Monday, December 4, 2017

St Andrew's Day: For Peat's Sake!

The St Andrew's Day line up.

November's meeting of the Manchester Whisky Club took place on, appropriately enough, St Andrew's Day, and Anna had a line-up of six peaty whiskies for us. With four of the drams not originating in Islay, the idea was to challenge a few of our preconceptions about peatier whiskies.

Anna in action.
And sure enough we started the evening off in Speyside, with a Balvenie. A relatively rare peaty expression from them, the 14yo Peat Week is so named because the distillery spends one week a year doing peated spirit. On this occasion, using a Highland rather than Islay peat as well.

This whisky wasn't too sharp but was definitely peated. Subtle, well-rounded, and in the words of one delighted club member, "absolutely gorgeous". At 48.3% and £56, it's not too shabby when it comes to price either. A good way to start the evening.

Next to Tomatin, a Highland distillery that again does peaty stuff one week a year. The bottle picked out for us to try was the Cu Bocan 2006 vintage, matured in a mixture of sherry and bourbon casks.

Balvenie Peat Week.
This was a little oily on the nose. A pleasant enough drink, it wasn't as obviously peaty as the Balvenie we'd had first up, although perhaps the sherry masked it a bit. At 50% and £50, again this is certainly reasonable value.

For the second tasting in a row we had an Edradour to drink. In contrast to last month's much older bottle, this was an expression available now, branded as Edradour Ballechin after an old distillery near the Edradour site in Pitlochry.

Tomatin Cu Bocan 2006.
A younger whisky at 8yo, this had a touch of fondant icing on the nose but ended up a bit of a disappointment, a little bitter at the finish perhaps. In general, the feedback was that this just didn't feel as though it had the time to knit together properly to become a really coherent dram, so we weren't overly keen. It's 46% and costs about £60.

Half-time meant a chance for a break, a refill of pint glasses from downstairs at the Briton's Protection and, perhaps most importantly, a sausage roll or two from the handmade stash Anna brought with her. Lovely stuff.

Edradour Ballechin.
Our fourth dram of the night took us to Islay for the first time, with a 6yo independent bottling called Williamson's Carn Mor 2010. This was a 'teaspooned' whisky, meaning it included a small amount of a second whisky to help keep the actual origin something of a mystery, as a means of protecting the brand. The clue was in the name though: it's after Bessie Williamson, who became the first woman to run a Scottish distillery when she took charge of the most famous peat producer of them all, yes, Laphroaig.

There was none of that traditional medicinal taste of Laphroaig here though. Great on the nose and "gorgeous" on the palate too, this let to a scramble for phones and the main whisky retailers. There weren't many if any bottles left to be had though, hardly surprising given the limited run of 950 bottles and the very reasonable £40 price tag. It's 46%.

Williamson's Carn Mor 2010.
One last visit to Speyside for the evening was next and to a distillery than Anna admitted she had a bit of a soft spot for, BenRiach. It's also been a club favourite in recent years, and its peated Septendecim 17yo got rave reviews when we tried it some years back. On this occasion we had a 12yo from Batch 14 of the distillery's annual releases series, matured in a first fill port cask.

And this was really very nice indeed. Appropriately enough for the time of year, it had a definite taste of Christmas cake about it, with cherries, almonds and icing sugar all to the fore. Unfortunately for all of us, it's sold out everywhere. It cost us £73 and clocked in at a healthy 53.1%.

BenRiach 2005.
Anna admitted she blew a big chunk of this month's tasting budget on the last dram of the night, but we couldn't go through a whole evening of peaty whiskies without having an Octomore. Distilled at Bruichladdich, Octomore has become a byword for, well, lots and lots of peat, even by Islay standards. The particular drink we had was a 7yo independent bottling from Rest and Be Thankful, a welcome return for a bottler after we had an Arran of theirs at another recent tasting.

Aged in French oak at a strength of 63.9%, this was "an all-around monster". I don't seem to have made any more detailed tasting notes than this, although it was the last dram of the night, so there you go. We got ours for £160 but a cursory search online reveals you might be paying almost twice that for a bottle now.

Rest and Be Thankful Octomore.
So the members and guests had a tricky decision to take when it came to the dram of the night voting.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, each bottle except the Edradour picked up at least some support. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly given the club's previous love for this particular distillery, it was the BenRiach which scored best of all, racking up no fewer than 17 votes. Both the Balvenie and the Octomore got five each, with plenty of praise for the Balvenie for its value.

