Sunday, November 29, 2009

Have just tried ... Spice Tree from Compass Box

spice tree from compass boxSpice Tree is a new release from Compass Box, a independent bottling company with a difference. A version of Spice Tree was originally released in 2005 but was discontinued shortly afterwards due a legal wrangle with the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). This first Spice Tree gained good reviews from the trade and consumers but the problem lay in the maturation method. In Scotland, casks must have been previously used and nothing must be added to alter the flavour. Compass Box introduced new oak staves that they placed in to the casks and these created a greater surface area between the wood and the whisky, therefore increasing the flavours artificially. This method is similar to the one commonly used in the wine industry.

In this new version of Spice Tree, Compass Box have got around this 'technicality' by replacing just the ends of the casks with new oak that is heavily toasted and it is these new ends that create a similar flavour profile to the original oak staved Spice Tree. The whisky has been mostly matured in regular ex-bourbon casks before being transferred to the bespoke toasted end casks for the last two years. This new Spice Tree is 100% single malt from the Clynelish distillery in the north east Highlands, is bottled at 46% ABV and forms part of Compass Box's current core range. A bottle can be purchased from specialist whisky retailers and the Compass Box website for between £35-40.

Compass Box was founded in 2000 by John Glaser. The company has offices in West London and Edinburgh and buy whisky from a small number of distilleries and then craft them into their own unique whiskies. The range includes single grain whiskies, vatted malts, blended whiskies and occasional other releases, such as the recently re-released 'Orangerie', a whisky infused with orange. All are released in small batches, often using only two single malts to create a unique product with a catchy name. By doing their own blending and vatting, Compass Box have less restrictions than other traditional independent bottlers and is a former winner of The Whisky Magazine's 'Innovator of the Year'.

The colour of the new Spice Tree is golden amber and the nose is big, sweet and full of oaky vanilla and malted barley cereals. There is also a ginger-like spiciness and some soft woody spice notes that are reminiscent of cinnamon and nutmeg. It tempts you to want to taste it. On the palate, this feels full bodied, thick and creamy in your mouth. The whisky is packed with gorgeous vanilla and sweet malty grains. Beyond these are more delicate elements coming through - some honey, woody spices (think of cinnamon and nutmeg again), ginger, some lemon zest, just a hint of salt and a whiff of background smokiness. The finish is long, sweet and rich with a gorgeous nutty note joining the others (imagine toasted almonds and coconut, maybe?). The vanilla and maltiness fades slowly to give a lovely, sumptuous finish to the whisky.

This is a very good whisky that would be great as an after dinner sipping dram. We tried Spice Tree with some robust mature Cheddar and hard goats cheeses (as recommended in Compass Box's press release) and it went extremely well with both of them. Excellent stuff and very enjoyable.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Have just tried ... Big Peat

Big Peat is a new vatted malt whisky created by the independent bottling company Douglas Laing & Co. They are based in Glasgow and the company was founded by Frederick Douglas Laing in 1948. It is currently run by Frederick’s two sons, Stewart and Fred Jnr, and Douglas Laing & Co are one of Scotland’s largest independent bottlers of whisky. They bottle whiskies from all over Scotland and their ranges include over 200 different single malts at any one time, with the majority being from single casks. In addition to the single malts, they also blend and vat their own ranges of whisky and these currently include this Big Peat and the Double Barrel series.

A vatted whisky is a mixture of single malt whiskies. They can be from different distilleries and be of differing ages. In the case of Big Peat, there are four distilleries from the western island of Islay included – Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila and Port Ellen. The first three are currently operating but Port Ellen closed in 1983 and whiskies from there are becoming rare and expensive (therefore, the whisky included here has to be at least 26 years old). To produce Big Peat, Douglas Laing & Co vatted these four whiskies together in small batches and then reduce the alcohol strength to 46% ABV for bottling. A bottle should cost £35-40 from specialist whisky retailers.

The colour of Big Peat is dark and golden and the nose blows your nostrils away. It is VERY smoky (no surprise really as the clue is in the name!) with a mix of tar, burning rubber and petrol. There is also a slight saltiness and an interesting herbal aniseed note, reminiscent of fennel. Little else gets the chance to battle through the powerful smokiness. On the palate, there is a similar story. It is full bodied and packed with overwhelming and explosive smoke. The smokiness again exhibits a tarry and burnt rubber note (think of screeching tyres) and there is a distinct hot spiciness (imagine black peppercorns and red chillis). The smokiness becomes more ashy (like the embers of a log fire) with time. Other elements struggle and almost give up trying to get through the smoke but some vanilla and cereal grains are detectable. The finish is potent and long with the tarry smoke burning away for ever, before turning more ashy later on. The finish is also very dry, leaving your mouth parched and wanting some water. The addition of water to the whisky dilutes the smokiness but only slightly. Some grainy cereal sweetness and grassy herbal notes come through easier.

Big Peat makes no apologies for what it is, after all the clue is in the name. It is very smoky and overpowering but if you like dramatic peaty whisky, this is definitely one to try. It is a brash and attention seeking whisky with the four big peaty whiskies fight for your attention, with no clear winner emerging. This is not one for the beginner (it would probably scare them off whisky forever) or the faint hearted but peaty whisky fans may well be in heaven. This dram offers an truly unforgettable experience, whether it suits your taste or not.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Have just tried ... Ardmore 1990 from Gordon & MacPhail

ardmore 1990 from gordon & macphailArdmore is a distillery that is located in the village of Kennethmont, close to Aberdeen in the east Highlands of Scotland. The name comes from the Gaelic 'ard moi', meaning 'big slope'. The distillery was founded in 1898 by Adam Teacher, who was the son of the famous blender William Teacher. Their company, William Teacher & Sons, decided to build their own distillery so as to have more control over the quality of whisky that was required for their blends and to have a constant supply. The distillery is currently owned by Beam Global and a large percentage of the 5.2 million litres that are produced at Ardmore annually still goes to the Teacher's blended whisky range.

As a result of this, Ardmore single malts are hard to find. The distillery's profile was raised in 2007 when they released their first whisky for a while. This was named the 'Traditional Cask' and sales continue to grow. The only other option is through the independent bottling companies, such as this expression released by Gordon & MacPhail. Unusually for a Highland whisky, Ardmore is made using peated malt. The level is 14ppm (phenols parts per million - the scale for measuring the peatiness in barley and whisky), making it peatier than most other Highland whiskies but not as smoky as Islay or island whiskies (which generally range from 25-55ppm). Ardmore is the only Highland distillery to permanently produce smoky whisky, although others in the nearby Speyside region practice this occassionally (namely Benriach, Benromach and Tomintoul).

This Ardmore was distilled in 1990 and bottled by Gordon & MacPhail in 2006 at 16 years of age. The colour is straw-like with a golden tint and the nose is pungent and smoky. There is a hit of aggressive peat (think of burnt acrid peat with a distinct bitter edge) but this mellows with time. Coming through after this are some lovely elements such as sweet vanilla, malty cereal grains and something floral (imagine heather). On the palate, the peatiness is less pronounced and combines well with the other characteristics. The smokiness feels savoury in its nature (think of meaty barbeque smoke) and this compliments some lovely sweet vanilla, toffee, cereals and oaky wood. The finish is long with an interesting toasted nuttiness appearing (imagine toasted almonds). The smokiness is still there and remains quite meaty and savoury but with an bitter edge that combines both iodine and menthol.

