Monday, 25 November 2013

Glenfarclas 15 Year Old

Glenfarclas 15 Year Old
Well, it’s been a long time since I last posted… I’m probably going to stop mentioning that since it’s how so many posts start. From now on in this has blog has moved from regular series of reviews to an occasional series. A very occasional series...

Mind you, in whisky terms these gaps are mere blips in the long maturation of this blog.  The only difference is that in the case of whisky things tend to get better with age, whereas this blog maintains a steady standard (of unexpurgated dreck).

So Glenfarclas 15 year old. An exellent whisky.

I was desperate to love this whisky. Even without trying it I have always had peculiar soft spot for Glenfarclas, I think mainly due to its amazing 1950s styling. The label oozes a kind old-fashioned classiness and distinction… like a grand old victorian theatre. So on a recent(ish) trip to Speyside I picked up this bottle following a tour of the distillery.
As an aside, having done the tour there was nothing there to dampen my ardour for Glenfarclas – it’s a very nice, friendly operation and wholly independent. It looks surprisingly industrial in its process – for example they have massive steel washbacks instead of wooden ones.  But then sometime I need to remind myself that they are operating within an industry and not running a whimsy factory.

A few days after getting home I popped the top off the bottle poured a glass of the dark sweet 15yo, took a nosing… and got blasted by a painful whiff of alcohol. I tamed it with a bit of water but something wasn’t quite right. It almost seemed a touch stale. Maybe I was wanting to like it too much and it wasn’t living up to my expectations but I couldn’t quite get a handle on the taste of it. It just seemed to burn and a be bit flat.

But fear not, I left it a few more days before trying again,  at the second time of asking it well and truly came through and every time since it’s proved itself to be a beautiful wee drop. I got a pleasant caramelised orange on the nose. It still looks the part that dark rich syrup colour but it’s so pleasantly sweet to the taste,  like drinking water that has been running over a tray of molten toffee. 

It lingers for so long too, like having something stuck in your teeth that you keep catching – but, you know, in a good way. The whole mouth feel is amazing.

What to make of the first try I’m not sure – either there was something that needed to happen within the bottle or, more likely, my tastebuds were having an off-day. I think it’s a salutatory lesson not to make any lasting judgments on just one taste.

Anyway I’m so glad it proved to be a winner - not least because it cost me £40. One of the best things I can say about it is that it’s distinctive too, it has a signature taste to it. The kind of whisky you could pick out of a line-up. What’s more I’ve got the 21 and 25 yo to try as well since they came in a tasting pack. Watch this space – I’m sure to have them reviewed this side of the heat-death of the universe.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Macallan Select Oak

The Macallan Select Oak 1l
What am I trying to describe when I talk about whisky?
When you read tasting notes or reviews people are always talking about particular flavours coming through. Take sherry. It’s one of the most common descriptors you see (naturally considering what's been in many of the whisky casks previously). And I do understand what that means. But then again, I don’t really drink sherry. I’ve tried it but probably only once or twice. But if I’m talking to someone that hasn’t had sherry before then it’s not that useful for short-hand. Which ultimately it led me to wonder if you could ever accurately describe what whisky tastes like to somebody that has never tasted whisky before. But that made my head hurt. I’ll leave that question for if I ever start up a Whisky and Metaphysics blog.
Anyway, from there I started to have a bit more sympathy with the Malt Whisky Society descriptions. Their highly esoteric descriptions are something I was mildly critical of a couple of posts ago - I’m nothing if not inconsistent. But I can see the value in linking whisky to time or place. Basically all of this preamble is a preface to what I’m about to write;
this whisky reminded me of Saturday evenings as a child.
 I don’t quite know why. It's not like I was knocking back single malt as 10 year old. But it’s a highly evocative mix and it took me to a place  that I’m not even sure existed. But it reminded me of being young on a Saturday tea-time. Maybe it’s something to do with the rich sweetness reminding me of old fashioned desserts. It also feels a bit stuffy, a bit musty. Not in a bad way, in fact it lends it a certain grandeur - the kind of smell you might expect to in the library of a stately home. Not that I lived in a stately home either, maybe just a badly ventilated one.
Imagine reading an old book and eating hot syrup sponge. That’s this whisky. I don’t remember ever doing those things together as a child but now I wish I had done.
I can give you the bits and bobs I wrote down – deep dark colour, treacle and toffee smell with a hint of old damp wood. Sweet orange peel. That’s what I got but I can’t put my finger why it feels so… retro. There’s something distinctly old-fashioned about this.
To be honest this trip down False Memory Syndrome Lane is a bit much for me. The sweetness is a little stifling, somehow constricting. I much prefer the Macallan 10 which from memory (clearly not that reliable) is a lot lighter and fresher. But it's still a good 'un.
Pricewise – it’s £40+ and only available to travel (I picked this up at the airport pretty much at random before an internal flight).  It's a 1 Litre bottle so that’s good value, but then again you can pick up the 10 year old for a similar price. This is a No Age Statement - no bad thing in and of itself but it does obfuscate things a little. There is an interesting article about NAS whisky here;
I might expand on that in the future but I’ll leave you with that link for now. 
Next time: more whisky, I should expect.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

