Translate Caskstrength!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Objects of Desire: The Diageo Special Releases 2014 Single Malt Scotch Whiskies

There are many things in life that I’d like to have, but simply can’t afford. I think that must be true for all of us. But in my list of ‘objects of desire’, most are items that I already own. For example, I have a watch. I’d like a nicer one. I own a car, but would bite your hand off to trade in a seven year old Volvo estate for a Bentley Continental. Quite frankly, I can still tell the time as accurately as the next man, and I get stuck in the same traffic jams as the chap in the posh car next to me.

None of this quenches the thirst for ‘want’, however. And once again the carrot of desire is being dangled in front of the Scotch drinker with the annual release of Diageo’s ‘Special Releases’.

This year, eleven different single malts have been chosen from the rare stocks of casks across Diageo’s warehouses, some from closed distilleries, others from ones very much alive and kicking. So let’s have a look at the list of releases and, as we attended a pre-release tasting of all eleven single malts on offer last week, have a look at which of these are 9 carat gold and which are simply just 9 carrots...

1999* (apparently youngest whisky in vatting)

Quite a line up, when you sit back and look at exactly what has been chosen to go into glass this year. Turning up at the tasting was a mind-boggling affair, faced with 11 cask strength single malts is always a challenge, no matter how used to flights of that nature you are. But kicking off with a quick nose of the range, there were certainly some stars emerging from the pack.

The first one to call out, is the Cragganmore. At 25 years old, this carried an unusually buttery and sweet nose, with red apple, orchard fruits and popcorn. The palate was sweet with a big marmalade hit and the vanilla (from the new ends attached to the casks, perhaps?) gave it a vibrant finish for such an old whisky.

For those of you that love a heavy malt, the Benrinnes 21 year old was all Bovril and steak pies (not far off the one I had the night before) and delivering venison in a chocolate sauce on the palate. Very odd. Not for me, but I can see fans of this heavier style of whisky really going bonkers for it.

Of the rarest selection of closed distilleries, there was a return to Rosebank, with another 21 year old release, a step back in age from the 25 year old of a few years ago. This gave everything you want from a triple distilled Lowlander, matured in refill American oak casks: a palate of upside cake, vanilla marshmallow and candied orange peel showed well on the night, punching hard for such a light spirit.

There was the traditional Brora... a distillery over which an extreme fuss is always made, but personally, I just don’t know why. Like Morrissey and The Smith for me: I can see why people love ‘em, but I just don’t get it (oh, don’t let Morrissey anywhere near that Benrinnes by the way- too much beef in it for even him!) Yes, Brora is closed and yes, there have been some amazing releases from certain years in the 1970s, but overall, I’ve always felt my money (for my taste) could be better spent. This year’s Brora release will no doubt delight those Broraphiles, and I marked it down as one of my top drams of the night, but my two headline acts for the evening were...

...the latest Port Ellen release (of course) and the fantastic Caol Ila 30 Year Old. Let’s start with the PE. Oh, my it is good. We are finally seeing some increased use of European oak casks here, giving a wider flavour range than we have seen in the past. This is moving away from the peated grapefruit we know and love so well, to actually nodding in the direction of its ‘still alive sister’ Lagavulin, up the road. The nose was bacon bits, the palate giving almost light rum tones and mossy peat. Fantasy stuff, really.

But cracking on from the north of the same island is an amazing offering from Caol Ila. A 30 year old matured in refill American oak casks, the stock from 1983 is incredibly light with peat, toffee and peaches. One of the best for taking water, as well opening up to reveal that wonderful Caol Ila coal dust and bigger toffee notes. Simply wonderful.

The big question as always is over price and this year the big hitting single malts come with big hitting price tags (over £2k for the Port Ellen, for example) but they do have some for under £100, and you can pick up both the Caol Ila unpeated and the Lagavulin 12 for a combined cost of less than a flight to Scotland in the week of the referendum. I vote yes for staying at home with bottle of each.
As much as these are shiny desirable jewels,  with some absolute corkers in there, I just can’t afford the two I really loved. Never mind, my watch still works and it tells me it’s time for a whisky: someone pass the Johnnie Walker Black label. Bloody good stuff, you know. And less than £30 a bottle. What’s not to like about that?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Yes Or No? Glenlivet Single Cask Scotch Whisky 1974

It is hard in a job writing about spirits, to not write regularly about Scotch. And, living in England and visiting Scotland on a regular basis, it is difficult to ignore the bagpipe-like noise of nationalism currently floating through the air, this time not coming from a kilt-wearing man standing on the corner of Princess Street in Edinburgh, but from the trunk of the rather large ‘elephant in the room’ that is the upcoming Scottish independence vote.

