@spiritsbusiness @malthound @jura_whisky @Alexandra1069 @Whisky_Steve @kristianehenney Happy New Year All!!
It is quite easy to enjoy whisky on its own in a glass. It is difficult, however, to combine it successfully with food. Dark chocolate and whisky is a classic pairing and is very enjoyable; cheese and whisky is a well-trodden path; even espresso and whisky works wonderfully. Sausage and whisky not only offer new levels of gustatory intrigue but, for Lee and Angus who devised the combination, new levels of risk.
We try to make all our tastings quite informal; that is, ensuring that they are not stuffy or pretentious affairs. Nothing could put people off whisky more than to create an elitist atmosphere, and it is something we would never subscribe to. The whisky and sausage pairing stayed true to this principle, with tasters munching, sampling, chatting, selecting, mixing, approving (and disapproving), and all in a suitably vociferous and anarchic manner.
The whiskies were all chosen to complement each other: not an easy task, especially with the accompanied scrutiny! With a smoky, peppery Talisker Storm went a chili sausage; a New Orleans’ Cajun sausage was paired with High West’s double rye whisky; and pork and apple combined perfectly with a fruity Glenlivet 12. After a short interval – and much intonation – we sampled the award-winning “Heaps’ number 1” with our own sherried Millstone bottling, before moving swiftly to a meaty Italian offering, which complemented the award-winning Ballantine’s 17 year old. It was closed off with the Caol Ila distiller’s edition – a smoky and intense whisky that needed every ounce of strength to successfully pair with our Cumberland sausage.
Whether these worked or not – and in the main, I think they did – was largely an educated gamble. Certainly, some other pairings as suggested by the tasters seemed to offer something different to what was originally intended! Thus, two lessons can be drawn: the first is that whisky can go with anything (in other words, the time-honoured maxim of ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way); the second is that whisky is wholly subjective, with different flavour combinations appealing to different individuals. Those two principles, when embraced together, creates a lot of fun and does much to dissipate the worst of whisky snobbery.
“Too much of anything is bad,” said Mark Twain. “But too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Quite right, too. Although had he been present at last month’s tasting (and there is a thougt), perhaps he would have felt compelled to substitute ‘good whiskey’ with ‘Rendevouz Rye’.
It was the third whiskey in our line-up – a perilous position for any dram, because it comes just before half-time and can slip from the mind like sand through one’s fingers. Nonetheless, it emerged with glowing adulation and longing looks from our audience. That meant, of course, that we had to swear our tasters to secrecy because it remains the hidden gem of American whiskies: as rich as it is affordable; as complex as it is agreeable. Its genius lies in just how drinkable it is. I have no doubt that whole bottles could disappear in a couple of sittings. Thus, the burden of secrecy passes to you. Please, please tell no-one about it.
Bourbon generally can be something of a minefield, especially because the American whiskey industry has a certain affection towards regulation. For example, single malt Scotch all originates from malted barley, but bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn in which barley, wheat or rye may be additionally used. It must then be poured into American oak barrels at not more than 62.5% strength and – for straight bourbon at least – must be stored for at least two years before its bottling. One wonders whether prohibition wasn’t just a movement for those with a phobia of bureaucracy.
On a more serious note, it still remains impossible to talk about bourbon without discussing prohibition. One must remember that, although the federal ban has long since ended, prohibition has permitted some present-day states and counties to proceed as if Jay Gatsby still lived in West Egg. At 12.01am on 17 January 1920, the 18th amendment banned the consumption of any drink with an alcohol content greater than 0.5 per cent. Over 60 million gallons of now-illegal liqueur were stored in government controlled warehouses and ‘guarded’ by 2,500 watchmen. Almost certainly, it was a reaction by rural Protestantism to the late 19thcentury immigrant surge of a new, urban, Catholic community.
Only two distilleries were allowed to maintain production of whiskey (Jack Daniel’s and Buffalo Trace), and Scotch inestimably benefitted either through smuggling (‘special brew ginger ale’ was surprisingly common) or through claiming, like Laphroaig did, that it had unique medicinal purposes. Other merchants, like those producing grape concentrate, were more ingenious yet and provided instructions ‘forbidding’ certain explicit steps should it turn – God forbid – into something alcoholic.