This is a lovely whisky that offers an alternative to some of the more well known whiskies in the smoky style. A bottle should cost around £30 and is available from specialist whisky retailers and Gordon & MacPhail's website.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Have just tried ... Glenlivet 12 years old

glenlivet 12 years oldGlenlivet is one of the most famous whisky names and brands in the world. The distillery is located in the Speyside region, close to the town of Ballindalloch in the scenic Livet Glen, and is one of Scotland's largest with an annual production of nearly 6 million litres. Glenlivet is currently owned by drinks giant Pernod Ricard and their influence, since taking over in 2001, has seen Glenlivet become one of the best selling single malts in the world. It is second for overall world sales (behind Glenfiddich), third in the UK (behind Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie) and the best selling single malt in the USA. The sales continue to grow, especially in expanding markets such as south east Asia.

Glenlivet was founded in 1824 by George Smith, whose signature still appears on the labels and packaging. A small percentage of whisky produced at Glenlivet is used in Pernod Ricard's popular Chivas Regal range of blended whiskies but most is reserved for release as single malt. The range of single malt whisky is extensive, including this12, 15, 18, 21 and 25 years old plus older releases and different cask finishes. They also release exclusive bottlings for the duty free travel retail sector.

The Glenlivet 12 years old is light and golden in colour and has a lovely fragrant nose. There are obvious notes of vanilla and sweet cereal grains but these are joined by more subtle aromas of fresh green fruit (especially apples and pears) and a hint of something floral, reminiscent of honeysuckle. On the palate, this whisky has a medium body and feels slightly creamy. The sweet vanilla, malty cereals and fresh green fruit are prominent again, although the vanilla note has more of a marzipan feel to it. The slightly floral honeysuckle note comes through again, as does an interesting warm spicy note (think of ginger and a touch of nutmeg). The finish is soft and smooth. It begins sweetly with the vanilla and grains evident before turning drier and woodier, allowing the nutmeg style spiciness to end.

This Glenlivet 12 years old is not the most complicated of single malts but it is of great quality and offers good value for money (a bottle should cost around £25-30 from supermarkets and specialist stores alike). For this reason, this pleasant and easy drinking whisky would be an excellent choice to introduce a beginner to the world of single malts, while still having enough character to keep the connoisseurs interested. A classic Speyside dram.

News - The Famous Grouse Christmas TV advert

famous grouse bottlesWhisky For Everyone has just received a sneak preview of the new Christmas TV advert for the Famous Grouse blended whisky. We thought we would share it! The advert can be viewed below and mocks the world of the Z-list celebrities that are currently littering all forms of the media, with the tag line being that Famous Grouse is 'Famous For A Reason'. It will be screened for the first time on UK television on Monday 23 November.

The Famous Grouse is the UK's biggest selling whisky. It is a blend that is made up of single malts from the Glenrothes, Glenturret, Highland Park and Macallan distilleries and some grain whisky. The four distilleries are all owned by the Edrington Group and the success of the blend can be traced back to the 1960s, when whisky sales were booming. In 1980, The Famous Grouse finally overtook Bell's, its long term rival, to gain first place for UK sales and has never looked back. It has maintained first place ever since although the rivalry means that figures are always close. The Famous Grouse accounts for 15% of all blended whisky sales in the UK, which is its primary market. The Famous Grouse was created by a company called Matthew Gloag & Son. The company was set up in 1800 by Matthew Gloag in the town of Perth in the southern Highlands of Scotland.


The 'mystery dram' revealed

mystery dramThank you to everyone who read and left comments for our recent ‘mystery dram’ challenge. We can now reveal that the ‘mystery dram’ in question this time was the classic Speyside whisky Glenlivet 12 years old. The full review of the Glenlivet 12 years old will be posted shortly with some further distillery information and facts about the whisky.

We are trying to make the 'mystery dram' as challenging as possible and this time we had three regular readers who guessed the correct identity of the whisky. Well done to Jeff from the Scotch Hobbyist blog, Jason from the WHISKYhost blog (although he managed to talk himself out of the correct answer!) and Lisa Huang. A couple of others were very close but not quite correct. Thank you again to everyone who contributed and look out for a new 'mystery dram' coming soon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Have just tried ... Fettercairn 1824 12 years old

Fettercairn is a distillery located in the eastern Highland region of Scotland, between the cities of Aberdeen and Dundee. It was founded in 1824 by Sir Alexander Ramsey and is currently owned by Whyte & Mackay, who in turn are part of the larger United Spirits group. The original name of the distillery and its whisky was Old Fettercairn and this only changed to Fettercairn in 2002, when Whyte & Mackay revamped the brand and its packaging.

Fettercairn contributes greatly to Whyte & Mackay’s popular blended whisky range. The distillery’s annual production capacity is 2.3 million litres and as a result, only one single malt is regularly released – this Fettercairn 1824 at 12 years of age (so named due to the distillery’s founding date). Other older limited edition versions occasionally appear, as do some independent bottlings. Both are rare however. The 1824 can be found in specialist whisky retailers and should cost £25-30 a bottle.

This Fettercairn 1824 12 years old is dark golden amber in colour and the nose shows a clear influence of sherry cask maturation. There is a pleasant mix of dried fruits (think of raisins, candied peel and prunes), nuts (imagine almonds) and toffee. It seems sweet but there are some other slightly more bitter notes in there as well – cereal husks, dark woody oak and dried grasses (think of hay). The nose gives the impression that the whisky will be rich but it proves not to be the case on the palate. It feels light and quite thin in the mouth but still has an interesting combination of characteristics – the dried fruit, nuts, toffee, cereals, wood and grassiness from the nose plus a touch of spicy pepperiness (imagine white pepper) and just a whiff of bonfire smoke (this is slightly sulphuric and reminiscent of burning logs). The finish is dry with the nuttiness and a distinct spiciness prominent (this is now more like a woody spice, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, rather than pepper). It turns quite woody and bitter at the very end.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Have just tried ... Bruichladdich Octomore 2

bruichladdich octomore 2Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddie) is located on the western peninsula of the famous whisky island of Islay, sitting on the shores overlooking Loch Indaal. Islay is the traditional home of the world's smoky whiskies but the Bruichladdich distillery style is in contrast to these, being lighter, fresher and generally with little or no peatiness. The distillery was originally founded in 1881 and was built using stones from the local beach. It was also one of the first buildings in the UK to be built using concrete! It is a small distillery with an annual production capacity of just 700,000 litres. Bruichladdich translates as 'the brae (hillside) by the shore' from Gaelic.

Bruichladdich is one of Scotland's most innovative distilleries and one of very few that remain independently owned. It was taken over by a group of four entrepreneurs in 2000 and they have made Bruichladdich very experimental with its whisky production and release programme. They are reknowned for maturing their whisky in non traditional wine and dessert wine casks. Their innovative range is extensive and they are always updating it with new releases. In contrast to this, the new owners renovated the distillery to its former glory and decided to maintain the traditional whisky making machinery and techniques. There are no computers used for production and it is one of the most traditional and historical distilleries in Scotland.

The Octomore series is part of this innovation. The whisky bucks the trend at Bruichladdich by being hailed as 'the smokiest whisky ever produced'. It has a peating level of a whopping 140ppm (phenols per million - the scale used to measure the amount of peat absorbed by the malted barley). To put this in to context, its nearest rival is the Ardbeg Supernova - a limited release that was just over 100ppm - and regular bottlings such as Laphroaig 10 years old and Ardbeg 10 years old are around 50ppm. Octomore has been distilled by Bruichladdich once a year since 2003 and this is the second release at five years of age. The first release was in 2008 and had the slightly lower peat level of 133ppm. It is named after another former Islay distillery that ran between 1816 and 1852 and the ruins of this can still be seen today, close to the Port Charlotte malting house. Only 15,000 bottles of Octomore 2 are available worldwide.

