Friday 11 November 2016 Port Charlotte 12 Year Old

YouTube superstar Ralfy popped into the shop to say hello, and very kindly shared a delicious peaty dram with us.

It's a private cask of Port Charlotte, bottled to mark the achievement of a new world record at Bonneville this September past, vintage motorcycles being Ralfy's other obsession.

Ralfy has picked a fantastic cask to bottle, the kind of clean, fresh ex-sherry cask which adds so much to a whisky without dominating the spirit character.

The nose is salty and rich and slightly waxy. There's the characteristic sherry cask chocolate note which to me is always reminiscent of cheap instant chocolate pudding - you know, Angel Delight or Miracle Whip or similar. There's also just enough old cask smell or fustiness. Not too much, just enough.

The palate is sweet and rounded and chocolatey, before evolving into a snuffed out candle smoke taste. Delicious.

It's a very, very fine Port Charlotte, by far the best I've yet tasted. Good work on securing that cask, Ralfy, and can I have some more please?

Postscript: A couple of days later I was talking to Ralfy again and he told me that, according to staff from Bruichladdich who were at Glasgow's Whisky Festival, some of these private casks of Port Charlotte were actually filled with Octomore (due to a shortage of PC spirit). Which might explain the intense peat character of this dram, coming as it does from a pretty active cask.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Tasting Note: Kilchoman Cask Strength Quarter Cask

Despite being up and running for some eleven years, Kilchoman don't seem to have any plans for a standard ten year old release yet. I don't consider this necessarily a bad thing. Apart from the first few youthful bottlings, which I found as rough as an agricultural salt lick, I reckon that Kilchoman tastes very good at four or five or six years old.

The nose is sweet – banana cream with some salty earthy peat underneath., then the peat seems to get more floral. Iodically floral. Adding water makes it spirity, but also fresh and airy.

The palate is very, very sweet, soft, and drinkable. There's loads of earthy peat. It leaves a saltiness behind (or more precisely a salt-sweet note), plus a chili burn. With water it is still very sweet, light bodied, a little hotter than without water. The peat seems saltier – more sea air than earthy. Finish is now oddly drying. With time I'm starting to see some fruity notes, but the finish is definitely a bit rougher once water is added.

To conclude. A quarter cask expression seems like a good way to bring on maturing spirit more rapidly. I've always been a fan of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, which is said to be about six years old, and I've tasted some delicious young octaves from Glenglassaugh. I like this expression a lot.

Thursday 6 October 2016

Tasting Note: Miltonduff 21 Year Old

Miltonduff doesn't really figure in any list of distillery greats. There's hardly an official bottling to be had, seeing as Chivas Bros. main use for it is to blend into Ballantine's (alongside the blessed Glenburgie).

So it was a real pleasure to taste and enjoy this bottling by Morrison & Mackay, the Perthshire firm to whom the Scotch whisky industry turns when in need of a whisky liqueur (they also bottle some cracking malts).

It's a dram which is both light in colour and light of body, although far from lacking in flavour. In fact, it manages that special trick of keeping several different flavours going at once in the back of the mouth. There's a waxy yellow fruit note, and a tangy Edinburgh rock thing, plus the corresponding chalkiness (which doesn't always happen, by the way). There is also a fizzy, sherbet-y lightness.

The cask flavours are very much in the background and integrated with everything else which is going on, allowing the distillate character to shine through.

Of course, this is a bottling from just two hogsheads, so it's probably all been drunk by now. So what? There's always another whisky to find. There's probably another Miltonduff out there, just waiting for you. Go get it!

About Miltonduff
Built in 1824 near Elgin, Miltonduff has seen several changes of ownership; since 2005 it has been run by Chivas Bros. It was one of a handful of distilleries to be fitted with Lomond stills, making a whisky called Mosstowie. Nowadays it is most important as a component of the Ballantine's blend.

