20 October 2014

19/10/2014 A lazy Sunday afternoon

Ben Wyvis 31yo 1968/2000 (51%, SV, C#685, 191b): long time since I have had that one. Time to finish the mini. Nose: starts with butter and olive oil. It then unveils pine wood before moving towards cheesecake and primrose. Mouth: oily and soft, with a good balance of honey, buttery pastry and a hint of oak. Finish: wood takes control, though it never becomes invading. Notes of freshly cut birch, ripe hazelnut, perhaps slightly roasted, even. It dies out with creamy milk chocolate. An excellent dram, yet I still prefer C#687. 8/10

The Inverarity 10yo (40%, Loch Fyne Whiskies, b. ca 2011): according to speculations this might be an Aultmore. Nose: freshly-cut, juicy spring flowers (daffodils), butter and melting in the sun. Mouth: there is a great softness in this one too; a puffy pillow of flavours, starting with vanilla and toasted coconut, alongside flowers. Finish: something green now, as well as perfume. Green hazelnut shells made into a fragrance? No bitterness, however. This is soft and easy, with more than a drop of warm chocolate milk. 7/10 (thanks www.lfw.co.uk for the sample)

Glendullan 12yo (47%, OB, b. late 1980s): nose: salt, pine planks, pine branches, glue, slightly over toasted bread and, finally, a certain sherry influence (roasted coffee beans, ground coffee). The sherry is subtle, yet becomes more and more obvious with time. Mouth: Americano coffee (warm milk with a touch of coffee). The wood becomes quieter. Finish: spicy and woody; I compare it to green chilli on an uncoated Ivar shelf, with someone having coffee elsewhere in the room, which the nose cannot help picking up. 7/10

Convalmore 16yo 1984/2001 (43%, IML Dun Bheagan): nose: a baking tray with crusty pastry and plenty of malted barley. Mouth: soft and silky, with a touch of acacia honey, almond milk and just a background note of almond skins. That will be a faint bitterness, then. Finish: the almond milk carries on, now supported by woodier tones. Not too complex, well pleasant all the same. 7/10 (thanks mars for the sample)

9 October 2014

05/10/2014 The Whisky Show 2014 (Day 2 -- Part 3) I did it my way: the history of the independent bottler

The story started here.

Here we go again. The first year (2011), we came only one day and attended two masterclasses. I thought it was overkill (we hardly spent any time on the floor), but worth it -- the report is not on this blog; you will have to trust me on that. The two years thereafter, we did not attend a single masterclass and made the best out of the main rooms.
This year, three masterclasses. Back to square one, I suppose, but it seems definitely worth it. For example, we will not have a chance to try the new official Craigellachies nor the new official Mortlachs (for a laugh). But those will still be there at other festivals. Where else would we have tried a Mortlach 1951 or a Brora cask sample? Absolutely nowhere, that is where.

Only a handful of weeks before the show, this final masterclass was announced. I really wondered whether it would be a good idea -- it pretty much meant day 2 would be lost to masterclasses. It was expensive too, more so than the other two we already had tickets for.
And then they said Dave Broom would be presenting it. My decision was made. And then, I read the line-up. My jaw hit the floor. It was going to be the climax to end the madness.

A chin-stroking line-up, you will agree
As earlier, we are brought to the dedicated room in an orderly group (of drunken gits) and on time (give or take a minute or two). The Whisky Sponge boys are here too; we exchange a few words before taking our seats. MB (remember him? We met him at the GMP masterclass, yesterday) sits with us. The six drams are placed before us; I cannot help but immediately lift the lid off the nosing glasses and dip my olfactory organ into each. I die six times.

Lethal Weapon VI
Dave Broom quickly starts his presentation. He soon stops when SS, TWE's boss, the mastermind behind all this and the owner of all the bottles below, enters. 'The boss is here. Now we can start.'

A word on the theme. This masterclass's purpose is to understand the role and importance of independent bottlers through the ages. How they came about, what they do and how they changed the industry and the public's perception and expectations of whisky.

Without further ado, let us crack on.

Dram #1 We start with William Cadenhead, the oldest indie bottler in Scotland. Dave tells us William was a tradesman and a poet, though the poetry... has not aged all that well. Of course, Cadenhead's main legacy is to have provided and continue to provide an alternative to official bottlings, showcasing different aspects of a distillery's output, whereas the official bottler usually goes for consistency.

