"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Whisky Fringe - The Whisky (and some Rum)

Some of my reflections on an amazing weekend of whisky sampling are in a separate post below, now it’s time to mention the whisky. This blog is not intended as a whisky tasting forum, although to record my journey through the whisky industry without occasionally mentioning my thoughts on the product would leave this record incomplete.

Continuing with my earlier prophesies, I had hoped to be surprised by some wine finished whiskies this year, even just one standing out above the herd, and I was, and it was just one.

Thankfully no Tokaji to distract me (you know how you can sometimes go back to something bad, hoping, believing it was just a one off and has to be better the next time…) but a few others just didn’t work for me either, notably the white wine finishes. However, the newly released Benriach 17yo Rioja carried a subtle blend of floral notes, vanilla and a dry finish from the Rioja coming through. Yum, this one’s a grower I think.

In a further hint that finishes are perhaps going to dominate some sectors for many years to come a couple of distilleries were offering new spirit that had only been in ex-wine casks. Glenglassaugh’s ‘Blushes’ has matured for just six months in casks previously holding Californian red wine, which somehow impart what I thought was a smoky, almost peaty dryness to the spirit. I then tried their ‘Peated’ spirit (which has a lovely smokiness drifting over the light fruitiness of the spirit) to remind me what smoky and peaty actually mean!

When Barnard visited Glenglassaugh in 1886 it was producing 80,000 gallons per year and was “said to be steadily gaining favour in the market”. After years of growth, then closure (1907), then a new distillery built beside the old (1959) which was itself then mothballed (1986), the stills starting producing again in December 2008 in a welcome return. With flavoursome spirit and new ideas to try the new owners will hope to gain favour once again.

Kilchoman have also been experimenting with their spirit, this time in Madeira casks. Their new General Manager, John MacLellan, tells me that they have great hopes for their spirit lending itself to some wine style finishes. This is an early indicator of what the peat in the spirit can stand up against, and also of what the future may hold? Does Kilchoman Farm receive enough of the Gulf Stream warmth to plant its own vineyard? Just a thought.

Alas, there were no other red or white wine finishes that I enjoyed so I tried a few Port finishes to keep the wersh at bay. I skipped Arran’s new Amarone finish to try their Port instead, which carried Arran’s light fruity nose but with a warmer, almost cordial like finish. [I did remember to try the new Arran 14yo again - same notes as last time, same forgetfulness when it came to adding water. Doh!]

Glencadam and Tomintoul are not whiskies I know too well but they both had 12yo Port finishes on the same table so a comparison made sense, with the Glencadam lighter and well balanced, the Tomintoul a bit more complex with creaminess to the palate but then a drier finish.

My wine finish adventures over, I turned my attention to whiskies I had marked as new and/or must try. Duncan Taylor were first up with a unique chance to try a ‘before and after’ with an Imperial 1997 (54%), which was then cocooned in an ex Sherry Octave for just three months. The pre Octave spirit, once you got past the alcohol, was, as you might expect, grainy with vanilla and some fruitiness. From the Octave it was sooo much sweeter with orange dominant. Nice to compare the outcome of a higher wood to spirit ratio against the earlier non-finished whisky.

At the lighter end of Islay the new Bunnahabhain 12, now up from 40% to 46.3% and now non-chill filtered, was a pleasing surprise from a whisky I don’t normally go for. I may suggest this one to Islay novices who want to paddle their kayak into that island’s smoke veiled waters, through which many are called by the Sirens and never return, and where many others are driven from the peaty shore.

At the peatier end of Islay was a unique ‘Heart of the Corryvreckan’ from Ardbeg. This was a sample of the main ‘element’ in the whirlpool I guess we could say, the spirit matured in French Oak casks, but in this case allowed to stay in for a wee bit longer and not married with any ex Bourbon cask Ardbeg, as the standard bottling is. This glorious whisky was my second place for the weekend and reminded me why Corryvreckan is currently my favourite Ardbeg, not a bad effort given the company it keeps in the warehouse, where I fear it was once bullied by the rich intensity of Uigeadail and the now vanquished Araigh Nam Beist.

Staying with peaty, an Old Pulteney 19yo which had been matured in ex-Laphroaig casks since birth was rich and interesting (although their stunning 17yo is more memorable). In an earlier post I was bemoaning the style of some recent peaty Speysides that have appeared, and a few peated Highland whiskies I had not previously encountered are available as well. My final prophecy, come almost true, was in the form of a Highland whisky I don’t remember tasting before - the Ardmore Traditional, at 15ppm, was smooth and balanced and I will look out for it again. It shows it can be done well if intended at conception, rather than as the offspring of a marketing ‘accident’.

I briefly mentioned in my Reflections post below that the new Longrow 18yo was my favourite whisky of the weekend - sensational whisky with something for everyone in the mix. Incidentally the Longrow CV has been one of my top three for this year so far and I never got to try the last 18yo they produced, so I am deliriously looking forward to this one being bottled next year.

Stop me before I drool but after the Longrow and the Corryvreckan, and almost stealing that second place, was the Douglas Laing Glen Scotia 1992 OMC, packed with vanilla and peach, with a sweet taste evaporating to a drier finish. I think I may have found a use for one of my Royal Mile Whisky vouchers.

A few others to mention – the Balblair 2000 was light and easy with nicely balanced fruit and vanilla but I am still cherishing my favourite whisky from the 2008 Fringe, the 1989, which won the Spirit of the Fringe award that year. St Georges' Chapter 6 (unpeated) was too young to be lighting any fires but I am still keen to try the peated Chapter 9 - my Barnard journey will, I guess, take me to Norfolk eventually. The Wemyss 'Spice King' was a tasty wee treat with lots of peppery Talisker in the mix and the Compass Box 'Hedonism Maximus' added lots more orange to the coconut that I love in the standard Hedonism.

Then it was confession time at the chapel, the Rum Chapel that is, which I visited for the first time with the benefit of having two days over which to sample. My thanks to Cap’n Dave Broom and to Chris for my introduction to this murky spirit which was a pleasant surprise amongst the whisky flavours that were arguing on my palate. I tried four rums overall and Dave seemed happy when he finally selected one I truly adored, Pere Labat Rhum Agricole, and just in time before us punters were made to walk the plank at the last bell.

And that was it. Yes, I sampled too many whiskies and my meagre notes will not do justice to some of them. That is both the joy and the challenge of a festival such as this – are most of us going to stop just when the flavours of whiskies number 5 and 6 begin to blend into each other on your exhausted palate, or when the evaporation of spirit dripped on your fingers affects your nosing? At a dedicated nosing - yes, at a festival - unlikely, and I hope that our hazy licensing regulations do not become enforced in a way that denies this choice to the many responsible, adult patrons who simply wish to sample, enjoy and share the scope and complexity of this amazing product.

Overall a great range of whiskies that were either new releases, new to me, or so new they haven’t actually been bottled yet. I have added a few to my list of ‘drams to share’ and I now continue my journey in Barnard’s footsteps refreshed, inspired and with my spirits high.

I hope you will join me again soon to explore Campbeltown.