One last highlight of the evening was the whisky fudge from I Heart Whisky, with a couple of pieces for everyone. As you can imagine these went down extremely well!

Thank you to all faces old and new who came along to the tasting, and in particular to Anna for doing a great job at her first solo tasting. Once again thanks to the Britons for putting us up, too. Next up it's the annual Christmas party! Ho ho, and indeed, ho.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Old and Rare Night With Angus MacRaild

The full line-up!
Our annual Old and Rare night is always one of the highlights of the Manchester Whisky Club year, and this time we had a record attendance of members old and new, plus some guests, as Edinburgh-based whisky expert Angus MacRaild took us through some bottles from his own personal stash.

G&M Edradour 10yo from 1982
In fact, it was the biggest turnout at a Whisky Club meeting ever, and the top room at the Britons Protection was packed as Angus got the evening underway with the first of six drams.

And it was an Edradour, distilled in 1972 and bottled by Gordon and MacPhail a decade later at 40%, as part of its long-running Connoisseur's Choice range. As Angus explained, Edradour has had a bit of a mixed reputation over the years, but some of the older bottlings are worth exploring.

Bruichladdich 15yo from 1990
He recommended this particular one as an example of an old-style Scotch whisky, of the sort that might have been commonplace in your local newsagent once upon a time. This was nice although at the same time, a bit cardboardy. But it certainly got the evening off to a solid start.

Next we went to Islay and Bruichladdich, a club favourite in general, but on this occasion we were trying a dram from long before its recent resurgence. It was a 15yo, distilled in the mid-70s and bottled around 1990.

This was really very pleasant indeed. Beautiful and light, with a soft fruitiness about it. "Starchy!" as someone suggested. Bruichladdich don't make them quite like this anymore.

G&M Scapa 8yo from early 1980s
We were back to Gordon and MacPhail for the third dram, and this time the whisky was from Orkney's Scapa distillery, in the form of an 8yo bottled in the early 1980s.

At 57% this packed quite a punch at first, but that soon gave way to something sweet and sherried, "like candyfloss inside" as someone commented. It was a spicy one too, quite unusual with lots of character. It also changed quite a bit with a few drops of water. Arguably a bit more interesting than some of the more modern expressions to have emerged from Scapa.

Pure Malt Gold 106, mid 1980s
After a half-time break and a refill of our pint glasses at the Britons bar, we tried the fourth whisky of the night and the third and last of the G&M bottlings. This was a Pure Malt Gold 106, bottled in the mid-1980s.

A 10yo expression, the actual distillery or distilleries involved remain something of a mystery. Although the sherred, Speyside-style put plenty of drinkers in mind of a slightly more subtle version of Christmas favourite Glenfarclas 105. It's 60.5%, which Angus suggested gave it a "big, hot and healthy" character. People really liked this one.

SMWS North Port 16yo from 1996
Angus brought the evening to a close with two old bottlings from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. And the first was a real rarity for the club, our first ever taste of North Port - and indeed, even the club's most experienced whisky fans had never had anything from this distillery before. Situated in Brechin, north of Dundee close to the Angus coast, it was mothballed in 1983 and later demolished, and these days you can't easily get a bottle for much below £350, witih almost no new bottlings these days.

This particular expression was a 16yo, bottled in 1996 at 57.3%. And it got the thumbs up, with comments including "nicely spicy" and "waxy character". There was a lot going on on the nose, too, although this divided opinion a little more.

SMWS Longrow 14yo 2004
We finished off with a more recent SMWS bottling of a Longrow from the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown, dating from 2004.

It was a 14yo at 57.8%, and was a peaty one, but "not in an Islay way, more in a smouldering beach smoke way". That subtle smokiness gave it a take on peaty whisky which was a new one for some of us, and very welcome it was too!

And this last whisky came pretty close in the dram of the night voting, but it was just edged out by number four, the Macphail's Pure Malt Gold 106. Given that particular whisky's sherry character, and the number of sherry monsters inhabiting the club, perhaps the outcome was no surprise really!

