Thursday, 8 June 2017

Bottle o' Ridge!

When I was starting out as a booze merchant sixteen years ago, Ridge was a popular 'fine wine' choice with punters who had learned wine via such gems as the Penfold's range of affordable, full-bodied, fruit-forward Australian wines, and who preferred their soft jamminess to the dryer, more restrained style of the Bordeaux Crus Classé . The junior expressions were affordable enough that some of our more affluent customers could float in of a Friday evening and casually utter—what had become something of a staff catch phrase or in joke—"bottle o' Ridge please".

So even though my tastes lean more towards the European classics, I have a soft spot for Ridge. Turn to whisky and matters become more complicated. Red wine finishes are most definitely not to everybody's taste. Fortunately, I do like them, and am therefore the ideal person to review this one.

What we have here is the Glenrothes Wine Merchant's Collection 1992 24 Year Old Ridge Wine Finish Cask #08, which retails for £200. It is bottled at a natural strength of 55.1%, and has been finished (for six months? A year? Who knows?) in a Zinfandel cask, although we're not told which vineyard. Yes, it very likely wouldn't make much difference to the flavour of the whisky, but I'd probably look more fondly on it knowing it was Geyserville rather than Lytton Springs.

As I understand it, Glenrothes' reputation stands higher in Europe and America than in the UK, but nevertheless £200 seems quite expensive to me, even allowing for the expense of the fancy-schmancy barrel. With that grumble set to one side, here are my notes.

Nose: Vinous, but also rather spirity. Berries (generic berries. Or perhaps I mean Genericberries). Not malty. Adding a little water makes it more spirity (as is often the case), and brings out oak top notes. More water reveals dry, earthy notes, and leaf litter (sous bois if you want to indulge in the sort of Wine Spectator vocabulary that wines like Ridge seem to provoke). There's definitely something of mushrooms and wine cellars going on.

Palate: Thick and sweet, fruity, ripe, and red. Rather port-like, but with a faint bitter note in the finish. Water brings out more red fruits, and an earth or mushroom note which wine barrels often give. After a while a lovely almond pastry flavour develops.

Yet more water makes it very soft and easy to drink, and brings out high toned, perfumed, oak spices, along with a faint reminder of Edinburgh rock. It's fortunate that this whisky takes water so well; after twenty-four years and at natural strength of 55.1%, I do think it ought to be a tad less spirity.

Conclusion: This is an excellent 'sweetie' of a dram, with the proviso that you have to like red wine finishes. Glenrothes produces spirit of a very fruity character which in this case works well with the wine influence.

Zinfandel often has a character akin to Port, and that, I think is a useful comparison if you're not a wine drinker, but have tasted Port-finished whiskies. If you like such malts, then this one's for you.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Manzanilla of the North

The blessèd Michael Jackson knew how to turn a well formed phrase, and he was the writer I turned to when I was first trying to learn more about Scotch, but some of the things he wrote about whisky have never made sense to me. 

I've always thought that his description of Pulteney as the Manzanilla of the North was one such utterance, a phrase coined more for its similarity to "the Athens of the North" than for its aptness. And I am fairly sure that the phrase was coined by Jackson.

For example, in The World Guide to Whisky (1987) he says, "The whisky, called Old Pulteney, has been compared to a Manzanilla", but neglects to tell us who was doing the comparing.

But this bottle, a Cadenhead's 11 year old bottled at cask strength, from a bourbon hogshead, has given me pause for thought.

Initially it merely seemed like a whisky which had been bottled too early, a harsh raw dram lacking in pleasure, and very awkward alongside the handful of well aged malts also tasted that evening. But that brash, abrasive character is coming in my mind to seem more and more like the saltiness of youthful fino from Sanlucar. 

I recall that Jackson began writing about whisky during the last boom, at a time when demand was running ahead of supply, and before the filling of the whisky loch in the Eighties led to many producers promoting well aged expressions as the norm.

In the World Guide to Whisky many of the expressions he describes are fairly youthful - Highland Park, Strathisla, Rosebank, and Blair Athol all at eight years old, Balblair as a five year old, Glenfiddich Pure Malt without an age statement, and plenty of others.

The expression of Pulteney included in the Guide is the eight year old bottled by Gordon & Macphail. I wonder if the whisky I tasted last night - youthful, with little cask character, rather abrasive - is the modern equivalent of that early eighties expression?

I suspect that I'll never have an answer to that question, but at that time there wasn't anything like the same level of interest in cask management as there is today, and I reckon it's at least a plausible suggestion to say that the malt that Jackson tasted and described was dominated by distillate character, just like last night's dram.

And whilst I'm waiting for an answer, I shall go and reread Jackson in the light of my Pulteney revelation.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Springbank Private Bottling for Distillery Visitors 2017

So I just drank a £50 dram.

