Tuesday, 21 June 2016

5 Days of Summer - and the Whisky to drink during them

Today, I am reliably informed, is summer. I know it is, because Facebook has put up one of those sickening ‘let your friends know how this particular non-event is affecting you’ whatsits at the top of their home page. Where will these end? 'Having a bowel movement? Share it with your friends.' 'The missiles have been launched. Take a selfie to let your friends know which bunker you're cowering in.' I’m also half-convinced that Facebook is looking to taunt its British user-base, because I can currently see all of five metres out of the window, and a bleak, grey, rain-blattered five metres they are too. I’m half tempted to blame the Brexit campaign. Nigel Farage strikes me as just the sort of rubber-brained semi-hominoid to demand that the weather conform to British stereotype irrespective of season. ‘We don’t want your Union, and we don’t want your bloody sunshine either.’

Yes, it’s a grim, foreboding old curmudgeon of a Monday, this, with devil a prospect of cheery solar activity this week, either literal or politically metaphorical. But come Friday morning, when we may well be dealing with the aftershock of Generation Baby Boomer’s crowning act of future-buggery, summer (such as it is) will still be upon us and my need of a stiff drink, if anything, will have become more pronounced. 

(That’s my ‘going political’ quota met for the year by the way. No more, I promise.)

Whisky’s not what you’d necessarily call a typical summer tipple. I reckon if I polled my friends and family on their annual dram habits their answers, by and large, would be ‘Christmas, and whenever you’re around.’ And fair enough, a glass of rich, strong, smoky, sherried scotch is about as refreshing as a pair of thermal undercrackers. My own views on drinking habits tend in a ‘match the glass to the time and place’ direction; pints at pubs, wine with food and anything nameless, sticky and lethal when out after 11. (Sadly less frequent these days.) I don’t really see any need or point in shoehorning whisk(e)y into every imbibing opportunity that presents itself. Still, drink and let drink.

All that being said, I’m hardly putting my bottles into summer hibernation. And whilst I’ll reach for the ciders, G&Ts, white wine and inevitable Pimms more often than not, there are still several droplets of matured grain juice with which my summer cup runneth over – and rightly so. Inspired slightly by a piece by Johanne McInnis (@Whiskylassie) in which she names a bottle of The Deveron 12yo as her seasonal sailing dram I thought I’d consider my own summer whiskies for your consideration and delectation. (Her piece also inspired a degree of envy that she has a boat - until adolescent memories came rushing back of flopping about in a cold, itchy wetsuit that stank of fish, getting whacked on the head by self-determining booms and being called ‘lofty’ by assorted pitiless ex-Navy brine-swallowers, despite being half a foot shorter than anyone else. No, a comfy chair in a ferry bar – that’s my sort when it comes to salty sea-doggery.)

How to drink whisky in the summer without feeling like a psychopath.

1. Highballs
Ok, bit of a cheat, in that it’s not a specific whisky, but that’s going to pop up again in this article I’m afraid, so don’t start spitting your teeth out. If, for reasons of supreme tastelessness, you aren’t too enamoured of a G&T now and again, you can do a lot worse than mixing a good measure of whisky with some sparkling water, a few cubes of ice and, if you fancy it, whichever citrus fruit floats your boat. (I find orange often works quite nicely, and you can eat the rest of it without looking like a masochist.) 

Soda has a long history of diluting spirits; when Scotch was still seen as haggis-fancier’s mouth-rot, Brandy and Soda was the poison of choice for the English middle class upwards. So don’t go bleating about whisky dilution – and don’t be afraid to slosh in a Single Malt either, and to hell with the fun-sucking snobbos. (Though if you do use a Single Malt, or indeed any pricey whisk(e)y, my polite recommendation, as ever, would be to at least give it a try neat first, just so you know where it’s coming from.) 

The whisk(e)y you use in your highball’s entirely up to you, and limited only by your own adventurousness and the size of your stash. My top tip though is to go Japanese. They love a highball in the land of the rising sun – they even sell it in cans – and many of their whiskies are put together with this in mind. Probably the one I’ve enjoyed most featured Nikka From the Barrel (which, amidst rocketing Japanese whisky prices, remains one of the whisky world’s most spectacular bargains incidentally.)

Sparkling water isn’t essential either – ginger ale’s a popular choice too. To be honest, use whatever you like, but do bear in mind that the more flavour in the mixer, the less the whisk(e)y will have to say for itself. Oh, and for Christ’s sake and yours, don’t be a bore about the soda water brand. You all know that served blind you wouldn’t have the foggiest which one was which, so don’t pretend otherwise.

2. Think youthful.
Walnuts, leather, rancio, Christmas cake – not exactly flavours you’ll find yourself craving when your shirt’s sticking to your back, you’re inch-thick with Factor Fifty and Andy Murray’s being taken apart in the fifth by Djokovic. (To anyone who accuses me of pessimism here I point out that at least I had him making five sets of it.) Old whiskies and very heavily sherried whiskies aren’t your friends when the sun comes out. Too rich, too heavy – you’re best off putting them on house arrest. 

It’s not what you’d call a rule of science, but I probably wouldn’t go older than about 15 when it comes to outdoor whiskies. That way you get more freshness, more vibrancy and a little bit more liveliness by and large. I’d also recommend looking in the direction of whiskies with a little more fruit in their flavour profile. The Glens of Fiddich and Kinchie are your friends here. By and large Speyside’s likely to be your happiest hunting ground for Scottish single malts to suit this category, though some East Highlanders are well worth a look too. Glencadam in particular is a personal summertime favourite.

