Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Aberfeldy Distillery Visit and Signature Tour

An induction into the cave of Ali Baba and the Forty Connoisseurs or the insight of six different malts postponed?

The tone of my evaluation of Dewar's World of Whisky at the Aberfeldy distillery is far closer to the former than the latter, but the prospects of my immediate future as far as the water of life is concerned have been altered hugely. Last week, like quivering with fear and cold at the top of Schiehallion, I was shown a more complex and expansive whisky landscape than I could ever have realised had I spent my £30 on miniatures alone; getting me only as far as the first false summit.

"Signature" is the name of the tour, and what I received in exchange for my money was a unique and unprecedented glimpse of a brand's true identity. From the beginning and the Dewar's company film, my time at the distillery which I could view, tantalisingly, from our holiday cottage on the other side of the Tay (right), was concerned wholly in the minutiae of whisky-making, -marketing and -appreciating.

No barley is tricked into germination in the Aberfeldy maltings today (this practice vanished in the sixties) but my own inquisitiveness, a grain of barley if you will, experienced a significant conversion of ignorant starch to receptive sugar in the Dewar's exhibition space.

The Victorian era must - if you were the pioneering figureheads themselves, of course - have been a fascinating and stimulating time to be alive when a business could depart from its tentative conception and arrive at oppulent, swaggering dominance in the time of two enterprising generations. Tommy the salesman sounds quite a character, the kind of man with the talent, charm and entrepreneurialism to pluck the fruit of the global market just as it was ripening. In the World of Whisky displays and installations, with the aid of portable audio guides, I learnt as much about this age of opportunity and endeavour as I did whisky and was completely engaged by my history lesson.

In the bar-cum-cafe I met my guide. Bruce joined me at a table master blenders would be familiar with. My reserved table (right) was covered in Glencairn glasses. Bruce guided me deftly through the first five (he would later pour me out a sixth) glass each of which contained something from the Dewar's stable. The Aberfeldy 12 I was already vaguely acquainted with, but the 21, Dewar's 12, 18 and Signature I was not. With the 12 as our reference point, we toured around the various drams. The 21 offered the reassuring depth and smooth muscularity of excellent ageing with rich, rounded and dark honey and spice. The creamy and full palate was distinctive but it didn't, in the end, and despite being closest in age to the wonderful sample I tried in the warehouse, persuade me to part with £85.

The blends, on the nose, did not resemble blends at all. The 12 was flowery, with lightness and freshness but, after comparisons with its older brothers, somewhat quick and "immature". Bruce was quite right, though: you can detect the Aberfeldy honeyed shortbread personality in each of them. The 18 was perhaps my favourite: again the identity of age seduced and intrigued while the addition of water created a time-machine and I once again contemplated the heathland at the foot of Schiehallion.

The Signature was unlike any blend I have ever had, which at £150 a go I should have hoped it wouldn't be. The artful suave richness on the nose and palate of gleaming fruit were sublime. The contrast between this and Bruce's favourite: the White Label, was not offensive and I have been persuaded that, in future, I should look out for this proud dynasty.

Keen that we should preceed the fifteen or so standard tourists milling around us, and with me admitting to sensory overload, we embarked on the tour of the distillery. At each key point within the clean, handsome buildings, due time was taken. I was able to ask questions and make observations, never feeling rushed. I would like to think this was as much because the people involved wish to savour and appreciate their place of employment as my having shelled out for the "premium" experience.

We spent quite a long time in the stillroom, with the wash stills frothing away and the middle cut from the second spirit still thundering through the spirit safe. To combat the heat radiating off the considerable stills (right), all of the windows were open onto the smart grounds, the Tay and the wooded hills beyond.I should have capitalised on the warmth, for there wasn't much to be found in the warehouse.

Striding to what I was sure would be the promised land, I recounted my religious experience in the warehouses of The Glenlivet and my disappointment at being led away from those at Glenkinchie.

"You may be disappointed again," murmured Bruce as we stepped into darkness.

What filled my nostrils was not the honey malt and old wood of the best warehouses, but the pot ale processing. I was a little glum as I contemplated the thousands of casks, in shadow and, crucially, empty. But then I realised that the only ones I needed concern myself with were the trio just on the other side of the steel mesh gating.

Picking up a substantial mallet, Bruce offered me a choice between a 1985 and two 1983s. His recommendation was the 1985 and so I aked him tap that particular barrel (right). He duly did, once on each side of the bung before adopting a Show-of-Strength pose and giving the cask a richochetting crack. The bung "just shot out" and we could draw my sample.

I held my glass under the steel pipette and out dribbled raw whisky. Pure happiness, and cold, overwhelmed me as I smelt, cautiously, the pure glowing gold (right). When I didn't receive a lance of alcohol straight into my hypothalamus, I allowed my nose to quest a little further. I anticipated, and got, Aberfeldy heather honey and apple notes. They were timid, however, the temperature restricting the circulation of aromas, but they had a cleanliness and body I had not hitherto noted, the little flecks of charred wood at the bottom of the glass merely lending an authentic influence instead of an obscuring one. The vanillins of the wood were wondrously original and its affect on the spirit authoritative but not excessive. Bruce kept putting his nose to the hole in the cask and I did the same. I cannot now communicate the perfection of that smell, just that the woody spice and mellow whisky combined instinctively and epically. Bruce suggested I took my sample indoors where it - and I - might warm up.

Back before the array of glasses in the visitors' centre, I sat down with my latest, rarest measure. This is where Bruce relinquished his role as my guide for the day, and I assured him how much I had enjoyed the tour he had given me. I voiced my hope that I would see him again when I pull up and uncleat next year. I won't be taking the Signature tour on that occasion, but memories of this one will abide with me in all of my future first-hand dealings with this magical drink.

Aberfeldy 1985 Bourbon casked. Cask no. 1321.

COLOUR: Gold - soft, bright and smooth. NOSE - WoW - The unfixable big smoothness of age. Gorgeously sweet honey and round, clean vanilla. There is heather there, but also another flower: soft, delicate and pungent. Stewed red apples. The alcohol doesn't obtrude. Despite its 24 years, it is fresh and clean. Soft light gingerbread. Delicious focus and character. Wonderfully firm wood. Single cream. WW - Zesty, woody vanilla. Soft pulpy apple. Richly sweet grainy honey. Faintly herbal, it is a flower meadow in May or June, humming with bees. Light butterscotch. Medium-bodied with all the ripe fragrance of the washback. Lightly charred white oak. Tablet - shortbread and caramel. BODY - Smooth, velvety. Building to clean warmth. PALATE - WoW - Appley, honey, soft biscuits. WW - Unbelieveable smooth with sweetness growing to spicy dark malty richness. FINISH - Honey mist. Vanilla ice cream. Quite nutty. Syrupy wood and fruit. Caramel shortbread. Fades elegantly.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Highland Park 12-year-old 40% Dram #26

Separate, northern-most...
Despite the differences
This is no stranger.

How bizarre that the 25-year-old should have preceded this into my notebook. I first sipped/ was speechless with wonder due to the 12-year-old in a hotel. I had it in a pub next, but I was unable to conduct a proper thorough tasting until I unwrapped a bottle last Christmas.

On the two previous occassions I had nevertheless noticed and liked its semi-rich biscuity maltiness and the peat character which is so entirely different to that found on Islay. From the beginning, I understood that it was no mean dram distilled in this area that stretches the rules governing regional frontiers - and even those of Scotland - to the limits of relevance.

Highland Park is a case study of why I adore the single malt industry. Orkney is a smudge of rock, sand and grass whose northward vista is comprised of a few more similarly improbable scatterings of land and the beginnings of the Arctic Circle, yet it produces a whisky every malt lover spares singular affection for and which is moving in on the most prolific shifters of premium single malt. Logic tumbled out of the St Margaret's Hope ferry and drowned.

