Wednesday, 26 November 2014
With the nights getting darker and the temperature starting to plummet, what better way to raise the spirits than to go along to a whisky festival?
Friendly faces and top drams were on show at the recent Glasgow Whisky Festival - and I was one of the fortunate souls who eagerly lined up to sample some rather excellent whiskies.
After stuffing my face with a lamb burger and more fries than I've ever seen on a plate before, my brother and I headed down to The Arches in Glasgow city centre and dived into a swirling cauldron of blends, single malts and other spirits at 1pm sharp.
Now, it should be noted here that while I enjoyed many excellent drams, jotting tasting notes down was an impossible task - and I refuse to wear one of those ridiculous lanyards. I'd rather be in full control of my glass at all times - not dangling round my neck like some oversized new age crystal.
Before I even had a dram in my hand, my good Twitter chum Neil MacKinnon came over to say hello and swiftly dropped the words "Springbank" and "new release" into the conversation. No further persuasion was needed and I happily skipped over to their table. Plenty of bottles were on display, tinkling invitingly in the subterranean gloom. But the only one I was after was the new Springbank Green. I found it quite delicate, without that powerful hit other Springbanks have - but it's very drinkable and think it would make for top summer drammage. Colour me impressed - but it is pricey.
Next it was over to the always reliable Douglas Laing table. Again, a range of bottles tempted me but not wanting to block the table I quickly plumped for their Timorous Beastie blend. I'd heard some mixed reports of this excellently packaged whisky but I found it rather good. There was a robust sherry character and it was rich and tasty. Not sure I'd buy it over their Big Peat, but enjoy it I did.
I recently picked up a bottle of Weymess Malt's Peat Chimney and I'm enjoying its rich, chocolatey notes. So I was delighted to see the company back in Glasgow. I went straight for their dramspanking new release Velvet Fig - and I'm glad to say the blend tastes as good as its name implies. Sweet, mouth-coating and luscious - this was an absolute belter. Again, it sells for a good price and I'll be picking up a bottle as soon as I can get away with it. Lovely.
It was then time to leave Scotland behind and head to the rarefied air of Colorado, USA for a splash of Tin Cup whiskey. I do like some of the stuff currently coming out of the States - but I really prefer the spiciness of rye over the sweetness of bourbon. To my delight, Tin Cup carries a wonderful rye character and I thought it was quite something. The mash bill is made up from 4% malted barley, 64% corn and a healthy 32% rye. The presentation is also rather smart, with the bottle coming with its own tin cup measure. Could see this making cracking cocktails, but it also makes for a great sipper.
The great thing about whisky festivals is getting the chance to try before you buy and I'm glad I tried the Glen Moray Port Cask finish rather than splash the cash on a full bottle. I've tried a couple of SMWS bottles of Glen Moray and they were amazing. But this was not for me. No punch, very thin and really lacking character. One of the day's rare disappointments.
And speaking of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, it was time to visit there glowing red room full of quality drams. The lad on the door was controlling the numbers in the closed-off space - a great idea as last time the SMWS were there, it was in the middle of the venue and it was almost impossible to get near the tables.
They were heavily promoting their latest huge outturn and although I had previously ordered three bottles from the new range, none of these were present. It would have been nice to get a wee preview but never mind. The bottles are now safely tucked away for the moment and will be popped some time in the new year.
Here's what I sampled. Ready? Here we go!: 53.214: Seafood Cocktail - a 17-year-old Caol Ila, 26.105: Bumblebees by the Sea - a 29-year-old Clynelish, 46.26: Killer Bee Surf Wax - a 21-year-old Glenlossie, 66.58: There is Only One...! - a nine-year-old Ardmore, G8.4 Summer Meadow Hoedown - a 25-year-old Cambus, 9.91: A Whispering Dram - a 23-year-old Glen Grant, 36.80: Dorothy Dances the Yellow Brick Road - an 11-year-old Benrinnes, 41.60: Fun to Chase - a 25-year-old Dailuaine and finally a 37.97: A Symphony of Sophistication - a 23-year-old Cragganmore. Phew!
All were nothing short of splendid, but the 29-year-old Clynelish blew me away. An absolute corker of a dram and my whisky of the day. Just lovely. In second place was the 25-year-old Dailuaine, which my brother and I agreed was top drawer.
Following the cask strength madness, we stumbled out of the room and back into the bustling throng of noisy whisky aficionados. Time for a break and plenty of water before we tightened our belts, rinsed our Glencairns and headed bravely back into the heaving mass of inebriated souls - all in the name of science.
A trip to the Balblair table was in order and within a few minutes, I had a cheeky wee glass of the Balblair 83 in my hands. Cracking stuff it was too - although it has to be said if there's a bad Balblair, I've yet to find it. Everything they produce is solid gold. Magic!