3. Seasoned with salt.
Put your condiments back in the cupboard – that wasn’t what I meant. Really ought to stop coming up with fanciful titles. A few scotch whiskies are noted for having a distinct core of salinity running through them, and if they happen to come with a citrus note or two on the side it makes for a very satisfactorily refreshing sip. Springbank 10 leaps to mind (I nearly wrote ‘springs to mind,’ and felt like a terrible human) as does Pulteney 12. Usually these more maritime tipples have a tiny whiff of smoke – nothing Kildalton level – which I’m sure contributes to the impression of salt. As with the previous entry, if you look on the younger end of the whisky spectrum you’re likely to find the salinity more pronounced and the flavours more seasonally appropriate. Save your older, heavier stuff for when Autumn rolls along in about five minutes’ time.

4. Cocktails
The most summery whisky cocktail I’ve ever had was conceived by Signe Johansen as a riff on a whisky sour. I encountered it in March, which I grant isn’t exactly shorts weather, but I remember thinking it would be just the ticket for a pre-BBQ glass in the garden. (There’s no end to my optimism.) Like me, your mixology skills may not extend further than knowing which end of the tonic/coke/Jäger bottle to unscrew, but there are certainly a few
whisky cocktails every bit as refreshing as their vodka or gin-based opposite numbers. Besides, they always taste better when some other poor sap has had to do the mixing anyway.

Whisky sours are very much my thing in the summer cocktail department (my go-to whisky cocktail, the Old Fashioned, is another that plays its best game indoors) but a mate from my Bristol days swears by the Mint Julep. Probably the most memorable whisky cocktail I’ve ever enjoyed (and yes, ‘enjoy’ is the right word) was the self-explantory Ardbeg Mojito, as mixed by a chap called Rob at the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel in Inverness. Which just goes to show that the sky’s the limit on cocktail creation. 

5. Less is more
There’s a tendency amongst whisky drinkers – and I’ve been guilty of it as anyone – to do a bit of a Jeremy Clarkson when it comes to ABV. By which I mean shout ‘POWER!!’ with unnecessary extra exclamation marks, accuse anything south of cask strength of being feeble and wimpy and tell anyone foolish enough to hang around for more than a minute of the merits of 60%+, all the while choking on fumes, forcing out an ‘ah, that’s the good stuff’ and gasping away like an asthmatic up a chimney.  

Don’t do that in summer.

Ideally, don’t do that at all – it’s one of the reasons you don’t get invited to parties – but particularly don’t do it when it’s hot enough to fry an egg on your car bonnet. Ideal summer drinking is a big game of ‘see how much booze you can ingest without the perception that you’re ingesting any at all.’ Hence the gallons of Prosecco and Pimms and Sangria and lager and cider guzzled in gardens between now and late September. Neat spirits, by contrast, are about as welcome as a wasp in your swimming costume, so if you do go North of 46% I’d refer you to items 1 and 4. But hey – if you can still stick to a ‘Cask Strength or GTFO’ mantra at 30 Celsius then I admire your stubbornness if nothing else.

So there, for what they’re worth, are my top tips for summer whisky drinkers. In all honesty my own glass is more likely to be charged with a cider or a G&T than a drop of aqua vitӕ, (Aspalls for cider and Cotswolds for Gin in case you’re interested) but there’s no doubt highballs will feature, and once the sun goes down the Glencairn usually raises its head. 

Bottom line – drink whatever you want over this summer. Looking out of the office window I only hope we actually get one.


Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Whisky Literature Pilgrim. Five books for novices to know-it-alls.

Remember books? Those things made from trees that took up so much space when you were trying to fine-tune the economics of packing to go on holiday?

Well perhaps it’s just a hangover from the English degree; more likely my technophobic failure to pass as a digital native, but I’m a massive Bibliophile. Absolutely love a book. God only knows what percentage of my life has been spent curled up with some tome or other, but it’s probably frightening. And whilst my fiction consumption has taken a disgraceful downhill turn in the last few years, my non-fiction intake has rocketed. Unsurprisingly that’s mainly fuelled by booze books; exam study, diploma prep and lately just attempting to make sure my blog posts aren’t too embarrassingly inaccurate!

As a colleague and fellow bookworm pointed out, books are one of society’s great levellers. You may not have the chance to sample the Macallan Laliques, Highland Park 50 year olds or Pappy Van Winkle 20s of this world, but as long as you’re privileged enough to be literate there’s no fiscal bar to what you can and can’t read. (As long as you’re not too fussed on things like signed First Editions, and frankly the text’s the same either way.)

It’s through reading widely on the subjects that I really fell in love with wine and whisky. I remember, when starting out, reading about all the different styles, flavours and textures available before heading to the bottle shop to discover them for myself. Of course no such text should be treated religiously, and there will always be writers, however expert, whose palates simply aren’t in line with yours. But I do believe that a good whisky book is the best and quickest way to expand your Universe and give you a sketch map with which to begin your personal exploration.

With that in mind I’ve picked five whisk(e)y books which have had particular impact on my own spirited adventure over the years. Are they the best, or best written? Not necessarily. Are they an exhaustive list? Of course not. Are they gospel? Don’t be silly. You should never slavishly follow a single drinks writer any more than you should take all your political information from one newspaper. But all five of these, for whatever reasons, are well worth looking up and spooling through.

