Thursday, 28 July 2016

An Evening of Blended Whisk(e)y. And crisps.

I’ve been neglecting blends lately. I could line up a few excuses – ‘this is a distillery-visiting blog first and foremost, and the grain distilleries don’t let you in’; ‘I’ve been really busy with other stuff’; ‘The dog drank them all Miss, honest,’ – but the truth is that like most of the rest of the whisky community I’ve been smugly telling my friends not to overlook blended kit and then pouring myself malts and bourbons.

Blends are what the whisk(e)y industry, particularly the Scotch whisky industry is built on. No two ways about it. About 90% of the money generated by Scotch comes through blends, which means, once bottle prices are taken into account, that far less than one in ten bottles sold are Single Malt. Yet across the entire whisky chat-o-sphere, whether it be through festivals, books, tastings or blogs the poor old blends barely get a look-in. They usually get a courtesy mention before the speaker/writer waxes poetic about the nuances of their favourite malts; treated as second-class whisky citizens; the cheap, the ordinary, the uninspiring. 

Go on a distillery tour at Springbank or Bruichladdich and one of the first things you’ll be proudly told is that ‘none of our product goes off to blends.’ Elsewhere you’ll hear that blends are simply mixer-fodder – ‘pour whatever you like in them, but don’t you mess with our single malt.’ Well, I’ve poured coke into Lagavulin now, so I’m well down that rabbit hole, and it was about time I ignored the little voice in my head that mutters ‘pick a malt, go on, you know you want a malt. Malty malt malt,’ whenever I look at a row of bottles with pennies in my pocket. 

A bit of background for those of my readers who lead normal, sensible, un-whisky-obsessed lives. Blended whisky differs from Single Malt in two primary ways. It’s not the product of only one distillery, and it uses other grains as well as malted barley. Malt whisky will still make up a certain percentage of the blend – indeed certain blends will cite a high malt percentage as a selling point – but the other grains will take up the lion’s share more often than not. I won’t go into the science of it here, or you’d stop reading, but the upshot is that grain whisky can be produced more cheaply and in far greater bulk than malt. Hence there’s more of it. Simples.

So there I am, after work, in the big Sainsbury’s across the road, pondering the blends selection. I’d seen Ballantine’s Finest had been on offer last week. It’s not any more, but at £20 a bottle I decide it’s still worth a punt. As ever my eye is drawn to the bright orange signs that shout of unmissable deals and tempting offers, and somehow a half bottle of Jameson’s and a half bottle of Chivas Regal 12yo find their way into my basket. I really shouldn’t be allowed in supermarkets on my own, but I decide that I now have the makings of a proper tasting, so it’s not greed or impulse buying – it’s science.

Having added a scientific bag of salt and vinegar to the basket (Walkers thick-cut – solid) I clank over to checkout, where the supercilious staff member lingers over my ID, asks me my age three times, comments on my photo, double-checks my middle
name and generally leaves me feeling like a much valued Sainsbury’s customer. On returning home I resist the call of the crisps with difficulty, and set up a very professional tasting table by turning a blue box upside down. I don't have a spittoon, but happily it's just a short dash to the nearest sink. To my new purchases I add the Johnnie Walker Red Label that Ben kindly gave me a few months back, and the Asyla from Compass Box that I used in a tasting I led in March. Glencairns gleaming, and to the soundtrack of my housemates binge-watching ‘vintage’ episodes of Pokémon in the next room (I kid you not – they’re in their mid-twenties as well) I crack on.

First up is Ballantine’s Finest, which I’m pretty sure I had a glass of years ago, but haven’t crossed swords with since. The biggest seller in Pernod Ricard’s portfolio, and one of which I’m expecting rather a lot. Because in his annual bible a certain Mr Murray rates this very highly. In fact he gives it 96 points out of 100. In context, this is more than he gives Highland Park 18 or Lagavulin 16. In fact it’s more than he gives 99%+ of the whiskies he’s tasted, which given what many people seem to think of Mr Murray, and on top of it being a cheap, mass-market blended whisky means that Ballantine’s Finest comes in for rather a lot of online stick, poor thing.

So is it as good as the captain of controversy makes out? Well, first off, whilst caramel colouring has clearly been used there’s none of that thick, off-kilter toffee on the nose that this additive sometimes creates. That being said, the youth of this whisky dominates what you can smell. I’m perfectly happy for a whisky to be young, but the casks in this case haven’t fully dealt with the more spirity esters, so there’s a lingering metallic element which leaves things slightly off-key. On the other hand some nice suggestions of vanilla and pastry, with a (very) delicate wisp of smoke. Palate’s pretty lively for a 40% whisky – again probably from youth. At the lighter end of the body spectrum, and the flavours are a little more on song than they are on the nose – less of that metallic character. It’s a delicate whisky – there’s nothing fudgy or clunky. A light, bracing aperitif style. In all honesty I’d hoped for more. 

Slightly disappointed, I move on to the familiar friend that is Compass Box’s Asyla. In the world of the maltophile you always hear Compass Box talked about as the blend ‘it’s ok to like.’ Your token blend friend, if you will. ‘I’m really blend-tolerant – look, I’ve said nice things about Compass Box.’ John Glaser is an incredibly talented blender, and the image and outlook of Compass Box of promoting transparency, experimenting with flavour and focussing on quality is one that strikes a chord with many. They fit in perfectly with the independent, artisanal craft ideal – a marketeer’s dream in fact – and it helps that almost all of their stuff is absolutely delicious.

At a few shillings North of £30, Asyla costs a fair amount more than the next priciest whisky on today’s tasting table. It’s one of the blends that promotes its high malt content, and it plugs itself as a delicate, honeyed style of whisky. Which it is. I covered it in my 40 under £40, and I stand by the tasting note I made then. Very honey-and-vanilla, light and delicate in both nose and flavour (the most reticent in jumping out of the glass of the evening in fact.) A study in subtlety, albeit not the most complex in the world. ‘Harmonious’ was the word I kept thinking whilst I scribbled; there’s nothing disjointed, no off-putting notes. It all works very nicely together. Not too much poke – only 40% after all. A whisky that could be a very effective converter to the cause.