I then spotted a Cooper's Choice 1996 Ben Nevis and, seeing as I'd never previously tried a drop, I took the plunge. I'm glad I did as I found it to be pleasant stuff. However, it should be noted that by this point in proceedings, my senses weren't exactly in sparkling form. Onwards!
I then stopped by the Haig Club stand, where large blue perfume bottles glinted under the lights. This is the stuff David Beckham's trying to flog and I was wary. I'm not a whisky snob - far from it, but I'm always dubious when a celebrity puts their face to a product. All I see in my mind is wads of cash changing hands and I don't like it. This is a grain whisky. And it's young. Prejudice aside, I found it painfully average. And for about £45 a bottle, I won't be going near it again. If you want my advice and you’re looking for a really interesting young grain whisky, go for Teeling Single Grain. It's lovely and knocks Beckham's effort clear over the crossbar and into the stadium's car park.
Next was a delicious Hazelburn 12 before I sauntered over to see the hard-working Benromach team. I asked for a splash of the Benromach Organic - and I thought it was a marvellous drop. One of the highlights of the day. I do like their 10-year-old, but this has more depth and richness. Lovely.
An Arran Machrie Moor was the next drop in the glass and while enjoyable, I still prefer the standard 14-Year-old. Which reminds me - I need to buy another bottle to welcome the 2015 spring.
Now, there comes a time at a whisky festival when I decide to hit the peated drams. Usually with around 90 minutes to go, I start to get stuck in. On this day, I had obviously tried a few throughout the session but from here on out, only peated spirit would pass my lips. And when it comes to peated single malts, no one does it better than Kilchoman in my opinion.
So that's where I headed next. They had several of their 2014 releases including the excellent Machir Bay (tasting notes soon). Also here was their khaki green-labelled Cask Strength bruiser. I bought a full bottle a few weeks ago - although it remains unopened for the moment. This was a great chance to try it and discover what awaits me in the future. I'm glad to say it was impressive. Full of Kilchoman character and a bottle I'm going to enjoy spending time with. Either this or my cask strength Christmas edition of Big Peat will see in the new year with me.
Next, it was over to India for the Paul John Heavily Peated. Maybe it was the fact I had bounded over straight from Kilchoman, but I just didn't get a heavy peat note at all and found it rather disappointing. I then dabbled in a drop of the English Whisky Co and their peated Chapter 15 release. I really enjoyed it, too and I'm looking forward to delving a bit deeper into their releases in the future.
The final dram of the festival wasn't whisky. Instead, I dived into Bruichladdich's Botanist gin. I'm no expert, but I enjoyed what was in the glass and it certainly refreshed the palate with its sharp, aromatic qualities.
It was then time for fond farewells to friends old and new and off I tramped with a slightly fuzzy head to the bus stop with thoughts of a greasy fish supper taking form in my pickled brain. But before I could fill my cake hole with battered fish, undercooked chips and a couple of pickled eggs, I spied The Pot Still - one of Glasgow's finest whisky bars. Standing in the cool Glasgow twilight, I convinced myself that I clearly hadn't had enough whisky for one day, so in I barged with a fistful of crumpled notes clutched tightly to my chest.
If I was a little weather-worn and bedraggled, the guy behind the bar didn't seem to notice. I ordered a Kilchoman Port Cask finish - a bottle that disappeared as soon as it hit the shelves a few months back. I was delighted to see it out in the wild and even happier that I got the chance to sample a full dram of this ruby-coloured gem. It was rather good, although I admit by this point my sense of taste, smell and direction weren't exactly pin-sharp.
And as I gently swirled that last drop round my mouth, it marked the end of my 2014 four festival run. But the fun continues on various fronts. For the last year, myself and three friends and former colleagues have been squirrelling cash away each month in a whisky club. This weekend, the four of us will pull the cash together and head out and spent around £500 on whisky. The details about exactly what we'll spend the cash on are still slightly up in the air, but for that kind of cash, we'll get something special, I'm sure.
They're a good bunch but led me astray at the Edinburgh Stramash back in May and coerced me into throwing money at a cask at the new Isle of Harris Distillery - but more about that in the future. And as if all this wasn't enough, my good mate Yan has already secured tickets for the Newcastle Whisky Festival in March - the 11am start from what I can gather so that'll be fun. Breakfast drams, anyone?
But despite all the good things to look forward to over the coming months, I'm going to end this ludicrously long post on a downer - a bit of a rant, if you will. It's something that has plagued all the festivals I've attended this year and I need to get it off my chest because it's been twisting my melon. The subject? Blocking tables.
Please note: Tasting tables are not bars - they're not there to stand at and chat with your mates. They're there for people to sample a whisky and find out information. Once the info has been imparted, a dram poured and thanks given, move away from the table. It's not difficult. I had to ask time and time again for people to shift. Most people just glared at me - as if I was gatecrashing their own private party. It's ignorant and there's really no excuse.
So stop it or you might just find some sharp elbows in your ribs in the future. You have been warned!