We attempted to regale such information during the course of the evening, starting with an intriguing but pleasant corn whiskey, before swiftly moving to the wheated W.L Weller, which I found to be very drinkable. Bourbon generally tastes slightly sweeter and spicier than Scotch, although I simplify enormously. After the Rendevouz Rye and the interval, we moved to a barrel strength whisky from the Elijah Craig distillery, named after the reverend who supposedly hit upon the formula for bourbon (the quip about finding ‘the holy spirit’ predictably sank without trace). Finally we closed the show with the Montana Pure Malt whiskey and the Evan Williams 23 year old, which offered a spicy, peppery fizz draped in molasses and sent our tasters home feeling, one hopes, a little more knowledgeable on the joys of bourbon.
Raphael Sheridan, Sales Assistant, Milroy’s of Soho
“Scotland’s one hundred or so distilleries can be understood as comprising several geographically distinct regions. The most populous is Speyside and contains about half of the distilleries, all tightly packed into the North East corner of the country. By contrast, the vast lowland region contains only three distilleries that are still in operation: Bladnoch, Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan. Bladnoch is the southernmost and its colourful history includes closures, re-launches and closures once more. Presently it finds itself somewhat restrained by its corporate owners, and is restricted to a yearly production of 250,000 litres. These relatively meagre offerings are reminiscent of glorious thick-cut marmalade.
Auchentoshan’s jammy offerings are not wholly unlike Bladnoch’s, although here strawberry tends to predominate over orange. The distillery, in contrast to its lowland sibling, has virtually doubled its production over the last two decades, churning out 1.7 million litres of a spirit that, when one first noses it, seems almost indistinct from strawberry jam – a unique and pleasant olfactory sensation. And last month in the tasting cellar a dozen lucky participants were treated to six whiskies from the Auchentoshan range, guided quite expertly by the jovial Alasdair Dickenson of Morrison Bowmore.
The theme of the night was wood and its effects upon whisky, a good grasp of which is crucial to understanding the aqua vitae. With a spirit as light as Auchentoshan, it requires a supremely delicate touch; should one be too heavy handed then a dull, dead product results. As a general rule, the newer the cask the more flavour from the cask will be imparted. That made our first whisky, the Virgin Oak Cask, quite the gamble. I suppose its equivalent would be serving ‘heated ice’ or similar. Its nose and taste was quite superb, however, and testament to the skill of master distiller Rachel Barrie, sadly one of only two such women in the industry, a statistic that ought to resonate more than it presently does.
The distillery is one of a small number in Scotland which triple distils their spirit, adding a complex layer of light sweetness to proceedings. Next up we tried the Auchentoshan Classic, a wonderfully bouncy and lively offering, before moving on to the elder-statesman of the evening in the 18 year old. Here, the former bourbon casks played a good role, ably grounding the sweeter vanilla and strawberry flavours. All the while, Alasdair was treating the audience to mid-dram anecdotes, all too good to justly repeat here. Do ask him about Geoff, though. He was also doing his upmost to gently change the air of snobbery that can often come with whisky. For example, should one frown at someone who puts £200 whisky in his or her coke? Most, I dare say, would look at such an action disapprovingly – but what if it meant it became the best that person ever will ever have? With that new information, old critics should become more accommodating.
After the Valinch (a superb cask strength version of the Classic), and the Three Wood (perhaps slightly too much wood for my liking), we moved on to the highlight of the evening: the 1999 Bordeaux Cask. So confident was Alasdair that he proclaimed it as the best ever release from the distillery. I dare say he wasn’t wrong, either. Around 3,000 bottles were produced: those at the time who bought one now wish another had been purchased; those who didn’t buy any at all are doubtless regretful. In all, a superb selection from an equally exciting distillery. A firm acquaintance with Auchentoshan’s whisky is as enjoyable as it is beneficial.”
Raphael Sheridan – Sales assistant, Milroys
A treasure trove of the world’s “Most desirable, valuable and collectible” single malt Scotch whiskies – Nik Keane, global director for Malt Whiskies at Diageo
Diageo’s Special Releases Series was begun in 2001 to satisfy enthusiasts’ demand for unusual, distinctive, usually older and often unrepeatable cask strength bottlings. Collectors, connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike eagerly anticipate this annual release of remaining older stocks and unusual expressions of a distillery’s character; a rare opportunity to experience and enjoy a treasure trove of priceless malts.
