what whisky I was drinking.  The presenter would explain what each whisky was about – where it came from, what casks it had been matured in, for how long, what effect the cask had on the spirit, what the “style” was.  I tried to soak all the knowledge up – not surprisingly, some of it got lost in a haze of fumes but some bits have stuck.

With more experience now, the “mystery” event has its interest.  You know the whiskies but not which glass they’re in.  Nosing through all the glasses, everyone calling out their impressions.  Some of the comments are predictable, some are brilliant, some rather disturbing (“it tastes like licking a cricket bat”.  Really?  How do you know that? What life experience got you there?).  “Smells like my granny’s laundry” – way too much information, my friend!  Some are less inspiring, like “smells like baby sick”.  I think a count of match-heads is a good barometer of peaty-ness on the nose.

Then tasting through – does the pallet reflect the nose?  Bourbon or Sherry influence?  Strong upfront peat or late developer?  Christmas cake or vanilla/caramel ice-cream?

I also like vertical tastings, where the tasting is a range of six or seven expressions from one distillery.  I went to a Glenmorangie vertical tasting a while back: it was very interesting to experience side-by-side the range of whiskies available from that distillery.

I usually go tastings with two good friends.  We’ve been doing it for a while now.  Our whisky tastes are not necessarily the same, but they are similar and we generally like (and dislike) the same things.  And we tend to buy different things for the home supplies, so that there is always a variety to re-test when official tastings get hard to find.

Ah, the sacrifices we make in the interests of scientific research!