Sunday, 24 March 2013

A Mystery Whisky (That Wasn't)

A woman came into the shop where I work looking for a particular bottle of whisky the other day. She didn't know the name although she had the empty* bottle in her handbag. Since it wasn't something I was familiar with and I don't read Japanese either I couldn't really help her very much. She said she really wanted to get hold of some more but didn't even know what to put into a Google search to start trying to find it since everything on the label was in Japanese.

So I offered to attempt to use the magic of the internet to help, and there was a race. Twitter and its randomness versus email, which kind of seems a little bit old fashioned now!

After half a dozen re-tweets Twitter, in the shape of Bob French, came back with an answer:

Further information came from Adam Matheson in the form of a blog post on the Shōchū in question.

Maybe it's a case of 'it's not what you know, but who you can tweet'? Many thanks to all the people that re-tweeted and to those that took the time to have a look and solve the mystery. In terms of old vs. new, Twitter was quicker but Tatsuya, the Suntory whisky ambassador, also came up with the same answer - one shot, one goal - it might be old fashioned but it still works.

* If there had been some left in the bottle this whole thing might well not have happened, given it looks like a clear liquid!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Hegarty Chamans 'Cuvée 1' Minervois 2004

Back in early 2005 I started working for Oddbins, the once mighty high street wine retailer.* Remember high street wine retailers? They used to exist before the supermarkets took an interest in wine and squeezed them out, and were a great way for people like me with no castle/expansive cellar/butler to learn about wine. Anyway, plenty has been written on the subject and I'm not here to gripe about the unfairness of it all.

Hegarty Chamans, as I've mentioned before, was a favourite of the then assistant manager of the first Oddbins I worked in, a guy who taught me an awful lot about wine in the best way possible - drinking it with me. All this time later and I'm through four levels of wine qualifications, and I'm now officially allowed to put letters after my name to, as my mate put it, 'tell people I know things about alcohol.' This seemed an ideal wine to celebrate going from being a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed wine adviser (sort of) who knew absolutely nothing about wine to bagging myself a WSET diploma; which means I now know how little I really know.

Apart from all the sentimentality this is a lovely wine, I really like the rustic, herby Southern French style, they're a real demonstration of how you can get depth of flavour without over-ripening or a reliance on pure power. On the nose there's lots of red and black currant, and on the palate it's got a lovely herbal olive tapenade flavour.. Velvet-smooth nearly a decade after the vintage.

I paid £9.99 for this one back in 2005, which really was a bargain at the time. A more recent vintage is currently available in the UK through Adnams for £15.99.

* To give them their dues, Oddbins seem to be doing all right for themselves down south, albeiit on a smaller scale from when I started. Beer selection to be applauded too, according to London types on Twitter (Matt, drinking Rocky Head Pale Ale and London Fields Brewery Black Frost Stout to be precise).

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Sierra Nevada 'Northern Hemisphere Harvest' 2012

The other day I got a little paranoid about freshness of hops, probably ably assisted (if that's the right word) by the lovely folks over at Aleheads.  I have a tendency to end up with lots of IPA knocking about and really ought to get them drunk. I know, it's such a chore. The paranoia is not helped by codes rather than 'born on' or 'best before' dates. Although at least with this one you know roughly when it was made I guess, what with it being the name of the beer.

Anyway, to stop myself lying awake at night worrying about the ticking away of the glorious hop flavours in my cellar I thought I'd get this down me.

As if to reassure me from the off, it pours a beautiful burnt orange colour, and rather than the attacking hoppy nose I was half expecting from an American IPA at this strength (6.7%) it was actually quite restrained, more fruit (mango and passion fruit) than pine and pot. On the palate? Well if the name 'Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop Ale 2012' is a mouthful then I suppose that reflects the beer. The tropical fruit aromas don't sink into a fug of sweetness; there's a crisp grapefruit pith note to balance the sweeter fruit in there, allowing the malt to come to the party and give the beer some weight. The finish is clean, bitter-sweet and suitably moreish. For me this is really a great beer, nothing too overdone, allowing complex rather than shouty flavours. Try it young and fresh. I think.

But hang on, what if I actually quite like the hops to be a bit more mellowed with age? I won't sleep easy until the next IPA fix now, wondering if my next bottle might not be quite mature enough.

