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Category: whisky (page 1 of 3)

Behold – the salmon of time

Any keen and diligent readers of this blog will no doubt remember last year, when I was given the opportunity to write about the utterly splendid Drinks By The Dram Whisky Advent Calendar.  It’s a truly wonderful product, which ties up the three concepts of having an opportunity to try a selection of different high quality whiskies without breaking the bank, sampling whisky from a diverse range of styles you might not necessarily naturally think of, and getting a nice little surprise each day.

When the splendid folk at Drinks By The Dram contacted me this year, they said “Would you be interested in something a little different this year?”.  Well, how could one say no.  And a few days later a mysterious parcel arrived…

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The format was familiar, to be sure – but what could they possibly mean by “The Surreal Advent Calendar”?  Last year’s calendar held 24 different tasty samples of whisky – ranging from classic well-known and loved household name single malts, to quirky new craft distilleries, some very, VERY tasty blended whiskies from both famous blending houses and more bijou specialist outfits, and there was even an incredibly old single grain whisky in there as a Christmas bonus!  What would this year have in store?

Reasoning that we’re popping away for a holiday just before the fat man in the red suit comes hurtling down our chimney I could probably get away with opening the first couple of doors ahead of schedule…

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Based on last year’s calendar I half-expected a sample of some sort of incredibly rare blended whisky – perhaps made from specially selected casks from some now-closed distilleries…  But behind door number one was: TINSEL.  2 metres of the bloody stuff.  I guess tinsel’s always handy – especially around Christmas time.  Didn’t seem particularly surreal, now I think of it.  But it did give me some appetite to popping door number 2.

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A flathead screwdriver?!  I can’t help but think Drinks By The Dram have steered a little bit off-brief with this calendar.  I mean, I know I chose not to go for a whisky one.  If I had I’d probably have been enjoying a dram of some sort of lovely spicy sherry-casked Speyside whisky by now: an ideal whisky for this time of year!  But no…  I’m the proud owner of a new tool.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lovely screwdriver.  I guess I didn’t know what to expect.  Hey ho.  But surely there’s got to be some booze in here somewhere, right?  Maybe door 3.

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OK, that does it.  A nice 30mL sample of some delicious youthful yet sophisticated whisky from a burgeoning farmhouse distillery on Islay (for example) would have been just the ticket by this point in the evening.  Instead of a banana.  But apparently this version of the calendar doesn’t work like that.

My attention was momentarily caught by a sound – I held my ear up to the box, and inside I could swear I heard the rapidly approaching sound of horses’ hooves.  This had potential to get quickly out of hand.  There was only one solution.

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Sorry Surreal Advent Calendar, you were just too weird for me.  I don’t even like bananas that much.  Why oh why didn’t I go for one of the many other calendars they do – be it Whisky, Premium Whisky, Old & Rare Whisky, Single Cask Whisky, Japanese Whisky, Irish Whiskey, Gin, Rum, Bourbon, Tequila, Mezcal, Cognac, Armagnac, Absinthe or Vodka.  Or, Drinks By The Dram’s sister company That Boutique-y Whisky Company had their own advent calendar as well – which I even saw at a whisky festival a few weeks ago!

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Looked ace!  I guess the important thing is that those other options are all still available from a number of good retailers (including from the magnificent chaps over at Master of Malt).  They’ve even (this is awesome) got a Glenfarclas Advent Calendar: 24 distinct and different expressions from one of Speyside’s most distinctive and well-regarded distilleries.

I realise we’re a few days into December as I write this – but it doesn’t really matter…  these great boxes are still very much available, and I think they make a particularly excellent gift; advent or otherwise.  They’re made out of a quite sturdy and recyclable (and, as it turns out, handily flammable) cardboard, so you could get a marker pen out and use the little doors as a sort of encouragement to teach your burgeoning computer science student pal how to count to 30 in base-8.  For instance.

Look, the point is… well, I’m not sure I know the point any more.  Buy an advent calendar.  Get one with whisky in.  Not bananas and screwdrivers.

Quality Whisky Content – please give generously

It’s fair to say that the Internet’s full of people who want you to hear what they have to say about whisky.  I can’t always say I find them interesting.

13417398_269515983438925_7110735978184751972_nHOWEVER… back in January a fella appeared on my Facebook feed courtesy of another whiskychum’s posting, with what sounded an interesting challenge.  Ben Bowers has set himself the task of sampling and reviewing 366 whiskies in a year and tying it all up under the fairly neat label of A Dram A Day.

The goal of this escapade is that it’s a fundraising challenge, with him aiming to raise £5000 for the Children’s Heart Surgery Fund though getting people to sponsor him for publishing 10-15 minute videos every day of the whiskies he’s tasting.

I’ve got to say – I really like his style.  Ben generally seems to be a bloke who does his research (although occasionally loses the bit of paper that tells him what the samples he’s been sent are) and he’s tasting these drams sight-unseen, so the reaction you’re seeing is pretty real.  A good example of this is his tasting of Haig Club: a whisky which I maintain is targeted for a particular audience and purpose, but which Ben I think fairly provides an honest response to.

You’ve got to admire him sticking with it – often these sorts of things sink without trace 20 or so posts in. However as I write this he’s well over half way and almost at #210.  I’m enjoying the way that they’re clearly shot at night time in hushed tones so he doesn’t wake his wife up, although periodically he ventures outside of the kitchen into other rooms – so it’s sort of like a really protracted tour of a house somewhere in the North of England.  With many, many drinks breaks.

