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!