Thursday 29 September 2016

An Unfair Comparison

In the middle of a Twitter tasting organised by Steve Rush for the Lakes Distillery I found myself, slightly to my surprise, thinking of Campbeltown.

The whisky on tasting was a tawny port cask finished version of The One, which is a British whisky blended with spirit from across the UK, and there was about it a faint but distinct air of tarry rope, or coal tar soap, or some such. In other words, Eau de Kintyre.

Having enjoyed it, I thought I would finish off my sample in comparing it with the genuine article, in the shape of Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength.

I know, I know, it's a completely unfair comparison. One of these is a blended whisky, and very likely with a component average age of not much more than three, while the other is a full strength malt from the most old school distillery of them all (and regarded by many folk as the best of distilleries). Nevertheless, dear reader, compare them I did.

The very act of making the comparison seemed to change the blend. The smoke went from being tarry to a sort of damp earthy burnt wood - still pleasant, but less impressive than previously. On the other hand the red fruit notes were still there, a tasty distilled version of the sort of jam used to fill doughnuts. Yep, still a decent blend.

But, alas, no match for the Springbank. Next to the blend it seemed a complex, slightly argumentative dram, with very faint smoke, a sour-sweaty-farmyard note right next to the most refined feminine perfume, dry maltiness, and the faint shadows of other flavours beyond those (is that marzipan? Next to the frangipane? I can't be sure).

So, well done to the Lakes distillery for a really interesting blend, and well done again for managing to invite comparison with Springbank. And now I'm away for another glass of Springbank.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Distillery Visit: Glenkinchie

I'm probably the wrong person to report on a visit to Glenkinchie. I'm no fan of the whisky, and I don't much care for Diageo either. These caveats aside, there were aspects of the visit that I enjoyed.

(I should say, by the way, that I completely failed to get any good pictures. Diageo, of course, have a blanket ban on photography in production areas or warehousing, but that aside, I failed. I took the distillery bus from Edinburgh, which gives you very little time to wander about. And Glenkinchie is tucked into a wee valley which doesn't offer many telephoto opportunities.)

The first pleasant surprise of the tour was meeting the guide, an ex-colleague from Oddbins days. She knew of old my penchant for pedantry in the nth degree, and was very tolerant of my questions. And, as is nearly always the case with Diageo, the tour script was factually accurate, concise, and very clear. It was great to see the huge wash still (30,963 litres—biggest in Scotland), which hinted at the historical role of Lowland distilleries as volume producers of low quality spirit.

I also enjoyed the tasting at the end of the tour. The bar at Glenkinchie has a very good selection of Distillers Editions and Flora & Fauna bottlings, which isn't always the case. After trying the Glenkinchie 12 (workmanlike) and Glenkinchie Distillers Edition (decent sherry casks, no spirit character) I had a Benrinnes 15 (always a pleasure, at least until 2020 or thereabouts, when the last of the spirit produced by partial triple distillation is finished) and a Lagavulin Distillers Edition.

I always think of Lagavulin as the malt whisky equivalent of Guinness in a crap pub, so to extend the metaphor, Lagavulin Distillers Edition is like going into a pub and finding unpasteurised Guinness, or Guinness Foreign Extra, on tap. In other words, a surprise and a delight.

On the down side, the warehouse we were shown seemed awfully Potemkin village. There was a remarkable absence of dust, dirt, or Baudoinia compniacensis. And when I looked up I could see plenty of daylight through the gaps between the floorboards, which rather implies that the upper warehouse floors are empty.

I also happened across a couple of interesting snippets. The first of these was a Heath Robinson print, about an imagined redesign of the Johnny Walker bottle.

I'm a huge fan of Heath Robinson, so this made me grin. (can you see me grinning in the reflected image?)

The second was this manufacturer's plate on a filter (for worts, I suppose).

Royal Letters Patent
Filtre Rapide
22-23 Great Tower Street London
Manufactured Aboad

I don't know why, but to me words like these from the past have a very strong appeal.