Earlier in the challenge he was courting donations of whiskies (I sent a few across – including the Berry Brothers & Rudd Glen Mhor that he seemed to quite enjoy) however now he’s got all he needs so it’s just a case of making it through to Burns Night 2017!

I’d urge anyone reading this who’s interested in whisky to have a look at a few of these and perhaps make your way through a few.  Having previously worked at The Whisky Shop in York Ben has quite a good vocabulary while at the same time speaking very approachably.  And perhaps if you’d like to say thanks for the research and effort by flinging his Justgiving page a few quid then I’m sure that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

On the 1st day of Awesome the whisky fairy gave to meeee….

It makes sense, doesn’t it – sending an advent calendar to an atheist who has a famously shady grip on time…

But if there’s one way to ensure that THIS little black duck knows exactly what day it is during the month of December then Drinks By The Dram have come up with the perfect tool – the Scotch Whisky Advent Calendar (2015 version)! They sent me one for having been a particularly good boy this year (I assume that’s the reason…), and since it arrived the main challenge has been not breaking into it already.

Friends of mine have gotten this year’s calendar already and being mad whisky nuts they’ve already pitched into it to sample/review the lovely drams (DVDBloke Jon has plumped for the Armagnac version, in his typically contrarian way)- however I’ve had to manfully restrain myself in the spirit of doing the advent thing “properly” this year. Although I won’t pretend that curiosity hasn’t tried to get the better of me.

We know from the published information that this year’s calendar contains, among other things, a dram of The World’s Best Blended Whisky (decided at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards), “an award-winning Japanese whisky”, and a 50 year old whisky from an unnamed distillery. But do you tear through and liberate all 24 drams at once, or enjoy the surprise day by day? Or, try to use gnarly brain magic to try to foresee what’s in there?

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In a sense it’s a bit like having a tiny Christmas surprise each day – except that there’s no risk of getting a pair of socks or a new tie, because you know it’s gonna be WHISKY! Unless of course you’re not a whisky fan – in which case you can punt for one of the other MANY varieties of calendar that those geniuses at Maverick Drinks have put together… there’s also a gin one, a vodka one, rum, cognac, armagnac, mezcal, bourbon, absinthe, and if the standard whisky version isn’t promising enough but whisky’s definitely your thing there’s also the Premium Whisky Calendar, and for those who REALLY deserve a treat every day for a month (and have £999 to spare) there’s the Old and Rare calendar.

And for absolute total perverts they’ve also got a Naga Chili Vodka Escalation Calendar.  As if weaning yourself daily upwards in 10,000 Scoville increments on insanely hot vodka was some sort of festive treat.

One beautiful aspect of this calendar though is that it doesn’t have to be used at Christmas – you could spraypaint the whole thing black and save it til January!

Or put it in a lead-lined box so that people definitely absolutely couldn’t cheat a sneaky peak at upcoming whiskies by using x-ray vision.  Just sayin’.

dbtd_ac2There’s 13 varieties of these things, so the absolute grandslam surprise gift for the person in your life who loves flavour experiences would be to buy one of each of these awesome calendars and spread them out across the whole year to give a consistent source of tasting joy.  Plus one real arsehole of a month where they had to drink Naga Chili Vodka.

Anyway – it’s such a groovy, benevolent, thoughtful and awesome gift that it seemed silly not to tell everyone about it.

Edit: Argh! This is what happens when you publish a post at 2am!  I forgot one of the coolest things…  Supposing you knew someone you loved SO much you wanted to give them a calendar filled only with samples of Speyburn and Fettercairn* (a kind of Good versus Evil theme), then YOU CAN DO THAT TOO BY DESIGNING YOUR OWN ADVENT CALENDAR!

  • full disclosure: when I tried doing this to prove it could be done my list only could have 6 Speyburns and 17 Fettercairns, so it’s not the totally balanced fight of Good & Evil that I make it out to be. Plus there’s one space left over so you could pop a 250,000 Scovile Naga Chilli Vodka dram in there to REALLY piss them off.

Whisky Nerds and their terrifying birds

For some reason whisky folks pop up from time to time in photos engaged in practices relating to Falconry (& associated disciplines).  It seemed silly not to gather them in an album.

How old? Well, I’d prefer not to say…

_42369928_glenavon203300paI’ve never been to a whisky tasting run by an independent operator where they preached the dictum “The age of a whisky is the most important thing, and the older it is – the better!”.  Quite the opposite.  Anyone who’s tried enough whisky to get past what you see on supermarket shelves will tell you that age is not the full story.

So it’s with some interest and a modicum of frustration that I read a couple of posts on the topic today – one excellent and passionately put by Lukasz over at the Edinburgh Whisky Blog, and another by self-declared arbiter of righteousness in the whisky world Oliver Klimek.

The central thesis of the posts is listing the reasons why the recent-ish “trend” of distilleries releasing Non Age Statement (NAS) whisky is a bad thing, for the consumer and for the marketplace – and without reiterating their posts, the concept of recent releases relates to the non-aged-statementyness of the liquid in the bottle, the packaging, the marketing, and the pricing.  Ollie’s piece referred to these things independently, such that we’re also talking about the marketing and pricing of age-statement-carrying whisky too.  Ollie refers to these things as worrisome trends.  I wonder if he also thinks of gravity as a worrisome trend, and constantly glances up at the sky in case it gets any closer.  Global warming is a worrisome trend.  To the whisky enthusiast, overzealous marketing is an irritating and unavoidable development, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep worrying about it.

Cracking, cheap, value for money whisky.

Cracking, cheap, value for money whisky.

