Monday, July 30, 2018

Great Drams: Old and New

The line-up!
For July's meeting of the Manchester Whisky Club we were in the highly capable hands of friend of the club Greg Dillon, better known as the whisky expert behind Great Drams. Greg had lined up six whiskies from three different well-known brands for us to try: modern and older versions of similar products from Dewar's, Johnnie Walker and Glenfiddich.

The old and the new.
And it was Dewar's White Label we got started off with. One of the top selling blends, particularly in America, we began by trying the drink as it was the mid-1970s. This was, said Greg, a real "old school whisky" including distillate dating from the 1960s.

A very smooth whisky it was. Smooth has always been a key characteristic of Dewar's so that wasn't a surprise, but perhaps more telling was the wispy, smoky sort of taste, distinctive of the Speyside whiskies of that era. The chemists in the room were getting a bit of Windolene, too. This left some of the rest of us a bit baffled, but perhaps that's just because we don't clean our windows often enough.

Dewar's White Label as it was.
The second version of the White Label was the contemporary one. Dewar's has been owned for two decades by Bacardi, and in turn runs five Scottish distilleries including Aberfeldy and Aultmore, much of which ends up in blends such as White Label.

This particular whisky is strong on the nose but a bit low key after that. There's certainly a bit of a family resemblance to its ancestor, and the core 'DNA' of flavours was undoubtedly similar. But we thought the older blend was just a bit more interesting all round. A nice blend, but perhaps not one any of us are going to be rushing out to actually buy. It's only £20 though.

Dewar's White Label today.
The next pairing pitted two versions of Johnnie Walker Black Label against each other. Possibly the most familiar whisky in the world, Greg drew our attention to the extraordinary similarity in the labels between the old and new bottles, the hallmark of what he described as a "brutally consistent" brand.

The older bottling that Greg had for us dated from 1981. This era was a great time for blends, as a fall in consumer demand led to a general surplus of whisky and the so-called 'whisky lake' which in turn caused, sadly, the closure of several distilleries (including most famously Port Ellen, but there were plenty of others). So, lots of better quality malts ended up in blends when they might not otherwise have done.

The 1981 Johnnie Walker Black.
As for this particular example, it certainly tasted quite sweet. Perhaps too sweet for us. Although it undoubtedly went down easily enough.

The same could be said for the modern day equivalent. An easy drinker to be sure, but it didn't leave a particularly lasting impression. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. As someone suggested, Johnnie Walker Black might be best described as a "sessionable whisky". Another word you might use would be "forgettable" though.

The modern Johnnie Walker Black.
There's no doubt it is a good quality, consistent (that word again) product, which is why it's so popular and can probably be found in just about any bar in the world you care to walk into. It's a 12yo and will cost about £30.

After a half-time break we were back for the final pairing, and a visit to Glenfiddich. It's run by Grant's, by far the largest player in Scotland's whisky market that remains family-owned. A big expansion is on the way at the Glenfiddich distillery too, another sign of the strength of the industry at the moment.

Glenfiddich Pure Malt from 1979
The older Glenfiddich that Greg had for us was from 1979 and originally appeared under the 'Pure Malt' brand. Glenfiddich pioneered selling single malts back in the 1960s, albeit mainly as a way of shifting excess stock, so this was a good opportunity to taste a relatively early example of this kind of product.

An example of how the value of single malts has exploded is that this bottle was sold for the equivalent of £30 back then, whereas we paid £242 for this particular bottle. It was well worth it though. Very mild, with a distinctive toffee aftertaste, this was widely described as "beautiful". It had a much longer finish than the blends we'd tried earlier in the evening, too.

Glenfiddich 12yo from the present day.
The modern equivalent is a 12yo Glenfiddich, the key product in a range of single malts which shifts about 13 million bottles a year worldwide, making it the number one single malt brand around.

By this stage it's clear the night had progressed well because checking my notes I see all I actually wrote for this was "we liked it but number five was the outstanding dram of the evening" so if you're looking for a more detailed summary of the strengths of this titan of the whisky industry, you might have to look elsewhere. It's known for being a soft, elegant sort of dram though, so not too far removed from the qualities of its 1979 predecessor.