Glenlossie 21yo 1957/1978 (45.7%, Cadenhead, Sherry Cask): I believe this is the one I am looking forward to the most. Check the bottling date, check it again, then climb back onto your chair and carry on reading. Oh! of course, the Malt Maniacs seem to be drinking this kind of things for breakfast on a regular basis, but for us mere mortals, it is special indeed. Nose: immediately, Mixa Bébé shampoo. Dave finds it mineral, but he is obviously wrong. Behind that shampoo, yellow melon, yellow flowers (do not ask which), some exotic pastry, filled with yellow fruit. The audience detects smoke, but it is so subtle it is hardly worth mentioning. It eventually dies out with apricot skins and a tiny whiff of soot. That might be the smoke they were talking about. Mouth: marvellous yellow-fruit eau-de-vie. Mirabelle plums, yellow Japanese plums, greengages, even yellow peppers. Finally, after having left it roll on the tongue, milk chocolate slowly takes over. Finish: custard cream-fueled cocoa, in which all sorts of yellow fruit have soaked. This will remain my favourite of the lot and deserves 10/10

Dram #2 is from the SMWS. We are reminded how perverse the society was considered when it was established, as far back as... 1983. Why? Because it was bottling single casks straight from the cask. Untameable, uncompromising beasts that went against what whisky represented at the time -- an elegant and delicate drink for the upper echelons of society. The Society was the mischievous Taz to the industry's polished Mickey Mouse.

27.31 23yo 1967/1990 (50.4%. SMWS Society Cask): dear reader, if you have paid attention, you will know that we tried a 1969 Springbank this morning. If you read this blog often, you will also know that another 1967 expression I tried a few months ago left me lukewarm. What will this one do? Nose: hazelbur- no! Hazelnut, as well as tons of ripe, juicy fruit. What is it? The seat of a tawed dirndl! Caramel. Broom reckons it has an ozone freshness to it. Mouth: this is a symphony! Peach stones, mild, fresh tobacco leaves, melon skins, tangerines. Finish: again, a mix of tobacco and fruit, including juicy oranges and tangerines, before all that morphs into marzipan. Even better than this morning's. The sherry's influence is a lot more subtle than in the Prestonfield I had a while ago. I much prefer this. 10/10

Dram #3 was bottled by Signatory Vintage around the turn of last century. Although they joined the funfair later than others in this line-up, Signatory's importance cannot be underestimated. Their stocks hold some of the most rarely-seen whiskies around and they keep releasing unbelievable expressions.

Bowmore 31yo 1968/1999 (43%, SV Millenium Edition, C#3817, 238b): need I say more? I am a sucker for this profile and was delighted to see it was going to be offered today. Nose: lychee, mango, guava, melon, watermelon, asphalt (MB, on crack), Sauternes sugar. Some gravel too, but mostly fruit, fruit, fruit. Maltoporn. Madness. Mouth: this would improve with more horsepower, but it is still grand, grand, grand. Fruit juice peppered with custard and a few grains of coal dust. Finish: the typical roundhouse kick of passion fruit in the teeth. Definitely the most watery 1960s Bowmore I have had and it feels that way at 43% (CS all the same), but it is magnificent stuff all the same. MB gives JS his glass: he does not like tropical fruit. I say, we need more people like him. 10/10

Touched by the grace of God
Dave comments on how quiet the room is. The first year, for the second masterclass, the (well-inebriated) audience was almost singing, so I tend to agree with him. I reckon a) many are non-native English speakers and are intimidated, b) those who do talk obviously know a lot more than most in the room, which dissuades others from taking part ('I have tried this one three times now, and am struck by this note of blah blah blah') and c) everyone is simply in awe.

The Old Man of Huy is awestruck
Someone asks about the character of these Bowmores, why they are so consistent and how they created that profile. Dave replies, 'Well, you should have come to the exotic fruit tasting for that. The answer was inconclusive.'

Dram #4 Gordon & MacPhail need no introduction. Intertrade, on the other hand, is more obscure. The Italian importer was one of the first (if not the first -- discussion as to whether they or Samaroli can claim that trophy remains inconclusive) to bottle at cask strength. By the way, Italy was seen as an oddity, with importers doing odd things with whisky that no-one really took seriously. GMP bottled on their behalf.

Highland Park 30yo 1955 (53.2%, GMP for Intertrade, 216b): nose: coal, lots of heather, drying heather, even, honey, and then fruit, predominantly nectarines. The nose further delivers boiling potatoes, moss, and drifts towards a more mineral character. That is temporary, though: it changes again to smell of horse blankets 'I don't go around smelling horses!' You should, Dave, you should. With water, more coal comes out. Mouth: herbs thrown on a campfire, pickled with heather. Citrus, black pepper and candied sugar too. MB finds condensed milk in this. A weird combination, but it works. With water, I identify the herb: verbena. Finish: exploding black-pepper firecrackers with a metallic note and toothpaste (as in: this whisky makes your teeth fresh). Amazing. 9/10

Scribble, scribble
You will notice I do not add water to most of my whiskies. That is not me being a purist; it reflects a lack of time, pipette and quantity to do it. Mess up the dosage and you have ruined a dram that you will never try again.
Someone in the audience observes, 'I don't add water. I added some drops to the Glenlossie, not to the others.' Broom, all smiles, 'Good. Be that way.'

