Monday, September 29, 2008

Have just tried ... the Laphroaig 10 year olds

Laphroaig (pronounced la-froyg) is one of the most famous distilleries in the world. Located on the island of Islay, this iconic distillery was founded in 1815 and has been the best selling smoky malt worldwide for the last six years. As a result, much less Laphroaig whisky now goes to blending, although some does go towards Islay Mist and Ballantine's. The distillery is currently owned by Jim Beam Global, who are the fourth largest spirits company in the world, and it is running at full capacity (around 2.5 million litres a year) in order to meet the current demand. Laphroaig is one of the few distilleries left that have their own floor maltings (this is a traditional room where the barley is left to shoot, releasing the natural sugars that later get turned to alcohol). The malted barley is then dried by a peat fuelled fire for 18 hours and this gives Laphroaig it's intense and smoky flavours. The malt is around 55ppm (phenols per million). the whisky is then matured in bourbon casks from the Maker's Mark distillery in Kentucky, America.

Prince Charles issued a royal warrant to the distillery in 1993 as it was one of his favourite whiskies and as a result they can display the Prince of Wales crest on their bottles. The core range consists of two 10 year olds (one of which is cask strength), a 15 years old, a 25 years old and a quarter cask (which is matured in smaller casks). Other limited bottlings are released occasionally but are normally pricy. Independent bottlings are readily available and represent good value. Here are the two 10 year olds.

laphroaig 10 years oldLaphroaig 10 years old
This is one of the most widely available and best selling whiskies in the world. It sells more than any other single bottle of Islay whisky and is a whisky icon with it's green bottle and black and white simple label and tube. This is bottled at 40% ABV and is golden amber in colour. The nose just blows you away. No other drink in the world has the type of smoky characteristics that the Islay malts have and this is a classic example. This is full of rich, sweet peaty smoke (imagine green moss and earth) and these are mixed with a salty note (that reminded me of seaweed or sea air). The palate is rich as well with that intense smokiness (a bit more like a bonfire now) and saltiness revealing more sweetness underneath (think of honey and caramel). It is so intense that it has an almost antiseptic quality on your tongue (this is caused by the high phenol levels in the malted barley) and there is a bitterness right at the end (like iodine). Both of these are classic Laphroaig characteristics. The finish is long with that smoke, peat, earth and bitterness lingering on and on. This is a great example of an Islay whisky, although they are not to everyone's taste. This should cost anywhere between £20-30 depending on how lucky you are.

laphroaig 10 years old cask strengthLaphroaig 10 years old cask strength
This is the even more intense sibling of the 10 years old. Bottled at 55.7% ABV, this whisky consistently wins worldwide awards but is less popular due to it's strength. The nose is very earthy and peaty (think of damp moss) and the smokiness reminds of the embers of a bonfire. There is a medicinal note (imagine antiseptic) that joins a salty seaside character. This sounds a strange mixture but they marry together very well. However, this style of whisky is an acquired taste. This attacks your palate with a sensuary overload. There is sweet vanilla and malted barley, honey, caramel and dried fruit (like sultanas) all of which battle with the luscious and intense smoky and peaty flavours. Upon adding water, these mellow slightly and allow a salty note and something bitter through, that reminded me of tobacco leaves. The finish is very long, savoury, complex and very smoky and earthy. This whisky is definately not for the faint hearted! A bottle should cost £40-45.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Great places to drink whisky ... The Red Lion & Sun, London

the red lion and sun, highgate The Red Lion & Sun pub can be found in Highgate village in north London. Highgate village is a leafy suburb that has been swallowed up by London sprawling outwards, but still retains a unique character and charm. It was an excellent surprise on a recent visit there to discover that the Red Lion & Sun has had a major revamp. Previously a dusty old place serving up warm real ales with funny names and microwaved food, the place has now been sympathetically modernised. Part of this modernisation includes introducing the residents of Highgate to one of the larger selections of whiskies that we have seen in a pub. There is a whisky menu with around 25 different Scottish malts, about a dozen bourbons, 6 or 7 Japanese whiskies and various others from around the world, all of which are decently priced. The staff are passionate about whisky and they also run a whisky club and tastings (you can sign up for this at info@theredlionandsun.com). We decided to try a few different things that we had not had before.

