Thursday, 17 November 2011

Taste The Difference?

I am currently running around like mad trying to ensure that a tasting happens at the Glenfiddich Distillery next week. Tastings happen every day at the Glenfiddich Distillery I hear you cry, so why the big deal? The minor difference with this one is that it will be broadcast live over the internet. A collection of Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference malts is the prize awaiting the tasting panel.
On Thursday 24th November, 7 days and 8 hours away at the time of writing, I will be responsible for the delivery of 5 people tasting 8 malts each for a one hour broadcast. They will taste and discuss all 8 single malts and somehow keep to within an hour – come on, we all know what whisky people are like when it comes to timekeeping. In order to actually have a broadcast there are several key challenges....
People – who to choose and how to make sure they are all in place. To make up the panel I have invited Richard Berry, a malt enthusiast but very much a highly knowledgeable amateur; Steve Smith, the malt buyer at Sainsbury’s; Jamie Milne from Glenfiddich; The Balvenie’s Global Ambassador Sam Simmons and to chair the event and keep them all in line, Eddie Ludlow, founder of The Whisky Lounge. Flights are booked, transfers in place and they all even have a hotel room so, fingers crossed, the people box is ticked.
Location – It is great that Glenfiddich have been so kind as to host us for our Distillery Tasting but even this has not been without a few struggles. Glenfiddich is a major tourist attraction and now that the season is over the preferred location within the distillery is subject to a little renovation work. Eventually we have found the right spot in the distillery and fantastic it is. Overlay on this the location of the distillery itself – up in the Scottish highlands and rather rural – then you end up with a few issues over actually getting the broadcast signal out of the area. Roll up the satellite truck and now we have a solution.
The Web – for me, this has been the first time I have had a web page created. Safe to say it is a harder, longer and more detailed process than I had imagined. Through several incarnations and many re-writes and edits I now have a fully functioning page – http://distillerytasting.co.uk
So as I get into the last week before broadcast it seems most of the major elements are in place. My people, location and web page are done so the last step will be to actually deliver an hour of live television.
If you want to see how I get on tune in to http://distillerytasting.co.uk on Thursday 24th November at 7PM GMT. See you there.  

Friday, 11 November 2011

One man's creation - The Balvenie Forty

When a distillery releases significantly aged stocks, let’s say 30 years plus, it is generally safe to say it has been a team effort of Malt Masters. Over the 30+ years it is almost certain that at least 1 Malt Master has been and gone, perhaps more. Therefore the new make spirit that was layed down in casks by one man (or woman) is being married and bottled by another.

This is where David Stewart's achievement at The Balvenie really comes into its own. With very nearly 50 years service (this amazingly does not make him the longest serving member of the team at The Balvenie) it was David himself that layed down the new make in the early Seventies that was released this week as The Balvenie Forty.

David Stewart is the longest serving Malt Master in the industry and has picked up a thing or two in his time at the helm of The Balvenie as well as previously Glenfiddich. This experience has led to some incredible releases over the years and The Balvenie Forty is due to follow in this line.

I have not had a chance to sample as yet (come back in two weeks and I should have the experience for you) so I will leave it up to David Stewart himself to share his tasting notes –

The aroma of The Balvenie Forty is deep and rich, with fragrant floral notes, underpinned by sweet vanilla oak, fresh fruit and hints of raisin, sultana and spice.  Its taste is a lusciously creamy complexity of sweet vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and oak, combined with a mouth-watering sensation of butter toffee and delicious sherried richness.

So there it is, £2500 well spent. If you have the urge then Travel Retail and Harrods et al are the places to spend your hard earned pennies.

New Look for an Old Pulteney

Fresh from being crowned World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray in his 2012 Whisky Bible, Old Pultney 21 YO along with 12 YO & 17 YO, has been given a refreshed bottle and tube.

