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Friday, 15 August 2014

Merry Christmas from Springbank. In August! : Spirit Of Freedom 30 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky

It is yet another Friday on the global procession towards Christmas. For those of you who work in or around retail, you’ll be aware that around this time business start to propose their Xmas line ups to the world, in preparation for those magazines who need a good long run up at events such as this.

Thankfully, running a website means that we don’t have to write about anything until the very last moment it is required- but our other print outlets in the media, such as magazines and books, do require a fair amount of notice, so it is nice to see the odd email popping into our inbox with a nod in the direction to how we can help you spend your gifting pounds in December and I’m sure you’ll hear more about those from us, on here (and other places) when the chill reality sets in and the snow begins to fall.

However, in with some of the more Christmas-facing press releases and emails, there are often ones about products which have suddenly, without warning, appeared on a shelf somewhere. Traditionally a silly season for news (of all kinds- John Lennon 40 Year Old Scotch whisky anyone?!) it can often be hard to pick out the good from the bad, or the good from the mad.

Here at we do receive press samples for review, sometimes for this site, sometime for books we are writing, or contributing to, and sometimes for articles we may be writing elsewhere or discussions we might be involve in. And of course we also buy booze- lots of it. A fair amount of brandy, gin, absinthe, rum, aquavit and other great potables were purchased as research (yes, research...) for our forthcoming book, but nothing gets us more excited, our wallets out faster, than an exciting new whisky purchase.

And last week that is exactly what happened, when I heard about a new release from J & A Mitchell, the chaps behind Springbank Distillery and Wm Cadenheads, when they announced a very limited edition (2014 bottles) 30 Year Old blended Scotch whisky.

All apparently exactly 30 years old (so all from 1984) and constructed from 75% malt and 25% grain, the chaps down in Campbeltown are known for having some exceptional old casks hidden away. So, what price on this 30 year old Scotch... just £75. Yeah, £75.

Spirit of Freedom – 30 Years Old - Blended Scotch Whisky – 2014 bottles only - 46% abv – 70cl - £72.95 here and £74.20 here

Nose: A strong vanilla and fennel note rises with a butter back bone and just a delicate hint of smoke. Walnuts and honey mix well, to give some sandlewood. Peaches and green apple too and a hint of pine. Sea salt. This smells like a blend of old- those great value ones from the 1970’s and 1980’s you can pick up for such great value at auction sites nowadays.

Palate:  Very, very drinkable at its bottled strength, it sits on the palate with a good dollop of oil and pineapple juice. A hint of coal dust in the background, gives a great foundation to tropical fruits and big butterscotch from the grain. A classic blend.

Finish: Oddly, probably the best bit (quite a feat given the nose and palate) with juicy fruit tropical chewing gum, more pineapple, honey, syrup and cinnamon spices with just a hint of that coal dust again.

Overall: For £75 you just can’t go wrong. Not at all.

At this price, you can drink this neat by the fireside, in preparation for Christmas, or you can run headlong in the opposite direction and, while there is still some sunshine left in the sky, dodge the gathering clouds, head out to your garden and drink this in a simply stunning highball.

What, with a 30 year old blended Scotch whisky?” I hear you cry?!

Yup. With a 30 year old blended Scotch whisky. Happy Christmas!

Friday, 1 August 2014

I Can See Clearly Now: Kininvie 23 Years Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

It was exactly one year ago today that I found myself hopping up to Scotland to take part in the Ardbeg Islay Half Marathon.

As you would expect from an event held on an island in the Inner Hebrides, in the 140 minutes it took me to complete the course I experienced pretty much every type of element known to man, save for a snow storm. From hail to bright sunshine, I have never seen such a variety of weather in just one morning.

Preparing for such an onslaught of elements required some pretty decent kit and I’d purchased some good trainers, comfortable running kit and a pair of Oakley sunglasses. My saving grace, the sunspecs were vital to keeping me going, as post-shower when the sun burst violently from behind the clouds, the glare from the roads would have been unbearable without the aid of the dark glasses.