Oh dear.
Before we wrapped up the evening, Greg had a surprise for us. He produced a mysterious bottle which he said had been sat in his office staring at him for some time, about which he knew almost nothing. Was it produced in the 70s? Possibly. Anyway, here it is!

Called Old Oak, the label reveals it's a blend made in that whisky hotbed of Limassol in Cyprus. It was produced by Loel, which a basic Google search reveals is better known as a winery and maker of fruit juice. It seems doubtful whether they still make whisky and, frankly, after a taste of this, it's not difficult to see why.

The nose was part vanilla, part vomit, while the palate had an overwhelming note of carpet. Or possibly paper. If you think I'm exaggerating, well, I'm not. This may be one of the worst whiskies in history, for which Greg apologised profusely: "I honestly thought it was going to be alright!"

The rest of the night, of course, was, so thanks to Greg for expertly taking us through such a well-chosen selection of whiskies. Thanks also to all club members old and new for another great turnout, and to the Briton's Protection for putting us up once again. As predicted the dram of the night was number five! It was very much nul points for Cyprus.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Blends: The Devil Is In The Detail

The line-up.
In the middle of an incredible June heatwave and despite the competing attraction of England v Belgium in the World Cup, we gathered upstairs at the Briton's Protection for June's Manchester Whisky Club tasting, showcasing a selection of blends.

Our six blends.
Anna had curated the line-up and started off by telling us that she wanted to put a few myths about blended whisky to rest.

There's a long-standing misconception that blends are always that bit inferior to single malts. Frankly, single malts have for quite some time been simply a lot cooler. So Anna introduced six whiskies aimed at celebrating the best of blends, and shaking a few of us out of our single malt blinkers.

First up we were in Campbeltown and J&A Mitchell, maker of club favourite Springbank, for a blended offering called Spirit of Freedom 45.

Spirit of Freedom 45.
The '45' on this occasion relates not just to the 45% ABV but also to the 45% of Scots who voted Yes in the 2014 referendum, as well as the 45 different whiskies featured in the blend itself. Just in case you were in any doubt about the political subtext of all this, the bottle blazes a blue-and-white saltire flag.

The whisky itself was a sharp and summery dram, although it wasn't universally popular. Tasting notes in the room included vinegar and plantain. We thought that trying to knit together 45 whiskies in one was possibly something that was holding it back. It offers good value though, at £25.

It was off to Japan for dram number two and more from Ichiro, which has often featured at the club in the past for its single malts.

Ichiro's Malt and Grain
In this case we were trying Ichiro's Malt and Grain, a blend of whiskies from not just Japan, but also Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the US, making it a real world blend. The fact Japanese whisky is at the heart of it was fairly clear from the distinctive oily taste. This one also had a very dry finish, almost like sandpaper, which put some drinkers in mind of a decent dessert whisky.

At 46% and £72 we thought this wasn't the best price point, though, and that while it was nice, that price tag represents an element of paying extra for the Ichiro name.

Exotic Cargo.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was represented with whisky number three, Exotic Cargo. On this occasion the second batch released under this name by SMWS, clocking in at 50% and at £47 for members (although good luck finding one still available from a secondary source for anything like that).

While the first two whiskies were more conventional blends of malts and grains, this was the first of two blended malts - that is, a mixture of single malts only, and given the age statement of the youngest dram in the bottle (in this case, 11 years old).

A bit of a departure for SMWS, famed for their exceptional single malts, this really was very nice indeed. A Christmassy sweetness with flavours such as brandy butter, brown sugar and dried banana, it went down very well all round.

Poit Dhubh 12yo
After a half-time break it was time for Anna to try her best Gaelic and introduce us to the Poit Dhubh, which translates as 'black pot'. Another blended malt, this time a 12-year-old, it's made by the Praban na Linne company based on the Isle of Skye. The recipe is apparently a closely guarded secret although internet sleuths have detected neighbouring Talisker, along with Caol Ila and Tobermory.

