February 8, 2009
- A very warm welcome to Malt Maniacs #111.
As you can see we've slightly changed the lay-out of the issues
to make it easier to jump directly to a particular whisky article.
These articles include pieces by two new maniacs; Nabil Mailloux
from Canada and David Wankel from the USA. They take the place
of Thomas Lipka from Germany who offered his seat on the team
for the greater good; he foresaw that he wouldn't be able to write
enough fresh material for our E-zine in the years to come. Hearty
thanks to Thomas for his contributions over the last few years.
Speaking of which... this 'retrofit' of Malt Maniacs also includes
a new approach to our publication; a fresh issue of Malt Maniacs
will be published whenever I feel it's ready - 10 articles or not...
Johannes van den Heuvel
Editor Malt Madness / Malt Maniacs
2009-01; SWA; the Scotch Wankers Association (JH)
The more I learn about the Scotch Whisky Association, the more I realise that
its employees must be a bunch of mean wankers. If I hadn't visited Scotland in
the past, it would have been easy to assume that all Scotsmen & Scotswomen
are like that. However, I'm happy to report that this is not the case. Most of the
Scottish people I've met were friendly, generous people. Nevertheless, not all
of them are. After all, there must be some basis for the stereotypical 'mean'
Scotsman (just like I can personally confirm that there is a very solid basis for
the stereotypical cheap, know-it-all Dutchman, by the way). A while ago our
South African maniac Joe Barry passed on a story that was a perfect example of
the lousy attitude that contributes to the unfavourable part of the stereotype.
Those of you that have been dramming for a few years may remember the
'Glen Breton' case from a few years ago. For those of you who are not familiar
with the case, I've collected some useful links on Malt Maniacs & Friends on
Facebook. I've just heard that a Canadian court of appeals has now dismissed
most of the deranged arguments of the SWA. That means that Glenora distillery
can use the name Glen Breton for their whisky without being bullied by the SWA.
Excellent news - but I've just heard that the SWA has already found another
candidate for their bullying on the other side of the world.
The South African businessman Dirk van der Walt happened to own a few old
cars of the 'London taxi' type. While he was thinking about a name for a locally
produced gin he wanted to bring to the market, it occurred to him that those old
cars would make perfect promotional vehicles for his gin. So, he tried to register
the trade mark 'London Taxi'. It wasn't long before Dirk received a threatening
letter from the lawyers of the SWA. The letter claimed (among other things) that
Dirk's brand "(…) deceives or confuses customers as to the source of origin of the
goods sold under this trade mark."
Dirk was a bit astonished by the letter; he wanted to produce GIN, not whisky.
After he asked for an explanation the reply was even more confusing; "(…) the
name London Taxi quite clearly refers to the internationally famous black cabs in the
capital city of the UK, and is therefore evocative of the United Kingdom. On account of
this, and the United Kingdom's reputation for Scotch whisky, consumers are likely to
believe that any whisky upon which this trade mark is used is Scotch whisky". What?
Whaat? Whaaaat? A 'mind map' of an SWA employee or one of their legal minions
must look like a painting made by Escher - while he had the flu and was drunk...
What's more: they're wagging around that old chestnut 'consumer confusion' again.
It seems that whenever the SWA lacks sensible arguments to support their legal harassment and lobbying, they pull a bunch of confused consumers from their hat. They quote their own 'research' to support their claims, like they did in last years upheaval about the new categories they're forcing down everybody's throat. Interestingly enough, the results of our own research and that of other publications were very different from the results of the SWA's research. Even more telling, when we asked some questions about that research of the SWA they were 'not at liberty to divulge the details'. Yeah, right - isn't that legal dialect for: 'Well, we made it up - but you'll never be able to prove it'?
So, who's paying the SWA employees and their lawyers for their manipulations and schemes? Well, the SWA members, of course.
And who's paying those SWA members? Well, ultimately their customers pay the bills - that's you and me. So, in a way, we're actually paying them to screw us over! In this time of financial crisis many of us have to tighten our budgets. That goes for me as well, and with so many organisations willing to screw me over for free I've decided to stop paying the SWA and its members for the privilege - at least in 2009.
It's simply a luxury I can't afford at the moment... Fortunately, that doesn't mean I have to stop buying Scotch whisky altogether this year.
For one thing, not all malt whisky distilleries in Scotland are SWA members...
If my information is correct, I can keep my conscience clean if I buy my whiskies from Arran, Benriach, Bladnoch, Bruichladdich, Dalmore, Edradour, Fettercairn, Glencadam, Glendronach, Glengyle, Glen Moray, Glen Scotia, Jura, Loch Lomond, Speyside, Springbank, Tamnavulin, Tomintoul and Tullibardine this year. What's more, the results of the MM Awards have proven that they've learned how to make excellent whisky in Japan, Ireland, India and Tasmania in recent years. I haven't been really convinced by the whisky made in the USA, Sweden, Germany, Holland and Belgium so far, but I'm keeping an open mind and my fingers crossed...
Needless to say, this little boycott of SWA whiskies is purely personal - and I may not even make it to the end of the year.
(Most of) the other maniacs will happily continue to drink and review whiskies from the SWA members in this and upcoming issues of MM. Without a doubt one of the SWA members will release an whisky eventually that I'm too curious about to maintain my little one man boycott, but in the foreseeable future I will be looking elsewhere for my whisky fixes.
[* = Read this article at your own risk. The reader is responsible for all damage that might come from reading this article. I don't actually know for a
FACT that the SWA and its lawyers regularly perform the act of wanking - and if they indeed do, how good they actually are at it. So, me calling them
wankers should not be taken as a statement of fact but rather as my purely personal opinion - like everything else in this article.]
But first: Why did Johannes become completely crazy?
(an answer to his E-pistle)
Well, that's what some of the Malt Maniacs have been wondering about since
he did put his 'rant' about the Scotch Whisky Association online. Mind you, it's
not his line of argument, it's his tone of voice! We like to think of the Dutch as
pacifistic people who prefer to run half-naked in tulip fields while smoking pot
and drinking hard genever (or whisky, for that matter) rather than as rude
and aggressive warmongers!
Was Johannes simply having a bee in his bonnet?
Probably, in fact ;-), but as much as we would certainly not have called the
SWA crew 'w*****s', it's true that what's been heard or read about some of
the association's recent moves has been nothing but a little embarrassing.
First of all, it seems that not many people have really understood the SWA's new whisky classifications.
Especially the infamous 'blended malt' category caused some raised eyebrows, but after all, it's their function to make these classifications evolve, so fair enough. Our own function, as whisky lovers (vulgum pecus, really), is simply to buy the products, destroy them and say or write nice things about them (word of mouth = free publicity, huh!).
Now, when we spot a genuine David vs. Goliath scheme developing, which was obviously the case with the Glen Breton vs. SWA court case, things start to go wild. The Web 2.0, this wonderful thing where everybody's an expert, does nothing but make things go truly exponential. Yes, just like our dear Johannes' rant.
Having said that, we agree that trying to bring Glen Breton to court for the third time (or so it seems), whilst the little Canadian distillery had won the two first instances, really is a strange move, that reminds us of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), that ruthlessly – but rightfully - keeps fighting any imitations all around the world (they even managed to prevent Yves St Laurent from calling one of their perfumes 'Champagne'!) The only difference is that Scotch whisky is most of the time distilled from imported cereals, using a process that was invented elsewhere, is then always matured in imported wood, and now often bears added foreign wine names on its labels. Even the beautiful wooden boxes come from China, so much for terroir! So, in our opinion, it's not too good for the Scots that they would start to be seen as too inflexible and inquisitory with distillers from other nations, when so little is actually truly Scottish in their very own products, that is to say only the places where the plants and the warehouses are! Because first, our romance and goodwill may become more and more chaotic, and second, we may really start to ask for Scottish barley only. And organic, at that!
So, maybe it's time to leave Glen Breton – and Johannes - alone?
Now, the luck of the Scots is that beyond these painful issues, they keep making the best spirit in the world. Even better: a spirit that, we believe, ages perfectly well in its bottle after it has left its country of origin. We know this is controversial but let's take this opportunity to answer a few comments that we saw somewhere else on the Web.