Glenlivet 12 years old
Glenlivet is one of the most popular whiskies in the world. The distillery is located in Speyside and they produce a light and easy drinking spirit. This 12 years old is light but quite complex and refreshing with lots of fruit and floral notes on the nose and palate. There are apples and pears (a classic Speyside characteristic), some citrus (imagine lemon zest), lots of malted barley and cereals and a distinctive heather element. The finish is light, crisp, dry and good!

Aberlour A'bunadh
Another Speyside distillery, Aberlour is less well known in the UK but very popular in mainland Europe especially France and Spain. Famous for their use of sherry casks for maturation, the A'bunadh (pronounced a-boona) has a massive sherry cask influence and is released as cask strength (over 60% ABV in this case). They release limited batches of this every so often with each batch being slightly different. This is rich and creamy with loads of intense dried fruit, butterscotch, concerntrated citrus flavours (think of orange marmalade) and honey. Adding some water takes away the strength of the alcohol and reveals a gorgeous spiciness (imagine cinnamon and nutmeg). The finish is long, creamy, rich and spicy. Lovely.

W. L. Weller Special Reserve
The Weller distillery closed in 1991. This American bourbon is now made at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky using the traditional recipe and grain mix. This special reserve is released at seven years of age and is light and refreshing. The nose and palate are full of woodiness and vanilla. There is a very nice creaminess in the mouth with a note of honey coming through with something spicy at the end (think of cinnamon and nutmeg again). The finish is crisp with lots of wood and sweet vanilla with an interesting bitterness, that reminded me of a dark chocolate or black coffee. Very drinkable but you would really have to like that woody taste to enjoy it fully.

Nikka 'Straight from the barrel'
This Japanese whisky is cask strength vatting made up of whisky from Nikka's two distilleries - Miyagikyo and Yoichi. It is rich with strong elements of vanilla and fresh fruits (imagine apples and pears). There is also something nutty (reminding me of hazelnuts and almonds, i think), some caramel/butterscotch and just a hint of some smokiness. The finish is sweet, spicy (think of something warm like ginger) and refreshing.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Have just tried ... Highland Park 12 years old

highland park 12 years oldHighland Park is one of the oldest and best known distilleries in Scotland, having been established in 1798. It is currently owned by the Edrington Group. Highland Park is the most northern distillery currently operating in Scotland, being located near the town of Kirkwall on the Orkney islands. There are only two distilleries on the Orkneys with Scapa being the other. Highland Park is regarded by whisky drinkers as a great all-rounder and the core range is extensive, covering different ages. This all adds up to make it one of the best selling whiskies worldwide. It is also a major constituent in Edrington's leading blend, the Famous Grouse which is one of the best selling blended whiskies in the UK. At Highland Park, they produce some of their own peated malt barley with a reasonably high phenol level of around 40ppm. This is then mixed with malted barley from Edrington's other distillery at Tamdhu, which has no peat influence at all. This creates a spirit which is smoky but not to the degree of the majority of Islay whiskies. It is therefore more subtle and approachable and is a good distillery to try if you don't like too much smoky flavour.

This 12 years old continues to win worldwide awards right, left and centre. The colour is golden and the nose is very promising. There is a gorgeous mix of dried fruits (sultanas and candied peel, i think), some sweet malted barley, a distinct floral note (imagine heather) which are all underpinned with a subtle fragrant smokiness that is different from the stronger, heavier smoke that you get with most Islay malts (this reminded me of a bonfire). On the palate, this is smooth and silky with a honey-like sweetness joining the malted barley from the nose. It is creamy with some vanilla, something spicy and woody (think of nutmeg) and a hint of saltiness. Again, this great marriage of flavours is complimented perfectly by a heathery smokiness. The finish is long, elegant, smoky and very smooth. This well regarded whisky is a real winner with a perfect balance between all the characteristics. It is readily available in most shops and should cost between £25-30. It is a great product for that price.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Have just tried ... AnCnoc 12 years old

ancnoc 12 years oldThe name of AnCnoc (pronounced an-knock) was created in 1993. The current owners, Inver House distillers, felt that the whisky produced at their Knockdhu distillery was easily confused with another Speyside distillery, Knockando. So they took the decision to rename the whisky produced at Knockdhu (this means 'black hill' in Gaelic) as AnCnoc ('the hill' in Gaelic), so as to avoid this confusion. The Knockdhu distillery was opened in 1893 and currently produces around 900,000 litres of whisky per year. It is located near to the town of Huntly in Speyside, although it is very close to the 'border' of Speyside, so can sometimes be classed as a Highland whisky. The distillery is one of the few to be traditionally run, with a reliance on human judgement rather than computers and mechanical processes. The core range has this 12 years old and a 16 years old along with some vintage releases (currently a 1975 and a 1994). Independent bottlings are rare and generally will be named as Knockdhu.