I’ve been trying to get the argument straight in my head for a while now in order to get out in a post: ever since being sent samples of some whiskies to try, such as Talisker Storm and its travel retail cousin Dark Storm, some of the Highland Park Warrior Series, some Glenfiddich bottles marked Reserve, Select, and Vintage Cask, Bowmore Small Batch Reserve, and Glenlivet Alpha.  Some of these whiskies have been just lovely.  I’ve developed a real soft spot for Talisker Storm.  Glenlivet Alpha (with its age and provenance shrouded in mystery) trod a fine line between being interesting, radical experiment and totally masturbatory marketing exercise.  Of the two Glenfiddichs I’ve tried so far, I actually preferred the “younger” one (i.e. not called Vintage) because of its distinctive taste.  The Bowmore I thought was an absolute little cracker – certainly not a whisky to make you consider giving up your job and becoming a poet or sculptor, but for the price point it was very decent and just the sort of more-ish drop to make a resealable bottle almost totally unecessary.

As well as putting together blind tastings for our little group, I’ve been doing a bit of work behind the bar at the Soho Whisky Club from time to time: and I think that this is an invaluable thing for anyone who’s interested in learning more about whisky & the way other people perceive it.  At Whisky Squad we do all of our tastings “blind”, so the default position is that people are making their judgement of preference on the whisky alone, and not finding out anything about the packaging, marketing or pricing until after they’ve had a bit of a chance to work out what they think it tastes of and whether they like it or not.   These are probably the main people that I enjoy whisky with, and so this is my main mode of thinking about whisky.  And then I go to work at the bar and have exchanges like:

The one on the right is 21 better than the one on the left.

The one on the right is 21 better than the one on the left.

“Can you recommend me a sherried whisky?”
“Yes! Have you tried the Glendronach 15? It’s a full and fruitcakey dram with a hint of dirtiness and a little liquorice in the finish.”
“You’ve got the Glendronach 18 there.  Is that better?”
“Have you tried the 15 already?”
“No, but you’ve got the 18 – what’s that like? Better than the 15?”
“Well, if you don’t like the sound of the 15 then the 18 probably won’t win you over – there’s a lot of flavour profile crossover…”
“So the 18 isn’t better?  What about the 21?”

And so on.

What do I say?  “Yes, the 18 tastes 3 better than the 15”?

To me, as a person interested in helping people experience whisky generally it feels like the one consistent thing going on is that the marketplace is getting louder and this engenders a certain amount of shouting.  Some are shouting “OLDER WHISKY IS BETTER!” and others are shouting “AGE ISN’T THE FULL STORY!”.  We used to be able to draw a direct line saying Older Whisky Is More Expensive – and the corrolary Expensive Must Mean It’s Better – but recent developments have muddied this somewhat and I think this may be the source of the problem.

The trouble is: the banner statement “NAS whisky is overpriced crap” is to lump all NAS whisky in together.  Glenmorangie Signet is a NAS whisky, and at about £120 a bottle isn’t cheap but it’s the only whisky of its kind and is one of my favourite whiskies just because of its flavour profile.  Balvenie Tun 1401 is a series (up to about bottling number 9 or 10 now) which is by no means cheap, or getting any cheaper, and yet it is understood to be a batch of casks hand-selected by David Stewart: who quibbles about this whisky being worth north of £200? (and as my compadre Billy points out in his post on this subject, it’s got no age statement*).  The famous “accident” Ardbeg Serendipity was (allegedly) a load of elderly Ardbeg inadvertantly vatted together with some young Glen Moray: by all accounts of those who bought it at the time at regular retail prices a wonderful dram with lots of elegant old Islay notes which may never have seen light of day as a single malt after disappearing over the 40%abv mark, but when pumped up a bit by another youthful cask or two to become up to strength, something we’re allowed to enjoy.

Am I cherry picking examples to support my argument? Sure!  What I’m saying is that the argument needs to be better defined.  Consider briefly Ardbeg – their lineup contains fairly few age statements.  Corryvreckan, Uigeadail, Blasda, Alligator, Ardbeg Day, Ardbog, Rollercoaster, Supernova…  not an age statement among them.  The only age-statement whisky in the main lineup is Ardbeg 10.  But hang on – the distillery shut down in 1981, and was only operating a very functional production run between 1989 and 1996, so what was in the 10 year old between 2000 and 2007 (when the new distillate had reached 10 years of age)?  The bottle said 10yo, so the youngest whisky in there had to be a minimum of 10 years of age…  I couldn’t find it easily (and feel free to correct me, anyone) but though the age statement on a whisky must be the age of the youngest in the mix, it doesn’t appear to mean you can’t put 10 years on the bottle if the youngest is 17?

Cutting to the chase amid the disproving of generalisations: what we’re really talking about as the root of “the problem” is that of companies releasing crap whisky.

As a discussion piece at the bar tonight, we looked at the “£7.95 a measure” shelf, and put this question about: if you had to choose a whisky to take to a desert island for a week, would you go for Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Glenfarclas 21yo, Highland Park 18yo, Lagavulin 12yo, Speyburn Solera 25yo or Tobermory 15yo?  All mainstream releases, no indies.

From our entirely non-scientific consensus it’s either gonna be the Corry or the Laga 12.  The Farclas and the Highland Park got consideration, because they’re both cracking drams – but I’d leap at a Corryvreckan or Lagavulin 12yo.  So out of a sensible lineup it was the NAS or the youngest which were the favourites in the price range.  Style, cask selection, and personal preference.