On returning home and having invested not only in the running kit, but in the training time as well, I decided that it would be wise, what with all this professional drinking and suchlike, to maintain a healthy balance of drams and training: the odd half marathon to balance out the regular half measure of whisky. The ultimate ‘half and half’, if you will.

However, there was one improvement which needed to be made to my kit, correcting a error I had made in the lead-up to the Islay Half.

Being a proud spectacle wearer, when I took ownership of my Oakley sunglasses I didn’t have the lenses replaced with prescription ones. This meant that, as wonderful as the scenery of Islay is, I was unable to take in much of it and to really enjoy it. It literally passed me by in a blur. If I was going to do more running, I at least wanted to see where I was going!

And so I spent some of my 'hard-earned' on having the lenses replaced in my running glasses and it has improved my exercise experience immeasurably as I’m now able to enjoy the varying vistas of my weekly runs.

My vision has been enhanced by greater clarity and added perspective and it certainly helps to be able to see something in clear relation to something else.

When judging or critiquing single malt whisky, it also helps to have comparisons. Each distillery has a unique flavour profile which is carried through the core expressions and should be evident in the new make through to the mature product. Doing a range tasting, especially with a distillery’s ‘entry level’ products, is important as it can put into perspective both the flavour development of whisky in older (or in this day and age of No Age Statements- more expensive) expressions and also highlight how different cask-types work with the new make spirit to develop certain flavour elements.

So it is always slightly confusing when you encounter whisky from a distillery for the first time, and even more confusing when you have nothing to compare it to.

And this is where I find myself today, faced with a sample of Kininvie 23 Year Old. I have, once, had some Kininvie. It was supplied to me in form an ‘under-the-table’ sample at a whisky event. But it was one of those ‘drink and enjoy’ moments, not one for notes or scribblings, so (as whisky is designed to be) it was lost to the memory of time.

But not to worry, for the chance to try something new is always exciting and the parameters by which one should measure the quality of a dram, unaware of the distillery’s character, profile or range, remain unchanged: is there balance, complexity and an overall ability to hold itself in the crowded marketplace that is single malt Scotch whisky at the moment. 

Let’s find out:

Kininvie 23 Years Old – Batch 2 – 42.6% abv

Note: I have a small sample but this will come in a 35cl bottle when released in the UK. The bottle pictured is Batch 1.

Nose: Initial hit of banana (mid-ripeness), jute bag and rum cake. The sweetness develops in to fresh orange juice and pear drops with a backdrop of fresh leather. It’s quite a complex nose and really quite unique: if you gave me this blind it would be hard to guess what it was, other than being a Speyside dram.  Going back to the nose after a while it shows apple and blackberry pie with custard, plus a fair whack of vanilla.

Palate: Sweet tea at first, then a hit of dried apricot and raisins followed by red apple slices and some leather notes. Creme brulee with a summer fruit coulis then appear. The balance of red fruits and vanilla is excellent, with just a hint of spice to counterbalance the sweetness.  

Finish: Oak, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg on the death with a lasting zest of lime, thyme and some fresh mint.

Overall: This is quite an unusual dram, bouncing between vanilla sweetness and rich red fruits... but the balance works. It isn’t out of kilter but neither is this a sherry bomb nor a delicate bourbon barrel baby. I think I’d like to see how this would take in just the latter, with bigger vanillin and charred oak spice.

Not a bad start to the Kininvie journey and I’m looking forward to seeing how this might compare to other styles of whisky coming from the same distillery as well as to see how Kininvie’s core DNA differs from that of the other single malts (Glenfiddich, Balvenie) produced on the same site in Dufftown. Until such time, I’m running blind, but (as I was on Islay) running happy.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

I Come From The Land Of The Ice And Snow: Benromach Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Snow Joke: My Trip To Benromach
One of the scariest drives I have ever done in my life was early one March morning from Perth to Forres, a small town near Inverness. It was a Monday and I was up around 4am with the aim of arriving at the Benromach distillery at 8am, to start a day working at the distillery to learn about how the distillery works and document it for an article in Whisky Magazine.

