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