This isn’t addressing the Travel Retail NAS Deluge, I know – gosh, there’s so many nuances to this argument, isn’t there?  Well, no, there isn’t.

A little judicious spending could reduce your outlay from this...

A little judicious spending could reduce your outlay from this…

What can we do to make things better?  Well, if the problem is that there’s too much crap, overpriced whisky in the market then the best thing that we can do is to help people understand what they like and don’t like, gain confidence in their palates, and take advantage of opportunities to taste whisky before buying it.  If they can’t get to tastings or join clubs then there’s options like The Whisky Tasting Club, or

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…to this, and you’d still be tasting about 2 dozen whiskies!

Drinks By The Dram.  If people know what they’re looking for then they’re less likely to just buy whatever’s waved in front of them on spec.  Encourage people to read reviews, blogs, and magazines**, and make their own whisky drinking an experience rather than a functional pastime or a statement of dick-swinging prestige.  If you asked me what I’d buy from the World Of Whiskies Exclusives page, I’d be hard pressed to answer you – but that’s mainly because I haven’t had a chance to taste most of them (plus, I’m skint at the minute – and no whisky is/should be “affordable” to someone without any money).

If people know what they like, and buy and drink it, then the whisky world is in a good place.  And we can get back to enjoying discovering new shades of what we do and don’t like, and I can stop getting wound up about reading rhetoric involving “heralds of resistance”, “valiant knights”.

Nobody’s making you buy the stuff.  Just be more judicious.  And stop bleating that things you want are too expensive***.  Or don’t.  Vive la difference.

Ooooh, I could go on…  but 2000 words is the humane limit.  Would love to hear your thoughts though!

* Whilst the Tun 1401 carries no age statement, it does list the numbers of the casks that go into the vatting – albeit without a great deal of information about any of them.  Is this enough information to placate the “With NAS you don’t know what you’re getting” brigade?  I mean, cask numbers tell you LOADS about the whisky inside them, right?  If there’s any decency in the world they should set up a web app that lets you enter a cask number and be given all their warehouse details about that cask! (note: this is not my actual opinion – were the tiny minority of nerds who might demand this sort of thing to get their way, just wait & see how prices would be affected…)

** By reading blogs & magazines, I suppose it’s the tasting notes that are of more interest than scores given the corner that scoring seems to have back itself into: the latest issue of Whisky Magazine printed 42 individual whisky scores, of which only one was below 7.2 and one above 8.8 – average mark being 8 out of 10.  How this is meant to be helpful to anyone, I’ve no idea. But that’s a WHOLE other story****.

*** EVERYTHING is too expensive. It’s just how economics works.  I’d love to try Black Bowmore, but I don’t have £4.5k I can spare for a bottle.  And if you earthlings are going to fall for something as stupid as Prestige Pricing then frankly you deserve everything you get.

**** By which I probably mean “rant”.

A weekend of whisky in Scotland? What could be better than that?!

I had a lot of fun in 2013.  Amid some career uncertainty and a few testing times, life flung at me the assortment of utter excellence and fun which I’ve come to really like about it.  I know in days of yore I’d blog about a good deal more of it, however those days are gone which either means I’m having more fun than I used to, or I’m typing a lot slower these days.  But rather than try to articulate the entire year, there are 2 highlights that I’m particularly proud of.

IMG_2640One of the things I did last year that’s eaten up a chunk of my “spare” time was to co-organize a whisky tasting festival in Scotland, back in July.

For the last few years I’ve been going to a whisky weekend festival in The Netherlands, called Maltstock. For a whisky enthusiast it’s brilliant – like-minded people bring all sorts of interesting whiskies out to share with each other, and you get all weekend to chill out, relax, and enjoy things at your own pace. And probably about 2 dozen times I’ve found myself in conversations featuring the sentence, “Do you think something like this could work in the UK?”.

Best way to find out is to give it a go, really – and thus Dramboree was born.

Pushed into being largely by the efforts of my Glaswegian chum Jonny McMillan, the idea was to get a place that could accommodate the right number of people, get them all to bring a bottle of whisky or 2 to share, and put together some extra tasting workshops to keep things interesting.

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8 months of planning & stress came to fruition however when the 35 of us gathered at Dunolly House in Aberfeldy, shaking out the travel-cobwebs with a cleansing beer prior to the first of our tasting workshops. P1030393Magnificently, Jonny had arranged for Francis Cuthbert from Daftmill Distillery to present a selection of his whiskies to us – the theme was looking at differences between whiskies distilled during summer, versus those distilled in winter. What was equally fascinating about this session was the world-first nature of it – Daftmill (a self-sufficient farmhouse distillery) are yet to bottle any of their whisky, and this would be the first tasting of their spirit held outside of the distillery walls!

The bunkhouse accommodation would best be described as “cheap & cheerful”, with the focus being on keeping costs down to enable people to attend without bankrupting themselves. It was observed a couple of times that it’s easier and cheaper (for those of use who’ve been to Maltstock) to get from London to a small town in The Netherlands than to get to Aberfeldy.

BOb_2gMCIAEvOS4As if the first workshop wasn’t enough to get excited about – the next session was a tour through a selection of older whiskies (1960s, 70s and 80s bottlings) led by Angus MacRaild, of Mulberry Bank Auctions. Many of us don’t get the chance to taste these gems from the past – it’s always a fascinating opportunity to see how perhaps distillation & aging policies have changed over the years. And to have Angus there in part as a whisky historian – discussing many of the aspects of production which we may ordinarily take for granted. At one point the whisky tasting transformed into something between a debate and a standup brawl about marketing techniques and approaches then-and-now, and as an event organizer it was marvelous to see such an engaged group of participants!

