Sunday, 6 September 2015





Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Irish Eyes are Smiling

Hyde 10yo Presidents Cask - 46%

Picture from

There was once a time when the emerald isle could boast more distilleries than you could shake a shillelagh at. Then, in the mid to late 19th century, things took a downward turn. A combination of factors, not least the second wave of temperance and Scotland's adoption of the Coffey still, resulted in the near total annihilation of Irish distilleries. In fact, at one point, whiskey production in Ireland was, quite literally, a two-horse race.

Skip forward to modern times and the Irish whiskey industry is booming, huzzah! However, this poses a problem to would-be whiskey barons. You see, whiskey isn't an 'instant' product like gin or vodka. Apart from the minimum maturation period required by law, the vast majority of people would agree that even Irish whiskey, historically a lighter spirit, needs a good five years or so in the barrel before hitting its stride. Five years is an awful long time to have no turnover. So how does an up and coming distillery make a name for itself and start tapping the whiskey-fever tree for all that lovely sap? Simple, they play independent bottler for a while.

This limited release Hyde 10yo from Hibernia Distillers was, rumour has it, sourced from Kilbeggan's Cooley distillery. Having spent 10 years maturing in first-fill bourbon barrels, it was finished for a period of six months in toasted Oloroso sherry casks. Cut with Irish spring water to a robust strength of 46%, it has also been spared the indignity of chill-filtration. I'm liking the sound of this already. How does it taste?


Malt loaf, banana bread, nectarines and grape must. Plenty going on and a lovely balance. Give it a while and a couple of drops of water and a creaminess develops, putting me in mind of vanilla and honey semifreddo.


Big, bi-hi-hig delivery with spirit bubblegum and bourbon wood. Black pepper and peaches with the occasional floral flash. Caramel ice-cream pops its head up now and again but only to whisper hello. With water, like the nose, the whole affair becomes creamier.


Medium-long in length with spices galore. Unashamedly bold and oaky.


Very competent and well constructed. The nose is the star of the show although the palate is most enjoyable, if a tad unbalanced and spirit-led at full strength. The finish is hearty and substantial.
Quite the opening gambit from Hibernia. Currently available online for a shade over £50, NCF and bottled at 46%. If this is a sign of things to come, count me in.
Thanks to Hibernia Distillers for the official sample.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Cutty Sark Tweet Tasting

Cutty Sark 33yo - 41.7%

In celebration of the launch of their Art Deco inspired 33 year old whisky, Cutty Sark recently teamed up with The Whisky Wire to create a live Twitter tasting of the new release. Following this, in honour of World Cocktail Day, were some era-appropriate whisky cocktails with a twist (I couldn't resist it) prepared by the chaps at the White Lyan Bar, who are to cocktails what Heston Blumenthal is to food.

Now, I have to state for the record that whilst eating, sleeping and (of course) drinking whisky, I'm a complete cocktail dunce. Up until quite recently, I thought a Rusty Nail was a tetanus risk and an Old-Fashioned was an intimate act performed on the back seat of a car. I was glad to find out, therefore, that we were to start the event firmly within whisky territory.

Cutty Sark 33yo - 41.7%

Massive hit of honeyed bourbon wood to start; it really is the major player here. Joining the oak are wax, polish and vanilla, with the pleasant dustiness you sometimes find in older whisky. It's a low ABV whisky, so I dare not add water to this but am pleased to say a little warming in the hands releases sweet aromas. Caramel, poached pears and fleeting cinder-toffee notes. After a while the whole affair turns a bit bready; biscuits and lady fingers spring to mind but the wood and wax are always there in the background, keeping things from getting too sweet. It's a wonderful experience that rewards patience.

Gentler than I expected. The first thing that strikes me is citrus; soft, pink grapefruit and lemon peel. A few more sips and the flavour starts to build, not too much though; while robust, this couldn't be labelled as overblown. There's a freshness and vibrance here that belies its age. Well structured with waves of fruit, honey, wood, spice and more fruit. A few more sips and the whisky shows a herbal side with peppercorns and warming spices near the finish. The bourbon wood note is very prominent here too. A well engineered blend, although one to enjoy on a clear palate as, apart from that weighty, citrus/wood core, a lot of the supporting flavours are subtle.

I'm a big fan of trying to dissect blends, although I'm awful at it, so I'd love to know what's in here. Whatever it is, the team at Cutty Sark aren't telling. This has one of the best noses I've experienced on a blended whisky. So much going on, so entertaining and it really showcases what can be achieved with the right stock and the right skill. The palate delivers too, although plays second fiddle to the nose, in my book. This is currently available on the Cutty Sark website for £650, so although not particularly rich on the palate, it is too rich for my blood.

Cocktail 1: Artist's Special
Cutty Sark Original
Oloroso Sherry

Ok, I'm breaking new ground here. I'm sat in my manly chair at my manly table with a frozen, long-stemmed conical glass (ice is a dirty word at White Lyan), quarter-filled with a bright red/pink liquid. My wife, used to seeing me through a haze of peat fumes, is giving me some very strange looks. The shape and temperature of the glass aren't really conducive to proper nosing notes, so I hope for the best and take a sip.

