Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Best of The Whisky Exchange Show

The November line-up.
Committee members Martin, Anna and Adam came back from a visit to The Whisky Exchange's whisky show in London clutching two bottles each. And so it was that the club membership gathered upstairs at the Briton's Protection on the last Thursday in November to knock through them all in the usual style.

G&M Macduff 18yo
None of the six whiskies on show were standard distillery bottlings with a range of independents represented. And we kicked off with one of the oldest and best-known names in the field, Gordon & Macphail.

This was an 18yo from the Macduff distillery. On the Moray Firth coast, the distillery's official bottlings appear under the name Glen Deveron, named for the local river, so expressions under the Macduff name are the preserve of indies only.

On this occasion we were drinking a 58% whisky that was big and strong straight away. We got pear drops and vanilla, and one of the tasting notes which struck a particular chord was grapefruit. Some drinkers thought this started off well but perhaps didn't quite live up it, with the alcohol coming through a bit much. It was £100 but is now sold out.

27yo Bunnahabhain
We're not necessarily big fans of spending large sums of money on packaging, but even we had to admit the box for our next bottle was very nice indeed. What was inside was a 27yo Bunnahabhain, part of the rather premium Single Malts of Scotland range from Speciality Drinks, which is in turn another part of The Whisky Exchange business.

This went down a storm. Very smooth, with a definite hint of butter - like melting butter on a crumpet as someone put it. There was definitely some citrus around too. A bottle will set you back £230 though! So although a lovely drop, perhaps not quite worth the price tag. It's a very drinkable 48.4%.

Another distillery which relatively rarely appears under its own name is Glen Elgin, and that's where he went for the third dram of the evening.

22yo Glen Elgin
Glen Elgin is most commonly used in the White Horse blend, still one of the biggest sellers worldwide. But we had a 22yo single malt bottling from Signatory to try.

We were told the distillery is noted for producing particularly fruity drinks, in part because of a long fermentation process. And this was certainly fruity, with a waxiness about it too.

Certainly a good drink but trying to follow those opening two drams, which had both been particularly punchy, was always going to be hard. So it maybe wasn't surprising this divided the room a little more. It's 49.5% and comes in at £107.

After a half-time break and a chance to refill our pint glasses downstairs at the Briton's, it was back for the next three whiskies, and we went west to Ben Nevis.

21yo Ben Nevis
This was a 21yo sherry cask whisky, clocking in at 47.5%, bottled by The Whisky Exchange under a range it's calling The Future of Whisky - this particular dram apparently representing 'Past Future' because it was what people used to think the future of whisky would be like.

By the time we'd got our heads around the logic of that, this particular dram was already in our past. We felt that while the bottle looked as snazzy as the concept, the contents possibly didn't quite live up to that promise.

But then again, after a couple of memorable, flavourful whiskies to start the evening, anything coming along later was maybe inevitably on a bit of a hiding to nothing. At £130, we weren't reaching for our phones to order any bottles, although they seem to have sold out anyway.

14yo Hunter Laing Glenrothes
The sherry theme continued with whisky number five, but this was more of a full-on sherry monster. From the Glenrothes distillery, it was a 14yo bottling by Hunter Laing and its First Editions range.

This proved very popular with the membership, although with many having a known taste for big sherried whiskies this wasn't much of a surprise!

A couple of the tasting notes from the drinkers in the room were maple syrup and chocolate which probably says it all. It's 49.8% and at £73 or thereabouts doesn't represent the worst value in the world, especially if your Christmas list is looking a little bare.

12yo Ledaig
The last dram was a 12yo Ledaig from the Tobermory distillery in Mull, again bottled as part of The Whisky Exchange's The Future of Whisky range, this time representing 'Present Future'.

Another sherry cask one here, but much more of a peat king. By this stage of the evening my notes had become predictably short, and all I managed to get down was "we loved it". It's 58.4% and was £80 but has already all gone, sadly.

The voting for dram of the night came down to a straight fight between the Bunnahabhain and the Ledaig, with the Bunna taking it by 12 votes to 11, with three other whiskies getting two votes each.

Thank you to everyone old and new who attended another extremely busy tasting, as well as to the Britons for hosting us and in particular to Anna, Martin and Adam for coming back from the show which such an interesting and excellent range of drinks for us to try. Up next: it's the Christmas party!

Here they all are.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Berry, Bros. & Rudd Special

October's line up
We were delighted to welcome a special guest to lead our October tasting. It was none other than Rob Whitehead, spirits buyer at legendary London wine and spirits merchant Berry, Bros. and Rudd. And he brought along six bottles of BBR whisky from his stash to share with us, which was very decent of him.