ORIGINAL TASTING NOTE, TASTED 11/1/09: COLOUR - Pale gold. NOSE - WoW - Pillowy-soft peat. Full and green. An underlying smouldering sharpness. The sea salt of handmade crisps added to the malt. Thick spongecake sweetness. WW - Peat becomes harder and hotter. Fruit does the same: boiling raspberries and blackcurrants. Beautiful spicy malt. BODY - Medium to almost full. PALATE - Charred wood, white grape tang. Chocolate digestives. Creme brulee topping. FINISH - Sea and seaweed. Long and smoky. Excellent, but just the end of the palate.

The revamped packaging shows off the product particularly well. The flat bottle with the ornate calligraphy (that Celtic/ Viking "h") hints at a very authoritative, no-nonsense spirit, an impression not contradicted by pouring a little into the glass and inspecting the hue: a smooth, beaten gold.

Indeed, there are no shrinking violets or superfluous flavours in the nose, either. The malt and the peat mount a combined attack: the former eager, semi-aggressive and fruity; the latter medium-dry, rich and delicious. That biscuity quality that put me in mind of a certain manufacturer's granola bars which I'm rather fond of I modified to ginger biscuits. There is an extremely fresh sea breeze note, together with some delicate honey. There is the sharp pungency of new wood as well as a "quiff" of dark, supercharged Oloroso. It is a complete and complex canvas marvellously presented.

With water it becomes softer, lighter and develops the sweetness of boiling mash. The peat is transformed and has acquired a liqueur chocolate nature. This supports the round zesty malt. Toast and honey in addition to a vague impression of hard rocks concludes the outstanding aroma.

The medium and firm palate presents a unique architecture: the peat acting as the sconce for the powerful sherried malt. It grows beer-y and almost froths with the skins of nectarines.

I recommend all things cosy and warm with the exemplary finish. It is long and dissipates with epic control. Lime and almost chocolatey maltiness are flavours of note.

There is nothing like Highland Park. It just has everything, but in the proportions you would want. I am deeply keen on getting hold of the 18YO and the 30YO courtesy of miniatures which the Edrington Group are jolly good sports for releasing.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Glenkinchie Distillery Visit #3

I suppose I had better develop the knack of distillery-writing as I shall be doing an awful lot of it in less than eight months' time.
The journey to Glenkinchie for my 19th birthday was nowhere near as taxing as the one undertaken for my 18th at Auchentoshan. Just as well, perhaps, as my responsibilities in the world of work have grown slightly more inhibitive in the intervening time.

Glenkinchie was chosen for this very reason: it being the closest of Scotland's malt disitilleries from my home in Northumberland and so not requiring hours in the car. The selection of this distillery was not made, I hasten to add, was not made on the grounds of expediency alone. There has been a nagging gulf in my tasting experience for two long now: I may have tasted four Auchentoshans, but it is the only representative of the Lowland region in my notes. Thirdly, Glenkinchie will be the first stop on my whisky cycling tour, so this was something of a recce, too. So instead of Glengoyne which we passed quite close to last year, my family and I went to sample the "Edinburgh malt".

The drive to Glasgow of last year, whilst long, compensated for this with epically stirring Highland scenery. (On the way back we unwittingly drove passed our turn off and, less than twenty minutes north of Glasgow, it was as if we were driving along the West Coast.) The Lammermuirs did not present quite the same kind of backdrop upon which light could project itself in a visually arresting way (top right). However, this is truly the "garden of Scotland" with rolling fields of cereal crops tumbling all the way to the Firth of Forth. At the end of the day, it was yet another idyllic Scottish landscape.

The distillery is tucked snugly into the cleft between two particularly bumpy fields (top middle right). On stepping out of the car the atmosphere was still with a real warmth issuing from the sun, ripening the last grains still outstanding. It isn't a large site - perhaps on a par with Auchentoshan - but the aesthetics are different for it is done out in functional but attractive Victorian red brick (bottom middle right).

The tell-tale distillery fragrance was late to appear - I was almost in the door before I could detect the pungent cearealy sweetness of barley being given what-for.

Three tour tickets purchased, we were sent upstairs to the exhibition space, formerly the floor maltings. There we spent fifteen minutes or so reading hrough the excellent display on distilling and Scotch. I loved the scale model of a distillery that found its way back to Glenkinchie from London in the 1960s to be lovingly restored and rebuilt. I am a huge fan of processes, and to see each part of a self-sufficient distillery plant before me was utterly fascinating. The detail is superb (bottom right).

"Those would look great on either side of the fire," mused Mum, speaking of the replica wash and spirit stills.

We, together with about eight others, congregated at the assembly point where Charlie came to greet us and fulfil the more immediate need of turning off the Diageo Classic Malts video that was stuck on repeat. As Glenkinchie does not correspond exactly to the scale model in all of its processes, Charlie explained in excellent depth the malting stage as we would not see a practical demonstration on our tour. He apologised in advance lest he fell into the "Scottish tendency to speak too fast". He didn't, which was probably just as well as I believe we Saxons were the only Britons!

Charlie led is all outside towards the production buildings - no cameras or mobile phones allowed - while informing us about the distillery's malt needs: 126 tonnes a week for 14 "processes" of 9 tonnes each, all equating to 55,000 litres of Glenkinchie being produced a week. They have malt deliveries almost everyday, something I could attest to for on our journey to the distillery a Simpsons Malt truck passed us going the other way.

We were shown the redundant kiln, then the not redundant at all mill. Next we were taken upstairs to the enormous but presently empty mash tun. Each process of malt will get three charges of water at successively higher temperatures for the reason that (and it was one he would use consistently at every stage that received fastidious recovery) the Scottish are a race that does not hold with waste. There is a bell in the mash room, retained from when the malting still operated. The manager would ring the bell, telling the maltmen that their shift was at an end. They would come into the distillery, receive a jug of the 9%abv wash and then cycle home. "You can't get away with that now," he said, rather whimsically.

Passed the yeast store and up more stairs our little party plodded and into the washback room. Six six metre high washbacks gurgled and frothed at us: five of Oregon pine - a fact that provoked one of our group to raise his eyebrows (he turned out to hail from Oregon) - and a sixth of Canadian larch. Each contained a wash that was slightly more advanced than the last and indeed one of them was not opened for our inspection at the risk of beer boiling out over everything. I scooped a bit of air out of a couple of the washbacks - not sticking my head in and taking a big breath as Charlie had warned against. Nevertheless, the carbon dioxide from one leapt up my nose with a ferocity akin to a head butt.

Reeling, we proceeded to the balmy still room. I find it astonishing how such an odd shape can be so beautiful. The pair of stills are just enormous and filled the room not just with heat (they were distilling at the time) but also with a soft golden glow with the aid of sunlight falling through the translucent roof, the same roof that had to be taken off when the neck of the wash still was replaced last winter.

Short of a wee nip of Glenkinchie in the bar, that was our tour at an end. I was almost hopping mad that we weren't taken to the warehouses because new stock is filled into casks and matured centrally.

Apart from that omission, value was had out of our £5 ticket, especially after my frugal (and Scottish) mother look advantage of its redemption with the purchase of a 70cl bottle. I had phoned the day before to enquire about more in-depth tours and if they were available, as they were at Auchentoshan. I was assured, correctly as it turned out, that the standard tour was very thorough. I was content with a miniature Glenkinchie - the clean floral and amlty dryness with rubbery tropical fruits and creamy, juicey vanilla not quite wonderful enough to justify a full bottle purchase.