In for a penny......
Do you know what? It's not half-bad. Actually it's rather good. The whisky definitely makes its presence felt and there's Oloroso in there dialled up to 11. I can certainly taste the redcurrant but the lemon is in the background keeping things honest. The Oloroso keeps coming back in a big way but the mix is such that the individual flavours never get truly lost. I'm not considering buying a white suit and some aviator shades just yet but this is certainly interesting.

Cocktail 2: Seelbach
Cutty Sark Original
Triple Sec
Soda Water

I confess to not knowing the difference between soda water and sparkling Highland Spring, but I can't see my ignorance having too detrimental an effect so I plough on. As I start to consume another red/pink drink, Mrs Stumbler makes a joke about a tutu but I'm too busy dancing round my handbag to hear it properly.

Don't drink and tweet, folks.
Worryingly, this one's pretty good too. A little more grown up than the first. Loving the acidic edge and the drying/mouthwatering finale. Again, the whisky is evident but not the star of the show by any means. Not quite sure what 'Bitters' are but I like them; I'm guessing nothing to do with John Smith's.

Cocktail 3: Beeswax Old Fashioned
Cutty Sark Original
Beeswax (yes, actual beeswax)
Gold Flakes

This one calls for a frozen whisky glass; that, I can do. Unlike the previous two, this has a hue I'm more used to in my glass, although crumbled cork pieces usually look up at me from the bottom, not gold. After briefly wondering whether this would have a 'disco-ball' effect somewhere in my near future, I figure what the hell. for a pound
Superb. I mean, just superb. I'll admit I know nothing about cocktails but I know what I like. This is heavy, honeyed and chewy. Really bang on. A great one to finish the night on and takes the cocktail crown for me. 

Final Thoughts
Not only has this been immense fun, it's been a real eye opener. Whilst, I can't see myself frequenting trendy cocktail bars, or even doing 2-4-1 Jagerbombs in a sticky-carpeted Yates' Wine Lodge, this has certainly dispelled a few misconceptions I had about the subject as a whole. I dare say I'll be tempted one day to have a crack at it, in my own ham-fisted way. That being said, whisky is my true passion and the highlight of the evening for me was getting to try Cutty Sark's latest offering. Whilst I can't see myself stretching for the 33yo, the quality it exhibits makes me want to check out the rest of the range.

Huge thanks to the teams at Cutty Sark and White Lyan for catering, to Steve for organising and conducting the evening and to my fellow tasters for the belly-laughs, banter and bonhomie. A true pleasure.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

SMWS does Feis Ile

SMWS 3.243 Dark, smouldering flamenco gypsy - 57.1%


May is upon us. In the mind of the peat-head that can mean only one thing - Feis Ile, the Islay festival of malt and music. For it is at this time of year the phenolic faithful descend upon the Queen of the Hebrides to visit her distilleries, sample her wares and snap up a few of the distillery-only festival bottlings on offer.


Such is the popularity of this annual pilgrimage that over the past couple of years, a few of the better known independent bottlers have got in on the act and put out their own releases to commemorate the festival, and this year is no exception.

This year those marvellous chaps over at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (Declaration of Interest: I'm a member and a huge fan) will be holding their own Feis Ile open day on Friday 22 May at the Islay House Hotel, Bridgend. Open to members and non-members alike, the event will play host to, amongst other things, a couple of SMWS Masterclasses and the release of their very own Feis Ile bottling. Sourced from Islay's oldest distillery, the whisky has been matured in a refill sherry butt for over 17 years and bottled at its cask strength of 57.1%.
I have to admit that official bottlings from this specific distillery can leave me a little underwhelmed, although some of the best independent versions I've tried have come from the cellars of SMWS (Mermaids at play, anyone?). This is going to be interesting.
Fruity! A robust hit of prunes and caramelised apples with menacing wafts of smoke and bitumen. Molasses, scorched timber and crispy, sweetcure bacon. A little time to bloom produces dry varnish and buffed mahogany. The nose strikes an excellent balance between peat and sherry without sacrificing the finer points of each.
Initially powerful, although the initial blast fades quickly and leaves a medley of jammy fruits and peat. Thick, chewy mouthfeel that opens up into plums and figs with ginger and cinnamon lending support.
Long and warming. Doesn't overload the senses with heat and spice on the way out, even at full strength. Leaves the mouth coated with a mixture of burnt maple bacon and the dying embers of a wood fire.
The society puts out a lot of bottlings from this distillery, some less to my tastes than others, but when they get it right, they can be spectacular. This is very good indeed. The flavour profile screams autumn/winter rather than spring/summer but there's no denying the quality in the glass. Someone grab me a bottle while you're over there.
Sample provided by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Cry God for Harry........

English Whisky Chapter 16 - Peated, Sherry Cask - 46%

Kicking arse and taking names (and slaying dragons)

Englishmen. We're a strange breed. An historic hotch-potch of Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Norsemen and Celts, we love a good queue, think nothing of going out in the midday sun and have a nasty habit of getting a bit 'fighty' and invading other countries (sorry about that, by the way). Where we really excel, however, is in the art of tutting; we're World Champions at it.

Walter J. Stumbler frowns upon your shenanigans
I myself come from a long line of accomplished tutters. In fact, I have it on good authority that my grandfather tutted for Oxford and would have gone to the '48 Summer Olympics had he not relinquished his amateur status shortly after the war.