This 12 years old has a golden amber colour and the nose smells promising with a fairly rich mixture of honey, vanilla, dried fruit (think of sultanas) and zingy citrus notes (imagine lemon zest). However, this early promise doesn't come through on the palate. It feels thin and very light with some dried fruitiness (sultanas again) and that citrus element. There is an underlying bitterness that appears almost instantly, that left me disappointed. The finish is crisp and short but with that bitterness again. Overall, a bit of let down following the promise of the nose, bordering on unpleasant because of that bitter note. However, as with all of these notes, it is a matter of taste and this should cost between £20-25 a bottle.

Have just tried ... Singleton of Dufftown

singleton of dufftownThe Dufftown distillery is located in the town of Dufftown (unsurprisingly!), in the heart of Speyside. The town has the largest concerntration of distilleries in Scotland, with seven officially within it's borders (Dufftown, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie, Mortlach and Glendullan plus Pittyvaich, which has closed). The distillery is owned by drinks giant Diageo and is their largest, with a capacity of four million litres per year. Hardly any of this amount is released as single malt, as a massive 98% goes towards Diageo's range of blended whiskies. Bell's, which is the UK's second best selling whisky, takes away the lion's share of this. Diageo release only two single malts from the distillery - a 15 years old that forms part of their 'flora & fauna' range and this 12 years old that is named 'the Singleton'. Independent bottlings are extremely rare. 'the Singleton' is one of the brands currently being heavily promoted by Diageo and as a result, it is becoming available in more retailers.

The nose is rich with vanilla and a woodiness (think of sawdust). There is also an interesting yeasty note (imagine fresh dough) and something nutty (almonds, I think). It is fairly rich on the palate with that nuttiness and vanilla appearing again. These are joined by some dried fruits (think of raisins and sultanas) and the yeasty quality from the nose has become more biscuit like (this may sound weird but it reminded me of digestive biscuits). The finish is quite short and refreshing. This is a decent, solid whisky that is good but quite basic and one dimensional. It has a good balance and would be an excellent choice to introduce someone to whisky. This should cost between £30-35 a bottle.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Have just tried ... Tullibardine 15 years old 'Editor's Choice'

tullibardine 15 years oldThis bottling was selected for release by the editor of The Whisky Magazine. It was distilled in February 1992 and bottled in October 2007 to celebrate the Whisky Live 2007 event in Glasgow. The Tullibardine distillery is located in the southern Highlands, just north of Stirling, and is a one of Scotland's younger distilleries having opened in 1949. It is currently owned by an independent company called the Tullibardine Distillery Limited, who took the distillery over in 2003. Before this takeover, Tullibardine had been mothballed for nearly nine years having been shut down by the previous owners. Mothballing is the process where a distillery ceases production but everything remains intact, ready to start up again. The distillery capacity is 2.5 million litres per year and all current stock that is being released is from the pre-mothballing period. Tullibardine is quite unknown in the UK (only 10% of stock is sold here) but it is much more popular abroad and is exported to nearly 50 countries. The core range is small and independent bottlings are pretty much non-existent.

On the nose, this 15 years old is light and malty, with some vanilla and nuttiness (imagine almonds or marzipan) coming through. However, there is also an overpowering blast of raw alcoholic spirit that gives your nose hairs something to think about! This rawness hits you on the palate and only after some time do other flavours battle their way through. There is some malted barley sweetness, some woody vanilla, maybe a blob of honey and some citrus (lemon zest, I think). There is also an unpleasant underlying bitterness, that reminded me of when you bite a grape seed. The finish is crisp, short, pretty dry and overly spirity. As this is a cask strength whisky, I tried it later with some water added and this did negate some of the raw spirit sensations on the nose, palate and finish but unfortunately, not that bitterness. It is much more pleasant with water and would be good as a light pre-dinner drink. This is only available in a limited number of independent retailers and there are only 230 bottles in this particular release. It should be about £50 a bottle.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Explain about ... Japanese whisky

