"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

Friday, 13 August 2010

Whisky Fringe - Anticipation

Whisky Fringe this weekend. A fantastic celebration of new releases and old favourites from a number of distilleries and independent bottlers, all brought together by Royal Mile Whiskies. This event has been held during the Edinburgh Fringe since 2002 and this year sold out in record time back in May. I am lucky enough to be attending for my third year.

The venue for this celebration is the Mansfield Traquair on Broughton Street in Edinburgh. Consecrated as a church in 1876 the interior of the building was provided with quite stunning murals, colourfully and vividly painted by Phoebe Anne Traquair between 1893 and 1901. After years of neglect the murals were restored to their former glory by a team led by Historic Scotland between 2003-2005. Now known as ‘Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel’ the interior of this building is quite inspiring and a wonderful setting in which to share a dram or two with old friends and new.

The programme has been sent out in advance and there are some rather innovative whiskies to look forward to, as well as a return for the ‘Rum Chapel’. Cask finishes as a concept would be unheard of in Barnard’s time; it wasn’t that long since people had begun to realise that the casks they were transporting their spirit in were adding new flavours to the spirit and reducing the fieriness of the alcohol. Producing specialised batches, sourcing vineyard specific barrels and double maturation are more recent trends permitted by the explosion of interest in Single Malt bottlings in the last few decades.

Finishes to look forward to this year include Rioja, Claret, Port, Rum, New Oak, Sauternes, Moscatel, Chardonnay and Madeira, as well as the usual range of sherry maturation and/or finishes. Truth be told I have yet to find any wine finished whisky I really like (some port finishes do it for me though, the Cragganmore Distiller’s Edition a firm favourite) but I am hoping to be surprised this year. Duncan Taylor’s ‘Octave’ experiment with ‘a few months maturation with larger wood to spirit ratio’ for a 1997 Imperial looks interesting, if not one for the purists.

The return of peated whiskies to the Speyside production lines in recent years also harks back to times when peat was abundant and unprotected and used as the main source of heat in kilns all across Scotland, long before railways opened up the highlands to supply the more efficient fuel supply of coal. As an Islay fan I am struggling to accept these. Some of them seem a little unbalanced to me, with the peat phenols added somewhere in the process because someone feels they have to, because that’s what people are talking about or desiring, but the end product often seems forced rather than the peat being an integral, balanced part of the complexity. Again, I wait in hope to be surprised this weekend.

The inclusion of whisky from St George’s (The English Whisky Co) for the first time will be a bit different for some attendees; Barnard had a choice of ten English Distilleries to visit and picked four to provide a flavour of what they were like. St George’s is the only current distillery in England and was opened in 2006 with their first spirit run in December of that year. Chapter’s 6 and 9 of their unfolding story to be sampled this weekend.

Suntory and Amrut are the overseas whiskies represented this year, although a couple of bourbons and those rums are in the mix.

I am attending both days this year for the first time. With acknowledgement of the responsible, paced sampling recommended by our governments and health boards I hope to bring you more thoughts and reflections on Monday, but if that blends into Tuesday then you will understand why. Barnard may not have understood the fuss.