The colour of the Octomore 2 is pale yellow and straw-like. Prepare for your senses to be thrashed - the nose is powerful and you can almost smell it before you open the bottle! The potent, almost eye watering, amount of peat smoke takes your breath away. The smokiness is earthy with some bitter iodine and has a distinct acrid note that is reminiscent of burning rubber or tyres. Behind this are other elements, but they take some significant time to be allowed through (at least five minutes). There is sweet vanilla and cereal grains, some fresh green fruit (think of apples) and a whiff of eucalyptus/menthol. On the palate, a similar thing happens. The aggressive and punchy peatiness is spicy (imagine red chillies and black peppercorns), damp and earthy with that burning tyre acrid note prominent. Finally, the vanilla, cereals, fruit and menthol come through to try and add some balance. The finish lasts forever and burns away like embers in a fire. There is a bitter iodine, almost antiseptic note that is evident.

Bruichladdich Octomore 2 is bottled at 62.5% ABV, so we tried it with some water. Even with water, it is very peaty but it does allow the sweeter elements to come through a little better - vanilla, cereal grains, damp moss,dried grasses and green fruits. This is a very interesting whisky that is worth trying but it does assault your senses and require a bit of patience. It is not for the faint hearted and lacks any subtly and balance at the moment, although this has potential and will come with further ageing. If you love peat, then you will love this. A bottle should be around £80-85 and be available from specialist whisky retailers.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A mystery dram ... but what is it?

mystery dramThere hasn't been a 'mystery dram' for a while and there has been a good reason for that - our trip to Speyside. This has taken us a while to write up, so now we can return to 'normal'. But not before we write about one last whisky that we sampled. However, the tasting notes are below but we invite you to try and guess what the 'mystery dram' is. This can be done by clicking on the 'comments' section at the bottom of this post once you have read the notes, following the instructions and leaving us your guess/answer.

The answer will be revealed on Wednesday when we will post a full review of the whisky in question. This will incorporate these tasting notes, information about the whisky and also include our regular dose of distillery history and facts. There are no prizes for guessing correctly but correct answers will be mentioned in the final article, so please leave your name! We aim to set a new 'mystery dram' challenge roughly once a month in the future, so good luck and here goes ...

The 'mystery dram' is light and golden in colour and has a lovely fragrant nose. There are obvious notes of vanilla and sweet cereal grains but these are joined by more subtle aromas of fresh green fruit (especially apples and pears) and a hint of something floral, reminiscent of honeysuckle. On the palate, this whisky has a medium body and feels slightly creamy. The sweet vanilla, malty cereals and fresh green fruit are prominent again, although the vanilla note has more of a marzipan feel to it. The slightly floral honeysuckle note comes through again, as does an interesting warm spicy note (think of ginger and a touch of nutmeg). The finish is soft and smooth. It begins sweetly with the vanilla and grains evident before turning drier and woodier, allowing the nutmeg style spiciness to end.

This 'mystery dram' is not the most complicated of single malts but it is of great quality and offers good value for money (a bottle should cost around £25-30 from supermarkets and specialist stores alike). For this reason, this pleasant and easy drinking whisky would be an excellent choice to introduce a beginner to the world of single malts, while still having enough character to keep the connoisseurs interested. A classic Speyside dram.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Distillery visit - Glen Grant

glen grant distilleryGlen Grant is a distillery located in the town of Rothes in the heart of Scotland’s Speyside region. It is a large distillery that has a capacity of 5.9 million litres per year and is currently owned by Italian drinks company Campari Group. Glen Grant is popular with blending companies and is one of the best selling single malts in the world. It has been as high as second place in the world sales charts but currently sits in fourth behind only Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Macallan. The majority of Glen Grant single malt is sold in mainland Europe, with Italy being its main market. As a result it is little known outside of Europe, despite its size, but Campari are planning to grow the brand in the American and Asian markets.

The distillery was founded by James and John Grant in 1840. They were brothers and decided to use their surname as the distillery name. The name Glen Grant has stood ever since. It remained in their direct ownership until 1872 when James died (John had died in 1864) and the distillery was inherited by James’ son, James Grant Jnr. The distillery remained in the ownership of the family until Grant Jnr’s grandson, Major Douglas Mackessack, sold it to Canadian group Seagrams in 1972. After numerous takeovers, the current owners, the Campari Group, took control in 2006 and re-launched the range of single malts with new packaging in 2007.

the burn at glen grantOur tour of Glen Grant took place on a dreadful day with the rain hammering down. We begin in the plush new visitor centre at the distillery that houses a well stocked shop and the tasting area. We walk up an attractive pathway (still attractive despite the weather!), across a stream and passed the new visitor cafĂ© before entering one of the oldest original buildings. Here there is a small exhibition taking you through the history of Glen Grant to the current Campari ownership. We discovered that the strong link with Italy was established in the early 1960s by a man named Armando Giovinetti , who drank some Glen Grant whisky on a business trip to Scotland. He loved it so much that he took 50 cases back to Italy with him and passed it around all of his friends and acquaintances. Now half a million cases of Glen Grant whisky are exported to Italy every year! We then watched a short film giving more history in a lavish recreation of one of the rooms from the Grant’s house that has now been demolished.

The tour moves on to the mashing and fermentation areas that are positioned next to each other. The milling area is missed out but an explanation of the milling process and the properties of barley are explained by our helpful guide. Glen Grant has by far the largest mash tun that we have seen on a distillery tour and has eight massive washbacks made from Oregon pine. We see the mashing and various stages of the fermentation as our guide explains the basics about both. Here, like at Macallan, we are instructed not to take any photographs inside any buildings “because of safety concerns due to the high levels of combustible materials present”, which is why we only have exterior images. This has to be a case of them not wanting you to take photos inside rather than any safety reasons, otherwise how can you explain other distilleries allowing you to take photos wherever you wish. Surely they would have the same “safety concerns”?

glen grant exteriorThe stillroom is next and like the previous two areas, it is massive. Glen Grant has eight stills – four wash stills and four spirit stills – and they are slightly unusual. Some of them have uneven kinks in the lyne arms and all are fitted with purifiers and the combination means that they have high amounts of reflux (the process where alcohol liquid runs back into the still and is therefore re-distilled) compared to other distilleries. This gives the light and delicate spirit that Glen Grant is well known for. Despite the capacity is 5.9 million litres, it is explained that the current working capacity is 4.5 million litres. We also see the spirit safe where the spirit collection methods are described and then we get the chance to walk along the base of the stills, seeing the hatches where the coal for powering them used to be shoveled in. We also learn that in 1861, Glen Grant distillery was the first industrial premises in Scotland to have an electrical lighting system installed.

black trees and warehouse at glen grantThe tour moves on to one of the warehouses (one of 11 that Glen Grant have in Rothes), where the maturation process is explained. We learn that the majority of Glen Grant whisky is matured in ex-bourbon casks with only 10% matured in ex-sherry casks. This is also where we discovered the reason why all warehouse stone walls turn black over time – a black algae/lichen type organism is attracted by the evaporating alcohol vapour and when this vapour gets trapped in the stonework, they feed on it! This is extended to other items that are close to the warehouse such as trees, bushes and other walls. This can be seen clearly at Glen Grant where all the trees next to the warehouses are black! (pictured above)

Finally, we return to the visitor centre where we sample the two most readily available Glen Grant’s – the notes for these are below. Glen Grant also has attractive gardens that you can walk around but unfortunately the weather was too bad to even contemplate this. They have recently been restored to their former glory and are one of the best examples of the late Victorian gardening style in the UK. They contain many of the original specimens, such as rhododendrons, that were bought back from expeditions to Asia, South America and Africa.

