White Horse, bottled 1942

This is as close as I'm ever likely to get to Malt Mill. Pathetic, I know, but part of being obsessive about tasting everything the best of the best is the train-spotter tendency. And at the moment, with The Angel's Share still fairly fresh in the public consciousness, there's a chance folk might know what I'm on about.

I'm told that at this date the malt component of White Horse would have included both Malt Mill and Lagavulin, and it seems, going by the taste, that the malt content was much higher than today's bottlings, and that the whisky was peatier too.

For a whisky that has been in bottle for seventy years, this is really very smoky. Peat smoke, not wood char or coal smoke, and with some sweetness and a slight floral perfume. Very soft, of course.

The palate is silky smooth, with a big initial hit of peat, shading into cigar smoke and fruit syrup. It is light bodied except in the finish, when it gets slightly grippy, before shading into a long salt/char/sandy aftertaste.

It was a privilege to taste this fine drop, and be reminded that blends can - or could, in the past - be as good as or better than self whiskies. Excellent.


3D Whisky

I tasted the Cask Strength and Carry On 3D whisky the other day, and rather to my chagrin, it was very tasty.

I say that because I've always held to the old whisky maxim "Dufftown by name, duff by nature"*, but this whisky rather disproves the rule (although to be fair to my prejudice it's only partly Dufftown - the 3D refers to Dailuaine and Dalwhinnie as well).

This particular vatting of malt came about because bloggers Joel Harrison & Neil Ridley of caskstrength.net somehow persuaded The Borg Diageo to let them have access to some casks for the latest release in their Whisky Abecediary. For that achievement alone they deserve kudos.

So to the dram itself. (I was provided with a handy 3D tasting note sheet, but after filling it in I felt compelled to return to my notebook and write at rather more length. Perhaps you prefer the fuzzy floating 3D words.)

It's a light and floral and sweet whisky. Floral to the point of soapiness, but for me that ain't a fail. There is also a grassy note, and overall the nose is very fresh. The palate is in keeping with the nose, being light and soft. It is gently malty, and has a very tasty brown sugar note. And it's sweet, of course, thanks to the Dalwhinnie, or so it seemed to me. Altogether a very tasty vatting.

*Old whisky maxim: in other words, newly coined by me.


Abbey Whisky Bunnahabhain 23 Year Old

In a twitter tasting organised by the tireless Steve Rush and Abbey Whisky, my favourite dram was a Ben Nevis 16 Year Old. Rather than talk about that whisky, this post is about Bunnahabhain.

I've a soft spot for Bunna. It's rarely superb, although of course there are some limited bottlings which shine. But it soldiers on, offering a gentle, creamline toffee dram, sometimes with a touch of salt, sometimes with a little more sherry. Of course there are plenty of whiskies doing just that. Jura, Arran, Tomatin spring to mind. What sets Bunnahabhain apart is a lightness of touch, a citric, lemony note which keeps it from being bland or uninteresting.

This particular Bunnahabain is a very fine example of the style. The nose isn't intense. Rather, it is elusive, with hints of citrus, hints of salt, hints of milk or cream, in a way which draws me in rather than boring me by their faintness. The palate is a bit of a surprise at first, with a huge hit of chilli astride the honey notes, but then the salty touch and the mustiness of old casks distracts me. Water calms the chilli, leaving a light sweet fudge flavour with a warming, albeit short, finish. A nearly excellent whisky.

And that's the point, I think. If Bunna was really excellent, one would need to be a bit reverential about drinking it. But because of that nearly, you can pay attention and find something to interest you, or you can simply be dog tired and in need of a dram without having to think about it, dammit, and either way Bunnahabhain will do the job nicely.


Some recent Glen Elgins, and a Small Lament

Selling Whisky for a living is fun, and mostly pretty straightforward. "What do you like? Oh, well this and this are pretty similar, or this is pretty special".

But when I talk to whisky enthusiasts, fellow malt heads, I often find myself pursuing a gloomier line. "You had better grab this indie Mortlach while you can. The new official releases mean all future bottles will cost twice as much"; "Of course, it's all been matured on the mainland since the early 2000s so the taste is bound to change in a year or two".

And so it is with Glen Elgin, perhaps the fruitiest of Speysiders (or at least up there in the top three with Mortlach and Glenrothes). Until 2012, according to the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2013, Glen Elgin ran two different fermentations. During the week at 76 hours, and 120 hours over the weekend.

Following the addition of three new washbacks, so as to increase capacity by 50%, this approach has been dropped, and replaced with a standard 90 hour fermentation.

