Saturday, May 31, 2014

Battle of the Drams! Drampionship Fighting presents 'Blends vs Malts'

It's an age old argument in pubs across the land. Tempers fray, arguments rage, friendships are broken, all against the ancient question that has plagued whisky lovers throughout history: Is blended whisky better or worse than a single malt?

When a distillery runs a batch of whisky, the finished whisky can either be bottled as it is or it can be blended with many other single malts from other distilleries by a master blender who seeks to give it certain qualities that can have a broader appeal.

You could view a single malt as a young independent band down the pub with raw sound, unkempt looks and bags of character. The blend is an altogether more considered beast: the band is immaculate, the sound is rounded and carefully produced and mastered and the music is altogether more even-keeled and established.

Throughout the vast majority of the history of commercial whisky production, the single malt spirit produced in most distilleries ended up being used as a blending component in one of the major blends. Brands like Ballantines, Grouse and Johnnie Walker continue to claim almost every drop of whisky produced in Scotland today. Even now when the demand for single malt has never been higher, blends obviously have a huge global appeal in spite of many aficionados kicking them to the gutter in disgust.

Some people find single malts weird, geeky, hard to understand. Others find blends predictable, boring and tedious.

So.... who's right?

Gathered in the Castle pub in Manchester's Northern Quarter, a fine array of intrepid individuals settle in to answer this question once and for all! Six drams. Three single malts. Three blends. No labels.

Yes, folks - this is a blind tasting. So, without further ado...

Round One

In the red corner, we have Mystery Dram #1

Nose: Apple, pineapple, fruit salad sweets, apricots
Palate: Sweet, coconut biscuit, wood
Finish: Peppery, a little chalky

Overheard: "Smells like it could hurt", "Pineappley", "Coconut", "Sweet", "Little bit offensive", "Slightly stale bounty bar", "Orchard fruits"

In the blue corner, unfazed by Mystery Dram #1's swagger, Mystery Dram #2 squares up.

Nose: Rubbing alcohol, floor polish
Palate: Nutmeg, oily, lip-smacking, toffee chew, sultanas
Finish: Chilli pepper, tingly

Overheard: "Legs are good", "Lot deeper than the first", "More spices", "Darker colour", "Thicker, oiler mouthfeel", "Chewy", "Slow legs - like slugs going down the glass"


Red stumbles out into the ring, dazed and confused. Blue swoops in for the kill. It's brutal, folks - red's being pummeled against the ropes. The punch flies in and it's a knockout from blue in the first round. A smug look on its face, the blue stands victorious - in spite of a nondescript nose, the dram's got bags of flavour.

A clear favourite, the blue wins by a country mile. But which was the blend?

Putting it to the vote, 3 of the club say the red (now unconscious on the floor) was the single malt, 11 confidently say it was blue...

... and they were WRONG!

Mystery Dram #1 (the red corner) was our first single malt, the Knappogue Castle 1995, 40% ABV.

Knappogue Castle was distilled by Bushmills in 1995 and bottled in 2007, the oldest in their range at a full 12 years.

Mystery Dram #2 (the blue corner) was Teeling Small Batch, 46% ABV. Another Irish whiskey but this time most definitely a blend.

With a high malt content, this whiskey is one of 2018 bottles and is finished in rum casks for a bit of extra spice. It's won plenty of awards, too.

Hoodwinked and bamboozled by the cunning pair of Irish drams, the club soldiers on to...

Round Two

In the red corner,  Mystery Dram #3 dives onto the stage in a flamboyant show of bravado.

Nose: Subtle peat, salad leaves, flowers, nail polish
Palate: Allspice, caramel, biscuit, dried fruit
Finish: Short finish, tingly, peppery and drying - probably sherried

Quotes: "Smells like a blend", "Really nice", "Little bit soily, peaty", "Caol Ila?"

In the blue corner, Mystery Dram #4 shouts in jest at the crowd.

Nose: Pepper, dried fruit
Palate: Watery, sweet, slightly salty, touch of redcurrant
Finish: Spicy, cinnamon

Quotes: "Much darker", "Not keen"


Red is full of confidence, dancing around a limp and confused blue. What will happen next? Will the single malt be the one to come out victorious this round?

More importantly, which whisky is the single malt and which is the blend??

Put it to a vote, 8 hands say the red is the single malt, 6 hands say blue...

Turns out, the red was the blend this time! How deliciously devious!