In summary, this is a great tour for visitors to Scotland. You can be picked up from Edinburgh and be back in the city centre in an afternoon, having enjoyed an imformative trip at a pretty distillery, plus a few acceptable-to-decent drams. For the seasoned malt drinker (as for me), Glenkinchie's main appeal is to add a stamp to your Classic Malts passport.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Not Good Enough

The Wines & Spirits Education Trust recently launched a series of videos, Three Minute Spirit School, which they describe as, "an entertaining and informative introduction to the world of spirits". To talk about whisky, they brought in Richard Patterson of Whyte and Mackay.

Sadly - and surprisingly, given that Mr Patterson has been working in whisky since the 1970s - the video makes a couple of questionable assertions.  There's also one statement which is presented as fact, but which, in my opinion, is actually a reflection of a crucial failing in the modern whisky industry.

Here is the video in question:

Questionable assertion #1:  Mr P says there are four whisky regions; Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown, & Islay.

Now look, I know that there are a fair few Speyside distillers who label their bottles as Highland, and Speyside is entirely inside Highland, but nevertheless it's right there in the Scotch Whisky Regulations; there are two "localities" (Campbeltown and Islay) and three "regions" (Highland, Lowland, and Speyside).

Questionable assertion #2: Mr P says, "take that barley, and we must let it germinate, which produces the natural starch, and then we obviously boil it up in the mash tun".

No it doesn't, and no we don't.

Germination during malting is what produces the enzymes which convert starch which is already present in the barley to sugar. And worts are made by adding very hot water ( 63-90°C) to the grist. Distillers worts aren't boiled. Perhaps Mr P was thinking of brewers.

And then there's the statement of current practice presented as eternal truth: wood contributes 70% of the flavour. Well yes, I'm sure there are plenty of modern distilleries for whom that's true. But if you are such a distiller, then I humbly submit that you're doing it wrong. I believe that the drive for efficiency in Scotch manufacture over the last sixty years has been at the expense of flavour, and as a consequence distillers have had to turn to ever more elaborate wood management schemes to produce interesting whiskies. With, in my opinion, variable results.

Two flat out errors and a policy position presented as natural law, all in the space of a three minute four minutes forty-four seconds video. Frankly, WSET, that's just not good enough.

Thursday 18 August 2016

Tasting Note: Kininvie 23 Year Old Batch 3

I'm sure we all have a personal list of whiskies we're desperate to try. Indeed, such lists almost have their own publishing category. For me, it's a rather fuzzy list, entitled "A malt from every distillery which didn't close before 1980". Very arbitrary, I know, but somewhat practical, from a financial point of view.

Today, I was rather excited to tick Kinivie off my list. It's a distillery I've  visited (or at least, pressed my nose against the windows), without ever experiencing the malt itself. Quite frankly, it was a big disappointment.

The nose is sharply spiritous, youthful, unevolved. There was a very good clean oak spice, and a nougat nuttiness, but also that raw oak character which always makes me think of gluey porridge. As Puddleglum put it, far more eloquently than I could, "it smells of modern cask management".

The palate is rather sharp. It's a light bodied whisky, sweet and nutty (like flapjacks, the sweetness is syrup rather than honey). The second sip is better, with a pleasant maltiness. Rather short, however.

In all, it's merely a decent whisky. The price is just silly. I would speculate that it has been set so high to increase the desirability of the whisky in the face of its ordinary flavour. As Smiley says in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, "The more you pay for it the less you are inclined to doubt it".

About Kininvie
Kininvie was built in 1990 to provide malt for William Grant's blends. It is also one of the three malts in Monkey Shoulder. Tucked away in the grounds of Balvenie, it's actually just a still house - mashing and fermenting is done using Balvenie's mash tun and washbacks.
Tucked Away Amongst the Trees - Kininvie

Thursday 7 July 2016

Tasting Note: White Horse (1922 Bottling)

Thanks to the auction skills of a whisky friend, I was offered a share in a bottle of White Horse 1922 at a bargain price.