japanese flagJapan is the third largest producer of whisky in the world, behind Scotland and America. Interest is currently high in Japanese whiskies as a couple of them (the Yoichi 20 years old and the Suntory Hibiki 17 years old blend) have recently won some high profile world whisky awards. This increase in popularity has opened up the world of Japanese whisky to a wider audience that previously many did not realise existed. In comparison to Scotland, Ireland or America, the industry is relatively new. The first distillery started production in 1923 (Yamazaki) with most of the others not opening or starting to distil whisky until a boom period in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The early innovators travelled to Scotland to learn the traditional techniques for whisky production and then brought them back to Japan. This included buying most of their equipment, malted barley and maturation casks from Scotland. During this peak, some distilleries that had been distilling sake were switched to start producing whisky in order to meet demand. The large sake companies then sold these distilleries to other companies interested in distilling whisky and expanding the product.

Following a subsequent decline in popularity of whisky in Japan at the end of the 1980s, a number of distilleries closed down. This decline was caused by a combination of factors, mainly a change in Japanese alcohol taxation law and the increasing availability and cheaper prices of imported whisky from Scotland, Ireland and America. There are currently only seven working distilleries in Japan - Hakushu and Yamazaki (both owned by Suntory), Miyagikyo and Yoichi (owned by Nikka, an offshoot of the Asahi brewery company), Fuji-Gotemba and Karuizawa (owned by the Kirin brewery company) and Eigashima (owned by Eigashima Shuzo). Now, Japanese whisky is back on the up and coming to the attention of a worldwide audience for the first time. Demand is high and the first new whisky distillery since 1973, will be opened next year. Each distillery has it's own style and method for distilling and maturing whisky, so generalising is hard but here goes ...

* The whisky is normally distilled twice, as in Scotland, using pot stills.

* Malted barley is mainly imported from Scotland, some of it peated. American oak/ bourbon casks are also imported from Scotland and America, as are sherry casks from Spain. Some whisky is matured in Japanese oak (called mizunara) that gives different flavours and characteristics.

* The flavours and characteristics are most similar to whiskies from the Highland and Speyside regions of Scotland but tend to be fresher, cleaner and less malty.

* The Japanese climate is more similar to the states of Kentucky and Tennessee in America, than those of Scotland or Ireland. This means that the summers are much warmer while the winters are reasonably similar, making the extremes of temperature that the whisky experiences during maturation much greater.

* Due to the different temperatures and climate, the whisky will mature at a faster rate than in Scotland or Ireland. As in America, the whisky shows more wood influence as a result.

* By using a bit of Japanese innovation, each distillery can produce a broader range of flavours and styles in their whisky. They achieve this by having different shapes of stills, using different types of yeast for fermentation, using mixes of barley and other grains and experimenting with cask maturation.

* Japanese whisky companies do not share each others stocks of whisky when producing a blend, unlike in Scotland or Ireland. Therefore, blends will only consist of whisky produced at a maximum of two distilleries.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Have just tried ... Yamazaki 10 years old

yamazaki 10 years oldYamazaki was the first whisky distillery to open in Japan. The idea of distilling whisky was the brainchild of the president of the local province and production began in 1924. The location of Yamazaki was chosen because of three elements. 1) it lies between the major cities of Osaka and Kyoto which had very good transport links, 2) the reknowned quality of the local water, which is among the purest in Japan and 3) the fact that three local rivers converge where the distillery is built. The temperature of each river is slightly different and this creates a naturally humid foggy condition, that it was felt would be ideal for maturing whisky. Originally, whisky casks would be imported from Scotland or sherry casks from Spain in order to mature the whisky. This was an expensive practice so Yamazaki started to experiment by using local wood to build their own casks. these were made from mizunara or 'Japanese oak' that gave the whisky a unique flavour that proved popular. However, this wood was more prone to leaking during maturation so use of mizunara was severely reduced. Now at Yamazaki, they have reverted to using mizunara casks for some of the maturation as they realised it gave their whisky a unique 'oriental' flavour. This whisky is then combined with whisky matured in bourbon or sherry casks. The core Yamazaki range consists of this 10 years old, a 12 years old and an 18 years old. Other ages are released in very limited amounts but are extremely expensive and sought after.