Saturday’s programme comprised a special “behind-the-scenes” tour and warehouse cask sampling at Aberfeldy Distillery, led by Stephen Marshall of Dewars: a definite highlight of the weekend, and an experience impossible to repeat.

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Melanie Stanger from Campbeltown’s famous Springbank Distillery joined us after lunch for a tasting of a selection of cask samples featuring some interesting wood-finishes, and showing that Springbank (along with its other whiskies, Hazelburn and Longrow) is a quirky little force with many strings to its bow.

OK, it's not University Challenge...

OK, it’s not University Challenge…

A slight wrinkle in logistics (what first-time event ever goes smoothly?) dinner was delayed a little, so the final organized tasting workshop of the weekend was moved forward, and what we’d thought would be a Feis Ile 2013 session (featuring 6 whiskies we picked up on Islay this year at the festival) became an unforgettable quiz/charades/physical challenge/whisky tasting hybrid, thanks to the ingenuity and inventiveness of those chaps from The Whisky Lounge, Eddie Ludlow and Joe Clark. Maltstock may have the most famously nerdy whisky quiz in the world, but they’ve never had the spectacle of Jonny McMillan trying to mime “Porteus Mill” to a table of very confused teammates.

P1030458It’s impossible to report on the amazing fun of Dramboree without waxing lyrical about our utterly splendid evening meal: provided and prepared by the, frankly, awesome folk from Master of Malt. Ben Ellefsen*, upon hearing of our intent to run this event, phoned up and COMMANDED me that he would be doing barbecue – and were I to do any less than shower the meal with superlatives would be to under-do it in terms of justice. Malt-teasers Jake Mountain and Miss Cat Spencer did an absolutely prime job with those ribs, pulled pork and other barbecue treats. Not a dry eye in the house, nor a surface free of BBQ sauce.

Less an “organized” workshop but still a brilliant part of the weekend was the random appearance of “Dr Sam’s Midnight Drams” – a couple of very curious and tasty contributions by Balvenie’s global brand ambassador, Dr Sam Simmons. There’s something deliciously appealing about the idea of a secret tasting at midnight, when nobody’s noticed that the clock we’re all timing ourselves to has stopped at 11:56.

296267_10152984931495693_874371165_nBut to highlight the tasting workshops would be to ignore the immense and diverse selection of whiskies which people brought along to share on the Dramboree Tasting Table! When we suggested that people bring a bottle to share I’ll confess I had no idea that they’d come to the party like this!

The whole concept centres around the idea that as a whisky enthusiast you’ve probably got a few bottles on your shelf which you’re just “waiting for the right moment to open”. And so by gathering a wodge of friendly folk as interested in whisky as you are, we tried to create just that occasion! There was weird stuff. There was prestigious stuff. There was museum-grade stuff. There were whiskies just great for drinking, and many more to inspire conversation, reminiscence and debate. The only shame of it really was that there wasn’t more time to explore them all – and we had a whole weekend!

As an event organizer, this couldn’t have gone better. As a whisky enthusiast, this couldn’t have gone better. A fantastic crew of people in a great little location sharing their passion and enthusiasm for one of their favourite hobbies. Our small group had people coming from as far afield as Bristol, and indeed The Netherlands – all leaving with a great buzz and babbling questions about when we’d do another Dramboree!

It’s possible to get caught up in endless platitudes, however real kudos for the success of the weekend genuinely do need to go to Jonny – his impetus and industry made the event the success that it was. Rarely have I worked with someone with the same commitment and drive.

And what are we planning for Dramboree 2014? Well, have a look at the website.

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“What was the second thing?”, you presumably ask?  I’ll get to that soon…

* Customarily Ben’s surname is spelled incorrectly in blogposts & magazine articles, and loath as I am to abandon this rich seam of tradition, quite frankly his name deserves to show up correctly in google searches in connection with such meaty majesty**.

** It also deserves to show up in connection with slightly suspect phrases, like “meaty majesty”.

The Tun’s the one! (That’s Tun 1401, son)

I was always crap at origami.  Every creation from my fingertipes has ended up a torn, skewed interpretation of what could have been delicate and graceful – a bull with miniscule front legs that make a T-Rex guffaw with superiority, or a swan that looked like it had been thrown down a stairwell.  A subtle, measured craft of which a true master displays the confluence of practice, talent, and patience.

To inexpertly superimpose the metaphor (indeed, a metaphorical paper giraffe with massive legs, a tiny neck and 8 antlers), Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart epitomises the craftsman.  I don’t know what his origami’s like, but his whisky’s bloody fantastic.

The Savoy (exterior)

A small posse gathered in the Savoy recently for the launch of Balvenie Tun 1401 batch 5 – a limited release no age statement single malt vatting of casks hand picked by David. Continuing the theme of “hand crafted” (something to which Balvenie very strongly aligns itself, celebrating craftsmanship both externally with their awards and in more tributary ways like their recent Warehouse 24 release – “Craftsman’s Reserve – The Cooper”), the Savoy Hotel was selected as the launch site because it is a place which epitomises style, quality, heritage (indeed, the air conditioning in the room we were in appeared to be genuine Victorian engineering… steam-powered, anyway) and its recent refit was completed by a dedicated team of artisans and craftsmen. Craftspersons. Craftsfolk. Whatever. It was probably no small coincidence that later that afternoon the Balvenie Masters of Craft awards were also taking place in the building.