I've previously tasted a 1940s bottling of this whisky, which I loved, and one from the 1980s, which was underwhelming. For this sample, I tasted it over two days, once on its own and once alongside three other whiskies.

The first impression of the whisky was not encouraging; it was very light on the nose, timid, in fact. The palate was rather better, but still nothing like the 1940s version.

The next day, in company, it seemed much more interesting. It definitely had the smell of byegone days, when direct fired stills were heating wash fermented with brewers yeast. There was a light maltiness, and perhaps a wisp of old scorched wood - nothing as definite as peatiness. The palate was much lighter than the nose had implied (perhaps a loss of alcohol?) and very creamy in texture. After some toasty, scorched brown sugar notes the finish was somewhat drying, astringent even.

Whilst it was a fairly complex dram, it was also a bit too light for real pleasure. A dram on the way out. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure and a privilege to experience the oldest whisky I've yet tasted.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Whisky and Nitpicking

At the last meeting of Glasgow's Whisky Club a small dispute arose over how many Scottish whisky distilleries have ever used Lomond stills. Drink having been taken (ahem) and a challenge thrown down, I faced the prospect of public humiliation if I couldn't prove that there had been more than five.

The five that we weren't arguing about are Loch Lomond, Glenburgie, Miltonduff, Scapa, and Inverleven. And the Wikipedia article which lists these five also seems to offer a convenient definition of a Lomond still, as being the invention of one person (Alistair Cunningham), for one company (Hiram Walker), at a well established date (1955).

I knew, however, that somewhere or other I had seen another name associated with Lomond stills, so I sat up very late reading a big pile of whisky books (not much change there then) and roaming the maltier corners of the internet.

Bingo! Littlemill, according to both Misako Udo(1) and Ingvar Ronde(2), had pot stills with rectifying columns from 1930 onwards. Great! I was mentally crafting my magnanimous victory speech when that date caught up with my brain. 1930. That's a full twenty-five years before Mr Cunningham invented the damn thing.

It gets worse. In re-reading The Scottish Whisky Distilleries I had come across a reference to Nevis distillery (not Ben Nevis, but another Fort William distillery of a similar name), to which Barnard(3) was said to have attributed a kind of Lomond still(4). That's sixty-nine years too early. What the heck?

And as I mulled that one over, it struck me that Alastair Cunningham, in 1955, probably didn't name his invention after a distillery which would not exist for another decade. Surely Lomond stills must have been named for the malt distillate of that name which came from inside the Dumbarton complex? Holy moly, Wikipedia is wrong! The world's turned upside down!

By now, if you are still reading, then you are either the person with whom I originally had the argument (Hi Greg!), or one of the Malt Maniacs. In which case I feel perfectly relaxed about introducing a table to summarise where we're at:

Dates of 'lomond' stills
Ownership at this date
Actual 'Lomond' stills
Nevis ~1886 Donald P MacDonald No
Littlemill 1930 Duncan G Thomas No
Lomond (Dumbarton) 1955 Hiram Walker Yes
Glenburgie 1958 Hiram Walker Yes
Miltonduff 1964 Hiram Walker Yes
Scapa 1959 Hiram Walker Yes
Loch Lomond 1965 Duncan G Thomas ???

Clear as a glass of Loch Dhu, yes?

So, here are my conclusions:

  • Six or more Scotch malt whisky distilleries have had pot stills with rectifying columns instead of plain swan necks
  • Five or more Scotch malt whisky distilleries have had pot stills with rectifying columns which are adjustable. The jury is out on Littlemill.
  • There were four Lomond stills, at Dumbarton(5), Glenburgie, Miltonduff, and Scapa
  • In a weird way Wikipedia is sort of right, since Loch Lomond does have lomond stills(6). Just not Lomond stills. If you see what I mean.
  • OTOH, Wikipedia is definitely wrong about Inverleven.
  • I don't think I've won my bet, but neither have I lost it.