Benromach in the Snow
However, just after waking I threw back the curtains to see somewhere in the region of 36 inches of snow clogging up the path below. Scurrying outside, I quickly dug a path for my car to exit on to the well-salted main road and began the slow drive up the A9. As I passed Dalwhinnie distillery the thermometer in my car showed -15 degrees centigrade. To say it was cold would be an understatement.

After slipping and sliding all the way north from Perth, I arrived at Benromach just in time for a pre-work cup of tea to warm my frozen bones. The sky had tuned from granite to deep blue, and the white washed walls of the distillery shone like platinum, a chimney in the yard reaching high into the sky, providing a beacon for the angels to pop in and grab their share. I was glad to have risked the icy roads and the deep snow to make it for the start of the day.

The history of Benromach follows that of many other Scotch distilleries, closed by the previous owners, United Distillers (now Diageo), in 1983 after the first production started in 1898.

Ten years later, the local family business of Gordon & MacPhail (G&M) were looking to expand from bottling and blending into distilling and the opportunity to purchase the site came up. Sadly, the distillery was little more than buildings, as the equipment (including the stills) had all been removed.

Seeing this as an opportunity, G&M embarked on an ambitious programme of installing an entirely new operation inside, developing a new still shape and keeping all the production in a single, linear line.

The aim was to make Speyside whisky as it had been produced pre-1960’s- with a hint of smoke and this is what they have achieved in the newly repackaged 10 Year Old:

Benromach – 10 Years Old – 43% abv - £29.28 here

Nose: There is certainly a hint of smoke on the nose of this wee beastie. It is sweet, with a hint of orange citrus fruit (blood orange), some icing sugar and raspberry. A touch of sandlewood. Very well balanced and extremely inviting.

Palate: Banana bread, apricots in syrup and fig jam. The smoke is not as prominent on the palate, but tingles away under some tinned peaches, runny honey and vintage vanilla.

Finish: Rich rum cake and upside down pudding with a waft of smoke.

Overall: This is a fantastic whisky, it really it is. The hint of smoke gives this more of an island element, but really only on the nose and the finish; the palate is much more classic Speyside. How they can knock this out at under £30 is beyond me. A must for anyone looking for a quality single malt on a tight budget.

With production of the new style spirit starting in 1998, it would be a while before any new mature stocks were ready for the market. G&M were in luck however, as stocks of whisky from before the closure already existed, enabling them to create a range of vintage Benromach releases.

Benromach – 1976 Vintage – 46% abv - £415.80 here

Note: constructed from 1st Fill and Refill Sherry Casks

Nose: There is the Benromach DNA of orange blossom and red fruits, but age has given this a freshness of green fruits (star fruit, gooseberry) and cooking apple, dusted with cinnamon.

Palate: The orange blossom really flourishes here, with other red fruits (red boiled sweets) and a slight hint of chilli jam. Milk chocolate dusted with cocoa powder and praline coat the mouth as tropical fruits develop.

Finish: Sweet, with an abundance of red fruits.

Overall: A classic ‘old’ whisky, this gives you everything you’d expect from a 1970’s sherried Speyside whisky.

If you haven’t experienced Benromach before, you don’t need to get up at 4am and drive through thick snow, risking life and limb to see the distillery. Save yourself the petrol money and order a bottle of the 10 year old. I’m not sure that you’ll find a bottle of single malt Scotch for much better value. And once you’ve fallen in love, start saving for the 1974.

Friday, 18 July 2014

All Hail The Cooper: Glenfiddich Excellence Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The great author Jonathan Swift once wrote that “he was a bold man who first ate an oyster”. It is this sort of gastronomic experimentation which has given us such great delights as a human race, tickling our taste buds with incredible innovation.