Mystery Dram #3 (the red corner) was Spice King from Wemyss Malts, 40% ABV.

This whisky uses component island whiskies that are each aged 12 years and it won Best Blended Scotch in 2013 at the World Whiskies Awards.

Mystery Dram #4 (the blue corner) was Fettercairn's Fior, 42% ABV.

Not sure what else to say about it, really.... I suppose it has a unicorn on the label. That's quite fun.

So, all in all, a tighter round this one, but still the club's no nearer to getting the call right. How will the fight end? Let's move on to the final round...

Third (and final) Round

In the red corner, Mystery Dram #5 steps up fresh and spoiling for a rumble.

Nose: Touch of peat, toffee, apricot, banana, grass, milk chocolate
Palate: Sweet, lemon tart, peat smoke
Finish: Chalky texture, a little spice, very smooth

Quotes: "Pleasant nose", "Water improves it a lot", "Boozey on the nose without water", "Galoshes", "Generic whisky", "whisky flavoured whisky"

In the blue corner, Mystery Dram #6 bellows out across the ring to intimidate its opponent.

Nose: Smoky bacon, frazzles, umami, smoke, soil
Palate: Salty, churro doughnuts, (with water) rice pudding and cinnamon
Finish: Very thin and light, almost watery, evaporates in your mouth

Quotes: "Mmm", "wow", "Most interesting nose of the night", "Fat-greasy-guy-in-a-shirt-style doughnuts", "I enjoyed smelling it, not so much tasting it"


A much more even match this one, some love, some hate on both sides. The whiskies duck and weave and hold their ground... who will come out victorious?

The final show of hands: 7 say the red is the single malt, 4 say it's the blue.

And the result is.... red is the blend again!

Mystery Dram #5 (the red corner) is a sneaky peated contender from the Far East - the Japanese Nikka White blend, 43% ABV.

Mystery Dram #6 (the blue corner) is our single malt, the lightly peated Moch from Caol Ila, 43% ABV.

Post Match Round-Up

The results are in, folks; and it's a shocking conclusion. The winner of the battle of blends vs single malts? Apparently, it's the whisky - the club itself has no idea what's going on!

Interestingly, blends were most popular each round. And the majority vote for blend vs single malt was consistently wrong for all three rounds.

After a show of hands, Caol Ila Moch was declared the overall champion and crowned Dram of the Night*.

A final award for the most insightful comment: "Blended whisky brings out the macabre in people."

Fight's over folks, see you next time.

*That's the best dram of the night, not some horror film about a fiendish, coffin-dwelling Dram of Darkness that sneaks into people's whisky cabinets and replaces all their whisky with Fettercairn.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Old & Rare II

April's whisky club saw us tackle our second Old & Rare night since forming in 2012.

A good turn out formed the basis of a great evening. Here's how it went...

Glenmorangie 10yr (Bottled early 1990's) - 40%

First things first, "That's not old or rare!" we hear you cry. Sure it might not be wielding a zimmer frame at a spritely 10 years but this particular bottling was bottled in either 1993 or 94 and was therefore distilled in the 1980's.

We also put this side by side with a modern bottling of Glenmorangie 'Original' which replaced the official 10 yr bottling in the early to mid 2000's.

The 1990's bottle displayed a fresher, more herbal characteristic than its newer sibling, with a whiff of green apple and cereals too. Much warmer and spicier on the palate with a good oily mouth feel.

The modern Original bottling is a bit sweeter as well as creamy although retaining some of the green fruit qualities of the older bottling but lacking in the finish.

Overall there was a general consensus that the older style of whisky was better although there wasn't a huge amount of difference "It's still just Glenmorangie" was mentioned, fair enough.

Purchased at auction for £35 excl postage and auction costs

Aberfeldy 27yr Old - The Creative Whisky Co - 43.4%

The first of the independent bottlings of the night, this 27yr old Aberfeldy, again purchased at auction, was bottled in either 2010 or 2011 after being distilled on the 9th November 1983.

Aberfeldy is a Dewar's owned distillery with the majority of production going into the company's own blended whiskies. Dewar's as a brand are owned by world famous Bacardi

Aberfeldy is available as a single malt in the distillery bottling range that includes a 12 year old, 16 year old and a 21 year old among others.