Dram #5 We talked about them a minute ago, now their dram: Samaroli. Another Italian importer, whose bottlings were carried out by Cadenhead -- well, this one was, at least; Duthie is a Cadenhead brand. The one thing that sticks out in the presentation for this one is the intervention of SS, who explains Sylvano Samaroli invented the Connoisseurs Choice range. GMP liked the name, so he sold it to them. In conclusion, without the Italians, whisky would not be the same as it is today.

Longrow 1973/1988 (50%, R.W. Duthie for Samaroli Fragments of Scotland, 648b): this one might be one of the first Longrow distillations at Springbank. Historical trivia for the few who are not au-fait: Longrow was a full-fledged Campbeltown distillery that operated from 1824 to 1896. Tasting an original Longrow today is as likely as seeing Princess Camilla enter a Miss wet t-shirt contest, it goes without saying. J&A Mitchell, owner of Springbank (and Cadenhead, and Duthie, and... and... and...), bought most of the old Campbeltown whisky brands, however. They now make two whiskies under those names according to a different recipe and production technique. Those whiskies are called Hazelburn (triple distilled) and Longrow (peaty). Down to business. Nose: ooooooooooooomph! Earth, mud -- a mud bath, in fact. The wheels of a Land Rover (Defender, of course; not a Chelsea tractor) at 6pm, after a grand day out. During that grand day out, the Land Rover stopped at a fruit & vegetable market -- apples, sweet olives (MB, unable to even explain what sweet olives are, so you figure it out) and balsamic vinegar. Mouth: balsamic vinegar again, lemon. It is slightly drying, now. Finish: coating, oily, tarry. I find a dose of tarry ropes, as well as dark olives. MB finds cloves. This is immense. A bit drying, but immense nonetheless. 9/10

Funnily enough, people find it is a peaty Springbank, rather than a Longrow -- well, it is, is it not? Of course, they mean it is closer in character to today's Springbank, if it had more peat in it, than it is to today's Longrow.
Look! My notes say it here! Horseradish!
Broom boldly starts name-dropping (verjus, vetiver; look them up -- they are verjuice and chrysopogon zizanioides), then he tells how someone at the show used horseradish as a note for one of the drams they had tasted. MB is all excited and hurt at the time: he came up with the note for one of the GMP offerings yesterday and wants his royalties. I notice Dave has a cheat-sheet on his desk; he took notes prior to the masterclass. I feel betrayed.
Broom, 'Anybody not like it? In which case, give me some more!'
I swear I can smell horseradish, though

Dram #6 Ram-pam-bum! Does Douglas Laing need any introduction? Probably not. Suffice to say Douglas, the father of brothers Fred and Stuart (at the time of bottling, they were still in business together), was in the trade just after the Second World War, already. He famously had an opportunity to swap Fred for the Bruichladdich distillery (you read that correctly), but did not. The brothers now head separate companies, Douglas Laing and Hunter Laing, but some of the stuff they released together is now legendary. Of course, that is not to say what they do today is bad -- far from it.
SS intervenes again to explain the ABV. DL claimed they bottled at "their preferred strength of 50%", but why is that their preferred strength? John Milroy, of the Soho shop of the same name, a pioneer in this trade, said 50% was the best strength. Since all those bottlers from the second half of the twentieth century revered Milroy as a guru, they followed his opinion.

Ardbeg 27yo 1975/2002 (50%, DL Old Malt Cask 50º, Sherry Cask, 342b): this is more well-known territory for dom666 and myself: we have had the chance to try many 1970s Ardbeg. Nose: balsamic vinegar, of course, unlit firewood (MB, warming up), black olives, old, dried fruit (dusty raisins, if you will), resin. 'Schnuff,' shouts someone. They mean snus -- tobacco powder to inhale, popular in Sweden. Mouth: tapenade (MB), anchovy paste with garlic. 'Peat is the vehicle, rather than the goal, as opposed to modern peaters,' says a guy. That is right, mate. And that is why we like it. Finish: drying, with more black olives, engine oil and no coastal flavour I can find. Even the peat is very, very tame. This dram is the highlight of the session for many. I find it a good dram, of course, but probably the least interesting of the lot. Besides, I preferred other 1970s Ardbegs. Still deserves 9/10

