Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Isle of Arran 10 Year Old

I tried this as both as a follow-up to my not-too-successful blended whisky tasting, and as an accompaniment to a beer from Arran brewery. There's a post to come over on my beer blog about the beer and whisky combination, but this was just a quick systematic tasting I did beforehand.

It's clear (prior to the addition of water) bright and pale gold in colour. On the nose there's toffee and caramel, along with some gentle dried fig notes. On the palate the alcohol is really well-integrated despite its 46% abv. It's a fresh and uplifting dram, with a touch of citrus and light dried fruit; there's a bit of lemon and sultana in there. Occasionally I got a waft of something a little more polishy but it wasn't enough to be off-putting. The malt complements the vanilla nicely giving it good balance, and the finish is smooth and clean.

I have to say I'm very glad it's not chill-filtered, as a delicate malt it's easy to see how it could be ruined by chill-filtering. This is the sort of whisky that The Famous Grouse hints at being, and I still don't quite see why, if you want a light, approachable whisky, this wouldn't be your first choice over something like a light blend, it's just got so much more going for it without being overpowering or harsh in any way. I guess the price of malt whisky is prohibitive to some, but for me they're certainly worth the extra outlay.

A quick google search put this at around £32 for a 70cl bottle, although that's excluding delivery.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Blended Whisky Tasting

I don't drink, and indeed never really have drunk, blended whiskies. Not really knowing anything at all about whiskies, single malts seemed to me to be a natural starting point; one whisky, from one crop, from one distillery has a certain beautiful simplicity to me. When I worked for Oddbins it was trying different whiskies while trying to learn about the different regions that got me into exploration of the flavours that the distillers could coax from the raw materials. Neither have I tried enough whiskies to feel like I am in danger of running out at any point. I therefore find it intriguing when luminaries such as Jim Murray sing the praises of blends, indeed Ballantine's 17 was his scotch whisky of the year for 2013 in his recently published Whisky Bible. It does make me wonder if I've just missed out a stage in my enjoyment of whisky. After all, even single malts are generally blends of different casks, so blending is all part of the art and creativity of the industry.

I tasted these three different blended whiskies while practising for my WSET Spirits exam but rather than bore anyone with lengthy tasting notes I thought I'd just go through what I see as the stylistic differences.

The Famous Grouse was first up. I picked it more because of a good write up from Jim Murray that its status as one of the UK's best-selling whiskies; to see if I can pick out the qualities that lead to him giving it some 89 points in the Whisky Bible. I have to admit I struggled. I think I'll have to try it alongside another scotch blend, but there seemed to be very little character. The nose was grainy, with the vanilla oak coming through. On the palate there's some grassy freshness, and I suppose if you were dedicated to whisky to the point where you wanted one as an apéritif, this would be one choice.

The Jameson has more toffee and caramel on the nose, and again on the palate. It comes across as sweeter, but it's equally light in body and character, which complements the grassy, grainy palate. Again this gets a massive 95 points in the Whisky Bible but I was struggling to see why; in fact if anything the finish was worse than the Famous Grouse, the caramel leaving something of an artificial taste in the mouth.

Last up, Jack Daniel's ubiquitous No.7. Saviour of supermarket blends? Well, actually I thought it was better than the other two. The nose had more to it, showing multi-faceted rather than one-dimensional oak character; coconut, and maple, rather than simple vanilla. On the palate there's still some grassiness, this is still light if you're used to single malts, but there's more maple and notes of smoke from the char. The finish has almost gone before it starts. It's rough round the edges but it's hard to argue that there's anything unpleasant going on there. 87 points and, for me, the best of the bunch.

I don't think I'll be changing my whisky drinking habits on the back of this particular tasting, but, as ever, the flavour quest continues, and it was certainly interesting to re-visit and re-assess rather than holding to long-held opinions on these whiskies!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

SMWS '35.58' Glen Moray

When I've had Glen Moray whisky in the past (admittedly a more 'standard' bottling) I've found it a bit weak, almost too light, even allowing for the fact that it is hardly distilled as a heavyweight. This one is an ex-bourbon and refill hogshead expression, matured over 26 years, and so it promises to be a little more complex!

It's pale for such an old whisky, pouring a delicate gold colour, but I'm guessing it would have been all too easy for such a lighter style, whisky to get overpowered by the oak so that's no bad thing.