Indeed, we've been pointed to the excellent Whiskymag forum where some no less excellent whisky lovers were wondering why we often insist on the concept of bottle ageing (when sealed), whilst it is common belief that whisky does not change anymore once bottled. First, we'd like to remind you that 'it's not because many are wrong, that they are right' (as said the good Coluche). And second, let's quickly list a few points that may explain why we have this belief, beyond simple observations that we could make when tasting old bottlings (hundreds and hundreds of them, actually).
(1) - Wine does change once bottled, even fortified wines, so why not whisky?
Sure whisky's changes may be much, much slower, but whisky is also usually more poorly sealed than wine. Now, we think that bottle ageing can be noticed only after fifteen, twenty or thirty years.
(2) - No cap is totally airtight, not even the spring/tin/Kork-N-Seal ones, and some closures do suffer from long storage, alcohol vapours and so on.
(3) - Bottle ageing may partly explain why most old malts are NOW better than their contemporary versions.
It may not always be true that they were actually better when they were bottled...
(4) - White eaux-de-vie are matured in glass, often in demijohns. If white spirits do change, why not brown/golden spirits?
(5) - A simple quote of The Great Michael Jackson: "It is often argued that change happens only in the cask, but that is not true."
(in 'message in a bottle', 1996)
(6) - Some bottlers, and not the less famous of them, do insist on bottle ageing, such as the famous Silvano Samaroli who even writes about that on some of his labels.
(7) - The very same Silvano Samaroli explained to us how, for instance a very young Ardbeg and a very young Glen Garioch used to be harsh and pungent when he bottled them thirty years ago, whilst they became magnificently mellow and complex after all these years in glass. He would know, wouldn't he?
(8) - Some famous distiller, whom we won't disclose here because that may be a corporate secret (yeah, yeah) considers that whiskies, especially blends, have a "shelf life" and may acquire a "taste of glass" when sitting at some shops for too long. They even control that and try to take back these 'odd' bottles.
(9) - Glass may well not be as inert a material as it's believed (a long debate, let's not start it here and now).
There are several other reasons (don't get us started on OBE – Old Bottle Effect – or on how bottle ageing affects various 'descriptors' or 'components' such as peat, sherry and so on, or the role of high or lower ABV, or twist cap vs. cork…) but let's give you this last, killer reason: if whisky wasn't to change anymore once bottled, why would two old bottles from the very same batch, or even the very same cask, taste so obviously different after twenty or thirty years, especially when they didn't spend their bottle lives at the same place? But okay, all this is no straight-from-the-lab scientific evidence and that's why we're still calling this issue 'a belief' rather than a proven fact. But still… ;-)
There is nothing in the world that will bring you closer to a fist-fight with a fellow connoisseur of whisky than to start talking about whether to add water or not to your dram! I've received some downright nasty emails from people whom I was razzing about their propensity for not adding water (and those who like to add ice!). However, as a former graduate student and chemist for 3M Company, responsible for specialty chemicals, there are two things I know about: chemistry and alcohol. I hope that I will be able to convince you from a scientific point of view that there is good cause to add water to your dram.
As we are all aware, whisky is a mixture of alcohol and water in the ratio of a minimum of 40:60. There are also other components present, but in much smaller concentrations, usually under 1% of the total volume. These other components are what are responsible for the aroma and flavour attributable to malt whisky. They are usuallly either water-loving, water-hating, or in between. Many whisky lovers do not like to add water to their dram for fear of diluting these flavours. However, the science points to an "opening up" effect following the addition of water to your dram. Here's why.
Alcohol is both similar and dissimilar to water.
It is a chain of two carbon atoms terminated with
two thirds of a water molecule, an –OH. It is therefore
both water loving and water hating. The –OH portion
loves to be surrounded by water whereas the carbon
chain is not very fond of water, it is more like an oil
(surely you've heard of the historical mutual
antagonism between "oil and water"!)
In such molecules a curious phenomenon occurs.
If you add a little bit of these molecules to pure
water it will first coat the surface of the water, with
the –OH pointing into the water, and the carbon
chain facing upwards into the air.
This has the effect of lowering the surface tension of the water, increasing the propensity for a drop of water to "spread out".
You can often see this phenomenon when you prepare a rum and coke. Add coke to the ice and watch it foam up, then add your alcohol and watch the foam get "knocked down". What you are witnessing is a surface active agent – or surfactant.
Surfactants are the main ingredient in soaps, detergents, window cleaners, and
zillions of other products. But what happens if you keep adding surfactant? Well, once the surface of the water is covered with a monolayer of surfactant, they have
nowhere to go but into the water. Once the concentration of these surfactants is high enough, they organize themselves in a very specific way. Remember, the tail
HATES water so they tails stick together while the –OH head LOVES water and so faces the water. The resulting structure is a little spheroid where all the heads are
on the surface of the sphere and the tails are in the inside. This structure is called a micelle. The micelle's interior is more "oil like" while on the outside it is essentially
water. It is precisely inside of these micelles where many of the oily aroma compounds congregate, a safe haven of sorts. Have a look at the sample of water
above. On the left is a sample of water with beta-carotene floating on top. On the right, look what happens when micelles are present. The otherwise water-hating beta-carotene is now dispersed and dissolved into the water.
Now in my industrial experience, 90% of surfactants are made up of chains of at least 8 carbon atoms. Many of the fatty acid and ester aroma compounds in whisky would fit the bill and may act like surfactants forming micelles in their own right. If it hadn't been for the persistence of a fellow whisky lover Nick Ramsey, I would NEVER have discovered that ethanol (alcohol) could behave this way, but it does.
It does so at a much higher concentration than industrial surfactants, at around 20% by volume.
Industrial surfactants work at concentrations much lower than 1%. Nonetheless, ethanol can behave as a surfactant and form micelle-like structures. In fact a couple of Japanese researchers confirmed that between 10-90% ABV, such mixtures form ethanol-rich clusters, not micelles proper, but much the same idea. With whisky at 40% alcohol by volume, this is most likely what is occurring.
So what about adding water? Okay, I'm getting there! Imagine now that you are adding water to your whisky. As you do this, the concentration of alcohol is diminishing, and the size and number of micelles is diminishing, the reverse of when you add surfactant to water! As this happens, the number of micelles is also diminishing so that the aroma compounds that hate water have no choice but to flee this inhospitable environment. The only way out is up into the air, or to precipitate out as a solid, hence the haziness that occurs when water is added to non-chill filtered whisky.
Did you also know that water warms the whisky? Yep, that's right.
As you add water to the whisky, you are mixing two different liquids, each with different
arrangements of molecules that are simultaneously mutually attracted and repulsed. Since
the attractions are stronger, the liquid stays together. As you mix whisky and water
together, you have to break the attractions and reform a new equilibrium of attractions
and repulsions. Mixing water with whisky causes the attractions to be a little stronger, that
is to say, that they form stronger intermolecular bonds. Try mixing 10 ml of water and 10 ml
of ethanol, you get LESS than 20 ml of liquid because the molecules are grabbing hold of
each other more tightly, or bonding. When bonds are formed, molecules move less, giving
up their energy, in this case heat. This heat then contributes to a temperature rise, we
call this the heat of mixing.
You can try this at home, but use rubbing alcohol if you don't want to waste good malt.
Take a cup full of rubbing alcohol 99%, place a thermometer and read the temperature.
Leave a cup of water alongside the alcohol for an hour to come to the same temperature.
Pour some of the water into the alcohol and keep your eye on the thermometer… WOW!
You'll see the temperature rise by up to 3-4 C. This thermal energy is then used to help
those poor refugee aroma compounds leave the dwindling number of safe havens in your
dram. The temperature rise also causes the micelles to disassemble, again forcing out more
of the aroma compounds.
Finally, one cannot forget the fact that as you add water to whisky, it becomes more water like.
As this happens, the aromas that are "oily" become unhappy refugees that are forced to flee by the hordes of belligerent water molecules. Aided by the thermal energy provided by the heat of mixing, and the diminishing number of micelles, these aromas reach escape velocity and leave your dram and reach the orbit of your olfactory sensors.