Looks like the packaging now stands up to the ever growing reputation of this fine distillery.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A flight of fancy

Choice. Everyone wants it, it is positive, it allows us to select only what we want. But what do we do when we want it all?
I love whisky. Scotch, Irish, American, even the Australian and Swedish ones tried in the last week were eye openers. The trouble is there are so many of them – The Whisky Exchange lists 1869 single malts alone. Add in the fact that each of these cost anything from £20 up to £15 000 then choice starts look decidedly tricky.
I may however have found a small weapon in this struggle.  I spent a night this week at Albannach, a whisky bar and restaurant on London’s Trafalgar Square (www.albannach.co.uk). I could not quite bring myself to count how many whiskies are on the menu at Albarnnach but you can be sure it is a three digit number. Choice!
So when presented with the menu I struggled, until I noticed the flights that is. I know flights are nothing new and not only done in whisky but this was the first time I had been in a position to try one that was really thought out and designed to work as a whole. There were several on offer from the ‘Whisky Tour’ and ‘Sommeliers Choice’ to the ‘Classic Malts’. In the end I went for ‘Cask Finishes’. A few short minutes later and in front of me, in an interesting antler for a platter, were a Glenmorangie Astar, Glenfiddich 21, Auchentoshan Three Wood, Bowmore Darkest 15 and a 1994 Lagavulin.
I went through my flight in the order above starting with the Glenmo. I’ll be honest, I don’t drink much Glenmorangie, not for any particular reason other than I don’t often get round to it. The Astar here is probably not going to change that significantly. Yes, it was good. The American cask finish (what was it in before being finished in American?) gave it a real Bourbon hit – all the flavours one expects – caramel, toffee and vanilla. If however I wanted a dram that tasted like bourbon I think I would go for a bourbon.
Next up was the Glenfiddich 21 Year Old which earns its place in a cask finish line up courtesy of 4 months in a bourbon cask that has served its duty holding Caribbean rum. That Caribbean influence adds some fruit to the profile in the form of figs, banana and a fudge like sweetness. The sheer length of time in the wood means that there are some of the woody tobacco notes but the Glenfiddich DNA of a grassy freshness is still there. Overall, a sublime malt and one I know to go back to.
The midpoint of my tran-Scotland flight meant heading down south to the outskirts of Glasgow for some Auchentoshan Three Wood. The three woods in question are the ubiquitous American oak followed by Olorosso casks and finally Pedro Ximenez, each giving their own influence. Unsurprisingly wood is right up there in terms of its flavours but a wood with a real nutty side to it. Wood sweetnesses like caramel and treacle with a bit of banoffee pie add to the fun. This was not the first time I have drunk the Three Wood and it is safe to say it will not be the last.
The first half of my home straight was the Bowmore 15, a malt that has spent the last 2 years in Olorosso wood. That sherry influence makes unusual things happen when it competes with the Islay peat smoke. In the end I found myself thinking about eating a bar of dark South American chocolate while sitting in a cigar lounge. Can’t argue with the joy in that.
The final stop on my journey through cask finishes was something else altogether; Lagavulin 1994 Distillers Edition. What is so impressive here is the achievement of balance and a complete contrast. To the nose the Lagavulin was, well, Lagavulin – a real big hit of peat and smoke. This is exactly what I expected to get when I took a sip but instead there was a clear sweetness, almost honey. This honey then rolled through sticky raisin and golden syrup before reaching the Islay peat hit that I had initially expected. This Islay character continued into the finish which lasted as long as any I have tried before. And there it was – real contract but somehow delivered in perfect balance. Lagavulin 1994 really was the perfect stop to end this flight, if nothing else I am not sure I would have been able to taste anything after.
So there we have it. Presented with bewildering choice the answer was simple – allow someone else to narrow it down to the point where the answer became clear. Choice really is a positive but with over 100 distilleries in Scotland producing multiple releases every year it seems that a little guidance along the way can really set you on the right flight of fancy.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Proud to be English?