Thanks must go to Angus for travelling down from Edinburgh for the tasting and bringing not only six great bottles from his collection, but also giving us the benefit of his great whisky knowledge. And also thanks to faces old and new who made this maybe our most memorable tasting yet.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Follow The Grain

This month's line-up.
Martin took the helm of September's tasting at Manchester Whisky Club. We were in the smaller of the two upstairs rooms at the Briton's, giving way to a theatre performance in the larger space (when this happened once before it was because of a double booking with the railway union's Christmas party), but there was just about enough space for all of us to tackle the line-up of six grain whiskies.

Just the 96.4%
There were actually seven drinks apiece though, the first this little drop of clear liquid. It's neutral grain alcohol and came in at a mere 96.4%. Given the strength, it was actually surprisingly smooth, although most drinkers took Martin's advice of putting their fingers in for a small taste. In the interests of research, your correspondent necked his one though. Either way, it was certainly a lively way to get the evening started.

While grain whisky is considerably less fashionable than single malt, there are some interesting bottlings out there that can provide good value for money. Grain whisky is typically used as the backbone of blends, but increasingly distilleries and independent bottlers alike are putting out grains in their own right, and that's what the evening was all about.

The Malt 'n Rye.
We started off in Norfolk with club favourites the English Whisky Company, and their bourbon finished Malt 'n Rye. This started off smoothly but there was a bit of a sharp finish that was too harsh for a lot of us. Overall it was a bit spirity, too. It was a 45% whisky and cost £45, but with the bottling just 50cl rather than the standard 70cl, this doesn't represent the value offered by some of the other grains on the market.

The Chita.
An immediate contrast to that came in the form of dram number two, The Chita from Japan's Suntory. Previously only available in the travel retail market, this 43% whisky is now on general sale at about £50. A no age statement whisky, this was smooth, buttery, sweet and nice, very pleasant all round in fact. One well worth investing in, whether you're passing through the airport nor not.

We made it back to Scotland for the third whisky of the evening, and a drink from what was, at one time, the largest distillery in the whole country, Port Dundas. A former powerhouse of grain production, Diageo eventually closed it in 2011 to avoid splashing out on a pricey upgrade.

North Star Port Dundas 12yo.
This particular bottling came from North Star, a 12yo available for just £40 despite the strength of 58.8%. Considering that high ABV it was surprisingly creamy, almost with a hint of cream soda in fact. Smooth at the end too, with others noting a certain malty or biscuity taste as well. "It could really warm the cockles of your heart" said one particular fan. A bit of water took the spice out of it a bit, though.

After the half-time break (and some of David's sensational baked goods) it was back to North Star for dram number four, from another of the big grain distilleries, the North British.

North Star North British 21yo
It's the last distillery in Edinburgh and remains one of the largest of any kind in Scotland. As with Port Dundas, you're bound to have had some in one well-known blended brand or another at some point, although bottlings under the North British name are much rarer.

This was a 21yo from a single cask, costing £68 and with a strength of 52.9%. "Posh on the nose and posh in the taste" was an early comment. And that price tag was quickly judged an absolute bargain. It has a distinctive, thick feeling in the mouth, almost like treacle. One of the official tasting notes mentioned rum and raisin, and that certainly rang a few bells too. Great stuff.
Whiskybroker Cambus 25yo

For the last two whiskies of the night we were treated to a couple of bottles from Martin's own collection, from one of the club's favourite independent bottlers, Whiskybroker. Because Martin picked them up some time ago neither is available anymore - bottlings on Whiskybroker tend to go quickly, and the advice is to follow him on social media for updates as to when new ones are going live.

Anyway, dram number five took us to the now-silent Cambus distillery near Alloa in the 'wee county' of Clackmannanshire. This was a first fill sherry 25yo, at 52.7% which, in typical Whiskybroker style, was a very reasonably priced £70. A "totally different" and "very sherried" dram, this was flavoursome and again quite raisiny. The sherry monsters in the room, of which there are many at the club, loved this one, while others thought the flavours were just a bit overpowering.

Whiskybroker Invergordon 43yo
And we stuck with Whiskybroker for an even rarer treat to end the evening, an Invergordon that was bottled last year at the ripe old age of 43. Filled in July 1973 when Slade were at number 1 with Skweeze Me Pleeze Me, this was older than many if not most of the people around the table, and was 49.7% with an original price of just £99. Tropical fruit was an obvious early tasting note, like the old style Opal Fruits in fact (we're of an age where I think we will probably never get round to calling them Starburst). A lovely drink, really buttery again, great on the nose with lots of layers on the palate. A triumph!