It is plain to see now that the next time your favourite uncle says "I never add water to whisky, it ruins it", you can explain the scientific reason for doing so. Adding water does "open up" the whisky, and there is a scientific rationale for this phenomenon. However, not ALL whiskies handle water well. As you know, some palates and noses collapse with water, while others blossom. Some individuals enjoy whisky without water, while other can't stand it without. It is certainly a matter of individual tastes. One should, however, feel free to experiment with water to fully explore the possibilities it brings to the enjoyment of what is considered by many to be the nectar of the gods.
2008 has been yet another bountiful year. To collect Awards 2008 samples personally itself is a valid excuse to make a trip to Europe, to meet some maniacal friends there and when it came with the opportunity of an American chauffeur taking me around in Europe highways, it became a bonus. Well, my brother joined me all the way from US in Amsterdam and we hired a Jaguar to travel to some of the most beautiful places in Western Europe. Also I promised my Danish friend Hans Henrik that I shall be bringing his three special private vintages of Glenfiddich from India. Many of you already know Hans. Well, he is a well know face on the Facebook and a maniacal Glenfiddich collector and I hope to write a full Epistle on him some day. There are so many worth telling stories about him and his Glenfiddiches.
It has been a whirlwind, autobahn tour of Europe as we traveled four countries in 7 days and had some memorable dramming sessions with Johannes, Davin, Michel and Hans. In Nykobing Hans treated us with some his awesome Glenfiddiches from his cellar and a surprise dram was a 20 yo Pappy van Winkle's Kentucky Straight Bourbon ( 45.2%) which earned a respectable 84. Initially my plan included a visit to Regensburg also to meet Pit Krause, but my brother became fatigued and could not make the journey from Oostende to Regensburgh and so the plan was dropped. Well, after having tasted 300 whiskies in 2008, why not brag something about it and rate my 10 best whiskies of the year? Here is the list from bottom to top.
10. Cooley 15yo 1993/2008 (46%, The Nectar Daily Dram, Madeira Finish, 370 Bts)
Irish whiskies rank pretty low in my list but this one blew me off during blind tasting and I never expected this to be an Irish whisky. Cooley is situated north east of Dublin on the scenic foothills of Cooley Mountains and claims itself as the Ireland's only independent distillery. I am told that the place itself is a traveler's paradise to visit, even if you are an alcohol abstainer. Incidentally, Cooley also makes two of my favourite drams of Ireland- the peaty Connemara and Tyrconnel. Tasting Notes: "Fruity Bubblegum" according to Johannes. Passion fruits, later on followed by leafy organics and fennel seed. On palate too it is very fruity, just like on the nose. Not terribly complex like Speyside or Highland whiskies, but very pleasant. A must get bottle if you can get one.
9. Glengoyne 19yo 1988/2007 (58.3%, OB, Pedro Ximinez butt, C#718)
Glengoynes never fail. The distillery, situated just a short drive from Edinburgh actually in fact confuses me whether it should be called a lowland whisky or a Speyside but whenever I taste a Glengoyne, I find the unmistakable Speyside character in it. Glengoynes are universally liked due to their robust feel on palate and many of their cask strength whiskies named after their staff are special attractions. Tasting Notes: Loads of wood with some organics and Port-wine-like. Profile grows bigger and more complex after breathing. Subtle fruity sweetness in the background. Definitely improves after some 30 minutes and you get dried fruits and spices and camphor. On palate it is honeyed and treacle with mild organics revisiting. Excellent mouth-feel with strong and hint of smoky finish.
8. Strathisla 35yo 1969/2005 (56.3%, Danish Malt Whisky Academy for Hotel Falster, Sherry C# 2516)
One of trade mark whiskies of Seagram's, more known for Chivas Regal (a lot of Strathisla incidentally goes into blending of Chivas Regal), Strathisla is in fact the oldest distillery in Northern Scotland (est. 1786). A lot of stuff distilled at Strathisla actually ends up in the private warehouses in Elgin belonging to Gordon and Macphail (who else?) , the world's largest independent bottlers and this rare bottle actually beat the Strathisla 48 yo 50% G&M for LMW version (AWARDS 2008 sample) to enter into this list. Tasting Notes: Lots of spices- Cinnamon, Nutmeg and cloves too. Heavy wood. Beautiful rich complex nose with roasted nuts. Very dry and lots of tannins, like eating a paan. Very long finish with lots of organics.
7. Glenfarclas 30yo (43%, OB, +/-2008)
The folks at Glenfarclas (GF) keep a low profile and let their fans speak about their whisky and I am yet come across a person, who, after enjoying a dram of Glenfarclas has not rated it among his/her top 5 Speysiders. Glenfarclas is improving day by day as this simple fact shows. I used to possess a GF 30yo, (not a 30 year old Girl Friend!) a bottle bought at the very distillery in 2003 which happened to be the best Glenfarclas I ever had, but the present 30yo, bottled some time in 2008 had beaten all records. Tasting Notes: Nose is like aroma coming from steaming Chinese fried rice, fennel, dried fruits and licorice. Later on developing into lots of fruits and spices. Touch of smoke and wood too. Well-balanced profile and brilliant mouth feel. Honey drops with excellent woody finish.
6. Yamazaki 18yo 1990/2008 (60%, OB, sherry butt, C#0N70645)
It is not a surprise any more if any Japanese whisky wins top accolades at a whisky competition. The Yamazaki 20y.o (1985-2006, 56%) has been declared as the best whisky in 2006 by Malt Maniacs and Whisky Magazine in 2007 voted the Yoichi 20yo as the best whisky in the world. Founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, Yamazaki (meaning confluence of three rivers) is the oldest distillery in Japan. The distillery is now owned by Suntory (remember Bill Murray in Lost in Translation?) Tasting Notes: Typical nose of a top class oloroso finish with lots of oriental spices, sultanas, prunes and betel leaf. Polished and woody with a subtle sweet undercurrent. Very sweet, spicy and menthol like, tannins with excellent hot finish.
5. Lagavulin 21yo 1985/2007 (56.5%, OB, 6642 Bts.)
This is the over all winner of Awards 2008 and actually I rated this 78 points during blind tasting. After the results were declared, I re tasted the left over and realized that I made some mistake. This is a legend of a whisky although I am not changing my score. No other Scottish distillery evocates such passion and a feeling of obeisance than Lagavulin and if you must drink a whisky with head bowed, this is it. If you are serious about whisky and want to learn more about Lagavulin, just make pilgrimage to Islay to know more about this legend than reading books or surfing blogs for second hand information. I warn you that your life would not be the same again. Tasting Notes: Smoke from dried leaves with peat. Great complexity, with lemon and honey flavours although it scores more on the palate. Smoke returns on palate with hints of salt licorice. Syrupy sweetness. Brilliant balance with loads of smoke in the finish. This is a legend of a whisky.
4. Ardbeg 25yo 1976/2002 (53.1%, Feis Isle 2002, C#2390, 494 Bts.)
Sitting in small hotel room in Amsterdam this was tasted along with Davin, Johannes, Michel and my brother. After having a dozen ordinary drams, this was fished out by Johannes from nowhere and it blew us off. I think none of us gave it below 90 points. Tasting Notes: Delicious beef stock on nose. Dried fruits, more like raisins and succulent citrus notes. Spicy and leafy organics on palate with the trade mark smoke and peaty notes of Ardbeg displaying all along in the background.
3. Glenglassaugh 30yo 1975/2006 (45.6%, Doglous Laing & Co, 94 Bts)
The sad part of Glenglassaugh is that the distillery is closed since 1986 and surprisingly nobody came to rescue this wonderful distillery. Situated on coastal edge of Spey and Deveron rivers in Speyside, most of the spirit from this distillery went into blending of Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and Laing's. This bottle has been given as a gift by some American fan of Johannes and it was really nice of Johannes to bring it for the evening. It made me and Davin go crazy. Tasting Notes: Spicy and strong. Almonds and camphor with sweet oaky notes and then you catch hints of smoke. On palate you get green peppers, more smoke coming back with passion fruit. Excellent, full bodied and satisfying finish with loads of syrup and smoke.