This one wields a big stick. Hits you hard from the off, "like a Saturday night in Leith" as someone suggested. If you like Talisker you'll probably like this, but if you don't, you might well not be so keen. It's 43% and £38

Collectivum XXVIII
The most expensive bottle of the night was number five, the Collectivum XXVIII from Diageo, coming in at £150. This was part of the drinks giant's annual 'special release' range, and was the first time it had featured a blend. In this case, a bit from each of the 28 operational distilleries run by Diageo, ranging from well-known names such as Lagavulin and Royal Lochnagar to plenty of more obscure ones.

These releases are eagerly awaited each year. And for us, it certainly lived up to hype. Complex yet subtle while certainly spirity, club members thought this was very well made. All of the whiskies in this range are bottled at cask strength, and this was 57.3%.

Arguably the bad boys of whisky, Compass Box, were responsible for the last whisky of the tasting. As if to amplify their hipster credentials, this particular whisky officially has no name, somewhat in the manner of that Sigur Ros album.

Compass Box No Name.
The idea here is that the whisky simply speaks for itself, and doesn't need a name. On the other hand, you might regard this as pretentious nonsense. But this was certainly a good whisky. By far the peatiest dram of the night, it was all peat and smoke, albeit not quite on the levels of a Port Charlotte.

It's mostly Ardbeg with a bit of Caol Ila and Clynelish in there too, and even our resident Ardbeg-hater sort of almost didn't quite totally hate it, so that's something. It's £100 and 48.9% - some thought this represented great value, but for the money others would have shopped elsewhere. It's mostly sold out anyway though.

The dram of the night voting went the way of Diageo's special release, the Collectivum XXVIII, although both Compass Box and Exotic Cargo had their supporters too.

Thanks to Anna for picking out such a great and interesting selection for us, and to club members old and new for coming down and making it such an enjoyable evening. Thanks also to the Britons for their hospitality once again.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Cask Mania

This month's line up.
For May's meeting of Manchester Whisky Club we were treated to a selection of whiskies picked out by Anna and presented to the group by Martin, on the theme of cask mania - putting the spotlight on drams matured in a wide variety of different cask types.

Cask maturation is one of the most influential processes that define the taste of any whisky. The wood of each cask adds complex flavours to the character of the particular distillery already present in the new make spirit. And using different casks can make things very interesting.

The Carn Mor Glen Garioch 6yo.
We started off the evening in the north east of Scotland with a whisky from the Glen Garioch distillery, bottled by the independent Carn Mor. It was a 6-year-old matured in a sherry puncheon, with an ABV of 46%.

And what a great start to the tasting it was. Very rich, dark and sweet, while some drinkers picked out aniseed and liquorice on the palate as well. Quite oily, quite heavy (even "chewy") and with that distinctive sherry flavour, perhaps one better suited to a winter's night rather than a very warm May evening. But at just under £40 we thought this was excellent value.

SMWS Full of Vim and Vigour
After that crowd pleaser we moved on to a bottle from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the subjects of last month's tasting. This particular dram, Full of Vim and Vigour, was from the Glen Moray distillery in Elgin. It was matured in a first fill French wine barrique (these are also known as 'Bordeaux barrels') and really took things up a notch in terms of strength, at 61.5%.

As ever for SMWS bottlings there was an array of unusual tasting notes on the label, and some of us thought that pineapple fritters was actually pretty close to the mark with this one. It was a little on the strong side for some - "almost bourbony it's got so much oak on it" - but in general people really liked it, in particular after a drop of water when it became sweeter. At £51.40 to Society members, again this was something of a bargain.

Starward 10th Anniversary bottling.
We went much further afield for whisky number three. In fact, about as far away from Scotland as it's possible to get in the world of whisky, as we tried a bottle from the Starward distillery in Melbourne. Not just any bottling this, but a special 10th anniversary expression to celebrate a decade of operation. With some recent investment from Diageo, Starward has grown from being a tiny craft distillery into being a still-quite-small craft distillery, now operating from slightly larger premises than before.