All malts subject to availability – please email firstname.lastname@example.org to register interest in a bottling, or call 020 7437 2385
* = individually numbered bottles
** = individually numbered cartons
*** = closed distillery
Lagavulin 1976, 37 year old – Refill American and European Oak
The oldest expression of Lagavulin ever released by the distillers, and limited to fewer than 2,000 bottles. Georgie Crawford, distillery manager at Lagavulin, said:
“Lagavulin is probably the most sought-after single malt whisky in production today – universally acknowledged as one of the unchallenged grands crus of Scotch Whisky. For many years we have been unable to supply sufficient mature spirit to meet worldwide demand. So bottlings of old Lagavulin are exceptionally rare, and this year’s 37 year old is the oldest that we have ever released. Its 12 year old younger brother makes a regular appearance in the Special Releases, and has always been received with huge enthusiasm.”
• Appearance: Rich amber with copper lights. Good beading.
• Nose: Modestly low key, setting the tone for a maestro’s ‘less is more’ performance. Yet still the aroma could only be that of Lagavulin: rich and complex, an artist’s oils wreathed in scented smoke. The top notes are elusive: is that menthol or beef consommé? Further in, though, there’s honeyed toffee with hints of lime zest, and a cigar-box made of resin-rich sandalwood. With water the aroma is joyously sweet and lightly oily.
• Body: Medium. Lightly coating.
• Palate: At natural strength, the taste is sensational, rounded and comforting. There’s a nice cooling mouthfeel, while the sweet-smoky start of charcoal and ripe tropical fruits is followed by gathering wood smoke leading to a palate-cleansing, black tea dryness. Along the way waves of honey, pine, treacle tart and roasting chestnuts interact. It’s really delicate with water, which pulls back the curtain of smoke to reveal a sweetly coating, softly warming and gingery character that is honeyed yet still refreshing.
• Finish: Initially sweet then drying, a little like a treacle tart made with burnt pastry, but it’s the lingering, all-pervading fragrant smoke that seeps into your very soul.
Summary: This outstanding mature Lagavulin is a perfectly balanced, calm and confident malt that is utterly wonderful and understated even at cask strength and becomes joyously delicate with water. Smoky flavours can fade with age, but they are undimmed in this elegant yet robust whisky.
Lagavulin 12 year old – Refill American Oak
A lively expression of Lagavulin released to accompany the blockbuster 1976 release.
• Appearance: Extremely pale green-gold.
• Nose: Soft, beguiling and cautious at first, when an appetising sharpness slowly crystallises into red berry fruit, then developing soft, savoury aromas and a delicious smoky sweetness. Savoury hints of charred baked potato skins cooked in a bonfire come first, then peat smoke and a box of spent matches come through. Later still, there are teasing, oily hints of sharp tropical fruit (lime pickle?). These aromas are altogether softer with water; less tense and underscored by youthful sweetness. There are smoky-fresh notes, then raisins and dried fruit, with distant wood smoke.
• Body: Light. Oily.
• Palate: Cooling at first, then salty, drying and dusty, with a good balance of sweetness and acidity. Beautifully cleansing, like a salad of tarragon and peppery rocket, then really appetizing, as if a char-grilled endive splashed with peppery olive oil. The charred notes then strengthen, into smoky wax. Sweeter with water and more accessible, as captivating notes of aniseed and fennel seeds give way to charred fruit scones and burnt jam tarts.
• Finish: Simultaneously sweet and savoury, dominated by pungent smoke and appetising aniseed. With growing warmth, it becomes oily near the end. With water it is sweet and abrupt with subdued smoke; pleasantly drying and piney.
Summary: An initially reserved member of the Lagavulin family, which grows much more at ease and expressive with water. As you might expect, this is a wonderfully appetising, invigorating and cleansing malt; soaring pine and pungent smoke invite you to pair it with lean, intense foods.
Talisker 1985, 27 year old – Refill American Oak
From the Isle of Skye, 3,000 individually numbered bottles of the much loved Talisker are being released and sure to be in strong demand.
• Appearance: Rich, clear amber with notes of antique gold.
• Nose: Absolutely classic Talisker. First soft and sweet, with shortcrust pastry and rich warm dark chocolate. Next, after the faintest mention of raspberry juice, comes waft upon waft of warming, homely smoke. Through this rises the buttery, oaty aroma of home-made chocolate chip cookies, offset by sharp mixed-berry jam and ripe red apples. There are late top notes of beeswax and polish on new shoes fresh from the box. Water makes it all sweetly smoky and liberates mysterious volcanic fumes.
• Body: Medium. Oily.
