Sunday, May 28, 2017

Born In The USA

The Town Hall in Thursday's sunshine.
It would be easy to write that it was a different sort of Manchester Whisky Club this month, coming as it did three days after the terrorist attack at the Arena. If you looked around the city centre on Thursday you could see the odd unusual sight: the armed police strolling through Albert Square, for example, and the extra bag searches taking place outside the Bridgewater Hall.

But inside the Britons Protection there was nothing out of the ordinary at all. If to carry on as normal in the face of terrorism means settling in for an evening of American whiskies, then I suppose we all carried on as normal, which is as it should be.

We ended up tackling no fewer than seven bottles for our Born In The USA night, including a surprise bonus bottle at the end, more of which later.

The first six.
It was our first American tasting in almost three years, and Martin kicked the evening off with a bottle he returned with from a recent trip to Florida, and the Winter Park Distilling Company in Orange County. The Bear Gully Classic Reserve, a bourbon, is the first craft bourbon made in the state, and to our palates had the distinct taste of walnuts about it.

It's very corny too, in that it tastes like the sort of thing you might have at breakfast time (not that having whisky at breakfast is necessarily recommended). It's very sweet too, and at 53.3% and a US price of about $40, it's good value as well.

Bear Gully Classic Reserve.
From the south-eastern United States, we moved to the Pacific north-west, and in particular Spokane in Washington State for dram number two: the Triticale Whiskey from Dry Fly Distilling.

Triticale is not exactly a word on many people's lips. It's a hybrid of wheat and rye, which was first bred in labs in Scotland and Germany in the 19th century. Dry Fly's bottling stakes its claim as the world's only straight triticale whiskey, the 'straight' tag meaning that it's been aged for at least two years and has no additives.

Dry Fly Triticale.
The Dry Fly is actually a 3yo, and we liked this one too. It's an easy drinker, a bit oily, a bit grassy, a bit gingery, and it tastes stronger than its 45%. It's available here for about £48.50, which represents reasonable value. Dry Fly also has a 10yo single malt on the way, which should be well worth keeping an eye out for.

After those independent distilleries, we went to one from the Jim Beam stable next: Booker's True Barrel Bourbon. Very strong and spirity, it comes in at a weighty 63.7%. Its notes of Christmas cake were perhaps a little out of place on such a baking hot late spring evening, but this got approving nods all round as well. One to sip.

Booker's True Barrel.
A 7yo, we got ours for about £45, but rumours abound that price is about to increase significantly as Beam Suntory aim to make it more of a premium drink, so it may well be worth grabbing a relative bargain while you can.

We had a half-time break next, and with the temperature rising throughout the pub the staff opened the fire escape at the Britons to help get the air through. This gave us a rare opportunity to get a slightly different view of Manchester and, in particular, the Beetham Tower, against a cloudless late evening sky.

The view from the back.
But after getting our breaths back it was onto the fourth drink, and like the Booker's True Barrel it was another one from Kentucky: namely the Pikesville Straight Rye from the Heaven Hill distillery.

This 6yo was named the second best whisky in the world by Jim Murray as recently as last year, and picked up the World's Best Rye award at the World Whiskies Awards, too, so it's got quite a pedigree. And we certainly enjoyed this one as well.

Very smooth, and someone suggested a touch of Parma Violets on the palate. Quite how anyone has the recall to remember exactly what Parma Violets taste like is beyond me, but we'll go with it anyway. It's 55% and £70. Whether that price tag is quite worth it was up for a bit of debate. But there's no question it's a very pleasant drop indeed.

Pikesville Straight Rye.
Next we went to Texas, and the Lone Star State's best-known distillery, Balcones. Based in the city of Waco, it has become quite the craft distilling powerhouse in recent years, previously under the stewardship of the now-departed enfant terrible of American distilling, Chip Tate (for more on the history of that relationship and Tate's new venture, check out this profile from the excellent Texas Monthly magazine).