Next up is Chivas Regal 12yo, which is another from the Pernod Ricard stable. Last time I faced down this blend was the summer of 2012, when I was rehearsing for the Edinburgh Fringe, and our cast’s token Scot Conrad had a bottle. I was a bit too much of a malt snob back then, so I probably wrote it off before I even tasted it, and I certainly don’t remember my thoughts. I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken me so long to come back to, because I have to confess a guilty affection for the Chivas branding. I like the name. I
like the bottle shape. I like the logo. In my heart of hearts I like the fact that they state the age, despite my position as not having an inherent problem with NAS as a whole. 

My hopes were slightly tarnished by the vague let-down of Ballantine’s, but Chivas Regal is a very different beast. The influence of the Speyside malts is pretty clear, as are the effects of the oak. I kept writing ‘civilised’ in my notes, by which I meant that it’s very much a ‘sit in an armchair somewhere warm and switch off’ whisky. And if that sounds disparaging, it shouldn’t. It’s a hug-in-a-mug comfort whisky really, with more ‘roundness,’ body, depth and fruit (baked apples, pears, slight nuttiness, smidge of vanilla) than the two which came before it. Not as harmonious or technically accomplished and clean as the Asyla, but smooth, approachable, easy drinking and with plenty of flavour. Reminded me of the style of whisky I loved years ago when I first got into the spirit. 

Over to Ireland for taste number four. Once upon a time Jameson’s was the only concession I’d make to whisk(e)y from outside Scotland – and only on St Patrick’s Day. That was back in the ‘down it in one’ years at the start of University, and I haven’t really revisited the brand since. Jameson’s basically carried Irish whiskey on the international market for years. It contains a hefty whack of the idiosyncratically Irish ‘pure pot still’ style, which like so many others I’m a massive fan of, via Redbreast, Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Powers. So once again I had cautiously high hopes.

Apparently not high enough though, because the nose absolutely blew me away. So intense, so fresh, so vibrant and so crisp. The pure pot still element just screams out of the glass – green apples and spice and all things nice. The palate’s very nearly as good too; alive with fruit flavour and just the slightest touch of youthful graininess, it’s a thing of absolute beauty. The quality you get here for less than £20 per bottle is staggering. As I tasted away I regretted not having a Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam to hand to compare it against. Because – and you can quote me on this – when calibre and price are weighed against each other, I’m pretty sure Jameson’s would still come out as the best value whisk(e)y currently available in the UK market.

Which just left Johnnie Walker Red. The best selling Scotch whisky in the world; the entry level of a brand beloved of everyone from Winston Churchill to whisky expert Charles Maclean. (Albeit their affections tend towards Black Label.) The fiscal jewel in Diageo’s whisky crown, selling three times as well as the next brand of Scotch (Ballantine’s, if you’re wondering.) Johnnie Walker is a behemoth, no two ways about it. This particular bottle was a gift from Ben at the back end of 2015 and has somehow ended up becoming my ‘times of trouble’ or ‘dutch courage’ whisky. So I’ve gotten to know it pretty well, but never had the heart to pin it down to a note. Time to change that.

Though I sort of wish it wasn’t, because I’ve developed the kind of soft spot for this particular bottle that you might develop for an ugly dog with three legs that sporadically bites you. I can’t praise this objectively – I just can’t. I mean I wouldn’t pour a glass away, but it’s pretty not great. It’s about as complex as a four-piece Jigsaw puzzle – a big dollop of fudgey toffee with some ash and bitterness in the background. Chunky and all over the place on the palate – all the harmoniousness of a class of five year olds on crack, and just about as elegant as the aftermath. Plus the same estery, metallic, over-youthful notes as found in the Ballantine's. A shame, because its big brother, JW Black, is a thing of beauty. This is not; it’s pretty rough. But there’s a time and a place for weirdness and madness, and I’m alright with that. Though perhaps that’s just me.

So what did I reckon overall?

Well I felt pretty let down by the Ballantine’s. I’d wanted it to shine and it didn’t, which is a shame. Perhaps it’s just my taste – but I’m certain it’s too young, and that those metallic, spirity esters detract from the qualities of the nose. Give it a whirl, but try it by the glass first. 

I’ve recommended the Asyla before and I’ll recommend it again. Probably the most harmonious of the bunch, and probably the one I’d push the malt-only crowd towards first. 

Chivas put a big smile on my face, and as a ‘sink into a chair after a hard day,’ whisky it’s tough to beat. Easy drinking, accessible. I reckon if I put this group of whiskies to a popular vote amongst my friends, Chivas would come out on top. 

For me, Jameson’s was a revelation. I can’t believe the value it offers or the flavours you get for the money. An absolute bargain, and if you only buy a couple of bottles of whisk(e)y this year, please make one of them Jameson’s, just so you can see what I’m on about. If you’re a Redbreast or other Pure Pot Still fan it’s a no-brainer.    

Johnnie Walker Red? Well, I can’t in good conscience recommend it by the bottle. I know my motives for enjoying it come from the fact it was a gift and from the specific moments I’ve chosen to drink it. But hey, I’ve loved those moments, and hell – I’ll say it – I’ve a soft spot for the whisky too.

The bottom line is that I’ll be drinking a lot more blends going forward. What’s more, I’ll have far higher expectations of them. A couple of the bottles on show this time offered astonishing value for money, and at the end of the day, four out of five give you change from twenty quid. Which means you’ve a few pennies left over for a pack of Tear’n’Share Walkers extra crunchy. And that’s got to be good news.

Ha. ‘Share.’ Dream on.


Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Whisky Bar Hunt. Part 1, The Purple Turtle, Reading

My move to Reading back in January brought with it many positives. A new job that didn’t require me to phone the elderly at 9am to bother them about claret. A house-share with people who didn’t try to defraud me (twice!) and in which my roles didn’t include ‘chief Husky toilet executive.’ I even have off-road parking now, which by the standards of my last 3 years is practically gentrification.

Thing is though, I wasn't sold on the new city. In Bristol I had been utterly spoiled when it came to opportunities for gastronomic exploration and general bibularity. A five minute saunter from either my work or my house had yielded dozens of affordable and exciting eateries – and twice as many drinkeries. Of particular allure had been ‘The Woods,’ whose hundred-strong whisk(e)y selection and prime location on the end-of-the-day trudge homewards had made it a favourite everything-but-water-ing hole.