• Palate: Cool, salty and sweet; then warming and spicy, with notes of ginger and clove. Growing rich and malty, with helpings of plum pudding and fruitcake. Then resin-rich, dense, fragrant pine-wood smoke. Soft, smooth and bitter-sweet with water, with gently pervasive smoke.
• Finish: Long and silky-smooth, with more of that drying, unctuous and soft dark chocolate, and chewy, with ripe plums. Late warmth, cigar-box cedar and coal smoke.
Summary: A supreme Talisker; wonderfully classic in style and as sophisticated as its peers but with an extra ‘chilled’ self-assurance and even an edge of darkness. A malt that lives life to the full and doesn’t take itself too seriously: it’s also ever-so-slightly edgy, with suggestions of a volcanic heritage.
Cardhu 1991, 21 year old – Ex-bourbon American Oak
From Speyside comes an unusually mature Cardhu, with under 6,000 individually numbered bottles released. This will make an interesting comparison to the Cardhu 22 year old released in 2005.
• Appearance: Old gold; richer amber depths. Good beading.
• Nose: Mild and at first quite shy. An early creamy, fruity note of vanilla and boiled sweets (bubble gum!) is faintly underscored by a rich, floral perfume with a cleansing edge. The creamy fruitiness persists as dried figs, rum-and-raisin ice cream, red apple skins and beeswax. Later a malty, biscuity base layer is revealed, as the cleansing edge becomes a sharply defined top layer. Overall, it’s a richer vanilla custard and fruit trifle creaminess that emerges. Water opens things out, raising both fruit and floral scents slightly, the boiled sweets now mandarin-flavoured.
• Body: Fine and light.
• Palate: At natural strength, smooth and savoury, with light acidity. Clean, refined, pleasantly drying and delicate. Then wonderfully aromatic with notes of black cherry; growing spicy, warming and elegant, with nutty, dark chocolate offset by buttery shortbread. It’s even softer with a drop of water. Now the taste starts cooler and sweeter; still savoury (mint on a fresh fruit salad) but also newly spicy across the tongue.
• Finish: Long, aromatic and warming; smooth vanilla balanced by juicy tangerine and faint orange oil with spicy cedar, late silky-smooth dryness and a wisp of smoke.
Summary: Clean and precisely structured; delicate and feminine on the nose, yet also robust, assured and unusually spicy. A beautifully balanced malt in which lusciously rich and indulgent vanilla notes are complemented by elegantly aromatic and refined tannins in the palate and finish.
The Singleton of Dufftown 1985, 28 year old – Refill American Oak
The first release of a limited cask strength edition of The Singleton, with only 3,840 individually numbered bottles available.
• Appearance: Deep antique gold. Good beading
• Nose: Grand and mild; compact yet detailed, with ripe apple and pear fruit or perhaps beeswax and heather pollen, and scents of moorland herbs. Quite autumnal, with faint smoke and a savoury cereal note, and like an old dusty library carrying scents of wax and worn leather. Later, orange oil underscores the complex floral notes. In time some vanilla develops, becoming intense buttercream. Water lightens it considerably and brings out the malty, cereal character (like being in a grain loft), with leafy strawberries, more waxiness and the merest trace of smoke.
• Body: Oily, dense.
• Palate: At natural strength, this malt has a big, oily feel; sweet and reminiscent of a wholewheat breakfast cereal coated with honey. The initial effect is warming, with an instantly appetising astringency. Below this lie minty and faintly smoky notes and rich chewy liquorice with a digestive biscuit sweetness. It’s all sweeter and less oily with water; losing that piercing aromatic dryness and with the cereal note dimmed, it’s altogether gentler and more approachable.
• Finish: Invigorating, warming and gloriously astringent at the end, with notes of pine and cedar to leave the palate tingling over a lingering last wisp of smoke.
Summary: A wonderfully appetising, full flavoured and mature malt, made subtle by long ageing, yet retaining its malty/nutty distillery character. Beautifully structured and paced, it is at once fresh and alive on the palate, yet also evocative of the past; complex and exciting, intricate and intriguing.
Convalmore 1997, 36 year old – Refill European Oak
From the Dufftown distillery mothballed in 1985 this Convalmore is exceedingly rare, and released this year with greater age than when previously offered in 2005. Available in fewer bottles on this occasion also, at only 3,000.
• Appearance: Vibrant amber or faded polished mahogany. Medium beaded and very viscous.