We got stuck into their Texas Single Malt Whisky, the Balcones take on a Scottish single malt. Made using a process known as 'yard ageing' - allowing staves to be seasoned for two to three years rather than the more typical six to nine months before they are made into barrels - is what helps make this distinctive.

Balcones Single Malt.
It's absolutely terrific on the nose, and very biscuity. If anything it's not quite as spectacular on the palate, but regardless, everyone loved this. At 53% and £95 it's not cheap, but it is a great whisky (and yes, they call this one whisky rather than whiskey).

It was back to Kentucky for whisky number six, its capital city Frankfort and a name you may well be familiar with: the Buffalo Trace distillery. One of its best-known expressions is the George T Stagg, and we had a go at its little brother, the Stagg Jr.

Matured for nearly ten years and bottled at a not-insigificant 66%, it certainly packs a punch. Another great, bold whiskey, although for some in the room this was almost a bit too strong. Others picked out a bit of black cherry on the palate, although whether this was actual black cherries or black cherry yoghurt, is a discussion that may yet be continuing. It's £76.

Stagg Jr.
At this point we took a poll for dram of the night, and although there were a few votes elsewhere, there was a 9-9 draw between the Pikesville and the Balcones. Thankfully, we got a surprise opportunity to break the tie! There was an extra bottle for us to enjoy at the end, courtesy of Gareth from Maverick Drinks who joined us for the evening.

And it was another Balcones! This time, the Balcones Brimstone, a bottle dating from the days when Chip Tate was still involved with the distillery. After distillation he smoked the spirit and yes, it was certainly smoky.

Balcones Brimstone.
For folks who enjoy a peatier Islay this was something to savour, almost like a barbecue whisky. Or, as someone put it, it tastes of Frazzles (again, who has had Frazzles recently and can genuinely remember what they actually taste like? I think we should be told). Opinion was divided which led to a some memorable exchanges ("It's sooty!" "No it's not!") but then this was the seventh whisky of the night, so we can be forgiven for not exactly being at our conversational best. It's 53% and £78.

We re-ran the dram of the night vote and someone switched sides, giving the Balcones Texas Single Malt a 10-9 victory over the Pikesville Straight Rye. But in truth, this was a truly excellent tasting, one of the best ever: some of the other whiskies which didn't even feature in the voting might even have been drams of the night on other occasions. I think we'll all be taking a closer look at the American section of our favourite whisky retailers in future.

And so thanks to everyone for an excellent evening, but in particular Martin for selecting such a great group of drinks for us, Gareth for joining us and supplying that extra bonus bottle, and thanks also to everyone at the Britons for hosting us once again.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

These Are The Resurrected

This month's line up!
For April's tasting, Stina put together a line-up of whiskies from distilleries which had closed for a time, but which are now firmly back in production. Resurrected distilleries if you will. Well, it is Easter (ish).

Glen Keith 17yo
We tried them in pairs, with two bottles apiece from three distilleries. And the first place we visited was Glen Keith which hails from, perhaps unsurprisingly, the town of Keith in Aberdeenshire.

Probably best known as a regular in-joke on Sky's Soccer Saturday - where host Jeff Stelling enjoys kidding on that the town's Highland League side consists of just one bloke called Keith (Nurse! My sides!) - the town's eponymous distillery was mothballed for 14 years and only resumed service in 2013, under the ownership of Pernod Ricard (via Chivas).

Glen Keith 10yo
The first dram was a 17yo bottling, by way of Gordon and MacPhail's Connoisseur's Choice range. Distilled in 1996, so before the mothballing, it's 46% and will set you back £76. And very pleasant it is too, certainly on the nose where there's a lot of fruit going on: apple and banana in particular. An "easy drinker" for some that's "very light" on the palate, it did have a slightly harsh finish. If anything, it's possibly not quite worth that price tag.