Which is more a reflection of the weird state of Scotch in 2017 than of the true value of this whisky.

But that's not the reason for this post, ho no missus. Nope. I'm writing this because Springbank seems to provoke logorrhea in a way that other drams don't. Look at this:



Can you tell that I really liked this whisky?

Here's the transcription, for those of you using Lynx or another text-only browser.

Nose: malt and iron. age-patina-ed old iron and brown sugar. If you took a handful of long grass (forage, destined to be hay) and held it tight to an old horseshoe until it had become damp. That. Grubby small children, but your own, beloved children, not anyone else's. Faintly, a curry spice (cumin?)

Palate: Sweet and malty, but somehow suggesting sweeties made from seaweed. A salty-sweet finish. Sweet round malt, beautiful brown sugar (muscovado, the darkest of sugars). Oh, and sherry.

Conclusion: the perfect dram for my mood tonight. A great Springbank.

I absolutely love it when this happens. To be honest, this is why I drink. I don't care for the other effects of alcohol, the drunken-ness or the hangover, but when the booze provokes me into wordiness, oh man, I'm so happy. I don't mind that these words likely don't mean much to most of you. The process of turning ethanol-plus-congeners into letters on a screen makes me unreasonably happy.

PS If you haven't already arrived at this conclusion, then let me say that the take-away from this blog post is that you need to get yourself to Campbeltown and do the tour, just so you can have the whisky.


Friday, 7 April 2017

Benromach 1973

It can be difficult to let go of one's prejudices, and this is doubly the case when one is tasting (that's why blind tasting is such a useful tool).

Alas!, when I first tasted this wee sample at the end of last year, I let my mental picture of pre-Gordon & Macphail Benromach interfere with my perception of what I was actually tasting, so that it seemed, if not humdrum, then perhaps pedestrian, not worth it's £1400 price tag.

So I was pleasantly—nay, delightfully—surprised when I polished off the last of the sample tonight. Why? In a word, rancio. This is such a rare thing to find in a Scotch, and it's such a delicious flavour. Especially when it's combined with maltiness rather than the fiery fruit of brandy.

Now, I've described rancio as a flavour, but it's perhaps more accurate to say flavour modifier. In very old brandies of good quality, the fruitiness will sometimes take a turn to the dark side, with suggestions of over-ripeness or a faint hint of hothouse rot.

By contrast Scotch, perhaps because of the cold climate in which it matures, is more likely to acquire a slight fust, something which speaks of the damp, earthy warehouses and old oak casks in which it has aged.

So as I say, it was a delightful surprise to taste a malt with rancio. Aside from that, there was some of the fust that old whisky takes on, as well as the faintly grimy, garden-shed-and-old-engine-oil character that I only ever find in Springbank, Benromach, and some other whiskies distilled in the Seventies or earlier. It wasn't a very intense dram, but oh! such lovely flavours.

(Thank you to Benromach and to Steve Rush of the Whisky Wire for the sample)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Youthful Malt Not Considered Harmful

The cyclical nature of Scotch Whisky sales, forever moving from boom to bust to boom to bust, has occasionally led the industry into difficulties of its own making.

The slump of the eighties led in turn to an oversupply in the oughties of well aged malt, which the industry attempted to tackle by emphasising age as the one true mark of quality.

The (inevitable?) consequence of that tactic, of course is that during the most recent boom many producers have been reluctant to admit that they are bottling younger whiskies, resorting instead to the modesty blanket of a fanciful brand name, and taking advantage of the fact that they aren't actually obliged to state the age of a whisky.

This has led to much public argumentation between, broadly speaking, two camps. On the one hand there are those irate persons, generally not employed in the industry, who consider Non Age Statement whiskies to be a bad thing, and on the other the more emollient voices, often of those in the trade, who defend the practice as a sensible response to a shortage of aged stock.

(It has also, amusingly, led to Compass Box's clever dancing round the rules, and to Bruichladdich's rather more low-key activities in the same vein. Both of which I consider to be a good thing.)

But few bottlers have bitten the bullet and released young whiskies with prominently displayed aged statements. Which leads me to Càrn Mòr.

Càrn Mòr is the single malt brand of Morrison & Mackay, the Perthshire independent bottler and erstwhile maker of whisky cream liqueurs. I'm a fan of their whiskies for several reasons. Their labels are admirably clear and informative; young Peter Mackay, their envoy in the West, is an entertaining and charming fellow; their bottlings offer, in my opinion, good value for money; and most importantly, they generally bottle good whisky.

I expect I'm wrong (and please do correct me) but I believe they were the first bottlers in recent times to offer a malt with a '4' prominently displayed on the label, on a Glentauchers distilled in 2010 and bottled from a sherry puncheon in 2015. That was a fine dram; fiery, but also packed with marmalade and demerara sugar flavours, and ridiculously good value for money.