2. Carsebridge 42yo 1960/2002 (41.6%, Chieftain's Choice, Oloroso, C#15010, 135 Bts.)
Carsebridge defeats Single Malt Scotch Whisky purists. This is a grain based Lowland whisky and the spirit has been distilled from those unromantic, continuous column stills. But who cares when you get a stunning out put after the spirit had slept over 40 years in magic cask? Most of the magic of this Carsebridge is an outcome of marriage of alcohol with the wood of the exquisite Oloroso cask chosen by master blender, Gordon Doctor. The distillery has been dismantled in 1983. Tasting Notes: Nose Aberlour Abu'nath like- full of oloroso sherry, all kinds of dried fruits, Christmas cake and spices, this is a quality spirit spent a long time a quality sherry cask. On palate you get sweet sherry, mellowed, mild tannins with super mouth-feel, orange skins, smooth, long and superlative woody finish!
1. Balblair 1973/2006 (45%, G&M Private Collection, C#3184-3185, 385 Bts.)
Another one of the oldest distilleries (est. 1790) in Scotland, Balblair lies just on the left hand side cleft of picturesque Dornoch Firth (on the other side is Glenmorangie) on route 9. All things pertaining to Balblair are ancient- its library, the stone walls and its water source running down Ben Dearg hills in the rear. Gordon & Macphail has sizeable number of single casks of Balblair and this bottle is from one of the exclusive Private Collections of Gordon & Macphail. This is the best whisky I have tasted in 2008. Tasting Notes: Rich sherried nose, dried fruits, raisins, plum cake, some spices like cloves- this reminds me of Yamazaki 20yo, 2006 winner. Leather cover note book- looks like a whisky spent long age in a quality Spanish cask. Sweet and good tannins, excellent rich taste, exceedingly satisfying. 101% GM winner.
In the race for top honours of Malt Maniacs Awards 2008.
As some of you know, in real life I am a biologist at the University
of Southampton. My field of interest is largely in the realm of ecology
and evolution: understanding how organisms change over time, and
how these changes are driven by their environment. For a lot of my
work, I use fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and one area of
research I have been working in is the evolution of resistance against
parasites and pathogens. Like us, fruit flies have an immune system
against their parasites and pathogens, and, surprisingly maybe, the
bases of our and their immune system are quite similar.
Now you may wonder what all this has to do with whisky?
Well, in an e-mail discussion between several maniacs, Serge
commented on an observation he made recently, which was that
some whiskies appeared to attract more insects than others. A
research project that I recently started up in collaboration with a
colleague here is one which focuses on 'immunonutrients': specific
nutrients that can be added to a diet and boost the immune system.
Now one key bit of information I still haven't given you: phenols play
an important role in the immune system of fruit flies. See where I'm
heading? Given that phenols are important to flies, it would be good
for a fly to seek out food which contains phenols. And, as we all know,
peaty drams get their peatiness from phenols .....
So I decided to set up a series of small experiments in my office, testing whether fruit flies prefer peaty whiskies over non-peaty whiskies. Experimental set-up is quite simple: get a Perspex cage, release a couple of hundred flies in the cage, give them some food in the shape of honey and then put two wee glasses in the cage, one filled with a peaty malt, one with a non-peaty malt. Each comparison will be done twice, with the position of the peaty and non-peaty malt reversed in the second run (just to avoid that flies are simply attracted to one side of the cage, of instance because there is a bit more light there).
The first pair of whiskies I compared were Celp and Bunnahabhain 12 y.o. For those of you not familiar with Celp: it's an Islay malt (of undisclosed origin, but rumoured to be a young Lagavulin or Laphroaig), bottled at 55% together with a twig of waterweed. The idea was to infuse the whisky with 'sea weed essence'. Obviously, because of the added waterweed, it can't be sold as 'whisky'. For the experiment, of course I made sure to dilute the Celp down to the same alcohol % as the Bunny, to make sure flies weren't simply choosing on the basis of alcoholic strength. Leave the glasses for one to two days and all you need to do is count the numbers of flies that drowned themselves in the two glasses. And this first experiment gave a clear result, consistent between the two runs: 68% of flies went to the glass with Celp!
That's a promising first result, but of course the flies could prefer the Celp for any number of reasons; doesn't have to be the peatiness. In order to make a stronger case for fruit flies being attracted to the phenols, I need to repeat the experiment with several other peaty malts. If flies keep going to a peaty dram, independent of exactly which peaty dram I use, then there is a stronger case for flies being attracted to the phenols and not something else.
So a few more experiments are called for! First Connemara Cask Strength versus Locke's (again, the Connemara diluted appropriately). Like in the first experiment, a very clear and consistent result, but not as expected: 78% of flies go to the Locke's! Maybe Irish phenols are not as good for boosting the immune system as Scottish phenols?? Back to Scotland it is then, with Glenfiddich 15 y.o. Cask Strength (appropriately diluted) being offered together with Talisker 10 y.o. And again the results are clear and consistent between runs: 80% of flies drown themselves in the Glenfiddich ....
That's two out of three experiments suggesting that flies are not attracted but actually repelled by peaty drams ....
One more: Glenfiddich again, but now together with Laphroaig 10 y.o. As the Celp from the first experiment is an Islay malt, maybe there is something peculiar to Islay-derived phenols?? But no, Glenfiddich is again the preferred dram of drowning: 70% of flies.
So, although the idea of flies preferring peaty malts in order to boost their immune system was a nice one, and I could already see the marketing slogans capitalising on such a finding, the experiments I ran in my office give no indication that it is actually happening; if anything, the opposite appears to be the case. But science is all about asking questions, and testing hypotheses, and that's exactly what I did. The hypothesis that flies prefer phenols because it boosts their immune system was rejected by these experiments. Drosophila melanogaster is clearly a fruit fly, not a peat fly. Still, the experiments did make sure my office smelled subtly of whisky for a while, and I did get my share of colleagues raising their eyebrows and students asking me questions on what I was doing with that cage of flies and glasses filled with amber liquid!
Lex Kraaijeveld, UK
I think I am one of the less organized people in the world. And lazy, too. So it's not often that I bother myself to take exhaustive tasting notes, and when I do I usually scribble them on whatever piece of paper I happen to find around. Thus, sometimes I casually stumble on these notes (usually when trying to clean my desk and make some order), but it happens no more than once a year: sometimes with surprising results, finding things I thought were lost for good. So, imagine my joy when during one of these cleaning sessions I managed to find no less than eleven complete tasting notes of very interesting malts… Only eleven? No problem… since on the same day a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova had arrived from Islay, and that made twelve: after all I imagine that many readers will be curious to know if it lives up to the hype since all the bottles went away in a couple of hours, so it was a perfect choice.
So, knowing how these tasting notes were gathered, you won't be surprised if there actually isn't a theme: quite simply and honestly, they are all malts which I tasted repeatedly from a personal bottle in the past 18 months AND which were interesting/unusual/good enough (at least to me) to propel me to write something more than the usual "great stuff", "lots of tar", "excellent sherry". So, not necessarily the absolute best malts I tried in the past months although many of them sure are in my top 2008 list. And please note that I said "from a personal bottle": although some of these malts were actually tasted at the 2008 Awards, too, I picked only bottlings which I have had in my possession for months and which I took a long time to rate and write the notes for. Let's start with the Supernova, then...
Ardbeg NAS 'Supernova'
(58.9%, OB, Advance Committee Release, 2009)
Nose: pears, melons, ripe lemons, green apples. Sweet, farmy, organic… with a hint of wet dog. Less organic, vegetal and feinty than some other recent young bottlings (including the Renaissance). And here comes the surprise: it's also surprisingly much less smoky than expected! Yes, we have leather and peat, and the smokiness is obvious… but no way as intense and brutal as the high ppm might have suggested. Maybe adding water will help to release more smoke? No: damp earth and wood, but peat stays well-behaved and not dominant. Perhaps some more organics. Sandalwood.