The colour is light and golden with a gorgeous fresh nose. The fragrance of the wood is great with lots of vanilla and honey there. This is then followed by fresh fruit (imagine pears and apples) and a hint of citrus (reminding me of orange peel). On the palate, the whisky is light and refreshing with the complex combination of elements from the nose coming together, especially the pears and vanilla (imagine a pear and custard danish pastry). These are joined by some spiciness (cinnamon and a hint of cloves, I think) and a marmalade type citrus sweetness. The finish is medium to long with those spices and a nice bit of honey prominent. This is a very good and enjoyable whisky that is light and refreshing, yet complex. Priced between £25-30, it is good value and a great alternative to Scottish or Irish whiskies of the same age.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Have just tried ... The new Auchentoshan range

the auchentoshan range Auchentoshan is a Lowlands distillery and is the nearest one to Glasgow, being located just to the north of the city. The distillery was opened in 1823 and is the only one in Scotland to continually practice triple distillation of their spirit. Other Scottish distilleries occasionally do this (for example, Springbank release Hazelburn which is triple distilled but they only produce it for one month of the year). Triple distillation produces a smoother, lighter spirit that many people find easier to drink and the process is more commonly associated with Irish whiskey. Why are Auchentoshan the only place to triple distil? During the Irish potato famine in the early 1800s, immigrants came over to the Glasgow area to escape bringing the process with them and maybe introducing the idea to the distillery owners. Now, Auchentoshan is owned by Morrison Bowmore and produces 1.75 million litres per year. A new visitor centre has just been opened and has been voted one of the best in Scotland. It is also one of the most visited, helped by it's close proxity to Glasgow. As a continuation of this rebranding, the range of whiskies have been revamped and repackaged. This new core range has been out for a couple of months, so it seemed about time to try!

The Classic
A bottle of this should cost between £20-25 and the whisky is released with no stated age. This usually indicates that it may be a young whisky and as a result the distillery doesn’t put the age on the label. This is quite smooth for a young whisky (they can normally feel harsh as the alcohol hasn’t had time to mellow and marry with the other flavours). It is rich and creamy with lots of vanilla and coconut present (classic characteristics of bourbon cask maturation). The whisky also has a pleasant malty flavour that mixes with an interesting citrus note (imagine lemon or lime zest). Very nice stuff, good value and would be great as an aperitif.

12 years old
This has lots of sherry cask influence from the beginning. It is extremely fruity (think of raisins and candied peel – both classic sherry cask characteristics) with heaps of sweet vanilla, citrus (orange zest, I think) and spices (hints of cinnamon, ginger and something antiseptic, like cloves). Quite a long and dry finish that is packed with dried fruits and a bit of spice. Retails for £25-30.

Three Wood
Maturation in three different types of wood casks (bourbon then Oloroso sherry then Pedro Ximenez sherry) gives this whisky it’s name and makes it a dark, intense beast. Again, there is no age stated. There is lots of influence from the casks with a mix of buttery caramel, nuts (hazelnuts, I think), treacle/burnt sugar, dried fruit (raisins and candied orange peel/marmalade) and dark fruits (imagine blackberries or currants) coming through. Very intense with almost too much wood influence, that gives an unpleasant bitterness especially on the finish. Should cost £35-40 and is very much one for after dinner.

18 years old
Another intense one with loads of sherry cask influence that almost counteracts the lightness and smoothness that is created by triple distillation. Very fruity (that dried fruit again) and nutty (almonds, I think), this has other elements of sweet barley, caramel, honey and citrus (reminding me of orange zest) present. A big, long finish that coats the inside of your mouth and is quite well balanced. Would be great as an after dinner drink and costs around £50 per bottle.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Have just tried ... Arran 10 years old

The Arran distillery is one of the newest distilleries in Scotland. It was opened by an independent group called the Isle of Arran Distillers Limited in 1993 and production began in 1995. Their idea was to use traditional production methods rather than modern day alternatives and to experiment with their spirit by maturing some of it in different wine casks from around Europe. The isle of Arran is sandwiched between the west Highland coast and the Campbeltown peninsula and the distillery is the first to operate on the island for over 150 years. The distillery is one of Scotland's smallest (producing around 750,000 litres per year) and is located just outside Lochranza, a village that gives it's name to a blended whisky that Arran produce. The core range reflects their small capacity and consists of this 10 years old, a cask strength version (called 100 proof) and an un-chillfiltered version.

