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.