As I live in England, I don’t get an official say as to the outcome of the situation, as I don’t have a vote. But I have been watching with interest (as someone who holds a Norwegian passport, born in Oxford to an English father and Norwegian mother, I often feel Scotland is geographically my natural home) as the debate has unfolded. And something odd has happened...

For as far as I can make out, the ‘Yes’ vote is arguing that Scotland is a rich country, full of great natural resources and untapped potential. It is a ‘sleeping Norway’, if you will which can stand on its own two feet and create a utopia of a country with a huge oil fund. The ‘No’ vote seems to have taken the stance that Scotland is a country leaning financially and politically on Westminster; that it takes more money from the Union coffers for free university education and other luxuries, not to mention the skew of an ageing population who draw their state pension from a joint pension pot, that leaving the Union would be a bad idea, as ‘we’ (Westminster), fund ‘you’ (Scotland).

So what is it that is odd about these arguments for those of us living south of the border? Well, if you live in the other areas of the Union, you might be swayed by these headline ‘facts’ into the very strange political stance of supporting one side’s argument in the hope that the vote goes the opposite way.

For example, if you live in England and you believe the line of the ‘No’ party that Scotland costs Westminster money, then you might think “OK then, if we fund your lifestyle, then off you go” and want a Yes vote to win. On the other hand, if you live in England and think “Salmond is right, Scotland is rich in so many ways and makes a huge positive contribution to the UK finances, not to mention the political power having oil in any form brings” then you would want the opposite of what Salmond wants: a 'No' vote to keep the Union together.  

As a result, it is all very odd living outside of Scotland and watching the debate happen, with the divided idea that you may end up supporting the ideals of one side, in the hope the vote goes the opposite way. I’ve never known politics like it, in this regard.

Now, I haven’t done the research into the facts on offer by both sides. I don’t need to, I don’t have the vote. But if I did have the vote I would make the time (I’m too busy working hard to pay off my University fees, but if you got your Uni education for free, you’ve got more time on your hands for this sort of thing...) to really dig into the ideals of each option, as this vote is simply too important to ignore.

So if you do have the vote, whichever way you think you might choose, just make sure you turn up on the day and use it.

Now, on to the reason we write this blog: whisky. And something which reflects the handshakes which happen regularly across the border: a single malt Scotch bottled by a non-Scottish company. In this case, Berry Brothers and Rudd (BBR), in London. Famed for their fantastic selection of whiskies, BBR consistently choose fantastic liquid to mature and bottle, mostly all single cask single malts.

Glenlivet – 1974 Single Cask 8211 – bottled 2013 – Berry Brothers & Rudd x The Whisky Exchange – 55.1% abv

Nose: Hot blueberry pie, plum chutney, blackcurrants and other summer fruits. There is just so much delicious fruit on the initial nose, which is underpinned with old leather, hazelnut and dark chocolate. Some wood spices of cinnamon and nutmeg appear, but not so as to overpower the fruits.

Palate: The mix of oak, fruit and spice is almost perfect. The three dance around the palate with the fruit becoming more vibrant the longer this sits, with blood orange developing as the dominant flavour. Of course there are the key touchstones of great old whisky in there too (some fruit cake, chamois leather, cardamom) but this shows that old whisky does not have to be tired.

Finish: More blood orange, strawberry licorice laces and a hint of vanilla, too.

Overall: At last year’s whisky show, a little beauty was on the BBR tasting stand. Bottled in conjunction with The Whisky Exchange, the combination of expert palates from BBR’s Doug McIvor and TWE’s Sukhinder Singh means that you simply can’t go wrong and indeed this turned out to be one of my top drams of 2013.

Having bought myself a bottle, which didn’t last very long at all, I returned to The Whisky Exchange shop in London Bridge earlier this year to restock my cabinet and came away with more than one bottle of this... something to eke out over the next few years.