Anyway, how about the whisky? Well, this was created from a mixture of the eight cask types used across the company's short history, with 28 casks of different ages used in all, focusing on those previously used for Australian wine and fortified wine. It's a no age statement whisky coming in at 52% and, perhaps surprisingly given the complexity involved, just £80. And this really was quite something. Rich and woody, with a touch of the chemistry classroom on the nose and some pepper on the palate. If anything, there was maybe a bit much going on here for some drinkers, but a lot of people in the room completely loved it.

Chichibu IPA Cask.
After a half-time break we were back for the fourth whisky and this time we were in Japan for an Ichiro's Malt Chichibu finished in IPA beer casks from a local craft brewer. This kind of finish has, in the past, been considered somewhat disappointing when tried elsewhere. But we were led to believe this would be an exception.

And so it was! There was no disputing the IPA finish, this was quite a dry whisky on the palate with malt loaf one of the suggestions for a tasting note, and custard another. This divided the room a bit though, with some very much enjoying it and others, while appreciating it, saying that it just wasn't for them. It's 57.5% and if you can find a bottle, it'll cost you £145. In truth there were probably some better value whiskies elsewhere in the line-up.

G&M Connoisseur's Choice Caol Ila
It was back to Elgin for the fifth whisky, and our old friends from that famous bottler Gordon and Macphail. This time they were working their magic on an Islay whisky in the form of a 13yo Caol Ila, released as part of their Connoisseur's Choice range (now sporting some new-look packaging). This 45% whisky spent the last three years of its maturation in Hermitage wine casks.

Again this divided opinion a little. On the one hand we picked up some lovely notes of barbecue and wine gums, but for others this was the least favourite of the evening. It's £70.

Kilchoman Port Cask 2014
Another Islay whisky rounded off the tasting, and it was a Kilchoman which had a distinctive reddish colour, betraying the fact it had spent its full maturation in port hogsheads. Admittedly, they'd only been in there since 2014, making it a three or four year old only. But apparently when the port casks turned up later than expected, the distillery workers were in such a hurry to get them filled they didn't realise until later that there was still a bit of port lurking in the bottom of the casks. So that certainly helped account for the unusual colour.

"Have you ever seen red diesel?" someone asked as we got down to tasting. As with drams four and five, this got mixed reviews. Creamy in a cream soda sort of way, but with a surprisingly short finish, this was possibly a case of high expectations not quite being met rather than it being a particularly mediocre whisky. It's 50% and costs £77.

So that brought us to the dram of the night voting. And while a few had their supporters, there was a convincing victory in the end for whisky number three - the Starward from Australia. Strewth!

Thank you to all club members and guests from the waiting list who joined us, both old and new, for another successful tasting, and thanks also to all the staff at the Britons Protection for looking after us once again. We're already looking forward to June's tasting, which will be all about some great blends.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Special

The line-up of SMWS bottlings.
For April's meeting of the Manchester Whisky Club we were in the hands of committee member Martin, who had been squirreling away bottles from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for us over a period of months.

The drams.
Some club members were already part of the SMWS, but for the uninitiated it's a society which offers exclusive bottlings from distilleries right across Scotland, as well as access to various events and the club locations in Edinburgh and London. Basic membership is £65.

All of the bottlings produced by SMWS are given wacky names based on the tasting notes, and so it was that we began the evening by drinking an Alluring and Amusing - in reality a Tullibardine. Coming in at no less than 60.9% it was quite a way to get the night started, and a welcome one as we think it's the first Tullibardine we've ever had at the club.

Alluring and Amusing.
This was "sharp" and "gorgeous on the nose" with bits of pear drops and stewed apple. Perhaps in fact, we preferred the nose to the palate, which was particularly spicy. This held true even with the addition of a few drops of water, although this did open things up a bit. It's £48, although as with all SMWS bottlings it's members-only, unless of course you can pick one up on an auction site, where chances are you'd be paying a good deal more.

Big Boozy Trifle.
Big Boozy Trifle was next, an alias applied to a 15yo whisky from Cragganmore.

This was as peppery as the first dram was spicy, so dry and peppery in fact the mouthfeel was more like a savoury popping candy than a typical drink. Matured in first-fill French oak, and a weighty 56%, with other comments from the room comparing it to Rich Tea biscuits and having "a light bit of smoke" about it. It was £61.