Cutty Black.
All of the tasting was done blind and we began with a blend. This had a bit of spice about it, as well as smoky and syrupy notes. A bit of everything, in fact, which Rob explained was because blends are, well, a bit of everything. This particular one was a very easy drinker at 40%, and soft on the palate.

It turned out to be Cutty Sark, or at least a version of the famous blend dating from the early 2000s, Cutty Black (it's no longer on the market). BBR created the blend for the American market in the midst of prohibition back in the 1920s, and it ultimately grew to become the world's largest whisky brand, and was still among the leading ones when BBR finally sold it in 2010 to Famous Grouse owners the Edrington Group. As Rob told us, the profits from Cutty Sark helped BBR stay independent throughout the 20th century and beyond, allowing it to continue to develop into the independent booze powerhouse it remains today.

Invergordon 29yo
It was onto a single grain for dram number two. This got us in mind of liquorice or aniseed on the nose, and maybe a bit of sweetness and candyfloss on the palate.

Rob told us that this was exactly what you would expect from an... Invergordon. Probably better known as a port, the town also has a significant grain distillery owned by Whyte & Mackay. This particular bottle was 46% and 29-years-old when it was bottled in 2017 but was initially incorrectly labelled as a single malt so had to be sent back for re-packaging. As with all the other whiskies we tasted, there don't seem to be any bottles left for sale, though.

Glencadam 21yo
Things moved up a notch for the third whisky, the first cask strength drink of the evening. This was strong, oily and chewy, with a very distinctive texture. Rob told us this last point was something particularly important to BBR's lead spirits buyer Doug McIvor, who apparently loves whisky with a good texture about it. This bottle might have been a bit nutty, it certainly stuck to the palate. In general, we liked this one but not everyone was totally convinced. 

This turned out to be a 21yo from the Glencadam distillery in Brechin. With a dash of water it was perhaps a bit nicer, slightly dampening down the alcohol while keeping that distinctive oily quality. It was also a bit citrussy, with some club members picking up a bit of pineapple. This was bottled in 2011 at 56.6%.

Islay Reserve.
After a break for half-time and a recharge of our pint glasses at the Briton's Protection bar, it was on to the fourth whisky of the night and this was so peaty it could not really be from anywhere other from Islay.

It was BBR's Islay Reserve, the result Rob said of "trying to put Islay in a bottle". It's a blend, with seven casks and three whiskies from two different distilleries inside. There were peated and unpeated whiskies from Bunnahabhain as well as some Caol Ila. For Rob this was a "nice gateway drug" into the world of Islay whiskies, and we couldn't really disagree with that. It's 46%.

Bowmore 8yo
We were back to a single malt whisky for dram five, and it was single cask too. Again there was peat influence here, along with lots of wood influence from the first fill bourbon cask. We liked the finish of this very much, a little bit of spice and fruit in there rather than just full on smoke.

Again we were on Islay, but this time Bowmore for an 8-year-old bottled for La Maison du Whisky in Paris back in 2010. This was once again 46%.

The evening finished with something a bit special, and also a return to cask strength. This had a fair amount of peat in it, along with fruit and also olives. It took a while for the peat to come out though, and as Rob explained, this was perhaps a good example of an older style peated whisky, less concerned with hitting you over the head with its peatiness as some are today.

Caol Ila 31yo
It was a 31-year-old Caol Ila, distilled in 1979 and bottled in 2010. Sadly this was the last bottle! Apparently one went for £500 online recently, so it was particularly kind of Rob to share this particular drop with us.

And so onto the dram of the night voting. The sign of a good tasting is a mixture of whiskies getting support from the club members, and on this occasion every dram got at least one vote with the exception of the Cutty Sark, and even then plenty in the room said they'd have ranked it highly they'd had the chance.

The Invergordon did well with seven votes, but it was the Caol Ila at the end that just trumped it with 10 (I've actually written '10-ish' in my notes, but it was definitely the winner anyway). A special thanks to Rob for coming up from London and producing such a fascinating range of drinks for us all to try, to all club members old and new for another excellent turnout, and of course to all at the Briton's for hosting us once again.

Here they all are.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Rye Hard

The Rye Hard line-up!
There was another first for the Manchester Whisky Club's September tasting: an evening of drinking rye. Tim had selected six drinks for us to sample and expand our whisky horizons, or should that be ho-rye-zons? (No)

Koval Rye Whiskey.
We started off with a rye from Koval, a distillery that was Chicago's first new one in more than a century when it was established in 2008. We tried their single barrel variety called simply Koval Rye Whiskey, the term rye whiskey meaning (in the US at least) a drink made from a mash of at least 51% rye.

The Koval got an enthusiastic response from most of the room straight away. "Chewy" offered a couple of drinkers, with definite bits of honey and maybe maple syrup in there too. The overwhelming taste was a peppery spiciness though. If you can find one still available it's £43 for a 50cl bottle, with an ABV of 40%. A strong start to the night!