This dram had a rich hue indicating some time spent in a refill sherry cask of some sort or a decent hogshead with a nose of Demerara sugar, a touch of fig and various dried herbs. The palate was admittedly a bit of a let down in many respects but offered a touch of liquorice and strawberry jam.

Not a bad effort. The creative whisky Co don't appear to have bottled anything since 2010 and their bottling's aren't often found in normal circles. We're not sure if these chaps are still going or not.

The bird on the label is quite pleasing, however, the dog on the back of the box provided a bit of a laugh to everyone.. We're all mature adults here at the Manchester Whisky Club and since we're all mature adults we decided to have a drawing contest to see if someone in the club was suppressing a hidden talent for drawing dogs... The results are in, aaaand they're still sh*t but much better than the one on the box!

Since the Markies addiction, Spot the dog had really let himself go.

..... The results are in, aaaand they're still sh*t, but more importantly, much better than the one on the box!

Purchased at auction for £80 excl postage and auction costs

Strathmill 26yr Old - - 50.4%

Watch not included.
Next up, a 26yr old Strathmill from Another single cask offering but this time from a distillery that makes up part of Diageo's portfolio to supply the huge demand for blended whisky.

Strathmill is an integral part in the famous Blended whisky J&B Rare. The only official bottlings are a 12 year old in Diageo's Flora & Fauna range and a single cask release as part of Diageo's Manager's Choice range.

Whisky Broker is run by Martin Armstrong, son of Ray Armstrong recently of the fantastic but sadly closed Bladnoch Distillery. Martin selects some fantastic casks.

Strathmill is a very overlooked Speyside distillery that has had a very stable/uneventful past. This particular bottling was distilled on the 18th March 1988 and matured for 26 years in a refill Hogshead cask before being bottled on the 19th March 2014.

Despite maturation in a refill Hoggy this bottling has a very rich and luscious nose with chocolate, fruit preserve, strong biscuit like malt and icing sugar. The palate is spicy, rich and warming with cinnamon, pink peppercorn and warm custard.

Fantastic value for money at £65, keep up the good work Martin!

Highland Park 28yr Old - Cadenhead's - 48.3%

Yup, another bottle at the Manchester Whisky Club from Cadenhead's.. seeing a pattern?

This particular bottle comes in the very delightful form of a 28 year old Highland Park from the windswept island of Orkney. Orkney is famous for its Scandanavian and Celtic heritage. Highland Park recently released Viking warrior related releases and very collectible Pagan God releases including Thor, Loki and more recently, Freya.

Matured for 28 years in a Bourbon Hogshead this bottling was distilled in 1985 before being bottled in October 2013.

The nose is initially very sweet and surprisingly fruity! Pears and plums galore, the official tasting notes mention black wine gums which are nearly there but there's also an aniseed-y element too with the peat slowly coming into play.

The palate is surprisingly smooth, again carrying a great oily mouth coating texture, salt?, a bit of citrus and a nice soft peat element alongside.

This is a very good whisky indeed, another fine example of choice single casks picked and bottled at the right time. Not what you might expect from Highland Park in comparison to the core range but well worth the £125 spent.

Caol Ila 29yr Old - Cadenhead's Small Batch- 55.5%

So we're onto our final bottle of the night and what do we have..

A 29 year old Caol Ila.

Another Cadenhead's bottling? Yup, they bottle some damn good whisky and they know what they're doing. If you've never tried one of their bottlings before, seek one out.

This Caol Ila was distilled in 1984, matured for 29 years in a Hogshead and bottled in 2013. As Islay whisky goes Caol Ila is one of the most popular, their 12 year old is a fantastic introduction to smoky styles.

A large amount of Caol Ila's production is transported from Islay onto the mainland to mature in Diageo's vast warehousing network. So whilst this is an Islay malt it has no doubt spent the majority of its time on the mainland.

This particular dram has kept it's strength very well indeed considering the 29 years it has spent maturing.

The nose is enveloping in richness. Smoked meats but also herbs, toffee and peat. The palate is peat led but is also very refined, dark chocolate, marzipan and cinder toffee start to develop. The 29 Caol Ila is a dram that just really topped the night off and kept on giving.

£125 from Cadenhead's online shop.

A fantastic tasting with a lot of variety and uniqueness. Overall the Caol Ila came out on top with the Highland Park a close second and the Strathmill a very close third.

In May we're on course to tackle another Blended whisky night! This time a head to head for Blends Vs Malts, who wins, we'll soon see!