We moved quickly on to the 10yo, a re-release of an expression the distillery used to bottle before the closure. There's certainly a family resemblance to the 17yo, with pear drops on the nose this time, although a more spicy, peppery taste on the palate. At 43% and £100 though, again the value for money isn't quite there.

Tamdhu Batch Strength 002
Our second distillery of the evening was another Speyside, Tamdhu, which is not too far along the A95 from Glen Keith. It was out of action between 2009 and 2012 when it was relaunched under the ownership of Ian Macleod, the maker of Glengoyne.

We got stuck in to the Batch Strength 002, a sherry monster clocking in at 58.5%. This is a sweet one, with notes of golden syrup and glacĂ© cherries bringing to mind your nan's baking cupboard. For some, water took that away a bit and made it spicier. Other comments included "oily" and "lubricating". Certainly drinkable, it's also decent value at £57.

Tamdhu 18yo
The second Tamdhu on the menu was an 18yo, bottled in 2016 by Hunter Laing at 52.2%. If anything, and maybe unsurprisingly, this felt a little thin after the blast of the Batch Strength. Lemon and vanilla were picked out, along with that dryness you associate with shortbread (presumably also from your nan's baking cupboard). Some drinkers really liked this one. It's £86.

After a break we were back and refreshed, ready for the final distillery of the evening, GlenDronach. Technically a Highland, it's not actually all that far geographically from the other two distilleries, located near Huntly again in Aberdeenshire. It was among the brands acquired by Jack Daniel's owner Brown-Forman last year, as part of its £285m purchase of BenRiach.

Glendronach 8yo
And what sort of whisky did they get for all that cash? Well, our verdict was, some pretty good stuff. We began with the 46% 8yo, also known as The Hielan'. We were getting sweet green apples on the nose, and plenty of vanilla too. This got a satisfied reception from the first taste, with a lot of lip smacking around the room. That only intensified when Stina told everyone the price - just £36.

There was much animated chat at this point about whether it was actually better than some of the others we'd had earlier in the evening, but there was no doubt this offered excellent value at such a price tag.

Glendronach 21yo
This brought us to the 21yo GlenDronach, known as Parliament. This is nothing to do with politics, though - it's named after the rooks that live in the trees near the distillery, although whether local MP Alex Salmond enjoys a dram of this or not isn't clear (he's certainly well aware of the distillery, urging it and others to use more local ingredients in this 2015 statement).

This is a heavily sherried whisky, thick and juicy like walnut cake. With both Oloroso and PX used in creating it, some wondered whether actually they ended up slightly cancelling each other out, with the nose generally preferred to the palate. The finish definitely had a taste of ginger biscuits about it. At 48% but £115, there were mixed views about whether this quite lived up to that billing.

However, when it came to the dram of the night voting: it was the GlenDronach 21yo Parliament that came out on top. Although loyalties were split among quite a few of the drams we tasted, so it wasn't a clear cut victory. A hung Parliament, if you will.

Thank you to Stina for selecting the evening's whiskies and putting together such an interesting line up, and to all club and waiting list members who attended: thanks also as ever to everyone at the Briton's Protection for hosting us once again.

Dram of the night voting!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A March Down Memory Lane

This month's line up.
We were asked to suggest drams for this month's Manchester Whisky Club tasting. Or, to be more accurate, we were asked to try to look back into the darkest, fuzziest corners of our teenage minds, to recall the first whiskies we ever tasted. Matthew's plan was to select some different (and, inevitably, higher-quality) drams from some well-known brands we might have long since stopped drinking. To make things a little trickier, we were tasting them blind.

Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select.
And we started off in America. Perhaps thankfully, not with Southern Comfort (still presumably trying to make 'SoCo' happen), but with a drop of Jack Daniel's. And where better to try it than the Briton's Protection, a pub with always has a wide selection of JD behind the bar and has even brought over its own 'Manchester cask' barrels of the stuff.