I'll finish on the missing element of the warehouse, and some more Diageo-bashing on my part. Ever since the Glenlivet, the warehouse has been the stage of the process that has enchanted me the most and made me feel the most privileged to have overseen. Here, after all, is where spirit becomes Scotch, and each distillery's micro climate and its potential effect over years on maturing stocks can be felt. Their size, construction and function produce the most awesome peacefulness and together with the heavenly aroma (here is where the angels preside, after all) they border on cathedrals for malt with that kind of devout significance. I know my darling Caol Ilas are not matured on site, either, but I think that as one of the six Classic Malts, Glenkinchie should be allowed to speak entirely of the region it represents in the Diageo portfolio, and being as it is one of only five in the whole of the Lowlands. Come on, guys: you place so much emphasis on Scotland and its quirky geography in your promotional and informational medias (I should know, I saw the video four times) so put economy aside, please, and tap into the real essence of regional variety, character, and authenticity.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Glenmorangie Lasanta 46% Dram #23

Quote: "warmth and passion";
A tasting note in itself.
I can't disagree.

Would you believe it, but until the Lasanta late last year I had not nosed, beyond a measure in a pub, a Glenmorangie! With Glenfiddich I was even worse, it must be said, waiting until February of this year, 16 months into my whisky journey, to bother tasting the most iconic Scotch whisky brand! It was nothing personal, I might add: other drams kept coming into my life and stealing focus.

ORIGINAL TASTING NOTE, TASTED DECEMBER 2008: COLOUR - Light caramel with gold highlights. NOSE - WoW - Intense. Sherry on oozing over layer. Waxy fruit. A gentle heathery sweetness. WW - Sweeter still. Fine grains of sugary aroma. Hard, metallic malt. Dusty, crumbly peat. Pastries and cakes. BODY - Smooth. Complicated choreography of mouth feel. PALATE - Rich and fruity sweet. A scrumptious malty sponge cake. FINISH - Vanilla, raspberries. Quite long. Quite tart, too. Apricot jam-like.

As the Auchentoshan of my last post underlines, by this time I was beginiing to get my eye in with this tasting business and during the autumn and winter I enjoyed a higher frequency of tastings. Recently, I have marked off at a particular tasting note in my notebook where I felt a transition of my skills and or knowledge occured, and the period of September to March undoubtedly witnessed rapid development and the acquisition of a skill level I found it easy to return to after the exam sabbatical. This Glenmorangie was a component of that period, although only now has it been evaluated by the senses it helped to hone in such a significant way.

Still unsure as to whether I had treated The Original Glenmorangie extremely unfairly, I sat down to revise the Sherry-matured 10-year-old which had received a decent but unexceptional "66" previously. So, how now brown cow?

I am a big fan of the latest packaging range. I believe it contributes to the impression that what you are drinking is more unusual, exclusive and expensive than the actual price point would suggest. Of course, the whisky itself hits above its weight, too, as I discovered.

It looks very attractive in the bottle and equally so in the glass: a pale, softly-textured amber.

On the nose I enjoyed a much more assertive initial introduction than The Original was prepared to give me: sharply and thickly floral and fruity. The distillery is on the Dornoch Firth, but this was the first time I was able to detect any geographical influence in the whisky. There is a light line of quite salty peat that rises from the lowest notes to the highest. There is also a sweet, soft and gentle bonfire smokiness that I seriously liked. The malt is perfumy, but also puts me in mind of a plain sponge that has been kept in the cupboard, in a Tupperware box, for a few days. The Sherry lends walnuts and almonds as well as fruitiness to the aroma, and this in turn provides heat. It is very, very good.

That "warmth and passion" is preserved with a drop of water, while the rest of the nose becomes softer and much sweeter. The salty peat smoke has remained, too. At the very centre is a soft, squishy "ball" of Sherry currants. Pecans replace the almonds and the shells of the walnuts emerge. The malt is quite a separate flavour and caramel-like. There is still an intense floral presence. The whole arrangement is medium to heavy with iced carrot cake and a lovely heathery accent. A quick swirl evokes more of the sweet, light and zesty Sherry.

The body is soft, round, clean and smooth.

Maltiness is very prevalent on the palate and it exhibits a quality noticed last year - that of the malt and Sherry intermingling like the stripes on a barber's pole - never quite meshed together but tied to each other. The Sherry oozes on top while the malt shimmies below. There is also a fantastic smoke note and the whole taste is very cake-like with a gentle richness and perfect (note that) sweetness.

The ethos behind the amlt is maintained right to the finish which is long and warm. Pecan pie is a gorgeous addition as is the vanilla note. Peat and salt book-end it all and a lush grassiness ushers the flavours out.

Having got to the "next phase" I was better able to appreciate this malt and the supreme quality behind it. I also gave it a new score of "67" which makes quite a difference in my eyes. It would now be the final act of cruelty not to look again at The Original.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Auchentoshan Three Wood 43% Dram #22

Stood in the warehouse,
The air was awash with wood.
This informed the dram.

My second distillery visit could not have been more different to my first, at least from the point of view of attitude. Almost a year had passed since The Glenlivet when my family and I pulled into the gorgeous premises of Auchentoshan and if all you had to go on was how excited I was, you would not have supposed a person legally old enough to be there. In the previous year, I had immersed myself in as much whisky theory as I could find (or order from the WH Smiths' book department) for the purposes of filling in the crevasse of ignorance opened up after The Glenlivet had hard-wired this passion. At last I had the chance to combine that theoretical knowledge with a practical demonstration of whisky production, every facet of which I had grown keenly enchanted by.

We had booked a more in-depth tour of a greater duration, with added detail and drams. From leaving the car to re-entering it a couple of hours later, my sense of smell was stimulated almost beyond endurance, as the aroma of manipulated barley (as opposed to descriptors of it) comprised a heavenly percentage of the air I breathed. Jenny, our guide, led us from the mash tun, to the washbacks, to the stills, and finally to the warehouse, the prevailing nasal orgy altering in character at each stage.

One thing that has abided with me since my single malt induction in an autumnal Glenlivet was the smell of the dunnage warehouse as oak and malt went about gaining an understanding of one another. At Auchentoshan, the atmospheric ambrosia was not quite as awesome for the door remained open to the fresh air throughout the day, but even so I was not disappointed by the sensuous, calming and significant fragrance. Appropriately for a whisky matured in, yep, three woods, it was here that we were given a sample of today's post. It was my favourite out of the three we had hitherto been plied with on our tour, following on from the Classic in the mash tun room and the 18-year-old in the washback room. I was getting a good idea of distillery character as once again I was enveloped by toffee maltiness and a light, rich sweetness like fresh chocolate brownies. This became my anniversary bottle - what I purchased to mark my first full year of malt infatuation.

ORIGINAL TASTING NOTE, TASTED 23/11/08: COLOUR - Deep, syrupy bronze. A gloopy-sweet fire. NOSE - WoW - Very light. Lemony and fresh. The rich Sherry wades in. Is it the Pedro Ximenez all dark and thick in the background? Raisins full of booze. WW - Fills it out. Better. More of the cake and the fruit. Richly layered but light. BODY - Very smooth. Slippery yet somehow the richness is matte. PALATE - Warm and sweet malt. Delicate. Moist. Very complex. Fruit cake. Cherries. Ginger and cinnamon. Gorgeous. FINISH - Long, fruity. Sweet Sherry nuttiness. Glycerine icing sugar sweetness all around. Chocolate box.

It's a stunning hue, isn't it? This deep autumnal orange was only the second to be awarded full marks in the days when I still scored whiskies on an aggregate basis for Colour, Nose, Body, Palate and Finish.

The nose is completely delightful with a light smooth maltiness closely underpinned by the Sherry. Auchentoshan air-dries their malt but in this dram's richness there is almost a smokiness - at the very least genuine warmth. The Sherry itself is thick and rich with the mightily dark and flavoursome Pedro Ximenez squatting in the background. There is a brittle, shattering vegetal note that attacks the nose in a simialr way to one of the elements in the 18-year-old. Perhaps it is just all that wood. It is also fudgy with jelly sweets.