One thing guaranteed to provoke a chorus of tuts up and down the land is the subject of St. George's Day. What follows is a conversation heard in my office yesterday:

#1: "St. George's Day tomorrow."
#2: "Yeah."
#1: "Why don't we ever celebrate it?"
#2: "Dunno."
#1: "The Irish go mad for St. Paddy's"
#2: "Yeah."
#1: "Tut."
#2: "Tut."

Every. Bloody. Year.

Definitely worth a visit
Evidently, those chaps down at the St. George's distillery in Norfolk have bucked the trend of apathetic patriotism and, by putting out some excellent young whisky, have been doing their damnedest to put the spirit back into St. George. Therefore, I think it's only fair that on today of all days, I do my duty as an Englishman and sample the spirit coming out.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

School pencil cases, or rather, the contents. The first thing that comes through here is old pencil sharpenings mixed with wax and wisps of burnt rubber. This isn't giving off a lot of peat but there's a pleasing smoke there. Sweeter aromas come to the fore as the casks start making a play, although with a sugariness that puts me in mind of rum rather than sherry. A bit of patience brings dates, sugared almonds and toffee. 20

A little thin to begin with. Hot, spicy and a tad flat. Give it a while though and a sweet creaminess builds, the woody smoke makes an appearance and...yep...there's the peat. Ten minutes go by and the palate becomes more fleshed out, more structured and more-ish. Orange oil, cinnamon, cardamom and a touch of clove. Still a tad on the fiery side so a few drops of water is advisable to calm things down. 21

Roaring finish with a decent amount of wood, spice and sherried nuttiness. Excellent length, if a little numbing. 22

Very good. A bit of wood, a bit of smoke, a whisper of peat and some sherried sweetness to hold it together. Balancing peat and sherry can be a tricky business but I'm glad to say that nothing really gets too boisterous to take away from the overall presentation. 21

This took a lot of opening up before the quality came through, but come through it did. It's a precocious malt with some excellent traits. Wish I'd bought a full bottle.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Arran Whisky Tweet Tasting

Arran Whisky: A Journey

Ahh, they grow up so fast. It seems like barely a moment ago that the chaps at Arran whisky were making solid progress with their 12yo and thrilling us with their 14yo. Now their whisky has earned the right to vote (just in time!) and the eagerly awaited 18yo has hit the shelves. 

Not content with this, they're also on the verge of their first "White Stag" release, a bottling chosen by their very own members' tasting panel. Needless to say, when I saw the opportunity to give them a bash, I didn't hesitate.

Arran Sauternes Finish - 50%

Hello honey! Sweet opening with some fruit lurking in the background. The fruit develops more clearly into peaches, pears and maybe a hint of strawberry mousse. With patience, the whole affair becomes more syrupy; the peaches are tinned and there's some grape must in the mix. A little more time brings barley sugar and a hint of spice.

Oof! After being seduced by the sweet playful nose, a bit of oomph on the palate catches me by surprise. Thick, sweet and honeyed with a fair amount of fire in its belly; good level of spice here. Fruity but underscored by a pleasing woodiness. A bit of time delivers more fruit, honey and some stem ginger but all the while there's a decent amount of wood to keep things from getting too one-trick.

One for the sweet-toothed among you. It's good quality, although not especially balanced. A good after-dinner dram.

Arran 18yo - 46%

This is a little more balanced than the Sauternes finish.There's a creaminess at first but this is tempered by a light, waxy note. Green orchard fruits to follow and some herbal flashes. Very good indeed with plenty going on. The nose is changeable but nothing ever shouts too loudly and spoils the party. After a while the fruit drops away and it goes a bit floral. Superior.

Soft, patient arrival with a grassy, herbal, floral vibe. This opens up into a sweet, buttery pastry wrapped around apple compote. Every inch as balanced on the palate. A little demerara sugar and a fine, woody finale. Not the thickest of whiskies but excellent structure nonetheless.

Balance is the key word here. This is an excellent example of what can be done with the right presentation and an excellent approach to blending. One to sit and savour.

Arran 13yo Single Bourbon Cask #99/103 - 55.3%

Wood shavings to start, with a light, dill pickle note I'd usually associate with bourbon or virgin oak. Lively, so don't nose it too closely. Hob-nobs. Yup. Vanilla custard develops with some tropical fruits and a whiff of damp cellar. Very interesting.

Big, alcoholic punch to begin with but settles down quickly. Unripe mango and a hearty blast of sea-spray. Here comes the fruit and also a pleasing amount of sweet-shop goodies, namely fudge and salted caramels. With water (recommended) it becomes a lot more civilised and adopts a position of balance between sweetness and wood. A nice nutty note nearing the finale too.

Lacks the refinement of the 18 but makes up for it in fun. Big, shouty and unashamed. With water, it's a different beast entirely; so much more structured and cerebral. Quite an achievement.

Arran White Stag Bottling - 1st Release - 54.2%

Unusual. Not what I expected from an oloroso cask at first. Very rich and buttery with the merest suggestion of menthol. A touch of wax too. Patience brings a whiff of coffee cake and steamed milk. Some icing sugar and even light treacle. As things open up we get into more familiar territory with the trademark oloroso nuttiness; hazelnuts, brazils and even a touch of walnut.