We weren't trying that, nor even the bog standard Sour Mash you sneaked out of your parents' booze cupboard when you were 15, but instead the Single Barrel Select, and an expression bottled for the French market. This was reminiscent of Speyside apple, and was, unsurprisingly for a bourbon, "a bit woody". We agreed we wouldn't normally have a JD but, yes, this was pretty nice. It's 47% and costs £63, possibly a bit over the odds all things considered.

BBR bottled Glen Moray 8yo.
The other four whiskies of the evening all came from Scotland, with two of them bottled by our friends at Berry, Bros and Rudd. The first was dram number two, an 8yo Glen Moray (Scottish pedants' corner: it's pronounced 'Murray'). Now, Glen Moray used to be the cheapest single malt you could get in most supermarkets, but it was probably always a bit better than that implied. And this particular bottling certainly went down well.

On the nose, this was all pear drops and green apples, and the taste was perhaps a little stronger than you might expect, although it still had a certain softness about it. For one club member this was "subtle, but it holds its own" while others described it as "quintessentially Speyside". This single cask expression comes in at 46% and is available at £45, good value indeed.

Glenmorangie Signet.
Onto dram number three, and this got mixed reviews on the nose. A bit rubbery, a touch of bubblegum, and soon we had it narrowed down to either Macallan or Glenmorangie. Those who went with the latter turned out to be right, but when Matthew revealed we were drinking a no age statement whisky with some 30yo stuff in it, there was quite a bit of surprise. Nobody really had it pegged for anything of that supposed quality.

The whisky in question was Glenmorangie Signet, 46% again, but setting you back £125. We didn't think this was worth it at all. As someone said: "the problem with this whisky is you can get three very good bottles for the same money," so it's doubtful this will be appearing in any of our kitchen cupboards soon.

Balvenie Doublewood 17yo.
The old yellow label of Balvenie was a familiar sight in supermarket booze aisles, and was presumably also familiar in the early drinking days of at least some club members, as we visited this distillery for dram four.  But we took things up a few notches for what turned out to be their 17yo.

This didn't have too much on the nose, but was very pleasant indeed on the palate. Dried fruit, toffee, banana and Christmas pudding all got a shout, so maybe it would taste a touch better in the depths of winter. But even so, this was highly drinkable and quite warming. At 43% and £93, this was certainly nice, but again, a bit expensive for what was in the bottle.

Another BBR, this one an 18yo Laphroaig.
And so to the end of the evening, and this one got quite a reaction as members took their first sniffs of it, with plenty of 'oohs' and 'aahs'. "You all sound like a bunch of drug addicts," said someone, which was probably fair enough, as everyone recognised the familiar scent of Islay in their nostrils.

This really was very pleasant indeed. There were quite a few suggestions of Lagavulin, but then, nobody could really believe that anyone's first whisky was a Lagavulin. And here I've got to declare an interest. My first whisky was a Laphroaig 10yo (a family thing, as there always seemed to be a bottle in the house, a tradition I somehow seem to have maintained) and this was a Laphroaig too, although something a bit more special. An 18yo from Berry, Bros and Rudd, and clocking in at 55.6%. It was £175, but good luck finding a bottle. It was, almost unanimously, dram of the night.

And that was it for another month. Thanks again to Matthew for selecting some great drams for us to try, and to the Briton's for again being excellent hosts. We've got the club AGM in April and then another tasting as usual at the end of the month. If there's anything we can be sure of, it's that ordering a 'SoCo and lime' still won't be a thing by then.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Homegrown Drams

This month's sheet.
Despite the best efforts of Storm Doris, club members gathered upstairs at the Briton's Protection for a night of 'homegrown' drams curated by Tom. The theme was that each whisky relies on locally-sourced ingredients as far as possible, and we certainly ended up trying a real range of drinks from different corners of the whisky world.