A little water lightens the aroma still further, presenting a more rounded lemoniness. Then there is the signature sweet demerara sugar malt. The Sherry is more restrained but thickened. Custard creams are suggested as well as hot buttered toast.

The body of the whisky is also smooth and light, qualities that extend to the palate. The mouthfeel of the satiny malt is superb, bedded on Sherry blankets. Almonds and orange zest appear.

I would describe the finish as convivial with a greater Sherry emphasis. It is very long and fruity with citrus notes reminding me of when I tasted the undistilled wash. There is a touch of fine chocolate and sticky, moist fruit cake. Smelling the empty glass provides still more pleasure.

It has never, nor can it ever, taste as it did in that warehouse. The inspiration of these places gives rise to a mood that cannot be recreated which is why I have such high hopes for the Gap Year and all of those singular single malts that will each occupy and make theirs a particular time and place.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Glenfarclas 15-year-old 46% Dram #9

Luxurious, eccentric:
Quite a character.

It wasn't exactly love at first sight, but I worked at the relationship.

I had been desperate to try the offerings from this distillery which had always put me in mind of a secret glen: proud and aloof; quietly creating a dram of the first order. Eventually, with the squat, avuncular bottle open in my hand, I was better positioned to pass judgement, not just on the malt, but on my imagination, too. This was a period on my whisky journey where i had to rely heavily on seldon-challenged assumptions.

The original tasting note, tasted 5/7/08: COLOUR - Deep, old gold. Bronzy, peaty water. NOSE - WoW - Huge. Very floral with vanilla, honey and tannins. WW - Changes nature: harsher, fuller and more steely. Treated wood - sharp. More malty as you go down the glass. BODY - Robust, chewy. A heavy-weaight. A hammer's head. PALATE - Big Sherr hit to begin with. A gentle decay into liqueuer chocolates. Chocolate mousse, too. Mandarins, apples and skinned grapes. FINISH - Grape skins appear here, tannins, majorly oaky and lingering.

Taking my chance to propery re-evaluate the Glenfarclas, I was struck (most likely not for the first time) by its beauty. This time around i described the appearance as a strong terracotta orange with gold highlights.

Perhaps so long with so much air to contend with inside the bottle altered the make-up of the whisky slightly, for I wasn't bowled over as I was last year by the full, sweet Sherry woodiness. Then again, perhaps I have tasted other malts that take the Glenfarclas' crown for most extreme Sherry aroma, or I have simply developed the ability to compartmentalise it. Whatever, the first flavour to spring from the glass was that of cleanly assertive cereals under a warm mist of smooth Sherry. I also smelt the richest honey/ beeswax, perhaps worked into the sturdy polished oak note. Higher up in the aroma were ticklish citrus juices. A lovely, delicate sweetness drew me in somewhere between the malt and the fruit. It was a nice place to be. The finest gingerbread men were hinted at, as were semi-wild flowers. The balance and depth of character was extraordinary.

The personality shift that I had come to marvel at in the past when water was introduced did not occur to the same degree. Instead of noting the sharpness of treated wood, I felt the malt became sweeter and breezier with a firm ooze of caramel. Given time, the nose I was accustomed to emerged with hot honey and woody tannins. It grew in strength and Sherry was glugged liberally over a foundation of flowers and peat. Toffee maltiness and burnt vanilla lent their sweetness to a stunning and complex nose.

To drink it is to be charmed again by the forceful but agreeable distillery character. The body was full, round and dryish.

Flavour-wise, big and rich maltiness slid about on the syrupy Sherry, orange peel appeared as well as dark bitter chocolate and caramel maltiness. It had a plumy quality, too.

The finish is almost outrageously long with tangerine oakiness. There is a clean breathless tang like cough syrup - the work of the oak that even the 10-year-old exhibits. The younger sibling also has the same tasty leafy character.

And now it's gone! I don't think I shall see its kind for a wee while, at least until I get hold of the 105. I feel I gave it an appropriate send-off, however, re-marking it up to where it ought to perch: proudly in the "70s".

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Balvenie DoubleWood 12-year-old 40% Dram #5

I have been tasting single malts for very nearly two years now, and I'm forever assessing my performance: looking back over tasting notes and comparing what I found with what others found.

Recently, I filled up my first Whisky Notebook, and glancing back through it makes fascinating reading for my own progress towards connoisseurship. I ask myself: how much better am I at finding flavours and judging quality now than I was then? Are my first fifteen or so tasting notes something that should not be shared with the outside world? It is interesting to reflect on these, especially the last one, because I needed those first fifteen. I might not have extracted a lot of flavours, but they were essential for the purposes of creating a consistent methodology for all tastings, as well as giving me a foundation in regional styles courtesy of some of the best distilleries from those regions. Tastings may not have been regular, but I could judge whiskies against and further refine my own tastes and begin developing opinions.

In answer to the first question, the next few posts will be revisions of some of my beginner malts - those that I still have in the cupboard. Therefore, I am throwing consistency as far as my posts go out of the window (quite a jump from Dram #45 back to Dram #17) in order to gauge how far I've come as far as tasting is concerned, and also show how my perceptions of the industry in general have been gradually informed.


Seduced by honey,
The whisky I was promised
Toasts the end of stress.

The Balvenie interests me a great deal. When presented with a bottling, I have already tasted it mentally and spiritually before the cork has even left the bottle with that nose flute bass note, or the cap unscrewed from the miniature. There is a romantic resonance within me at the very mention of the distillery: The-Bal-ven-ee... I'm so shamelessly prejudiced.

As I mentioned in my Tormore post (another revision), this was, to begin with, Michael Jackson's fault, but once I had enjoyed the DoubleWood miniature substance harmonised with style.

I remember that I didn't see what all the fuss was about after the first nosing but I also recall that I had hardly chosen circumstances conducive to a successful tasting: work and dinner had preceeded my period with the snifter glass. The second tasting, however, resurrected and rendered unblemishable the Balvenie name. But things change - I have changed - so am I a more objective arbiter of this malt? I hoped not.

Original tasting note: COLOUR - Honey, amber gold. NOSE - Water brings out grapes (the whole fruit), peated stream water, Sherry sharpness. Delicious. Like how a ballgown moves. Grilled bacon?! Comfortable and beguiling. BODY - Sparkly highs and subtle lows. PALATE - Fragrant peat, coffee beans, chocolate, a burst of taste pre-finish of fruity pastries. Very defined. FINISH - Cheesecake base, medium length, bitter chocolate. Malty and sugary. Some tartness.

The marketing people, like those at The Dalmore, ought to be national heroes. I gained as much pleasure from gazing upon my bottle, bought to celebrate the conclusion of AS levels, when full as I have done once opened. They are just gorgeous bottles.

But to their contents. Rich honey to the eye prooves my claim at the beginning of this post that I don't need my nose or palate to guess at the complexion of a Balvenie. However, I find that I'm rarely disappointed when I employ those two olfactory mechanisms.

The full strength sample presents to the nose a very fresh, gentle maltiness that is glazed with Sherry. The Spanish influence continues with the discovery of charred Sherry wood. There is an even dusting of soft peat and good, round floral notes whose complexity makes this distillery such a terrific example of the Speyside style. Out of the Sherry, like a castle keep above its moat, thrusts a note of sweet vanilla.

With water I was initially worried. It became so light and fresh there was very little to hold on to. The dram seemed hollow within an indifferent ring of too-sweet wood and watery honey. But then a smooth, mousse-rich maltiness emerges. There is lots of delicious honey and a wisp of heather. Phew!

The palate is medium-weight with rounded lows and sparkly highs. Rich, spicy malt with a decent helping of peat and chocolate is in evidence. The malt becomes richer and darker, phasing in the Sherry fruit.

