Monday, 7 April 2014

An irrepressible spirit of adventure

AFTER much arm twisting (well not that much), a great deal of informative Twitter chatter (I'm looking specifically at you Ben Cops, Matt Veira and Tom Thomson) and a quick glance at the old bank balance, and I decided it was high time I joined the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Why? Well, let me explain.
    I'm a recent whisky convert, a watered-down malt weakling who only began their whisky journey back in 2012 when, as a Scotsman who had just turned 40, I thought I really should make a concerted effort to try and appreciate this complex brew from my windy, rainy homeland.
    My good friend and guiding light, Yan had been banging on at me about whisky for decades. I foolishly chose to ignore him, deciding to have the occasional beer and bottle of wine instead. My loss, eh? But he’s a sensible chap and with his words of encouragement and advice ringing in my ears, I took a fistful of cash and exchanged it for a bottle of Aberlour A'bunadh and a couple of Glencairn glasses. This marked the start of my journey to the spirit world and, let’s face it, it wasn't a bad place to begin, was it?
    Other bottles came and went, samples were regularly exchanged, and nights down the pub served as an enjoyable education, turning my nose up at frothing tankards of ale in favour of a wee dram instead. Yan even brought cheese, caramel shortcake and chocolate to the pub to accompany our tastings, which, as you can imagine, was met with quizzical glances from some of the locals.
    Since then, as can be seen from my scribblings both here and over on Twitter, I've been sipping, swirling and sniffing drams from all over the world ever since and what was once a mere curiosity has now turned into a full-blown obsession.
    I am always looking to bolster my whisky knowledge, buying books, scouring blogs, listening to podcasts, watching YouTube vlogs and devouring whisky magazines on a regular basis. So when I heard my Twitter chums eagerly discussing the merits of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I was desperate to find out more. Most people reading this, I'm sure, will know all about the SMWS and what they do, but for those who don't, here's the deal.
    As a member, you are given access to a dizzying array of single cask malts - and a few other curiosities - from all over the world. On the first Friday of every month, the society release its latest offerings and once they are gone, they are gone for good. Sometimes there might be 600 bottles of a particular whisky, other times there's only a couple of dozen.
    Membership also gives you access to the Society's members' rooms in Edinburgh and London where you and up to three friends can settle down with a few choice drams and a bit of food. Not only that, but when you join, you get an automatic subscription to Unfiltered magazine and three tempting 10cl bottles to get you off on the right foot.
    Each bottle is given an imaginative name - such as Pork Chops in Red Wine Sauce and Hard Glazed Pretzel Sticks - and has a code plastered across the label which cryptically tells you what distillery the spirit is from, along with a mouthwatering paragraph of brilliant tasting notes which sets the mind racing.
    So, after seeing Twitter light up with SMWS chat, I did a bit more research and quickly decided I just had to experience some of what they were having. Decision made, I then discovered the SMWS were offering a package deal to tie in with the Cocoa Loco celebration - membership and a bottle for a special price. This sealed the deal and I threw money at this cask strength whisky haven as fast as I could pry my credit card from my wallet.
    To my delight - I was expecting it sometime this week - my membership pack smartly arrived last Monday, complete with journal, membership card, three 10cl bottles, a £10 voucher, and a rather splendid 70cl bottle of the wonderfully titled A Delicatessen Shopping Basket - a 16-year-old Bowmore.
    I will obviously still buy whisky locally - I think it’s extremely important to support local businesses, especially whisky and wine specialists - but I'll also be dipping into the SMWS range to expand my whisky knowledge and taste a few weird and wonderful drams.
    Exciting times ahead, then, and plans are already being laid out to visit the Edinburgh members' rooms in May to coincide with the Edinburgh Whisky Stramash. That could be messy, mind, so we'll see how it pans out...
    Tasting notes for the four whiskies I received will follow, along with a few details about where they’re from, but it might be a while, as I don't want to rush any of them!
Let the journey continue!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Tomatin 12 - 40%

Nose: Someone at Tomatin has clearly been given the keys to the local sweetie shop, as this 12-year-old is a riot of sweet confectionery aromas. It's like a paper bag full of pineapple cubes, red liquorice sticks, sherbet lemons and red and black jelly babies. There's also spicy vanilla, grapefruit and barley sugars. A couple of drops of water bring out a faint salted popcorn note.

Palate: Quite delicate, with oaky vanilla, baked lemon, fizzy lemon Refreshers, ground cinnamon, mixed dried fruit. Again, that popcorn note makes itself known.