Tun 1401 batch 5 – a mighty fine whisky

First created as a distillery-only experimental bottling, Tun 1401 gained popularity as word got out what David had created.  Batch 2 followed, the 3 for the US market, 4 for the travel retail market, and now 5 as a slightly wider release of 2862 bottles – about 800 bottles destined for the UK.  For batch 5 David has selected 9 casks to marry together, ranging from 1966 through to as recent as 1991. 4 of the casks are sherry butts (1975, 1972, 1971 and 1970), and the remaining 5 bourbon (from 1991, 1974, 1973, 1972, 1971 and 1966).

Fortune smiled at me in Paris last year with the opportunity to taste Tun 1401, however at the time it was being served up by David himself and I was so busy buzzing at having met the man himself that I paid perilously scant attention to what I was doing. When we were invited to examine batch 5 by Dr Andrew Forrester (Balvenie brand ambassador) some of the other luminaries in the room were able to provide comparison against previous bottlings, whereas I stared – embarrassed – at the floor.

Me meeting David Stewart in Paris (ever so calmly)

It’s a real treat of a whisky: smelling it gives some dry cake-baking components such as cocoa powder, coconut and a little ginger. The signature of Balvenie shines through with its honey, and also lurking is some of the vanilla and citrus common to other bottlings from this small but wonderous place. Mark (Dramatic Whisky) also ventured a slight carbolic soap note – I must confess that’s not something I’m familiar with, but I think I detected something in some way soapy in the mix, and if that’s what carbolic soap smells like then I’m perfectly happy to accept his word for it!

Through the darkness you can *just* make out Andrew Forrester, and the chaps from Caskstrength.net casually leaning

A sip reinforced the dark chocolate elements, and I was delighted to throw my tasting note into the mix with “black cherries” (sagely nods around the room – woot!). Quite a rich continuation of the honey flavours was present along with cooked fruit, and David suggested that we might find a lingering wisp of smoke in there too: in the 60s and early 70s Balvenie had a slightly smokier signature style, and though mellowed with age there was still a sense of this from the older casks in the mix.  Several of the people in the room who had tried earlier incarnations of Tun 1401 suggested that batch 5 is a little “moodier” than the others to date – a product of the increased sherry cask presence in this vatting.

An interesting aside by David was a mention of what Tun 1401 actually is – the whisky is named for the great wooden marrying vat in which it is mixed, which sits in Warehouse 24 at the Balvenie distillery.  The apparatus used to empty the barrels into the vat is an old iron hand pump, which is of the sort of age where it very well could have been used by William Grant himself!

David telling us about the iron handpump

At the back of the room we conferred with many a hurrumph on the price of the bottle – about £160. Definitely not a whisky for everyday casual consumption. However it also represents outstanding value for money. If I had a spare £160, I’d be in there like a shot! It really was a tremendous whisky. But you need to come up with £160 for it. And with a whisky this good in a release this limited, opportunity is not going to be a lengthy visitor.

Having started this post with all that origami nonsense a proper writer would then draw back together that idea with the central theme of the topic at hand. That’s not the way we do things around here – just like what I expect I’d do in real life, if handed a sheet of blank paper to make an origami metaphor, I’ve started writing all over it and kept the whole thing two dimensional. Too much pressure, I fold.

Incidentally, there’s a few other blogposts floating about from the lovely folks who were also at the event.  Feel free to peruse, if that’s your thing:

The lovely chaps over at Caskstrength.net
The Whisky Exchange blog
Dramatic Whisky 

Will it blend? That is the question!

Since the year 2000, the Compass Box Whisky Company have been carving out a name for themselves with their innovative portfolio of blended whisky – and their combination of approach, attitude, and commitment to releasing high quality product at affordable prices has seen them win over a large and appreciative audience.

We had the good fortune of having Chris Maybin presenting a Whisky Squad session back in March 2011 which introduced us to the core Compass Box range – and when the opportunity came up to visit their headquarters to participate in a “Blending School” afternoon, we leapt on it!

Following lunch at a nearby hostelry (although probably the less said about that, the better) a dozen keen Whisky Squadders descended on the Compass Box office, where we were once again met by the perennially snappily dressed Commercial Director of the operation (and keen cyclist, AND French speaker), Mr Chris Maybin.

The first order of business was to issue each person with a chilled glass of their excellent “breakfast whisky” Great King Street – Artist’s Blend, and do a tour of the office.  It had never occurred to me that it could be quite so interesting to be shown through a room that we’d already walked through: testimony to the speaking magnetism of Mr Maybin.  Looming over us on the end wall was the Compass Box corporate… was it a motto?  Was it a mission statement?  I don’t think we ever got a designation, but the message was:

“Above all – Share and Enjoy”.  Wholly admirable, and something I can definitely embrace.

With the Great King Street overture now fading out, Act One was for Chris to introduce (or for the lucky veterans of March 2011, re-acquaint) us to the core Compass Box range.  The delicate, light & refreshing Asyla – so named for the duality of the word meaning “madhouse” and “sanctuary” – really appealed to me this time around, which just goes to show that tastes are a moveable feast.  As well, the Oak Cross really grabbed me with its sweet vanilla-driven profile.  The Spice Tree (effectively, the same whisky as Oak Cross but with a stronger French Oak influence) was a playful and aromatic dram, and The Peat Monster lived up to its name but delivered the rounded complexity that an artisanal blend can produce instead of being a bit peaty fist in the face.  And to finish the core lineup, the incomparable gentle & fruity blended grain joy that is Hedonism.