Glen Grant offers a good and informative tour that offers good value for money. This is especially true if you buy a full sized bottle of whisky from the shop as you can use a £2 voucher which is on the back of your £3 entry ticket. Therefore you only pay £1 for the tour. Considering it is a large corporate distillery, Glen Grant is everything that our visit to a similar distillery at Macallan wasn’t. The guide was welcoming, attentive, enthusiastic, informative and pleased to answer questions, both basic and more complicated. We got to see the whisky making process in action (except the milling) and despite not being able to take photos, it felt like a welcoming, and working environment. You were also able to pour your own drams at the end! Glen Grant has restored our faith in larger distilleries and a few others should note on how to portray a slick, corporate environment well. Definitely worth a visit.

glen grant 10 years oldTasting notes
Glen Grant no age

This whisky is the best selling single malt in Italy and its light, crisp nature makes it perfect for a hot day or as an aperitif. It is around 5-6 years of age. The colour is a pale lemon yellow and the nose is very light and subtle. There are traces of sweet vanilla, cereal grains, citrus (think of lemon zest) and fresh grass. On the palate, all of these characteristics are evident with the citrus and grassiness enhanced. There is also some raw alcohol spirit present and this is carried through to the finish, where it adds a warm spicy feel (imagine the heat from a chilli). The finish is short , crisp and sweet. This is priced at the budget end of the market (approx. £20 a bottle) and offers decent value. However, it is something different and may be too light for some.

Glen Grant 10 years old
This whisky (pictured above) has been matured for a majority of its time in bourbon casks but then transferred to sherry casks. The colour is golden and the nose has richness and interesting character – there is sweet vanilla, dried grass, oaky wood, dried fruit (think of sultanas) and a hint of spice (imagine cinnamon). On the palate, this is packed with vanilla and cereal grains and feels creamy in the mouth. The grass and oak elements come through as do the subtle sherry cask influences – the dried fruit and woody spices (add in some nutmeg now). The finish is relatively short but very pleasant with the oak, dried fruit and spices prominent. A lovely and quite under-rated dram that only costs around £25 a bottle. We were surprised by it, liked it and bought a bottle.

Entry - £3 per person/ Tour duration – 1 hour/ No. of drams– 2/ No. of people on tour – 4/ Further info – www.glengrant.com

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Have just tried (Speyside edition) ... Benromach Peat Smoke

benromach peat smokeBenromach is the smallest working distillery in the Speyside region and is located to the north of the town of Forres. In fact, Benromach is one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland with only two people employed to produce their spirit. The current annual production capacity is just 200,000 litres per year, although they can accommodate over double that capacity. The distillery was founded in 1898 under the name of Forres distillery. It became known as Benromach in 1919 and the current owners are Gordon & MacPhail, the independent bottling company based in nearby Elgin.

Gordon & MacPhail took control of Benromach in 1993 and completely renovated the distillery as it had been mothballed for 10 years by the previous owners (mothballing is the term used for the process where production is stopped at a distillery, but all the equipment remains intact and ready to go again). The distillery was re-opened in 1998 by Prince Charles and shortly afterwards Gordon & MacPhail embarked on an innovative programme of whisky production. This included different wine casks for finishing, heavily peating some of their malted barley (this is an usual practice for a Speyside distillery and the process that this Peat Smoke has undergone) and producing the world's first truly organic Scottish single malt whisky.

Benromach Peat Smoke is a young whisky with no age stated on the packaging, has a peating level of 35ppm (phenols per million - the scale for measuring peatiness in whisky) and is bottled at 46% ABV. The colour of the whisky is light and straw-like with a yellow green tint. The nose hits you with peaty smoke (no surprise really – the clue is in the name!) and this is reminiscent of wet earth and damp moss. The smokiness also has a slightly phenolic bitter edge to it, like iodine. Under this, other elements take time to reveal themselves – some sweet vanilla, cereals, lemon zest and another earthy element that is more like a freshly dug potato rather than peat. On the palate, this is crisp, fresh and youthful with the citrusy zing (the lemon zest again) and the sweet peaty, mossy smoke hitting your tastebuds first. Again the other elements come through to create some balance with the vanilla and cereal grains being joined by a fresh green fruit note (think of pears and apples) and a distinct grassy herbal character. The finish is smoky but drier and woodier than expected with a touch of hot spice (imagine red chilli), an iodine bitterness and a salty tang. Only at the very end does some vanilla sweetness appear.

This Peat Smoke is a youthful but very pleasant whisky. The powerful vibrant peatiness is in danger of overpowering the other characteristics, but these just about manage to fight through. Having said that, it is still enjoyable and unexpected for a Speyside single malt. Peat Smoke is a proper winter warmer that offers good value for money at around £30 a bottle and stands up well against the young Islay whiskies, such as Smokehead and the recent Ardbeg releases (which are almost double the price!).

Monday, November 9, 2009

Whisky 4 Movember

whisky 4 movember logoHave you been wondering why some of the whisky fraternity are looking a little shabby lately? Are they just lazy? Is designer stubble and the 5 o'clock shadow coming back in to fashion? Are they paying some sort of strange homage to Freddie Mercury or George Michael? The answer may be 'yes' to some of these but the majority be a 'no'. The answer is called Whisky 4 Movember.

Whisky 4 Movember is an official UK charity that is raising money during the course of November by growing moustaches (or a 'mo' - get it?) for the whole month. The group is made up of people from across the whisky industry - writers, bloggers, drinkers and general moustache afficianados! If the progress that some are making is anything to go by, then some of the final results will be hilarious. Ultimately, it is a fun way to raise money for charity and more details (and progress photos of those taking part) and the chance to donate can be found at www.whisky4movember.com. You can also follow progress on Twitter @whisky4movember.

Whisky 4 Movember is part of the larger Movember charity group. Movember's aim is to raise awareness and money for a series of male health issues, with the primary cause being The Prostate Cancer Charity. The idea for Movember originated in Australia and the charity was set up in 2004. Only 30 people took part and grew moustaches in November 2004 but its popularity has grown massively since.

Last year 173,000 men across the world joined in and grew their facial hair, raising a staggering £14 million for Movember's mens health partner charities. To date Movember has helped raise over £30 million and going forward they hope to continue growing (no pun intended!) and raising money to help men with the early detection of health issues such as depression and prostate cancer, diagnosis, effective treatment and emotional backup. For further details or to donate to Movember then check out www.movember.com.

whisky 4 movember bottlingsTo commemorate the event, Whisky 4 Movember have released an 11 years old vatted whisky called the M'Orkney. We were lucky enough to try a sample of this whisky and our review can be found below. The M'Orkney is released with five different labels, each named after a classic style of moustache - The Handlebar, The Dali, The Chevron (modelled on whisky writer Dave Broom's mo apparently!), The Walrus (modelled on Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun's mo) and The Pencil. There are only 984 bottles in total and they are available at the bargain price of £29.95 plus £6.95 for postage within the UK. They can be ordered from www.masterofmalt.com with all proceeds going directly to Movember UK.

the m'orkney 11 years old from whisky 4 movemberThe M'Orkney 11 years old
This whisky is made up from the two distilleries on the Orkney islands, that are located of the north Highland coast of Scotland - Highland Park and Scapa. The minimum age of whisky within it is 11 years of age, although much of the whisky is older than that.