The result can only be a loss of complexity, which will become apparent in the malt in a decade or so. See this article at Chemistry of the Cocktail for an excellent and detailed explanation. You heard the moaning here first.

All of this is by way of a preamble to the following Glen Elgin tasting notes. It's a Speysider I particularly like, and I do hope my prefatory grumble will maker these expressions seem all the tastier.

Gordon & Macphail Connoisseurs Choice Glen Elgin 1996, 46%
nose: fruity, like fresh chopped apples. Light lactic notes, then light woody spice, then more fruit; chocolate banana sweets.
palate: rounded & fruity. Thick fruity syrup. Adding water brings out a tangy apple note.
(tasted 2013-10-08: not rated)

Blackadder Raw Cask Glen Elgin 17yo, 57.3%
nose: spicey (ginger), malty, slightly lactic, apple-y
palate: Quite light and dry and fruity. Water sweetens it and brings out a waxy toffee apple flavour, then sweet burnt toffee with a touch of smoke.
(tasted 2013-10-28: excellent)

Milroy's Glen Elgin 17yo 1995/2013, 46%
nose: airy, fresh, sappy and sweet. Grassy, then malt loaf
palate: sweet banana malt. Woody, then bananas and oranges. Fruity, thick and sweet. Malty
(tasted 2013-10-30 as part of a tweet tasting: not rated)


Ridgeview Pimlico

English sparkling wine is a very fine thing indeed, if not yet the equal of champagne, but I wouldn't say the same of such English still red wines as I've tasted (although that's no great sample size - not even a handful).

Hence, via some unconscious calculus of likely quality, I had no great expectations of a bottle of Ridgeview Pimlico. And so I was very pleasantly surprised - it's delicious.

It pours a dark, dark red, with properly pink froth, sending my mind on Austral paths, but of course the cepage is the Pinots Noir & Meunier, so it is light in body, despite the dark colour.

The nose is a very attractive mix of bitter cherry and dark chocolate. The palate matches the nose precisely, and adds a mature, gamey note - although I was reminded more of Chianti and Sangiovese than Burgundy and Pinot Noir.

The finish, alas, is short and abrupt, but nevertheless, for the colours and flavours, I would rate it as mostly excellent.

There didn't appear to be a vintage marked on the bottle, but it seems that this was made in 2003  because it was such a hot year that the grapes were supremely ripe. So don't be looking for this in your local wine merchant any time soon.


Shacketon's Whisky, sort of.

I've been reading Shackleton's Whisky by Neville Peat, which seemed like a good enough excuse to drink some Glen Mhor - the Gordon & Macphail 1980 vintage, bottled in 2006. (Glen Mhor was the Inverness malt whisky distillery built in 1894 to help fulfill the demand for the Mackinlay's blends, so we can be fairly sure that the expedition bottles would have contained some of the Glen Mhor malt)

The short version of this review is that neither the book or the whisky are outstanding, although both are enjoyable, and of course there is an added interest in the Glen Mhor since the distillery is long silent, a victim of the downturn of the early 1980s.

The story of Shackleton's expedition to Antarctica is fascinating. On the other hand, it's clear from reading the book that the 300 bottles of whisky which travelled south from Scotland were no more or less important than the 450 tins of baked beans, and certainly less important than the 300 bottles of lime juice, which were brought along to help guard against scurvy.

I found it irritating that Peat continually speculates as to the various expedition members' thoughts about the whisky - it's about as illuminating as speculation regarding their thoughts on the beans or the lime juice.

I would also say that he gives rather too much credence to Richard Paterson's enthusiastic evaluation of the recovered bottle. And I can see no reason at all to believe that Macinlay's would have been a vatted malt or single, despite the assertion by Dr Richard Pryde of Whyte & Mackay that "there's no sign of grain whisky in it." Surely the whole point of grain whisky (at least as far as blending is concerned) is that it is neutral or dull or bland; it does not contribute flavour.

The whisky is very light for a twenty-five (or -six) year old. There are some notes which could be long wood contact, but essentially this is a delicate, lactic spirit, with some apple notes. I was reminded somewhat of Bruichladdich, albeit without the finesse which characterises the Laddie. I enjoyed it, but it doesn't really fit the profile which this book gives to Mackinley's. Perhaps the quality of the whisky had declined by 1980.

My quibbles aside, the book is a quick and interesting read, and it was definitely fun to drink the Glen Mhor while dipping into the book.