My first bottle...

I started writing this blog post a couple of weeks ago around about St. Patricks Day - I had the canny idea of reviewing some Irish whiskey that I had lurking in the cupboard to tie in with the ocassion. But then I realised that pretty much every single whisky blogger on the internet was doing the same thing. So maybe I'll leave that review for another day - June 27th perhaps.

Instead I thought I'd write something about the bottle that first got me into appreciating whisky. What was that 'gateway' drink that meant a few years later I would end up spending significant sums of money on more bottles, keeping a shoddily maintained blog and just generally becoming a whisky bore? I think that in some ways a first bottle is like a first record for a music buff. There's something there that makes some people want to keep exploring and seeking out new things.

I didn't just grab a bottle having randomly decided to try out single malt whisky. Moving to Edinburgh was no doubt a factor, when you see so many bottles behind the bar in pubs you start to wonder if there might be something to it.
I'm not sure exactly which single malt proved to be the turning point but on trying some 'decent' whisky I do remember the revelation that you could drink it neat without feeling like your throat was being sandpapered. Most previous encounters with whisky had been cheap blends mixed with coke, that could be generously described as rough. Apart from the cheap stuff there was a brief period at university when Jack Daniels and coke was my vain attempt at something approaching... sophistication? Asking for a 'jack and coke' seemed like something a urbane person would do (never mind the fact you had to explain what that meant to the bar staff). As a side note - It seems outrageous to see Jack Daniels sitting on the shelf in the supermarket costing as much as a decent single malt.

Anyway, I just couldn't get used to the super sweetness of drinking whisky (or bourbon) and coke. As for drinking whisky it neat - it burned. The only spirits to drink neat were Tequila or Vodka and even then it had to be shot down in a drunken stupor.

But now I'd tried a bit single malt and I'd liked it. So then it was a case of actually getting a bottle of my own. It might seem silly but it felt like a big step for me, an initial hurdle of 'is this really for someone like me?'. As if somebody was going to tap me on the shoulder and ask 'who are you trying to kid?'.
Without trying to get too deep into it, it also probably marked the start of a time where I cared more about the quality than the quantity of alcohol. After all if you're going to drop £25 on something you better do your best to enjoy it.

And so to Glenmorangie Sherry Wood Finish - the first of my collection. I don't know why. It was available in the supermarket and I'd heard of the brand. It was the start. My own drink to dip into, to try to appreciate and to try to convert others. I don't remember too much about it but I must have enjoyed it. What really made the difference was trying Laphroaig soon afterwards, it was so completely different in character and what's more I could tell the difference. Before that point all whisky seemed to taste the same. Now I'd tried a few distinctive whiskies that I could tell apart - was I starting to develop a taste for it? It was just the start.

I don't know many people really read these blog posts but please feel free to tell me your the first bottle you owned and how it got you started. All the best.


Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

A letter flopped down onto my doormat last week (probably - I didn’t actually see it happen). It was the renewal notice for membership of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Already my first 12 months are nearly up and this letter has caused me to reflect on being a member of the society and whether I should renew for another year.

Where to start. I don’t want to regurgitate the history and the ethos of the SMWS, you can get all that from their website so I won't bother repeating it. In it's most basic terms they are independent bottlers. They get single malt whisky direct from distilleries, buying up individual casks and bottling them directly at that strength (about 50-60%).