That coffee note is back, flanked by crisp, red fruits and a thick sweetness. Well balanced with lemon-pepper notes in one corner and candied fruits in the other. Beautiful mouthfeel and structure.

Whereas the Single Bourbon shouts and punches, this slips quietly in the back door and assassinates you. You don't see this one coming but, boy, does it deliver. A gem.

It's nice to see a good deal of variety in the line-up and I dare say there's something for everyone here. The team at Arran really does pump out some good stuff and, although some of their bottlings can be priced at the upper end of reasonable, I tend to find that they deliver. If I had to pick one to spend my hard-earned cash on though......'s the 18 that wins it for me. It's by no means a session whisky but if you want something to challenge, entertain and reward (and I do), this is the way to go. Keep an eye out for the White Stag though.

A big thank you to the team over at Arran for providing the treats, to Steve at The Whisky Wire for organising the whole affair and to my fellow tweet tasters. As always, a true pleasure.

Friday, 27 February 2015


Auchentoshan 1984 - Berry Bros. & Rudd - 46%

Educational, Entertaining, Eccentric

One of the most beautiful, and yet infuriating, things about this whisky lark is that as soon as you think you're close to figuring out the status quo, someone pulls the rug out from under you. That is precisely what happened to me towards the end of last year while standing in a small corner of an old, prestigious wine merchants in London.  

A little context, I think. The Berry Bros. & Rudd shop has existed in the St. James's area of London since 1698, although I have to admit, I only discovered it in 2013; still, better late than never. Tucked away at the back of the shop is a well-appointed spirits area where you'll invariably find Rob Whitehead, the shop's spirits specialist. Amongst the usual fare you'd expect to see in a prestigious London whisky shop, you will also find a range of single cask bottlings from their own whisky label, Berrys'. I recommend you try some; I've not come across a bad one yet.

Where was I? Right, the rug-pulling, gotcha. Whenever I go into the shop, Rob will end up pouring a few samples from the ever-changing Berrys' range. More often than not he'll do this without telling me what they are and let me have a guess. Whilst this can be tremendously fun, it also means I run the risk of making a complete prat of myself. On my last visit I managed to deftly sidestep ridicule by identifying one of the samples as an old grain but, just as I was starting to feel cocky, he crushed me with the most un-Auchentoshan Auchentoshan I have ever tasted. It was so intriguing, I ended up taking a bottle home with me.

Ladies and gentleman - I give you the Berrys' Auchentoshan 1984.

Parma violets and cut flowers at the outset with soft icing and lightly-candied tropical fruits. A few drops of water give off a light waxiness and old-school furniture polish. Fascinating and superb.

Wow. Huge hit of Parma violets, echoing the nose. Soap shavings and lemon rind. This is 80's Bowmore without the peat. Water brings a lighter citrus and more floral notes and hints of toffee as you approach the finish. It doesn't quite live up to the nose but it's hugely entertaining.

Medium in length. Woody citrus underscored by a lingering floral hum and a white pepper warmth long after the flowers have wilted.

You could have given me fifty guesses when I tasted this blind and I still wouldn't have been able to pin down the distillery. At 29 years, this is by far the oldest 'toshan I've tried. I don't know if they're all like this but the similarities with its Islay stable mate lead me to think that this was distilled after Morrison Bowmore acquired the distillery in 1984. 

Grade: A
I'm not the biggest fan of Auchentoshan and often find better quality in the independent bottlings. Even so, this is a cut above the rest. Entertaining, educational and a little eccentric. Bravo.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Old vs New - VAT 69

VAT 69: 70's vs Contemporary

One of those bottles is the wrong way up, surely.

My old granddad was a confusing chap. Full of ancient wisdom and barely concealed xenophobia, he used to churn out clich├ęs for the vast majority of his waking hours. I spent a great deal of my young life being painfully aware that contemporary items were of inferior quality to things produced in his day, whilst simultaneously being painfully unaware that I was born, or so I was told.

Skip forward thirty years or so and I find myself regularly drinking with the modern day version of my grandfather. The (piss) artist known as Agent X, whilst a number of years my junior, often tries to counsel me in the ways of the world, regularly coming out with a whole host of wild and disturbing maxims. Whereas granddad would rely on banality, Agent X has planted himself firmly in the region of the subversive. One evening he reliably informed me that Jews can't/don't (I can't remember which) eat cake and that peated whisky is like anal sex. I'll leave that one to your imagination.

Ok, now I'm really confused

There's no doubt that both my grandfather and Agent X, whilst clearly insane, could be regarded as prophets of their respective times; their differences in style are a stark reminder that the world we find ourselves in now is a million miles away from the world that once was. That, if you'll forgive the clumsy segue, brings me nicely to the subject of whisky.

A number of influential whisky enthusiasts have put forward the notion that, due to the global demand for whisky in general and, to a lesser extent, the appetite for single malt bottlings, the majority of modern blends pale in comparison to their former selves. In an attempt to experience this for myself, I took the opportunity to compare two bottlings of one of blended whisky's permanent fixtures, VAT 69 - one from today and one from the 1970's. To give this experiment a modicum of scientific integrity, the samples were tasted blind.

