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.

27.11 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%, Signatory Vintage 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%, Gordon & MacPhail 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%, Douglas Laing 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.


  1. I can still taste these whiskies: what. a. session. Best I have ever been to. Doesn't seem to be anything quite up there with this at this year's show though - am going to the lost distilleries one, but missed out on a ticket for the three legends one which I suspect will be the star. Did you guys get luckier?

  2. Lost distilleries here too (say hello!)

    The three celebrities MCing the legends one hint at something worthwhile. Not going either, though.

    As for I did it my way, here, agree with you. The only thing that compares for me is the Exotic fruit masterclass in 2011 (notes not on this blog). Fewer drams and less variety, yet it was more of a surprise and the atmosphere seemed warmer and more interactive.

  3. So you HAD been to that exotic fruit masterclass to learn about the (inconclusive) methods by which the specific aromatic hydrocarbons are/were produced... missed that sadly, and adored the Bowmore in this session (even if people said it was quite a subdued one by 60's Bowmore standards - I like my gooseberries delicate). Will say hello - but only if I can work out the distinguishing features of an old man from Huy (or is it Bhutan?)!

    1. Look for the green chequered shirt on day 1:


      For some reason, it has become a staple of my whisky show wardrobe.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Very fetching shirt. Will look out for you.
      Looks like the Saturday G&M masterclass might be the one I was waiting for...