It finishes very well: vaguely orangey, flowery and sweet. There is a frothy wash of peat and a final grassy flavour.

This is delicious, although mood is essential. Sometimes the silky Sherry can be a touch overbearing and the whisky cannot assert itself. I still cannot work out the correct time for it, either. Rewards are plentiful, however, when you take the time to savour, explore and appreciate, something that the intervening year of practice has taught me to do!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Tormore 12-year-old 40% Dram #17

Not quite dazzling
The cultured "pearl of Speyside".
Other jewels nearby.

I was fortuitously given this malt last year as a birthday present. I say fortuitously because I probably would not have come across it otherwise (the packaging hardly helps) and I would have been obliged to wait a while longer for a whisky that would challenge my scoring system.

Until this, I had been guilty of bald elitism when selecting what I tasted, informed/ lead by the nose by positive reviews and what reputations I could infer from Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion. As a result, I was sampling the Balvenies, Lagavulins, Glenfarclases, Ardbegs and Bowmores of this world and they were all scoring well, partly because they were all very good indeed, but partly because they were supposed to be.

So along came the Tormore: no hype but no negativity, either. I would have to make my own mind up!

Through the Subaru Impreza blue of the label could be spied a rich, dark, honey-coloured whisky which, at 12-year's-old, screamed of considerable Sherry maturation or caramel. If it was the latter, it did not obtrude in the full strength sniff. What did was a soft, floral maltiness with a damp, thick vegetal sub structure. Cashew nuts and spice upheld the claim that Sherry butts had a hand in this malt's development. A full butter note clung to the sides of the glass and carrot cake came to mind in flavour and texture. Against this was a clean sheen of citrus.

Adding water had the effect of releasing the guy ropes, although I'm not sure the nose was better for it. The flowers of the undiluted sample became heather in the wind and the butter had melted, becoming richer, sweeter and slightly more pervasive. Some honey could be found, as well as mint toffee. There was a caramel facet to the malt, but it wasn't too sweet.

Taking a sip confirmed that this is a lighter Speysider. It was soft, gentle and very malty. This flavour concluded as a dry, cerealy firmness. There was a touch of chocolate as well as skinned grapes that were maybe a little too ripe.

The butter quality dominates in the finish and it is a little too lumpish and concentrated. Some honey manages to slide through before all flavour quite quickly deserts the tongue.

After some contentious inward debate, I realised that this could not score in the "60s", not because it is a bad malt - I quite enjoy one as an aperitif and it makes excellent hot toddies - but because there is neither the deft complexity and satisfying delivery of a "65+", nor the prevailing character of a "60+". Therefore, I feel "58" is a fair score. Interestingly, this places it in the bracket of "Fine, but I wouldn't pay for it".

Monday, 17 August 2009

Caol Ila Distiller's Edition 1996 43% Dram #45

Dearest Caol Ila
Has slept with the Spanish kind.
How will she be changed?

I was always going to procure this in Edinburgh. It had sucked up half of my £80 whisky budget in the preparatory phase of the trip; the remainder initially ear-marked for the Cask Strength, then a Dailuaine, then a Balblair, then a Glenlivet but in the end I did some poor mathematics and plumped for all that Talisker, after all.

Having no notes for this dram by either of my whisky oracles: Mr Jackson and Mr Lamond (Mr Murray, I'm buying your Bible this time around), I was curious as to what my favourite distillery with its light smoke, delicate malt and electric maritime qualities would taste like having spent its final period of maturation in a wood I'd never heard of: Moscatel.

It was too pretty a bottle (just try and disagree!) to open at first, and I needed reminding that, at my stage on the whisky voyage, there is no justification for spending lots of money and then not drinking the stuff. I like it when I talk sense.

It certainly looked like a Caol Ila when I poured a little out. The classic straw highlights embellished a fair, bright gold in this instance.

A first reverent sniff revealed a pronounced cerealy character that is estery and earthy. Perhaps it is the wood that accentuates the fruit flavours within the rich peat, over which flows green olive oil. The wood itself can be made out: smooth, hot and with a blueberry sweetness. I smelt honey in boiling water as well as an appetizing floral note blown close to the lush grass of a sea cliff by a warm Atlantic breeze.

With water I was relieved to locate the light, supple maltiness that I love in Caol Ilas. There was also a smooth cocoa note with more rich, leafy peat smoke. Garlic bread is an out-there hunch, but it would correlate with other Italian influences: the olives but also antipasti - smoked meats and even marinated artichokes. There is a popcorn sweetness, too.

The smooth, oily body was identifiably Caol Ila and on the palate I could appreciate the cask, something I especially enjoy in a whisky. It is rich and has a bursting fruitiness about it and this is set against smooth, sweet and dry malt. Smoke is permitted in controlled quantities.

I was warmed and charmed by the finish. It is stupendously long with the skins of stewed plums, a wine-y richness and a beach bonfire.

So why is it "only" a "71"? It's because I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. I wanted more of the wood, but yet I was very impressed by how the finish still allowed so much of the distillery character to express itself. I wanted a colour boost to set off different aspects of the Caol Ila collage, but yet I appreciated the delicate balance of the malt. In truth, I didn't know what I was expecting: how a wood could assert itself and mould in its own image a spirit as headstrong as an Islay. I guess I was after a unique selling point, otherwise this could be summed up as a tenner more than the 12-year-old but minus its amorous, spirity joie-de-vivre. I'll keep investigating, though.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Talisker 10-year-old 45.8% Dram #44

This dram has foresight,
Shows smoke and rocks and seaweed.
I've seen Skye early.

I'm a late-comer to this malt whose reputation preceeds it. For a friend of mine, on the other hand, it was one of the very first he ever had and is an absolute favourite. For my benefit, therefore, he smuggled a drop into a school event.

My hasty nosing and sip of it from a wine glass reminded me, with its wood and seaweed characteristics, of Lagavulin but I hadn't expected it to be so much softer than the Islay giant. "But Michael Jackson said volcanic..."

In Edinburgh, I managed to bag three for (almost) the price of one courtesy of Diageo who, sympathetic to the concerns of penniless malt enthusiasts, club three outstanding malts together in miniature form. At last, I could put Talisker to the test.

From this malt onwards, all of my tasting notes have been improbably garrulous. The nose has everything, and that requires a lot of lines. It begins by introducing a motif for the dram: the relationship between seaweed and smoke. Initially, it is sweet and earthy smoke, parcelled up in savoury seaweed that has roast chicken/ mussels savoury overtones. There is maltiness to marvel at, too: zesty with a Sherry dip. Mossy oakiness reminds me of wooden fishing boats. In fact, the fleet is in the boathouse - dry with the suggestion of a wood-burning stove for the fishermen. There is the coppery heat of the still in evidence. A volcanic personality.

Adding water throws open the doors of the boathouse and I head down the jetty into Loch Harport. The maritime character is much more pronounced while peat smoke flutters in the breeze.

On the palate the whisky starts big and builds in a thrilling surge. It is a little similar to the Laphroaig in this regard, only the latter is more abrupt at making your eyes water. I adore the fierce peat fire impression in the mouth, the smoke shortly adhering to the malt and a caramelised fruitiness emerging. A sweet wood note contributes to a very complex taste.

At the finish we find heavy peated malt with a drying quality, a zing of salt and then a deft delicious interplay between the smoke and the seaweed.

I prize a malt that can grab me and set me down in the landscape from where it originates and even at such a young age this has the properties to achieve this. (I'm sitting at the picnic bench.) There is terroir in tonnes and I could not be more impressed. Almost, almost a "73".

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Dalmore 1263 King Alexander III 40% "One Sip Wonder"

Dusk on the Black Isle
Light enough to spy the dark
It runs with the stag.