This whisky is a caramel amber colour and the nose is enticing. There is a lovely mix of dried fruits (think of raisins and candied orange peel especially), malty cereal grains, sweet honey and nuts (imagine a creamy type of nut like an almond or hazelnut). Through this comes some soft, delicate smokiness that has the signature floral edge of Highland Park (this is achieved as they put heather from the surrounding moorland in with the peat when they are burning it to dry the barley). On the palate, this is viscous, creamy and slightly oily, yet it feels fresh, vibrant and juicy. There is lots of sweet malted barley and this is joined by the other elements from the nose – dried fruits, honey, nuts (although this is slightly more praline-like here) and that floral smokiness. Also, a touch of spiciness comes through that is reminiscent of cinnamon or nutmeg. The finish is long and rich, starting off sweet, malty and fruity before slightly dry, smoky and woody at the end.

This is a lovely whisky and offers exceptional value for money for £29.95 a bottle. It certainly tastes older than the stated 11 years of age and offers a complex, balanced and very enjoyable dram. As stated previously, it can only be ordered from www.masterofmalts.com with all the money going to the Movember charity and the mens health groups that they support.

Distillery visit - Macallan

macallan distilleryMacallan is one of the most famous distilleries and whisky brands in the world. It is located close to the village of Craigellachie in the heart of the Speyside region of Scotland, overlooking the River Spey. Macallan was founded in 1824 by Alexander Reid and was originally called Elchies distillery, after an area of land nearby. The name was changed to Macallan in 1892 following a change of ownership.

Macallan is currently owned by the Edrington Group and most whisky is released as single malt, although some does go into Edrington's popular Famous Grouse blend. The distillery sits within a huge 93 acre estate that includes the famous Elchies House, which appears on all Macallan packaging and labels. The range of whiskies is extensive and are some of the best selling around the globe. Macallan is consistently in third place for sales of single malt, behind only Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, with particular strong performances in the American, UK and travel retail markets.

trees and path at macallanOur tour begins in the modern visitor centre that was opened in 2001. The visitor centre is whitewashed with wooden finishes and is stocked with the Macallan range of whiskies and various other whisky related items (and some not so whisky related souvenirs!). Our guide explains a little about the Edrington Group, the Famous Grouse blend and then Macallan before leading the group off down an attractive path to the next part of the tour (pictured left). We were told that no photographs were allowed inside any buildings "for safety reasons", although photos outside were OK - this is strange, as other distilleries actively encourage you to take photographs in all areas and it makes you think that Macallan have actively chosen this approach and obviously don't want you to take any photos for some reason.

The first stop is the up some steps to a small presentation area that is set up next to a mash tun. Here there are some back lit photos showing microscope images of the three ingredients used in whisky making - water, yeast and barley. There are also exhibits showing some old scientific equipment and our guide explains the basics about each of the ingredients. We then move on to the large steel mash tun and a brief description of the mashing process, although there was nothing in the mash tun for our visit. This did allow us to see the the full size of the interior of the mash tun and also the mixing blades that keep everything moving. We then move on to a room containing six wooden washbacks. The fermentation process was briefly explained but again, there was nothing in any of the tanks to observe.

It is at this point that our guide explained that we were standing in the recently renovated old section of the distillery that was completely rebuilt and started production in September 2008. This raised Macallan's annual production capacity from six million to eight million litres. The main part of the distillery houses a further mash tun and 16 washbacks and it was explained that this is where the majority of production still takes place, which was why nothing was going on in the renovated section on the day of our visit. It is certainly impressive but clinical and it makes the decision to not allow any photographs even stranger as nothing was happening!

We then move through to the stillroom that has also been recently renovated. There are six stills inside - four wash stills and two spirit stills - and this is in addition to the 15 stills that are housed in the main part of the distillery (10 wash stills and five spirit stills). Again, none are in operation but it does give us the chance to look inside a still, which we have never seen before. The stills at Macallan are small and onion shaped with the lyne arms forming an arcade that you can walk under, reach up and touch. The distillation process is explained and we are led to the spirit safe and shown a display with clear liquid running through. This was odd as none of the equipment was working and when someone asked how this was happening, our guide explained that it was in fact water being pumped through in order to show what the spirit would look like.

macallan distilleryNext, we were whisked passed the adjacent main part of the distillery, which was operating, (pictured left) and told not to stop as the tour had to continue! Our guide took us to a warehouse where the maturation process and conditions were explained, along with the different sizes of casks used. We were in a caged area in one corner of the warehouse, that is one of 16 dunnage stone warehouses at Macallan. They also have 21 huge racked warehouses, including one that was the largest bonded warehouse in Europe at the time of its construction with a capacity of 80,000 casks.

The tour then moved upstairs to an exhibition about the types of wood used in cask construction, the differences between them, how they make casks and the different types of casks. There were more backlit microscope images of wood grain structure and an nice photographic display of the time line of Macallan's bourbon casks and sherry butts that start as separate stories, before joining up with images of Macallan at the end. There is also the 'aroma tunnel', which is a series of glass tear-shaped vessels hanging from the ceiling that you walk through. Each vessel contains a flavour or aroma characteristic that is associated with Macallan whisky, such as dried fruit, nutmeg, citrus etc, and you are invited to smell these. A lot of thought and money had obviously gone in to this exhibition and it was certainly interesting and refreshingly interactive.

macallan 10 years oldFinally, it was back to the visitor centre for a sample of the Macallan 10 years old. It has to be commented that this was a particularly small sample compared to every other distillery that we visited (it barely covered the bottom of the glass!). As a result, Macallan has sadly won our 'Meanest Dram of the Tour' award. We only received one dram as well and this was of their standard whisky, which is unimaginative and again disappointing compared to every other distillery visit. The Macallan 10 years old is an excellent whisky but is ultimately the cornerstone of Macallan's range and the most readily available of all their whiskies. We would guess that every person on that tour had tasted it before, judging by their negative reactions.

We have to admit to being slightly disappointed by our visit to Macallan, especially as we both love Macallan whiskies. The setting is gorgeous but the place feels too corporate, clinical and lacking in passion. We are sure that this is not the case but that is just how it felt during our visit and this was backed up by comments from others on our tour. Our guide seemed to be disinterested and going through the motions throughout and answered questions curtly, the result of which was that people stopped asking questions towards the end. Despite this, there were many excellent innovative points of interest that were unique to this tour - the newly renovated mash/washback/still room, the wood and cask exhibition, the photographic displays and the 'aroma tunnel'. However, the feeling is that this is more of a whisky experience than a distillery tour. Maybe we were just unlucky that there was no production on the day of our visit but we left feeling a bit short changed.

Tour details
Entry - £5 per person (booking essential)/ Tour duration - 1 hour/ No. of drams - 1/ No. of people on tour - 15 / Further details - www.themacallan.com

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Have just tried ... The Scotch Malt Whisky Society's winter releases

scotch malt whisky society logoThe Scotch Malt Whisky Society, www.smws.co.uk, is a members club devoted to bottling single casks of whisky. The Society is based in the UK and has two members rooms in Edinburgh and one in London. There are also bases spreading around the world and these currently include America, Australia, Japan and throughout Europe.