Tonight's bottle, by contrast, is a venerable five year old. It's from the blessed Glenburgie, and is a very fine example of the fruity style at which that distillery excels. The nose immediately shouts out "Fruit!" at you, and a deeper sniff reveals it to be Opal fruits. The palate is light, soft, fresh , and fruity. It's not complex, and there is a wee bite to it, but that fruit is just charming. A lovely wee dram, and very sensibly priced too. Oh, and it's really rather fruity.

I suppose I need hardly say that I wish more bottlers would follow the example of Càrn Mòr. I'm not that fussed about the age of a whisky, as long as it tastes good, but I don't care for smoke and mirrors. Or heritage and haggis and no age statement.


Monday, 27 February 2017

Old and Rare and Obscure

Last week's Old & Rare show at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow—the first of many, I hope—was enormous fun. Catching up with whisky friends, tasting amazing old whiskies; it's just a pity it couldn't have lasted longer.

I was in attendance with colleagues, and was constantly being invited to try ever more delicious, ever more ancient drams. My notes are not the clearest, but there are definitely remarks regarding a Berry Brothers Highland Park 1957, a Port Ellen 25, Mortlach 1954, and a Cadenhead's Glentauchers 38 Year Old.

Whilst it is a delight to sample such fine malts, there's some perverse part of me that discounts them. Of course old school Highland Park will taste stunning. Naturally a well aged Port Ellen will impress. What really drew my attention was the opportunity to taste whiskies which don't have such a reputation. I'm not sure why, but finding a Mosstowie and a Glen Albyn, not to mention a humble Connoisseurs Choice Royal Brackla, really made my day. So here, then, are my notes on a five year old Auchentoshan and a twenty-one year old Glen Albyn.

Glentoshan 5 Year Old (40°, for the Italian market)
Nose: initially cabbage, but that soon clears. Very rich and fruity - much more fruity than modern Auchentoshan. After a while a light elegant perfume (which is much more what I expect from Auchentoshan).

Palate: very sweet and light, and it has the prickle of youth. There's a touch of fustiness in the finish. As with the nose, it seems much sweeter than I'd expect from an Auchie. There's a light, grassy or barley element, much like modern Auchentoshan. And of course this whisky has the very characteristic silky texture of spirit which has been long in the bottle.

Conclusion: it's often said that malts were much fruitier before about 1980, and this one certainly fits with that. But I could see a continuity between this dram and modern expressions from the distillery.





Glen Albyn 21 Year Old (40°, distilled 1963, bottled by Gordon & Macphail)
Nose: interesting. It's very fresh, considering it's age, and there's a lot going on. It's herbal, spicy, and fruity. Plus, there's a good dose of old wood. Not sherry or bourbon barrels, just old wood. And is that something minty?

Palate: milky sweet, soft, and round. So very soft and gentle, but definitely not watery or lacking in flavour. There's a sherry wood umami note, and then some red fruits come through - plums, I should think. Just like the Glentoshan this dram has a silky smooth texture.

Conclusion: A very fine dram indeed. Based on a sample size of one, it seems almost criminal that the distillery was closed.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Terroir, again.

I keep having the same sort of argument with different people about terroir and whisky, most recently with @maltreview and @WhiskyPilgrim. Since Twitter doesn't lend itself well to lengthy exposition, here's a blog post instead.

The notion of terroir is deeply bound up with wine, and with France. The word itself is French, although my copy of Hachette unhelpfully translates it as "land". The Oxford Companion to Wine offers the slightly more useful "total natural environment of any viticultural site". The Companion then goes on for some two or three thousand closely spaced words which—and I hope my twitter antagonists can agree—don't really serve to settle the matter definitively.

But I think all sides can agree that a terroir wine has flavours unique to the place where its grapes were grown and where it was made.

How, then, does this idea transpose into Scotch whisky? I would argue that it doesn't.

We can straight away disregard the hundred plus distilleries who buy their malt from Crisps or Bairds or whatever, since that barley is sourced from all over the UK and beyond. For them, there can not be the total natural environment of the triticultural site. Their barley is not site specific.

But even when we look at Springbank or Bruichladdich or Ballindalloch, the idea of a flavour unique to the place where the barley is grown does not stand up to any sort of scrutiny.

That's because the analogy with winemaking is just that, an analogy - and a poor one at that. Wine is the all but inevitable consequence of not drinking the grape juice, of leaving the juice to rot. Humans need do little more than pick and press the grapes and something wonderful (or at least drinkable) will result. Whereas whisky is the end result of a multi stage process, with each stage contributing flavours. The human element is far more important than in wine making.

From the peating level of the malt to the length of fermentation to the shape of the stills to how the stills are run to the choice of casks, all these human choices contribute much more than the place where the barley is grown.