What’s interesting is that they don’t name the distillery on the bottle, instead relying only on a numbering system and tasting notes (plus the details of the region, age and finish). I like this a lot. When you are looking to try a dram or a buy a bottle it encourages you to try a whisky based on its description (OK, and price), rather than looking for a familiar handle. Which is just as well because often these whiskies can differ greatly from the established 'taste' of a distillery (e.g. casks of unpeated Islay or unusual finishes).
Of course once you're actually drinking the stuff you can’t help but wonder where it's from. And with smartphones and the internet being things that exist you can find out what the distillery numbers mean right there and then. But the crucial thing is that I like to find out afterwards. As such I’ve tried some gems from distilleries I wouldn’t have thought of trying otherwise (or even heard of) Glenburgie, Miltonduff, Benrinnies. I've never had a bad whisky from SMWS and there is always something new to taste because the bottles don't stick around too long (a cask might only provide 200 bottles).
A quick word on the descriptions. All the whiskies go by a number and a description, these are quite esoteric ('BBQ on the Beach', 'Magic Carpet Ride' - that sort of thing) – they're quite amusing, although personally I find it becomes a borderline cutesy after a while. Not that I’d want to see that changed, it's fair enough - that's their thing. Even if they are a bit 'wacky' they're preferable to dry tasting notes or – god forbid - a score.
But generally I love their approach to whisky. It is there to be drunk. That might sounds obvious but there are no special edition bottlings or presentation cases here. Bottles that might cost £60 look exactly the same as those at £300. And although they turn up some rarities or unusual casks the emphasis is always on enjoying them. I find that helps to get over the mental hurdle of holding on to whisky too long because it's too special or precious to be drunk. And when there are so few bottles in the first place there’s almost no point getting too precious about it.

So that's the whisky but I have to talk about the tasting rooms. I think that’s the main value I get out of being a member. I’m lucky enough to live in Edinburgh and there are two venues here. One on Queen St. near the city centre. It's nice, spread over several floors in a traditional grand Edinburgh building. It has great views into Queen St gardens, down towards the shore and over the Firth of Forth and into Fife.
But it’s the Vaults down in Leith that truly wins out. It’s this venue that makes it feel like a club. It has wood-panelling, leather sofas and chairs, open fires (well, convincing gas versions). It feels… exclusive, but thankfully neither the venue or the staff take itself too seriously so you can enjoy the rarefied surroundings without it feeling at all stuffy. This is a wonderful place to bring friends and family. Nice and lively on a weekend, serenely peaceful at other times. Visiting either of the venues adds a little joy to any day. Either popping into George St on a Saturday afternoon to avoid the shoppers. Or topping and tailing a night in one of Leith's many fine restaurants with a visit to the Vaults. 

So what are the drawbacks? Well, there's the cost. There’s no getting away the fact that this is a luxury. The initial joining fee was relatively steep – over £100. This comes with a 4x10cl bottle taster pack plus some other knick-knacks. I have to say this fiduciary blow was soften immensely by a ‘free’ bottle on offer for new members, but I don’t know how often such promotions are run.
Of the 4 taster bottles there was a great selection. One of the bottles was an amazing 20yo Rosebank – old and rare so that had to be worth a few quid. And tasting it was something that has prompted me to find out more about this defunct distillery and other lowland whiskies in general. It was one of the finest whiskies I've had and it came out of nowhere in terms of where my interests lay. A new discovery which is what the SMWS is all about really.

I still don’t know whether it’s a cost effective way to buy whisky. You’ll struggle to find a bottle for less than £50. Most seem to be £50-70 with no upper limit. It puts me off picking up a bottle for casual supping. But then again it is single cask which tends to be more expensive even when it’s a distillery bottling. But you could also argue that the extra cost is the expertise required to taste and track down the whisky in the first place.

The venues aren’t too cheap either - most of the dram prices are about £5 and going up to £25. Everything else (wine, beer, food) is slightly uplifted from normal pub prices. So there's that.

Another drawback - much as I’ve espoused the virtues I’ve still only made it to the venues 7 or 8 times in 12 months. Other friends that are members regularly lament the fact that they don't get down to the venues more often. Which isn't a reflection on the SMWS but it just illustrates the fact that it often feels like a luxury.

But, as I look again at the renewal notice (well not literally, it's in the other room) I can't help but think I have to renew. I'm still in the thrall of the SMWS, I still love the venues, I still love trying the whiskies, I love the quarterly magazine, I get excited even just reading the monthly outturn offers - even when I know I won't be buying bottle this month.