Palate: Syrupy, very rich on cereals, banana, bread. Black liquorice, lots of it. Still sweet and relatively "soft" in spite of the high ABV, perfectly drinkable at cask strength, not monstrous at all. Again, it doesn't seem particularly more peated than other young Ardbeg expressions (the Very Young comes to mind as more aggressive and in-your-face). With water, it gets slightly more lemony, with organics and disinfectant. Peat still is not brutal: it is there, very present but well integrated. It doesn't scream on top of everything else, it doesn't taste like you're licking an ashtray or some freshly laid tar on a road at all. Compared to the Very Young/Still Young/Almost There/Renaissance, I found the Supernova "cleaner": less organic, green, vegetal notes. Much more straightforward, purer, and very smooth (though certainly not wimpy!). Very pleasant "modern-style" Ardbeg, then: highly enjoyable, rich and drinkable… but alas also a bit simple and predictable.
Comment: Can you feel the 100ppm peat, which is the selling point of this malt (in addition to being a very limited release for Committee members… and for eBay profiteers)? Actually I think there is a saturation level, that taste and smell work like other senses like hearing and vision do: doubling the ppm does not result in double an impact on the palate and nose (our senses are logarithmic, in case you didn't know). So, it actually is only slightly more peaty and smoky than other young Ardbeg cask strength expressions. I have no comparison with the equally peated Octomore, which I have never had an occasion to taste, but to make a comparison I slightly prefer it to the very intense and smoky PC7 (which is a bit astringent and butyric, IMHO). Score: 86 points
Let's try another recent "limited and collectable" Ardbeg, then… I remember waiting VERY long for this bottle (something like 2 months), as probably Ardbeg wasn't expecting such a huge success and was swamped by orders from fans and from the above mentioned profiteers. It looks like they learnt their lesson after this experience, since the Supernova was delivered to me in only 7 days…
Ardbeg NAS 'Corryvreckan'
(57.1%, OB, Committee Reserve, 5000 Bts., 2008)
Nose: Haha, this is so much better than the (already good) Supernova! Enormously tarry, deep, dark, brooding, ashy. Green vegetals, lots of unsugared liquorice, damp earth. On top of that, a slightly winey character: do I detect some sherry here? Not sure about that, but it sure has some common points with the Uigeadail, and after all there are rumours about a particular choice of (red wine?) casks for this very special release. Anyway, it's probably more intense than the Supernova… no, wait, not more intense but fuller and juicier. Sea and earth flavours beautifully integrated.
Palate: Punchy, peppery. Adding water makes it more juicy and balanced, but not less intense. Again, very tarry peat, orange peel, tea, and that same sherried/winey feeling I had found in the nose. Not astringent, though: it remains very syrupy, chewy and chocolaty. Coffee, too, and some camphor. Green leaved vegetables (spinach) and balsamic vinegar. Very nice and mouthfilling.
Comment: What a strange Ardbeg! Certainly one of the best official releases they've had recently (at least in the "affordable price" range)! I still prefer the maturity of the best batches of Uigeadail, but this one is excellent too: I wonder why they don't make it a regular release… although I suspect that it was a one-shot experiment. Luckily I have two more bottles stashed away in a secret place. Score: 89 points
After trying these two very nice modern Ardbegs, let's switch back in time… with a very rare bottle that I bought on an impulse knowing that it couldn't certainly be bad…
Ardbeg 12yo 1990/2003
(46%, High Spirits, 312 Bts., D09/'90 B01/'03)
Nose: Wow! Lots of camphor, mint, peat, old musty drawers, black coffee, shoe polish, balsamic vinegar (again, the good quality ones from Reggio and Modena… not the industrial ones!), leather. Exactly the profile I love! Some organics (horse dung?), and ripe peaches. Intense and rich, but not explosive and still subtle and elegant. Very nice red wine-like tannins (Barolo, and I'm not kidding), and as the ruby colour suggests, a nice oloroso dryness.
Palate: I will cut it short and simply say that all what the nose suggested is replicated here, plus a wonderfully astringent dryness and lots of liquorice. Very winey but not over the top sherry, with crème brulèe and burnt sugar, and no nasty sulphuriness at all. Make a mix of Uigeadail and Lagavulin 21yo 1985, then dilute, and you'll have an idea… though this one is sweeter, creamier and subtler. Less tarry than the two official Ardbegs reviewed above.
Comment: Maybe some more intensity and flamboyancy would have propelled this one even higher: it's so incredibly drinkable at this ABV (I couldn't stop refilling my glass), but maybe at cask strength it would have been even better and a real punchy stunner. Anyway, it's incredible how a simple 12yo can compete (and in some ways surpass) some older cask strength sherry/peat monsters. Not to mention that it's more elegant and complex, and also juicier when compared at roughly the same ABV, than the two young releases above. Well done! A bottle worth hunting… even at the high (but not outrageous) prices it goes for: to put it straight, it might even cost you less than what the "collectors" on eBay are often asking for a Supernova... Score: 92 points
Since I mentioned the Lagavulin 21yo that recently won the MM Awards, why not speak of this one too?
Since its release, I have drunk two whole bottles of it, and that should say how nice it is.
Lagavulin 21yo 1985/2007
(56.5%, OB, 6642 Bts.)
Nose: If you are sensitive to sulphur in your whisky, this might be at the border between "OK, I can feel it and it is stimulating" and "This is already too much". I am not particularly troubled by sulphury notes, but be aware that it becomes more evident after leaving it exposed to air: it was particularly obvious in the Awards sample. Winey (old tannic red wine), with sour fruits (raspberries), then getting leathery, smoky and minty. Crème brulèe, orange, seaweed, camphor, eucalyptus, Latakia pipe tobacco… a whole array of intense flavours, truly fantastic (and extreme). Tarry and peaty like all good Lagavulins are, of course.
Palate: Great integration of sherry and peat… but extremely astringent, so much that it will make your teeth shiver. Again, initially very dry and sherried… then getting on a chewy liquoricey sweetness. Extremely long finish, leathery and minty, with camphor and bitter candied oranges too. Give it time, and the astringency will partly go away. Chewy, leathery, organic. Adding water does not make it significantly less "brutal" and punchy, unless you really drown it. Not simply a mix of the intensity and attack of the 12yo with the richer character of the 16yo, and certainly VERY different from the subtler 25yo and 30yo expressions: a whole different beast, quite wild and unique.
Comment: When this one was released, it was said that it would be the last of the "full European Oak sherry" Lagavulins, and this certainly propelled sales: in the first two weeks from its release, most bottles in the UK were hoovered by collectors. Oddly enough, in other countries this bottling arrived a couple of months later… when the initial craze was over (in the meanwhile, the collectors' attention had shifted towards the even rarer – but much duller – Longrow 18yo). And so it was possible to find little liquor stores in Italy where they had it in full CRATES, with no one paying attention to it (and that's how I managed to cellar four more bottles at a nice discounted price…). Funnily enough, six months later the distillery released another "European Oak" release (the sweet, fruity, excellent and affordable 12yo for Friends of Classic Malts) so one might wonder if the 21yo truly will be the last bottling from casks of this kind… Anyway, a malt that really deserves to be remembered for long: maybe I have even been a little severe with my rating (Serge considers this the best Lagavulin ever), but the Gold Medal at the Awards should leave no doubts in case you still had some.
Score: 91 points (same score from my bottles and, months later, blind at the Awards)
While we are on Islay, why not reverting to a subtler style, a trip back in time to when even ordinary and affordable official bottlings were the rule? Hold on, because you might be in for a surprise… I have never been a fan of Bowmore: their core range in the '90s and early '00s was rather dull (when not plagued by the FWP…) and always left me flat, while the older collectable bottlings (you know, the legendary vintages from the late '60s) were out of my reach. The only Bowmore I had really found excellent so far was a 1979 dumpy Signatory bottling. So, imagine my surprise when I had the chance to taste a rather old official one… only to find it so different from all other Bowmores I had sampled before. This bottle was still bearing the original price sticker of 23000 Lire (12 Euro in today's currency), and this made me awfully nostalgic because nowadays this money won't even buy you the cheapest and lousiest bottle of blended whisky…
(43%, OB, Dumpy Golden Label, early 1980's)
Nose: Salt, rotting seaweeds on the beach (don't misunderstand me… it's actually pleasant!!!), mint, camphor, nice dry sherry, wet dog, farmy notes, and peat. Not the usual blatant and phenolic peat: it still is rather intense, but also incredibly subtle and not immediately obvious, not screaming on top of everything else. Fermented hay, coffee with milk, chocolate and cocoa powder. Candied oranges, fruity and sweet. Thick and juicy. Give it time, because it may seem quiet… but it has lots to tell.