So in no particular order, here goes:

Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible (Released annually.)

Bit of a suck-in-of-breath with this one. Opening the innings with Mr Murray and then shoving this blog piece into the whiskynet feels a little like inserting one's delicates into a hornet's nest. So hear me out! Long before I went online with whisky - we’re talking right when I started actually enjoying the stuff at the back end of my teens - this was the first book I encountered on the subject, as I’m sure it is for many people. Whether you agree with his opinions or not, whether you agree with his scores or not, whether you believe in a 'best whisky in the world' or not (I don't), whether you want to feed the man into a mincer or not, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible remains, at worst, a list of the vast majority of the world’s commercially available whiskies. It was therefore very handy when I was looking to move beyond the 4 or 5 bottles I was buying on a more or less cyclical basis at the time.

Of course I swiftly found that my tastes weren’t always in line with Mr Murray’s, and whilst I still buy the annual editions on publication I primarily use them for a vague flick through. By this stage, as you’d hope, I can make up my own mind on what to purchase, and can fill in the map myself. But the Whisky Bible remains, if you can bring yourself to take opinions with a pinch of salt, a decent indicator of how big the whisky universe is. I just hope that this year they’ll dispense with the whisky-coloured eyes on the cover, which are just plain terrifying.

Malt Whisky Yearbook, ed. Ingvar Ronde (Released annually)

Comfortably the whisky book I find most indispensable - and a very enjoyable read it is too. As you’d expect from the title there’s a huge influence on Scotland, but of course that’s where most Malt Whisky comes from. Up-to-date information on the happenings and core expressions of all of Scotland’s distilleries, extant, extinct and imminent. Also covers most of the Malt whisky distilleries found in the elsewheres of the world, albeit not quite in such detail. 

As a serial distillery visitor I also find the phone numbers, websites and addresses of each distillery to be immensely useful - takes away most of the legwork! Each edition also comes with several very interesting articles from noted whisky luminaries and a good chunk of history to boot. 

Best of all, it manages to communicate this wealth of information in a very readable way, commendably avoiding any sense of dryness which could all too easily slip into such a work. If you buy one book on whisky this year I would heartily recommend that you make it this one.

MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky, by Charles MacLean

Charles MacLean is one of the few notables of the whisky industry whom I have actually met - albeit he wouldn’t remember me. I was at a tasting he led, and interacted with him for all of three - or maybe even four - seconds to shake his hand and say thank you at the end. Mind you I do have a very memorable handshake...

You’d have to call Mr MacLean a whisky academic really, and a claret-drinking gentleman of the traditional school. Again the focus is very much on Scotch, but if you’re after something really scholarly - something meaty, but consumable in bite-size chunks, then look no further. This is a compilation of selected essays, articles and lectures of his, covering the vast majority of what you ‘need’ to know about Scotch whisky, but in more rigorous detail than you’d find in an ‘introduction to...’ style of book.

One to read once you’ve got a few other tomes and a good number of tastes under your belt, rather than as a first foray into whisky and whisky literature. That said - fits in a (large) pocket, and doesn’t leave you asking too many questions. One of my coffee-shop staples, and my first port of call when it comes to research. Read this if you want to understand what serious Scotch nerds are on about. (Anorak not included.)

Bourbon Curious, by Fred Minnick

When it comes to drinks writers I have a basic test, which is ‘would I want to go for a drink with this person?’ By which I don’t mean a pretentious sip’n’spit, but a proper trip to the local for a pint and a burger. If the answer’s ‘no,’ I’ll still read the book, but I’m always impressed when someone manages to write in a hugely intellectual way whilst still coming across as friendly, approachable and fundamentally human. To date, only three writers have passed the ‘Pint and Burger Test’ (trademarked by the way, so don’t you go using it). They are Oz Clarke and Neal Martin, both wine, and Fred Minnick.

If Bourbon Curious isn’t the first book you read on the subject of American Whiskey then you have done your reading in the wrong order. It is quite simply the best introduction to a drink that I’ve read, and that’s because at no point is it at all condescending or patronising. No prior knowledge is assumed or necessary, and you will emerge at the end of the book with a thorough grounding in Bourbon - and an insatiable thirst for the stuff. It’s brilliantly written, it’s easy to read and it’s satisfyingly comprehensive. 

There’s a real sense of approachability, and also of fun; something all too often missing from tomes covering fine wine or whisk(e)y. There’s no snobbery, and there’s certainly no elitism. If I was feeling in a poke-the-bear mood I’d say that it is, in itself, a nice metaphor for how Bourbon stands against Single Malt Scotch. Yes, I’d go for a pint and a burger with Mr Minnick. Though in deference to me, I’d ask that we keep the portion sizes British.

The World Atlas of Whisky, by Dave Broom

The whisky book I keep closest to hand - though mostly because it doubles as my mouse mat! A beautifully done ‘coffee-table’ book, which gives you a thorough look at all the Scottish distilleries and a large number of the distilleries elsewhere, alongside the whisky-book staple ‘introduction to whisky’ at the start. 

Where it really stands out from other tomes on the subject is aesthetically; gorgeous photos of distilleries and the landscapes surrounding them abound - as you’d expect from an Atlas. If they’re places you haven’t been, you will be filled with desire to wander the shores of Scottish Lochs and the verdant green hills of Kentucky, and if you have been lucky enough to tread those paths before, you will instantly be transported back again. Obviously it’s not quite as rich in aesthetic as a wine atlas might be - but of course wine is blessed to be made more or less exclusively in places of extreme natural beauty, and is also rather more a celebration of nature than whisky is. (And that is not an invitation to reopen a debate on terroir.) Broom’s language is also, at times, approaching poetic, and he is certainly one of the world’s foremost whisk(e)y authorities. (With an additional hand in the pots of gin and rum respectively.) 