I want me more Speyburn 10, yo!
As soon as it is over, the Whisky Sponge lads rush to the front desk to offer Dave a dram of Speyburn 10yo OB. After all the glories, I find it very amusing.
I exchange a few words with SS and thank him for putting this up. We have the same favourite: 'lossie. Funny, when you realise it is the only non-premium distillery of the lot, these days.
I catch Dave Broom and tell him the session was not very interactive because everyone was so awestruck by the whiskies. He is happy with the way it went, all the same. I must say it is not the most entertaining presentation I have seen him do -- mind you, he was doing lots this weekend and is entitled to being tired. Moreover, the audience was not contributing much and, as I said earlier, a handful of guys were suppressing others' will to contribute by talking too much themselves -- not intentionally, but still.

As a side note, three guys near us disappear, one of them leaving all his full glasses on the table. After a moment, they are nowhere to be seen, so others start eyeing the glasses. I steal the Glenlossie. They come back, upset to see an empty table. I give back the 'lossie (the least interesting to him), but it was certainly a tad risky to leave those unattended. I apologise and call the misunderstanding, he manages to get one more pour of everything he wants and that is it.

In conclusion, this was too quick and awesome (in the original sense of the word) for Dave Broom to shine. Unlike in 2011, I think I preferred Colin Dunn's presentation, this year. The selection of whiskies in this masterclass, however, did all the talking one could have dreamt of.

The story ends here.

8 October 2014

05/10/2014 The Whisky Show 2014 (Day 2 -- Part 2) Aurora Brorealis

The day started here.

Meet thy neighbours (again)
We are on time, today. Our new Swiss friends are here too and take the same seats as yesterday. One of their mates flew in just for this masterclass -- no, wait! We discover later on he flew in only for the last dram of his masterclass, since all the others are in his collection. Dedication, or what?

Family portrait
There was a Brora masterclass at Whisky Live! Paris last week. That one was presented by Serge Valentin of whiskyfun.com and Charles MacLean, who everyone should know (if you do not, watch The Angel's Share, at least). Four drams were presented there:

Clynelish 5yo (43%, OB, b.1970s)
Clynelish 33yo 1973/2006 (54.3%, SV for Prestonfield, C#8912, 405b)
Brora 30yo 1972/2002 (52.4%, OB, 3000b, 1st Release)
Brora 1978 cask sample

Impressive line-up, yet it might pale in comparison with this one. We hope so, at least. :-)

A Br-aura of legend

We start no more than one minute late, which is a welcome change. Six drams to go through, today, all laid out in a triangle in front of us. Colin Dunn, Global Pusherman for Diageo, rock star extraordinaire and our master of ceremony today, does not do things like everyone else, so we will make our progression at random. And very quickly, which means not much time for tasting notes.

Expensive bowling pins

Dram #1

Brora 25yo (56.3%, OB, b.2008, 3000b, 7th Release): nose: earthy and muddy at first nosing, it then evolves towards waxier notes (of course). After a while, and even more so coming back to it after having tried the others, it becomes a candle haven. Mouth: tamed wax and mud. It is drying and fiery like a dying campfire -- embers and ashes, not flames. Finish: lots of wax, hot candles, pepper and even a hint of liquorice (says Colin). dom666, a self-professed Brora sceptic, likes this one a lot. It will remain his favourite of the lot. JS is surprised to like it -- she had preconceived ideas, based on the reputation of the distillery. Me? Well, I thought it was too expensive when it came out at 180£. I would not mind having a bottle, now. 8/10

Colin Dunn, 'Earlier, I had a whisky called Karuizawa. Have you heard of it?'

Dram #5

Brora 22yo 1972/1995 (58.7%, OB Rare Malts Selection): Colin cleverly (sort of) cuts the crap and the hype by slapping the legend in the face immediately. Instead of building up to dram #5, we try it now. Nose: a Broraz-de-marée, this (tough luck if you do not read French). The farmyard assaults reach a ridiculous level. Manure, freshly-ploughed fields, cow dung. Being a countryside boy, this is music to my nose, fragrance to my eyes and silk to my ears -- no, wait! Well, it smells bloody good is what it is. Mouth: imagine Wagner -- it starts softly and builds up to impressive intensities. Ashy, muddy, drying. This one has notes of candle wick and tractor tyres. No wonder JS is not a fan. Finish: muddy and earthy again, before it dies down with wax. This is an ode to the peasants of all countries who used to cultivate the land by hand and come back to a candlelit home in the evening. Beautiful. Is it 3500£ beautiful? Not a chance. For that price (what it goes for at the time of writing) and that reputation, I expected even better. I am hard to please that way. 9/10

Colin Dunn, 'I think there are many Scandinavians in the room; am I right? Raise your hand if you are Scandinavian.'
And it feels like the Viking invasions again (around 60% of the audience).