Palate: Extremely smooth mouthfeel, creamy and luxurious. Some slight "aged wine" rancid impression, very very pleasant, like a wonderfully oxidized dry sherry (the OBE that Serge often writes about?). Exactly the same flavours found in the nose, but more intense and even richer: the candied orange, the milk and coffee are what stands out clearest. Then we also have "extravergine" olive oil, alpine herbs, sweet chocolate and just the right amount of peat: if I had tasted it blind, I certainly wouldn't have said it was an Islay malt… maybe some delicate expression of Talisker. Chewy, smooth, like liquid honey… delicate but at the same time rich and flavourful. Again, give it time because it really improves in an open bottle and in the glass: very pleasant at first, monstrously complex and full of subtleties as long as it stays exposed to air. You really could drink this one for hours, and the ABV is perfect. Absolutely not comparable to later versions of the 12yo: no lavender, no geranium, no offbeat aftertastes, just great whisky… perhaps only a bit too subtle for lovers of extreme impact malts. Now, imagine if this one had been bottled in an unchillfiltered version and at cask strength: it would deserve no less than 96-97 points…
Comment: A true blast from the past, a marvellous bottle that was so good, complex, fascinating and utterly drinkable… that I finished it in two weeks (with the help of a friend). I think it's a close relative of the bottle that Serge, Olivier and Davin raved about and I must say that they were so f*cking right! At least it's nice to see that Bowmore is slowly returning to this style: a bottle of "modern" 12yo I tasted recently (the one with the new bottle shape and label style) was very nice and with a similar profile to this oldie. Of course less complex, less chewy, less wonderfully multifaceted, less fascinating and less balanced… but in comparison to the mediocre stuff they have stubbornly kept bottling for more than a decade, it's already a huge improvement. Score: 92 points
Speaking of Bowmore, I must say that in the same period I also had a chance to taste another very interesting "modern" independent bottling… and a "finished" one too! Usually I am not fond of finishing, and Port IMHO comes out as one of the most offensive ones around: most Port finishes I have tasted are way too fruity and bubblegummy for my taste. So imagine my surprise when I found that this Port finished Bowmore was not only tolerable, but even very very good! It's not a coincidence that it won a silver medal at the 2008 Awards…
Bowmore 16yo 1991/2008
(59.3%, Wilson & Morgan, Port Finish, C#15058-15059)
Nose: Fruity (banana, red apple, peach), spiced and astringent. There's some smoke, but not overpowering. Very nice oak, with a whiff of old musty drawers, a hint of camphor, some sandalwood and liquorice. Slightly organic, like damp earth. Adding water reveals more of this oaky and organic character. Herbs, candied orange, hint of incense. Rather intense, pleasantly spicy and full.
Palate: Chamomile, tea and big tannins, but also a very quiet and subdued sweetness. Very intense. With water, it remains intense and quite tannic, but it becomes fruitier: candied oranges, some mint, a hint of green banana. Almonds, olive oil and mint, and a whiff of sea aromas. As noticed in the olfactory inspection, peat smoke is delicate and never overpowering. Very nice balance, an intense and clean Bowmore.
Comment: Of course placing this one after the old bottle of 12yo might sound unfair, but I really can't find anything to complain about this modern Bowmore: it clearly looks like they have gone back on track with their distillation techniques in the '90s, as shown by this bottling which is highly enjoyable, stimulating and also rather unusual in style. Another positive thing is that it would really be hard to detect some blatant Port influence in this malt, so I must say that this is one of the best finishing works I have tasted in the past months, and Serge seems to agree with me. Score: 88 points (86 when tasted blind at the Awards)
Another excellent Wilson & Morgan bottling that was submitted at the 2008 Awards (IMHO their best bottling of the past 4-5 years, even better than a certain yummy Glenglassaugh) curiously got away with only a bronze medal, but Serge and I think it would have truly deserved more… but it's no mystery that I am particularly fond of heavily sherried Mortlachs. I have enjoyed a whole bottle of it, and I heartily recommend it if you can find it.
Mortlach 18yo 1990/2008
(56.8%, Wilson & Morgan, Sherry Butt, C#4422)
Nose: Very intense, bold sherry character: rich, winey, with crème brulèe and a whiff of smoke. Alternately sour and sweet, with dried fruits (especially plums, figs, cherries) and tamarind syrup. Nutty, yeasty and with some really nice balsamic vinegar notes. Passing impressions of oranges and bergamot.
Palate: Very tannic, winey, spicy and astringent sherry. Again crème brulèe, fruit jellies, coffee, candied oranges. Burnt sugar, and other grilled/toasted notes (cereals, meat…). Very mouth-drying, juicy, fruity and appetizing: when tasted blind, it reminded me of some classic sherried Springbanks. In the finish, I seem to detect the pleasant malty bitterness typical of some English ales.
Comment: A sherry monster with a lively character, and at a perfect age. Mature and chewy, very in-your-face, but still fresh and dynamical (luckily not as swamped by oak and wine as some other sherry monsters we've had at the Awards). Personally I think it would be a more affordable (and maybe simply better) alternative to the outrageously overpriced sherry oak 18yo that Macallan sells nowadays...
Score: 89 points (90 when tasted blind at the Awards)
Speaking of Wilson & Morgan, I finally had the chance to taste one of their legendary older bottlings too: the "brother" of the Port Ellen I had written about two years ago. Same vintage, but different cask… and very different end result! While cask 5538 was a good clean and austere Port Ellen, cask 6769 is a sherried one: many fellow Maniacs raved about this expression which was submitted at the 2004 Awards (winning a gold medal and the "Islay Award of Excellence"), and after much effort I finally managed to get my hands on a bottle. Yes, it's a very rare whisky so don't expect to find one easily…
Port Ellen 23yo 1979/2003
(46%, Wilson & Morgan, C#6769)
Nose: Dry sherry, very winey and nutty. Obvious peat, rubber (slightly sulphury), camphor, strawberry jam, vinegar, salt. Old, musty and dusty pinewood drawers. As it often happens, the combination of dry sherry and peat results in some slight notes of astringent denaturated (pink) alcohol, which I am usually not very fond of. Luckily here they are very unobtrusive and don't spoil the pleasure of this complex and balanced experience.
Palate: Initially licorice, then slowly exploding into a huge nutty peatiness. Propolis, big and austere tannins, bitter gentian root. Obviously winey, but never too fruity: it stays lively and spicy but still quite austere. Some green leaf vegetables, too. And, in case I haven't made myself clear, very very nutty. Finish is spicy, peppery and dry. Extremely appetizing.
Comment: This is said to be the best of the two casks of sherried Port Ellen that were bottled in 2003 by Wilson & Morgan. I haven't tried the other one, but as I said I have tried the unsherried version bottled the year before. This sherried bottling is probably a bit less subtle, but certainly bolder and more flamboyant (and, as a consequence, fun)… Of course you have to like the combination of dry sherry and peat, but it's a great bottle. Score: 90 points
Speaking of interesting old rare bottles, another nice jump back in time is due…
Ok, this one is rather easily available from collectors and auction sites, but of course be prepared to shell out quite a bit of money…
Highland Park 12yo
(43%, OB, Ferraretto Milano, +/-1975)
Nose: Sweet rum, chocolate, coffee. Like a well made Irish coffee with sugar. Licorice, ginseng, herbs liqueur. Rhubarb, cinchona, spinach. Not particularly intense, but deep and rich, very juicy. Tar, rubber, bandages, subtle peat/smokiness. Complex. Hint of camphor and that slightly oxidized feeling you get from aged red wines.
Palate: Incredibly soft and never aggressive, you can barely feel the alcohol, but not weak or watery. On the contrary, quite chewy and "fat". All kinds of tea (black, red, green, white), chamomile and medicinal herbs. Fresh. Some mint, a very delicate smokiness and a big sweetness (crème caramel). Rubber bandages. Some slightly metallic and dry feeling in the finish, like a red wine past its age: again the OBE at its best? Not as flamboyant, wild and intense as I would have hoped (it lacks a bit of "oomph"), but still very nice.