P&M 7yo.
We began in, of all unlikely places, Corsica. Perhaps best known as the birthplace of Napoleon, it's now also the home of P&M Whisky. A joint venture between the Pietra brewery and spirits maker Domaine Mavela, P&M has been producing whisky since 2004. We tried the 7yo single malt at 42%, which is made using not only local water and barley, but also old Corsican white wine casks for maturation.

This has a remarkable colour and smells more like brandy than whisky, with a real sweetness about it. But on the palate, the taste is much more dry and biscuity, and arguably this doesn't quite live up to the promise of the nose. A nice start to the evening nevertheless, though.

TBWC Slyrs 3yo.
It was on to Germany next. Or, to be more precise, Bavaria. Much better known for beer, sausages and, well, beer, the region is also the location of the Slyrs distillery. We got our hands on a 3yo expression bottled at 52.5% by That Boutiquey Whisky Company. In fact, it was bottle number 691 out of 691, although there are apparently others still available if you look in the right places (ours cost £65 including delivery).

Everything's local again for this one, except the American oak barrels. And as an extra treat, the malt is dried using the same method as Bamberg's famous smoked rauchbier. It's lovely on the nose, and smells a bit like pear drops. You certainly know you've drunk it too, and someone commented that it "sticks to the sides on the way down". In a good way, of course.

Gold Cock 20yo.
Next, we moved further east to try Czech whisky Gold Cock. If you've never heard of it, then you're not alone. Perhaps the owner, local brandy producer Jelinek, might consider a rebrand to help break the international market.

This is a 20yo at 49.2%, and a still-reasonable-despite-the-international-delivery £62. The oak is Czech, and the barley is from Moravia, so again it's got some impressively local credentials. But the drink itself is a bit of a mixed bag. With some spice on the nose, there's an overwhelming taste of salt and especially black pepper. Distinctive, although some were hoping for a bit more from a whisky of that age.

Tekton 4yo.
After the half-time interval, we resumed with a trip to mainland France. After Armorik of Brittany sauntered off with victory in our Six Nations special this time last year, the club has been well disposed to French whisky. But this time we were going to virtually the other end of the country, for a taste of Tekton whisky from the Alps.

A 4yo single cask at 52%, this has a nose you might charitably describe as "organic". Less charitable comments included "it smells like a pet shop". The palate also got a general thumbs down, reminding club members of cod liver oil, tins of sardines and a forest.

Ichiro's Malt MWR.
As someone put it: "I'm a little bit undecided. Actually, I'm quite decided." This is a special anniversary bottling at £129. It's fair to say nobody is rushing straight out to get one.

We've had a fair amount of Japanese whisky at the club over the years, not least at the recent Nikka tasting. But dram number five took us further south in the Land of the Rising Sun, to the Chichibu distillery and Ichiro's Malt.

This is named for its creator Ichiro Akuto, who wants to create whisky that is as Japanese as possible (a common critique of existing Japanese whiskies is that they are very Scottish in style), and this particular dram is the Mizunara Wood Reserve, the Japanese oak well-known for being both distinctively flavourful and extremely expensive. Sure enough it smells beautiful, and it has a very pleasant soft taste on the palate. But the club consensus was that, for £100ish, this 46% probably isn't worth the asking price.

Mackmyra Svensk Ek.
The night finished closer to home with a visit to Mackmyra of Sweden. Specifically, the Svensk Ek no age statement dram. This is a distillery which again goes to some lengths to make sure it keeps things as local as possible, even using oak originally planted in the 19th century to make ships for the Swedish navy.

This particular oak is said to give the whisky a bit of spice, and we certainly picked that up on the finish in particular. There are some other subtle flavours on show and, at £45 for a 46% whisky, it's good value, too.

The dram of the night voting went the way of... number two! The 3yo TBWC Slyrs from Bavaria picked up 11 votes. Probably the greatest cultural moment for Germany since Nena was top of the charts with 99 Red Balloons.

