Friday, 11 November 2016

The Pilgrim and the Drammer. 6th September. Fettercairn and Glen Garioch

My whisky pilgrimage could just as easily be referred to as ‘one man’s hunt to find a cup of coffee in rural Scotland than he actually likes.’ Ok, so I admit to a certain pernickityness (real word) when it comes to my morning mud. If it isn’t stronger than a steroid-addled rhinoceros it isn’t strong enough. That perfect cup still eludes me, but the Ramsay Arms in Fettercairn gets as close as any I’ve ever tasted.

I’m sat in the hotel lobby, sipping my caffeine concentrate and nibbling the complimentary tablet (I love Scotland) whilst various betweeded old Englishmen waving shotguns and chirruping excitedly about pheasants scurry back and forth. Needless to say I didn’t spend the night as a guest of the Ramsay Arms myself. I was berthed in a perfectly serviceable Aberdeen hostel. But the morning has taken me to Fettercairn to visit the eponymous distillery, and as ever I am early. It’s a small village, and the café’s closed. So I’m having coffee with the hotel. Ok? Good. Glad we cleared that up.

Anyhow, I’ve visited Fettercairn before, in my Dundonian days. It’s not the whiskynet’s most beloved malt, and I can’t say it’d make my own ‘greatest hits’ album. Probably not even my ‘most middling hits’ if I’m honest. But I’ve been looking forward to this tour in particular, because I’m being joined for the first time by a fellow member of the whisky blogosphere.

Andy, The Amateur Drammer, started blogging a few months before I did. Key differences being that his website is user friendly, looks good and features articles that are shorter than War and Peace. But we’ve been chatting away on Twitter for a while now; I did a piece for his Desert Island Drams series, and he was good enough to contribute to both the 40 under £40 and the current 50 under £50. Having clocked him as a Dundee native a while back I asked whether he’d be up for a day of pilgrimming when I found myself in his manor. A couple of months later, and here we both are in darkest Aberdeenshire sheltering from the inevitable drizzle and waiting for someone to open the doors.

It’s an incredibly quiet village, Fettercairn, and the distillery seems to have taken its lead from the near-silent surroundings. It actually has a very serviceable visitor centre, but it’s rather understated, and as Andy points out in his own write-up, they’re hardly trumpeting the brand online, despite a recent(ish) packaging redesign which makes the bottles look rather swish. (Contents still what my little sister would describe as 'meh', but we’ll come to that.)

Clive, our guide, does a cracking job showing us around the place. It’s all very casual, as you’d expect with a two-person tour, and having clocked that we’re not exactly first-time tourists he sticks to Fettercairn’s idiosyncrasies, rather than anything generic. The distillery has two wash and two spirit stills, churning out about 2.2 million litres of spirit per year. Of that, 90% goes off to blends, and a good chunk of what’s left heads off to Tesco, who used to have an exclusive on the ‘Fasque.’ (A peek online suggests they don’t any more. Unless Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange employ highwaymen to hijack Tesco lorries, and I can’t see why they’d go to the effort.)

The chief curiosity of Fettercairn Distillery is on their spirit stills, where they deploy an irrigation ring unique in the whisky industry (to the best of my knowledge.) The rings lie just below the top of the swan neck, and send cold water down the outside of the stills. Essentially it’s an innovative way to promote reflux and copper contact to create a light spirit despite the stills being relatively short. 

Back in the visitor centre Clive apologises for the lack of any Fior to taste, so we’re on Fasque instead. Works for me, since Fasque is likely to be the more easily findable expression and therefore, by Pilgrim rules, the distillery ‘flagship’. Clive leaves us to it as we speculatively sip and scribble, exchanging thoughts as we go.

Fettercairn Fasque – The peat, what there is of it, sits very lightly in the background with a slight bacony inflection. There’s also a mild heathery honey which continues onto the palate. Does take a fair bit of nosing, after which some grassy notes emerge, followed by caramels and a little pear fruit. Twinge of citrus. Very much middle-weight in body and sweetness, with the zip of alcohol hinting at this whisky’s relative youth. Simple stuff. 42%ABV

I’d like to hang around a while longer – after all, it’s not every day someone steps out of twitter and into reality. Unfortunately I’ve another distillery on the menu for the day, so we say our goodbyes and I’m back in the Corsa and heading up the road. It’s been a pleasure to finally meet Andy in person, and hopefully Fettercairn won’t be the last distillery we tour together. Whilst I stupidly forgot to get a photo at the time, we bumped into each other at the Whisky Show a few weeks later and Andy got a picture with fellow blogger The Whisky Lady, which is at the bottom of this article. We’re the ones who aren’t a lady.

The weather takes a turn for the gorgeous as I drive back North through Aberdeen towards Oldmeldrum, where lurks the Glen Garioch Distillery. (Pronounced 'Glen Geery', because Scotland.) This is becoming something of a chorus for me, where East Highland Distilleries are concerned, but Glen Garioch wasn’t really on my radar formerly, besides being aware of its existence. Which I suppose made this East Highland pilgrimage all the more worthwhile. Oldmeldrum is about as far West as you can
go from Aberdeen without starting to climb up mountains. You can see the humps of the Cairngorms to the West, but as the smell makes readily apparent, we’re still in farmland here. 