The colour is light and the nose is crisp. There is a citrus note that comes first (imagine lemon zest), then gorgeous fresh fruit (made me think of crisp green apples) and then some sweet malted barley. This mix seems unusual but is interesting and just makes you want to taste it! This is light and refreshing on the palate but there are lots of elements jostling for attention. The citrus and malty notes from the nose are there, as well as a woodiness (vanilla), something spicy (reminding me of nutmeg or cinammon) and an interesting yeast characteristic that comes through at the end. This yeastiness gives the whisky a beautiful creaminess. The finish is short, refreshing and slightly dry with the spiciness and maltiness prominent. Arran whisky is becoming more widely available, but is still mostly only available in specialist retailers. This is a decent whisky, being light and very refreshing yet extremely complex.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Explain about ... How to taste whisky

a whisky snifterThe art of tasting whisky is much simpler than you think. You can read so many reviews and tasting notes than refer to a whisky having the flavour of sherbert, dark chocolate or burnt rubber, but how do you learn to pick up such extreme characteristics? The answer is to build up experiences of tasting different things that are unrelated to whisky and taking a ‘taste snapshot’ of the characteristics of that flavour. The more that you do this, the better and more precise your whisky tasting will become. Another key is that whisky is unlike most other spirits in that the true character comes through after some time, so it is important not to drink it too quickly. It is important to remember that taste is a personal thing and that there are no right or wrong answers.

1. The glass
The type of glass that you use will help your cause. Don't worry about it being made out of crystal or anything like that - the shape is the most important thing. By using one that has a wide base and a narrower opening, this will channel and concentrate the aromas of the whisky towards your nose. This type of glass is called a snifter, but a similar shaped wine or brandy glass would work just as well. Glasses such as tumblers should be avoided for tasting purposes, as the aromas dissipate too quickly and should be used for drinking the whisky on it’s own or with ice.

2. The nose
This is the sensation and aroma that you pick up from the whisky before tasting it. Important characteristics can be found and can indicate what the whisky will taste like. Pour a reasonable amount into the glass and swirl the whisky around for a short time, so as to allow oxygen to get to the liquid and evaporation to begin. This is important as the whisky has been trapped in a cask or a bottle for all of it’s life until this point and needs a little time to express itself and start to show it’s true characteristics. Take a note of the colour while you are waiting for these couple of minutes. Put your nose to the glass and breathe in, letting the aromas circulate around your nostrils. Repeat this three or four times and think about what the aromas remind you of – are they light, fresh, heavy, rich, fruity, floral, spicy, smoky etc? Try to predict what the taste of the whisky will be like.

3. The palate
The flavour of the whisky on your palate is the most rewarding and enjoyable part of the whole process! The most thing is not to drink the whisky too fast (like a shot of tequila or similar spirit) and to savour it in your mouth so as to get the maximum flavour and benefit. Different parts of your tongue and mouth respond to different flavours and stimuli so pass the whisky over all areas of your mouth to gain maximum effect. Upon swallowing, there will be an alcoholic burn (which is one of the main things that puts a lot of people off drinking whisky) but it is important to let this pass as it is now that any whisky will reveal it’s true characteristics. Try to identify obvious flavours that are present and repeat, trying to identify something new each time. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers and everyone’s taste buds are different so don’t worry if you get a flavour that someone else doesn’t or vice versa.

4. The finish
This is the after taste that comes once you have swallowed the whisky. Some people say that the complexity of the finish in whisky is what differentiates it from all other spirits. Once you get passed the alcoholic burn, then numerous flavours can reveal themselves, some of which can be extremely subtle. The list can be extensive but again try an relate the flavours and sensations to things that you have tasted in the past. Also, ask yourself whether the flavours remain for a short, medium or long time. This is called the length of finish.

5. Should i add water or ice?
A common question and one that only you can answer. It’s all down to personal taste. Always try it in it’s natural state first and then add water as this can release further flavours and complexity, especially in higher alcohol level or cask strength whiskies. Try to think of it as the same as if you tried to drink orange squash/ cordial without diluting it. It is far more pleasant with water in some cases and how much water you add is up to you, dependent on your taste. Ice is different. this drops the temperature of the whisky and inhibits the characteristics from coming out. For more information on this, please visit (Explain about ... Adding water or ice).