I often wonder who it was that first invented the meringue; they must have been the Heston Blumenthal of their day, but probably didn’t get the fame their invention should have rewarded them with, let alone a Michelin star or even their own range of cookware.

And it is this need to create, to always push the boundaries, that man has been striving for ever since we had a sense of taste, a lust for flavour. Of course we all need to eat, drink and be merry. But the tastier the first two parts of that phrase, the greater the volume of merriment.

It’s a simple equation: Eat + Drink = Merry. Increasing the pleasure aspect of one, or both is like swapping the ‘plus’ symbol for a ‘multiply’ symbol. This is why we celebrate those who have the ability increase our pleasure, to change our +, to an x.

In the mix of master blender, the superstar bar tender (what an appropriate phrase to write with Tales of the Cocktail happening at the moment), the footballer-turned-whisky-maker... there is one person often forgotten, who is key to the final flavour of any aged spirit. And that is the cooper.

The origins of cask maturation have been long forgotten as the cask has, for centuries, been a fairly utilitarian tool for the transportation of goods. From coal and fish, to a variety of liquids, the barrel was the carrier bag of its day; developed into a sea container for special goods. But it is the people who first discovered maturation from a white spirit to a dark, delicious drink who should be celebrated as much as the man who first shucked and sucked an oyster. Long forgotten, these men are responsible for something very special, the ideal of the cask to cradle some of our most precious liquids from simple spirits to super single malts.

Already this year I have visited cooperages in Scotland, Spain and the USA and the results never fail to surprise me. Handmade, in the most part, casks are designed to absorb a small amount of their liquid contents, swapping spirit for spices, whiskey for wood influence. But not only do casks add flavour to their contents, they also breath; slowly letting air in and out, as if they are giant wooden lungs, taking in oxygen and breathing out lost spirit, a gift to the angels.

This conflicting purpose, to both store and give away, makes barrels almost biblical, following the guidance that the more you give away, the richer you will become; ergo, the more active the cask, the more condensed the liquid inside becomes, taking flavour from both the wood and the previous incumbent of the cask, and the richer the liquid gets. A truly spiritual experience.

In my journeys to see both sherry casks and bourbon barrels in production, to understand more about their role in maturation, I have learned a lot about the preparation that a cask must go through before it is allowed to mature Scotch whisky.

There are huge differences between American oak and European oak, between ex-sherry casks and ex-bourbon barrels, between a hogshead and a puncheon. But all were, at some stage, the results of experiments by innovators, leaving a legacy for today and well beyond. 

Thank you to those people, whoever you are.

Glenfiddich – 'Excellence' – 26 Years Old – Matured 100% American Oak – 43% abv - £350

Nose: The casks which this whisky has been matured in have delivered a first class aroma of sweet vanilla, custard cream biscuits, malted milk and crème brulee. There is a hint of oak spice, but only to give body and provide a platform for the developed Madagascan vanilla and white flowers to build on.

Palate: A richer mouthfeel than expected, this is a buttery dram with a hint of heather, yet again some spices to balance out the palate. It is clearly American oak, ex-bourbon and takes in the butterscotch aspects of well matured whisky from these styles of casks, but sprinkles a small amount of cinnamon on top.

Finish: A brilliant balance of sweet and spicy, with that rich vanilla giving a super landing to a great dram.

Overall: This whisky was designed to reflect the style of cask it has been matured in. American oak, ex-bourbon barrels filled in the last century, have marshalled a spirit through more than two decades, resulting in a whisky which is the perfect ambassador for this style of maturation.

If it hadn’t been for those great cooper-innovators, inventing the cask, maturing and re-maturing spirit in it, we wouldn’t have a whisky like this today. So, cheers to those forgotten folk for giving us all something so special which will echo through the ages.    