I had a little sit-down in the visitor centre whilst waiting for the tour to start, as it was rather warm outside and I was feeling the pace slightly. Which must make me the first person in Scottish history ever to go indoors to cool down. Gave me a chance to have a squint at their range though. Rather a lot of pretty reasonably priced special editions dotted the shelves, and I was almost – almost – tempted by a fifteen year old, cask strength ex-Oloroso, but my wallet decided against it. Interesting to see that both of the ‘entry levels’, the Founder’s Reserve and the twelve year old, are bottled at 48% and non-chill-filtered. Well done Glen Garioch.

Our guide for the day was Fiona, who was absolutely brilliant. I was joined on the tour by a Norwegian couple who asked her question after question and she knocked them out of the park. Particularly impressive was her fielding of a ‘what makes you different?’ inquiry. Five minutes later she’d rattled off a comprehensive answer covering barley, stills, water and casks. Nice.

Once upon a time Glen Garioch was peated. Indeed you can still find peated examples of their whisky, as it continued to be made up until 1994 when the distillery was mothballed. Suntory then re-opened it in 1997, and since they owned a peated whisky in the form of Bowmore, they wanted an unpeated double-distillate to contrast with their triple-distilled Auchentoshan. So these days Glen Garioch is unpeated. They still have the old kiln – you can even go inside it – but they no longer malt on site, so along with the malt barn it is now strictly ornamental.

Also ornamental is one of the two spirit stills; Glen Garioch doesn’t make vast quantities of spirit these days, and there’s only one wash still anyway, so they decommissioned the second spirit still. Left it where it was though. For posterity or something I guess. Or maybe it was too much of a faff to move. You can touch it, anyway, which under normal circumstances wouldn’t leave you with much of a hand left.

Since I’m driving, Fiona gives me a sample of the Founder’s Reserve to go. I also buy a miniature of the twelve, as they’re pretty close in price. The twelve is eight years in ex-bourbon and four in ex-sherry, whilst Founder’s Reserve is almost all ex-bourbon. My note below is for the Founder’s Reserve, which, for the record, I actually preferred to the twelve. You may disagree. You’re allowed. Both good value though, and worth taking a swipe at if you find them on a bar shelf. Glen Garioch’s also a distillery well worth seeking out – if you get a guide half as good as Fiona you’ll have a hugely worthwhile visit. And the shop is full of tempting special editions beside their decent core range.

Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve – Nostril hairs got a singeing – not that I have hairy nostrils, you understand. Youthful and a little fiery, but behind that some good fresh apple along with heathery honey (more pronounced and intense than that found in the Fasque) and a touch of sweet vanilla pastry. Very American oak accent on the palate. Flavours as on nose, but clearer because the booze, whilst still prickly, is controlled by a nice plump Highland viscosity. Great mouthfeel. Some sweet toffee and natural caramel beside the earlier honey and vanilla. Despite youth, not immature – nothing spirit or estery here. Clean. A whisky to wake you up in the morning. 48%ABV

I’ve had a cracking day touring Fettercairn with Andy and exploring Glen Garioch solo. Back to my Aberdeen hostel for now though. Tomorrow will take me to the two distilleries I’m most excited about on this trip.


Thursday, 3 November 2016

Over 20 years, under £50. Tasting the Lidl Special Releases.

I’m meant to be running my stocks down. I was accusingly reminded of this when I returned home yesterday and, in fairness, my accuser has a point. There is, after all, finite space on my desk. At this stage, calling it a desk is rather stretching credulity. But for the three bottles I brought back, I’m inclined to forgive myself and make an allowance.

I have nothing against NAS whisky in principle. Heck, the first article I ever wrote that wasn’t a tour write-up was on the subject. If it’s well made, good value, tasty whisky I’m happy. Just look how much I go on about A’Bunadh. But there is something undeniably profound and special about holding something in your hand that was committed to barrel years and years ago. Something that makes you think back to who you were then, and what you were doing. Perhaps something distilled before you were even born, or thought of. 

I have never owned a whisky older than myself. I have tasted scores of them, of course, and on two occasions I have bought such bottles for friends, but my budget simply doesn’t stretch to that sort of thing. It wasn’t something that especially concerned me – as ought to be fairly clear, I’m fascinated by exploring the more affordable galaxies in the whisky universe. There were more than enough bottles within my budget to prevent me from worrying about those that weren’t. But, as I’m sure there is for any serious whiskyer, there was always that little niggle; that pang at the back of the brain that wouldn’t quite make itself disappear.

Last year, in the run up to Christmas, Lidl, who are not necessarily the first folks you’d think of when the subject of aqua vitae is broached, made some serious waves. In partnership with the Clydesdale Scotch Whisky Company they bottled two single malts: an Islay and a Speyside, and three blended, sherry-finish whiskies. The malts went under their Ben Bracken brand, the blends Glenalba. So far so regular – but then we come to age and price. The Islay was 22 years old, the Speyside 28 years old and the blends 22, 25 and 34 respectively. Prices: £45, £50, £30, £35 and £50.