Finish: Black pepper, and slightly rough around the edges. There's also vanilla, prickly spices, a dab of sour lemon and sherbet-filled flying saucers. The pepper note lingers a bit too long, though.

Notes: This 12-year-old Highland single malt is a refreshing and thoroughly decent wee dram. Probably better suited to a hazy summer day than a cold and rainy Glasgow evening, but there you go. It's a little bit thin and has a few rough notes around the edges, but for around £30, it's worth picking up if you see it on your whisky travels.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Dalmore 15 - 40%

Nose: Now this is a wonderful whisky on the nose. It's absolutely crammed with rich and interesting aromas. First up there's a huge waft of sherry, which soon gets knocked out the way by an onslaught of milk chocolate, orange rind, Christmas cake, Brazil nuts, cloves, figs, toffee and ginger snap biscuits. Leave it to settle for another five minutes or so, and maple syrup and buttery fudge join in the fun. There's also a slight grassy note combined with a double shot of espresso.

Palate: Unfortunately, this is the point where the Dalmore 15 begins to lose its way. After such an amazing nose, I was expecting to be bowled over by an abundance of thick, rich flavours. While there are notes of orange, toffee, vanilla, nuts and a shaving of green wood here, it's all a bit insipid and lacks some much needed punch. Disappointing.

Finish: After racing out of the starting blocks in spectacular style and then missing its stride halfway through, I had hoped the Dalmore 15 would redeem itself when it approached the finish line. Unfortunately, it managed to stumble again and eventually crawled across the line in a disappointing time. I found the finish far too short and all I could really pick up was hints of dry caramel, vanilla and orange oil.

Notes: This is the third Dalmore that's passed my lips - I've spent a bit of time previously with the 12 and 18 - but I haven't been impressed with any of them. Maybe it's the low alcohol volume, perhaps it's just my personal sense of smell and taste, it might even be that my tastes are constantly changing - who knows, but whatever it is, something about the whisky just doesn't click for me. I thought the 15 promised much with those sublime aromas wafting from the glass, but the taste and finish came up short. It would be interesting to try a higher strength bottling, but looking at some of the prices, I don't think that will be happening any time soon. A real disappointment for me.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Dewar's: Dewar_House Experimental Batch S41 - 60.4%

Nose: Quite restrained a first but slowly evolves into soft golden fruit, oak, vanilla and a whiff of gentle smoke. After a few minutes, the aroma of white grapes and After Eight mint chocolates come to the fore. A teaspoon of water brings with it hints of coconut and the chocolate note is ramped up considerably.

Palate: Oily with an initial dollop of honey. This then gives way to apples, vanilla and a sprinkling of chilli flakes. Water increases the fruitiness of the whisky, with warming spices and black pepper joining a blackcurrant and damson jam taste. Despite the 60.4% volume, this is smooth and enjoyable neat.

Finish: A medium length, with oaky vanilla, slight pepper and crumbly Edinburgh rock. There's also a faint hint of green olives there, too, making for an interesting drop.

Notes: The S41 was blended here in Glasgow, is 12 years old, was bottled on June 12, 2013 and is bottle 111/200. The finish is a mixture of Spanish oak and sherry cask and came from cask 588. This sample was very kindly given to me by work colleague and fellow whisky nut Sean Guthrie (follow him on Twitter @guthrotull) so thanks again, Sean. Interested to know more about this particular experimental batch, so if you've tried this or any others from Dewar's, please let me know.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Benromach 10 - 43%

Nose: Malty custard, slightly musty, butter icing, a hint of smoke, fresh green twigs, sharp red berries, grapefruit juice, sticky toffee, fudge and porridge with a swirl of honey.

Palate: This has a lovely viscosity to it and there's grapefruit, lemon, grass and there's even a slight papery taste lurking at the back. It also carries a slight spirit note.

Finish: Custard cream biscuits, vanilla, more icing sugar, freshly cut ginger, light wood and a hint of sage.

Notes: Another Speysider but my first Benromach and very enjoyable it was too. I especially liked the mouth feel, and that herbaly sage note on the finish. It's young, and that's perhaps where the spirity note on the palate comes from, but it's a very enjoyable drop. Would definitely like to try some older bottlings, but a quick bit of research has shown most of these are outwith my price range. The Benromach 10 costs around £27 and that's a very respectable price for an easy going dram.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Balcones Baby Blue - 46%

Nose: Salty buttered popcorn, malty baby rusks, vanilla, honey, cream soda, grapefruit, fudge, corn on the cob and bread and butter pudding.

Palate: Very smooth and sweet with a mouthful of roasted corn, creamy vanilla, ripe mashed banana and a hint of chewy black liquorice.