If I were to offer a single criticism it is that he doesn’t seem to have fixed an individual to write for in his head - by which I mean that he segues somewhat erratically from trying to sound fun to trying to sound scholarly, and his voice occasionally becomes a little disjointed as a result. 

That being said, he comes very close to passing the P&B Test® and is certainly one of the most talented communicators in the business; possibly even the number one. Besides, all is forgiven for his tasting notes in this book; the best I’ve ever struck, for the simple reason that they end with recommendations of what to try next if you’ve enjoyed this particular dram. Which frankly is the most useful thing a tasting note can possibly do.      

So there you have it. Five to try, and if you don’t enjoy them - well you can’t win ‘em all. Just make sure you’ve got a glass next to you as you read - guaranteed to make the experience more pleasurable!


Saturday, 11 June 2016

Campbeltown Open Day Part Two: 19th May. Springbank

I have never had a good night’s sleep on Kintyre. Granted I’ve only slept four nights there, but I reckon my running total’s a combined 12 hours, and a pretty restless twelve hours they were too. Not because of some child-on-Christmas-Eve excitement at the prospect of visiting a Campbeltown Distillery I’m afraid, more the result of my usual insomnia coupled to unusual and generally uncomfortable locations. My Kintyre bed hit-list to date comprises a bunk house, a tent, the passenger seat of a corsa and a wigwam. Frankly you can keep the lot of ‘em.

Today it is the bunk house in which I awaken reluctantly at 5 in the morning. It is probably my sixth or seventh awakening of the night, and this time I concede defeat and get up. It’s my own fault; I have the same social confidence around strangers that a cat has at Crufts. God knows what I thought I had worth stealing in the night. My organs probably. Well joke’s on them; they won’t get much for my liver.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, my day – destined to be spent at Springbank – begins by leaving Campbeltown and driving nearly forty miles northwards. This is my own stupid fault, and a lesson in booking ahead, as I am making my way to pick up the keys to the closest accommodation available this evening; the aforementioned
wigwam, located just outside Tarbert. Having set off from Campbeltown at about 6 o’clock I arrive somewhat earlier than the agreed-upon 11:30, and find myself in a Tarbert café drinking surprisingly decent coffee and giving my thumbs a good twiddle.

I kill the next few hours having a wander around Tarbert, which I have driven through without stopping several times on the course of the pilgrimage. It’s a narrow isthmus which connects Kintyre to the mainland, and across which historical chaps had a penchant for hauling longboats. One such character was no less than Robert the Bruce, who fortified the castle on a hilltop overlooking the town. What he’d have made of it being advanced upon by a solitary English youth I shudder to think; the only remaining Scots in residence were a small herd of long-horned black sheep, who turned tail and scampered away at my approach in a craven manner which would have had Bobbie gnashing his teeth with rage had he borne witness.

Eventually my phone squawks at me, telling me that the keys to my wigwam are ready for collecting. After picking them up and depositing my bags unceremoniously on the judo crash mat which passes for a bed (just like in the original Native American wigwams...) I make my way to the nearest bus stop and head back South with all the speed I can muster. Not entirely sure how I'm going to get back again, given the last bus is due to leave Campbeltown before my final masterclass ends, but I decide that's a bridge to cross when I come to it. I'm so damn devil-may-care.

Lunch is hastily devoured, and a few presents for upcoming birthdays assembled before I turn my attention to Springbank, which this time I manage to find without phoning HQ and asking for directions. It’s certainly busier than Glen Scotia was the previous day; a veritable throng of people mooch in the courtyard, most clutching charged Glencairns. A tent at the far end seems particularly packed, the reason becoming apparent when I am told that it is where the open day releases are being sold.

Which calls for an addition to the mountain of praises which I have heaped upon Springbank over the last year. Three Special Edition whiskies have been bottled to mark the occasion; a Kilkerran 8yo drawn from a Sherry Butt, a Springbank 9yo matured in Marsala, and a Longrow 21yo. Unsurprisingly the Longrow isn't what you'd call cheap, but both the Springbank and the Kilkerran are priced at only £50. So a round of applause to this remarkable distillery for its dedication to affordable Single Malt. The downside is that I’ve arrived too late and the Springbanks have all been whizzed, but I console myself by purchasing the Kilkerran. Win some, lose some.

I’ve still 45 minutes before my first masterclass of the day, so I slope about to see what’s what. The crowds are massing around the open door of one of the warehouses, where it transpires that numerous Springbanks, Longrows, Hazelburns, Kilkerrans and Cadenhead bottlings are open to try. The system is that £5 buys you five tickets, each one exchangeable for a taste, which is good value however you spin it. They’re being hand-poured too, so you more than get your money's worth. My tactic for each dram is just to ask the pourers for recommendations. As it turns out I didn’t have time to use all five of my tickets in between masterclasses, but my tastes included a 2004 Rum Cask Kilkerran, 16yo Springbank (cask unknown - think a Bourbon-heavy vatting) the Hazelburn fill-your-own from the Campbeltown Cadenhead’s (superb incidentally - the whisky and the shop!) and the Kilkerran Work in Progress 6 (Bourbon Cask.) And very satisfactory they all were too. 