Comment: This one is probably not up to the very similar (identical shape and label) bottle from 1979 that Serge had a chance to taste (http://www.whiskyfun.com/ArchiveNovember04-2.html#291104) either due to batch/year variation or to different bottle aging. And sure, the Bowmore 12yo mentioned above is way sexier and more striking. But still, this is a very nice bottle and I'm glad I was lucky to taste this whisky: it's so better than the HP 12 of nowadays (yes, even the most recent batches are objectively good but they don't tickle my fancy very much). My wife who usually doesn't like whisky loved every drop of it and said it's probably the best malt she's ever tasted, wonderful creamy stuff. Score: 87 points
The following malt, on the other hand, is both expensive AND extremely rare. Not to mention that it's a real cult classic, from a very limited collection released by Italian wine giant Gancia: considering the high quality of these bottlings, it's a true pity that they never released another series after this one. When I saw a dusty bottle on the shelves of a local winery… my heart tumbled and I quickly reached out for my wallet. Best 250 Euro ever spent on an old bottle, a true masterpiece!
Longmorn 18yo 1971/1990
(58.1%, Antica Casa Marchesi Spinola, Collection No 1, 75 cl)
Nose: Straight, it's a feast of peaches, grapefruit, mangos, passion fruit and other various tropical flavours. All still quite dry and compact, though: not an exceedingly sweet red fruits galore like some other sherried expressions. Licorice, gentian root, candy floss, coffee, rum-filled chocolates. With some water, the oaky notes and some camphor become dominant and put the tropical fruits in the background. A very intense nose, you could sniff it for hours without getting tired.
Palate: Yummy! Extremely syrupy and flavourful, but it absolutely needs some water for disclosing its real treasures. Not because it's too intense (it is bold, full and strong, but still drinkable and delicious at full ABV), simply because there's so much hidden there when left neat. Sweet but not in a cloying way, full of the same tropical fruits mentioned above, strawberry jam, notes of herbal liqueur, almonds, dried figs and raisins, a wonderful oakiness (just the right amount of tannins) and an impressive mouthfeel… thick and fresh at the same time. Very big, with lots of character and presence, and a perfect balance. Long finish, winey, continuously dancing between sweet and dry, spicy and fruity. Excellent, my words cannot make justice to this malt.
Comment: What a stunning whisky! So strong and powerful, yet so elegant and full of many faces. You can really feel how the sherry perfectly got integrated with the malt instead of masking its character. Boldness and balance, one of the best bottles I have ever had the luck to try. Good luck finding one, because it will be tough! Score: 94 points
Let's come back into more affordable territory… with a terrific bottling that truly is a bargain for the price.
Maybe not a collector's item, but lovely whisky. Technically it's a "bastard bottling", but the label says that it's from the only distillery on the Isle of Skye… so not exactly a mystery!
G&M Secret Stills 1986/2007
(45%, G&M, 1.2, First Fill Sherry, C#1361-1363, 1860 Bts.)
Nose: Fresh sherry, not too winey, just a bit nutty. Very sweet and malty. Smoke, hay, and other nice earthy organic notes. Yellow apples, black tea and a whiff of iodine. Very compact.
Palate: Liquorice, mixed cereals, a pleasant honey sweetness, dark bread, dried plums and raisins. There even is some waxiness, somehow close in style to Clynelish/Brora. The sherry influence is not immediately evident (it's not winey, and even less astringent) but it clearly helps in defining a fuller, fruitier, nuttier character. Moderate peat level, not an extreme Talisker. Very chewy and mouthcoating. Finish is long and peppery, as expected. Overall I would say that it tastes halfway between the rounded refinement of the official 18yo (but fuller and more intriguing) and the fruity sherry character of the ultra-classic 20yo 1981/2002. I can definitely say that it's a malt which will satisfy drinkers more than nosers, as the palate is much richer than the olfactory impression: very classy and smooth.
Comment: A more delicate, sweeter, less extreme cousin of Talisker 20yo 1981/2002. Sure, that OB was more exciting and explosive (also thanks to the crazy ABV)… but today you can buy 2-3 bottles of the Secret Stills for the same price, and if you don't like a full sherry attack (sulphur included) you might actually prefer the G&M bottling. I love them both. Score: 91 points
The last malt I will recommend this time is a little known gem. Actually those who really know and appreciate whisky know it very well, since word-of-mouth quickly spread out the "secret" of this excellent bottling. Maybe you can still find one at decent prices, since (although Douglas Laing is known for consistently bottling great malts) it certainly doesn't look like a collector's item.
Banff 32yo 1974/2007
(47.8%, Douglas Laing OMC, DL REF 3521, 272 Bts.)
Nose: Sweet and fruity, one of the most intensely fruity malts I have ever tried. Lots of honey, wax, mostarda di Cremona, pears, bananas, ripe tropical fruits, yellow apples, vanilla... It may seem a bit monodimensional at first, but it's a hell of an entertaining nose.
Palate: Identical to the nose, exactly the same profile. The fruits seem so ripe that you might also feel that it's going slightly over the top: in particular, the bananas seem not only ripe… but going black and starting to ferment. Actually it's very pleasant, not nauseating or cloying at all, though of course you need to have a sweet tooth to appreciate all this. This sweetness is made even more pleasant by some backing spices: mustard, and especially plenty of cinnamon. To top it all, a touch of chocolate and wafers.
Comment: Did you understand that it's fruity and sweet? I hope so! No, really, it doesn't taste like a candy/bubblegum infusion. It's great whisky, and something in it reminded me of the stunning Prestonfield Clynelish (which was much more flamboyant and multifaceted, but the example is just to give you an idea). Score: 91 points
So, we have reached the end of our dozen… In case you enjoyed these tasting notes and want more, you'll simply have to wait for some more months until the inspiration comes back! ;-)
Unless you have been hiding out in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan for the past few
months (and even then you have probably heard) you know that we Americans in our rather
odd and less democratic than we would ever admit way, have elected a new President, have
elected what almost amounts to a "super majority" in the houses of Congress and passed
new Amendments to several State Constitutions that in essence remove from a small
minority rights that are otherwise enjoyed by the vast majority of citizens. For the past
two years we have been endlessly debating the qualities, or lack thereof, of the candidates.
In the end it came down to the old guy and the hot chick or the black kid and his running
mate (who was he again?).
And the winner is??????? Does it really matter? Well, if you are now screaming at your
computer screen "YES!!!" you are probably in one of the many countries of the world that
have been alienated by the policies of the past administration. If you now continue to sit
by calmly reading thinking to yourself "well of course it does," you probably live in the
United States where the excitement and joy of election night paled in comparison to the
celebrations around the world that "CHANGE" was coming. The world seems excited about
the new President-elect. He is half African decent if you had not heard (quite a step forward
in the post-9/11 flag-waving era) and he has African and Muslim names to boot!
Now that's progress in America (or at least progressive)!!
So with all this progressive thought and desire for peace, love and general goodwill toward
our fellow man, we Americans also found the time to create, in my humble opinion, a travesty.
I refer to the passing of three (3) State Constitutional Amendments that eliminate or
otherwise prevent same-sex couples from being able to marry like every other person in
those States. One of these States happens to be my home State of California.
California, for those not so familiar with US geography and demography is the most populated State at 36 million people.
It is also the world's 10th largest economy (if California was its own country it would drop the remaining US to number 4). It also has a large (I would say largest but with so many homosexual people still in the closet there is no real way of knowing) and very vocal, gay and lesbian (or homosexual) population (in San Francisco you can't swing a bottle of Napa Valley wine without knocking a few unconscious). Nevertheless , the same people that gave 61% of its votes to Barak Obama and only 37% to John McCain (yes, there were other candidates – hence the missing 2 percent) voted 52% to 48% to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. By the way, they did had the right to marry in California as of July 2008 up until the day after the election.
California, the most progressive State in the entire United States, voted to single-out a minority population and actually remove rights that the Supreme Court of the State ruled that they were entitled to receive(Florida and Arizona did the same thing). If this were 1961 and these were black people, such a vote would have sparked race-riots and marches on Washington led by enigmatic preachers with amazing abilities to rally and inspire. But instead, the same people who voted for the black man to be President, voted to discriminate against a minority class of people because they simply do not like what they do in their own bedrooms. This is what I call a travesty. It all kind of drives me to drink (single malt only please).