Once you start digging into it, there are all kinds of tweaks to the basic pot still process which are used to cause rectification. Glen Grant's purifiers, the boil ball, Fettercairn's waterfall effect, those extra bits of piping you see running down from the lyne arm at Ardbeg or Talisker, et cetera, et cetera. It's enough to drive you to drink.

(1) Udo, Misako, The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, Black & White Publishing, 2006
(2) Ronde, Ingvar, The Malt Whisky Yearbook, Magdig Media, 2011
(3) Barnard, Alfred, The Whisky Distilleries, of the United Kingdom, 1887
(4) Although I can't find him using the word 'Lomond' in my copy of the book, just a picture of something which does look uncannily Lomond-like, on page 145, and at the top of this post.
(5) Dumbarton was a large distillery which mainly made grain whisky. It also produced two malts, Inverleven and Lomond. It seems that the two malts shared a wash still, and that while Inverleven had a normal spirit still, Lomond had a pot with a rectifying column on top. You can see some pictures of Dumbarton on the Canmore website, which is a great resource for anyone interested in Scottish industrial architecture, amongst other things.
(6) Although not according to the SWA, if Neil Wilson is to be believed.

Further Reading
E-pistle 2007/024 – Lomond Stills & The Oil Enigma
Whisky Science - Scottish Pot Still Variations

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Closed For A Reason

Closed For A Reason
My tasting note for this dram - admittedly written after a long afternoon of tasting big Australian red wines - reads in full:
A good ordinary dram. Decent malt, light fruitiness. The initial nose was like a whisky smell from childhood.
I've tasted only a handful of whiskies from Convalmore, and none of my notes really get any more enthusiastic than the one above. Hence the title of this post.

In 1985, Convalmore was one of five distilleries to close. In 1983, eleven had shut down. The Scotch slump of the eighties meant that producers had to face some hard choices. I'd hazard a guess that it was probably easier to choose to close a distillery which didn't produce a particularly outstanding whisky.

About Convalmore
You can still see the distillery buildings, although these days they are just used for storage by William Grant & Sons (Glenfiddich and Balvenie are neighbours to Convalmore). There's plenty of detail over on Malt Madness.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Tasting Note: Arran 18 Year Old

Over the past few years Isle of Arran have been releasing an annual batch of a few thousand bottles of teenaged whisky, as steps along the way to adding an 18 Year Old to their core range.

After a good 16 and a very good 17, last year's limited release 18 Year Old was a bit mince. There was a bitterness to it which wasn't enjoyable. I understand that Arran had to sell almost everything they produced back in 1995 and 1996, so they were working with very limited choices, but still. They could have waited.

So I didn't really have particularly high hopes for this new permanent release. And thus, find myself somewhat pleasantly surprised, but not delighted.

With its sweet cooked apple notes, this dram is most definitely Arran. The nose is toffee - tarte tatin, in fact, with a subtle sweet spice note. Over time a lifted aroma emerges; some sort of pungent note which isn't menthol or lavender, but which reminds me of both of those things.

The palate is slightly hot, sweet, and has a toffee apple sweetness (but green apples). There isn't much obvious oak, and any malty notes take a while to build.

In conclusion, while this a more than decent dram, I think I'd rather have the 14 Year Old, or one of the finishes - probably the Amarone finish.

Monday 18 January 2016

The Wood Makes The Whisky

If that's the best you can offer then I really do think you're doing it all wrong.

If you're claiming that 60% of the flavour in a malt comes from the wood, then stop what you're doing and go and learn how to make a flavoursome distillate!

A case in point is this tasty dram. If you were to offer it to a hundred people, whisky fans and non whisky drinkers alike, I doubt you'd even get one person calling it woody, or oaky, or spicy, or bourbon-like. In this case, "The Peat Makes the Whisky".

It's a classic Caol Ila, salty-sweet, coastal, iodic, peaty. Is there any discernable oak influence? Pfft.