We stayed with a Koval theme for dram number two. In this case, it was not a rye as such, but a bottle of the familiar Caol Ila Islay malt, finished in a Koval cask by independent bottler Valinch and Mallet for their Peaty DNA collection.

V&M Caol Ila 6yo.
Given the powerful smell and taste of Caol Ila, some in the room immediately wondered why the good people at V&M would bother doing this. It's not exactly drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, but many thought that the rye taste from the cask struggled to really register.

We got sandalwood and vanilla and the whisky was certainly smokier than you'd expect. There were mixed views, with some positive comments but others not keen at all ("it's gross!"), while someone suggested it might go down better alongside a cigar. The 6yo whisky bottled in 2011 came in at 47.2% and costs £73.

We moved from Scotland to the Netherlands for the third whisky of the night, and a rye offering from the Millstone label, produced by the Zuidam distillery.

Millstone 100 Rye.
On this occasion it was a Millstone 100 Rye, so named because everything to do with it was 100 something or other. So it was 100 proof, 100 months old (that's eight and a bit years to you and me) and so on. Perhaps most notably was the fact it was 100% rye grain, quite rare because it is considered a difficult distilling challenge for chemical reasons that were explained but which I can't quite bring to mind right now.

As for the actual whisky, the nose was great, the palate a little less so. On the nose we got something really fragrant and complex, with all sorts coming through including orange, brown sugar and, in my case, a waxy lump of Edam (although as someone pointed out, perhaps my Dutch stereotypes were already getting the better of me). The taste had notes of vanilla and the countryside, like bark. At £74 for this 50% ABV whisky, we thought it was a little expensive to rush to buy.

Sonoma County.
After a half-time break, it was on to the fourth dram and back across the Atlantic for a Sonoma County Cherrywood Rye. The nose was the immediate talking point here. Without putting too fine a point on it, it smelt like carpet. New carpet to be precise. So much so, it was reminiscent of walking into a branch of Allied circa 1987.

It tasted "all right" we thought, certainly better than it smells. But to be honest, no matter how hard we tried, it was tough to get over that powerful smell. Some thought it was awful, others lovely, but then you can't expect any whisky club to agree on anything, let along everything. It's £63 and comes in at 47.8%. Must rye harder? Possibly.

This is not whisky.
The next whisky was a particular oddity, in that it can't technically be called whisky at all, at least not in the EU. The drink is Alberta Premium Dark Horse from Calgary in Canada. And 1% of it is made up of sherry which the folks at the distillery literally just pour in. So the sherry is not from the cask, but is 'teaspooned' instead. Because it isn't 100% whisky, that means we simply can't call it that, and also means it's unlikely to be imported here anytime soon.

We had a bottle though, and very cheap it was too - 29 Canadian dollars (£18). It had one or two strong supporters, but that was about it. Someone suggested it was reminiscent of wet cardboard, which after the full on carpet explosion of the previous dram, suggested his tastebuds weren't having a great run of things. It's 45% and, as is more common with Canadian whiskies, comes in a 75cl bottle rather than the typical 70.

Dad's Hat.
The night ended with another oddity. In this case, the world's only whiskey to be finished in vermouth barrels. The brand is Dad's Hat from Pennsylvania, a state once famous for whiskey but which has somewhat lost that reputation over the years.

This was herby on the nose and that wine influence seemed to come through more on the palate, along with a spiciness that certainly helped to make it very pleasant. It's 47% and is £55. Certainly worth seeking out, not least because of its uniqueness.

And that brought us almost to the close of another successful tasting. The only thing that remained was the dram of the night voting, and for the first time any of us could remember, it was the opening whisk(e)y of the evening which took the honours. There were no fewer than 13 votes for Kobal from the Windy City of Chicago.

Thanks to Tim for sourcing such an interesting range of drams for us all to try, to members old and new for another well-attended night, and to all at the Britons Protection for hosting us once again.

Drinking whiskey and rye.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Wish You Were Beer

August's line-up of whiskies.
New club chairman Adam led the tasting for the first time in August, and he had a selection of paired whiskies and beers for us all to try. He also produced a club first - a PowerPoint presentation - to showcase the research he had put in to each of the chosen drinks, which Adam ran through after we'd tasted everything blind.

Teeling / Galway Bay
The effort was much appreciated as we got stuck into the first of the evening's 12 glasses. The opening pairing got us off to a stout beginning. The beer was clearly something black and chocolatey, although not all that strong. And the whisky, which tasted kind of familiar to many in the room, must have been finished in stout casks, we guessed.