VAT 69 - Sample 1

Sherbet, spirit and saccharin. This is pretty uninspiring, if I'm honest. A little burnt sugar after a while but it's all rather dull. It reminds me a bit of the Douglas Laing King of Scots, although nowhere near as horrific.

Thin and a little bitter to start with. Faint malt, a fair whack of smoke and a little spice. Nearing the finish it develops a squirty-cream note.

Short. Yup, that's about all I can say.

VAT 69 - Sample 2

Strong varnish, pear drops, acetone and a huge amount of polished wood. I'm starting to suspect that someone has made a mistake here. This doesn't tally with the first sample at all.

Wood and, to start, cardboard. Faint sherry after a while with butter toffee, wisps of smoke and a drop of menthol. A little more time brings big sherried notes, wax and polished wood. The difference in quality is marked. Tastes nothing like sample 1.

Long and drying with honeycomb and smoke. Pleasing.

You win this time, granddad

There's no doubt in my mind that sample 2 is head and shoulders above sample 1; it's not even close. Sample 2 is revealed as the 1970s bottling and, if this is anything to go by, I can see what the enthusiasts are saying. However, before we get all misty eyed and nostagic, the 1970s bottling isn't a "90+" whisky, it just so happens that the contemporary bottling is so awful in comparison.

Big thanks go to Agent X (who may or may not be a real person) for the samples, for setting this up and for the worrying imagery.

Oh yeah, if any of my Jewish readers could get in touch, that would be great. I have a question to ask you.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Johnnie Does Compass Box

Compass Box Blending School

I couldn't have put it better myself

Those of you that subject yourself to my inane ramblings with any regularity will know that I'm a sucker for attending tastings. In particular, I try to attend as many Whisky Discovery events as possible. In my experience, they always offer something unusual or not widely available and Dave and Kat do a bloody good job of running them (I'm hard enough to converse with when sober; how they manage it when I've had a skinful is beyond me).

As a result of my acquaintance with them, I'm also on nodding terms with The Bedford Whisky Club and, consequently, find myself in an odd little room in West London surrounded by a series of glass bottles, cask samples and lab equipment. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Compass Box.

Chemistry was never this fun

For the benefit of those that have yet to come across it, Compass Box is a small producer of blended Scotch whisky. It was formed in 2000 by a former Marketing Director at Johnnie Walker, John Glaser, and has since routinely produced whiskies which, in my opinion, show what can be done with the right casks, the right people and the right attitude. Having tried the majority of the core range before today, I am expecting great things.

Ohhhhhhh mamie!

We are welcomed by Chris Maybin, the firm's Commercial Director, who immediately sets about making us a cocktail. Based on a similar concoction from the turn of the 20th century, it follows the same principles as a Moscow Mule, substituting vodka with their own Great King St. Artist's Blend. As a child of the infamous British 'alcopop era', and in spite of my usual disdain for anything not taken neat, I heartily approve. So far, so excellent.

A whisky geek's dream

After a brief talk on the history, methods and ethos behind Compass Box, including a taste of some one year old Caol Ila spirit out of a first-fill bourbon cask (surprisingly good!), we were invited to take our places for the first tasting.

The Tasting

Softy, Steely, Creamy, Spicy and Smoky

What follows is a tutored tasting of a sample of the Compass Box Great King Street blends and some of their core range. As we taste and nose each glass, Chris fills us in on the component parts and the types of cask used for each.

The GKS Artist's blend is a marriage of delicate Girvan grain with some Clynelish and Teaninich added for a malty, fruity streak and a dash of Dailuaine for added meatiness. It's a very creamy malt with bags of sweetness on nose and palate.

The GKS Glasgow blend is an altogether more robust affair. The grain in this one is Cameronbridge and is fruitier and more perfumed than the Girvan. It also contains Clynelish which throws some steel to the mix, although this is built upon with a high proportion of sherried goodness in the form of Benrinnes. A significant slug of Laphroaig completes the blend and bestows a smoky, maritime edge. It's a bit ballsier than its sister blend and ticks a lot of boxes.

Hedonism is a mixture of two grain whiskies; Cameronbridge makes up the lion's share and gives notes of toffee, fruit and caramel, while older Port Dundas gives your glass a rich coconut creme brulee aroma. The whole lot has been aged in first-fill American oak and this enhances the creaminess. 

The Spice Tree is a blend of three single malts, 80% of which have been matured in French oak with heavily-toasted heads. Clynelish is the feature malt here with Dailuaine and Teaninich being employed respectively to add meatiness and perfumed fruit. The star of the show for me is the French oak, adding a hefty whack of spice (Ahhh, now I get it!) to the whole thing. Champion.

The Peat Monster is a marriage of four (although the literature states three) peated malts from three regions of Scotland. Laphroaig and Caol Ila make up the Islay contingent, contributing over half of the whisky on show. Ardmore makes an appearance in a supporting role, bringing a sizeable amount of wood smoke to the party. Lastly, from the Isle of Mull, Ledaig (pronounced Ledaig, and not Ledaig) brings some oily, mineral peat. I can see why this is last in the tasting but it really throws a spotlight on the different styles of peated malt . Very good indeed.

