2014-06-05

Glen Garioch 1998 Vintage

At a tasting of the Glen Garioch range last night Phil Nickson of Morrison Bowmore Distillers (MBD) treated us to a preview of the latest vintage release, a 1998 distillation matured in ex wine casks, specifically Saint-Julien, a Bordeaux red wine appellation.

We started with the core expressions, the Founder's Reserve and 12 Year Old. These are drams of which I think highly, in part at least because they taste just right at 48%. This is not a common bottling strength, suggesting that it has been chosen for reasons of taste (easier to do if you only shift 19,000 cases a year rather than say 120,000 like Bowmore). Two sweet and spicy drams, good to very good.

Next was the cask strength 1999 Sherry vintage, first released last year. Very much in the bold spicy Glen Garioch style of the first two whiskies, it also showed loads of somewhat rubbery sherry, and a pile of sweet red fruits; tinned strawberries perhaps. The finish was treacly and spicy. Excellent.

Glen Garioch 1991, released in 2010, is an ex bourbon expression, dating from when Glen Garioch malted its own barley with a bit of peat in the mix.  A very elegant dram (most Glen Garioch is what I'd call powerful rather than elegant), with smoky honey and coconut notes and a milky waxy finish. Very Good.

And so to the drum roll dram, the new 1998 vintage. I have to declare an interest here. I am a claret fanboy, specifically the Northern Médoc, so I may be a little biased towards this dram. It's worth noting that Saint-Julien is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, a cask type which is also used in the assemblage for Dalmore King Alexander, a superb whisky, albeit overpriced, and in the cracking Longrow Red from Springbank.

The spice notes I found in other expressions this evening were much rounder and softer in the '98. There was a qualitative difference in the fruit character too, with definite fruit-yoghurt notes, where the other whiskies showed dried fruits and lacked the creamy, buttery note. On the other hand, there is a bit of spirit burn, which the other drams didn't have. The palate is complex, with typical Garioch spice, soft buttery-treacle notes, and a wee touch - hard to pin down - of something savoury. Most decidedly excellent.

The one caveat I have regards the price. This release, 15 years old, bottled at 48%, costs about £100. The 1991, at cask strength and 19 years old, can be had for £70. It seems to me that MBD are cashing in on the current whisky bubble.

Or perhaps I just didn't like the whisky enough. Certainly, after the tasting, three people thought it was good enough to pre-order and pay for.

By way of a bonus, Phil then treated us to a wee taster of two other expressions, the Virgin Oak and the 1986. The Virgin Oak is delicious, although it perhaps ought to be called Bourbsky or Whisbon, since white oak is such a dominant flavour (irrelevant aside: naturalists say that a typical oak tree is home to some three hundred species of other plants and animals. Is it unreasonable to call humans the three hundred and first, since the flavour of oak is so important in so many human beverages??).

The 1986 was a fine, fine drop, and made all the finer by the subtle thread of smoke running through it. Since closing their floor maltings in 1994, Glen Garioch has been made with unpeated barley. On the basis of the '86, I would call that a big fat mistake.

2014-05-14

Create:Eat:Whisky

To Edinburgh for the opening session of Create:Eat:Whisky, which I'd been looking forward to ever since the anCnoc #LightOnDark event in March, because the food/whisky pairings at that event, by Jelly & Gin, were so very fine.

The venue was hidden behind a very unassuming frontage, through a wicket in a battered old yard entrance near the bottom of Leith Walk in Edinburgh. I stepped through into a dark, peat filled space, beyond which I could see smoke drifting from the dimly glowing interior.

Inside, the old Nestle factory had been equipped for fine dining, with linen table cloths and little wooden boxes containing canapés.