Unlike the current level of political noise, this whisky is simple: a harmony of flavours from Scottish new make, foreign oak casks, bottled by two London-based establishments, which leaves me clear on my Yes/No decision: Yes, you can have a dram. No, you can’t keep the rest of the bottle.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A Quick Post: Spey Royal Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The Queen with a pint of Spey Royal Choice single malt whisky.
Or beer, we're not quite sure which.
It’s rushing towards the end of the week and despite the seasons taking a very clear turn from summer into autumn the sun has crept out again to warm our backs here at Caskstrength HQ.

With an early start this morning to send off some bits of work and generally get our house in order for the weeks ahead, we find ourselves with a rare moment of calm; a peaceful oasis in the middle of a busy few weeks. 

So while we have this comma in the middle of a long sentence, it gives us a chance to pick a sample off our review table and write a brief post on something that, quite frankly, probably should have been reviewed a while ago. Thanks goodness this isn’t a film blog, or some of the samples on our ‘To Be Reviewed’ list would have gone from the cinema, to DVD, to Netflix and then Channel 4 already...

The stand out offering on our table of drams is a rather unusual one; a quite majestic bottle from the Speyside Distillery. Bottled in limited quantities, it simply known as Spey Royal Choice and is only available for purchase at Historic Royal Palaces, which includes the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace.

Having decamped from my Central London apartment to the Royal Borough of Windsor late last year, I’m a little put out that this isn’t available at Windsor Castle (which does stock their own selection of wines and spirits), but the idea appealed to me nonetheless. 

The Speyside Distillery is a distillery that you don’t see a whole lot of malt from. Only starting production in 1990, it took from the early 1960’s to lay all the stones and install the stills. The bottle itself comes in a huge wooden and leather box, with a certificate of authenticity. Not styled to my taste, to be honest... but then their focus seems to be on the Asian market with a new partnership with ex-footballer Michael Owen, announced earlier in the year to promote their products in the Far East. 

Royal Choice - Spey from The Speyside Distillery – Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Bottle No. 92 of 3194 bottles. 46% abv - £150.00

Nose: The initial aroma on this screams youth, with some light notes of honey nut cornflakes and vanilla and rose petal marshmallow. Some ginger and herbal notes (green veg steamed) develop into oaty creaminess (think porridge with whisky on top).

Palate: A world away from the nose, which isn’t too inviting, this does give some honey, heather and ripe banana notes. It isn’t overly complex or powerful, and isn’t trying to be too clever. Rather large and mouthfilling, after the honey the herbaceous notes attack giving it a rather oaky tone. A pretty simple whisky but at least the palate isn’t following in the footsteps of the nose.

Finish: More herbs, honey and delicate spices (cinnamon/nutmeg) but a slightly bitter after taste.

Overall: This whisky feels youthful and over coloured. The construction has probably done the best it can using the whiskies available, but this might have been better as a blend and not a single malt. Not adventurous enough for me, this sits on the fence from a flavour perspective.

Time to move on, and move on quickly, we think.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The A.L.S. Challenge (that's Ardbeg's Latest Supernova)

Miniature collectors mob the Ardbeg Promo Bus,
in search of a 2014 Supernova. 
'Hello Neil, my name is F*******'

Started the random Facebook message, as I was idly playing with my phone last Saturday. 

'Can you help me for obtain these mini only for bloggers please?' was the next, slightly garbled line.  
Fortunately, it was accompanied with a picture of a small miniature Ardbeg bottle, a sample of the latest  release from the Islay distillery -  Supernova.  

'Can you obtain one for me please?'  

'Please Neil.'  

'Help me friend.'  

'Please my friend.' 

'I'm desperate for obtain these mini for my collection minis whisky.'

'Is it possible obtain please?'


By now I was starting to get a little irritated and slightly unnerved by the persistence of said collector, but also, my sense of playful deviousness began to kick in.  I wondered how far and to what lengths this chap would be willing to go to get hold of a bottle.  

What proceeded was another 38 direct messages, increasing in desperation every time.  

'I Suplicate' (sic)

'I'm desperate'

'please my friend, help me'.

When I finally fired off what I thought would end the conversation, it only got worse:

'Sorry, F*******, it is not for sale -  I shall be opening it for review later today.' 

'You know any person in Ardbeg?'



'Accept 150€?'

Having realised I had kicked the proverbial hornets nest, I decided to beat a hasty retreat. 