Monday, 14 July 2014

Hug A Hoodie: Quick Fire Ramblings: Highland Park Dark Origins & Bowmore Tempest Batch 5

Well, it's bloody hot today. At this time of the year in the UK, it's clearly impossible to predict any kind of temperature in advance. A day ago, I was sheltering from the howling gale and rain under a tree (wearing a hooded top) beside a tennis court, thinking why did I decide to peruse such a stupid outdoor pastime.  In an hour, I shall be slipping into the comfort (!) of a woollen dinner suit and bow tie for an evening event. Why?? Damn You Mother Nature!

Anyway, with such complete contradictions afoot, it's probably a good time to review some arguably un-summery whiskies that we have sitting in our office, probably waiting for a cold snap to take hold.

Recently Highland Park launched a brand new expression called Dark Origins, supposedly to celebrate the unorthodox working methods of the distillery's founder, Magnus Eunson, who operated his shady business as an illicit distiller largely in the shadows, away from the prying eye of the exciseman.

Dark Origins comes complete with a hooded chap on the label (who, if we're honest, looks a little more 'urban' than the likes of a Hebridean distiller) and the whisky itself is comprised of twice as many first fill sherry casks than the classic formulation of the 12 year old, aiming for a richer, darker and altogether more muscular whisky.  Have they succeeded?

Highland Park - Dark Origins -  46.8% - NAS - RRP £65

Nose: Certainly an abundance of full bodied sherry notes on the first sniff: caramel, chopped nuts, a little mustiness, molasses, all balanced with a waft of smoke.  It is reminiscent of the 12 year old, but has more depth. So far so good.

Palate: Very tarry, sooty and oily. The peat gives this a charred, slightly bitter approach, taking it away from the classic floral, honeyed sweetness of the 12 year old. There is lingering wood, a slight creosote and a bold menthol undertone, but one can't help but be overpowered by sootiness. The most smoky HP to date?  Very probably, but it will certainly take some getting use to. Given time, a sweeter note develops, helping to balance out the proceedings. 

Finish: Lingering wood, a little pepper and charred meat notes round out a very dry finish.

Overall: A hard to understand beast, this one.  The nose reveals a lot of real complexity, alongside all the clearly intended darkness, but the palate is full-on beat-you-about-the-head-and-neck-with-a-fence-post stuff.  Put it this way, it's like walking through Croydon late on a Saturday night.  In the shadows lurk danger: Terrifying, but just a little bit exciting at the same time. They should start producing hoodies at the distillery shop... 

Next up and the latest instalment in Bowmore's well received Tempest series. Now five batches in, the series sees no sign of slowing down, nor changing direction, short of the subtle differences between the batches.  It is bottled at 55.9%  and rocks up around £50 as a price point. Not too shabby considering what else lies at this price point. In terms of maturation style, this should be a sharp contrast to the Highland Park above, as it is drawn from first fill bourbon casks, giving a lighter, brighter note. Less hoodie, more boating blazer?  We reviewed the last batch here - and if this turns out any where near as good, Bowmore will have done it again. 

Bowmore - Tempest -  Small Batch - Edition 5 - 10 Years Old - 55.9% RRP £50

Nose: A subtle floral/fruity peat emerges first, alongside fresh sponge cake, golden syrup a touch of almond oil and marzipan. Dig deeper and you'll find ripe banana, a touch of plasticine and a surprising mossy/leaf note.  

Palate: The peat is kept in check by a zesty lemon note, some soft brown sugar, fudge topped muffins and very creamy coffee.  In fact, this could be the most confectionery- influenced batch yet. Another sip reveals more marzipan and a touch of menthol tobacco, the floral peat returning right at the end.  

Finish: Slightly dry, but with bags of underlying, lingering floral smoke.

Overall: Another tick in the 'excellent' box from this batch. Again, it offers balance, character and accessibility, but is robust enough for those who are looking for a peaty whisky to ooze additional character.