Reading, by contrast, has a reputation as a ‘city of convenience.’ A place to live or set up your business if you don’t fancy London prices. And I’m ashamed to say I bought into that initially. It’s only a short train journey to the Capital, and whilst as a Northerner I’ve an instinctive mistrust of all things Londinium it is, nonetheless, where the majority of my friends have made their fiscally reckless abode. And you can’t argue with its food and drink scene.

Which meant that, other than a courtesy whistle-stop during which I established that Reading didn’t have a whisk(e)y bar worth the name, my new home went rather overlooked for the first half a year. That all changed a couple of months ago, when circumstances reduced the number of trips I was making to ‘the Smoke’, and I came across the utterly superb Edible Reading blog, which has been my culinary compass ever since. Fiercely championing the off-high-street hideaways and attacking the notion of Reading as another ‘London-satellite clone town,’ the anonymous writer made me feel rather shamefaced about my former attitude. I resolved to give the city another shot at standing me my fix of highbrow hooch, and see whether I couldn’t find a half-decent whisky joint after all.

Initial forays met with limited success. Sure there were a few cocktail bars, and of course that branch of Brown’s to whom I will always owe my Lagavulin and coke epiphany. Most memorable was a pie shop whose token bar featured 3 whiskies – Grouse, JD and ‘90s bottled Macallan! (It also featured rubbish pies – this is the South, after all.) But my search yielded nowhere whose range I couldn’t have made at least a decent stab at completely bagging in a single innings. Which doesn’t a ‘whisky bar’ make, really.

I had all but given up, when a free weekend brought friend and drinking companions RMJ and Ben for a night or two of staving off maturity. I think we can spare the gory details, but Glenfarclas 21yo may or may not have been poured into the communal Ring of Fire cup at one point, and it may or may not have been partially my fault. At any rate, the natural course of events took us to Reading’s foremost revelling centre; a place by the name of the Purple Turtle, much favoured amongst more youthful practitioners of imbibery. (Yes, that includes me.) After dominating the table football for a spell (there’s no state of inebriation at which I wouldn’t back myself at this game) it was my turn to procure a round of high-caffeine energy beverages garnished with herbal-based digestif liqueurs. Elbow-forward, in the approved manner, I picked my way through the throng and ordered the drinks. And as they were being rustled up, my eye was caught by something over the barman’s head.

Surely not?

Not here. Not in this temple to Jägerbomb mixology?

But yes, unquestionably. Indubitably. Incontrovertibly. There, in the Purple Turtle – a Michter’s label. And next to that, a Willett’s. And next to that – and surely I’m just looking through Ring of Fire goggles now – surely I cannot be looking at E.H. Taylor?

American plonk by the row. A handful of Scotches too, and a solitary Penderyn, but mostly shelves full of what the good old boys were drinking when the levee was dry. (Whatever a levee is.) In short, a whiskey bar, by thunder, and if the selection isn’t quite Woods-calibre, it’s not a million bottles short either. I’m still gawping when I realise that my more location-typical refreshment has arrived, and the barman is looking at me impatiently.

No bourbon was consumed that night. It would have been a waste, and RMJ is stubbornly anti-whisk(e)y anyway. Barbarian. But the seed had been sown, and sown on fertile, if somewhat muddled ground. ‘I shall return,’ thinks this stalwart, ‘and I shall more closely evaluate this locale as a whisk(e)y bar.

The next few days are spent barricading the garden against marauding, Pokémon-greedy infants, with finite success. A splash of internet perusal reveals 30% savings on ‘Whisky Wednesdays’ – as if I needed more tempting. The date set, I inveigle a work-night drinking companion. We grab dinner at the superb Dolce Vita, as recommended by Edible Reading. And to anyone who whines about pre-whisky garlic I say two things. Firstly, I’m not either a master-blender or being paid to provide scores/reviews. Second of all, garlic bread is one of two consumables I’d take to my desert island ahead of whisky. (The other is Salt and Vinegar crisps. They’re the real ‘superfoods.’ There’s nothing ‘super’ about the nonsense every internet diet tries to fob you off with. ‘That quinoa salad was super,’ said no one ever.) An hour or two later, via a palate-cleansing black coffee, and a livening cocktail we make our way to the Purple Turtle for my evening of Americana.

It’s a positive, on our arrival around 8:30, that it’s not totally empty. Obviously the Turtle’s a Friday/Saturday night specialist by inclination, but it’s one of those funny sorts of places that contrives (more or less successfully) to be a bit of a chameleon venue. Certainly if I was stumbling across it for the first time on this eventful Wednesday I wouldn’t necessarily associate it immediately with full-throttle student carousing. Or no more so than anywhere else with a licensed bar. I’m rather glad we’re not the only patrons – schoolnight drinking is one thing, but being the sole midweek customers at a bar and making your way through a selection of spirits would feel like erring a little too heavily on the side of harrowing.

Wanting to start with a mainstream classic, the yard-wide streak of devilment in me is almost tempted to open the account with a splash of Mr Daniels’ finest. But deciding that the indulgence of the whiskynet has its limits, and bearing in mind my Lagavulin experimentation of the other week, I opt for a slightly less risqué bet in the form of Maker’s Mark.

Whether or not you’ve drunk this – or indeed are a bourbon drinker at all – you’ll probably recognise the distinctively red-waxed Maker’s Mark bottle. A bourbon hailing from the Beam-Suntory stable, and with the unusual distinction of spelling ‘whisky’ the Scottish way on its label, this represents one of the safest bets you’ll find for under £30. Wheat-recipe in style, which broadly speaking makes for less spicy bourbon than the more common alternative, rye-recipe. It’s bottled at 45%ABV too, rather than the minimum 40%, so it doesn’t short-change you on stuffing. For my money it’s light-to-medium bodied, rather than overly chunky, which means that the booze does poke through, but there’s enough going on for caramel, honey and butterscotch flavour to prevent it from feeling in any way hot. All in all, a good way for your flight to take off.

