Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Old Pulteney 12 Year Old

One night, years ago, I visited a friend for dinner. I can’t remember what we had – most likely a bastardised bolognese (a cheap dish we could all cook). But having a bit of Dolmio and pasta wasn’t intended to be the highlight, because my friend was especially keen to move onto the dessert. This was because he wanted to try out a trick he’d read in a Jamie Oliver cookbook…
The trick was to have vanilla ice-cream, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle a bit of salt on it. So we tried it out and it tasted… quite nice. The three flavours remained very separate, rather than combining to create a new one. And yet they worked together in a very unexpected way. The salt tempering the super sweet ice-cream but with the oil acting as a kind of balance between the two, making the combination of sugar and salt less jarring.
So by this point you probably won’t be surprised to hear that this somehow relates to Old Puleteney 12 Year Old. Well funnily enough it was drinking a glass of OP that reminded me of that taste. Salty, oily and with a hint of vanilla.
It doesn’t sound like it should work but it does, and it is such an unusual tasting single malt. It calls itself the Maritime Malt presumably because of that saltiness. It comes through in the smell too – a pervading saltiness but there’s something else there. After much thought the best I could come up with was driftwood. It has a combination of wood, beach and sea on the nose, quite bracing to take a good niff at. You’d probably hear the sea if you put you ear to the glass.
So that’s my impression of it. I suppose the only negative thing to say is that despite the unusual flavour it’s not the most complex whisky in the world, but it is smooth enough – possibly a touch too smooth. I’d be interested to try a cask strength OP to see what it’s like before they water it down…

What else to mention? The colour is lovely and golden. The bottle is very nice with a gorgeous bulbous neck and stocky lower half – it makes a great glugging sound the first time you pour it out.
The price – well this really is the thing. I bought a bottle on offer in ASDA for £21 (yes ASDA, sorry Royal Mile Whiskies) which is an absolute steal, a really very good drop for that kind of money. Now it seems to be around £27 mark which is still excellent value.
I can’t make a recommendation about this whisky in terms of "if you like x,y or z then try this". But I can wholeheartly recommend trying it out. It’s very well priced (even when not on offer) and adds something a bit different to a whisky collection.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A note on “authenticity”

A few thoughts on whether “authenticity” matters.

Lagavulin produces some very, very good whisky. It has a very charming old distillery, stone-built with white-wash walls, right on the rocky southern coast of Islay. The d├ęcor in the tasting room is very erm… tasteful. Big armchairs, wood panelling and tartan print wallpaper, it feels like you’re sitting in a Laird’s hunting lodge.
So when I was sitting in that  tasting room a couple of months ago everything was set for an enjoyable tour. And like every distillery tour it was enjoyable, but two things left me feeling slightly disappointed and maybe even a touch disillusioned. The first was hearing that the Lagavulin distillery runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and only requires one person to run its operations. And the second was that, once distilled, the spirit is put in a tanker, taken to the mainland and put into barrels to mature.

This wasn’t my first trip to a distillery – I already knew that most of distilleries are owned by large parent companies (Lagavulin is owned by Diageo). And that most distilleries don’t do their own malting, and that in fact many of them use barley that isn’t even grown in the UK.  That’s fine and understood.
But being hit with those two further things just seemed to make it a little bit too far removed from the romantic image of whisky production I had in my head.

The image of one man watching a computer screen and monitoring computerized systems from an office and then pumping 20,000 litres into a tanker to be shipped to a warehouse on an industrial estate outside Edinburgh just doesn’t seem quite as romantic as one might hope.

Now obviously I’m clearly a bit of a sucker for being buying into by the hoary old sales guff that the whisky industry peddles about the tradition and mystery of their product. But it is a seductive image nonetheless, and that’s the problem – if you’re being sold the image of whisky being the “authentic” taste of Islay or Speyside or wherever it is disconcerting to have that image rattled.

I don’t mean to pick on Lagavulin either – I know most distilleries operate in similar manner. And at least they were honest on the tour - would I have preferred it if they had tried to pretend that everything was produced on-site by kilt-wearing, barrel-chested yeomen using wood tools and going on about the “art of making whisky”? That would have been just as inauthentic. Maybe it is just my realisation that whisky making isn’t an art after all, maybe it’s a science – or at least merely an industrial process. Just because the end product is magical and evocative doesn’t mean what goes into it is too…

So does it really matter? I suppose not. Certainly it’s not going to matter to Diageo what I have to say. Making Whisky is an industrial operation and it just so happens that a small proportion of whisky-drinker prefer drinking single malt to blends. And a smaller proportion again of those are actually have enough of an interest to visit a distillery. They are hardly going to change their production so single malt enthusiast can feel slightly more contented.
And even despite my minor disappointment I can honestly say that when it came to the tasting I enjoyed Lagavulin as much as ever. Coal Ila (like Lagavulin owned by Diageo) has always been one of my all time favourites and remains so.

The closest thing I think of as an analogy for this experience is that it’s like reading an interview with your favourite musician and hearing them say something you don’t like. It might lessen your opinion of them slightly and even annoy you. But they won’t change anything that they do and despite what you think, the next time you hear your favourite song, your hairs will still stand on end. There is no fooling your ears. Or your tastebuds.