Finish: Slabs of nutty fudge, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, mint flavoured milk chocolate, crushed black pepper, a twist of bitter lemon rind, a little salt and I even get a cloud-like swirl of candy floss coming through.

Notes: After the unforgettable fiery flavour sensation of the Brimstone and the lip-smacking quality of their Texas Single Malt, the Baby Blue is yet another wonderful whisky by Chip Tate at Balcones. The blue corn used to create this whisky gives it a quite unique character and it's clear this is a distillery not afraid to experiment and do things their own way. A delicious drop and I'm even tempted to pour it over good quality vanilla ice cream for an after dinner dessert.

Batch 12-9, bottled on 18/10/2012

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Old Pulteney 17 - 46%

Nose: Clean with thick orange oil, oak, marzipan, green apples, gooseberries, butter icing, juicy sultanas, fudge and dollops of salted caramel.

Palate: Slightly oily with a touch of salt, sugar-coated lemon, cocoa, fudge, more marzipan, tropical fruits, drying oak and spicy fresh ginger.

Finish: Long, with nuts, toffee, butter icing, honey, black pepper, cinnamon and salt.

Notes: Over the course of the last year, I've thoroughly enjoyed a couple of bottles of the Old Pulteney 12 (thanks to some great supermarket deals) and it remains one of my favourite malts, but I have to say the 17 is on a completely different level. It's non-chill filtered which helps to give the 17 a lovely mouth feel and the taste just gets better as the bottle goes down. There are an abundance of lovely flavours and aromas going on here and it's very interesting to have a taste comparison between the 12 and the 17 if you get the chance. It costs around £60 and although not cheap, it's a cracking malt and I have no hesitation in recommending this one. A belter of a dram.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Out and about: The Newcastle Whisky Festival