Thanks to everyone for coming to another successful tasting, and in particular to both the Briton's Protection for being gracious hosts once again, and to Tom for his excellent research and presentation of a series of fascinating and unusual drinks!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Port Askaig Tasting

The first five bottles of the evening.
Manchester Whisky Club returned for 2017 the evening after Burns Night, with a line up of whiskies from Port Askaig to ease us into the new year. Mariella from Speciality Drinks was there to take us through the range, including a bottle of an expression yet to hit the market.

The 8yo.
But first we got acquainted with the two whiskies which make up Port Askaig's core offering. The name comes from an Islay village and ferry terminal (this last description may be pushing it a bit - "basically just a jetty" was the consensus of those club members who've made the journey), but it's not actually a distillery itself.

Instead, Speciality Drinks uses the name as a brand to showcase a variety of Islay flavours from different distilleries. Mariella emphasised their range is about a more welcoming type of Islay whisky, retaining the key characteristics of the island's drams while not attempting to overpower drinkers in a fug of smoke.

That was on display straight from the off with Port Askaig's 8yo. The entry level whisky of the range, this was a nice and salty, fresh-tasting drink.

The 100 proof.
There was also a definite mixture of citrus and creaminess, especially in the aftertaste, as if we'd had a lemon meringue pie chaser. Which, on reflection, is something we should definitely suggest for a future tasting.

The 8yo is, in common with most Port Askaig whiskies, 45.8% and comes in at £40, a very reasonable price point for something that is always available.

Next was the 100 proof, a good deal stronger at 57.1% but only a little more expensive at £45. It's unheard of these days to get an Islay whisky at that strength for that price, so the Port Askaig offers excellent value.

The brand new 15yo.
It's got butter, vanilla and ice cream, and we tried it with some dark mint chocolate supplied by Mariella for the occasion. This certainly made it less peaty, although the chocolate seemed to do more for the whisky than the mint - so if you're getting a bottle you probably don't need to also order a hundredweight of After Eights.

Moving onto the evening's small batch whiskies, we started with a bottle which won't be available for another couple of months. It's a new 15yo (so not the 15yo Port Askaig currently on the market) and it's the first sherry cask to emerge under the Port Askaig brand.

This was absolutely fantastic on the nose. There was a bit of smoke, but again it was more salty if anything, and Mariella pointed out notes of Moroccan spices and dates. If anything the nose slightly outshone the palate, but there was an almost unanimous feeling that this is one to look forward to very much. The price is still TBC.

The 16yo.
There was a bit more sherry in evidence for dram number four, the 16yo. This was a more autumnal beast, with chestnuts, red fruits and a distinct tobacco nose - halfway to Christmas as someone suggested.

Feelings were more mixed with some very positive comments alongside some more negative ones, as some club members have a well-signposted aversion to the particular distillery (which begins with A and rhymes with 'hardbeg') from where this was sourced.

The 19yo.
We had a bit more chocolate here too, this time orangey. This certainly brought something out in it again, although one view was that the chocolate was a bit on the bitter side for the whisky.

Courageously we ploughed on to the fifth drink of the evening, and a redoubtable 19yo which Mariella described as classic "hip flask whisky". Heathery on the nose, the aftertaste had some more unexpected fruitiness in it. You could even say it went a bit tropical, which is not a word you typically associate with Islay, but there you have it.

Extremely pleasant and clocking in at just over 50%, it's £100 or thereabouts.

The 30yo.
We saved the elder statesman of the range to last. The 30yo was very robust, with a full-on flavour. Certainly the most obviously Islay whisky of the night, it had the clearest smoky and peaty notes. "Stunning" as someone called it.

But on the other hand, and as predicted by Mariella at the beginning of the evening, it wasn't overpowering, and was definitely highly drinkable. As well it might be for £375! Given the value provided by other bottles in the range, perhaps it's not one too many club members are likely to invest in, at least not this side of payday.

And so to the voting for dram of the night. These were relatively evenly spread, with all-but-one whisky attracting at least a couple of votes. But it was number three, the as-yet-unreleased sherry monster, which came out on top.