It was no surprise that the Invergordon took the dram of the night voting, but it only defeated dram four, the North British, by a single vote, while a couple of the other drams had their supporters too.

So, the end of another great tasting, and thanks in particular go to Martin for the guide through the world of grain whiskies, and in particular letting us into the dark recesses of his own collection for some really special stuff at the end.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Stina's Indie Presents Night

The evening's line up of indie bottlings.
August's tasting took place on the last day of the month, and there was a great turnout of faces old and new to enjoy five independent bottlings selected by Stina.

7yo Fettercairn
We got started with a whisky brought back by club members who attended the recent Dramboree weekend. It was a 7yo Fettercairn, bottled at 46% by Mike Lord of the Whisky Shop in Dufftown.

There was a real sweet shop vibe about this one - one bizarrely specific tasting note even suggested pineapple upside down cake mix - especially on the nose. In fact, the nose got much better reviews than the palate which some found "a bit harsh" and betraying its relative youth. There were some Fettercairn sceptics among the membership anyway, but one conceded "This is the best Fettercairn I've had!" although this may have been a slight case of damning with faint praise. We paid £46.

Spice Tree Extravaganza.
Next it was Compass Box, and the Spice Tree Extravaganza. The original Spice Tree was fleetingly banned a decade ago because it breached Scotch Whisky Association rules, as the maturation process involved putting new bits of French oak into used whisky barrels, borrowing a technique common in winemaking. Instead, the Spice Tree expressions are now matured using specially-constructed barrels with French oak heads (rather than the inserted staves which proved controversial) and so everyone's happy now, apparently.

The Extravaganza version, a no age statement blend of again 46%, was very pleasant and smooth. It was considered more drinkable than the standard Spice Tree. But then, as well it might be for a £83 price tag (higher with some other retailers). While an undoubtedly nice drop, the consensus in the room was this probably wasn't worth that kind of cash.

A Small Glass of Happiness.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society provided dram number three, and in their tradition of giving their bottlings enigmatic titles, this was was called A Small Glass of Happiness. Underneath all that, it's a 12yo Speyside from the Dailuaine distillery, bottled at 57.3%.

This tasted like all of your favourite caramelised products. Someone offered those little Lotus biscuits you get with your coffee, and others thought toffee, crystallised ginger and even a bit of pineapple again. Costing £54.70 for those with a SMWS membership, there was a lot of love for this one.

18yo Arran.
After a half-time break and some Chinese baked products brought along by Katharine, we took our seats again for the last two drams of the night. Number four was from a bottler that we've not had at a tasting before, Rest and Be Thankful, which has close links to club favourite Bruichladdich. This particular bottle was from Arran and, at 18 years old, would have been distilled not long after it began production in the mid-1990s.

This was surprisingly light in colour for a whisky of that age, and it was certainly sippable, with a creamy sort of taste, and hints of baked apple. At 55.3% it was certainly strong too, but for some members it seemed to be lacking something, somewhere. It's £90.

As We Get It.
It was certainly a night of strong drams and Stina took things up even further on the last whisky of the evening, an Ian Macleod bottling of a Highland whisky called As We Get It, which clocked in at 65.1%. Funnily enough it didn't quite taste that strong, because it was quite sweet. Although not as sweet as the Fettercairn from earlier in the evening - "nothing's as sweet as that one" said someone - it was generally agreed this was sweet by the standards of a drink with 65% ABV.

Tasting notes included barley sugars and damson jam. It's undoubtedly good value at £45.

There wasn't much doubt that it was one of the top two drams of the evening, along with number three. But when it came to the voting, it was the SMWS A Small Glass of Happiness which won out, with 11 votes.

Thanks to Stina for putting on another great evening, and thanks too to all at the Britons Protection for hosting us once again.

Tickets are already available for September's tasting with Martin, which is going to be based around grain whiskies. And there's something special coming up in October too, which will be well worth keeping an eye out for.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Speyside Special

Six Speysiders.
Matthew lined up a series of six whiskies from Speyside for our blind July tasting. It's by far the largest of Scotland's whisky-producing regions, with more than half of the country's distilleries squished into the area around the River Spey in the north-east. Among the best-known Speysides are Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. But perhaps unsurprisingly, we didn't drink either of those.

