Thursday 1 October 2015

A Modest Proposal

Although it rather seems to have been superseded in recent decades, the kitemark scheme was generally some sort of guarantee of reasonable quality. Doubtless it was, or is, as fallible as any other human run scheme, but to my youthful eyes it always seemed like a Good Thing.

Last night's meeting  of Glasgow's Whisky Club reminded me once again that there's a crying need for some mechanism whereby the whisky drinkers can be alerted to the presence of whisky for collectors, thus saving themselves the pain of overpriced, underperforming malt, and leaving more sealed bottles for the auction fiends.

The day had started with the unexpected appearance of two new drams from Compass Box, Flaming Heart 2015 and This is not a Luxury Whisky. A tasting of the latter quickly revealed that it wasn't worth the asking price, which arguably is almost the definition of a luxury good.

The Club night featured only one standard dram. It was a strong line up, with the dram of the night being an Auchentoshan 22 Year Old (bottled by the Creative Whisky Co. for my employer, the Good Spirits Co.)

But the shiny bottle, the one that provoked the most chat, was the new Arran Illicit Stills Volume 1. It was a fine drop, and didn't seem too youthful, albeit somewhat harsh in the finish. As with the Compass Box in the morning, the complexity of the dram didn't justify the price tag. However, the blooming thing is all sold out already. A quick rummage online suggests most retailers presold their stock. And that's despite there being 8700 bottles. What the heck?

So. We need some sort of classification or scheme whereby collectable whisky is separated out from the drinking drams. If bottles such as This is not a Luxury and Illicit Stills were marked with a 'guaranteed collectable' kitemark, then those of us who prefer their whisky to taste good, first, last, and foremost can safely pass them by and go find something tasty in an ugly container.


Wednesday 30 September 2015

Distillery Visit: Dalwhinnie

On one of those rare glorious days when the sun is blazing down from a cerulean sky and Scotland seems more beautiful than any other place on Earth, I made the three hour train journey to Dalwhinnie.

The distillery sits just to the north of the village, clearly visible with its whitewashed walls and neat wooden worm tubs. It's a compact distillery, rebuilt in the late 1930s after a disastrous fire, and it feels like it could be the original Victorian buildings. The large impressive worm tubs at the front of the distillery have just been renewed in 2015 and add to the spick and span feel. It's a Diageo distillery, so no photography, which is a bit of a shame, as the mash tun is housed in what was a malt kiln, so there's a fantastic view of Charles Doig's roof from the inside.

Diageo also means a tightly scripted tour, but I was very lucky to have an enthusiastic guide who was happy to address my many supplementary questions. The guide gave a very thorough explanation of the whisky making process, and talked about Dalwhinnie's now abandoned experiment with shell & tube condensers, and how worm tubs are an essential component of the Dalwhinnie character. It was also interesting to learn that Dalwhinnie controls fermentation times by raising the temperature to kill the yeast.

The tun room has one 60,000 litre full lauter mash tun, with the rakes set high so as not to disturb the cereal bed, thus leading to a clear worts. There are six wooden washbacks, which ferment for about 60 hours, to produce a wash of about 9% alcohol.

The stills are large, lantern style, and they are worked hot, so that the spirit vapours don't get too much copper contact.

Dalwhinnie produces about 1 million litres a year. Most of this is stored elsewhere, with only a few thousand casks held onsite, in both racking and dunnage warehouses.

The recipe for Dalwhinnie, so to speak, is to make a fruity wash, distil it quite fast in big stills which don't give much reflux, and cool it rapidly with extremely cold water. The result is a new make spirit which is fruity, but also has a sulphur note. Consequently, the spirit needs long ageing, so as to reduce the sulphur to a trace, a suggestion of meatiness and a fuller body.

After the tour I did the Friends tasting, which includes five different expressions of Dalwhinnie, plus the new make spirit. I would sum up Dalwhinnie thusly:

* Key flavours: toffee citrus(lemon, with a little bitter orange), honey, grist

* Dalwhinnie really doesn't take water very well.

* The variations on the basic theme of the 15 Year Old don't really go anywhere very exciting. The Distillers Edition is allegedly sherried, but you would hardly know. The two outstanding drams were the 25 Year Old (which cost north of £300), and a 1991 cask sample which was delicious, but where the cask character was very dominant. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, but to approach perfection a whisky ought to meld a distinctive spirit with good wood in a way which lets both shine without either dominating)

I had quite a bit of time to kill before getting the train home, so I went for a wander to the south end of the village. It was an absolute belter of a day, and I ended up getting slightly sunburnt, but it was worth it. Just look at that beautiful, beautiful view:

Click on the picture to get the big version in all its sunny glory

Monday 10 August 2015

Oban Little Bay. Meh.

It seems that the current trend for established distilleries to add whiskies of unspecified age continues apace. June saw a re-arranging of the Glen Scotia range, with three age statement malts being dropped and two new non-age whiskies replacing them. Now Oban is the latest to join in the fun. Little Bay will be available very soon, and it was on tasting at Whisky Fringe 2015.