Something a little more imaginative for round two, I decide, and peruse the shelf for inspiration. OK, I admit it, I did what I’m always sneering at people for, and picked based on looks. Well, sort of. I knew what it was, and I’d wanted to try it for a long while, but the big selling point as I ummed and ahhed at the selection, whilst the chap behind the bar drummed his fingers and restrained himself from tutting, was that Willett’s Pot Still Reserve Single Barrel came in a funny bottle. And it does. And I’m not apologising for choosing it on that basis.

Fortunately it tasted good enough to justify my arbitrary selection process – but we’ll come to that in a moment. Because what happened next was the first in a string of somewhat bizarre asides that characterised the evening. I’d made my selection, gone through the ‘no, not that, the one on the, left...bit far...yeah, that one’ routine and the barman had taken the bottle down. What he then proceeded to do was produce a pint glass from behind the bar, pour the double measure into it, and then wait for payment as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

I’m not a glass snob when I’m out – I’m certainly not one of those who start coughing ‘Glencairn’ behind their hand when they’re given a tumbler – but I looked at this 50 ml sample sloshing about in the bottom of a pint glass, and it was just odd. I look back at the barman. Nope, hasn’t done it as a joke. Back at the glass. Yep, definitely still a pint glass. Back at the barman. Is it really going to be me that says something? I hate doing this – I once cheerfully ate a meal with a large lump of plastic in it, and then said that everything was perfect when asked how it was. But this is ridiculous.

‘Really sorry (!) is there any chance of a smaller glass?’

‘What mate?’

‘Sorry, do you have a smaller glass at all?’

The chap looks at me as if I’ve asked whether he has any nude photos of his relatives to hand. Eventually, with – I kid you not – a perceptible sigh and a shake of his head, he reaches down, finds a tumbler, and pours the whiskey into that. I apologise profusely for my ridiculous over-particularity on the glassware front and shuffle away, restraining myself from shooting a backwards glance.

A round of table football distracts slightly from this episode, and gives the Willett’s a moment to open up – though it was already a pretty heady nose to begin with. This is a Fruity bourbon, with a deliberate capital ‘F’. Rye recipe, though the spices hold fire until they’re in your mouth. The whole thing’s bigger than the Maker’s Mark – body and intensity of flavour – so even though it’s a shade boozier, the alcohol’s more wrapped up. Certainly no dissolving nostril hairs here. Still very fruity on the palate, but this is where a few of the more mature nuances make themselves felt, so there’s more overt woodiness (not too much though) a bit of drier spice and even a suggestion of something more musty. Booze still kept well in check – very well balanced all round, in fact, and my fellow drinker’s favourite of the night.

We’ve been in the covered area outside for table football – it’s a balmy evening, and the table inside is broken anyway. So I’ve to go back into the bar for selection number three, where I discover that a local band is setting up on the small stage at the back. A few people have started to mill around, so it’s fairly quick to the front of the bar. The pint glass enthusiast isn’t to be seen, and I’m instead seen to by a very friendly lady probably a few years North of me, who clearly knows her stuff, and chats to me a bit about the range.

Eventually I go for Michter’s Rye (US*1 Single Barrel). I’m not 100% what I think of Michter’s ‘house’ bourbon – I need to do a retaste at some point to come to a more settled conclusion, but it’s not one of my favourites. The rye, however, had passed me by until this point, so I thought it’d be worth a punt. The lady pulls a face – ‘it’s not as good as the bourbon,’ she says, ‘you should try that instead.’ I explain that I’ve had the bourbon before, and that we’ve already tried two that evening, and that I feel it’s time for a rye. She raises her eyebrows a little and pours me a glass. ‘You’re not going to like it.’

She’s wrong – I like it very much. Rye, for those who perhaps haven’t fully embraced American whiskey (or Canadian/anywhere else that does rye) is a tasty prospect indeed. It’s a ‘flavour grain,’ and for ‘flavour,’ here read ‘spice.’ It also creates whiskey which often has a ‘leaner’ mouthfeel, and the best way I can explain that is to say that it has a structure similar to wines you’d describe as being ‘mineral.’ Less voluptuous in body and less overtly sweet than bourbon by and large. To be described as a ‘rye whiskey’ the mash bill has to contain at least 51% rye grains, though my guess is that Michter’s percentage is a good whack higher than that. It has a beautifully ‘clean’ nose, this one – clearly from an excellent barrel. The wood’s brought a rich, oaky vanilla to the fore, whilst the rye acts as a skewer, providing spice and structure. Not really a ‘slump
into a comfy armchair’ style of whiskey – it’s rather more serious and cerebral than that. Wish it came under £50 a bottle, but it’s not far off – and in its home market it’d be well beneath.

The band is in full voice when we go for the fourth (and last) of the evening. And by ‘full voice,’ I mean that it’s a heavy metal band and they’re doing a stern test of the building’s structural foundations. What I know about music can be written on the back side of half a stamp, so I can’t really add much beyond saying that you probably wouldn’t want to live next to wherever they rehearse. Always nice to have live music in a bar though, especially in the middle of a week. Anyway, back at the bar I comment to the lady that funnily enough I preferred the Rye, expecting a chuckle, and possibly even a brief debate.

That wasn’t what happened.

‘What? You’re not serious. What’s wrong with you?’ I thought she might have been joking, so I laughed. With hindsight, not sure this was the best idea. ‘How can you like that more?’ she snapped. She fixed me with what was pretty nearly a glare, and demanded to know how old I was.


‘How old are you?’


‘Well your palate’s too young then. That’s why. Your palate isn’t developed. You won’t like this in a few years.’

I had no idea what to say at this point. Even if I did, I’d have struggled to argue the toss in the cacophony of music and against such vociferous opposition. After a moment’s pause I spinelessly decide to go with ‘haha, you’re probably right.’ I know. I’m too English. I hate myself.

I wonder whether she’ll even let me try another after such a damning indictment of my tasting capabilities, but I ask for an E. H. Taylor and she (grudgingly or otherwise) fishes it off the shelf. All things considered I’m feeling more miserable than I could be at this point, though it does cheer me up when she accidentally charges me for a single having poured a double. (With the 30% off I was already getting, this worked out better value than cost price!)

