Thursday, 29 November 2012

Suntory Whisky Tasting

This was a real treat. I had tried some Japanese whiskies before but it was a few years ago in a bar a friend was running, and I didn't really have a chance to do in-depth tasting notes - although it was nice to get an initial feel for them. My over-riding memory was the light, floral style, which seemed to strike a familiar chord when the first whiskies were poured and Suntory's whisky ideal was described as 'subtle, refined and complex', a mantra returned to throughout the presentation. I'll post a write-up in two parts, first up to talk a little bit about the whiskies' points of difference, and then some tasting notes.

First up was the Yamazaki 12 along with a little history of Suntory, its founder, Torii Shinjiro, and the Longmorn and Hazelburn trained man he recruited to start whisky distillation in Japan; Masataka Taketsuru. On a technical note, the Yamazaki distillery operates two mash tuns (one stainless steel, one wooden), six pairs of differently-shaped stills and uses five different sorts of cask. Multiply all that together and you can end up with sixty different whiskies from the one distillery. If it's complexity you're after, then that is certainly a way to get it.

Next was the Hakushu 12, from Yamazaki's sister distillery, which was at peak production the largest single malt distillery in the world. Unlike at Yamazaki they don't use any Mizunara, or Japanese oak, for maturation of the Hakushu. A few years ago Michael Jackson suggested that Japanese whisky didn't really have its own separate identity as yet,1 but it could be argued that the judicious use of the Mizunara really is starting to separate Japanese whisky from its Scottish roots and traditions. As I understand it it is the addition of a small component aged in casks made from the tight-grained, slow-growing Mizunara that imparts the floral and sandalwood notes to the other whiskies in this tasting.

Next came the Yamazaki 18, a whisky with a rather large reputation! Yamazaki is one of the most decorated distilleries in the world, having won competitions wherever you care to look, and this whisky in particular is a previous winner of many a global spirits competition.

The final pair of whiskies were two Suntory blends, Hibiki 12 and 17. Unlike in Scotland there are no real business relationships between whisky companies in Japan, and so to make a blend, with all the implications of consistency that that implies, is correspondingly more difficult. Unless, of course, you have access to the multitude of whiskies that the blenders at Suntory do for Hibiki - hence why this can be a 100% Suntory blend. The grain component comes from a third Suntory-owned distillery located near to the Yamazaki distillery; Chita.

Lastly, many thanks to Tatsuya Minagawa of Suntory whisky for visiting us in Nottingham and hosting a great evening; fun, flavoursome and informative! I'll post some tasting notes on the whiskies when I get a chance.

1. Michael Jackson, Whisky - The Definitive World Guide, DK, London, 2005

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

BrewDog 'Libertine' Black IPA

The blog is taking a bit of a back seat at the moment. Anyone who has worked in pubs, or retail generally, in the run-up to Christmas, will have a reasonable idea of why. It can be a lot of fun, and this week I've got my fifth extracurricular tasting in less than a month too. It is also most definitely tiring, especially as the 'research'* has continued apace, honing my knowledge so that when I do get to put fingers to keyboard my palate is at match fitness.

Libertine Black IPA is one that's popped up on this blog before; I had it on tap not long after it came out, and was keen to re-visit it in bottle. I'm sure enough has been written about whether Black IPA is a 'legitimate' beer style, so I won't unearth that particular debate, apart from to say that I think most beer drinkers know what they expect from it now it's been part of our vocabulary for a while.

On to the beer. On the nose there's the same dusty rough edge that I associate with Punk and Jaipur, but less of the tropical fruit, it being countered with cocoa and chocolate. There's also lots of black cherry which continues on to the palate. The hops make it really moreish, surprisingly quaffable for something weighing in at 7% - I'm guessing the malt used to turn it from being a regular IPA also take away some of the mouth-puckering bitterness you sometimes find. All the dark fruit is wrapped up in bitter chocolate cake flavours, almost liqueur-chocolate-ish, but without the sweetness. I'm really glad this has become part of BrewDog's core range, I thought it was great!