• Nose: Mild and profound, opening scented with eucalyptus oil and a trace of leather infusing a soft pillow of marshmallow and creamy toffee. Through this runs a rich vein of clean, tropical fruit sharpness, underscored by soft, crumbly, malty notes with a wisp of smoke. In time, the appetising fruit retreats into a rich, creamy shell. A little water brings up the soft toffee creaminess and a little mint, as the fruity complex becomes fresher.
• Body: Lightly oily. Smooth.
• Palate: Big and oily in texture; gently warming and extremely soft and comforting, like a whisky syrup! The taste is immediately sweet yet, with a note of aniseed, not cloying. Successive waves of pepper, salt and smoke follow, revealing a mouth-drying nature. With water, the texture remains big, thick and tongue-coating; the taste is sweeter, cooler and minty; slightly dusty, too, with hints of shortbread and scented smoke.
• Finish: Superbly balanced, with an unusual aftertaste of perfumed smoke. There’s still sweetness but it’s in essence drying, with notable cedar-rich hints of cigar box.
Summary: A subtle, big whisky with an astonishing rich velvet texture that wears its age lightly yet has developed a wonderful complexity. The young-seeming, sweet and succulent nose leads, via the smooth, comforting palate, to a drying conclusion of marked aromatic complexity, masterminded by long years of maturation.
Oban 21 year old – Rejuvenated American Oak and second fill ex-bodega casks
For lovers of West Coast single malts, this 21 year old Oban has been finished in rejuvenated American Oak and a second fill in ex-Bodega casks.
• Appearance: Polished beech-wood; richer and deeper in sunlight. Moderate beading.
• Nose: Full, accessible and oily, with rich caramel notes embracing sweet, ripe apples set in burnt pastry yet also with fresh and cleansing maritime notes; fragrant dried seaweed, hot sand dunes. Then darker, linseed-oil-rich aromas like those found at a furniture restorer’s lead to a briefly salty, then spicy, aromatic conclusion. It’s more complex and sweetly rounded with water, with lighter caramel, more ripe autumn fruit, and a trace of smoke, delivering a pleasurable, moreish malt.
• Body: Rich.
• Palate: Warming overall, the dense, oily texture beautifully coating and liqueur-like. The taste is first sweet, with fruity vanilla toffee, then salty, with pistachio shells, and burnt pastry. Becomes sweeter and less salty: less the old sea-dog! Mouth-cleansing, cool and fresh, and drying. Water emphasises the cooling, sweet and salty notes; rich dark chocolate and minty smoke.
• Finish: Lengthy and drying, starting sweet and savoury with raspberry juice, dark smooth chocolate, ginger and clove, yet with an attractive salty, oily aftertaste, all brine and smooth olive oil.
Summary: Oban, and then some. A beautifully paced, confident and assured malt; complex and contradictory, yet always rewarding. Rich and sweet then briny and spicy, at once conveying the freshness of walks along the coast and through apple orchards early on a crisp, autumn morning.
Caol Ila – Unpeated ‘Stitchell Reserve’ – Refill American Oak, rejuvenated American Oak and ex-bodega European Oak
So named in honour of the long-serving distillery manager Billy Stitchell, due to retire this year:
“Refill American Oak, rejuvenated American Oak and ex-bodega European Oak have all played a role in creating this special Caol Ila,” explains Billy. “It has a firm, clean and fresh style, finishing with aromatic, spicy and drying notes.”
• Appearance: Clear, olive gold. Light beading.
• Nose: At full strength, immediately clean, aromatic and fresh: like inhaling Friar’s Balsam. After this first blast, more reticent; softly sweet, then a vivid freshness like that of crisp green fruit or lemon zest. Water raises a fruity, nutty honeyed sweetness and a faint note of treacle, with perhaps just a hazy hint of smoke.
• Body: Light to medium. Oily, yet firm.
• Palate: Drinks well straight; has an intense and in your face style, with a most appealing smooth, lightly oily texture. Firm, clean and fresh throughout. Intense and mouth-filling, with a great initial surge of sweet spiciness unaccompanied by the usual signature phenols of peated Caol Ila or indeed, much fruit. Becoming honey-nutty (nut brittle, with a dark edge of treacle bitterness) then finally, warming and drying. A good splash of water develops these flavours; it’s tongue-coating and appetisingly bitter-sweet now, leaving a spicy dryness as the tide of flavour ebbs.