After a very atmospheric introductory video featuring, Wizard of Oz style, the disembodied voice of Richard Patterson doing his "Hello, How are you" schtick we tucked into said canapés, including and some very fine Ayrshire Bonnet cheese, paired with Jura Elixir, a twelve year old expression. The whisky cheese combination really worked very well, especially in terms of texture (I think because Jura is a soft/mild whisky), and the fruit flavours in the pineapple chutney definitely enhanced the malt.

Jura, to me, is a decent malt, but not more than that. It's soft and easy going, and seems to suit palates not used to whisky. Perhaps this softness makes it easier to match to food. Or perhaps Jelly and Gin are geniuses. There were some outstanding flavours going on here.

Next was a wholly carnivorous serving, which looked ace but did not pass my lips. The whisky was Jura Prophecy, the heavily peated one. This is a super sweet toffee-ish dram with a goodly hit of mellow rounded smoke. Decent enough. Prophecy always reminds me that Jura likes to position itself as the whisky for every occasion. Every bottle of Jura has a kind of flavour wheel printed on the box with - would you believe it! - a Jura in every quadrant.

Pudding!
Third up was Origin with a pear compote. This was just delicious. The texture was right, the cooked pear brought out a similar note in the whisky, the cream I could have eaten by itself. Never before has Jura 10 Year Old tasted so good.

We finished with the Diurach's Own (a 16 Year Old) and some artisanal chocolates, which I didn't eat, preferring to take them home as tiny bribes for my family. However, I do know from other tastings I've done that Jura is the right kind of whisky for chocolates - if it were woodier the oak would seem bitter, and it's sweet enough too.

An aside: Jura emphasise (on this page) that the Diurach's Own is matured in ex Amoroso Oloroso sherry barrels. But that's just cheap Oloroso which has been sweetened, which is perhaps not the greatest recommendation.

The music (see below), subtle lighting, and props never intruded on the organoleptic experience, and the food pairings definitely made Jura taste much more interesting than it normally does. Well done to Jelly & Gin.



2014-04-29

A Bruichladdich Tasting with Jim McEwan

Since 2001 Bruichladdich tins have carried the tag line "Progressive Hebridean Distillers". The 'Laddie has built a reputation as a distillery willing to experiment - Octomore, Black Arts, and the quadruple distilled X4 come to mind - and certainly the packaging is very modern.

Bruichladdich (like many an Islay malt) has also acquired a fanatical following, at least in part because of the work that Head Distiller Jim McEwan has done over the last thirteen years. So when Glasgow's Whisky Club invited him to host a tasting, there was a rush to sign up - I've never seen so many club members gathered in one place before.

Mr McEwan is a compelling and passionate speaker, and we were treated to a fiery defense of the Way of the Laddie, along with some great anecdotes of how distilleries worked in the 1960s. And of course, some very fine whiskies.

The first three were from the latest iteration of the Bruichladdich range. Bruichladdich Classic is a no age statement malt bottled at 50%, which replaces the Laddie Classic 10 Year Old (which was bottled at 46% and cost rather less). It has the pure, clean, malty character which, along with the lactic or sour note, defines Bruichladdich. Sadly, the new Classic isn't as elegant as the Ten. It's a fine dram, but the quality has dropped a notch. Here's hoping the distillery can manage to build up stocks to the point where the Ten can be reintroduced.

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007 is one of the products which justifies the "Progressive" tag. I wish more producers were exploring this kind of ultra local provenance, but at the moment there's just Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, and the not yet released Daftmill. Comparing it with the Classic, this whisky seems sweeter and creamier, and also more elegant. A very fine drop indeed.

The third "standard" was Port Charlotte. Again, no age statement (although peaty whiskies - for me anyway - seem to taste better at a young age). Really rather smoky, but also very very fruity, it still manages to show some of the Bruichladdich elegance.

The other three drams were (I think) cask samples. In the past you could be sure they would be released, but the latest Bruichladdich range is minimalist, so these may never be commercialised.