A couple of sherried Speysiders

Tamdhu 10 Year old was relaunched in May of this year, and on the day that I visited the distillery for the relaunch I also happened to open a bottle of Benriach 15 Year Old Pedro Ximinez Finish. 

Tamdhu was, until 2011, owned by Edrington Group, who rather neglected it. Given that they also own Highland Park and Macallan, this is understandable. What makes less sense is this: when new owners Ian Macleod Distillers were assessing their purchase, they found a decade's worth of Tamdhu filled into high quality sherry casks. Why did Edrington chose to make expensive malt whisky and then not really bother to try and sell it?

Who knows, but the decision was taken to continue this policy, despite the cost (I'm told good sherry
barrels are costing £750 each these days), so that Tamdhu could be relaunched as a premium brand.

The new bottle design certainly stands out, but what of the liquid? Well, it's pretty tasty. Tamdhu new make spirit is fruity, light, and smooth, and takes very well to active sherry casks. The sherry casks give a dryness which nicely balances the naturally sweet spirit, and adds complexity. Good Stuff.

The Benriach is more heavily sherried, but in a different style. The use of Pedro Ximinez casks gives a much sweeter edge to the whisky, although this is well balanced by a vinous tang which keeps the sweetness from being cloying. One gets the impression that the sherry casks here were all first fill, something which clearly isn't the case with the Tamdhu. One also gets the impression of a lack of integration; finishing rather than maturing the whisky. Despite that, it's still Very Good Indeed.

Sherry casks are something of a tender topic for Scotch distillers these days, and whiskies such as these two are definitely in the minority. Which leads me to conclude: if you like the sound of these; if you like sherried whiskies generally - then drink more sherry!


Jeunes Vignes de Xinomavro

It's not often that a winemaker will announce the use of young vines. Old vines, gnarly, ancient, wrinkled, will always get top billing, but youngsters tend to be glossed over.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. Old vines, whilst low-yielding, can produce wines with complex, concentrated flavours. And if you are going to charge more for your wine because you didn't produce very much, then extreme age seems to be an acceptable explanation.

On the other hand, vines can, in the first flush of youth, bear fruit of good character and concentration. But generally a viticulturalist would aim to always be replacing the oldest vines in a vineyard, so as to ensure continuity from year to year and decade to decade.

So what I'm drinking tonight is a Naoussa 2011 from Domaine Thymiopoulos which bears the legend, "Jeunes Vignes de Xinomavro". It's interesting that this wine is labelled as "jeunes vignes" - the French influence on the Greek wine industry, as on so many countries, runs deep.

The nose offers an interesting combination of bright, fresh, youthful, fruity flavours with earthier (or perhaps animal?) notes. Over the top there is also a classy floral note - violets I should say. The fruit character is red rather than black.

The palate is bone dry, mid bodied, and fairly tart. The attack is very juicy, with tangy redcurrant notes. This moves onto a nice slippery or waxy texture, before giving way to grippy but super-ripe tannins. It is a little hot in the finish.

In conclusion, an excellent and also very gluggable wine.


I don't know about art but I know what I like.

And I rather like this whisky, An Cnoc Peter Arkle "Bricks".

The nose is super sweet, in a golden syrup way, with a hint of cedar wood about it. On the palate it's drying, thick, and syrupy, with a little malt in the finish. It takes a generous dash of water superbly well, opening up to show lanolin or beeswax aromas along with biscuity malt, and the palate develops an orange flavour.  As I say, I rather like it.

But I'm not quite sure what to make of the art work.

It is definitely a good thing that the whisky industry is doing well enough to be able to afford the services of talented artists. And, having had a rummage around the web I can say I rather like Peter Arkle's work. But I can't figure out a connection between the liquid in the bottle and the design on the canister.

Obviously, the same argument applies to many other whiskies. And if Knockdhu distillery is going to try and make their whisky stand out on the shelf, then using a proper artist is a commendable choice.

There isn't any conclusion to this line of thought except perhaps, that not everyone can be as distinctive as Bruichladdich.  And to reiterate that I don't know about the artwork but I know that I like this whisky, very much.

An Cnoc Peter Arkle "Bricks", no age statement, 46%, about £50.


Laphroaig Cairdeas 2013

At a Glasgow's Whisky Club tasting, John Campbell, distillery manager at Laphroaig, led us through a tasting of five whiskies, and provided some very interesting background material. We started with the Ten Year Old, which, along with the cask strength Ten and the Quarter Cask, accounts for 95% of the distillery's 3.4 million litres annual output. It is matured exclusively in first fill ex-Bourbon barrels, a policy which has been in place since about 1990 (previously the cask quality was variable).