• Finish: Aromatic, spicy and drying; a balancing bitter edge embraces more of the soft nutty, biscuity notes, always maintaining that essential freshness overall.
Summary: A smooth-talking, easy-drinking powerhouse. A powerfully, punchy, warming and sweet-spicy whisky with a mighty vitality and a smooth texture: the clean, fresh bitter-sweet nutty flavours give it a character all of its own and it’s a perfect testament to a remarkable whisky making dynasty.
Port Ellen 1978, 34 year old – Refill American Oak and refill European Oak
An immensely rare bottling from a long closed distillery; the 13th and oldest release from the original distillers. Available in only 3,000 individually numbered bottles.
• Appearance: A clear amber, like antique gold in sunlight. Dense beading, suggesting rich texture.
• Nose: Cautious and clean at first, with hints of dark toffee wrapped in wood smoke, then cooling oil of eucalyptus and a trace of bruised apple fruit. The wood smoke parts to reveal a savoury, meaty scent, then sweet honey, toasted cereals and a whole artist’s studio of oils. With water, it starts smoky (like vegetables on a barbecue) the underlying oiliness now punctuated by hints of lime.
• Body: Light, oily, smooth.
• Palate: Stunning. Caution is thrown to the winds as sweet and intense smoke races across the palate chased by fresh lemons, lemon zest and butter. This rich, fruity smoky-sweetness becomes tongue-coating, smooth dark chocolate enveloped in exquisite wood smoke. It drinks very well straight and when the attack slows, there’s yet more honey, lemon and a sprinkling of sea salt. If water is added it is smooth, lightly oily, much sweeter now and more accessible: still some salt, with a new spicy tingle.
• Finish: Long, coating, intense and sustained, all pervading scented smoke, hints of mint and bergamot, then finally dense and savoury, with an aftertaste suggesting cloves.
Summary: A phenomenal, mighty and utterly compelling Port Ellen with astonishing complexity and huge character. The refined nose gives no clue to the vivid, immediate onrush of astonishing flavours; a fine interplay of clean citrus, alluring smoke and salt with honeyed sweetness.
Brora 1977, 35 year old – Refill American Oak and European Oak
Similarly rare and desirable, this Highland East Coast single malt is from casks filled in 1977, also available in 3,000 individually numbered bottles. Both Port Ellen and Brora are ideal for dedicated connoisseurs.
Nick Morgan, Diageo’s head of whisky outreach, commented:
“Stocks of Brora and Port Ellen are inexorably diminishing. Each year’s limited-edition bottling releases one more fragment of whisky history that is unique, and can’t ever be replaced. This puts Port Ellen and Brora in a different category from most other very old single malts – mainly from operating distilleries – that are on the market, often at very high prices. On top of that, Port Ellen and Brora are not merely rare, old and in great demand – they are judged by most qualified commentators to be of outstanding quality, and this year’s edition will be no exception.
“Indeed, many would accept that Port Ellen and Brora are among the world’s rarest Single Malt Whiskies still being released.”
• Appearance: Yellow gold or polished brass. Lightly oily.
• Nose: Initially clean, fresh and bracing; then warming, developing depth and richness. Creamy top notes of warm scented wax or vanilla-custard float above a herbal note (basil?) and a sharper, cereal base, all suffused with just a thread of smoke. The nutty, waxy notes sweeten into honeycomb and toasted coconut. The sea appears very late, as a fresh sea breeze. Adding a little water softens the impact and brings up the scented wax, with honey and lemongrass subduing the more subtle vanilla aromas.
• Body: Light and softly coating.
• Palate: Good texture and a surprising taste: much sweeter than you expect from the nose, and much more smoky, with a most attractive tongue-coating smoothness. A leafy hint of fresh picked strawberry introduces lemon zest and candied peel to set the tongue tingling. Then damp beach notes of wood, sand and sea air round off a beautifully balanced palate. With water added this is a very easy-drinking, rewarding dram: fuller in texture than when at full strength, it is also less sweet, becoming mouth drying, cleansing and softly smoky.
• Finish: Coating, chewy and softly drying, with minty chocolate (after-dinner mints). Wood smoke lingers in the complex, fresh and spicy conclusion.
Summary: A Brora classic: a mature, sweetly pleasing, tongue-coating, softly smoky malt that rewards deep study, evoking a tranquil beach scene rather than the drama of the high seas. Fans of Brora will not be disappointed by this superb, comforting, old-fashioned whisky.