The Intermission

I need to get down to Ikea

After such a hard session nosing and tasting, Chris calls half-time and rewards us with a selection of cheeses and charcuterie. He casually mentions "Oh yeah, there's a cubbyhole over there with some open bottles of our back-catalogue. Feel free to grab yourself a glass, they're all fair game." I briefly consider marrying him before coming to my senses and getting stuck in to some weird and wonderful bottlings.

The very definition of a no-brainer

The next twenty minutes is a whirl of old releases, superb parmesan and some very fine salami. One particular bottling has me swooning and I ask Chris what the story is. "That's a release we did for Juveniles in France", he says. "It's a mix of three Clynelish casks (I'm reaching for my wallet already) which make up 90% of the mix and the other 10% is Glen Elgin. It was only released in France (I put my wallet back) but you may be able to find some online." I make a solemn vow to brush up on my French and settle back in my seat for part 2.

The Blending

Ready, Steady, Blend

Chris gravely informs us that fun-time is over. "Now, you have to do some work", he states. In front of us we have five ingredients from which to make our own blends. "I want you to nose and taste each of these carefully", he continues. We are told that, contrary to popular belief, tasting a blend as you go along is next to useless. Apparently, you can never know if a blend is going to be any good until you've given them a chance to marry for a couple of weeks. With that in mind, we set off contemplating the samples before us.

1994 Port Dundas Grain - Creamy and coconutty. Very reminiscent of the Hedonism.

2008 Clynelish Malt - Bold and feisty. This is going to be my feature malt, naturally.

Highland Blended Malt - Huge spice from the French oak. Might have to go easy on this one.

2005 Benrinnes - Wonderfully floral nose, bold and sherried on the palate. Interesting.

Laphroaig 2005 - Everything you'd expect from a young Laphroaig. This could easily dominate if I'm not careful.

I got at least 30ml on my trousers

I set about creating my blend around 40% Clynelish, with 30% Port Dundas to smooth things out. I want a little spice in there but not too much, so 10% sounds about right on the French oak blended malt. I'm not averse to some floral sherry, we'll stick 15% of that in there, courtesy of the Benrinnes, leaving 5% of the Laphroaig to add a bit of smoke into the mix. I christen my blend 'Uisge Baby!' and Chris clocks it at 56.4% abv. Let the marrying begin.

Winding Up

I've never been prouder

As a reward for all our hard work, Chris rewards us with a parting dram or two and thanks us all for coming. He casually mentions, should we want a souvenir, he has a few bottles out the front that he could sell us, including the aforementioned Juveniles. I absolve myself of my previous lingual vow and nearly tear his arm off. It would appear that most of my classmates are of the same opinion, given that I see a lot of green jester-adorned bottles being handed round the room. Happy, content and slightly merry, we bid Compass Box farewell. Anyone fancy a nightcap?

Needless to say, a huge thanks to Chris for playing host, especially on a Saturday (I hope your dinner turned out ok!). Also big thanks to Dave, Kat & Sam for organising and letting me tag along. Can't wait for your next event.

You can check out the Compass Box story, range and shop at

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Johnnie Does Bruichladdich

Thursday 21 August 2014 - 2:00pm

Price: £30.00

Six distilleries down, two to go and next on the menu was the whisky geek's favourite, Bruichladdich. Still reeling from the morning's mammoth tasting in the Lagavulin warehouse, I fortified myself with a bite to eat from a small establishment in Port Charlotte. Part-shop, part-cafe, part living room; it was an absolute godsend.


As I sat outside at one of the picnic tables, bathed in early afternoon sunshine and head swimming, my saviour marched out of the shop towards me with a plate full of cheesy, toasty goodness. Far from being the dyed-in-the-wool Ileach I'd expected, his accent was about as Scottish as mine. Clearly, we're infiltrating the island at an alarming rate. Expect a coup any day now. Head clear and belly full, I marched on Bruichladdich.

Not sure how they heat it

I've often mentioned how I feel like I came into the whisky game too late. I was completely oblivious to the Mark Reynier Bruichladdich revolution. By the time I knew my glass from my Glenmo', The Laddie Ten had already been released and I'd missed the plethora of series' and releases that delighted and frustrated collectors in equal measure. That's not to say I'm unaware of just how good the distillery's releases can be. While I found the Laddies 10, 16 and 22 all high in quality but low in 'wow', the Port Charlotte and, to a slightly lesser extent, Octomore releases I've tried have all rang my bell in no small way. Additionally, the Black Art and Cuvee releases have been hugely entertaining. It's fair to say that this was going to be educational.

The Tour

Blue anchor
I remember a certain member of the #whiskyfabric once remarking on Bruichladdich's hiring policy. Baffled at the time, I must say that I instantly caught his drift the moment I walked through the doors. If you're not following me, I'd urge you to visit the distillery and see for yourself. 

The experience we booked was a two part affair, the tasting being tacked on to the end of the standard tour. As with most standard tours in August, the group was rather large, rather boisterous and a mix of nationalities. The result was a cacophony of laughing old men, sons and daughters translating rather loudly and the poor tour guide trying to be heard above it all. To make things more difficult, the mill was in full swing at the start of the tour. Who'd be a guide, eh?