Masterclass number one as far as I’m concerned is the enigmatically named ‘Favourites from the Past.’ As we mill in the courtyard I can’t help feeling my youth rather. My lack of distillery-branded merchandise also puts me in a minority category, though weirdly the majority of that being sported bears the logo of an Islay distillery. Ardbeg is particularly well represented. Feels a bit like someone turning up at Old Trafford in a Liverpool shirt, but maybe that’s just me! Perhaps they were travelling supporters...

The masterclass is held in a spanking new warehouse by Ranald Watson, who has been in sales and marketing with Springbank for years. It turns out that the whiskies on show are some of his favourites from amongst those bottled in the years he’s been with the distillery. So really it wasn’t an enigmatic name at all; possibly I’m simply an imbecile. He welcomes us all with a little intro speech, receiving a round of applause from some particularly enthusiastic chaps near the front when he comments that ‘Springbank don’t really go in for non-age-dated whiskies, and we’ve no plans to.’ One bloke looked as though he was going to take off with the excitement - I half expected a whoop.

On to the whiskies, which were assembled in small plastic shot glasses around a Springbank-branded Glencairn (which we got to keep, thanks very much!) Ranald acknowledges that the first expression doesn’t really count as a ‘favourite from the past,’ as it’s a 19yo Hazelburn which hasn’t actually been bottled yet. So it’s more a ‘favourite from the past of the future.’ Either way, it’s tasty stuff. Matured in first-fill bourbon, which I think is definitely Hazelburn’s optimum barrel type. Really nice deftness and lightness of touch despite the age and ABV.

Hazelburn is followed by five more expressions: Springbank 10yo 100 proof, Springbank 10yo Rundlets & Kilderkins (teeny tiny 60 and 80 litre barrels in case you’re wondering), Springbank 14yo Local Barley, the 2012 release of Springbank 21yo and Longrow 11yo Rundlets & Kilderkins.

A particularly fun ‘fact du jour’ emerges on tasting the Local Barley expression, as Ranald explains that the barley is provided by local farmer Paul McCartney. You’ve possibly heard of him - he sings a bit. A fellow Merseysider with a healthy Springbank obsession then. My favourite of the session? Tough call. Loved the 21yo, but it might well have been edged out by the 100 proof, which had the most of what I consider to be 'typical' Springbank character. Shame they don’t bottle it any more - and particular thanks to Ranald for this one, as it came out of his own personal stash.

Thanking Ranald I patrol the courtyard for a few minutes, before the rain starts to hammer down and I shelter in the porch of the Manager’s office with a few others as we wait for the next masterclass: the Manager’s Warehouse Tasting. One of the shelterers is a good Kiwi bloke who seems to be getting everyone he can find to be videoed saying something on his ipad. My own role comes when he discovers I’m a wino by trade, and he then asks me to guess where he’s from, possibly forgetting that he’s wearing a cap with a silver fern on it!

Gavin McLachlan, Springbank’s manager, collects us from our shelter and we all troop into the nearest warehouse, Gavin armed with a stout whisky thief. He announces that we’re going to try four, or possibly five whiskies, before plunging his thief into a cask, and drawing samples for all.

First blood’s the oldest Hazelburn at the distillery, yet to be bottled
and understandably along the same lines as that tasted in Favourites from the Past. Indeed I wonder whether it’s the same one. Weighing up the size of the group, which is spread along a fair chunk of the alley between rows of casks I make the tactical decision to do a fair amount of sidling as I nose, so I’m always near the front for samples. (The first poured are almost invariably bigger!)

Next up is a port barrel filled with a very sweet and fruity Kilkerran, which is absolutely delicious, but in my opinion ought to be bottled sooner rather than later. Loads of blackcurrant, menthol and liquorice; distillery character not at all overwhelmed, but the balance is pretty spot on as it is. Note to all, if a port-matured Kilkerran is released any time soon, don’t hesitate. (Depending on price!) There follows a 21 year old Springbank, which is marrying away in a sherry butt, having been vatted from a mixture of Bourbon and sherry. As massive in body as Springbanks invariably are, but with a freshness belying its years. No prizes for guessing that Dram the Fourth is from the Longrow stable; in this instance a Malbec cask, destined to become the next edition of Longrow Red, unless I misunderstood. In my professional capacity I should really have questioned the origin of the Malbec, but it only occurred to me to ask after I’d already collected my sample and shuffled out of the way. Either way it was a cracker, but the palate had a lot more to talk about than the nose did.

Gavin’s feeling generous, so there is a fifth sample after all. It’s a riff on the third as it turns out; another 21yo Springbank (my third of the day - hard life) but in this instance being finished for a year in ex-Lafite. My notes are becoming more hastily scribbled as we’ve torn through the samples, and rather briefer too, but the
upshot was that I preferred the non-Lafite 21. More Springbank singularity. But that’s just me, and I’m certainly not complaining about sample 5! Many thanks to Gavin for every one of them.

Which concludes tasting for the masterclass, and so far as I’m concerned, also for the day. At this point it’s about half past four or so, so I nip to Cadenhead’s where I pick up a bottle of their exclusive 10yo Marrying Strength Springbank. The smell of fish and chips lures me to such an eatery across the road from the distillery. Excellent blotting paper after an afternoon’s sipping! And then to Springbank’s finale, which is an evening Ceilidh in a malt barn. A fine way to use up an evening, though I felt distinctly Presbyterian as, deciding I'd tasted sufficient, I supped bottled water whilst all around me Campbeltown whiskies exuded their joyful perfume. The band was a local group; couple of pipers, plus some drums and guitars. I enjoyed the festivities until around about 10, by which point I’d had about as much water as I could take, and thought I'd get some air.

