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!

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