Mr Campbell emphasised that The Ten Year Old  is the standard by which all other Laphroaigs are measured. No matter what extra flavours they acquire from extended ageing or a change of cask, other bottlings must always express the same sweet, peaty, medicinal character.

There is great balance in the Ten Year Old, with the sweetness reining in the strong earthy peat, and softening the effect of the bitter and dry notes in the finish. The defining flavour of Laphroaig is TCP, a heavy phenolic note which perhaps comes from the deep cut on the spirit still (Laphroaig has the longest foreshots of any Scotch distillery).

To ensure consistency, each batch of the Ten Year Old has about 20% of whisky from the previous batch added to it. It is the distillery's most important product, and until 1980, the only one. Bottled at 40%, chill filtered, coloured, and widely available, for about £33.

The Laphroaig Eighteen Year Old (about £70, 48%), which unlike the Ten is not chill filtered, was until tonight my favourite Laphroaig. The extra ageing adds a depth of fruity and perfumed wood character, and a superb creamy texture. The finish is deeply earthy. John Campbell describes the Eighteen as a “Dry-Sweet” whisky.

Laphroaig Triple Wood (about £45, 48%) was introduced in 2010 (to travel retail, but now generally available). The maturation process is initially the same as for the Quarter Cask, and the whisky is then put to first fill Oloroso sherry hogsheads for two more years.

It's a spicy whisky, with notes of red fruits, and the smokiness seems to have gained a caramel / butterscotch / crème brûlée note. Still very smoky-peaty-medicinal, of course. The first of tonight's drams to seem at all hot, and rather drier in the finish than the previous whiskies.

We were then given the first public tasting of the Laphroaig Cairdeas 2013. Initially the whisky followed the same path as the standard Ten Year Old, ageing in first fill ex-Bourbon, but after eight years it was transferred to 68 first fill Port pipes for 14 months.

The nose is markedly sweeter than the Ten, and milky. There's a lovely strawberry / raspberry fruitiness. The peat seems a little ashy to me, contrasting with the more earthy flavours of tonight's other Laphroaigs. On the palate it's all red fruits, fusty wood, ashy-salty-woody, and earthy peat. There's a sweet cream texture. Delicious, and a great price for a limited edition cask strength whisky (51.3%, about £47)

The last dram was a rare cask sample. John Campbell thinks that no one else in the Scotch whisky industry is using puncheons (a larger barrel-size, which is sometimes only half charred). These barrels were virgin European oak made for Laphroaig, although that must have been a fair while ago, since the dram we tasted is both twenty four years old and refill cask.

As you would expect in a twenty-four year old whisky there is indeed a ton of woody character, but there are also attractive floral notes of hyacinth or violet, and the whisky is still very bright and fresh. On the palate is has a meaty note which wasn't in the younger whiskies. There is still plenty of peat, fruit, and cereal. The finish is bitter burnt.

We finished the tasting with an old Ten Year old Laphroaig (probably bottled in the 1990s, pre-Royal Warrant, and 43%ABV). Apart from what I took to be a couple of signs of bottle ageing (a cabbage-y note, and a much softer mouth feel), the main difference compared with today's Ten Year Old seems to be that the smokiness is a little less earthy, a little more charred wood. A tribute to the consistency of Laphroaig?

In another millennium I used to be a Laphroaig bore, finding other whiskies to be lacking in flavour. Whilst I certainly wouldn't go back to that position, I do think the Cairdeas 2013 is an outstanding dram. If you are on Islay this week or next for the Fèis Ìle, it's the bottle to buy. The rest of us will get a chance when it is offered to the Friends of Laphroaig in June.


Le Clos Du Serres Les Maros 2011

The whole time I was drinking this  - two bottles, two occasions - I was thinking, "Châteauneuf". I really did think it was that good

Le Clos du Serres "Les Maros" is 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 20% Carignan, from a single vineyard site on the Terrasses de Larzac, which is a highly regarded sub-zone within Languedoc.

The wine is dark, almost purple. The shorthand description of the aroma would be Fruits of the Forest Yoghurt.

It tastes lovely. Strawberry, bramble, creamy yoghurt, ultra ripe soft tannins. But the main attraction is its sheer welcoming drinkability. I don't think it's a wine to age, but given its present deliciousness, that really doesn't matter.

For another take on this wine, here's my video review.

And you can watch Nicolas Mollard of Le Clos du Serres talking about another of their wines, Le Clos, here.