I snigger every time
The tour started with a potted history of the distillery, although the previously mentioned issue made it nigh-on impossible to hear most of it. We managed to catch snippets like "Original dresser from 1881" and "Last belt-driven mill in Scotland". There was an interesting anecdote about the new Bruichladdich blue being the colour of the sea opposite the distillery the day Mr Reynier bought the place. Having looked at the sea opposite the distillery, I can only assume that either a container ship ran aground that day and spilled a cargo of paint, or that this is utter bollocks. 50/50 I reckon.

Some gymnastics required
We were led into a somewhat quieter area and up some stairs to look at the mash tun. A number of us had to duck under some pipework and file round to accommodate everyone on the platform but we all made it in one piece. Open topped and cast iron, we were told that this was the original from 1881 (later contradicted by the chaps at Bunnahabhain who stated that they gave it over to Bruichladdich towards the latter part of the last century, but that's a story for another day) and that, as a result of the heat loss from being open-topped, they run four cycles of water through the barley, as opposed to the industry-standard three.

Jimmy needed to work on his tan
The distillery houses six washbacks, all made from Oregon Pine and of varying ages. Unlike some other distilleries which use blades to cut the foam produced by fermentation, or Kilchoman's space-age 'oil-in-a-bucket' technique, Bruichladdich cunningly manages to overcome the problem by filling their washbacks to 36,000 litres, some way short of their 60,000 litre capacity.

Not sure if really small or just hidden
I probably would
The distillery uses five stills; two wash stills from 1881, two spirit stills from 1971 and one refurbished Lomond still, lovingly named 'Ugly Betty', from which Bruichladdich distils their Botanist Gin.

Safe, yeah?
The spirit safe dates back to the 70's and keeps the new-make spirit out of general circulation, allowing HMRC to sleep at night. That being said, our gracious host pulled a bottle of, presumably taxed, new-make from out of a shelf and allowed us all to take a sip before whisking us away to the warehouse, home of Bruichladdich's famous/infamous ACEing experiments.

No chootanoofydoofypoopy?
ACE I'm reliably informed, stands for Additional Cask Enhancement. Some whisky drinkers will swear on their mothers' graves that Bruichladdich are just ahead of the curve when it comes to cask experimentation; the owners had the foresight to note that with the rising sherry cask prices, wine finishes were the way forward. Others will tell you that Mr Reynier was saddled with a warehouse full of crap whisky and it was the only way he could get rid of it. 

I personally like to think that on the day he bought Bruichladdich, the sea across from the distillery was the colour of a recycled Tokaji cask. Whatever your belief, there's no denying that Bruichladdich doesn't shy away from the unusual.

After a quick trip to the bottling plant and a dip into the distillery shop for a complimentary dram, it was time to head off to another of the warehouses for a closer look at a few of their casks.

The Tasting

Three of the best
As mentioned earlier, the tasting was an additional element you could tack on to the standard tour, As a result I found myself in a group of three people, one of which was my wife, intently listening to our new host (same hiring policy though). It was an altogether more intimate affair and our host was engaging, funny and informative. We got to draw and sample from three casks - one Bruichladdich, one Port Charlotte and one Octomore. All were of excellent quality, we weren't rushed in any way and after the hustle and bustle of the main tour, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Well deserved, let me tell you
Afterwards, it was back to the shop for a few souvenirs and the sad realisation that we only had one distillery to go.

To be concluded..........


The Tour: C
Our guide was knowledgeable and friendly, although the whole thing seemed a little 'by-the-numbers' and I feel the group was probably too large and boisterous for there to be any real rapport between the guide and guests.

The Drams: A
Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2006 50%
Bruichladdich 1989 Warehouse Cask #45 53.5%
Port Charlotte (Grenache Finish) 2006 Warehouse Cask #1586 61.8%
Octomore (Chateau D'Yquem) 2002 Warehouse Cask #1115 56.4%
PLUS a free Glencairn glass.

Four drams and a glass may pale in comparison to some of the experiences offered by Islay distilleries, however, the shop dram was tasty and the three whiskies at the tasting were all straight from the cask, all generously poured and, most importantly, all spankingly good quality. I can't fault it.

The Shop: B+
Hampered somewhat by Remy Cointreau's decimation of the core range, although still displaying a fair amount of choice. A hand-fill cask was available; one of Bruichladdich's 'Valinch' Series from 1989 and ACEd in a Rioja barrel.

The shop also sported a large range of non-whisky items; souvenirs, glasses, nik-naks and clothes.

Overall: B
I'm a fan of Bruichladdich and while I can't quite work out if this fixation on terroir is just a load of arse to cover up a switch to younger bottlings, the product still tastes good and they still know how to finish a whisky. The thinking behind their hiring policy is quite evident but somehow fits in nicely with the sans-serif font and the jazzy, blue/green paint. Definitely worth a visit.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Distinguished Gentleman

Caol Ila 25 - 43%


Over the years, I've very much signed up to the notion of naturally-presented whisky. To this day, when researching a potential purchase, I find myself reciting internally the mantra, "cask-strength, unchillfiltered, natural colour" over and over. As a result, the Stumblevault houses a butt-load (technical term) of >50% abv bottles. This is always a good thing.