As we retired to the relaxation complex (being the corner of the office that has the sofas in it) for a “half time orange” we started thinking about what kind of blends we’d all produce using the sciencey-looking gubbins laid out on our tables.  This wouldn’t be my first foray into blending: there was the (now famous) Tiger Blood incident of June last year.  This was totally different though: whereas with Tiger Blood we could use any whisky at all from the decent-sized collection we’d amassed, today we were restricted to the 5 ingredients provided by Compass Box.  Also, Chris instructed us, the blend needs time to marry together – so there was no point “blending in the glass” and tasting to see if that was what we were looking for, as the same blend 2 weeks down the line might have changed quite dramatically.

On our blending pallette were:

– a lowland grain whisky aged in American oak (a lot sweeter than I was expecting, possibly not too far from the 20yo North British from Master of Malt that I tried recently?)

–  a highland malt aged in American oak (with some great, rounded vanilla character)

– the same highland malt, aged in American oak barrels with French oak heads (a more peaky, spicy whisky with quite a tang to it)

– highland malt aged in sherry (I got a much rounder, toffee flavour from this one)

– a heavily peated Islay malt

Knowing how little Islay it takes to overpower a blend and taking the non-tasting idea into my stride I elected to leave any hint of smoke out of this excursion.  And it’ll be no surprise to those around me that of late I’ve been a bit obsessed with the Buttery Biscuit Base video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfeyUGZt8nk

So my blend concept combined that, with a tenuous link to Douglas Adams.  After dipping my beak into the various glasses for what seemed like hours, but was possibly only an hour and 10 minutes, I went for a mix of 42% sherried highland malt, 21% lowland grain, 21% American oaked highland malt, and topped up the remaining 16% with the French oaked highland malt, to hopefully provide the cherry on top.  So I declared the name of this concoction to be “Monkey Butter” – the monkey part sort of related to the 42% (Douglas Adams) and cavemen evolving from monkeys (I told you – tenuous! You try having a more linear thought process after tasting whisky all afternoon!), and the butter part was from the buttery biscuit base!  The whisky’s sitting on my shelf, marrying away as we speak so I have no idea what it tastes like yet.

I heard some other names being thrown about the room (“The Last Train Home”, “Mooley’s Malt Madness”, “Crowdsauce”, and something involving the Scots Gaelic word for “birthday”), and just as the pondering what other people’s blends might’ve been Chris asked if anyone fancied a try of any other Compass Box bottlings.  I don’t think he’d even blinked before I’d shot to the front of the queue and sent the phrase “Hedonism 10th Anniversary” in morse code with my eyelids…  Good god, what a treat.

An utterly splendid, educational day out for the Whisky Squad!  Now it’ll be interesting to see who’s been bitten by the blending bug, and who suddenly starts turning up at sessions with 10cL vials and the phrase, “Tell me what you think of this…”.

Photos borrowed with permission from @Mooley (flickr) and @grimnorth (flickr).

Time to bite the Bulleit

Seeing as I’m on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to usual, and the opportunity presented itself, I thought it might make sense to break with tradition and do a little bit of a bourbon whiskey tasting instead of focusing on scotch whisky.  You know, broaden the horizons, and all that…

Via the highly excellent organ of information called NYC Whisky I learned that there was a Bulleit tasting going on at Union Square Wines, so it took very little motivation to get on down there and see what was going on!

The first thing I learned – due to absolute lack of preparation on my part – was that the Bulleit “range” is comprised of two whiskies: Bulleit Bourbon, and more recently, Bulleit Rye.  At least this wouldn’t take too long…  And leading us along this short but immaculately appointed garden path was Diageo Reserve Brands’ mixologist extraordinaire & bourbon aficionado, Elayne.

Though bought into the Diageo group around 1999 (and prior to that, Seagram’s), Bulleit is a family-run company originating from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.  My notes say that Tom Bulleit started distilling commercially based on an old family recipe in the mid 1960s, with the bourbon hitting the shops in the mid 1970s.  It is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, which means that it must satisfy a few criteria – it must contain at least 51% corn liquor, and be aged in the state of Kentucky in new charred American oak barrels, going into the barrel at a max of 120 proof (62.5% abv).  Even though the terms are fairly prescriptive there’s still plenty of room for variation, which is why Bulleit’s able to present the taste profile it does.

For starters, the constituent parts of Bulleit Bourbon are 61% corn, 27% Rye, and remaining 12% Malted Barley.  I didn’t think to ask whether those proportions were mixed liquor at the end of distillation or whether they distill a rye load, a corn load, and a malt load & then mix the liquors afterward, or if it’s just the mixture of grain proportions that goes into the initial mash.  The 3rd option sounds least hassle.  Additionally, the Bulleit recipe calls for only the “heart” of the distillate to be used.  Whereas some bourbons apparently use elements of the heads (high alcohol distillates) and tails (lower alcohol distillates) which can be employed to give the drink a “kick”, Bulleit specifies that they only use the “heart” run, or the part taken out after all of the dangerous wood spirits have been taken out of play.

Smelling my glass gave away scent of honey, spices, and a waft of leather.  Swishing it around in the mouth added a presence of oak.  It’s a fantastic and well-structured drink – the main thing for me was that it didn’t suffer from the over-sweet character that many entry-level bourbons certainly have (which I now know is due to heavy presence of corn in the mash!), but wasn’t achingly dry either.  It’s a perfectly solid have-on-your-bar bourbon!  After swallowing the taste tapers off politely with an aftertaste that’s congruent with the liquor you’ve just had in your mouth – it’s not a big bold in-your-face “feel the burn for a week” whiskey, but nor is it an insipid apologetic thing that disappears with no trace.  Great stuff.