6.7% abv. £5.88 (71cl) from Beer Ritz.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Tasting, Objectivity & Edradour

It used to happen all the time back in my Oddbins days; people used to come in asking if we stocked the amazing [insert wine X] that they had on holiday. The chances are we wouldn't stock it, but every now and again we did, although people would occasionally come back having drank the bottle they bought from us suggesting something had been lost from the wine. All of a sudden on a grim day back in the UK some of the lustre just wasn't there.

The photo on the right is of the wine estate where my wife and I got married. I've not tried the wine since, but I'm reasonably sure it won't taste as good in Nottingham as it did in the Tuscan sun.

In my current role 'Wine X' has been replaced by Edradour in that it seems to be the holiday maker's whisky. If you do a quick Google image search it's not hard to see why paying the distillery a visit would leave you with some fond memories. A look at the reviews on The Whisky Exchange and you'll understand what I mean; many of them are about the distillery rather than the whisky. It's interesting that what sticks in people's minds when I ask them about it is that it is Scotland's smallest distillery, especially since it isn't any more!* I remember having tried Edradour a few years ago, having had quite a few customers at the shop I was working in at the time say how much they'd enjoyed it (and the distillery visit) and I wasn't overly excited about it. Not good, not bad (in my experience single malt rarely is) but just... OK.

As I've suggested before, I think that taste is always affected by the circumstances of the tasting. Given a different situation a 'real ale' reviewer can find himself extolling the virtues of a beer most Camra stalwarts would avoid as being one of the very beers they exist to campaign against, were it on tap at their local instead of Heineken etc. It's probably stating the obvious, but objectivity is a really difficult thing. Think about whether you'd prefer good beer in a truly horrible pub, or average beer in a pleasant pub atmosphere? While the beer's quality is not intrinsically affected by the surroundings it sure as hell affects you, the drinker. Even if you are reviewing a bottle from in front of your monitor at home, the type of day you've had has to affect how you feel about whatever it is you are drinking.

If all this sounds a little superior then I apologise, it's just a few thoughts as to why I am re-trying a whisky I've had before and not been that fussed about. I don't live my life in a bubble any more than the next person, and so I am not claiming to be any closer to objectivity than the next person. Indeed, the very fact that I've written several paragraphs of pre-amble before getting stuck into the stuff suggests I'm not, but I'm going to have a try anyway! If you've lasted this long then I hope you'll bear with me.

The Whisky: Edradour 10

This is their 'entry level' malt. On the nose there's a honey note and a waft of something more floral. The palate is creamy and it flirts with a nutty sherry note but doesn't really come through, almost announcing itself then disappearing. The finish is ashy and bitter, almost astringent. It's definitely not my cup of tea, but even aside from my not finding it particularly to my taste I don't really understand why it is such a sought after whisky. I'm not a huge fan of Ardbeg and Laphroaig, but I can see their appeal, this, I'm not so sure. That said, they're a small enough operation to be flexible, and if some of the other expressions are different I can see why visitors might well be seduced.

Maybe what I really need to appreciate this is a trip up to the Highlands? If anyone wants to help a donation (or a volunteer to drive) would be gratefully accepted. However don't be surprised if a slight diversion leads to some Blair Athol 12yo Flora & Fauna being picked up while I'm in the area - rumour has it that it might not be around for much longer.

Sample bottles are available from Master of Malt for £3.91.

* Both Dallas Dhu and Abhain Dearg are smaller, at 65 000l and 20 000l capacity respectively. Edradour is listed at 90 000l capacity. Statisitcs are from the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2013.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Harviestoun 'Ola Dubh' 16 & Highland Park 16

Is there a better way of relaxing after work on a cold evening than with a bottle of imperial stout? Yes, of course there is; you can relax after work with a glass of impy stout that's aged in whisky barrels to enhance the flavour. Or, even better, get yourself the aforementioned bottle, and get yourself a glass of the whisky that was the previous inhabitant of the barrel... Now that's got to be the way to do it.

Harviestoun's 'Ola Dubh' 12 was one of the highlights of my first blogging year, and Orkney's Highland Park is a whisky that usually features in many people's 'must try' lists - something I'd agree wholeheartedly with. For someone like me who only occasionally delves into very peaty whiskies Highland Park in general has long been a destination of choice - complexity through the peat without going so far as making it the whisky's raison d'être. It was great to get hold of different versions of both a whisky and a beer I've really enjoyed in the past - whisky geek heaven and beer geek heaven rolled into one!