Monkey Shoulder.
Well, actually we sort of did. Our first dram was a bit of a warm up for the evening. With notes of chocolate and burnt orange, it turned out to be none other than Monkey Shoulder. Widely available and often used as the basis of whisky cocktails, it's a blend of three Speyside whiskies, including Glenfiddich, and acts as a pretty decent benchmark for what a middle of the road Speyside might taste like.

It's £27 (although you can often find it cheaper in the supermarket) and 43%.

14yo G&M Tormore
On we went to something a little further up the whisky scale, and a dram that certainly split the room. For some it had a sticky sweetness, reminiscent of Scottish tearoom favourite Millionaire's shortbread. But in another corner this "packed a mouth punch" and was "a bit gut rotty".

It turned out to be a 14yo Tormore, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail, clocking in at £65. A finish in a wine cask and some slightly peated barley gave this a bit of a dry feel, certainly a bit unusual for a whisky.

Whisky number three tasted perhaps the most obviously Speysidey of the drams so far, with quite a lot going on: sweet on the nose, notes of fruitcake and honey and a long finish, although perhaps not quite as distinctive overall as the Tormore was.

18yo TBWC Mortlach
And it was another independent bottling, this time by That Boutiquey Whisky Company. The distillery was Mortlach, not a name you often see in its own right as its output generally ends up in Johnnie Walker.

It was an 18yo whisky which helped explain the £93 price tag, but as it was 50cl rather than the standard 70cl (as is always the case with TBWC's bottlings), we felt this was a bit overpriced.

G&M Cask Strength Ardmore
There was time before the mid-tasting break to squeeze in a fourth whisky, and this was a bit of a departure: an immediate blast of peat giving way to lots of contended murmuring around the room. Tasting notes ranged from "barbecued gingerbread" to the perhaps less likely "Germolene and Frazzles" which is probably best avoided.

Some thought this might have been a Ben Riach, in mind of some peaty Speysides they've produced in the past. But in fact, it turned out to be an Ardmore, once again from Gordon & MacPhail, from their Cask Strength range. At 57.5% and just £62, this sent some drinkers reaching for their phones to snap up a bottle (or even two).

25yo Hunter Laing Braeval
After the break we had another taste of the Monkey Shoulder as part of a little experiment planned by Matthew. The first whisky of the night often seems to be forgotten by the end of the night, once we've had a few more powerful and memorable drams. Revisiting it after a gap it certainly did taste better, and notably sweeter.

A few people suggested it had developed some butterscotch notes, which led us to a side discussion about why butterscotch was undoubtedly the best flavour of Angel Delight. Yes, it was that time of the evening.

The peated Ben Riach
The next whisky was a much lighter drink. "Incredibly light" in fact, while someone else suggested it would do for breakfast time. The official tasting notes proposed brownies and caramel, although one suggestion in the room - a nearly-banana sort of sweetness, like plaintain - got plenty of nods of agreement.

Another independent bottling, on this occasion from Hunter Laing, it was a 25yo Braeval. Another less familiar name on the whisky scene, the distillery used to be known as Braes of Glenlivet. At 44.7% and £100, this was good but a bit on the expensive side.

The last whisky of the evening went down extremely well. Smoky, peated, again reminiscent of a barbecue, everyone seemed to like it very much.

And it turns out we were drinking a Ben Riach a couple of whiskies later than we'd thought. This was a 56% no age statement expression, romantically called Cask Strength Batch 1 Peated. We fancied at least some of this was probably quite young indeed, but it worked well, and at 56% and £58 it was decent value.

The dram of the night voting came down to a battle between whiskies four and six, with the Ardmore taking 9 votes to the Ben Riach's 5, and a smattering of support for the others. Matthew had thought the Ben Riach might take it, but either would have been worthy winners. Thanks not only to Matthew but to everyone who attended yet another successful evening!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Bottle Your Own Whisky

The line-up.
June's tasting gave us another first for the club: a night of cask strength whiskies all hand-filled at distilleries, and collected by Martin and Anna during a recent 1,000 mile journey around Scotland.

Another good turnout.
And what a series of drams they treated us to. We tasted them all blind, and right from the off the first one announced itself pretty definitively. "I can feel my nose unblocking itself" said someone, as we generally agreed there was something broadly familiar about it. There was vanilla but also a notable spicy, peppery quality to it. Very nice all round.