Naturally there were several sceptics. But reviews from the likes of Malt, Great Drams and convinced this cynic to take them seriously. Unfortunately, as might be expected given those staggering price tags, anyone who took a couple of moments to have second thoughts missed out on the opportunity to buy the malts. 

Yesterday I was idly scrolling through Twitter (during my lunch hour, I hasten to add) and I noticed that someone had spotted the Glenalba blends at Lidl’s Wokingham branch. In need of a birthday present for a friend, and Wokingham being just a quarter of an hour from my house, I decided to take a punt. So that evening found me hopping in the corsa after work and making a bee-line for the spirits aisle.

Where I discovered, to my great surprise, that the Glenalbas were not alone. I hadn’t even heard that Lidl were relaunching the Ben Brackens, but there, on the top shelf were two sets of very smart
boxes. Single Malt Islay 22 years old said one. Single Malt Speyside 27 said the second. ‘Well ok then’ said the third. Which was me. Not that I'm a very smart box. I didn’t even have the 'should I-shouldn’t I' waver that inevitably pops up whenever I make an impromptu purchase. I added two bottles of Glenalba 22 (one for my friend and one for me) and, following a hideously embarrassing fifteen minute interlude during which the rest of the store was held up as the shop assistant rummaged through the stock room, was back on my way to Château Pilgrim.

Let’s cut to the chase: are they any good? Well, within seconds of being through the door I had lined up three Glencairns, preparing to answer that very question. I began with the 22 year old sherry-finished Glenalba, then the 27 year old Ben Bracken Speyside and finally the 22 year old Ben Bracken Islay, and my tidied-up notes are below:

Glenalba 22yo Sherry Finish – The nose is ever so slightly faint at first (grows considerably with the tasting.) Very sherry – but clean and ripe. Raisins, currants and dates rather than anything dry or nutty. There’s definitely a sense of maturity – some nice rancio elements creeping in, and the lightest, lightest suggestion of smoke. There’s still a liveliness and freshness though – squeeze of citrus fruits cutting through the deeper characters. Palate is very juicy and very sherried. Has taken away an element of potential complexity, but can’t knock the flavours, which are excellent. Datey and slightly pruney. Mild suggestion of cigar tobacco too, and the merest hint of struck match on the finish. It isn’t immensely intense, but there’s plenty going on. Wingback chair in the evening whisky! 40%ABV

Ben Bracken 27yo Speyside – Charming nose. Whistle clean, and
goes like an ‘ex-Bourbon Classic Hits’ playlist. Tropical fruit? Tick. Sponge Cake? Tick. Vanillas and honeys? Tick. Also massive quantities of Apple pie! Surprisingly light on its feet for the age – the fruit is fresh and the malt is crisp. I’m put in mind of things like Tomintoul, Glen Grant and Glencadam. (Though I’m pretty certain it’s neither of the first two, and obviously it can’t be the third.) The palate is silky and middle-weight, with the flavours essentially exactly the same as the nose. Plus perhaps a banana-bread suggestion. Doesn’t lack intensity either despite the ABV. Definitely feels younger than 27, but still a developed and immensely drinkable ex-bourbon Speyside. 40%ABV

Ben Bracken 22yo Islay – What a splendid nose! The peat is distinctly mid-level – just how I like it – and of an earthy, sort of farmyard disposition. Behind that there’s pine wood, medicine cabinet and a truly gorgeous kipper smoke. There’s some sweeter elements of honeys, fruits and vanillas too, but they are very much second fiddle. Far and away the biggest of the Lidl noses. The good things continue on the palate, where there is actually more complexity. Some lifted, almost floral aspects arrive, balancing out the murkier, charcoal depths. A dark chocolate backdrop before the peat – which takes a little while to ‘rev up’ – adds lashings of beach bonfire, maritime seaweed and pipe tobacco. Huge flavour for a chill filtered 40%. My pick of the bunch. Islay fans, and indeed Talisker and Ardmore fans, will find a lot to love. 40%ABV

When I mentioned these whiskies on twitter, and to a few friends, a couple of questions were raised over alcohol level and filtration. And sure, another 6% would do great things, especially to the
Glenalba, and non-chill-filtered would be lovely. (I did chuckle that the Brackens have ‘Chill Filtered’ proudly stamped on the box.) But to be honest, in the face of what you get for the money, such quibbles seem almost greedy!

The Lidl Special Releases are not quite the best whiskies I have tasted for under £50 this year. (Although the Islay and probably the Speyside are top ten.) But to someone like me, who tries to promote affordable and interesting expressions, their value goes beyond the number on the flashy green Lidl price tag. I understand why whisky is hyperinflating so quickly, but beside the pecuniary silliness of the newly launched Longmorns and the nonsense of the Golden Decanters, Ben Bracken and Glenalba stand as something special. Of course I recommend them – I also recommend moving quickly, because once they’re officially announced they aren’t going to last. The Islay is my tip, but for what you pay, none will let you down.

And I finally own a whisky distilled before I was. Which I think adds up to £49.99 well spent. But fine - I'll start trying to run my stocks down again.

No promises, mind...