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!