Their collection of whiskies is extensive and ever growing. They select, bottle and release around 20 casks the first Friday of every month. Their whiskies are all are bottled at their natural cask strength and are un-chillfiltered to maximise the flavours and characteristics of the whisky. The Society has a unique labelling system uses numbers rather than naming distilleries. For example, something labelled as 24.108 has 24 being the number ID of the distillery and 108 being the number of casks bottled from that distillery.They also provide comprehensive (if not necessarily sensible) tasting notes for each bottling. These notes are put together by a tasting committee that meet up to discuss the merits of each bottling and the notes that are created can often be curious to say the least.

We were lucky enough to be invited to try the releases for November and to get a first hand glimpse of their new limited edition bottle labels.

Cask No. 25.49 (Rosebank 17 years old)
Described as 'Laundry and fizzy chews' this pale whisky is aged in refill bourbon barrels. It has floral and citrus notes with soapy 'washing powder' on the nose. It has a chewy palate with zingy citrus fruit, creamy vanilla and a woodiness. The finish is full of the woodiness and grain with just enough citrus to make the lingering experience quite fresh. Extra grainy sweetness and vanilla coming through once water is added. Only 226 bottles of this whisky exist and given that Rosebank is now closed, the £75 asking price seems more than reasonable.

Cask 35.32 (Glen Moray 34 years old)
Unlike Glen Moray's younger more commercial releases which are quite light in nature, this rare old whisky has a delicious complexity and spiciness. Aged in refill bourbon barrels, this whisky is bright amber in colour with orange oil, red fruit, tobacco and wood polish characteristics. It is described in the Society's notes as "like biting a banister". Adding water brought out red fruit, dark chocolate, licorice and burnt sugar sweetness. The 183 bottles of this whisky are priced at £129 which does reflect its age and rareness.

Cask 24.108 (Macallan 13 years old)
Sporting one of the Society's new limited edition labels, this whisky is described a 'Ferrari Screech'. The dramatic label plays up to the name. Aged in a sherry butt this richly chestnut coloured whisky has burnt rubber notes that are more than a little nutty. Toffee and fudge, sweet maltiness, spicy dried fruits, cinnamon and damp woodiness are all present in this complex whisky. The finish is long and woody with a fading sweetness. The sensation the others trying it with us experienced was of dusty old books. So it seems the odd tasting notes were starting to sink in by this time. This whisky is available as part of the set of three bottles with 'Far Flung Flavours'. Only 30 sets are released and priced at £176. Alternatively buying on its own will cost £60 with a more accessible 556 bottles available thanks to the larger nature of the cask.

Cask 119.10 (Yamazaki 19 years old)
This whisky is big and unapologetic. It is highy influenced by its aging a sherry butt but was surprisingly easy-drinking for a whisky of this nature. It resembled flat cola in the glass and was full and explosive on the palate and richly dark rum or Cognac on the nose. Dried fruit, burnt sugar, almonds and toasty charred woodiness make its release timely as this whisky would make a great Christmas day drink. You could almost imagine you were drinking the cake. 465 bottles are available for £65 each.

Cask 33.79 (Ardbeg 10 years)
Titled by the Society as a 'road-side dram', this highly imaginative description has been given as it reminded the Society's tasters of "the Kildalton road - newly laid tar, petrol, salt, peat smoke and straw bales". It is full of Ardbeg's characteristic peaty smoke with earthy iodine and menthol notes and a surprising hint of lavender on the nose. Aged in first re-fill bourbon barrels it is light in colour with a sweet vanilla influence you would expect from this type of cask which was described by one of our fellow tasters as reminiscent of powdered custard. Its long fresh finish is full of the smoke that won't let you forget that you are drinking an Ardbeg. 235 bottles at £54 each are available.

Dram of the evening
For us this was cask 119.10 (Yamazaki 19 years old), as it highlighted the quality and diversity of whisky that comes from Japan, and the unique nature of single cask whisky from The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

If you want to get your hands on any of these bottles, you will need to be a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. You can join online at www.smws.co.uk, as well as seeing the full range of First Friday releases and reading their quirky tasting notes for yourself.

Great places to drink whisky ... The Mash Tun, Aberlour

the mash tun, aberlourThe Mash Tun is a pub and whisky bar that is located in the heart of the Speyside whisky region of Scotland. It can be found in the small town of Aberlour and sits on the banks of the fast flowing River Spey. The pub offers contemporary Scottish cuisine and the whisky bar is stocked with nearly 100 whiskies! The Mash Tun also has accommodation in the form of five luxury rooms that are named Aberlour, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Macallan after five famous local distilleries. It is currently owned by Mark and Karen Braidwood. For more information, take a look www.mashtun-aberlour.com.

The Mash Tun was built in 1896 by Thomas Campbell, a former Captain in the Royal Navy. He asked the architect to construct the building in the shape of a ship, hence the curved frontage. It was called The Station Bar, due to its location next to Aberlour's railway station. The name remained until the branch line that served Aberlour was closed in 1963. This is when it became The Mash Tun, in reference to the piece of equipment used during the whisky making process and the rich whisky heritage of the local area. There is a clause in the building's title deeds that states when/if the railway line ever re-opens, then the name must revert to The Station Bar.


The whisky bar of the Mash Tun is certainly well stocked. As mentioned, there are approaching 100 whiskies behind the bar with the emphasis unsurprisingly on Speyside whisky, both from famous and little known distilleries. The selection includes a complete set of the Glenfarclas Family Casks (a series where one cask from each consecutive year between 1952 and 1994 was bottled). This is one of only two complete sets in the world where they are on general sale to the public (the other is in Japan), with prices at around £250 for a dram of the 1952!

During our one night stay at The Mash Tun (in the gorgeous Glenlivet Suite), we had a hearty evening meal and then settled in to some serious dramming. We set our emphasis on the lesser known Speyside distilleries and classic Speysiders that we had never been able to try before. As a result we sampled, amongst others, whiskies from hard to find distilleries such as Craigellachie and Glentauchers alongside classic well re-knowned whiskies such as Cragganmore 12 years old and Mortlach 16 years old. Click on each name to read our detailed reviews of these whiskies.

The Mash Tun is simply a great place to drink whisky. It is vibrant and welcoming, with a great selection of single malts and blends and offers the chance to relax with a good dram with the sound of the River Spey in the background. If you are in the area, then you must make sure that this place is on your route. We would like to thank Mark and Karen and their staff for the hospitality during our stay at The Mash Tun.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Have just tried (Speyside edition) ... Craigellachie 1991 'Connoisseur's Choice' from Gordon & MacPhail

craigellachie 1991 from gordon & macphailCraigellachie is located in the heart of the Speyside whisky region in Scotland. It can be found on the edge of the village of the same name and sits at the point where the River Spey and River Fiddich join. Craigellachie was founded in 1891 by Alexander Edward and Peter Mackie, and they commissioned the reknowned architect Charles Doig to design and construct it. The most famous feature of his design at the distillery are the huge floor to ceiling windows of the stillroom. Problems with the construction and cashflow meant that the distillery did not start production until 1898.

Peter Mackie started his own company, Mackie & Company Distillers, and they took sole charge of Craigellachie in 1916. In 1924 the company name was changed to White Horse Distillers following Mackie’s death. White Horse later became part of the large Distillers Company Limited group, although the name remains as one of the best selling blended whiskies in the world. The current owners are John Dewar’s & Sons, who in turn are part of the Bacardi Group. They use much of the 3.5 million litres of spirit produced at Craigellachie each year in their popular range of Dewar’s blended whiskies. As a result, only a tiny percentage is released as single malt and even this (a 14 years old) is rare.