Except, of course, when it isn't. Every now and then, I'll find myself looking for a nightcap that doesn't shout, doesn't prickle my nose and leaves my taste buds well and truly unslapped. Something refined, something.....something civilised. Normally, this has me marching towards the top shelf for a drop of old Glenmorangie or rummaging through the bottom for a beautifully-constructed Bruichladdich but what do you do when you're in the grip of a peat craving? You grab a bottle from one of Islay's most underrated distilleries, that's what.
The peat's not immediately obvious, but it's there. This isn't the carnival of lemon and bonfires that I'd usually associate with Caol Ila either. There's smoke, certainly, but it's dialled down and infused with sweetcure mackerel, vanilla, toffee and a restrained earthiness. This is far from industrial; it's white collar Caol Ila. A little patience rewards you with a sweet citric hum and a hint of liquorice.
Age has tamed the citric peatiness I associate with the standard 12yo but hasn't washed it away. It's still there but with an elegance resulting from the supporting notes of butter-toffee, carefully-measured wood spice and aniseed. Sweet smoke lends a helping hand towards the finish with a hint of sea-spray.
Long, but gentle. Elements of salt, ash and lemon peel with a mouth-coating peatiness that has you pouring a second glass before you know it.
A lot of people, including me, bemoaned the 25yo's drop to 43%. When compared to the dozens of cask-strength indie offerings out there, this is going to seem a little tame. However, on those days you want something refined and restrained, yet entertaining, very few can beat this.
Grade: A
It's a mood whisky, but I'm in the mood.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Johnnie the Woodlouse

AnCnoc 12 - 40%

Where have you been all my life?

This is a distillery that intrigues me. It has quite an extensive range, a few peaty bottlings and a laudable pricing structure, yet I've tried barely any of them. I'm late to this particular party. I have missed the boat, been found wanting and have come up short. To summarise, I've clearly been living under a rock for the past few years.


A particular example of this is the 12 year old AnCnoc (or Knockdhu, for you traditionalists). It's the whisky equivalent of Miley Cyrus' nipples; much admired, absolutely everywhere these days and yet I have somehow never managed to get my hands on one. We'll leave that simile there, shall we?
Light, fresh fruit salad. Pear drops to follow with that mild acetone aroma. A hint of cider vinegar brings a little bit of depth before being smothered by a pillow of toasted marshmallows. It's a sweetie.
Hmm. A little thin to start with. The first thing that strikes me is oak and prickly citrus, followed by a heavy sweetness; think honey and barley sugar. After a while the pear drops evident on the nose make their way into the mix.
Reasonable length with a drying sweetness. Becomes moderately spicy after a while with a build-up of thick citrus rind in the back of the throat - unlike any whisky I've tried before; the only way I can describe it is glace lemon peel. Very interesting.
I'm surprised. At 40%, I expected something a little blander and flatter, but this is punchier than the ABV would suggest. A tad too sweet for my particular tastes but there's no denying that this is well made and flavoursome. Throw in the reasonable price tag and you've got a good all-round experience here.
Grade: B
A good entry-level malt, if a little unbalanced. I won't be leaving it so long to try the rest of the range.

Monday, 5 January 2015

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Dalwhinnie Triple Matured - Friends of Classic Malts - 48%

It's Dalwhinnie, Jim........

A few years ago, back at the start of my whisky journey, my boss bought me a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15 as a leaving present. More than likely it was on offer at the local supermarket and she grabbed it on her way to the checkout. I remember politely thanking her, all the while thinking "Dalwhinnie? Sounds like a rip-off of Balvenie." Yup, if I could go back in time I'd slap me too.

I don't remember much about that bottle, save for the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed it. A year or so later, I managed to grab a bottle of the Distiller's Edition as a birthday present for Agent X (he's a real person, allegedly). I don't remember much about that bottle either, although I know he poured me a glass and I know I thoroughly enjoyed it. Later on that year at TWE's Whisky Show, I got to try the 1987 25yo. I don't remember much about....meh, you get my point. Dalwhinnie, to me at least, is the Rohypnol of the whisky world (Diageo - you can have that for your next ad campaign). So when I heard that it was being added to the triple matured FoCM releases, I told myself enough was enough; time to get a bottle for myself.

Like the school tuck shop on a summer morning. A whole host of fizzy sweets flood the senses, mixed in with dew-drenched flowers and cut grass. Underneath it all there's a rich maltiness with the occasional threat of spice coming to the fore. Nothing is really taking centre stage here; it's all so complex and well-balanced.

Drier and spicier than you'd expect. The sweet, heather-honey of the standard 15yo is present but there's a rich, almost savoury spiciness that dominates and challenges the taste buds. A small slug of water dials down the spice and boosts the honeyed sweetness. Beautifully layered and balanced now. 

Sweet and drying in turns. A good hit of spice and a solid length. Malty and, dare I say it, a touch of bitter smoke in the dying seconds. 

This is a big, ballsy, grown-up Dalwhinnie, closer in nature to the 25yo than the 15. Wonderfully balanced on the nose but really benefits from a teaspoon of water to get the palate going. If I was being really picky, I'd say a tad too sweet on arrival and tad too spicy on the back end but that's about it. It's a very, very good whisky.

Grade: A
Though it just scrapes the top grade, this is definitely one to watch out for. Bold, beautiful and worth every penny.