A 22 year old which has spent four years in a Haut Brion cask was my dram of the night. I have a real weakness for wine cask flavours, and this had everything I love. Elegance, vinosity, fruit (strawberry jam on buttered toast into raspberry balsamic vinegar), a slightly dirty note (faint struck match, plus very faint mushroom), it was truly complex. Superb whisky.

Don't even ask
A 28 year old from an Oloroso butt was perhaps not the best example of Bruichladdich character, but it was an outstanding example of sherry cask character. Rounded, sweet (but with big drying, grippy oak spice in the finish), nutty, treacle-y, I really enjoyed it. On reflection, there was some 'Laddie character to be found, in the balance and elegance of the finish. Another superb whisky.

We finished with some 2008 Octomore from a virgin oak cask. Of all the Octomore releases, I've only ever really enjoyed the Comus, which had some sweet wine cask influence. My first taste of this left my palate anaesthetised (64.7% ABV you see), but once I got over that the combination of ultra-peat and ultra-oak resolved into a rather tasty barbeque sauce effect. I'd still call Octomore a concept whisky rather than a drinker's dram, but this one was better than most.

At the end of his presentation Mr McEwan got us all to stand on our chairs with a foot on the table, so that we could toast each other properly (that is, by roaring at each other in Gaelic). All tastings should finish thus. A very fine evening. Here's hoping that 22 Year Old Haut Brion cask gets bottled sometime soon...

2014-04-19

Glenglassaugh Torfa

Newly arrived this week is a no-age-statement peated whisky from Glenglassaugh distillery, Torfa (which means turf in Old Norse. I spent an entertaining twenty minutes trying to look this up. The closest I could get was torf).


Glenglassaugh, since the change of ownership in 2008 have been pursuing a strategy of releasing very old and very young whiskies - a necessity after twenty two years silent. There were a series of three new make spirit drinks, alongside such beautifully aged drams as the 26 Year Old and the 30 Year Old. The current core dram is the Evolution, which was initially released at cask strength but is now bottled at 50%.

Torfa is, like the Evolution, bottled at 50%. It's a pale whisky. The nose is fairly intense and has lots of dry smoke, with lighter notes of heather and iodine or salt. I also found a suggestion of honey.

The palate is soft and slightly oily, with honey and plenty of dry smoke, shading into a metallic warm aroma (like heating a cast iron pan with nothing in it). The palate doesn't have any of the iodic notes from the nose, which is a definite difference from Islay style peated whiskies.

With water this is a very easy drinking dram, nicely smoky, although perhaps a little simple in the finish. Best to drink it at full strength I think.

Overall I'd say this is a pretty decent whisky from Glenglassaugh. Onwards & upwards!


2014-04-04

Tasting the new Arran 17 Year Old

I'm rather fond of Arran. The 10 Year Old is a good every day dram (and the bottle goes down mighty fast in my house). Some of the limited releases have been superb, such as the Peacock, and the Sleeping Warrior. I'm not so keen on the Machrie Moor  - it needs more peat - but overall I like their whiskies.

I recently tasted a single cask bottling of whisky distilled in 1996 which was outstanding, and left me thinking that Arran's plan to have an 18 Year Old as part of the core range was A Good Thing, because the mellow, rounded nature of that limited release 17 Year Old really suited the sweet toffee apple house style.

So, to this 17 Year Old, which is a limited release on the way to the Eighteen due out at some point in 2015.

The nose is sweet toffee, but with much less of the green apple note Arran usually gives me. There's a really attractive marzipan-nutty aroma. It seems a little more spirity than usual for Arran.

The palate is very rounded and mellow. Sweet syrupy apple juice, musty-dusty wood, and a little bit of the almond I found on the nose.

With water the nose opens up. Still nutty, but more macaroon or coconut, and biscuity. Not apple-y. The palate is now mouth coating and silky, very sweet and not so apple. The finish is really satisfying - lipsmacking even.

Overall, I'd rate it as Very Good Indeed.