This Craigellachie is released by the Elgin based independent bottling company Gordon & MacPhail. The best way to find single malts from little known distilleries, such as Craigellachie, is through the numerous independent bottlers. Having said that, Craigellachie still remains hard to find. This bottling is a current release and can be found in specialist whisky retailers and Gordon & MacPhail’s website and should cost roughly £35 a bottle.

This bottling of Craigellachie has been matured in bourbon casks and the colour is golden yellow. The nose is sweet and grainy with lots of malted barley and vanilla present. There is also some fruit (think of sultanas especially), toffee, some toasted nuts (imagine almonds) and a hint of dried grass or hay. It is an intriguing and pleasant nose that makes you want to sit a continue taking in the aromas. On the palate, this feels rich and creamy with the vanilla, toffee and toasted nut elements particularly prominent. These are joined some sweetness - the fruit and grains from the nose - some honey, some dry woody spice (imagine cinnamon bark) and a slightly odd hint of menthol eucalyptus and that dried grassy note. The finish is fairly short with the sweetness turning drier and woodier towards the end. This is a lovely whisky that is rich, sweet and spicy but with that interesting menthol-like twist. It should be tried to if the opportunity arises and offers very good value for money, especially when considering that it is an 18 years old single malt from a little known distillery. A lovely dram.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Distillery visit - Benriach

benriach distilleryBenriach distillery is located to the south of the city of Elgin in the Speyside whisky region. The distillery was founded in 1897 by John Duff & Co, who had already built the Longmorn distillery on a neighbouring plot of land in 1894. The original name was the slightly unimaginative Longmorn 2, before this was changed to Benriach in 1899.

Benriach had a very short early history – it was closed and mothballed in 1903 and not reopened until 1965, when it was bought and restarted by the Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. It was closed and mothballed again in 2002 by the owners at the time, Pernod Ricard. In 2004, an independent group named Benriach Distillery Company took over the distillery and the maturing stock. This group was headed by Billy Walker, a former director of Burn Stewart Distillers, and this makes Benriach one of the few distilleries in Scotland that are independently owned.

On our recent trip to Speyside we were lucky enough to have a personal tour around Benriach with the distillery manager, Stuart Buchanan. Benriach is not open to the public so this was to be a tour with a difference! We thank Stuart for his fantastic hospitality and Peter Semple of The Whisky Shop for arranging the tour for us. We had a great day.

The day was rainy and we arrived at Benriach slightly windswept. We knew that the distillery was not open to the public but did not expect to have to help the taxi driver with directions from Elgin (which is three miles away!). When we arrived Stuart was working in the warehouse preparing some casks to be sent for bottling and once we had located him and he had finished, our tour began. These moments of wandering around outside on our own made us realise just how few people actually work at a distillery. We only saw two more people there, other than Stuart, and we later found out that Benriach is designed so that all the processes (from start to finish) can be operated by just one person.

the three parts of the grist at benriachThe tour begins in the milling room where Stuart explains to us the milling process and the importance of having the correct final grist. The grist is made up of three parts – the husks, the centres and the flour. Each part contains soluble sugars that are useful in the mashing process. The husks break up the grist and supply drainage, the main sugar content is in the centres and the flour provides further sugars. If there is too little husk then the mash will not drain properly and if there is too much flour then the grist will stick together like dough when mixed with water. Each distillery has its own specification for the grading of its grist but on average the split is around 20% husks, 70% centres and 10% flour.

Stuart continued by explaining the mashing process and we got to see the latest run of the mash tun in action. Benriach has one mash tun. We tasted the mash and it was sweet, malty and slightly syrupy, reminiscent of a malt extract drink. He explained that during the mashing process they mix the grist with water at different temperatures in order to extract the most soluble sugars possible. This is done by adding warm water to the grist and then draining the resulting solution off, before adding more water at a higher temperature and repeating the process. Most distilleries do this three times and on average the water temperature for each stage is 65, 75 and 85 degrees Celsius. Benriach do an additional fourth run of water that is just over 90 degrees.

We moved on to the washbacks and witness the fermentation at various stages of the cycle. Benriach has eight stainless steel washbacks and we the opportunity to taste the newly fermented liquid, which is called wash and has an approximate alcoholic strength of 8% ABV. If you ever get the chance to do this, then just take a sip as the wash is rumoured to have severe laxative qualities if drunk in any quantity! It tasted sweet, malty and reminiscent of a heavy ale or beer.

benriach stillroomThe stillroom at Benriach houses two wash stills and two spirit stills and these produce 2.8 million litres of spirit a year. Stuart explained the workings of the stills and also told us that they produce the peaty version of Benriach for one month a year. This is normally in January and it then takes them over a week to clean all the equipment thoroughly, from the mill to the spirit safe, to clear the system of the residual peatiness. The stills are very much onion shaped and the lyne arms run through the wall to the outside, where the alcohol vapours return to their liquid form with the help of condensers that are supplied with cold water from the local river. The water is heated by the hot vapours and this water is then cooled and returned to the same river under Environment Agency guidelines.

stuart buchanan at benriach's spirit safeStuart then showed us the spirit safe, which is located at the far end of the stillroom. The spirit safe is the piece of equipment that measures the different parts of the distillate as it comes off the stills and helps the stillman determine when to start collecting the 'heart' (the part of the distillate that is matured to become whisky). The spirit safe is kept padlocked with only the distillery manager and a Customs & Excise man having the key. This is done by law and was started to stop people stealing the spirit. As can be seen on the adjacent image, the spirit is clear when it comes off the stills. It has an approximate alcoholic strength of 65% ABV at this stage and is then collected in a huge tank, where it waits to filled into casks.

benriach warehouseAfter viewing the cask filling room and trying some of the new make spirit (this is fresh and full of sweet grains, crisp green fruit - especially pears and apples - and just a hint of warm spice), we are taken to one of the warehouses. Here, Stuart shows us around and explains that Benriach warehouses have the perfect conditions for maturing whisky - thick stone walls, earth floors and low ceilings. He also told us about the cask colour coding system (this can be seen in the adjoining image). This system is used in a similar way across the whisky industry. At Benriach they paint the ends of the casks with different colours to indicate what type it is - green indicates a cask that is on its first filling, blue is for a second fill cask, maroon/red for a third fill and white for 3+ fills. If a cask is left unpainted, then this shows that the whisky is maturing in a wine cask with the type of wine written on it. We did not know about this coding and it was one of the many things that we learnt in our three hours in the company of Stuart Buchanan.

We sampled a number of whiskies directly from the cask including two that were to be bottled the next day for release in mid November (both 18 years old - one finished in a Moscatel wine cask and one in a Barolo red wine cask) and a couple from Stuart's favourite casks in the warehouse. This sampling in the warehouse was a fantastic experience, as was tasting the 'whisky' at every stage from the grains through to the new make. We have never had the chance to do that before. In the warehouse, it was evident that Stuart was passionate about and proud of his whiskies.

It is a shame that all distillery tours can not be like this one, but of course the distillery tours for the public could never be this detailed or personal. If you ever get the chance to do a similar tour at a distillery such as Benriach, then grab it. You see the reality of life in a distillery, worts and all. We moved on finally to the Benriach boardroom. This exhibits all their single malts along one wall and after more chat with Stuart and a couple more quality drams, we staggered off in to the dark rainy evening to try and find our cab, who incidentally had managed to get lost just as the first one had done!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Have just tried (Speyside edition) ... Glentauchers 1991 from Gordon & MacPhail

glentauchers 1991 from gordon & macphailGlentauchers (pronounced glen-tock-us) is one of Scotland’s least known distilleries. It is located in the village of Glentauchers, which is close to the Speyside town of Keith. The distillery was founded in 1897 by two Glasgow whisky merchants – James Buchanan and W. P. Lowrie – who wanted to start there own blending business. Buchanan’s Black & White, one of their original blended whiskies, is still on the market today and continues to use the well known logo of one black and one white dog that Buchanan designed himself . The current owners are Chivas Brothers, who are part of the larger Pernod Ricard group.