How to taste whisky, at Milroy’s of Soho:
Getting into whisky can be an intimidating experience: for starters there’s the different countries, regions, distilleries, barrels, ages, strengths, malts, blends and stills to learn about. Then there’s the small matter of how to nose and taste it (in the correct glass, of course), and then this process has to be repeated dozens of times before even a rudimentary knowledge is acquired. Frankly, it’s enough to have even the boldest individual trembling as the first dram is poured into their Glencairn glass.
Thankfully, help is at hand: the Milroy’s event ‘How to taste whisky’ is aimed primarily at those unfamiliar with the aqua vitae. The most recent event, held in our tasting cellar (itself a rather intimidating name) on 31 July, was hosted by resident manager Lee Tomlinson.
So with a roomful of eager whisky drinkers, and six drams poured before each person, we began. What followed was a whirlwind of knowledge, facts and advice, but done in a suitably relaxed style with the tasters able to ask questions at any point, and each dram being drunk at regular intervals. If one wanted to know why unpeated Bunnahabhain is unlike other Islay distilleries; or why Campbeltown on the west coast of Scotland went from hero to zero after the repeal of prohibition in the United States, then Lee had an answer.
It would be too crude to call it the ‘blagger’s guide to whisky’, but it did serve that purpose remarkably well. By the time the evening wrapped up at 20.30 each drinker had enough information (and enough alcohol) to rest sound in the knowledge that future forays into the world of whisky would not be anywhere near as daunting.
The Scotch went down very well (Lagavulin, two Glengoynes and a Hazelburn), as did the American High West (the only ski-through distillery in the world, interestingly). One country whose whisky is coming into fashion – an overdue occasion, actually – is Japan. I find that from time-to-time some customers are put off by the thought of Japanese whisky; a completely understandable position as the country gets nowhere near its fair share of coverage, but it is just as good as any Scotch. We sampled ‘Nikka: From the Barrel’ – Nikka being a Japanese distillery. It comes in the most beautifully squat bottle, one of the most aesthetically pleasing I’ve seen. Thankfully, the stuff inside is just as good: full of fresh fruit, sweet lavender and heather-honey notes. It’s a meaty dram too, at over 50% ABV, and quite honestly a snip at £33. Undoubtedly the star of the night, for me. And, with some luck, the night was one to remember for our enlightened drinkers.
“Guests to Milroy’s tasting room were treated to a selection of gins from Ian Hart and Hilary Whitney’s micro-distillery, ‘Sacred Spirits’. It would be an unjust diminution to say that this was a bog-standard set-up, because the award-winning liquid is distilled in the kitchen of their Highgate house: local London gin, indeed! This individuality is once more strengthened because, as Ian explained, their spirits are vacuum distilled in glassware at a much lower temperature than other distilleries. The photos of the micro-distillery are quite something, with dozens of bottles, copper pipes, vials, coils, metal casings and various bits of blue tubing all amassed. Somewhere, beneath all that, is a kitchen. And unsurprisingly, the dominant aroma in the house is that of juniper.
But quite a smell it is: for those unacquainted with gin (I was a first-timer) the freshness, the subtleties and the nuances of Ian and Hilary’s spirits are quite something to behold. After the smoothest of martinis – in which liquid nitrogen was used to cool the glasses – we had eleven different samples brought round for us to taste. Starting with juniper, we quickly progressed through (amongst others) citrus, angelica root, grapefruit, liquorice, star anise, nutmeg and cardamom. The star of the show was undoubtedly their Orris gin which, as Ian told us, can perplex those lucky enough to try it: some believe it to be intensely spicy, others believe it to be sweet. As it was, I felt it akin to parma violets – a unique sensation.
This all built up to being allowed to create our own unique blend of gin. ‘How hard can it be?’ I wondered. The answer: harder than you might otherwise expect. Of the night’s successful gins, most had a refreshing citrus note, perfect for this month’s warm weather. Mine was a near-catastrophic and unbalanced blend of liquorice, grapefruit, orris and nutmeg, – my table deserves much credit for being exceptionally polite about it. The gin industry can also breathe a sigh of relief; I’m not ready for it just yet.
But all in all, a terrific night. Ian’s quiet assuredness and Hilary’s ever-friendly demeanour served as the perfect introduction to gin. It’s now a drink I shall be revisiting with increasing regularity, and certainly something to muse over during tonight’s whisky and cheese tasting event.”
Raphael Sheridan, sales assistant at Milroy’s