2014-04-03

The Scotch Whisky Regulations – Reading Between the Lines

Recently at work we've been debating where to fit AnCnoc whiskies on the shelves. Partly, in truth, because the Highland shelves were over full, but partly also because the whiskies from Knockdhu distillery are fine examples of the classic Speyside flavour profile, even if it does say 'Highland' on the tin.

Now, prompted by some twitter chat regarding what constitutes Speyside, I've been having a read at the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (the SWR), and also the Scotch Whisky Order 1990 (the SWO).

The SWR gives a detailed geographical description of the Highland-Lowland boundary, and also defines the protected localities of Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. Speyside and Campbeltown are defined by refering to electoral wards, Islay is defined as the island of Islay.

The SWO is less particular; its definition of Scotch runs to just 175 words and doesn't mention anything at all about regions.

So here's my interpretation of these bits of legalese. It was always (or at least since 1893, with the Sale of Goods Act) the case that the label on a bottle of Scotch had to tell the truth – you couldn't label a bottle of Lowland malt as being from Islay. So it wasn't necessary for the 1990 order to specify regions because other legislation would effectively do the job.

But in order to give the same sort of protection to Scotch that is enjoyed by Parmesan, or Barolo, or Grand Cru Burgundy, it is necessary to follow the kind of geography based definition that's used by those other tasty products (PDOs or PGIs, if you're interested).

Hence the minutely detailed boundaries in the SWR-2009. However, since whisky making isn't like grape growing, the boundaries don't need to follow the line of a valley or a river, and so electoral districts are a handy pre-defined set of units to use.

However, the regulations had to be framed to accommodate existing practice. Macallan chooses to label its own bottlings as Highland, whereas Gordon & Macphail, for example, sell Macallan under the Speymalt name. Glenfarclas calls itself Highland; Tormore, just up the road, is 'The Pearl of Speyside'.

And thus, confusion reigns. It could be worse though. Burgundy is so complicated that people can't even agree on the number of appellations. Is it 300? 500? 700? And of course, there is an entirely separate debate as to whether regionality or terroir even exists in Scotch whisky, but I think I'll leave that one for another day....

2014-03-27

#LightOnDark

Ah, product launches, how we love you. The elaborate set dressing, the canapés, the free booze, the goodie bag, the celebrity presenter, the hash tag...

To the Arches for the release of AnCnoc's peated whiskies, Rutter, Flaughter, and Tushkar. Even before I entered the launch space I could smell the smoke. Dimly and dramatically lit, it was hardly the best environment to taste anything for the first time (especially from the big mouthed tumblers the whiskies were served in), so I bravely resolved to stuff my face with nibbles, drink whisky, and network.

AnCnoc is a sweet, light dram. It calls itself Highland, although if you ask me it's a fine example of the Speyside style. There are peated Speysiders to be found, but not many of them. AnCnoc have chosen to go for a light smoking, with the added twist that the peatiness is defined according to the level in the new make spirit, rather than, as everyone else does, by reference to the barley. Clever marketing, or merely thrawn?

I tried the Rutter with a tiny blue cheese topped biscuit served from a smoke filled glass dome. It was
delicious. I've no idea what fraction of the deliciousness was whisky-based, but delicious it was.

The Flaughter didn't seem to go so well with some chestnut cream filled macarons, but on the other hand the mini edible peat bogs complemented it superbly. I ate at least five.

The Tushkar? Well, it's a bit thicker or oilier than the other two, I think. And somewhat smoky.

I left, clutching my loot, having failed to network, and reflecting on the whiskies. I like the Rutter best, because it retains most AnCnoc character, combining sweet barley notes with light, dry smoke. The other two are good, but they could be from any number of distilleries.

My ratings:
  • Rutter - Very Good
  • Flaughter - Good
  • Tushkar - Good
  • #LightOnDark - Excellent
  • Edible Mini Peat Bogs - Can I Have A Full Size One Please?
    Mmmmm, edible peat bogs