The rain of the day had finally subsided, and the late evening Cambeltown streets were dark and quiet. For half an hour I lent against the railings of the harbour, watching a solitary seal. I don’t know whether he had forgotten the way he came in, or whether like me he  just fancied quietly watching the world go by for a bit, but he swam happily in circles and popped his head up every so often, looking about him in appropriate seal fashion. Finally he left the harbour behind, and after ambling around for a little while longer, going over the events of the day, so did I.

It was the far side of midnight when I arrived at my wigwam, having treated myself to a taxi-ride in the absence of other obvious options. (The Devil will put in central heating before I'm brave enough to hitch-hike.) In all honesty I wanted nothing better than to declare myself Big Chief Lying Down Pilgrim and flop onto the judo mat, but I decided that such a day would not be ended properly without a nip of one of my proud purchases. Quietly sipping as I continued my assault on John Cleese’s autobiography I knew that I had made the right choice. It’s not every day you can immerse yourself in one of your favourite distilleries to such a magnificent degree. My tasting book was a good few pages longer, my love for Springbank that bit deeper, and Glengyle had ascended several places up my personal rankings.      

Next year I will almost certainly make my way to Spirit of Speyside. In fact there’s no ‘almost’ about it. But for this year it was a joy to celebrate Scotland’s smallest and most stubbornly independent whisky region for a couple of days. So I'll see you again soon Campbeltown - and thanks. It was a real pleasure.


Thursday, 2 June 2016

For the Love of Whisky: Testimonies for Tasting Samples

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I’ve not been getting much sleep lately. It’s clearly showing, because two days back I decided to offer free samples of my much-treasured booze to thirty people I only know by their twitter handles. This morning my phone went zing and confirmed that the thirty sample-sized bottles I’d ordered were on their way, so I can only conclude that it wasn’t some ghastly nightmare after all. Well, perhaps after this act of rashly impulsive altruism the Blue Fairy will finally turn me into a real boy, and I'll be able to shift that damned cricket. One can but hope...

I’m joking, of course. There’s no point whatsoever to whisky if you can’t share it, and that’s even more the case when it comes to limited releases. Besides, my thirty recipients had to sing for their liquid supper: each was good enough to share with me their favourite distillery, their favourite whisky under £40 per bottle, what got them into whisky and their favourite ‘whisky moment.’

The answers were as fascinating as they were varied, and were an absolute pleasure to read; many far more detailed than I was expecting. They’re a true testimony to the power of whisky to move people and to the wonderful diversity of the whiskyfabric. Distilleries and whiskies mentioned covered malts, blends and single pot still. They spanned Scotland, Ireland, Japan and Sweden. My only slight disappointment was that nobody championed a bourbon or other US whisky, but given I could only offer drams to those based in the UK that’s perhaps not too surprising. Besides, my own whisk(e)y nod went transatlantic, as you’ll see.

I wasn’t collecting these answers for my own weird entertainment of course, but to weave into a post celebrating the online whisky community and my own whisky loves of visiting distilleries and championing affordable expressions. So for the next seven days I’ll be posting my favourite responses to the questions I posed. I think you’ll agree that the drams which I will soon be putting in the hands of the Royal Mail have been richly deserved, and I hope that, like me, you’ll make a couple of new discoveries and have your whisky world opened that little bit wider. If, over the week, you find that your own answers haven’t been used, then I do apologise – I guarantee that I enjoyed reading them, and I hope you enjoy your dram nonetheless.


Day 1. David Rodgers (@Pop_Noir)

1. I want to know your favourite distillery, and why it's your favourite.
As much as I'm in love with Campbeltown at the moment, my favourite distillery (at the moment) is Benrinnes. I discovered it a year ago and before then I'd never heard of it. I was at the Suffolk Show and Morrison and MacKay had a stand there. Apart from having their Bruadar there for the mass public, they also had some of their own independent bottlings. My Mum wanted to buy me something for my forthcoming 40th and they recommended a 18yo Benrinnes. I opened it not long after my birthday and – wow - it was just fantastic stuff. I've since brought various other bottlings, mainly independent, and me and some friends recently had a Benrinnes evening. I just really like this distillery and all of the ones I have tried are really good. Of course you introduced me to the Stronachie, although I've yet to try the 10yo and 18yo I got from Master of Malt.

2. I want to know your favourite whisky for under £40 per bottle, and I want to know why it’s your favourite.
White Horse is my favourite under £40 everyday drinker, (a blend I know) mainly for nostalgic reasons as it was my Grans favourite tipple. But I happen to also really like it. Not the most readily available these days but a small shop in my home town stocks it. 

3. I want to know what got you into whisky, and what the best ‘whisky moment’ of your life has been, and why.
I got into whisky many years ago as was brought a ticket for a Diageo tasting held at Milroys in Soho, and whilst I'd always enjoyed whisky this really got me into it. A fantastic night going through some of their Flora and Fauna range. 
Best whisky moment for me was a bottle of Brora I received one Christmas from a friend, 24yo and one of the Rare Malts bottlings, absolutely stunning and I know I'll probably never taste anything like it again.