Walk around most English towns and you will do well to see a Cross of St George. Compare that to equivalents in Wales and Scotland and it is clear that English nationalism is in a very different place. It begs the question, how proud one can publically be of being English?
Whisky has been similar. Scottish – perfect and loved, Welsh – be proud and sing from the hilltops, English – there is none. Recently this status quo has been challenged.  
James Nelstrop had a goal to create whisky in England and in building the St Georges distillery in Norfolk he has, with the help of his son Andrew and a merry band of like minded others, achieved just that. Having waited well over a century for whisky to flow from English stills again it is worth noting that Hick’s & Healy in Cornwall have recently released a 7 year old malt and Adnams (the Suffolk brewer) is due to release in 2013.

I met Andrew Nelstrop, of the English Whisky Co, recently at a Whisky Lounge event and had the chance to sample 3 of the Whiskies in his range. Having sent me a bottle of ‘Chapter 6’ it seems only fair that I share my thoughts on it here with you.
So, the stats to start with; my Chapter six was distilled in May 2008 and bottled in May 2011. It has been aged in American Standard Barrel casks (numbers 600-603 no less), cut to 46% ABV, is un-peated and non chill filtered. All of this is very kindly detailed on the label of each bottle – very useful indeed.

As for the drinking, it is well worth experimenting with. To view, Chapter 6 is a very pale, almost straw colour. With only 3 years in an ASB this is no real surprise. On the nose, I get a real sweetness which came as a bit of a revelation to me – a hit of caramel and something of soya in there.  In the mouth I get some green fruit, apples and pears but the overriding character is of the grain. As with the pale colour this is to be entirely expected with such a short maturation. The finish is not overly complex but does linger which is bit of a joy.
Maturation really is the key here. The usual time we are used to our Scotch Malt ageing for is 10 years plus, Chapter 6 has been in for 3. The English Whisky Co talk about how the Norfolk weather is better with hotter summer days and less of a winter deepfreeze than their cousins in the Highlands get. In turn they say this means a faster maturation than the Scots see. There is a lot of truth in this, warmer temperatures create a greater interaction between spirit and wood and hence time is shaved off. However, even decent Bourbon spends longer than 3 years in wood and Kentucky gets some major temperature swings with average summer temperatures pushing 90° day in day out.
The truth is that ageing Chapter 6 for only 3 years  leaves the resulting whisky feeling slightly immature, it is not a straight replacement for 10, 12, 15 year old Scotch Malts we are familiar with. This should not detract from what the English Whisky Co has created though, in fact this 3 year maturation should be celebrated. So few whiskies actually convey their new make spirit and raw ingredients. Yes, we hear lots about them from the marketing guys and they undoubtedly have a huge influence  but in fact it is the wood and the finish that are front and centre. Really tasting the malted barley used, some the finest there is from the farms of Norfolk, is something of a revelation.
Priced at £34.99 direct from the Distillery this is not a cheap Malt but I would certainly recommend everyone to have a bottle in the cabinet. Chapter 6 is different from what you are used to, it is interesting and most importantly it is highly rewarding. The Scots are very proud of the Whisky and of flying their flags. Now regardless of how often you see an English flag flying, we can indeed be very proud of our Whisky production.
Still to come to the new whisky world – Chapters 9 and 11 the introduction of peat.............
For more info head to www.englishwhisky.co.uk

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

You have tried it, honest - Mortlach 16 Year Old

You have tried it, honest - Mortlach 16 Year Old

Diageo is the world’s biggest drinks company and the largest producer of Scotch Whisky. In drinks it is synonymous with names like Guiness, Smirnoff and Baileys. In Scotch it owns, amongst others, Bells, Talisker, Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie and Johnnie Walker, the globally famous and often exceptional blend. At some point we all drink their offerings. With brand names like these on the corporate CV it may seem surprising that they own and operate a distillery many have never heard of.
Mortlach, in Dufftown, was the first of the seven distilleries built in the famous whisky making town at the heart of Speyside.  Since its building in 1824 it has seen many owners and many great alumni – William Grant of Glenfiddich fame learnt his trade and saved his pennies here. Today it produces somewhere in the region of 3 million litres a year out of 3 wash and 3 spirit still. Surely you must have heard of it?
I the answer is ‘no’ then it is probably because virtually all Mortlach production goes into creating Diageo’s blends, most significantly Johnnie Walker. A small amount of highly prized Distillery release Single Malt does however escape the warehouse walls with a Mortlach label on the bottle. Whilst available in a 22 Year Old expression, most of the Distillery release is bottled as a 16 Year Old – the one I have been lucky enough to get my hands on recently.
The bottle did not come in a presentation box. It has incredibly simple packaging. There is no long story on the back label. It was not found via a social media marketing campaign. In short, Mortlach does not try to sell itself. It does not need to.