It’s the E. H. Taylor small batch as it turns out – having been at the back of the shelf I couldn’t see anything beyond the brand name beforehand, but since all things E. H. Taylor are out of my normal price range I fancied ending the night on a treat. And E. H. Taylor small batch is indeed a treat – albeit it isn’t double the quality of the Michter’s or the Willett’s, which is roughly how the price works out. But it is a beautifully judged rye recipe Bourbon – bottled more or less perfectly on the ‘sweet spot’ at which the mature notes and the younger, fruitier notes were level. It’s also 50%ABV, which I know to whisky novices sounds like a lot, and to many whisky obsessives sounds like a few degrees South of ‘proper’, but to my palate has always been more or less bang on the money. The nose is a thing of utterly exquisite balance – the palate not quite as beautiful, but still a very impressive whiskey.

One last thrash of the table football, and then it’s out into the lamp-lit Wednesday night streets of Reading, where as it transpired we ended up meeting a few other friends. (Though I called it quits soon after.) So what are my thoughts of Purple Turtle as a whisk(e)y bar?

Well, on the one hand, it probably does have the best range in Reading. Some very tasty kit indeed – and it’s nice to find places that focus on US, rather than Scotch. I like that they have things going on midweek – it’s not a two-night-wonder club, and I like that the feel is different each night. Most of all I like that they have Table Football.

On the other hand, the pint glass moment was weird. And however you spin it, it’s rude to have a go at customers over their thoughts on a drink – especially given I wasn’t forcing my opinions on her, and had been in no way confrontational beforehand. They were two very strange episodes, and I’m afraid they coloured what would otherwise have been an excellent evening.

On balance, I’ll go back. Very regularly I expect, as it’s not only the best whisk(e)y range in Reading, but it more or less owns the Friday/Saturday night slot. And aged 25, those slots are still important. Besides, I don’t know many other places in the UK where you can chase £100+ per bottle bourbon with Jägerbombs whilst having your ears smashed by a live band and hammering an angry couple at table football. So yeah, I’ll probably go back and do all those things. But measured purely as a whiskey bar? Well I couldn’t help but think as I left of The Woods back in Bristol, of Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit, of Milroy’s in Soho and of all the other places I’ve known and drunk in and loved. And I’m afraid Purple Turtle doesn’t stack up. So I guess I’ll have to keep searching and hoping. But I’m not writing Reading off yet.


Friday, 22 July 2016

12 Months of Pilgrimage

A year ago today, to a backdrop of yowling huskies, in an all-but-windowless room and with countless West-coast souvenir midge bites still bespeckling my arms I tentatively typed out the first words of what, in a moment of idiocy, I had called The Whisky Pilgrim. (I’ve spent the last year wishing I’d thought about names a bit harder and replying ‘mumble mumble’ on the few occasions people ask me what my blog’s called at whisky gatherings.)

The last 366 days (Leap Year, remember) have been full of moment and consequence. My pokey room in Bristol has been swapped for a marginally less pokey room in Reading. I drove through London several times and didn’t die. My local Asda discontinued Mackie’s Salt and Vinegar Crisps (the narrow-sighted, palate-less bastards).

And amidst all that I’ve done a fair amount of whisky-ing. In an idle hour the other day I figured out that my mileage for the pilgrimage stands, thus far, at 6576. (Give or take.) In context, that’s further than the distance from London to Los Angeles, Tokyo, Vancouver, Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro or Cape Town as the crow flies. The realisation that about 50% of that driving has just been the M6 is enough to cause a violent shudder.

The keyboard’s taken a hammering too – by the time this piece is finished I’ll have passed The Hobbit’s word count – 95,022 if you’re interested – having left the first two Harry Potters far behind several articles ago. Not that we can expect a successful Whisky Pilgrim film franchise any time soon. 

More importantly I’ve visited 39 distilleries and tasted something in the region of 650 different whiskies, about 100 of which I’ve published my notes on, between distillery write-ups and the 40 under 40 series. I’ve tasted blends, malts, bourbons, ryes, single pot-still and whatever the hell you’d class that Mekhong stuff from Thailand as! I’ve been privileged to meet a huge number of incredibly talented people, both involved in the whisky industry and commenting on it and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Thing is though, looking back at the target I set myself twelve months ago of visiting every whisky distillery in the UK and Ireland within an 18 month period, it’s not going to happen.  

With the exception of a couple of days at Christmas, and a few more when my family was coping with bereavement, I’ve used every day of holiday I’ve had to drive up to Scotland and knock off distilleries, and I’m still only on 39. Granted I’ve not taken in Speyside yet, which is where most of them are, but it’s still an insurmountable mountain to climb in between now and December.
Furthermore a vast number of those distilleries don’t have visitor centres, and therefore gaining access becomes problematic, given I’m not approaching as a member of the industry.

What this is, therefore, is a reassessment of the game plan between now and Christmas. With the holiday allowance I have it remains possible for me to visit every distillery which both has a visitor centre and is currently producing a whisky bottled under its own label. This will include Bushmills in Northern Ireland, and Hicks & Healey in Cornwall, but I am hugely sorry to say that time and money will prevent me from visiting the distilleries in the Republic of Ireland this year. 

Distilleries such as Loch Lomond and Ailsa Bay, which bottle a whisky under their own labels but don’t currently have a visitor centre I plan to cover through the medium of a separate series in late September. 

So what else does the next five months hold for the Whisky Pilgrim? Well, since I’ve let the Irish Distilleries down from a visiting point of view, I’m hoping to do a separate piece on Irish whiskey, focussing (as ever) on the most affordable expressions. Japan’s the whisky country on so many peoples’ lips at the moment – in August I’m going to examine why, and what the value options for the UK consumer are in that direction. I’ve also been woefully neglecting Canadian and blended whisky lately, and that’ll have to be rectified before too long.

I don’t plan on keeping the Whisky Pilgrim going beyond Christmas – after all, it isn’t very user friendly, and the site looks rubbish anyway. Plans are being drawn up with talented co-conspirators to create a better and far more visually appealing website with a less embarrassing name for 2017, but for the time being I’m keeping all that under wraps.