Thanks to all club members and those from the waiting list who attended to get 2017 off to a strong start, and in particular thanks to both the Britons Protection and Mariella, for putting on such a great evening.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Manchester Whisky Club Christmas Party 2016

There was plenty of whisky.
Another successful year of Manchester Whisky Club concluded last Thursday with our annual Christmas party. As is now traditional, all of the bottles sampled at tastings throughout the year were brought back for everyone to try again amid a general atmosphere of festive cheer.

The homemade Laphroaig-infused tablet.
We had 28 members in attendance, who also got to pick from a cracking buffet spread. Perhaps most excitingly, this included an incredible array of homemade sausage rolls, cakes and much else besides, including TheGreedyGirl's famous Laphroaig tablet.

We didn't quite manage to get through all the food, so the lucky drinkers downstairs at the Briton's Protection got an unexpected snack at the end of their evenings, too.

There was one new dram for everyone to try on the way in. And that turned out to be the extremely pleasant 28yo Glen Marnoch, a sherried Speyside available in Aldi this Christmas. An absolute steal at £40 or so, if you're lucky enough to to find one still on the shelves, or perhaps hidden behind the stack of leftover decorations.

It's certainly far superior than the bottle of Lidl 'Highland Black' from our blind supermarket tasting, which resurfaced only to spend the night looking rather unloved in the middle of one of the tables, the unfortunately unwanted ghost of Christmas past.

Exactly where 'Glen Marnoch' is isn't clear. It's not a real place, just a brand name Aldi uses for its assorted whiskies. But it had the Christmas cake and icing sugar taste of a Glenfarclas, or something along those lines.

Our favourite bottles of the year.
In past years we've done a draw for our favourite bottles of the year, so everyone could go home with the remains of something good.

But with consistently high attendance at the tastings during 2016, many of the bottles only had a little left, so instead we decided to simply keep the most popular drams back initially before opening things up to more of a free-for-all as the night went on.

Anyone for Cadenhead's?
And that really does underline how successful the club has been during its fourth year.  The number of members at each tasting has regularly been in the mid to high 20s, and we've welcomed a considerable number of new ones from the waiting list during 2016.

Particular thanks for this are due not only to those new faces for making such enthusiastic contributions to the club but also to the committee - Martin, Matthew, Stina and Tom - for putting in the time and effort to build on Andy's hard work and keep the club going in good order and constantly finding some imaginative and interesting whiskies for us to try.

Thanks also once again to all at the Briton's Protection, as well as to those distilleries who came to visit us this year.

We're already looking forward to more of all this in 2017.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Nikka In November

The evening's line-up (we started on the right).
Stef Holt from Speciality Brands rejoined us this month to lead us through a range of whiskies from the Nikka distillery in Japan. Having treated us to India's Amrut back in August, the upstairs room at the Briton's Protection was once again full as club members settled in for the evening.

Stef kicks the evening off.
The history of Japanese whisky is certainly an interesting and remarkable one. And, thanks to Stef's hugely enjoyable presentation to start the night off, we all now know a lot more about it!

The founder of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru, is known as the father of Japanese whisky, and with good reason. Not only was he the first master distiller with Suntory, but he later struck out on his own to establish its great rival Nikka in 1934.

He had a vision of making whisky in Japan the way the Scots did, having himself studied chemistry in Glasgow and gained experience working at a trio of distilleries alongside his studies.

Dram number 1.
Not only that, but he also acquired a Scottish wife, Rita, who accompanied him back to Japan once he had learned his trade. There's been a lot of interest in them of late, because of a drama series loosely based on their lives broadcast on NHK.

If you want to get a flavour of it, I managed to find a clip on YouTube:

Dram number 2
Apparently it's been quite the ratings sensation, and has helped spur a renewed interest in domestic whisky in Japan. So if you struggle to get hold of a bottle of any of the Nikka drams we tried, that'll be why.