The first clear point about the Malt itself is a wonderful mahogany colour – there must be some serious Olorosso cask in here somewhere. On the nose this release does not mess about. A big strong, almost chunky aroma hits the nose with thoughts of sweet syrup, leather and mint. When drunk it is clear to see why Mortlach is so prized by Scotland’s Blenders. A strong and powerful structure offering some sherry sweetness, a hint of smoke and a genuine earthiness tease the palate. The finish is long and is where the Sherry cask influence is most obvious. Bottled at 43% the 16 Year Old has enough meat on its bones but can easily be approached as it is.
Everyone has heard of Johnnie Walker and the other major worldwide brands in the Diageo stable. Mortlach however is a real understated and little know gem - no wonder it is used to sure up the less refined grain whiskies.  If you are after something you know will not be in your friend’s drinks cabinet the look no further.  They like you will have tried Mortlach, they just did not realise it.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

This year’s dark horse is a Monkey!

Most years one or two brands really take off. In 2010 it was Sailor Jerry and J√§germeister making giant leaps forward in their popularity. Before that Magners had a massive boom and if you head a little further back you could not move for Absolut Vodka. There was even a time you needed to be drinking Mateus Ros√© to keep up with the Jones’.

It may be a foolish man who makes predictions about the future – far better to simply comment on the past – but I am going to be that fool here. For 2011 the next big thing will be Monkey Shoulder Triple Malt Whisky.

Monkey Shoulder has been around for about six or seven years now and is just starting to get some traction with drinkers. For the first few years Monkey was only available in the high end bars of London, Edinburgh et al but over time distribution has spread. Today you can find the triple malt whisky starting to appear in the mainstream on-trade and in the supermarket chains. A retail price around £22 means it’s on the expensive side if you view it as a blend but excellent value if as a Malt.

So why is Monkey Shoulder going to break its shackles in 2011? Firstly there is a gradual shift in what drinkers are looking for. Yes, the bars are still full of the Vodka generation but taste and flavour are back - Malt Whisky is growing again and Rum is the fastest growing of all the spirits categories. Men are looking to be masculine again on the back of TV shows like Mad Men and , looking for something new women are a huge driver of growth for quality whisky. Secondly, Monkey Shoulder manages to combine top quality whisky with an innovative and exciting brand image – a perfect combination for those looking to show they are moving on to something a little more serious to drink.

The whisky itself is deliciously smooth. All the lovely sweet flavours you can get from the most buttery and delicious of Scotch’s – vanilla, toffee, brown sugar and honey. There is enough pedigree for the seasoned whisky drinker (the blend is made up of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie) and yet it remains approachable enough for the experimenter. As for the brand – hugely important if it is to explode this year – it is young, different, exciting and engaging. The web site (www.monkeyshoulder.com) is interactive and rather than spend its time discussing tasting notes and history it focuses on what cocktails you can make and events they putting on.  

Finally I have to cover off the question that’s always asked – why is it called Monkey Shoulder? Simple really, it’s a nod to a condition suffered by the old time malt men at the distilleries. In turning the malting barley with shovels they developed a shoulder condition similar to tennis elbow and affectionately knew it as ‘monkey shoulder’.

Monkey Shoulder Triple Malt Whisky
Nose: Light, citrus fruit, toffees
Palate: Sweetness – vanilla, brown sugar. Balanced with grain cereal
Finish: Not long but pleasing. Invites another drink