In the meantime, whisk(e)y efforts are being redoubled! The East Highlands are beckoning in September, and in late Autumn I’ll finally stop dancing around Speyside and hit that nail squarely on its head. I’ll be pointing the Corsa in the direction of Cornwall one weekend soon, and Northern Ireland’s on the menu for October. Plenty of distilleries to be explored and hundreds of drams to be drunk. A good few miles left in the Pilgrimage yet!

So all that’s left is to say a massive Thank You to everyone who’s read my waffling over the last year. To everyone who has contributed with support and advice. Most importantly, to everyone who has shared a glass. It really has meant an awful lot.


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Legalising Coke - the truth will set you free

My hand is shaking. It's 3:45 on a glorious afternoon, and I'm tucked into the furthest corner of the dark top floor of Brown's in Reading, alone and hunched over my glasses. I haven't done this before. Once I do it there will be no going back. What frail resolve sent me out scouting the bars of Reading for an elusive Lagavulin 16 is quivering as convulsively as is my paw. I look around to check that no one is watching. The sea-spray, iodine and old furniture waft from the snifter glass. I inhale deeply through my nose. And I pour the double measure of cola on top of the Islay Single Malt.

A perfect storm took me to this moment of what almost all the whiskynet, indeed almost every Single Malt drinker in the world would condemn as unthinkable heresy. A week or two ago the inestimable Becky Paskin wrote a piece on bemoaning the disinclination of drinkers and bar staff to experiment with Single Malt in cocktails. Not four hours before committing my act of seeming blasphemy, Dave Broom had given me the tip through his excellent Whisky Manual. But it began a few months ago, when I was trawling through articles on a wine website, and I came across a photograph.

The photograph in question was taken in the Gloucester Road branch of KFC - a branch I'm actually rather familiar with, an ex-girlfriend having rented a room nearby at one stage. It depicts a group of thirty-something young men in festive mood, gathered around a mountain of original recipe, and pouring a bottle of wine into one of the Colonel's finest drinking vessels. All very jolly, but so what? Some embellishment: the chap at the back, peering over his foregrounded companions is Neal Martin, who is amongst the most significant and influential wine writers in the world. The wine in question is a Château Troplong Mondot 1955. I've no idea what such a bottle would cost, should you even manage to track it down, but I'd hazard a guess at four figures. Suffice it to say, it's a fancy
drop of vino.

Mr Martin's article was to introduce himself to the readership of his new employer, The Wine Advocate/ He sets out his stall with the aforementioned photo, cautioning that his style will likely not be to the taste of those who succumb to the apotheosis of wine. Shockingly for an ex-English Student, but as is habitually the case when I read Mr Martin's work, I had to look up what 'apotheosis' meant. In case it hasn't featured on your own Scrabble board in the past, its definition is the elevation of someone, or something, to divine status.

There are very few of us, I suspect, who are not, or have not been, guilty of apotheosis toward Single Malt whisky. I know I have. In fact, when I began this blog, almost a year ago to the day, I still was. When 2015 gasped its last I still was. Pour coke on top of six-months-back-Wellsy's Lagavulin and see what you get for it. It permeates everything, this air of untouchability. You hear it on distillery tours, at festivals, in whisky literature and online. Single Malt must only be consumed neat, or with a tiny slosh of water. More often than not you're told not even to add the water. I made a pretty convincing argument to that point to Pilgrim Snr a few months back, since when he has entirely abandoned his formerly automatic teaspoon's worth of dilution. Father: if you've continued reading past the bit where I added coke to Lagavulin, I apologise whole-heartedly. Drink your whisky however the Hell you please.

With a caveat.

I would be surprised - indeed flabbergasted - if some of the people reading the last few paragraphs weren't spitting with rage by this point, so let me make a vital addendum before proceeding. What I am NOT saying is 'slosh whatever you want into anything willy nilly.' First of all, it might not work. I tried the coke on Lagavulin because Dave Broom recommended it, because he knows rather more than most about whisk(e)y and because I allowed myself the assumption that he wasn't just playing silly buggers with his editors and readers.

Second of all, and most important, I love Lagavulin. I particularly love Lagavulin 16. There are very few whiskies in the world which I know better, and of other Scotch distilleries, only Springbank, Highland Park and Glenfiddich hold such treasured a place in my heart - and only Glenfiddich for such personal reasons. I don't know how many times I've tried that expression, and I wouldn't like to guess. As far as getting to understand the whisky goes, I couldn't have done much more. 

The thing is, and it is an important thing, however wonderful a Single Malt or high end Bourbon, or any other whisky might be - it's still just a drink. And in the arsenal of the mixologist, it's still just an ingredient. There's such zealous fanaticism regarding Single Malt, to which I have been thoroughly a party, that with the benefit of hindsight, it almost beggars belief. One of the first myths that is 'busted' when you get into wine is the idea of using crappy old plonk or gone-off bottles for cooking with. It's simple - if you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it. And where cocktails or mixed drinks are concerned, if you wouldn't drink them solo, don't drink them in harmony. Lagavulin, to my palate, is delicious. So, for that matter, is coke. I was informed by one of whisky's most reliable sources that they worked astonishingly well mixed half and half and at room temperature. Why would I not give it a try?

Don't get me wrong - I still drink, and plan on drinking, most of my whisk(e)y neat. I don't tend to add water (more from laziness than anything else - my chair is very comfy and far from the kitchen) and I don't imagine that changing terribly often. But what I am saying, is use an open mind. Not only is the practice of drinking whisk(e)y neat, and only neat, a recent phenomenon, but it's a rather restrictive one. And consider this: if you try something in a bar, and it doesn't work, you haven't burned too much cash and you can always buy another drink. If you're making something at home, you've the whole rest of the bottle to enjoy in whatever way takes your fancy. So take the time to get to know your whisky, to understand where it's coming from, and what its characteristics, properties and flavours are. And once that's done - experiment once in a while. Soda, ginger ale, cola, cocktails - whatever takes your fancy. Open your mind, and your palate, and you may be astonished by the new stories your favourite dram has to tell you.