The third whisky of the evening was perhaps inappropriately timed, as it's known as Winter Is Coming. Underneath the label it's a 10yo from Craigellachie in Speyside.

Winter Is Coming.
This one also packed a bit of a punch, at 59.3%. It was "sulphury" with a "sharp apple nose". This was a real livener of a drink, certainly interesting, although it probably divided the room a bit more than the previous two, which had admittedly both gone down very well. The general consensus was that this was still a good whisky, but maybe just lacking a bit of the quality of the earlier drams. It's £51.90.

There are plenty of sherry monsters in the club and we got to try a whisky of the same name after the mid-tasting break. They actually called one A Real Sherry Monster. This time, it's a 19yo from the Ben Nevis distillery.

A Real Sherry Monster.
"My God, that's a sherry monster and a half" was one of the early comments, suggesting there's no danger of the SMWS being hauled in front of anyone over the Trade Descriptions Act. The distillery has a reputation for going particularly well with sherry casks, Martin told us, and so maybe it was no surprise that this whisky proved popular with us. Huge on the nose, albeit with a slightly short palate, but at £75 this was quite the bargain for a bottle of Ben Nevis.

Dram number five was a bit of a mouthful - Peat Smoke, Pipe Ash and Pata Negra was the title (the latter means 'black hoof' in Spanish and is usually used to mean some kind of high quality pork product). At 53.2% this was, incredibly, the lowest ABV of the night, and it came from the Bowmore distillery on Islay.

Peat Smoke, Pipe Ash and Pata Negra
This was billed as "moving into the peat zone" and so we were, with a lot going on here. Comments included "superbly smoky" as well as "gorgeous" and "a lovely dram". At £70, this was considered another bargain.

And we stayed on Islay for the last dram of the evening, moving to Laphroaig for a bottle called Sailing Ship in Stormy Seas.

Sailing Ship in Stormy Seas.
This was an 18yo, heavily peated, clocking in at a mighty 60.9%. This left us with the taste of saltwater all over our lips, indeed it was "lip smacking". Frankly, you could tell it was the end of the night because that was all I actually managed to write down about it, but suffice to say we enjoyed this one very much too.

On to the dram of the night voting we went, and amid a great field it was a big win for number five, the Bowmore, which notched 11 votes.

Thank you to Martin for collecting such a fine array of SMWS bottlings, and of course thanks to the Society for producing them in the first place! Thanks also to everyone at the Britons Protection for hosting us once again and all the members and waiting list guests who came along.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Whisky In My Water

Another whisky club line-up.
The March meeting of the Manchester Whisky Club took place on the Thursday immediately before Good Friday, which is of course (for most people at least) a four-day weekend. This sort of thing is either a brilliant or a terrible idea, and if you can work out exactly which it is, feel free to let us know.

Carn Mor Ben Rinnes 8yo.
Stina had assembled a line-up of six whiskies for the tasting, with a watery theme. That is, whiskies which perhaps come from a particularly noteworthy water source, might benefit from a drop or two in a dram, or have some other water connection. Hence the name of the tasting, Whisky In My Water.

We got started with an 8yo Ben Rinnes from independent bottler Carn Mor (we had a Laphroaig of theirs quite recently, back at Anna's November tasting). This was amazing for a whisky of just eight years. Sweet, with sherbet, vanilla and a hint of burnt orange about it, a few of us were reluctant to try it with any water at all: "It would be a crime to add water to this, surely!" as someone said.

Inchmurrin 17yo.
At 46% and just £40, it also represents great value. Unfortunately, we may have got the last one from Master of Malt, but if you can find one anywhere, it's well worth it.

Buoyed by this great start to the evening, and perhaps by the renewed realisation we were on the verge of a four-day weekend, it was on to dram number two. This involved a trip to Loch Lomond - hence the water - for a 17yo Inchmurrin, which is produced at the same distillery on the bonnie banks (we say that, but in reality it's just a little to the south of the Loch itself).