I am a 38 year-old attorney living in generally "red" Orange County ("The OC" for all you TV show enthusiasts [which is not filmed in Orange County by the way – that is Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles that you are seeing]) which is generally conservative and relatively rich. While I generally practice law in the field of international trade and development, I am also a staunch supporter of personal and human rights. To me , this vote is infuriating. While there are already legal challenges to the Amendment and with any luck the State Supreme Court will again determine that the elimination of a minorities' right that is enjoyed by the majority through a vote of the majority is improper, it still speaks volumes about the lack of personal freedom tolerance in the United States.
Question: How does the marriage of a same-sex couple affect the marriages of those of us who are traditionally married? Answer this question and you can join the ranks of the truly enlightened for no argument yet has been able to explain this to me. Where does such Presidential progress and yet personal intolerance come from? Look no further than your friendly neighborhood religious sect and very traditional ethnic and racial divides.
Black people in America voted overwhelmingly for the black presidential candidate (almost 98% according to some exit polls) but nearly seventy percent (70%) of these same voters voted to ban same-sex marriages. Did they forget that it has only been a bit over 40 years since they were drinking out their own water fountains and had to sit at the back of the bus? Why…..studies say that black Americans have much stronger religious ties than most other racial and ethnic groups and of course religion says that homosexuality is one of the worst kinds of sin.
Hispanics (a huge California demographic) were divided along similar (albeit less decisive on both accounts) lines. Whites where divided around 50/50 on the marriage ban. On the religious side of things, between the Mormon Church, the Baptist Churches and the Catholic Churches, $75 million was spent on campaigns to ban same-sex marriages. The main justification……god says it is wrong.…..oh, and our children might learn that same-sex people can get married and if the children learn it, they will want to do it. And the people bought it (well 52% in California anyway…..Arizona and Florida nearly two-thirds).
So, you ask, what does this have to do with Malt Maniacs anyway?
Well, it turns out that politics and religion greatly affect many aspects of our lives including one of my favorite sectors, the liquor industry. Americans pride themselves on their democratic ways. However, most Americans (prior to 2000 about 80%) still do not know that America is not a Presidential democracy. In reality, America is a representative democracy (Electoral College). The people do NOT elect the President. The people instruct their representatives from their States how they wish them to vote. The representatives can vote as they choose but nearly always (there have been exceptions) vote as the State Voters tell them too, winner take all. There is a profound difference between a straight democracy and a representative democracy (Just ask George Bush – in 2000, he lost the straight democracy vote but won the Presidency due to the Representative Democracy format).
Americans also pride themselves on being the land of the free; where freedom rings; where a man is free to do as he pleases as long as he doesn't hurt his fellow man…….that is unless you are gay and want to get married……or you want to have a dram of your favorite Single Malt Scotch and you live in a region or county that is Dry (amongst many, many other things that are far too numerous to go into in this Epistle). You may notice from some of the other articles on this site that one of the biggest and most popular whisky distilleries in the United States, Jack Daniel's, is actually located in a "dry" county. Dry counties are those counties within a particular State that do not allow the sale of alcohol or alcoholic beverages. There are some counties which are partially dry (referred to commonly as "moist") where some establishments such as golf courses or specially licensed dealers may sell pre-made beverages on-site. Some counties allow for sale of beverages at a State owned liquorist but not in bars and some vice-versa. Where do these odd legal distinctions come from?
Many of these dry and moist counties are the remnants of the Prohibition era of the 1920s through 1933 when all alcohol was banned by Constitutional Amendment to the United States Constitution. When the Prohibition Amendment was repealed in 1933, the States were allowed to limit alcohol locally and retain the ban if they so desired, and many did. States like Utah created laws that controlled the State as a whole. Others allowed the Counties within the State to make their own rules. The result is a confusing and often contradictory mix of rules from town to town across the ten percent (10%) of America that is "dry."
By way of example, of Texas' 254 counties, 74 are completely "dry" and many of the rest are moist.
The patchwork of laws can be confusing, even to residents. In some counties, only 4 percent beer is legal. In others, beverages that are 14 percent or less alcohol are legal. In some "dry" areas, you can get a mixed drink by paying to join a "private club," and in some "wet" areas you still need a club membership to get liquor-by-the-drink. This demonstrates how variable the alcohol laws can be, even within small geographic areas. Move from Fort Worth to Arlington and you'll be surprised that you can buy beer but not wine at the grocery store. Move to Grand Prairie and you can't even find beer there, but you can buy alcoholic drinks at restaurants in both towns. Then move to Burleson, which has alcohol sales in the Tarrant County portion of the city but not in the Johnson County side of town.
Where did all of this come from? Prohibition began for the most part, and still exists for the most part, due to religious fundamentalists. The same groups that would keep same-sex couples from getting married would also tell you that your enjoyment of a dram of whisky is a sin in their eyes (which is also in the eyes of their god). Now, I don't claim that all religious people feel the same or otherwise vote the same. Clearly that is not the case. But what I do find is that peoples of a strong religious background in America tend to lean way toward a conservative right. Yes, yes, yes... I know – not ALL lean that way especially considering we have 360 million people to consider. But then I am generalizing aren't I.
California is fortunately decidedly "WET" and I like it that way. However, travel through the Southern Bible-Belt of the country and you will likely run into at least confusion as to whether you can have a beer, wine, or whisky with your meal. I studied law for three years in North -West Ohio where the local laws allowed for general sales of alcohol at grocery stores ….. so long as the ABV was 20% or less. This made for an interesting drink when I first purchased what appeared to be a normal bottle of Bacardi rum. As I found out rather quickly, the bottle was reduced from 40% to 20% by the bottler specifically for these "moist" areas. During my college days I traveled to Utah to go snow-skiing and we brought our beer and booze with us because the laws made for limited access to the real thing.
While California may be open to enjoyment of a good dram (thank goodness), it is by no means a whisky heaven. I recently received a copy of the "Whisky Bars of the World" published by Whisky Magazine (in association with Macallan). I eagerly turned to the USA section to find many a listing of name, phone number and web address, but oddly no city listing. As I have mentioned, the United States covers the better part of an entire continent with huge geographical regions, and many other distinctive locales. However, the editors of this publication failed to even describe in which part of the continent a particular establishment might be located. In order to find a local establishment, one must reverse-engineer the information or otherwise visit each site (there are over 200 listed for the USA).
I was curious if any of the bars listed were local to me. Nearly impossible to tell, mostly because reverse-engineering takes so long. Turns out that California has very few solid whisky bars. When compared with New York or Washington D.C., California doesn't even exist in the whisky bar world. This makes me sad as I am a huge fan and I would frequent an establishment that offered a wide and diverse selection of Single Malts.
What to do? How about make my own? As an attorney I am exposed to many different kinds of business opportunities including the formation of drinking establishments. About six years ago a client invited me to participate in a night-club venture here in orange County and I accepted. I became the general counsel and a minority owner in a pool (snooker) hall/night-club that for the past six years has enjoyed varying levels of success (or lack thereof). Martinis had become all the rage for a period and lately I see a trend toward higher-end beverages. The demand for high-end Tequilas, rums, vodkas and single malts has risen dramatically at our small establishment. Recently, the majority ownership and I have ventured out to purchase, re-model and re-brand an Irish Pub in Pasadena, California (famous for the New Year's Day Rose Parade and the American football Rose Bowl). One of the goals we have set is to make this establishment a solid and enduring Single Malt Bar. The SMSW trend is moving West and we intend to offer a wide range of SMSW and we hope to garner a wider audience for the joys of dramming on the West Coast. The East Coast has always been home to many great whisky establishments. We hope that we can add one solid performer to the vast and diverse West Coast. We also plan to offer many a tasting and learning session and Malt Maniacs will be one of the main topics of discussion. Same-sex couples (married or not) will be welcomed with open arms. Religious extremists can stay at home.
Through my experiences at the pub and in my continuing quest to find fine whisky bars in the West, I will report from time to time on the happenings here in the States and in the great State of California. I am sure this will spark some good solid debate on Facebook and I look forward to a lively discussion.