Now I daren't open my Facebook Messenger application for fear of how many more notes I may have received.

The smoky jewel, which attracted
so much unwanted attention.
What's highly surprising here is that no where had I previously published any notification that I even had a bottle, let alone that I would be daft enough to offer it for sale.
You see, Ardbeg have decided to follow the music industry's response to a similar scenario - which I am particularly familiar with.

On the side of the bottle is a sticker with what looks like a unique code. In my previous days as an A&R executive at Warner Brothers, we used to individually number each promo record to specific journalists (even going as far as to digitally 'watermark' each copy) so if in the event the promo made its way onto Ebay, or worse, onto the file sharing sites before it was released, it could be traced back to the culprit. 

I suppose one could simply peel off the sticker here, if one so desired (pretty lame 'security tag' Ardbeg, if this was your intension) but it is the concept itself of security tagging whisky promos that I find even more unnerving.

Is there such an inherent distrust of whisky reviewers these days? If that's the case, would it not be better to simply send out unsealed plain sample bottles, with no collectable value? 

in any case, let's just remind ourselves of some of the language used in the previous conversation:

'I suplicate' (sic) 
'I'm desperate'... 

Have we really reached a time in the whisky business where certain brands are no longer whisky companies; once selling a high quality, world class spirit to enthusiasts, Bon Vivants and social drinkers - now effectively becoming limited edition promo art dealers?  

I have no doubt that collecting is indeed a joy for the collector. I happen to have a collection of vintage Star Wars figures as a reminder of my childhood enthusiasm for the films (yes - I know it's slightly sad to admit this.) But when something scarce and highly desirable comes onto the market, people begin to display an almost addict-like level of desperation if they don't get what they want. Surely, that type of collecting really has no appeal at all. It certainly doesn't to me.  

With serial whisky collectors - particularly miniature collectors it seems, the liquid is no longer important; the simple ownership and possible residual value of the bottle (full and untasted of course) becoming the sole, all consuming pleasure factor. 

So here is my challenge to the whisky business and other writers/bloggers and journalists, (should you see fit to disclose your professional credentials): 

Let's call it the ALS* Challenge (*Ardbeg's Latest Supernova)

If you have been sent a bottle of this miniature- and you know who you are -  I challenge you to:

1. Open it.
2. Review it.
3. Publicly dispose of the bottle in the most imaginative way possible.

Hey presto. No Supernova miniatures to appear on auction sites and then make their way to dusty cabinets at absurd prices.

No more preposterously pleading messages on Facebook.

No more - 'well, can I just have the empty bottle then...' 

Oliver Klimek, who writes the very witty Dramming has already started the ball rolling with shattering precision, using a mallet. 

Now let's see what you can come up with...

Here's my attempt: Alas -  I started filming just after the damn thing decided to shatter, but you get the idea.... It's not like I have another one to destroy for a second take...

  So what of the whisky itself? Arguably more important than any of the above frippery.

Well, it's a real surprise.

Dr Bill Lumsden attempts the ALS Challenge. 
Ardbeg - Supernova - 2014 Edition - 55%

Nose: Surprisingly floral, with fresh pine, sweet golden syrup and a slight touch of medicinal peat.  It has a waft of youth about it, but not overpowering.  

Palate: Ok, there's the smoke.  It isn't monstrous, like the original version (that, or maybe my palate has become immune to heavily peated whiskies now) but there is an abundance of coal dust, more freshly sawn pine, a sweet candy floss note, some melted butter and white pepper. The youthfulness is there to see, but even at this strength, it is not total overkill on the palate.  That said, it is a smoky whisky in the extreme.  

Finish: A lingering dryness coats the tongue, with the dusty embers from a bonfire leaving their mark on the palate. You'll be tasting it for a fair old time, that's for sure. 

Overall: I think we once used an analogy about heavily peated whiskies being the hot curries of the whisky world:  Yes, it's all well and good trying to be a Vindaloo or a Faal, but when there's little substance (other than burn) underneath, what's the point?
Here, there's all the fun of the fair (and by that I mean one which has recently caught fire and burned to the ground) but there is some balance and method to the madness too.  

You can read what we said about the old Supernova here.

F******* -  this is for you.  If you do happen to get your mitts on a bottle- just open it FFS.  Maybe even get some friends round... if you have any.