Anyway, on to the whiskies themselves and we began with two drinks distilled in Coffey stills. That's Coffey with a y, named for the Irishman who patented the design, Aeneas Coffey. Whether he may have, ahem, borrowed some of it is a source of some debate, but he got his patent in first which is after all the important thing.

The Coffey is a form of column still and Nikka uses it to create both a grain and a malt whisky. We had the grain first and some of the notes on the nose were immediately reminiscent of American oak, including vanilla and butterscotch.

Dram number 3.
It was also buttery, and Stef billed it to us as being toast, butter and marmalade - a breakfast whisky! It was an easy-to-drink 45% and decent value at £55, despite being pricier than most grains.

Its malt brother, clocking in at the same ABV and price, won more praise though. A bit sweeter, with a nose of hot chocolate or even milky coffee ("a disappointing latte" as someone put it). The butter was replaced by a treacly toffee, like the best parkin. Possibly one to invest in for next Bonfire Night.

Having tried two grains we now got into two single malts, hailing from the two Japanese distilleries operated by Nikka. Miyagikyo was the second of those to be established, in a hilly, central area of the country reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands or Speyside.

Dram number 4.
With stocks dwindling a little, Nikka's previous range of Miyagikyo has been consolidated into a single product, which Stef reckons is reminiscent of the previous 10yo and 12yo expressions. And with a definite sherry influence, it certainly does taste like a Speyside!

The contrast in the locations of Nikka's distilleries was emphasised when we got stuck into the Yoichi next. This was the first distillery established by Taketsuru, and he chose a site by a rivermouth and the sea in Japan's chilly north.

Once again there's just one Yoichi single malt now on the market, which Stef advised tasted similar to the previous 10yo. And this one had the coastal, salty, oily taste you'd expect from a Scottish whisky created in a similar landscape, although the peatiness is less upfront, more on the tongue and further back in the mouth.

Dram 5: Super Nikka Revival.
Perhaps it's the Japanese influence playing tricks on us, but this one seemed to have a bit of soy sauce about it. The club consensus was that this may have just shaded the Miyagikyo. Both are 45% and expect to pay around £70.

After our mid-tasting break we were back to try three blended whiskies. And we were also back to the story of the Taketsurus. On Rita's death, Masataka created a whisky in her memory, and the company has recently brought it back with the Super Nikka Revival: slightly citrussy, a bit peaty, and very drinkable.

Only 600 bottles came to the UK, so there aren't loads kicking about. It's £50 and 43%, and offers a window into what Japanese whisky tasted like in the early 1960s. The backstory helped win it a bit of popularity among the club's more romantic members, too.

Dram number 6.
We finished off with two of the three from Nikka's Pure Malt range, the Pure Malt Red and the Pure Malt Black. The Red features a blend of medium-peated Miyagikyo and unpeated Yoichi, and is billed as "fruity and soft".

This attracted a fair bit of comment around the room, with one common statement being that it "doesn't taste like it smells". This could have been because we'd had it straight after number 5, so that softness got a little lost. As someone noted, it almost tasted "like juice".

Dram 7: Pure Malt Black.
Perhaps unfortunately for the Pure Malt Red, its Black cousin rounded the evening off in storming style. Dubbed "smoky and mellow", this flipped the components round, giving us a medium-peated Yoichi and an unpeated Miyagikyo.

This really was an instant favourite. Not just smoky but also peaty, although as with the earlier Yoichi single malt, the peat wasn't a punch-in-the-face job. The Japanese seem to prefer to tame their peaty notes a little, and it works a treat on this dram. At just £42, phones were out and orders were being made while some of us were still finishing our glasses.

Despite some strong competition, it was indeed the Pure Malt Black which took the Dram of the Night vote. Another successful evening then, and thanks to both Stef for her excellent guidance, and the Briton's Protection for being gracious hosts, as ever.