The room thought this was a Speyside, and sure enough, it was. In fact, it was an Aberlour, a 13yo from a first fill bourbon cask and coming in at a weighty 58.1%.

The Aberlour.
If your only experience of Aberlour is a bottle of the supermarket staple 12yo, then this was a bit of a revelation. Not because the 12yo is a bad whisky but, well, this was certainly a step or two up from that. It's £70.

There were more shouts for Speyside on dram number two, which had a sherried, honey and syrupy quality to it, almost like an exceptionally boozy flapjack. Hot, strong and salty all got mentions, although at the same time, others thought it was quite mellow, which perhaps suggests that we were all over the place much earlier in the evening than is normally the case!

It was a 15yo Glenfiddich, and there was some surprise that it was 'only' 54.8% as it felt even stronger, especially on the nose. Sherry, bourbon and new wood were all involved in ageing this one.

The Glenfiddich.
It was the most expensive whisky of the night at £95, but even then I think there'd have been a few takers had it been available to buy online.

Onto whisky number three and the treat of a very sweet nose. In fact, it was "like an entire sweet shop" for one member, while other suggestions ranged from cream soda ("is it aged in cream soda casks?") to toffee and banana fritters.

Everyone was pretty convinced it was an oldish whisky, and how wrong we all were. Martin revealed that it was, in fact, just three years and ten months old, so only just about in nursery as whiskies go. It was a Tomatin, a Highland distillery, and was bottled at 61.4%. The colour for a whisky of that age was a particular surprise, but that's apparently what you get when it's in virgin oak.

The Tomatin.
If you happen to be passing by Tomatin, and it's certainly worth a substantial detour to make sure you are, it costs £75.

After a half-time break and fortified by Anna's brilliant homemade sausage rolls, we carried on with the fourth dram of the night. And straight from the first taste, this one was "like being caressed". Someone suggested it would be ideal as a winter warmer on Bonfire Night, presumably with a slice of parkin.

And it turned out to be another name familiar from the spirits aisle in your local Asda: Glen Moray. A 13yo finished in Chardonnay casks, it was 59% and, perhaps most impressive of all, just £50. "Suddenly I like it even more" was one response to the price tag. Unfortunately, it's sold out.

The Glen Moray.
The next had another distinctively sweet nose, but this one was all rich and fruity. Someone suggested apple strudel straight away, and after that it was more or less impossible to smell anything else. Maybe a bit of butterscotch or toffee or something along those lines.

There was a strong feeling in the room that this was a port wood, but it wasn't, instead being a first fill American oak sherry cask. It was also 13yo once again, prompting some to wonder if this wasn't in fact the perfect age for this kind of bottle-your-own dram.

The Glenturret.
It turned out to be a Glenturret, a distillery better known as the home of Famous Grouse. The latest in a new series of expressions named for well-known Scots (we had the 'Andy Murray' cask at the club last year), this was called the Gerard Butler.

Apparently the actor is actually teetotal, but I suppose that at least means there's more of his delicious whisky for the rest of us to enjoy on his behalf. It's 56.8% and cost £75.

The sixth and last whisky of the evening was "medicinal" and "chewy" with a distinctive floral bouquet. Other suggestions included blackcurrant and Jaffa cakes, although that could have been someone trying to order some unusual bar snacks. Someone else suggested they wanted to sit and smell it for half an hour, but there was no way anyone else was going to join in with that.

The Auchentoshan.
It was an Auchentoshan, and another highlight on an evening full of them. From a Pedro Ximenez cask and bottled at 59.8%, this was another drink well worth the asking price, which on this occasion was £80.

Reflecting the consistent high quality of the whiskies on show, the dram of the night voting was quite evenly split. The Glenturret was the only one not to attract any votes, rather unfortunate because on another night it could easily have been the pick of the bunch.

Both the Aberlour and the Auchentoshan got five votes apiece, but our choice turned out to be the Tomatin, backed by eight members. So congratulations to them! All we have to do now is, er, drive to Tomatin to get a bottle each for the cupboard.

Special thanks this month to Martin and Anna for sharing the fruits of what sounds like a great trip across Scotland, as well as to all the members old and new for taking part, and to the team at the Briton's Protection for putting us up once again.

We'll be scrapping over these at the Christmas party.

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.