Which takes us back to yesterday afternoon, and my furtive corner of the top floor of Browns, where I've hidden in case the nice barmaid who pressed a snifter-style glass upon me instead of a tumbler spots my mixological 'misdoings' and hollers 'fraud!' (I'd ordered the whisky and coke as two separate drinks.) Because there's an obvious question: was Lagavulin and cola any good after all? And the answer is yes. Astonishing. Revelatory. Delicious. My fears of character loss were confounded by new layers of flavour, the texture more unctuous, the burn replaced by the lightest petillance. It was - and I would never previously have said this of a coke-and-mixer - elegant, sophisticated, classy. With it I could convert legions hitherto undreamed-of to whisky. It was, in short, a bloody tasty drop. It's as if Dave Broom knows what he's talking about.

God knows what the staff thought, as I sniggered my way through the experience, laughing at the joy of what I had done and how it had turned out, but if it had been a little later than 4:15 when I finished it I'd probably have made another. As it was, when I burst out of Brown's onto the sunlit canalside there was a spring in my step and a smile on my face that had nothing to do with the paltry two units warming my cockles. Fetters had been shed, liberation had been achieved.

The Roman philosopher Seneca once opined that to truly own something, one must throw it away. Guided by Neal Martin, by Becky Paskin and by Dave Broom I cast away my notions of what whisk(e)y should be, especially single malt. In exchange for which, apotheosis has been replaced by opportunity and promise. I'm not abandoning neat whisk(e)y - of course I'm not. Not everything will work with every whisky - of course it won't; I anticipate many failed experiments ahead. And, as ever, whisk(e)y cannot be all things to all folk. But it'll be a damn sight more to me now than it ever could have been before.

So if Mr Martin and friends ever find themselves in need of 11 secret herbs and spices to pair with their wine, they know where to find me. Claret mixed with Springbank? Sounds ominous. But I guess now I'll try anything once...


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Last of the Islanders. 20th May. Tobermory

It has been more than a month since I stood on the shore of Oban and looked out towards Mull. A disgraceful time period to have lapsed without writing up my day at Tobermory, but for once I’m going to plead mitigating circumstances, in that it has been one of those months you just want to draw a line through, receipt, file and never see the like of again. Politically, but rather more pertinently, personally. All behind and dealt with now I’m pleased to say (the personal stuff, that is – politics is still a maelstrom, but not my indaba, happily.) The upshot was that besides the Special Releases article, the Whisky Books piece, my Stoke writeup and my Tasting Notes rant I didn’t devote much time to the Whisky Pilgrim. So my apologies to Tobermory for the delay in getting this done.

When last you left me I was in my wigwam on the less fun end of Kintyre, up to the gills with barrel sample Springbank and wondering whether I was going to break my record for hours of consecutive sleep on the peninsular, which at that point stood at four. Well, I’m pleased to say that the judo-mat bed must have been the cosiest Kintyre berth I’ve yet struck, because an indulgent four and a half hours of sleep later I arose from my slumbers, face sticking to the plastic mattress and knowing with sickening certainty that the time was still well south of 6am.

Cursing the day I thought visiting all the whisky distilleries in the UK would be a good use of 18 months’ worth of annual leave I
executed what can best be described as a half-arsed commando roll out of the bed. A bad idea, as it turned out when I got to my feet and discovered my nose to be bleeding like a tap. Ten minutes of assorted swearing, showering, shouting at my trousers and damning my toothbrush, all whilst clamping a wodge of tissue paper to my nose later, I trip out of the wigwam, clutching duvet, pillows and bag, hurl them into the corsa with an oath and point my bloodied snout Northwards.

Once you’re off the A83 and into the hills above Lochgilphead the roads become more winding, and the views more startlingly spectacular. I, of course, am not allowed to enjoy any of this, as I am stuck behind a truck, which, as it transpires, is also going to Oban. With barely any passing opportunities and not enough power to make the most of them anyway, by the time we reach the capital of the West Highlands you could just about boil a saucepan of water on top of my head.

But no matter!

Oban, on the strength of two very brief visits, has become one of my favourite towns in the UK. Hey – anywhere with a distillery next to an Italian restaurant is ok in my book. Whisky and Garlic Bread within ten metres of each other. The Dream. If they’d only see fit to put a KFC and some sort of salt and vinegar crisps emporium on the same block I’d never leave. Though I’d also be dead inside the year.

Abandoning my car in the long-stay car park next to Tesco I realise that my ferry to Mull is a couple of hours away yet. I wander the
streets and shoreline of Oban, take a squint at St Columba’s Cathedral and then go in search of a coffee, discovering to no small amount of chagrin that my options, so far as places that are open are concerned, are Costa, Costa or Costa. I pick the middle option, gulp down an outsized cup of necessary evil and spend the next hour in the ferry terminal reading Flashman and the Redskins. (If there’s a better series of novels than the Flashman Papers I’ve yet to find it.)

Eventually the ferry departs, and after fortifying myself with a sausage bap I stand on deck, watching the archipelagos of tiny rocks and islands go by, until freezing rain and howling winds drive me back inside the main lounge for more Flashman, and with renewed respect for Vikings. Craignure is reached in short order, by which point the weather has retreated, and all is calm and still and – dare I say it? – bright and sunny. After confirming for my father that Craignure has a car park (he’s planning on kayaking around Mull in the near future) I hop on the bus for the short drive across the North of the Island to Tobermory, which (and I don’t say this lightly) is perhaps the most beautiful coastal road I’ve driven on for the pilgrimage yet.

I arrive in the charming village of Tobermory, with its charming coloured houses made famous apparently by some programme I didn’t watch as an infant. (Which puts it essentially in the same bracket as every programme. I spent my childhood resolutely not watching television, and have spent my adulthood largely trying to make up for lost time.) It’s around about lunchtime, and in a flash of gloriously heady realisation it suddenly occurs to me that today is pay day. The almighty dollar hath landed in my account, or a modest pile of regular sterling anyway. The Hell with Standard Pilgrim Procedure, thinks I. No pasta pots today – I’m having a proper lunch, and by God I’ll have a starter too.

Happily Tobermory is furnished with a superb restaurant next to the distillery in the shape of MacGochans, which stuffs me to bursting with mussels, gives me five minutes to breathe and then does the same with Venison meatballs. (I’m a sucker for the V-word on a menu, though it always strikes me after eating it that I like the idea more than I like the taste. I guess I’m just an inveterate snob.) Thankfully I’ve an hour or so before my tour starts with which to
walk off a portion of my new-found rotundity, so after a brief sojourn to a gift shop I make my way up the hill along the very pretty path to Aros Park.