Have just tried ... Balblair Vintage 1997

balblair 1997Balblair is one of Scotland's oldest distilleries. It was opened in 1790 and only Glenturret, Bowmore and Strathisla have been operating longer. This northern Highland distillery is located on the shores of the Dornoch Firth, in the village of Ederton and is reasonably small, producing around 1.3 million litres per year. The majority of the whisky produced goes in to the popular blend Hankey Bannister, with only about 10% being released as Balblair single malt. This amount is changing though as Balblair becomes more recognised and the latest range continues to add to the numerous worldwide awards that it has recently won. The core range is released as vintages, rather than the more common age statement in numbers of years - there is an evergrowing range including a 1965, 1975, 1978, 1978, 1979, this 1989, 1997, 1990 and a 2000. Independent bottlings are available but stocks vary from year to year.

The 1997 is a gorgeous golden honey colour with a succulent nose that is jammed full of dried fruits (think of sultanas and candied citrus peel), vanilla, spices (imagine nutmeg and cinnamon - a classic characteristic of bourbon cask maturation) and some tropical fruit (again dried, think of pineapple and mango). On the palate, these elements are joined by more dried fruit/ candied citrus peel (reminding me of orange marmalade), some fresh stone fruits (something like peaches or apricots) and more sweet vanilla. That nutmeg spiciness from the nose is prominent. The finish is long and creamy with a citrusy tang and the sultana, vanilla and spice notes coming to the fore. This is a very good whisky, especially for the price (around £30 a bottle). It has complexity but is also very approachable so would be a good choice for a beginner or a whisky sceptic.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Have just tried ... Balmenach 1975 'Connoisseurs Choice' from Gordon & Macphail

balmenach distilleryBalmenach is a Speyside distillery. Originally opened in 1824, the distillery was closed in 1993 by Diageo, who were the owners at the time. Following five years of mothballing (the process where a distillery is taken out of action but kept intact), it was taken over and reopened by current owners, Inver House. The distillery is one of the most traditional in Scotland and they maintain many of the original production methods using some of the original distillery equipment. Whisky from Balmenach is rare and generally only available in specialist retailers. This is due to the distillery's relatively small production capacity (around 1.5 million litres per year) and the fact that the majority of stock goes to fulfill blending contracts (Balmenach is one of the key whiskies that goes into the Ballantine's blend, which is extremely popular in the UK and mainland Europe). There are currently no distillery releases (although one at 10 years old is expected next year) and independent bottlings are few and far between. This is bottled at 32 years old and it forms part of Gordon & Macphail's 'Connoisseurs Choice' range, selling for around £60 per bottle.

The colour is very dark, almost chocolatey brown and the nose is expressive. It is very woody with lots of vegetal notes (think of grass and hay). There is an earthy mustiness and something acrid (like sugar or rubber burning). These characteristics are common in whiskies that have been aged for a significant length of time as they have had so much contact with the wood in the cask. On the palate, this is think and feels almost oily. There is lots of dried fruitiness (imagine raisins, sultanas and candied peel) but there is also a bitterness (like a good dark chocolate) and it is very drying in the mouth. This is due to the high number of tannins picked up from the wooden cask, which again can be a characteristic of high aged whiskies. The finish is long but again bitter, grassy and very woody (it reminded me of drinking a strong black coffee). This whisky was OK but left me slightly disappointed, as there is a preconception that the older a whisky is then the better it is. This left me feeling that it was almost too old and had been left in the cask too long, making it too bitter and woody for my taste. very interesting to try though.

Friday, September 5, 2008

In the whisky cupboard ... Glenmorangie Astar

glenmorangie astarGlenmorangie is one of the most famous distilleries and biggest selling brand names in the world. It is located next to an estuary in the north eastern Highlands, close to the small town of Tain. The distillery opened in 1843 and is now owned by multi national drinks giant, Moet Hennessy. It is also one of Scotland's largest distilleries, producing 4 million litres per year, and has the tallest set of stills in Scotland. This means that only the purest and lightest spirit reaches the condenser and gets collected for maturation. Glenmorangie is one of the few distilleries that use hard water during production (this water bubbles up from a natural spring near to the distillery) and this combined with the lighter spirit gives it distinctive characteristics. The range is extensive and covers different ages and cask finishes including sherry, port and Sauternes. The distillery tour is also excellent and we can recommend it from our last visit there. The 'Astar' is a long awaited new release that is cask strength (the alcoholic strength that the whisky is in the cask) and matured in special oak casks. This oak was specially selected by Glenmorangie and comes from a forest (that they own) in the Ozark mountains in Missouri, America.