This was another good one. A bit of honey, an oily nose, and maybe a touch of molasses in there, or at least something along those lines. Certainly pleasant, but not for all of us at £90. It's 46%.

The mysterious Kirin.
Stina didn't know much about the third whisky, as it was something she picked up on a visit to Japan last year. Unfortunately for us, we knew even less about it, other than it was from Kirin, a company probably better known for its production of beer and soft drinks. More or less all we could decipher from the label, with the help of a translation app, was that it was a blend. So there we go.

It was nice, and quite malty, although as someone commented: "I'm not getting much more than PVA glue" (if you have children obsessed with creating slime, this is an occupational hazard, though). It had a short, but sweet finish, and we think it was probably a 3yo or thereabouts. It was £35 for a 50cl bottle, although goodness knows how much it would cost if you weren't picking it up straight from the distillery. Stina summed it up: "I'm so glad it's not disgusting."

SMWS Quince Jelly Baby
After the half-time break and a refresh of our pint glasses from downstairs at the Britons' Protection, it was back to the fourth drink of the evening and a drop from one of our favourites, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. This was the 'Quince Jelly Baby', in reality a 12yo Glenlivet.

And what a belter it was. A bit of apple tart, a bit of crystallised ginger. Absolutely lovely all round, and a surprisingly easy drinker for an imposing 58.8%. This went down so well it got an almost unprecedented round of applause after we'd finished. We got our bottle for just £60 as members, but wherever you can find one, it would be well worth a good bit more than that.

We were in Islay for the last two whiskies of the night.

Bhunnahabhain Cruach Mhona
First, to Bunnahabhain for a bottle of their Cruach Mhona, a no age statement whisky that started life aimed at the travel retail market, but is now available more widely. Cruach Mhona translates as 'peat stack' and we can confirm that yes, it does indeed smell like a pile of peated bricks. As if they've just put some peat in a barrel, perhaps.

It's recommended with a drop of water and it's not too difficult to see why once you've spent a little bit of time with it. At 50% and £85 for a 1 litre bottle, this was another good value bottle, we thought.

Laphroaig Brodir.
Onto the last drink and to Laphroaig, for another no age statement whisky, this time the Brodir which has a port wood finish. As such it has a distinctive reddish sort of colour about it, and is much more subtle on both the nose and the palate than a typical Laphroaig.

Given that subtlety, this makes the Brodir either an ideal candidate for someone who finds the standard bottling a bit, well, much - or is a bit of an expensive disappointment for those who go to Laphroaig for exactly that. It's 48% and £90, and was enjoyed by some, but most of the members preferred the Bunna.

And so that was it. Another great selection of whiskies and another tough choice in the dram of the night voting, with all of the drams getting at least one vote. But in the end it was the SMWS bottling, number four, which picked up ten votes and took the honours.

Thanks to Stina for putting together such a great selection, to the Britons for hosting us once again, and particular thanks to all of the members who came along.

Here they are.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Spirited Away

This month's line up. With added beers.
Matthew took charge of February's tasting, and as we huddled for warmth upstairs at the Briton's Protection and mercifully out of the Manchester winter, he laid on a tasting with a difference: three whiskies alongside three complementary spirits.

Patrick von Zuidam jenever.
We tasted these blind and the opening drink of the night immediately divided opinion about whether we thought it was a whisky or not. One thing we could all agree on was that it was particularly sweet. "An alcopop!" someone suggested. Others went for a brandy, while some believed it might have been some kind of new make, despite the colour.

As it happened, it was a Dutch jenever, a spirit that's a loose ancestor of gin popular in the low countries. From the Patrick von Zuidam distillery, it was a 5yo which cost £32 for a 50cl bottle. Our consensus in the end was that this was really nice if perhaps a bit on the sweet side, although maybe best enjoyed as a substitute for sherry. It's 38%.

TBWC Zuidam 6yo.
We knew the second drink was somehow related to the first, although the initial tasting notes from around the room didn't leave us much of a clue as to what the connection might be. Was it grainy? Grassy? Herby? We couldn't quite put our collective fingers on it, until somebody came up with Demerara, which felt a bit closer to the mark. Stina summed up the general feeling in the room with the following comment: "I know what it is but I just don't know what it is". Which I suppose is what you get when you hold a blind tasting.