On Saturday, I headed across the border to attend the sixth annual Newcastle Whisky Festival, hosted by The Whisky Lounge - my first festival and an unforgettable day. My old mate and fellow whisky enthusiast Yan lives in the city, so it would have been rude not to go, and after a three-hour train journey I arrived - slightly tired - in Newcastle at 10.20am, ready for a day of full-on dramspankery. At 12 noon, we queued patiently outside the city’s Civic Centre in a snaking crowd consisting mainly of gentlemen of a certain age - although some young uns of both sexes began to arrive as the afternoon unfolded.
    I had planned the trip carefully, with a lovely new pen and notebook stuffed into my back pocket for tasting notes but unfortunately - with so many whiskies and so little time, the five hours flew by in a whisky-induced haze - that I wrote down little aside from the drams I tried and a few hastily scribbled notes which began to resemble Cyrillic script by the end of the day. The first stop was at the Paul John stand - an Indian whisky which promised much. A dram of the Paul John Peated (55.5%) was followed by the Paul John Classic (55.2%) and we agreed that while both had a great nose and a fairly complex palate, the finish on both of them was on the short side. Still, not a bad start to the day.
    Next, we headed to the Rock Town stand, which featured a staggering array of whisky and other curiosities. While Yan got stuck into a 75-year-old cognac (£200 a bottle), I sipped a glass of Rock Town Arkansas Rye (46%). I like rye but unfortunately, I wasn't hugely impressed, and I found an excessive amount of rubber on the nose and I wasn't a fan of the sour taste either. To cleanse my palate, I took a punt on the Rock Town Apple Pie (20%). It was sweet and tasted exactly as you might expect from a product called Apple Pie - a massive cinnamon hit followed by sweet apple and buttery pastry. Not exactly complex but swishing it around my gob served its purpose, getting rid of the rubbery rye and replacing it with a mouthful of sweet cinnamon instead. Listerine, take note.
    The next stop on the whisky trail took us on a long-haul flight across the world to New Zealand - well, across the room at least - where The New Zealand Whisky Company were showing off their produce. I first tried their DoubleWood 15 (40%) which had been finished in red wine casks. Brand ambassador, Erik mentioned Merlot casks and as my wine knowledge is basic to say the least - you can still buy Black Tower, right? - that was good enough for me. But no matter, I didn't like it. The whisky had a very unusual taste, while the finish was heavy on drying tannins which really didn't agree with me. That said, their Milford Single Malt 15 year old (43%) fared much better, with some nice character on show including some lovely fruit and syrup notes.
     A couple of glugs of water followed by a wee 10 minute rest and we were off again, this time to Scotland for the first time, and a sample of Royal Lochnagar Distiller's Edition (40%). I do like the regular bottling of Royal Lochnagar - very easy drinking and available at a decent price, malt fans - so I was keen to try this expression, but again I was left underwhelmed - largely due to the fact the Distiller's Edition uses wine casks in its maturation. I think it's fair to say that whiskies aged in wine casks just aren't for me so I'll be steering clear in the future.
    Following a couple of uninspiring drams and in need of something familiar to rebalance the old taste buds, we made a beeline to the Glen Garioch stand. I plumped for a reassuring dram of the Glen Garioch Founder's Reserve (48%) which was excellent and full of the same nutty character that makes the 12 such a good whisky.
    From Scotland, we then headed back to India, this time via the Amrut stand. I had heard a great deal about this distillery and was eager to try a couple of their whiskies. I first tried the Amrut Fusion (50%) which blew me away. A delicious dram with depth and complexity. Next came the Amrut Intermediate Sherry Matured (57.1%) which, like the Fusion, was just lovely. Again, very complex with a lot going on and I slid away from the stand with a huge smile on my face. I tried going back for more later in the afternoon, but everything had gone, so I'm clearly not the only one who enjoyed their products.
    It was then time for a breather - and more water - before we headed away from the increasingly inebriated crowd to a private room and The Islay Expedition - a tasting session which cost £15 on top of the festival ticket price - exceptional value if you ask me.
    Accompanied by a video and several atmospheric shots of Islay, The Whisky Lounge founder Eddie Ludlow guided us across the island via six cracking Islay malts in an informative, entertaining and humorous session. Eddie's love of all things Islay shone through and proved to be the highlight of the day.
    We sampled Kilchoman's 2nd release (50%), Caol Ila Port Askaig 19 year old (50.4%), a SMWS bottling of a 19 year old Caol Ila from a refilled sherry butt (60.3%), a Master of Malt single cask Ardbeg from a sherry hogshead (56.3%), the Lagavulin Feis Ile 18 (51%) and the Ardbeg Ardbog (52.1%).
    I really enjoyed five of the drams - my favourite being the Lagavulin - but the Ardbog proved to be something of a disappointment. The rubbery smell on the nose was an instant turn-off and I left the session quite glad I didn't buy a bottle when I had the chance last year. In other news, wafts of rubber were starting to become something of a nuisance in Newcastle.
    Following a breather, we battled our way through the heaving masses and checked out Martin Armstrong's Whisky Broker stand. Crammed with a fine selection of independent bottlings we shared three drams between us: a 20 year old Aultmore (54.4%), a 24 year old Macallan (54.4%) and a 25 year old Invergordon (51%). All were single casks and all were quite brilliant. For me, the Aultmore was the stand out dram of the whole day - sweet and delicious - and I'll be looking to buy a bottle later in the month (if there are any left). The sweet note continued with a drop of The Glenrothes 2001 (40%) - another dram which I really enjoyed, before we headed back to Islay for a feisty and delicious Kilchoman 2007 (46%). By this point in proceedings, we were nearing the end, and as if we hadn't consumed enough whisky already, we decided to dash around the hall in a blind panic to try and taste a few more. I tried The Compass Box's Oak Cross (43%) which I thought was excellent, The Tweeddale 14 (46%) - more brilliance from Alasdair Day - and I just had time for a quick nip of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask (48%) before the curtain came down on a brilliant afternoon.
    Sadly, we didn't have the chance to get round every stand - I couldn't get near the Bladnoch table, for example, because people just stood there refusing to move. At events such as this, you should get a whisky, learn a bit about it, then move to one side and let others in while you enjoy your dram. Sadly, some people seemed to be rooted to the spot which was a bit disappointing.
    Cast out into the daylight was a shock to the system and after some thoughtful beard stroking and intense debate, it was decided it would be a good idea to go to the pub to muse over our splendid afternoon (this seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn't seem so clever on Sunday morning). A couple of fizzy beers followed - Peroni, I think - and a dram of Nikka From the Barrel. My recollection of the conversation in the pub is hazy, but I’m pretty sure it involved planning a camping trip to Islay next year. Let's see how that one goes...
    It was then time to head off into the night - well, late afternoon at least - and grab some much-needed food, lots of water, a couple of paracetamol and an early night.
    The train journey back home on Sunday was arduous - full of squawking people, petulant, wailing children, and endless loud, high tempo ring tones - but I made it home in one piece with a hogshead full of memories, a scribbled mess of almost incomprehensible notes, and a bottle of Amrut Fusion.
    What a fantastic weekend. Hopefully I'll have recovered in time for the Edinburgh Whisky Stramash in May.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Douglas Laing Speyside Twitter Tasting

WELL, this is embarrassing. This particular Twitter tasting actually happened back in November, but due to December's advent calendar shenanigans, I forgot to post a blog entry at the time. I've just stumbled across my notes from the evening - which was to mark the launch of Scallywag - so I though I better get something down before I lose my notes again.
    There were four whiskies on the night, including the Scallywag, but since I've already blogged about that particular dram, here I'll concentrate on the three others from the night.
    A huge thanks to Steve Rush over at the The Whisky Wire for organising the evening and it's worthwhile keeping your eye on Steve's site for upcoming tasting sessions throughout 2014. So, enough of the waffle, let's get stuck in.