The nose is gorgeous with lots of vanilla and butterscotch. There is also a citrus note (reminding me of lemon zest) and something spicy (ginger, i think). On the palate, this is like liquid gold. It is so sumptuous with a combination of sweetness (imagine raisins and sultanas), vanilla, creamy butterscotch and that gingery note. As it is a cask strength whisky, I added a small amount of water and this opened up the flavours even more, especially the vanilla and the creaminess of the butterscotch. An interesting spicy peppery note (imagine crushed peppercorns) also comes through with the addition of the water. The finish is very long and warm with the richness and the spicy notes perfectly balancing. This is a great whisky. It is one of the best that I have tasted to date and it's concerntrated flavours are enhanced superbly by adding water. Astar should cost between £50-55 and is a real 'must try before you die' whisky.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Have just tried ... Highland Park 1991 from Signatory Vintage

highland park 1991 signatoryHighland Park is one of the oldest and best known distilleries in Scotland. Established in 1798, it is currently owned by the Edrington Group and is one of only 2 working distilleries on the Orkney islands (Scapa being the other). This makes it the most northern distillery currently operating, being located near the town of Kirkwall. Highland Park is regarded by whisky drinkers as a great all-rounder and the core range is extensive, covering different ages. This makes it one of the best selling whiskies worldwide. It is also a major constituent in Edrington's leading blend, the Famous Grouse which is one of the best selling blended whiskies in the UK. At Highland Park, they produce their own peated malt barley with a reasonably high phenol level (40ppm) and this is then mixed with malted barley from their sister distillery Tamdhu, which has no peat influence at all. This creates a spirit which is smoky but not to the degree of the majority of Islay whiskies. It is therefore more subtle and approachable and is a good distillery to try if you don't like too much smoky flavour. This whisky is released by independent bottling company Signatory Vintage. It is 16 years old and matured in a sherry cask. Only one cask has been released and as a result there are only just under 800 bottles, which are available in selected specialist retailers only.

The nose smells very promising with some gorgeous fruity sweetness (think of dried fruit like red berries and raisins), some malted barley and a whiff of smoke. The smokiness is different to Islay whiskies and is more floral (imagine heather). This is because the make up of the peat is different on the Orkneys, due to the lack of trees. On the palate, this is mellow, creamy and fairly rich. There is that sweetness again (fruity and malty) but this mixes with heathery and honey notes and that lovely subtle smokiness. The combination of all these elements marry very well and emphasises Highland Park's reputation as a classic all-round whisky. The finish is long and very pleasant with the smoke more prominent.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Have just tried ... Royal Lochnagar 12 years old

royal lochnagar 12 years oldRoyal Lochnagar is a distillery in the eastern Highlands of Scotland. It is owned by drinks giant Diageo and is the smallest distillery in their portfolio with a capacity of only 400,000 litres per year. Much of the whisky produced is used for blending and Royal Lochnagar is an important constituent of Diageo's world famous Johnnie Walker range. The distillery is located close to Balmoral castle and it's proximity to the royal residence has influenced it's name and history. Originally opened in 1845 as Lochnagar, the owner invited Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to visit the distillery. They accepted and visited in 1848. Queen Victoria liked the whisky so much that she issued a royal warrant, so from then on it was allowed to be called Royal Lochnagar. More recently, Prince Charles wrote a series of stories called 'the old man of Lochnagar' and they were based in the local area and mention the distillery. These were later published and he originally made them up to entertain his younger brothers, Andrew and Edward. This 12 years old is the only regular release and independent bottlings are extremely rare due to the low production rate.

It is golden and the nose is quite light. There is a prominent malted barley note but this mixes well with fresher citrus (imagine lemon zest) and herbal (imagine freshly cut grass) notes. On the palate, that maltiness is present and the feeling is richer than the nose suggested. There is a mix of dried fruit (think of sultanas and raisins), vanilla, caramel or toffee (i can't decide which), that grassiness again and a hint of something spicy at the end (like nutmeg). The finish is again fairly rich with a malty and caramel sweetness. Despite this, it is quite refreshing but does get pretty dry in the end. This is a good solid whisky without being spectacular. It would be a good choice if you wanted to try something different for under £30.