Dram #2

Brora 30yo (54.3%, OB, b.2010, 3000b, 9th Release): nose: this plays in a different register. Lots of fruit and lavender soap, alongside the more traditional wax. I detect a faint note of tractor wheels, yet nowhere near what the RMS is displaying. Mouth: perfect balance of wax, peat, earth, mud and cooling ashes. Finish: gone is the earthy character, in come waxy fruits (peach, apricot, greengages).  Lovely. 9/10

We talk about the prices of these bottlings, auctions and speculation. Johnny McCormick (see yesterday's masterclass), who is in the audience today, gives too many tips on what to look for at auctions. I reckon the competition is fierce enough as it is, Johnny!

Dram #3

Brora 32yo (54.7%. OB, b.2011, 1500b, 10th Release): I attempted to try this one a couple of years ago, but could not: it was empty. Nose: ash, embers, a healthy dose of fruit, wax seals, dunnage warehouse. This is noble and elegant. Mouth: round, milky and fruity; fruity gummy bears it is. Finish: I am surprised to find this so extremely warming, even now. It gives me the same sensation as my first ever dram: liquid going down, fire coming back up. Interesting. 8/10

Colin starts a debate about mixers and explains how he hooked an audience on Islay to Lagavulin-and-Coke, adding that, 'most would prefer Lagavulin acoustic.' He dances the Hokey Cokey while doing so, which cracks us up immensely.

Dram #6

Brora 1978/2014 (49.3%, OB, 2b, Sample only): not sure if this is the same cask sample as the one in Paris. The bottling date, the 30th September, suggests it is not. Nose: smoke and kumquat. I do not take any more notes for the nose -- is it the fever of the moment, or the lack of things to note? We will never know. Mouth: milky fire (fiery milk?), coconut milk sprinkled with lemon juice. Although hot, this is silky and very pleasant. Finish: hot and fiery again, with notes of burning wool and roasting sheep (the Karuizawa speculators burning in the Fires of Orc, surely). This is very good, yet, as with Ardbeg, I firmly believe the master blender sublimates those old casks by marrying them together. This, as a single cask, is less complex and rewarding than the "lowly" vatting of several casks such as the other five expressions. 8/10

PS about to shoot three people in the neck for a sip
Colin -If this is released as a single cask, it will sell for 10000£.
PS -What does it say on the label?
Colin -It says,'no commercial value.'
House. Down. Brought.

Dram #4

Brora 35yo (48.1%, OB, b.2012, 1566b, 11th Release): this one I did try last year. Nose: farmyard galore, manure that promptly disappears behind wax, candles and fruity soap or shower gel. Mouth: round, waxy, bursting with encaustic and furniture polish. Finish: Why am I wasting my time taking notes, here? This is great. 9/10

This is the blood of Christ
For a laugh, Colin suggests we blend dram #4, #5 and #6. Everyone laughs (the fools), but obviously, I do it.

Dram #7

Brora 35yo 11th Release + Brora 22yo 1972/1995 + Brora 1978/2014: nose: manure is the loudest, but wax and fruit are to be found underneath. Mouth: it seems a bit bland, to be honest. Finish: now, we are talking! Fruit and wax, mostly. It is good enough. I have probably wasted three better whiskies, though. 8/10

Back to dram #5 (see above) to finish in a bang after all.

As many have and will over the course of this mad weekend, Colin urges people to not take whisky so seriously and drink it with friends, rather than "invest" in it.
Colin -I once met a guy who had 25 Black Bowmore. I said, 'have you tried it?' He said, 'no.' I said, 'I haven't got one, but I tried it 25 times.'

Colin insists on touching the Old Man of Huy's notebook
Despite the fact I read that somewhere else by someone else and reckon Colin nicked the story to make it his own, he is dead right. Hoarding is preventing others access to a source of great enjoyment. It pushes the prices up and goes against what whisky is about: make merry (to quote Dave Broom last year).

Excellent masterclass. Everyone was in a jolly mood, Colin Dunn was in top form and the drams were all enjoyable. The whole thing was too short to take proper notes, of course, and one could argue the interest in taking notes for six drams with such similarities anyway. Great fun, though. Friendly atmosphere and all.

Resume day 2 here.