Tonight, the research continues in the form of a Japanese whisky tasting, courtesy of Suntory, the guys behind this amazing collection as illustrated by Pete over on his blog.

7.2% abv. £3.46 (33cl) from Beer Ritz.

* I'm sure I enjoyed the Black Rocks, but it was my birthday, and while I'm quite proud to say I didn't over-analyse it at the time, that pride is somewhat tempered by the knowledge that I probably couldn't have done even if I wanted to...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Oakham Citra

I put this one off for ages, and now I'm struggling to work out quite why, because I'm pretty sure it's something I'd pick up again. I think it was partly because Oakham JHB used to be around a lot in the pubs I frequented (not least because I lived in one) and, while it was brilliant at the time, I became tired of it, even if that was more of a fault of its pale (sorry) imitators than JHB itself.

There's bags of grapefruit-led citrus fruit on the nose, tempered with enough tropical fruit to keep the attacking edge off but not so much as to stop it being refreshing. The palate's all about the juicy fruit from the hops; the grapefruit is back with a touch of soapiness, although far from being so much as to be off-putting, and again there's support from tropical fruit, all without it careering off into over-sweet passion fruit territory. It's all really clean and fresh, no wallowing about in cloying sweetness for this beer, it just merrily leads you into grabbing the next one.

4.2% abv. £2.07 (50cl) from Waitrose.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Thornbridge 'Saint Petersburg' Imperial Stout

I couldn't let this one go past without singing its praises. What a winter beer, and not the tacky tinsel variety, there are no badly scrawled doodles of Father Christmas in a compromising situation with a reindeer, it's just the sort of beer that makes you feel cocooned away, protected from all that cold November darkness. Magnificent. Probably to the point where it'd make you feel great in the height of summer too.

On the nose there's lots of chocolate maltiness, with a hint of dried and dark fruits lurking behind; raisins ans plums. It's almost like a savoury version of a fruit and nut bar. Full body hardly does it justice, it's almost chewy. There's more dark chocolate on the palate and on the finish it's all rounded off beautifully with cleansing bitter coffee.

Cosier than a 15 tog duvet. Embrace the dark...

7.4% abv. £3.10 (50cl) from Hops in a Bottle.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Saint Aubin Rhum Agricole

Rhum? What's the matter, spell-checker not working? Trying to sound like Stewie from family guy? I'll have some rHum with my cool wHip please.

OK, so, lame jokes aside. Rhum Agricole is different to rum in that it is made not from molasses but from sugar cane juice, and generally comes from French-owned islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion as well as Mauritius; which is where St. Aubin is from. Distillation seems to owe something to the French influence over the area, in single column stills similar to those in Armagnac. A low-strength distillate suggests there should be a good amount of character left in there after the process, but let's see.

It's clear as you'd expect a light rum to be, and it's only once you get your nose in there that the difference becomes apparent. It's no shrinking violet of a light spirit, no rum that could easily be confused with a vodka. If you were to confuse it with anything it's more like a tequila it's that vegetal. There's some floral notes there and what I can only imagine is the aroma of cane juice. On the palate it's off-dry and there is a spirity burn, with estery banana lurking in the background. It's a rough and ready style of spirit and I ended up putting a little more water in just to break out the flavours a little.

In conclusion I can only suggest it's a pretty good example of its type because it really has that point of difference to conventional molasses based rum. I went back after trying this and tried it alongside a sample of Bacardi and it was near enough impossible to pick up any flavours from the Bacardi, all I got was its sweetness, the rhum is that powerful - if lacking in subtlety. A fully deserved extra letter I suppose!