Despite the anonymity of Glentauchers, it is actually quite a large distillery with an annual production capacity of 4.5 million litres. Nearly all of this whisky is assigned to the blending market and Glentauchers whisky contributes to some world famous blends such as the Chivas Regal range and Ballantine’s. As a result, there is little left to be released as a single malt and Glentauchers is pretty much non existent. The only way to sample it is through the independent bottling companies and even these are scarce.

On our recent trip to Speyside, we saw a bottle behind the bar of the Mash Tun pub in Aberlour and we just had to try this rare whisky. This single malt is released by the independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail, who are based in the city of Elgin. This forms part of their regular range and remains one of the only consistent sources of Glentauchers on the market. A bottle should cost around £30-35 and will be found in selected whisky retailers or on Gordon & MacPhail’s website.

This Glentauchers 1991 is bottled by Gordon & MacPhail at 18 years of age and is brown amber in colour. The nose is aromatic with plenty of sherry cask influence - dried fruits (think of raisins, sultanas and prunes), hints of spice (especially cinnamon) and burnt sugar/caramel. There is also some sweet malty cereal grains and a hint of grassiness (imagine dried grasses or hay). On the palate, this is rich, soft and smooth with the sherry cask characteristics (the dried fruits, spice and caramel again) combining with some vanilla, sweet cereals, a distinct and slightly bitter nutty note (think of something like walnuts) and just the hint of some dark chocolate or cocoa. The combination is lovely and complex and makes you wonder why more of this whisky is not made available. The finish is again rich with the sweetness from the malted barley and the sherry balanced by the slightly bitter grassy, nutty and chocolate elements.

This is an very pleasant and intriguing dram that surprised us with its complexity and quality. It offers extremely good value for money also, when you consider that you are buying an 18 years old whisky from a rare distillery for £30-35. We are definitely glad that we tasted this whisky from a distillery that we had never tried before.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Have just tried (Speyside edition) ... Tomatin 15 & 18 years old

tomatin 18 years oldTomatin is a whisky distillery that is located to the south of Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. OK technically, it is a Highland whisky but we were in Inverness on our recent trip and had the chance to try some. Tomatin was founded as the Tomatin Spey distillery in 1897 by a group of Inverness businessman. It was renamed as Tomatin in 1909, after a nearby village, and the distillery enjoyed a highly successful period. This was especially true in a period between the mid 1950s and the mid 1970s, when Tomatin was expanded on numerous occasions to finish in 1974 with 23 stills and a massive production capacity of 12 million litres per year.

This success made Tomatin Scotland's largest distillery, ahead of Glenfiddich. The success couldn't be sustained and it went into liquidation in the mid 1980s. In 1986, Tomatin was bought and production restarted by two Japanese companies - Takara Shuzo and Okuru & Co. Ltd. This made it the first Scottish whisky distillery to be owned by the Japanese. Both companies are now part of the larger Marubeni Europe plc.

Tomatin is little known despite still being one of Scotland's largest with an annual production capacity of just over five million litres. The distillery has been downsized with 11 of the stills removed in 2002. The reason for this is that the majority of the spirit produced at Tomatin is used by blenders to create numerous blended whiskies, including the well reknowned Antiquary. This leaves little to be to be released as single malts. The current owners have just expanded the core range by adding this 15 years old and this new version of the 18 years old to the 12 and 25 years old. These are occasionally joined by limited edition bottlings and Tomatin is also popular with the independent bottling companies.

tomatin 15 years oldTomatin 15 years old
This new addition to the core range from the Tomatin distillery is matured in ex-bourbon casks. The colour is golden and the nose is pleasant and full of the classic bourbon cask characteristics - vanilla, oak, toffee, cereal grains and a touch of warm spice (think of ginger). On the palate, this has a lovely softness and a buttery quality. The vanilla and oaky woodiness are particularly prominent with the toffee, sweet cereals and spice coming through well. There is also a nutty element (imagine a creamy type of nut like hazelnut). The finish has a delicate feel and is sweet and malty. This is a lovely dram that is quite straight forward but very enjoyable. £35-40 a bottle.

Tomatin 18 years old
This is a new version that replaces the old 18 years old in the Tomatin single malt range. The difference is that this new 18 years old has had some part maturation in sherry casks. The evidence of this can be seen and noted in the colour (golden amber) and on the nose, which combines sweet vanilla and malty cereal grains with a hint of soft dried fruit (think of sultanas and raisins) and spice (imagine nutmeg). On the palate, this has a sumptuous velvety feeling and is viscous in the mouth. There is a lovely mix of elements - honey, vanilla, toffee, dried fruits (especially sultanas and a touch of candied orange peel), malt, cereal grains and maybe just a whiff of smoke (imagine a sulphury type like coal smoke). The finish is rich, fruity and malty. A well balanced and very good dram that has more complexity than the 15 years old. £45-50 a bottle (pictured above at the beginning of the post).

We tried both of these whiskies in the Inverness branch of The Whisky Shop, the UK's biggest chain of whisky stores. Our thanks to Scott and Neil for the opportunity to sample them.

The Whisky Shop, Inverness

the whisky shop logoThe Whisky Shop is the UK's largest specialist whisky retailing chain. The company currently has 14 stores in Scotland and England. The Scottish stores are located in Callander, Fort William, Glasgow, Inverness, Oban and three in Edinburgh, including the newest store at the new Ocean Terminal centre. The stores in England can be found in London, Norwich, Oxford, York and the Lakeside and Metro shopping centres. The Whisky Shop also has most of its stock available for online ordering and worldwide shipping. For more details, take a look at www.whiskyshop.com. We visited the chain's Inverness branch on our recent visit to the Speyside region in Scotland.

The Whisky Shop was founded in 1992 with the first store opening in Edinburgh. The number of stores grew in Scotland until the group was purchased in 2004 by Ian Bankier, a top corporate lawyer and former Managing Director of Burn Stewart Distillers who own the Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory distilleries. He saw the opportunity to consolidate the stores in Scotland and expand The Whisky Shop chain south of the border. There are now six shops located in England.

glenkeir treasure bottlesThe Whisky Shop chain currently stocks over 700 whiskies across the company, including 450 different single malts and one of the widest selections of miniatures available. They also bottle their own range of whiskies named Glenkeir Treasures. These come in two forms. The first is the cask strength single cask limited edition releases that have been selected and purchased from distilleries, some of which have been closed or mothballed. The second form is bottled in the stores by the staff. The whiskies are bought from the distilleries and then put in to temporary casks in each of the stops. The Glenkeir Treasures sit at the centre of The Whisky Shop's range and offer something different for new whisky drinkers and connoisseurs alike.

The Whisky Shop in Inverness is a great shop that offers almost 500 different whiskies to choose from. We were looked after by Scott and Neil and sampled a couple of new whiskies from the local area - the Tomatin 15 and 18 years old - we will be reviewed shortly. The shop also stock all manner of other whisky and Scottish related items such as hipflasks, quaichs, shortbread, confectionary, sweets, books, maps, glassware and other souvenirs. The shop is located in Bridge Street, very close to the River Ness, and is definitely worth a visit if you are in the capital of the Highlands or nearby in the Speyside region.