Old Particular: Dailuaine 15 - 48.4%
282 bottles produced from a bourbon barrel

On the nose, the Dailuaine 15 carries a slightly musty note, which soon gives way to mint, eucalyptus, pine needles, grapefruit, baked lemon and butter icing. Very unusual and incredibly interesting. On the palate, the whisky has an oily mouth feel, while grass, herbs and a slight toffee note clearly come through. A little water brings out buttery sweet wood and coconut, while the finish is dry and sweet with lovely herbal notes. Really enjoyed this and it was quite unlike anything I had tasted before

Old Particular: Dufftown 18 - 48.4%
197 bottles produced from a refill hogshead

This starts out with a very earthy nose and took a while to open up. Once it did, I got green oak, vanilla, soft golden fruit, dried banana chips, crushed mint leaves, gooseberries and a whiff of cloudy cider. The first taste was packed with delicious melon which was then joined by orange oil, lemon and vanilla notes. The finish was heavy on the fruitcake - with unmistakable slabs of marzipan and white icing. A cake in a glass. Lovely.

Old Particular: Glen Grant 21 - 51.5%
374 bottles produced from a single sherry butt

On the nose this is a complex and mouthwatering dram with some definite bourbon qualities lurking under the surface. There's ginger cake, dried fruit, dark rum-soaked cherries, old wooden furniture, dates, caramel and a dollop of treacle. After leaving it for five minutes and adding a teaspoon of water, this transformed into the smell of stick toffee pudding. Amazing. It tasted just as good with baked dark fruit, raisins, warm caramel sauce and a bite of dark chocolate, while the finish was long with brown sugar and dried fruit notes coming to the fore.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Glencadam 15 - 46%

Nose: Incredibly aromatic with raspberry juice, sweet tangerine, soft apricots, white wine, grapefruit, faint liquorice, apple strudel, mild mint and a slight shake of salt.

Palate: Fruity, with sugar-topped pastry, marzipan and barley sugars.

Finish: The liquorice note intensifies here but then a lovely golden fruit note washes in to give a beautiful finish, while deep vanilla holds it all together beautifully.

Notes: Like its older brother, the Glencadam 21, this is a lovely, lovely dram - although it's not that easy to track down. It's a whisky tailor made to be sipped during those long summer days, although it certainly put a smile on my mug when the wind was howling and the rain battered against my window on a cold Scottish winter night. It's also un-chill filtered and no colouring has been added. If you see it, buy it.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Compass Box - Hedonism - 43%: bottling HE18MMXI

Nose: Floral with creamy vanilla, cranberry juice, spicy cinnamon, desiccated coconut, baked lemon, chocolate mints, crème brûlée, nail varnish and Plasticine. There's also a herbal note lurking around which reminded me of chopped coriander.

Palate: Soft fruit, milk chocolate, vanilla custard and light wood.

Finish: More chocolate with flashes of cinnamon, white pepper, wood shavings and sweet vanilla.

Notes: After thoroughly enjoying Compass Box's Spice Tree, this was yet another fabulous blend from the specialist whisky maker, but this time in the realm of grain whisky. My thanks go out once again to Ben Cops over at Ben's Whisky Blog for sending a sample up to Scotland for me. It's a delicious and robust blend, full of flavour and a really good late night sipper - it makes an excellent after dinner dram.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Balblair 97 - 2nd release - 46%

Nose: Fruit, crushed custard cream biscuits, pineapple, apples, kiwi fruit, bananas, fizzy Refreshers sweets and fruit salad chews.

Palate: Light and fruity with a touch of red liquorice, buttery pastry, light apple and an abundance of red berries.

Finish: Pepper, sour lemon, vanilla, orange oil, freshly cut grass and creamy panna cotta with a light dusting of sweet cinnamon,

Notes: A fresh and clean dram which might even convert non-whisky drinkers thanks to its light and complex characteristics. The Balblair 97 is beautifully balanced, is non-chill filtered, has no added colouring, is bottled at a robust 46% and is available at a very reasonable price. Wonderful.