The whisky exchange are selling it for £27.25 for a 50cl for a bottle. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Isle of Skye 'Old Worthy' Scottish Pale Ale

Nick at Old Worthy brewery sent me a bottle of this, as he did lots of people who write beer blogs, so there are plenty of excellent reviews out there. I felt like doing something a little different, and so with a nod to Nick's distilling history I thought that combining the new brew with an established local giant might be a bit of fun, if not particularly original (since I did a similar thing the other week, and even if the malt is actually from Jim Beam's Ardmore distillery rather than Talisker). If you're interested in some of my thoughts on Talisker have a look at my other blog; it's an old favourite and even before I'd popped open the Old Worthy I was most grateful that I had come up with an excuse to renew old acquaintances.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty bit of the tasting note, and at the risk of rushing to a conclusion, a quick heads-up; if you've never tried Old Worthy then you should if you get the chance. It is a beer with a genuine point of difference, the use of peated malt, that goes far beyond employing a marketing department to tell you that that's the case. OK, that's not to say you'll like it but you never know until you try it! I was interested in finding out how the peat worked with the more conventional 'beer' flavours because I tend to find peatier whiskies overpower or clash with many beers when I drink them together. On the nose I didn't pick much of the peat up, but I don't think that's particularly a bad thing, it quickly took away any doubts I had as to whether the beer flavours and aromas could some through rather than it ending up tasting like a watered-down Islay. All of the peat came through on the palate, but without the maritime or iodine notes that you get with some peated malts, which can be off-putting in conjunction with a beer. This meant it contrasted brilliantly with the sweeter malt of the Talisker; the whisky dances with rather than accosts the beer, there are elements they share and things they disagree on, but it's a great partnership. This is a really well thought-out beer, at no point was I thinking 'it's just using peated malt as a novelty' they've made sure, probably through judicious use of honey and wheat, that it retains its balance.

Nick wants this beer to adorn the jerseys of the Scotland rugby team. I'll look forward to seeing it on there, albeit in those brief seconds before those jerseys are engulfed by the red tide at the Millennium. Good luck with the beer and thanks for sending me a sample.


Talisker 10

A colleague of mine has been writing for a while about whiskies that are, in a way, ubiquitous but forgotten. I won't got into too much detail because you can have a look for yourself over at The W-Club blog, but it's an interesting point and I think it applies across many drinks blogs. The beers, wines, whiskies that originally flicked the switch in your mind when you went from thinking 'this tastes OK, it tastes like beer' (or insert beverage of your choice) to 'Wow! THIS is what it can do, THIS is why people rave about it.' often end up forgotten. I think we're all guilty of it, and while comments such as those made by Jamie Goode are perfectly valid, there are an awful lot of in different products on the market, it's easy to forget that without them many people would never start drinking those drinks we love in the first place. It's also why derogatory comments after articles like this excellent one from Fiona Beckett in last week's Observer, someone who has to write about drinks her readers can get hold of, are so galling.

Whiskies like the 'standard bottlings' (hardly a ringing endorsement in itself) from big companies like Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie are met with comments like 'it's OK for a pub malt' and seasoned drinkers forget that it was impeccably made whiskies like these that really switched them onto malts in the first place. For me, Diageo's Talisker was that malt and, credit where credit is due, I have Nick at the Old Worthy brewery up there on Skye for giving me an excuse to re-visit an old friend - I wanted to try it in tandem with their peated Skye beer. It wasn't without trepidation; when people ask me what my favourite whisky is Talisker is up there on the list but in the quest to try something new and interesting I haven't had it in a long time. Would my tastes have changed?

It's clear and bright, amber coloured and the addition of a little water shows some of the oils present in the whisky. On the nose it's clean and pronounced, the malt is noticeable , backed up with smoke, spices and a little toffee. On the palate there is a hefty alcohol kick, but because of the intensity of the flavours and the body the whole package works out well. The phenolic peat comes through a lot more on the palate along with (rather appropriately for today) bonfire smokiness, biscuity malt and some charred oak notes. The finish lingers, a gentle, re-assuring dry-oak caress after the initial power, lulling you into a false sense of security before the next mouthful.

My tastes may have changed, and I'm admittedly on the other side of some magnificent whiskies so I'm less likely to get as blown away as I was years ago, but this is still a magnificent powerful whisky. I love it when peat plays as part of an orchestra of flavours rather than soloing, and this is one of the better examples of it doing this. Hello old friend, glad to have you back.