It turned out the connection was the distiller: this was a Dutch whisky from Zuidam, although bottled by club regulars That Boutique-y Whisky Company. A 6yo drink called Millstone, it takes its name from the windmills which are quite literally used to do the malted barley. Very nice although with a slightly bitter, liquoricey aftertaste, it's £55 again for a 50cl bottle, and comes in at 48.9%.

Berry Bros 14yo Nicaraguan rum
Drink number three drew the immediate reception: "This smells of banana and glue". In fact it felt slightly illicit to be smelling the thing to be honest. Once we got it onto the palate, it was a little metallic and, if anything, disappeared a bit.

We didn't think it was a whisky and so it proved. In fact it was a rum, a 14yo single barrel Nicaraguan rum from none other than Berry, Bros and Rudd, again a club favourite bottler. Considering BBR's general output we weren't as thrilled about this as we might have been, although on the other hand, perhaps a room full of whisky monsters is never going to be too excited about a slightly more delicate rum. Having said that, it was better for having left it a bit. It's £56.

BenRiach 19yo
The next drink, number four, had a distinct menthol or eucalyptus feel about it. Some liked it straight away but others though it was a touch on the sweet side. The connection to the previous drink was the dark rum finish, but this time we were tasting a whisky.

Not just any whisky, though, but a 19yo BenRiach. A limited edition affair at just 227 bottles and 50.8%, this drew surprisingly mixed views, surprising as BenRiach is a particular favourite of several club members. The main stumbling block was the £127 price tag, which put off even those who enjoyed the drink. One of the official tasting notes which seemed particularly on the button was Brazil nuts. Or at least that's how it tasted to me.

Tesseron Lot 90 Cognac
Continuing the odd numbered theme, we didn't think dram five was a whisky. There was a honey smell about it, but it wasn't "smash, in-your-face spirity" as someone suggested. It turned out to be a Cognac, which prompted a bit of discussion in the room. We thought it tasted nice but didn't really go anywhere in terms of a finish. On the one hand this got it labelled "disappointingly thin" but then, was that not just a whisky drinker putting their own perspective on a different drink, which doesn't necessarily have a 'finish' in the same way?

This discussion is probably still continuing somewhere (I've summarised it here somewhat for brevity). We were drinking a Tesseron Lot 90, costing £65 for a 40% drink. More experienced Cognac drinkers than I thought this was notably softly spoken as Cognacs go. Perhaps we might have enjoyed it more without the whisky all around it.

Port Charlotte CC:01
And onto the last drink of the night we went, and it was smoky. So smoky in fact, someone thought it was like drinking smoked fish, which actually sounds kind of incredible the more I think about it.

Sure enough it was an Islay whisky, on this occasion a Port Charlotte 2007 CC:01 from friends of the club Bruichladdich. This had its full maturation in Cognac, hence the pairing, and cost £75 at an ABV of 57%. We thought it was absolutely smashing. It's only available in the travel retail sector at the moment though, so it's one to keep an eye out for next time you're going through an airport with a half-decent whisky shop.

The dram of the night voting was an overwhelming victory for the Port Charlotte. But perhaps more interestingly, a second vote for spirit of the night ended up as a dead head between the jenever and the Cognac. I think some of us will be trying a few more of those in future.

Thanks to Matthew for selecting such a great and interesting group of drinks for us to try, to all club members old and new for attending, and to the Britons for once again hosting us.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Elements of Islay

It's been two months since the last update on here, and in that time we had another of our successful Christmas parties upstairs at the Britons Protection. It's the night when we bring back all the half-finished bottles from throughout the year and have another go at them, to remember whether they were really as good as we remembered. Martin and Anna saw that the leftovers were donated to a charity whisky auction event.

Matthew demonstrates the Christmas line-up.
Onto this month's tasting, and on Burns Night we welcomed Myriam Mackenzie from Elements of Islay to showcase a range of drams from one of more sought after independent brands around. Elements of Islay is a venture of one of the most prominent names on the UK whisky scene, Sukhinder Singh, probably best known as the founder of The Whisky Exchange among much else besides.