Highland Park 16 was 'crafted exclusively for travel retail' so it was never widely available on the UK's whisky shelves. It was withdrawn in 2010, only featuring as part of their range for a little under five years.*  Presumably during or after the five years or so of release the guys at Harviestoun nabbed a few of the barrels to age the Ola Dubh version of their Old Engine Oil, and the Ola Dubh 16 is the result.

The beer... It's got a lot more power than I remember the 12 having, this time the whisky really hits you - even more surprising given I was drinking it alongside the whisky itself! However those whisky notes die off pretty quickly in a finish that reveals more of the smoke and coffee notes.

The whisky... It's got loads of citrus-fresh aromas; sweet orange dominates but there is spice, nuts and sherry too. On the palate it's more floral, with more bite than I was expecting from the nose - in a good way. It's a rich, self-indulgent whisky with a smoky bonfire finish. It's very accessible, and it makes you want to go back for more, and more...

Probably not the most detailed tasting notes I've ever written, but this was all about the combination - and what a combination - grab both if you get the chance!

Harviestoun 'Ola Dubh' 16; 8% abv. £4.50 (33cl) from The Whisky Shop
Highland Park 16 is still available from The Whisky Exchange at £60.75 for a litre at the time of writing - the mini was £7.95.

* From the Highland Park website entry.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Talisker 'Storm'

I'm a Talisker fan. As I've mentioned before it was one of the whiskies that first got me into single malts. It's billed by their parent company as a 'Classic' malt and unlike some from that range it's hard to argue; it's a desert island drinks cabinet dram.

But what about this? There's a faint whiff of the 'if it ain't broke' surrounding it from the off. Is this another 'No age statement' whisky concealing 'No Aged Stock' issues? According to the publicity material it has 'the distillery’s signature sweet warmth and briny, peppery finish with a “deeper intensity”.' That's not a million miles away from how I'd describe the 57° North, kind of Talisker PLUS, and indeed There's a bit of a telling quote in the '1001 Whiskies...' book (p. 527), from marketing director Nick Morgan:

It's been compared to looking out to sea with a storm brewing.

That's the 57° North of course, definitely not the Storm; that would be silly... Moving on. The 'Storm' sits in a different price bracket to the 57°, rather closer to the regular (at the risk of labouring the point) age statemented, 10 year old. Here's the Label detail:

An intense Talisker with a profoundly maritime character, like a warm welcome from a wild Hebridean sea.

I can see the sense in both sides of the current discussion of age statements. If the whisky is good enough then so what? But if provenance wasn't important then labelling single malt as such wouldn't be important either. Would people pay the same for this whisky, on its release, as they would if it were tea-spooned and couldn't be called Talisker?  Of course they wouldn't, and I suppose that while the point about taste remains valid, it wouldn't take much for an awful lot of trust, or brand loyalty, call it what you will, to disappear in waft of briny peat-smoke. It will certainly be interesting to see how this whisky is received, along with the new Macallan and Highland Park offerings, not to mention Diageo's new Caol Ila and Johnnie Walker expressions - none of which carry age statements. It's a cheeky thought, but if there was a stock issue I'm betting there's some people out there will be more than happy that others will snap this and the other 'new Taliskers' up if it eases the pressure on the ten year old and keeps it widely available.

Anyway, enough theorising, on to the whisky. I tried it alongside the regular Talisker to compare the two.

Colour-wise it's a fraction paler than the regular T10, On the nose I got characteristic briny and smoky notes, some fresh fruit; lemon perhaps, and white pepper. There is a definite youthfulness to it, it's bright and breezy rather than brooding, but it's not hugely different to the regular bottling. On the palate I got more of that citrus tang, along with cinnamon-spiced apple crumble and a lingering chilli heat. It's definitely more fruity than the standard bottling, and it integrates nicely with the smokiness. There's an ashy dry finish which contrasts well with the sweeter lemony palate.

In conclusion, I'd say if you want to go with a bigger bruiser of a Talisker, then don't be fooled into thinking this is the one to go for - you've just got to stump up the cash for the 57° North. Does that reflect badly on this one? I don't think so. I found it most enjoyable, and I'm sure most Talisker fans will enjoy it too, even if it doesn't end up being the expression they'd take to the desert island.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Nottingham Whisky Tasting with Phil Huckle

Note: This is a post I wrote for the Whisky Shop's W-Club blog so it might come across as being a bit 'worky.' I thought others might like a look though so here it is.