We see this in the resulting product. Yes, Bruichladdich's Islay barley bottlings are slightly different from their Scottish barley expressions - but they are unmistakeably, first and foremost, Laddies. And Springbank's Local Barley bottlings differ from other Springers of similar age and cask type, but they are most definitely Springbank.

By contrast, were Laphroaig to take barley from Rockside farm and turn it into whisky according to the Laphroaig method and procedure, which would it more resemble, Laphroaig 10 or Bruichladdich Islay Barley?

The unvoiced answer to this rhetorical question is why we talk about distillery character and not barley field character. Whisky terroir does not exist.




Friday, 17 February 2017

This Tasting Note Is Not Standards Compliant

I spilled some Longrow just now, and the aroma is very intriguing: almond pasty, the 1970s, shiny silver balls, eaux de vie, almonds, rolling tobacco, something sweet

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Why Kennetpans Matters

Don't feel too bad if you have never heard of Kennetpans, since it doesn't really feature prominently in many histories of Scotch. But please!, do read on to find out what you should know about it, and why.
Kennetpans Distillery: the mill, engine room, and stillhouse

Along with a colleague I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the ruins of Kennetpans distillery last week. It's in something of a parlous state, with parts of it close to collapse. Considering how central it is to the history of the Scotch whisky industry, that's a crying shame.


That's a fifteen foot diameter flywheel cutout

The Haig and Stein families were the original whisky barons, dominating the nascent industry from the 1750s through to the mid nineteenth century. Kennetpans in its heyday was a huge distillery; the Scotch Whisky Industry Record states that in 1773 it employed over 300 men and produced upwards of 3000 tons of proof spirit (which, cross referencing with government records, implies that it produced a fifth of all the spirit consumed in Great Britain in that year. A fifth.)

Massive stone piers supported the Watt steam engine

The first Watt steam engine in Scotland was built at Kennetpans in 1786. The canal between Kennetpans and its even larger successor, Kilbagie, was one of the earliest in Scotland, and built ten years before the Forth and Clyde canal. The first railway in Scotland ran between the two distilleries.

Part of a millstone. And a rusted fragment of the iron band which held it.

Even more fundamental to the Scotch whisky industry, the Stein Patent Still, forerunner to the Coffey still which continues to be used to this day, was developed at Kilbagie.

Remnants of the pier where ships took on their cargo of whisky.

This last development, the high volume (and low flavour!) continuous still, perhaps points to the reason why Kennetpans has been forgotten. It, along with many of the other Lowland distilleries, spent much of its working life churning out cheap, poor quality spirit which was much more likely to be rectified into gin than to be drunk as whisky. And that side of the whisky business, the vast bulk of cheap blended Scotch, with minimal malt content, is one that the industry just doesn't bother to talk about.
Inside the maltings.

Kilbagie is long gone; demolished, built over, and built over again. But much of the structure of Kennetpans is still standing—just barely—and it's still possible to see evidence of the different activities that went on there. The massive piers which supported the steam engine are incredibly impressive, until you see the size of the maltings, and consider that they were said to be five stories high.

One of the many huge cracks in the structure

Even in its decayed state, Kennetpans still has the power to impress. If it were to be stabilised and made safe, so that people could visit and learn of the earliest days of the Scotch whisky industry, I think that would be a very good thing indeed.

About Kennetpans
As is so often the case with Scottish distilleries, the foundation date for Kennetpans isn't known, but by the 1730s it was was the biggest distillery in Scotland. It was closed by John Stein Jr. in 1825 or '26.

You can learn much more about Kennetpans and the Haig and Stein families at the Kennetpans trust website, where you can also make a donation to support the work of rescuing the structure.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Port Ellen 37 Year Old

We had been promised a taste of all of the 2016 Special Releases, but owing to some double booking or some such by our host, only the Port Ellen was on hand. This did have the unlooked for - but very much appreciated - consequence that we all got whisky cocktails for free. To use the vernacular, result.

The Port Ellen, at 37 years old, smelt surprisingly peaty. Fairly intense fruity salt dominated, but there was a load of underlying peat, and behind all that some elegant oak perfume. All in all the nose was very broad and direct, like a chunk of overly salty fudge.

Without water the palate was nippy. I found grass, boiled sweets, fusty old oak and salty malt, but very little earthy peat. Water improved this dram immensely, making it soft, rounded, and even more salty. It was remarkable just how salty it was without being peaty or smoky.

I've tasted Port Ellen a handful of times, and always enjoyed it. This dram was excellent, although of course I didn't pay for it (and wouldn't, at the asking price). It did seem surprisingly peaty for a 37 year old, which rather made me wonder if the whisky was racked into freshly emptied Caol Ila or Lagavulin casks at some point. I don't suppose I'll ever find out.