Dusk is the perfect time for this mighty malt. However, with memories of how deeply affected I was when I tried it in broad daylight slow to fade, do so only if you aren't too unnerved by your own weeping.

Even before I selected this from behind the bar at the Scotch Whisky Experience, a romanticism for The Dalmore had been snowballing. In September of last year I sampled the 12-year-old, and it remains the highest-scoring Highland whisky in my notebook. Further exposure has had me entirely seduced on looks alone: those shapely bottles; that super-embossed stag of almost mythological charisma; the colour.

The 1263 is a rich dusky orange in the glass, but a belligerent, glowing, precious gem red in the bottle. In the geography of my mind (and the imagination is a powerful thing), sensuous shadows abound in the hills on one side of The Dalmore. It is warm there, still, and breathlessly mysterious. On the nose it is as if a storm front is rumbling in towards the Cromarthy Firth; soundless but thrillingly, physically powerful. The storm clouds themselves are berries: blackberries, strawberries, blueberries as well as blackcurrants, bloated raisins and sultanas and hot black grapes. They are sweet, laden with juice and seem eager to vent a deluge onto the medium-dry, rounded peat and biscuity malt. They never do, though. The joy is in the anticipation. The richness and depth is staggering with a soft, dark, vanilla wood presence. I shouldn't have added water for I experienced a repeat of the 12-year-old's problem, a flattening of the nose and an oppression of that berry complexity. It did allow other fruits to emerge - mango among them - as well as a gingernut maltiness of an intense rich sweetness. Soft petalled, bright flowers remained, but the atmosphere had sadly departed.

On the palate all was well: a sophisticated, mature richness prevailed. The malt was deep and floral while the Sherry wood was more multi-complexioned than anything I'd ever come across.

After it had all gone down, spicy cerealy malt hung around for some time, as did a rich creaminess.

With so much stimulation all about me I may have got slightly carried away with this dram. On the other hand, in the comparative calm of my own home, I did a bit of research into what I had drank and lost my head entirely. All of the fruit and wood flavours that had so floored me were attributable to no fewer than six eclectic sources: Bourbon barrels, Sherry casks, Madeira drums, Port pipes, Marsala barrels and French wine casks. Richard Paterson, I doff my hat to you for combining such personalities so wondrously. Actually, I think I'll just doff £125 to you (is cash alright?). Perhaps not quite just at the moment, but it is not an excessive price to pay for such genius which redefined whisky for me yet again, as well as justified beyond reproach the merits of unlikely wood finishes. I love you, Richard!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Scotch Whisky Experience

It has taken until now for me to properly recover from my perplexing case of "whisky overload" (and there was me thinking I was immunised).

Last Tuesday my Mum/ whisky partner and I were in Edinburgh: paying ticket excesses, eating poached eggs, trying to second-guess the bus services as they circumnavigated the results of the city's worrying giant mole problem, wandering around the botanic gardens, getting drenched, and burning my tongue horribly on delicious chips, but mostly experiencing the Scotch Whisky Experience.

I had seen its write-up in The Scotsman and it was inevitable, really, that I shouldn't have been able to stay away from a five-star tourist attraction devoted to whisky.

So, after I'd finished my sorbet, a course made memorable by how feverishly desperate I was when eating it, praying that it would balm my blistered palate so that I might taste, without handicap, the various exclusive spirits I predicted would be available, we set off in search of it.

Now Edinburgh is beautiful, let's make that clear. I love its solidness, its variety and its views. But the closer you get to the castle, the more depressing the Royal Mile becomes. So pitched is it at a Japancese or American's idea of Scottishness: the tartan, the bagpipes, the miniature Loch ness monsters and such is its profusion and concentration the whole vista is deeply vulgar. Ducking into the Experience with my mind still reeling from its attempts to justify "Discount Scottish Factory Outlet" or something just as appalling had the effect of stumbling upon Diagon Alley out of the irrelevant London hubbub. Have you noticed that my magic metaphors have started?

Even from the revolving door you can smell whisky, and it isn't the odour of a teenage house party at 2 in the morning when everything smells unhappily of Jack Daniels. It is the perfume of distilleries: hot, organic and enticing. We bounded in.

We were behind some Taiwanese peopel in the ticket queue. I had difficulty penetrating one guide's Edinburgh accent so how they managed to secure places in the Silver Tour Ah dinnae ken.

It was the Gold Tour, however, that communicated with me on an irresistably shallow level. Gold is more precious than silver; the Gold Tour must be better than the Silver Tour; Mother, we are going on the Gold Tour. These are my logical thought patters. As it turned out, the £6 extra would not purchase for us a longer or more in-depth tour and reflecting on it, such a thing would be difficult to deliver.

Our steward for the beginning of the Barrel Ride asked us: "You won't want to listen in Mandarin, will you?" as our Taiwanese friends disappeared round the corner in their enormous oak cask. We said No, meaning Douglas McIntyre, our "ghost" guide, sounded as indigenous as they come.

In these past two years my whisky obsession has taken hold and one of the results, for there are some others, is that I know the whisky-making process like I do the shape of a Lamborghini Murcielago or what dress size would complement Megan Fox (a small one) but still that process was explained originally and thoroughly with the lighting effects, sounds and especially smells holding the attention completely.

We stepped out of our barrel for the penultimate stop on a young spirit's journey: the Cooperage Room. In here, we saw some of the tools a cooper uses to make a cask, the quite incredible share the angels demand as well as samples of whiskies extracted after certain increments of years from Sherry butts and Bourbon barrels.

Some stairs had to be climbed next, the ascent allowing us to appreciate the character of the building the Experice is housed in. There were various posters of evocative Scottish landscapes. Upon bagging the last couple of places for the latest "Sense of Scotland" talk, I realised that these had been preparing us for the idea of terroir. I am a big believer in terroir. For those who don't and James May out there who dismiss the idea that a landscape can influence a drink as being "cobblers" I'd advise you to try an Ardbeg.

The fifteen of us, the taiwanese included, reclined on our U-shaped bench while in front of us on a bar-like table sat a Glencairn glass and four mysterious jars. A new young and very enthusiastic guide explained in detail the four main whisky regions from the Lowlands, to the Highlands and Islands, Speyside and Islay. After each segment we were asked to open and sniff one of the glass jars whose contents would mimic the defining characteristics of a dram from a particular area. The first jar was the Lowlander, smelling very sweet, quite dry and biscuity. It was filled with malted shortbread, indded quite similar to the character of an Auchentoshan.

Next we nosed our Highland jar: perfumy, medium bodied and reasonably Glenmorangie-y. Then there was the Speysider: "acetone" was its contents lending a very full, soft and fluffy pear note like you might find in an older Glenfiddich. Finally we were advised to breathe in, with caution, the Islay jar which was, of course, smoky and medicinal. Our final instruction was to place our glasses on the coloured circle that corresponded to the jar containing the smell we liked the best. Both my Mum and I made coaster of the Islay spot. Before the glasses were to be filled, however, we were first informed about bledning which was equally fascinating and hitherto a gap in my knowledge. What goes in to a Grants or a Johnnie Walker is utterly incredible. Of course, it's technically the same for the Famous Grouse but that will never redeem it in my eyes...

At last, the four drams toured the room: Glenkinchie, Glenmorangie, Strathisla and Ardbeg. "Like chewing pencils" was the quirky and perfectly apt tasting note from our guide. However, she wouldn't let us drink it just yet.

We trooped out of the seminar room, along a corridor and into something like whisky Nirvana. I'd read about the Claive Vidiz Collection, I'd seen some pictures, but nothing prepares a whisky fan for it. I may even have sworn.