Half an hour later I’m sitting in a dark room watching the Tobermory film with fellow tourists, one of whom is an astoundingly friendly Australian (are there any other sorts?) who has flown from Australia to Mull for a three day trip. I’ve documented my thoughts on distillery videos before, but I’m a grumpy old man aged 25, so my curmudgeonly attitude may be taken with a pinch of salt.

Unfortunately Tobermory is a no-photos distillery, as our lovely guide Sharyn apologetically explains. It’s the only distillery on Mull, and it makes two distinct malt whiskies, with an equal amount of their output going towards each expression. Tobermory whisky is their unpeated dram, whilst Ledaig is fairly heavily peated by outside-of-Islay standards, and has been turning the heads of drinkers in the know for the last few years.

Production had ended for the week, so all was quiet as Sharyn took us through the rooms. A curiosity at Tobermory comes in the washback room, where their long fermentation takes place. Formerly, as in many distilleries, Tobermory had rotating blades in the top of their washbacks to prevent the foam generated by fermentation from spilling out. However some villainous rogue broke in a while back and filched the blades (God alone knows how he thought he was ever going to fence them) at which Tobermory decided that replacing them would be a great faff, and have dealt manually with the foam ever since. (Not sure what those working at the distillery thought of this particular procedural adjustment...)

Although it isn’t the largest distillery in the world, Tobermory does put a lot of weight on producing single malt, with only 5% of its spirit being packed off for blends. With two wash stills and two spirit stills it’s a fair bet to guess that they’re not working at maximum output given they create 800-900,000 litres of spirit a year by Sharyn’s reckoning. Not massive, sure, but still a good deal more than most of the kettles-in-sheds that seem to be popping up all over the place currently. (Calm down Adam, not the time or place for another rant.) For the first half of the year they produce their unpeated Tobermory, and for the second half it’s Ledaig. (Pronounced ‘Led-chick’ incidentally, though if you do so in a bar outside Scotland it’ll get you absolutely nowhere.) 

Only a few casks are kept on Mull for maturation – the buildings behind the distillery used to house casks, but were sold and converted to flats during slacker years in the 80s. These days the whisky is put into barrels at Deanston and then housed at Bunnahabhain on Islay. Some of the older and more ‘special’ casks stay on site though – I spot a couple labelled ‘1972’, which Sharyn says are destined to become a 50yo at some point down the line. The distillery’s oldest to date is 42, both for Tobermory and Ledaig, and either can be yours for a mere £3000...

We return to the main visitor centre, where drams of the 10yo Tobermory and Ledaig are standing by. With no chairs it becomes a bit of a balancing act for me to take my notes whilst sniffing and sipping, but I muddle through more or less!

Tobermory 10yo – Lemons and apples to start with, backed up by distinct sweetness. Shortbread? Maybe a touch of vanilla. Nose doesn’t burst out of the glass – emerges slowly. Less fruit-focus on palate, more of the sweet vanillin character and a smidge of spice. Warming alcohol, without being fiery, though possibly has more influence than flavour on the palate. Nice, friendly whisky, if that’s not too disparaging! Not excessively complex, but very fresh and rather clean. Light-medium body. Tiny bitterness at the end. 46.3%ABV

Ledaig 10yo – Peat arrives first. Softer and soapier than some Islay whiskies. Kind of an animal fat element which turns into something more smoky. Lemony edge in behind. Good intensity on nose. Surprising weight of wood on the palate (not too much, of course) in a charcoal sort of way. Oily and indulgent. Peat gives way to more citrus (oranges/lemons) and finally a smooth vanilla as seen in Tobermory. Flavour comfortably outmuscles booze. Cracking stuff. 46.3%ABV

Since I’ve been scribbling away all the other tourists have wandered off. I apologise to Sharyn for imposing on her time, but she very kindly says to think nothing of it, and asks whether I’d like to try a couple of others, since I’m taking notes. Obviously the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes please,’ and she hauls out Tobermory 15, Ledaig 18 and Ledaig 1996. I only write up the flagships on this blog, but all three of these extras get a page in my
little blue book, and delicious whiskies they all are too. Tobermory 15 is my particular favourite, followed closely by Ledaig 18yo. I do love the Ledaig 1996, but for my money the sherry sits on the peat a fraction heavily, creating a stunning smoky sherried expression which somehow feels a touch less ‘Ledaig-y’ than the 18. But that’s me being picky – as I say, I’d still buy it by the glass any time I saw it on a shelf. (I couldn’t afford it by the bottle!)

I thank Sharyn, leave Tobermory, and begin my long journey back. Seven hours of waiting for the bus, taking the bus, waiting for the ferry, taking the ferry, walking to the car, getting lost, finding the car and driving Southwards later I wearily bang on Will’s door in Strathaven once again. The weariness melts away somewhat as we line up the bottles for the evening of tasting, but after a Portuguese white, a mature claret and a few drams it returns with vigour, and I collapse gratefully into bed.

This wasn’t the heaviest distillery trip I’ve made on the Pilgrimage, but it was one of the most satisfying. I’d half-expected Mull to feel like an add-on to the main focus of the Campbeltown whisky festival, but I was utterly charmed by the island, the distillery, and of course its whisky. I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed what I tasted, particularly the Ledaig. I shouldn’t have been, of course, having already been pleasantly surprised by Deanston and Bunnahabhain, both of which are owned by the same company.

A significant milestone has been hit at this point though, as I’ve now ticked off every distillery on the Islands and Western Highlands which both have visitor centres and are currently bottling whisky under their own label. (Other than the small release when they hit 3 years old, Abhainn Dearg on Lewis hasn’t started bottling its whisky yet, so there’d be nothing for me to taste!) I’ve no holiday coming up over the next two months – I’ve saved it all for September and October – so it’ll be a little while before the corsa is once again fired up.

But when it is, a behemoth awaits. I’ve dodged and skirted it, picking off regions where distilleries are fewer and further between, but there’s no two ways about it now – the East Highlands will be upon me. And with them comes the region that was my first Single Malt love. Speyside.