This was a particularly close pairing as it turned out. The whisky was from club favourites Teeling, finished in casks from Galway Bay stout. The beer was also Galway Bay, their milk stout called Buried at Sea. The members' noses were certainly on point at this early stage of the evening, as sure enough the stout is a certainly drinkable 4.5% (it's £2.49 a bottle) while the Teeling Stout Cask is 46% and available for £40, again offering decent value. Perhaps best of all, nobody felt the need to break into a few bars of the song Galway Bay, although if Adam had saved this pairing until the end no doubt someone would have had a go at it.

Weller / Welde
Pairing two gave us a whisky that immediately put us in mind of a bourbon, with that classic sweetish, vanilla sort of flavour. The beer was what got more of us talking, in so much as it smelt terrible. Lots of people didn't like the nose at all, and that extended to the palate as well. "It tastes of regret" was one of the more charitable tasting notes, but certainly not inaccurate.

The bourbon in the bottle was from the Buffalo Trace family. As Adam explained, this is quite an extended family, with a huge range of brands familiar in the US (although perhaps less so here) all being produced at the distillery in Frankfort, the historic capital of Kentucky. This one was under the Weller name, and we liked it a lot. It's 45% although the price is highly variable because it's so scarce over here, so good luck getting hold of it. The beer, which evidently went down less well, was Bourbon Barrel Bock produced by German brewer Welde which spent time in bourbon, rum and tequila casks. At 6.6% and £2.49, you can probably give it a miss.

Glen Moray / Windswept
We finally visited Scotland for pairing three, and while the whisky seemed a little bland, it was certainly highly drinkable. "A young Speyside" was one guess from the membership, and indeed the distillery in question was also correctly identified! The accompanying beer was a strong brown ale, and we liked this one too.

Indeed, it was a bit of a surprise to discover the beer was 9%, because it again seemed nice and easy to drink. The common thread between these drinks was the Glen Moray distillery, with the whisky a 40% expression finished in port casks and available for the very reasonable £25. The beer was made by brewery Windswept in nearby Lossiemouth and called The Wolf of Glen Moray. It's £8 plus postage though so it's probably one to save for when you happen to be passing, unless you're ordering a job lot.

Highland Park / Harviestoun
After a half-time break and a chance to get further refreshment, as if it were needed, from the bar at the Briton's Protection, it was on to pairing number four. And what stood out immediately from the two was the beer. Sticky and meaty, this was like an intense, spicy barbecue. The whisky was perhaps a touch less immediately memorable, lightly peated, and a little more pleasant on the nose than the palate.

The beer we enjoyed so much was an Ola Dubh black ale produced by Harviestoun, and finished in whisky casks from Highland Park. Sure enough, the accompanying whisky was indeed Highland Park, on this occasion the standard 12-year-old bottling that you can probably pick up in your local supermarket for £30 or so. The beer is 8% and £4.49, and Harviestoun has been something of a pioneer in cask aged brews so there are plenty of versions to try if you want to investigate.

Double Barrel / Wild Beer
There was another distinctive taste to beer number five. On this occasion it was salty, "like being hit by a wave in the sea", or munching on some salt and vinegar crisps. This did divide opinion a little, but overall this was the first beer of the night to actually be preferred to a whisky (although given we're the Manchester Whisky Club, this probably wasn't entirely surprising). The whisky was a bit peaty, but overall certainly seemed more conventional.

As it turned out, the whisky was not exactly conventional, being a 'double barrel' blended malt concoction of Ardbeg and Craigellachie, bottled by Douglas Laing. At 46% and £48 this got a general thumbs up. The beer, a Belgian Dubbel from the Wild Beer Co. called Smoke 'n' Barrels involved casks of both Islay whisky and red wine, which helps to explain the real mixture of flavours on the go. Certainly worth trying once even if you don't like the sound of it, it's £5.49 and 7.4%.

Smooth Ambler / KBS
As is often the case, by the last dram of the night the tasting notes that I managed to record had become somewhat less expansive. All I really ended up putting was that the beer seemed quite treacly, and that the whisky tasted like a bourbon. But these were both accurate statements so there's no harm in leaving it at that.

It turned out that both of these were American. The whisk(e)y was a blended bourbon from the Smooth Ambler brand, sourced from the huge MGP distillery in Indiana. At 50% and £70 this was certainly good, but not as memorable as the beer, which was Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Whether anyone would actually drink a 12.3% bourbon-finished beer for breakfast or not is another thing, but at £6.99 it's worth trying at any time of the day.

Overall the whiskies won the day, but within that it was a triumph for the whiskey over the whisky. The voting revealed our top choice was the Smooth Ambler after it initially tied with the Weller, while the leading beer was the Smoke 'n' Barrels despite the love-it-or-hate-it reception it got from the membership.

Thanks to everyone for attending another successful tasting and in particular to Adam for choosing and then explaining such a fascinating selection of drinks. Thanks also to the Briton's for hosting us once again.

The full line-up!

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.