January's drams from Elements of Islay.

This makes Elements of Islay a sister of Port Askaig, which we ran through to great acclaim in last January's tasting. So expectations were pretty high that this was going to be an interesting selection.

Peat 45%.
We started off with Peat, not only the word most associated with Islay whiskies but also the simple name for one of Elements of Islay's core bottlings. A 7yo blended malt, Myriam dropped a major hint that the two whiskies at the heart of the mix came from the same owner, meaning, in Islay terms, Diageo's Caol Ila and Lagavulin.

An easy drinker with a fresh, sweet taste about it, this got the evening off to a pleasant start. It's 45% and costs £30 for a 50cl bottle, the same size as all Elements of Islay products.

Next we had a try of something made for the Italian market, and apparently not available in the UK at all. Torba - simply the Italian for peat - was a blend of three whiskies: Caol Isla, Bunnahabhain and the mighty Octomore from the Bruichladdich distillery.

As a blend of three some of the club members didn't think this held together nearly as well as the Peat, sensing it was a little bit "all over the place". A bit more Bunna than Octomore, some thought, and at 56.1% it was certainly a bit on the chewy side. Still, apparently this has gone down very well with the Italians, and who are we to argue.

Dram three was the first of a trio of single malts, in this case a Lagavulin. It appears under the label Lg7, as contractual obligations often prevent indie bottlers from using the proper brand name of the whisky in question, and this is the seventh release of a Lagavulin that Elements of Islay have done. It also fits in with the snazzy, chemistry-style bottles, echoing a sort of periodic table of Islay.

Unusually for a Lagavulin it was about 12 years old, unusual because the signature expression of that distillery has for quite some time been the 16yo. The 12 tasted very nice and creamy, and was perhaps surprisingly easy to drink considering the ABV of 56.8%.

However, as with many of the Elements of Islay single malt bottlings, there are very few if any left of this exact one, unless you happen to come across one in a shop somewhere. New ones are released each April and September on very limited runs, so by this time of year they're often long gone.

Sukhinder Singh's favourite distillery is, apparently, Bowmore, and so it was appropriate enough that we got stuck into at least one drink from there during the evening: on this occasion, a Bw7.

This was matured in sherry butts giving it a very distinctive sherry/peat flavour, albeit not super peaty. In fact, we thought this had quite a tropical, fruity and even spicy sort of taste.

Myriam said this was harking back to a more traditional sort of Bowmore taste. It was strong too, and seemed to pack more of a punch than the listed 53.2%. It's £100, again for 50cl, so special occasions only.

The last of the single malts was a Laphroaig, because as everyone knows, it's not an Islay tasting (or an Islay anything) without Laphroaig.

The Lp8 is a 19yo, finished in Madeira casks. Laphroaig finished in Madeira was certainly a new one on us. And it was great. All I've written in my notes from this particular drink are that it was "lovely again" so if you're after more specific detail then you've come to the wrong place (the proper tasting notes, as with all the others, are on Elements of Islay's handsome website). It's 53.5%.

Peat Full Proof.
To finish the evening we returned to the core range and the big brother of Peat, the Peat Full Proof. Essentially the cask strength version of the Peat we had earlier, it clocks in at 59.3%.

And this was also extremely well received as a "brilliant" and "punchy" drink. It's also extremely good value at £37 which, even though it's for 50cl, represents fine value indeed. If there's one bottle on the evening's list which I suspect may end up in a few drinks cabinets in the Manchester area in the near future, it's probably this one.

And that was the end. Regular readers will notice we normally vote for a dram of the night but we unaccountably forgot, perhaps because members formed an orderly queue to have another little taste from what was left in the bottles and were understandably more preoccupied with that. It might have been a toss-up between the Bowmore and the Laphroaig, but really all of the drinks went down very well indeed.

Thanks to members and the waiting list for making sure it was such a well-attended night, to the Britons Protection for hosting us once again, and extra special thanks to Myriam to coming up from London to share the delights of Elements of Islay with us.

Myriam in full flow.