Oban Little Bay
Obviously a whisky festival isn't the best place to get to know a new dram, but I scribbled my notes and then discussed the whisky with a couple of other folk, and there did seem to be a fairly solid consensus. Our conclusion: meh.

It's not a bad whisky, in fact it's fairly decent, and bears a family resemblance to the 14 Year Old. On the nose I found salty-sweet caramel, and a gristy (youthful?) and heathery note. The palate was initially fruity (grapefruit, perhaps), and then very sweet, and somewhat earthy and woody.

But it's certainly no better than the 14. I was told by Diageo's personable young brand ambassador that the whisky is vatted from a selection of normal casks before being being put to quarter casks for a second maturation.  Well, I'm pretty positive that they're not fresh quarter casks.

All in all, it's hard to be enthusiastic about a new release which isn't any better than the existing product, which meets a producer's need, rather than any burning desire the consumer might have for new and different malts. So, Oban Little Bay, meh.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Comparison: Redbreast 15 Year Old versus Redbreast 21 Year Old

Redbreast 15 Year Old (43%, distiller's bottling)

nose: sweet and nutty, oily, sherried, mellow, and with a slight rum-like note. Definitely oily, in a mineralic way. With water it seems more rummy, sweeter, and curiously more oily.
palate: burnt brown sugar, oily, slightly mineral. A little fruity and rather woody. The finish is all dark wood and gravy browning. Overall very grippy, even chewy. With water it becomes softer, although still somewhat chewy. The flavours open up into icing sugar, toffee, dry spices, and oak. The finish now longer and more mellow.

Redbreast 21 Year Old (46%, distiller's bottling)

nose: rather more high toned than the 15. Similarly rummy, but also very nutty and oily - linseed oil. Over time the tones darken, and some oily red fruit comes out (red apple oleosaccharum perhaps).With water it becomes huge; savoury-sweet like Jamaican rum, thick, meaty, with old sherry wood, and a sweet brandy snap note.
palate: very rummy (Jamaican for sure), with green fruits, ice cream and warm brown spices. The finish is very hot and spicy, but also like rum ice cream. The aftertaste is savoury-herbal. With water some malt comes out, and the savoury notes grow stronger. The finish is very long.


The Redbreast 21 Year Old is an absolutely immense dram, with intense,complex flavours. The pure pot still style of whiskey makes for a thick, mouth-coating kind of whisky which is deeply satisfying to drink. If you are tired the 21 will overwhelm you, so it's a dram for early in the evening.

The 15 Year Old is rather easier to drink, while still offering the same thick, oily mouthfeel and rich fruity flavours. A great after dinner drink.

I tasted these two alongside samples of Redbreast 12, Powers John's Lane, and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy. The Redbreast 21 was, for me, head and shoulders above all the others.

About Pure Pot Still Whiskey

Fermented from a mix of malted and unmalted barley, and then triple distilled in pot stills, this uniquely Irish style evolved in the 19th century as a way of coping with onerous malt taxes.

As Irish whiskey declined, it became less and less important, until only Midleton distillery near Cork continued to make it, with Redbreast as the standard bearer for the style. Now that Irish whiskey is once again on the rise, I hope we'll see more and more of this lovely style of whiskey.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

A wee Brora (as you do)

I've been lucky enough to taste a handful of Broras over the years (once even at Clynelish distillery), and like many people, I consider it to be one of the finest old malts to be had.

On the other hand, the Connoisseurs Choice label tends not to be held in such esteem. It is indeed admirable that Gordon & Macphail offer so many different malts under so many labels, but they can't all be good, and in my experience the poorer ones end up as Connoisseurs Choice.

So it was a delightful surprise to find this dram so delicious. The nose was powerfully fruity, all ripe yellows and reds, with a strong strand of wax, and all very sweet. This being a late period Brora, there is no smoke to found.

The palate was even sweeter than the nose had suggested, with strong red apple notes and something yellow which might have been mango. The sweetness reminded me of brown sugar, and towards the finish I found a touch of beery malt. By the time I had finished the dram it was becoming a little astringent in the finish.

When Brora is peaty, the fruity flavours slip into the background, but this unpeated example served to emphasise the kinship between it and Clynelish. There's very few things to beat that ultra ripe fruit character in a whisky, and very few distilleries that can do it like Clynelish and Brora.

Brora, by the way, stands as a fine example of how the Scotch industry is so bad at forecasting. The old Clynelish distillery was closed when a much larger replacement was built next door in the mid 1960s. Shortly after that the owners (unexpectedly!) found themselves short of peated spirit and reopened the old distillery to cope, calling it Clynelish B and then, after a while, Brora. Then in the early 1980s another unforseen fluctuation (downwards this time) led to the final closure of Brora. Although, if you ask me, it didn't look too dilapidated when I was shown round...