It's a custom-made cabinet and it would have to be for a collection only a smidgen short of 3,500 bottles. There were labels for whiskies I'd never heard of, bottlings I'd never seen before, novelty pieces that had no readily apparent connection to whisky. Single malts were in the minority, in fact, but here was a Black Bowmore; there was a Glenfiddich Vintage Reserve; here was an Ardbeg Lord of the Isles; there was every Balvenie known to this man. It was extraordinary, humbling, and the perfect location for sipping our measures. Our guide (I wish I'd asked her name!) tutored us in the art of whisky nosing and tasting and tried to make it clear to one chap that you couldn't tell everything by the colour. I foolishly thought that that was it, forgetting that she had postponed the answering of my question as to what the rarest bottle in the collection was and that she'd tell us all shortly. "Shortly" meant grouping in the lea of yet another garagantuan cabinet where she pointed to a rich, red angular bottle with Royal Salute 40 on the front. Apparently the title of "Absolute Rarest" is between that (filled into only 1000 Baccarat Glass bottles bought by Claive in 1969 for $1000, now worth several times that ) and a Strathmill centenary bottling. That Claive had it makes him technically a world leader or dignitary, so rare and prestigious are they.

Suitably impressed by these as well as a Glengoyne in a grandfather clock, a 40-year-old Bowmore and a similarly middle-aged Glen Garioch, I turned towards another wall of whisky. The bar.

Here I met Chris of Edinburgh Whisky Blog fame and he tutored me in a different art - the art of successful whisky-blogging. I bowed to his wise words and was again struck by how enthusiastic and knowledgeable the staff are. I owe Chris an apology, though. You and Lucas aren't in the Malt Whisky yearbook this year, but I'm sure you won't be left out in the 2010 edition.

Unfortunately, there wasn't an alcove behind the bar for a Glenlivet Cellar Collection. In fact, that was about the only thing they didn't have. I was torn between two 30-year-olds: the Glenfarclas and the Glenfiddich. Then I had a piece of inspiration, no doubt delivered by one of those tipsy angels: "Do you have The Dalmore 1263?" They certainly did. Not only that but I was the first to try some: before I arrived their bottle was pristine, new and full. This was where the Gold Tour ticket came into its own: gaining me a nice wee discount.

All I shall say here is that my tasting experience was sublime and peerless. Comfortable, spacious, good company, a proper glass, and bottled water for dilution. How it should be, I say! SEE THE DALMORE 1263 REVIEW.

Another of our Gold Tour privileges was a tasting tray: four more malts from around Scotland. We elected for the Homecoming Tray, tied into Scotland's initiative for 2009 to bring people back to Scotland who may have their roots there as well as anyone else willing to boost the local economy. This selection included Glengoyne (representatives from which were paying a visit at the time), Royal Lochnagar, Strathisla and Laphroaig which could be smelt several metres from the glass. It was appreciating the individual merits of this quartet that did for me. It didn't help that beside our nest of cosy armchairs was a display detailing unit allotments and how fast alcohol affects the brain.

Not that I needed to be told about the latter as a strong, whisky-laden breeze blew through my wallet, taking with it £86 in exchange for my Caol Ila Distiller's Edition and Talisker Gift Pack. I begged my Mum to get me out of this wonderful place that sold miniatures of the Highland Park 18 and 30-year-olds as well as The Glenlivet 15-year-old French Oak lest I slam my debit card onto the cash desk and get irrational.

And that, apart from passing The Whisky Shop on the way back to the station which induced a low shriek from me, was that for my eye-opening day into the glorious diversity of the Scotch whisky industry. Those five stars are truly deserved. Thanks are due to one and all behind the scenes and in front of them. It's a rare pleasure to meet people who love their work (alright, "work") to such a degree and in so doing affirming that, no matter what Diageo or any other mulitnational may do, the identity of Scotch is firmly rooted in Scotland.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Heathrow Terminal 5

This week I was very excited. I went to Wimbledon on the Tuesday, flying down in the morning and flying back the following day. Having never been to the Championships before and being a keen tennis fan, not even my powerful hypochondria, aroused with all this swine flu business, could dissuade me from taking the opportunity. Having never been to Terminal 5 before and being a keen whisky fan, only severely depleted funds prevented me from returning with a bottle of something. I'll share my experiences of this perhaps unlikely whisky emporium with you now.

From all I've read, I knew that there were certain bottlings released to mark the opening of Heathrow's latest and, if Greenpeace have their way, last outbuilding. Therefore, after my Mum and I had been photographed, waited, shuffled, disrobed, hobbled with a conferred guilty look upon our faces through the beeping arch and finally staggered away with our personal belongings like a couple of refugees emerging broken and starving from a winter mountain pass, I was in need of a drink, or at least a look at one. It was not until later that I spotted the other malt whisky outlet on the other side of the concourse but for the first fifteen minutes I perused with a kind of serene awe what was on display.

The bigger distilleries had their own portion of wall, these being Glenmorangie, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, Highland Park, Glenlivet and the Classic Malts. Discounting the other sales islands, there were enough seriously rare, therefore expensive offerings: Signet, Hazelwood, the 30YO, a Sherry matured vintage of some description for about £300, everything from the Orcadians including the 40YO, the 25YO Glenlivet and so much rare Talisker. Am I the only one, though, that finds 1l bottles somewhat unsightly? I found the Highland Park 18YO in a 70cl and for a shade over £40, though! I was sorely put out being unable to capitalise.

Elsewhere there was to be found the 1263 King Alexander III from The Dalmore, a quite beautiful bottling, I think. I also found a few Bunnahabhains including that obscure Gaelically-named one that Dr. Whisky has just tasted, a 21YO Old Pulteney and a rare Royal Lochnagar - although, really, that applies to most of them.

Aberfeldy and Aberlour were others in attendance as well as the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition. But the highlight would have to be that Glenlivet 25YO. I saw its picture in The Malt Whisky Yearbook and made a fervent vow that I should one day possess such a thing. It is another dram whose presentation is absolutely first-class with a cleverly constructed wooden box.

So to the other side, pointed out to me by my mother who thought I was in it all along (she had gone off to look at something not quite so giddyingly wonderful, or expensive: perfume, maybe and had then panicked when she hadn't found me in our pre-agreed rendez-vous point). There I found the Highland Park 16YO, a Duty Free-only malt; the Balvenie Golden Cask, ditto, and a few independent bottlings. There was also - to prove that such a thing does really exist and merely intensify my desire - the Caol Ila Distiller's Edition. I noticed a glass case, though, and because such a thing usually indicates boutique quality and prices to match, I sidled over. Its contents were just a few Glenfiddichs, of course. Nothing too exciting. Although having said that, the cheapest was about £2,300. The dearest was a Family Reserve 1955 with that fetching gold/yellow label. £5000.

I ended up with a miniature selection of Balvenies - a snip at £11. I've already had the DoubleWood but there is also the Founder's Reserve 10YO, useful for they don't bottle it anymore. There is also a 15YO Single Barrel which will hopefully be an enjoyable sample.

The whole affair was more than a little bit incredible, though, and as was pointed out to me - it is best to give your money to Scotland, which is why I am now looking forward in the extreme to my visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience, newly re-vamped and brimming with fine whisky. Note to self for next time: have more money.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The Macallans: 10YO and 10YO Fine Oak 40% Dram #s 38 and 39

It was quite warm on the lawn, but with a fresh breeze goosing the stiff, fibrous leaves of the ornamental cherry in front of me. This handsome tree partially obscured the house but I could still make out, between the branches, the gabled facade, the chimneys at either end of the black slate roof and the two turreted windows protruding from it. It was old-looking, functional, smart, and reminded me rather a lot of the iconic "chateau" of the Macallan. When I heard a cough behind me, and after turning faced two large casks, I knew that the house must be the very same one.

"Hello," said one of them with the suggestion of a spanish accent. "I believe we have met before."

I wasn't sure we had at all and said as much.

"Ah," it replied, "perhaps not me, but my contents."