Moving on to the other half of the Bulleit lineup, we tried Bulleit Rye.

Historically, rye whiskey was a precursor of bourbon as the migrants to the USA knew how to distil from barley and hadn’t yet tried working with corn.  The rye spirit is drier and more complex than corn, however the yield isn’t as high.  The resurgence in interest in rye whiskey has come about because of mixologists realising what a great base for cocktails it makes, and this has precipitated the recent development and release of Bulleit Rye (coming to market in March 2011).

The mash bill is a very high 95% rye, with the remaining 5% malted barley.  The whiskey in the bottle is a result of mingling together barrels that are between 6 and 8 years of age, released at 45% abv.

As expected the whiskey is a lot drier than the bourbon but still sweet in a non-saccharine way (if that makes any sense). The name of the game here is “spices”, and it’s a flavour that seems to grow on you the longer you hold onto it.  The slightly musky floral characteristics in the bouquet don’t come out too much in the mouth – replaced by some vanilla in the background.  On balance I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as the bourbon on its own.

To showcase some of the reach of these whiskies Elayne also gave us a taste for how these things worked in cocktails – mixing for us a Manhattan (using Carpano Antica vermouth and Fee Brothers whisky-barrel-aged bitters), and a favourite of the Bulleit family, the “B&T” (2 oz bourbon, mixed with tonic water & a bit of lemon).  Not being a massive cocktail enthusiast thus far I wasn’t expecting much, but both were excellent (and aptly refreshing, on that particular day).  In my notes I’ve drawn a smiley face next to the B&T, so I must’ve been quite taken by it at the time.

So they’re not rare, and they’re not expensive, but they are very well-crafted and enjoyable drinks.  You’re not going to spend hours dissecting the flavour profile or speaking in hushed tones reminsicing about that Bulleit Bourbon that you had once… but if someone handed you one, you wouldn’t find yourself grimacing awkwardly and looking for a potplant.

Made from unicorn sweat, plumbers’ tears, and 98% pure awesomeness: TIGER BLOOD!

A few weeks ago my learned colleague Billy “The Traffic Cone Marauder” Abbott and I got together, under the watchful supervision of Liz, and commenced an act of civil disobedience.   You see, the splendid folk over at Master of Malt Towers had launched a highly excellent Bloggers’ Blend challenge – whereupon whisky bloggers were called upon to create their own blended whisky out of a provided set of ingredients – and it seemed that we had been missed from the list of entrants!

Well, not being invited has never proven reasonable grounds for non-participation in the past.

To cause an impact on the judging panel though we’d need to draw inspiration from the one man whose work drives and guides us always.  I speak, of course, of Mr Charlie Sheen.

We would have to put our whisky brains into Go gear, and come up with something memorable – TIGER BLOOD.

Owing to a documented shortage of tigers in the Park Royal area, I instead had filled my bag with a selection of potions & libations from my Scotch arsenal and was confident that, armed with our expertise, experience, pure natural raw talent, and of course Adonis DNA, between the pair of us we could make a reasonable fist of creating the finest whisky blend ever produced.

Having learned a valuable lesson about whisky in the past – “Don’t try to stake your reputation on an exercise based on whisky you’ve never tasted” – it was imperative that we try each of the whiskies we’d collected together so as to have a good understanding of the source materials.

The decreasingly accurate notes we made

In hindsight, perhaps drinking 21 whiskies (and a beer or 2 – we’re not obsessed, you know) before commencing the project wasn’t the best idea ever had, but still.  ONWARDS!

Over several iterations, millilitres of fluid were painstakingly pippetted into blending vessels, and notes were meticulously taken.  There was much swirling, sniffing, nodding, conferring, and head-scratching.  But after 5 permutations I’d finally reached a recipe I was happy with!  Plus, we were running out of Clynelish, and Liz & I didn’t want to miss our train home.

We had made TIGER BLOOD.

Oh yeah. You know you want it.

“And what”, I imagine hearing you ask, “prompted you to pull your finger out and get around to writing this up only a few weeks later, instead of months or years like the posts you’re working on about your snow trip in February or your visit to the US in 2009?”.  That’s a good question!

The Master of Malt crew announced today that they’d tried the TIGER BLOOD, and have published rather a sterling post about it on their blog, which you should read.  However it seems proper to repeat their tasting notes, by way of padding out relevant content here.  Plus, we rather like them.  Behold.

Nose: Lots of barley on the nose, vanilla sweetness, dry sauna pine. It develops with hints of damp hay, Werther’s Originals and manuka honey. Overall, it smells like winning.

Palate: Very fruity palate, with a hearty dollop of apricot conserve on buttered croissants. After a time we also get blueberry compote on Greek yoghurt, and cola bottle sweets.

Finish: Good length, with an almost effervescent quality to it. In fact, it reminds us of Red Berry Fanta, and on the very, very tail end there’s a hint of chilli pepper.

Overall: There’s a new sheriff in town. And he has an army of assassins.

How do you like THEM apples?

In summary, the exercise was a lot of fun, and I’d highly recommend that anyone who’s interested in whisky have a go at it themselves!  Billy & I were lucky in that we had a fair amount of source material at our disposal (and were assisted, it must be said, by a small contribution from our good mate Rob at Berry Brothers & Rudd), however you only need small amounts to blend (we were using 1mL parts into a 10mL blending sample), and many of the candidates for the blend were Drinks By The Dram that I had on my shelf.

About the only regret I’ve got is that we weren’t able to make more of the stuff.  Although we’ve still got the recipe.

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