Day 2. Will Knock (@wknock)

1. I want to know your favourite distillery, and why it's your favourite.
A difficult one, but has to be the same one that got me started with whisky, Balvenie. I've gone through most of their core range at some point, Signature/12yo+17yo Doublewood/15yo Sherry Cask/Tun 1401 batch5/8, and other than the 12yo, which wasn't really to my liking (neither was the 21yo port wood I tried) I've enjoyed them all and recycled a good few bottles...! Still have an unopened Signature saved, plus Founders Reserve, 17yo Sherry Oak and the two tun1509s to open and try, but there's no rush, plenty of time to try them amongst all the others in the cupboard.

2. I want to know your favourite whisky for under £40 per bottle, and I want to know why it’s your favourite.
Hibiki 12 blend - was sent some by @AmateurDrammer in a sample swap and loved it. Very smooth, easy to drink, and doesn't break the bank! I like the fact it can still be found in supermarkets even when people are selling on for silly markups on auction sites, and the bottle itself with its 24 facets just feels nice to handle (not that I handle it any more than is needed than to pour it into glasses...!) 

3. I want to know what got you into whisky, and what the best ‘whisky moment’ of your life has been, and why.
What got me into whisky was a free miniature of Balvenie Signature I was given when I bought some chocolates as a gift in Charbonnel et Walker - possibly the most expensive chocolates ever considering it turned me, and then my other half, into a whisky drinkers.

Best whisky moment - a visit to the Balvenie distillery which was part of a Dufftown trip my girlfriend organised as a Christmas present. Turned out there were only the two of us doing the tour on a sunny February weekday. The lady who showed us around (sadly her name escapes me) started out quite formal, but once we reached warehouse 24, we found the 40yo cask shared with wh24 members... With a small bottle of that, we headed back to the sample room and between the three of us tried all the laid out tasters, drank the 40yo (lovely) and our chaperone then treated us to a few tasters from the sample bottles that lined the shelves all the way back to the early 80's.

Day 3. Jon Webb (@dvdbloke)

1. I want to know your favourite distillery, and why it's your favourite.
My favourite distillery is probably (I say probably because I have many but I keep feeling so fondly for this one) Bruichladdich. I love what they do. When you meet the guys it's clear they love what they do. It's all about passion for making whisky and they make some good stuff. They've managed to keep their relative independence despite immense pressure for production and being bought out. And on top of it all they are honest, transparent, and thoroughly nice people. 

2. I want to know your favourite whisky for under £40 per bottle, and I want to know why it’s your favourite.
Well, it's only sometimes under £40 now, but generally can be got for that. Aberlour A'bunadh. Maybe disqualified for this, but it was under £40 when I last got it! It's a great dram, sherry monster, and more importantly in this day and age where things are getting more and more expensive, it's bang for your buck! 
*Pilgrim’s note: Jon Webb is a man of excellent taste. He needs to show me where he gets A’Bunadh under £40 though...it’s over £40 even on TWE at the moment.*

3. I want to know what got you into whisky, and what the best ‘whisky moment’ of your life has been, and why.
Well, dramboree usually has some memorable life moments, and some distillery visits. And shows. The main thing that comes to mind though is the Mortlach 75 tasting I attended (expensive, but cost effective) at the Whisky Exchange’s Whisky Show last year. It showed me that whisky isn't all about age, prestige, and jazz! In fact, I wasn't impressed with the 75. But I was impressed with the 1960s bottling of the G&M 12 year old Mortlach which can be got for a fraction of the price of the 75 year old. Gold is there to be found. You just have to be patient and keep digging.  Whisky is for life, not just Christmas. 
*Pilgrim’s note: I must have been sat a few places away from Jon at this tasting... Wouldn’t go so far as to say I wasn’t impressed with the 75yo myself (I was more than impressed!) but I too have good memories of the 12 year old. Cheers Jon!*

Day 4. Colin Sim (@DistilleryBikes)

1. I want to know your favourite distillery, and why it's your favourite.
Favourite Distillery would have to be Laphroaig, I guess, although there are 2 or 3 that are close to my heart. Mrs DistilleryBikes and myself did a week long cycle tour of Islay and Jura last September and had just the best time at Laphroaig, sampling many different expressions after our tour and before a wobbly ride back to Bridgend. Just love everything about Laphroaig, their Whisky, their location, the staff... oh, and I have my own 'opinions' tile in their tiled wall!

2. I want to know your favourite whisky for under £40 per bottle, and I want to know why it’s your favourite.
Best dram for under £40, probably the Ardbeg 10, which never disappoints and provides a nice end to those occasional stressful days that we all have.
*Whisky Pilgrim’s note: where the hell is Colin finding Ardbeg 10 under £40? I have got to get out of Reading...*

3. I want to know what got you into whisky, and what the best ‘whisky moment’ of your life has been, and why.
I got 'properly' into Whisky through my long-term goal of riding to every distillery in Scotland. Started as just somewhere to ride to, then I started to spend a bit of time and take a tour at some of those that I (along with my wife on many occasions) cycled to. Then I started delving deeper; buying Whisky books, trying different expression and styles etc. I'm now enjoying everything about the whole Whisky process and riding to many new locations with some stunning scenery. 

My best Whisky moment? That would likely be trying a Gordon & Macphail 45 year old miniature which was distilled in 1938. Just the whole history and tastes of times gone by, blew my senses. It was also one of the best drams that I have ever had.