So, I’ll will be renewing once more.
Update in 12 months time.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Marks and Spencer Islay Single Malt

So then, supermarket own-brand 12yo Islay single malt whisky...
OK, so this is not just any supermarket own brand 12yo Islay Single Malt, this is Marks and Spencer etc etc… But still, what’s going on here?

In my experience, supermarket own-brand whisky is usually just cheap (and nasty) blends. Stuff that meets the bare minimum requirement to be called whisky and then is served up in plain label bottles that look as if they have been issued by a totalitarian state of a dystopian future. Having tried Sainsburys value whisky once (and never again) I assumed they buy up spirit from a range of distilleries, mix it together and put it out without any real concern for taste, consistency or reputation.

But recently I’ve noticed a number of own brand single-malt whiskies cropping up. The main supermarket chains seem to be doing them, typically offering ranges split geographically (Islay, Speyside, Highland etc). And they all seem to be over 10 years old too.  In theory it should be good stuff.

The thing that intrigues me the most is that the distilleries are anonymous – it’s not like supermarkets are acting like independent bottlers such as Gordon and McPhail. And obviously they aren’t building their own distilleries.  But on this M&S bottle there is no indication of which distillery it has come from. In order for it to be classed as Single Malt what’s in the bottle must be just from one distillery (although it can be from a variety of casks of the stated age or older). So it’s an interesting one. OK interesting might be pushing it but it's intriguing to consider that distilleries, usually very keen to protect their brand are also anonymously putting these on to the market.
Anyway, what’s it like? I can only talk about this one from Marks and Spencer but I’ve said previously that seemingly there’s no such thing as bad single malt and that still seems to hold true here. It’s got a nice dark colour and a sweet, ash smell to it. It’s quite smooth and smoky. Not the longest finish in the world. It reminded me of a darker coloured Benromach (it’s not – that’s a Speyside albeit a peaty one). It’s certainly drinkable and I don’t know if I’d be able to pick it out as the poor cousin in a line-up. It’s decent, it’s solid, I have no complaints.

Would I buy it? To be honest I’m not sure. It’s relatively cheap at £29 and it’s a decent quality so I’d have no problem enjoying a dram of it. I’m not sure I could bring myself to proudly serve it to guest though – pure snobbery I’m sure, but as a whole it’s lacking a bit of love. I want to try out whisky from different distilleries not a generic Highland or Islay malt bought up by the big supermarket chains on the lowest margin possible.

You could argue that the whisky should speak for itself, but I’d counter the own brand stuff  probably has less character as it tries for wider appeal – and surely it can’t be the best stuff the distilleries flog off to the likes of Tesco can it?

Maybe if you worked out which distillery it was (which I suppose wouldn’t be too difficult given the small number on Islay) and this was  few pounds cheaper than their standard bottling you could console yourself with the thought you were getting it cheaper than the branded stuff. A bit like buying a SEAT because it’s got a VW engine in it.
Then again if the distillery is anonymous then surely the supermarket can change supplier when they like.

Overall I would say this would be good for people looking to move into the world of single malt, it’s definitely a step up from a bog standard blend for not too much more cash. This stuff is £29 but I notice that Tesco Islay Single Malt is less than £20 (how can that be? - and it has won awards too). But personally I like a bit more personality with my whisky both in the glass and on the bottle.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Bruichladdich 10 Year Old

The Laddie Ten – there has been plenty written about this whisky already. It is the long-awaited standard bottling from the resurrected Bruichladdich distillery on Islay. Obviously lots of people were keen to taste and review this when it first appeared but I’m going to add my thoughts anyway, mainly because I’ve just polished off a wee 20cl bottle that I picked up recently.
This is really good stuff. I tried it once at the Bruichladdich distillery and kind of dismissed it. At the time, I was on Islay to drink peaty whisky so didn't pay this much mind. Also, I was giddy at the prospect of trying the Octomore 4.2.

But more recently I’ve had the opportunity to try the Laddie Ten in isolation. And taken on its own, away from the smoke monsters from the rest of Islay you can appreciate how good this is. It’s creamy - that’s the main thing that I’ve got from it. It reminded me strongly of Ice-Cream soda – vanilla flavour, dairy richness with a bit of lemonade sweetness. But it’s not sickly sweet - it's just like a lightly creamed and sweetened water (you can have that slogan for free Bruichladdich). I'd even go as far as to say delicately flavoured, it's easy to see how this might get a little lost up against a Laphraoig or an Ardbeg. But this is easy-drinking and very moreish. And creamy - did I mention that?