Here in Nottingham we were lucky enough to have another visit from a whisky ambassador last week [edit: 15/2]. This time it was Phil Huckle, who represents Pernod-Ricard's whisky portfolio in the UK.

Pernod-Ricard, in the form of Chivas Brothers, are the country's second biggest Scotch Whisky company; owning an impressive nineteen malt distilleries (although some are closed and others mothballed). Their flagship brands are Ballantine's and Chivas Regal and it is these that keep their single malts available. Once again, as I mentioned in my notes on the previous tasting with Colin from Diageo, this is a company whose international success, particularly in Asia, is allowing them to provide more specialist products in the form of Single Malts. Where there is a distinct difference with Diageo is in the character of the malts from distilleries that they own, as I hope this little cross-section illustrates.

First stop was Orkney, and in a way you'd think that was odd, given the character of most of the whiskies from the islands of Scotland are a little robust for preceding drams from Speyside. Scapa, however, is unlike many of its island cousins, which is perhaps why it fits in snugly with the rest of Chivas Brothers' range. If you're expecting the heathery peat of its big neighbour at Highland Park you'll be surprised, but Scapa translates as 'boat' and it is still very much an Orkney Islander. Its smooth, bourbon cask influenced, sweet elegance is complemented by a distinct briny note, showcasing its island origins. Depth of character comes at least in part from the last remaining Lomond still - specifically installed to create a whisky more suited for the light Ballantine's blends. It's perhaps fitting that one part of the somewhat chequered past of this distillery details its rescue from fire by local sailors - you can only imagine what a thirst was worked up that night.

Most of Chivas Bothers' malt distilleries are on Speyside, and this one, the 'hidden jewel,' is one of them. Longmorn, like Scapa, is another malt that isn't that common, and another one that fits snugly into Chivas' portfolio of light, fruity whiskies - and a key malt in a signature blend, in this case Chivas Regal, along with Strathisla. It's mainly first-fill bourbon aged, giving it almond and spice notes but with a fuller body than the Scapa. It lead nicely on to the Chivas Regal 18, which Phil described as a 'Speyside' blend. In this Pernod-Ricard's flagship blends are hugely different from Diageo's Johnnie Walker, which wears its west-coast malts on its sleeve, they're all about smooth, fruity sweetness and delicacy rather than power and smoke. With the continuous still allowing larger volume production Chivas Regal came to prominence as the phylloxera louse decimated Cognac's vineyards in the late 19th century; it was they that were supplying Balmoral Castle with a luxury spirit to keep Queen Victoria's royal court parties going. This success continued through the 20th century when the 25 year old blend became the first luxury scotch, and through association with Frank Sinatra, among others, Chivas Regal 12 gained a global reputation.

Next up were two very different whiskies from Glenlivet in the 18 year old and the cask-strength 'Nàdurra.' Glenlivet was the first legal distillery on Speyside, opening a year after Robert Peel legalised distillation in 1823. George Smith, the founder, was something of a pioneer, and his light, floral, lantern-still distilled whisky was much copied, not just in terms of style, but in the name too; at one point there were 27 'Glenlivet' distilleries, hence why it is now 'The Glenlivet.' Other distilleries were allowed to keep the name but only in a hyphenated form; even giants like Macallan once carried the suffix. The Glenlivet 18 is roughly two-thirds bourbon and one-third sherry matured and while it keeps that light Speyside character the sherry casks add a layer of complexity. Expect spicy cloves, cooked apple and fruit cake making up a rich, luxurious whisky. The Nàdurra is a different proposition again. Translating as 'natural' it is bottled at cask-strength without chill-filtration and really shows off both its Glenlivet/Speyside fresh green apple character and its bourbon cask vanilla oak.

The final dram was once again from Speyside, but was a very different beast. Aberlour A'bunadh is a personal favourite whisky of mine, and this batch, number 42, certainly didn't disappoint! It's an attempt to re-create a Victorian whisky that they found in the distillery while doing some building work. Bourbon casks weren't available back then, and so this is 100% matured in Oloroso Sherry and bottled without chill-filtration at cask-strength. If you stay away form Speyside, thinking the region's single malts are a little shy and retiring then this would be the one to convince you otherwise - it's big and fiery, with spicy symphonies rather than spicy notes, all backed up with soft, juicy raisins and sultanas to cushion the blow. 

Once again it remains to thank Phil for making the trip to Nottingham and making another tasting another success. Thank you, and hope to see you again!