Day 5. Dave Melody

1. I want to know your favourite distillery, and why it's your favourite.
I would have to go for the Midleton distillery. I have been a fan of Irish whiskey for some time as I like the softer fruit and full tastes you pick up. I have also really enjoyed sampling the pot stills productions like Yellow Spot, Green Spot and Redbreast. 

2. I want to know your favourite whisky for under £40 per bottle, and I want to know why it’s your favourite.
I would have to go with a Green Spot. Smooth with a slight oily mouth feel leaving a long, sweet aftertaste, yet packed full of fruit flavour and a hint of leather. Note to self: order another..

3. I want to know what got you into whisky, and what the best ‘whisky moment’ of your life has been, and why.
My dad has always been a whisky drinker. And I was always a lager drinker. When I met my wife she liked white wine. So as a compromise we started drinking cava, prosecco and champagne. I soon noticed my palate changing so I began to explore expanding this more and more. Whisky was the first port of call with a Jamesons, then came the cheaper stuff from local supermarkets and then the slippery slope as the expensive stuff came out. Redbreast 12 &15. Jamesons Select and Gold. Then Green and Yellow Spot followed by Jamesons 18 and cask mates. And even a Jamesons Rarest Vintage hidden away somewhere as an investment.
As for a poignant moment, sitting having a few good drams with my dad and his friend. And being at that age where I could say put the Grouse back in the cupboard, let’s try a dram of this...

Day 6. Ben Cons (@cenbons)

1. I want to know your favourite distillery, and why it's your favourite.
Favourite distillery - Benromach. I came across it early in my whisky journey. I like that they are always reasonably priced and don't mind bottling very low age statement whiskies (the 5 year old is amazing) and I've never had a bottle that I didn't love!

2. I want to know your favourite whisky for under £40 per bottle, and I want to know why it’s your favourite.
Best bottle under £40 - Benromach 10. Some lovely peat flavours without being overbearing and mixes the peat beautifully with the classic Speyside sweetness

3. I want to know what got you into whisky, and what the best ‘whisky moment’ of your life has been, and why.

I got into whisky whilst on holiday, tasting my way through the hotel’s whisky list during happy hour. Favourite whisky memory is cracking open a bottle of Bowmore White Sands 17 year old with my youngest son’s Godfather to be to celebrate his birth.

Day 7. Tom Brooks

1. I want to know your favourite distillery, and why it's your favourite.
Tough call here but currently really loving Mackmyra, really interesting distillery from Sweden doing things a little bit differently. Huge fan of their branding and the nose and flavour on some of their whiskies is incredible. I could sit for hours nosing the Iskristall  

2. I want to know your favourite whisky for under £40 per bottle, and I want to know why it’s your favourite.
I did manage to get a bottle of Lagavulin 16 for £28 from Italy (but I’m not sure that counts). I’d probably go for Douglas Laing Scallywag (purchased for £38) the branding of the bottle is superb and the fruity rich taste really is right up my street.

3. I want to know what got you into whisky, and what the best ‘whisky moment’ of your life has been, and why.

My Dad got me into Whisky, he has a collection of around 20-25 bottles so it’s great to sample new ones. My best “whisky moment” was joining a Whisky Club in Bristol; I’ve met loads of great people and sampled whiskies I’d never even thought of trying before.

Day 8. Me. (Seems only fair...)

1. I want to know your favourite distillery, and why it's your favourite.
Urgh. Too hard. Going to have to split the difference between Springbank and Highland Park. Springbank because I love how many routinely superb whiskies they make at under £50 a throw. I love that they create three entirely distinct expressions. I love that everything from barley to bottle is done on site, and I love how well they’ve flown the flag for Campbeltown’s status as an independent whisky region. Highland Park because their 18 year old took me from vaguely liking whisky to absolutely loving it. The distillery also introduced me to the whisky style which, gun to my head, I’d pick as my favourite. Can’t always afford it, but I’m always on the lookout!

2. I want to know your favourite whisky for under £40 per bottle, and I want to know why it’s your favourite.
Used to say ‘Aberlour A’Bunadh’ in answer to this question without having to think. These days it has crept over the £40 mark generally speaking. After a lot of soul-searching I’ll plump for the Four Roses Single Barrel as my favourite within budget – it’s the Bourbon that took me from fan to fanatic where US whiskey is concerned. Bit of a cop-out, as ‘Single Barrel’ means there’s even more difference from bottle to bottle than there is with a batch-created whisky, but each one is so routinely brilliant that I’ll stand by my pick. Mind you, ask me again in 10 minutes and I’ll probably choose something different.

3. I want to know what got you into whisky, and what the best
‘whisky moment’ of your life has been, and why.
I got into whisky through some blend or other (I forget which) begged from my father’s cupboard and shared with friends at 6th form house parties and summer barbecues. (Inglorious beginnings, I know.) Despite not being a huge fan I pretended to like it for the first couple of years at University in an attempt to give myself a USP, and was startled when, around my third year, I started actually enjoying it after all. By then I’d expanded my universe to include Single Malt and Bourbon, and the rest is history.

Top whisky moment? So many stand out, but for a number of reasons the apogee came a few years back when I worked in the Highlands and my best friend came up to visit from our native Merseyside. We tasted our way through the 6 very different bottles that made up my stash, and for the first time I was able to line up a selection with a mate and properly talk about and share whisky. Tragically my friend is no longer with us, so we never did the tour of Scottish distilleries together that we planned and it’s only with hindsight that I realise how lucky I was to have that incredible evening.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed to this post.