Duly called for, a memory of a Macallan surfaced.

"You're right, it was the first malt I ever tasted," I confessed. "I wasn't too impressed, I must say, but that was Before The Glenlivet."

"Just so," said the spanish cask, "and I think a re-taste is in order, don't you?"

I said I was quite willing. "And who's your friend?" I asked, for the other cask had been sitting there quite shyly.

"Thomas John Albany. From America," the european cask supplied.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, sir," said Thomas John.

I assured him that I hoped the pleasure would be mostly mine.

"We were separated at birth," the first cask went on, "and this shall be an experiment for you as to how a different environment may shape a personality."

I reflected that this was assuredly my favourite kind of scientific enquiry and when I looked again at the pair of casks, through wood craft of some sort, a glass had appeared on top of each containing a little measure of gold.

"Compare," said the spanish cask.

I raised its glass to my eye and found that the whisky's shade was a very pleasing ochre-orange, the yank's a pale straw gold.

"Smell," implored the first cask.

I eagerly brought the glass to my nose and was hit strongly by the complete Sherry note, then a crisp, wood polish zestiness. Sweet flapjack and honey appeared and shrank back, allowing the oak flavours to emerge and a natural complexity with flowers, leaves and herbs, especially lavendar, finally with a trip to the woods where cinnamon floated beneath the boughs. Here, I kicked up dark, heavy peat. I sniffed again, and the weighting of fruit and malt made another change.

"Don't forget Thomas John."

This cask's offering was very different: light, soft with more delicate, sweeter flavours. The lavendar was still thrillingly there, however. I marvelled at how dry the peat was and how artfully the vanilla mingled.

"You see a difference?" the first cask asked.

"Definitely," I said, although admitted privately that for all his pleasant combinations, Thomas John hadn't appealed to me as much as this forward Sherry cask.

"The difference is the Fine Oak in which he has been raised. I have been sired in Sherry and, I like to think, I show some of the spanish passion and heat."

I asked if I might explore a little more with some water.

"That is what the jug is for," said Sherry, and sure enough a water jug was found at my feet.

After having drizzled a little into each I commented on how it sweetened and lightened both while cake and icing charmed my nostrils. Sherry added butterscoth sauce while TJ distinguished between butter and caramel. I could smell the cask with Sherry and more of the peat while TJ became chocolatey and spicy.

"Good," said Sherry. "Now taste."

I did as I was told without complaint and after swallowing I was incapable of it. The Sherry palate was a team of complete malt grains charged with gunpowder acting like fireworks in my mouth. TJ reminded me of a richer, desert-like maltiness with shavings of dark choclate and apples. The peat structures in both were outstanding. For TJ, there was more dark chocolate in the finish as well as a firm oak presence; raspberries under a malty sponge and citrus. Sherry kept me entertained and warm. The mash notes descended slowly and the chocolate here was Milk. Currants and nuts alternated superbly. A spanish musical reprise played on the bagpipes.

"Well?" asked the Sherry cask.

"Quite incredible," I said. "The contrasts are so spectacular and extensive, I may have lost track of some. May I have some more..."

"No, you have enough to be going on with," said the Sherry cask. "We have to get back to bed now. Come back in eight years."

I promised I would.

And I will. If this pair are such exemplary Speysiders at 10 years, at 18 they should be very special indeed. Initially, there was a four-point gap between standard and Fine Oak in standard's favour but after a second tasting, the charms of the latter elevated it by one, and my initial attraction to the former was tempered only slightly. It is quite brilliant. In fact, on the nose, I think it is on a par with my favourite Speyside: the Glenlivet 18YO. The Macallan has plainly earned its reputation, as its adverts in some magazines laconically demonstrate. The proof will be in the tasting of the older bottlings, once I can afford them, of course!

Monday, 30 March 2009

Lagavulin 16-year-old 43% Dram #10

Islay's fame is chiefly grounded,
In the gases evaporating from South Shore.
This dram sipped is a passion founded,
In taste nor imagery, don't ask for more.

The flavours, the ideas; contained by glass,
Escape like the cork to provoke new thought.
This Lagavulin is of a separate class,
Rarely found, but for a long time sought.

A simple fire and forgiving chair
Are the sole collaborators this dram will require.
In sandy shoes and with wind-tousled hair,
I'll secrete myself and let time inspire.

I confess to a Rabbie Burns moment here. I finished my miniature in mid-July last year and what came next was quite astonishing. I literally entertained the Whisky Muse. For perhaps an hour my mind rode the thermals produced by the triumvirate of distilleries on the south coast of Islay: experiencing visions and ideas and love. Then it slowly began to fade, my state of mind leaving not the slightest imprint so I had little knowledge of exactly what I had thought, why I had thought it and the conclusions I had drawn. A "Malt Moment" indeed.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Glenfarclas 10-year-old 40% Dram #37

Who's been to Edzell? If you haven't, it's nothing major because I'm about to describe the smart little village near Brechin, or more particularly the walk which has the settlement as its base, to you now.

The route makes use of the banks of the North Esk, a river which, I believe, has a reputation for good fishing. It is even better for acting metaphorically as the Glenfarclas 10-year-old. I'll call it the Glenfarclas Garden. The easiest parallel comes in autumn as all those deciduous trees blush the same amber gold. However, I am more familiar with the place in early summer, a season which teases the best out of the area and comparisons with the whisky of today's post.

Driving from Brechin, you should actually ignore the village entirely, sparing only minimal attention on the plush residences visible from the main street. Following this road will see you cross a bridge, immediately beyond which is a layby. Park here. This is the sideboard from which you may pluck a number of drams: passing through a gate set in the wall will take you further up the river valley where you might access a very different whisky, perhaps the 105. Persevering on the road would lead you to Fettercairn and its malt. I'll be following the flow of the North Esk downhill on this occasion.

Make straight across the road where you will be confronted by a dense body of trees. These ones lend their needles, largely undisturbed by decay, to the forest floor. After finding the path between these, you meet the species which have most in common with our Glenfarclas: horse chestnut, beech; they offer a woody spiciness that sways quietly about them above the river. The nose adopts the dimensions of these trees, and newly-budded leaves are a sweet, fluffy texture. The abundant sun stokes the undergrowth into a mulchy fruitiness, roses and cherries. In the leaf mould there are the rich nut kernels, roots and earth. Periodically the path sidles to the edge of the gorge and the fast-flowing stream fills each nostril from below with the lively scents of light, air and peat.

Progress is gradual and pleasurable, the trees relenting to a single rank at the river's edge. On your left are fields - pasture and soon arable farming. Young grass lends its own herby sweetness to the life-giving air. A honey-like quality begins to develop and the cereal crops increase their aromatic presence with the shrinking altitude. Oak trees appear and theirs is a waxy apple influence.

The path, just as the suspension footbridge extends from either canopy, is allowed closer to the slackening river. It is now shallow, braided by white-pebbled eyots and supped at by the sycamores at its edge. I cup my hands in the current and lift to my lips. Some trick of the light tinges its purity: a coppery glow. It's a firm drink, massive malt and whole fruits: cherries and cranberries. The smoothness is hugely refreshing. While I dry my fingers and palms on my trousers I appreciate the soft malty reprise, embellished with vanilla, cranberry and dark chocolate. I recognise the 15-year-old in a gasp-worthy organic tang of Sherry oak, like rhubarb or mandarins in its heady tartness. It sustains me for my return journey along the opposite bank.

This is a really fine dram and quite astonishing value. I first tasted a Glenfarclas this time last year and so intense was the sweetness and so strong that oaky finish progress with it was slow for my novice taste buds. However, the distillery character is gratifyingly present here, and I hope it shall be with the other quite easily-available expressions in its core range. The very idea of the 25-year-old is dangerously wonderful, being, as it is, in the locality of £100.