In terms of smell (sorry, nose)  – I got butter mixed with a bit of burnt sugar. Strangely, a bit of balsa wood and woodglue. It looks nice too, pale with a nice oiliness to it.

The bottle and packaging are nicely stylish – very clean and bold. As I’ve said before, thankfully Bruichladdich manage to back-up their eye-catching packaging with excellent whisky. 

It’s not the cheapest – at least £30 for a bottle, although that said it is bottled at a slightly higher than average 46%.  
There are many whiskies I’ve tasted and enjoyed thoroughly but usually after finishing a bottle I'm keen to try something else. The Laddie Ten has joined the small list of ‘I’d buy another bottle’ which to be honest is about as strong an endorsement as I can give.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Arran 12 year old - Cask strength

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a bad single malt whisky. There is plenty of stuff that’s hugely overpriced or blandly uninspiring. But so far almost everything I’ve tasted has something to recommend it. I suppose it helps if you like peaty whisky- the only thing I’ve seen that really divides whisky enthusiasts.

One day maybe I’ll come across something that makes turn up my nose, but until then it feels like everything is on the spectrum between ‘Like’ and ‘Love’.

And so to the Arran 12yo Cask Strength.
I like it.
Review over…  

To elaborate a touch - I like it because it reminds me of Christmas Cake. Sticking my nose in the glass I picked up rum and dried fruit with a bit of spice. A very comforting and evocative smell for mid-winter. It’s sweet to the taste and I got a little bit of orange liquer when I took a sip. It looks rich and warming too.
It feels like an wintery afternoon indulgence.

 But I didn’t quite fall in love with it - it’s cask strength and I found the alcohol a bit overwhelming. A bit of burn when I gave it a sniff, a bit of tingle on the tongue as I worked it around my mouth. Yes, it’s stronger but you don’t always get that burn with cask strength bottlings and I found this needed more than a drop of water to calm it down.

Once you get past that it’s quite aggressively flavoured - very full on. The same kind of burst of flavour you get with full-bodied Aussie wine. It’s great if you’re in the mood. It is something a bit different and I’d rather be trying something like this - packed with flavour - than some of the more bland offerings out there.  But in the same way you don’t want to eat Christmas Cake every day, this isn’t a bottle I’d reach for too often.

What else? The price is around £40-odd which isn’t bad for a special edition, especially when it’s at ‘diluting juice’ strength. The Arran distillery is relatively new and it is an independent so there that in its favour. Always good to see an independent succeeding.

 In conclusion: a whisky for Christmas, but maybe not for life.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Glenfiddich 15 Year Old

As it’s the New Year, a time for good intentions and short-lived resolutions, I’ve decided to blow off the electronic cobwebs of this blog and start posting a few more thoughts about whisky. And I’m going to start with a wee bottle of Glenfiddich 15yo that I found in cupboard from last Christmas.

Two things that I wrote down - and then underlined - when drinking this were Smooth and Chocolate. This is a really lovely whisky to drink. Easy-going, sweet - I was getting a bit of honey on the finish. It’s richly flavoured, hence the chocolate, but not overwhelming and not at all thin and weedy.

It smells great and looks great too. A lovely sweet smell on the nose, a little bit of brandy, very little alcohol burn and a nice warm caramel colour to it.
All in all there’s very little to fault it. Even the price is very reasonable – about £30-35 for a 15yo when you could pay the same for a 10/12 from other distilleries.
But I just couldn’t fall in love with this whisky. It just seemed a little lacking in something and the closest I can come to is ‘character’. It feels a little bit like some of the more interesting components might have been sacrificed for the sake of tidiness in the end product. The closest analogy I could think of was when you hear a record that has been over-produced. Everything is there that should be there, every note is pitch perfect with each instrument in its right place but overall it feels it’s lacking a little – dare I say – heart.

Maybe it’s just the whisky snob in me coming out – Glenfiddich is as a ‘mainstream’ a brand that exists in the single malt world and therefore aficionados/whisky bores would feel compelled to look down on it. But then again maybe their mainstream appeal comes from making something that, whilst very good, is designed to be palatable to a wide range of people.
All I can say is that whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this whisky it felt a little too eager to please. It’s in no way a bad drop and would be an excellent drink to convert a whisky sceptic. I just can’t see myself buying a bottle where there are some many others out there to try.

Happy New Year everyone (anyone?)- and hope to post a few more reviews in the near future...