The nose is all butterscotch and toffee, backed up with exotic spices and honeyed notes reminiscent of a good Sauternes, perhaps with a touch of fino sherry. On the palate it is sensually smooth and malty, showing its 26 years in a cask in the form of a mellow warming rather than a spirity burn. The sweet dairy flavours echo the nose, there's lots of fudge there, but the grassy, floral flavours and the dry, oaky, vanilla-spice keep it form becoming too sweet. In the finish the whisky finally succumbs to the oak, the finish is drying and more-ish.

Even at cask strength this is only 41% abv. I hope the angels enjoyed it. I like a little more weight to my whisky, but that is entirely personal taste rather than a reflection on this, because it really is excellent.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Lajita Mezcal Reposado

One of the more amusing aspects of working in the drinks industry for so long is the number of stories that you get to hear that have been passed around, often I'm sure while the passers were under the influence. These stories are told, forgotten, exaggerated and manipulated, and sometimes take on a momentum that is way beyond stopping. Drinks themselves are often the victims of all kinds of myths; you name a drink and someone will tell you something 'everyone knows' about it that is generally far more exotic than the truth.

'Have you ever eaten the worm from a bottle of tequila? It's hallucinogenic!' Given that university students are back in university student union bars up and down the country this week, I'm sure this is one that'll get some vociferous airing. Like the best of them, it's not true on more than one account. The worm is actually a moth larva, it doesn't have any hallucinogenic properties, and if you find one in a bottle of tequila then you've been had - it's mezcal - and not even mezcal has to have the larva in there. Tequila is a sort of mezcal that is distilled under much tighter laws governing area of production and agave variety. Only sotol, another form of mezcal, is as tightly controlled in terms of raw ingredients.


Despite this being a 'reposado' rather than an 'anejo' version of the spirit it has had five years of ageing, a lot more than the rather more delicate Patrón Tequila I reviewed in my last blog entry. I suppose the theory is that the more robust country cousin of tequila can cope with the oak a little better. Let's see.

It's bright, pale gold in colour, with wee floaty bits that I wasn't too keen on getting in my glass - I'm assuming they're bits of moth larva. It's noticeably matured, with loads of barbecue smoke on the nose. There's a little earthiness a and some sweet oak too. On the palate it's dry, with well-integrated alcohol, and the smoke returns with a vengeance, it's a bit like I'd imagine licking a piece of charcoal to be! There's more oak in the form of tobacco and cigar-box flavours, but it's hard to detect any agave character in there. In what is hardly a radical departure, the finish is long and, err, smoky. So therein lies the problem in assessing the quality. They've done a good job in integrating the alcohol and making a smooth spirit but tn the process it's become too one dimensional. Islay whiskies can have as much smoky character, but they always have something to back it up, to counterbalance and add complexity; this unfortunately doesn't. Five years maturation seems too long for this one!

40% abv. £23.45 (70cl) from Master of Malt.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Patrón Tequila

I've got three different expressions of tequila to try, all from Patrón, the self-styled super-premium tequila producers.

First up was the Patrón silver, the un-aged version. There are gentle earthy aromas but these are swiftly overtaken by fresh and vibrant citrus; tangerine, and I got a hint of sweetness, perhaps butterscotch aroma. On the palate it's dry, with only a very slight alcohol burn. The agave flavours are noticeable but they are really fresh, backed up with lemon and a touch of almond. Overall a good, light, pure spirit without  any harshness or feinty notes.

Next, the reposado, or rested version (aged for a couple of months). It pours a pale gold colour with green hints. On the nose there's citrus again; lemon, with a hint of woodsmoke and vegetal agave aromas. It's dry on the palate but the agave flavours are backed up with vanilla sweetness, lime and a lifted orange blossom finish. The short ageing process has allowed the alcohol to integrate into the spirit, giving it a superb balance of sweet oak and savoury vegetal flavours.

Finally the anejo, fully aged over a year. I didn't get much oak on the nose, but it has contributed in a toffee hint, with the vanilla and smoke that I found in the reposado. On the palate it is very dry from the oak influence, the alcohol is well-integrated but I found it to be a little too drying - there's lots of sawdust and oak flavour and the coconut and smokiness dominates the fruit a little, although it does make for a very mellow spirit.

In short (no pun intended), if you think tequila is a rough spirit that only deserves to be fired down with salt and lemon this is the tequila to try to disavow you of that impression. For me the reposado was the best of the three, getting the right balance without allowing the oak to provide character without dominating what is quite a light spirit - although it might just be because I'm not a massive fan of oak flavours in the raw.

All three are 40% abv. Patrón silver is selling for £43.49 at The Whisky Exchange, the reposado for just a pound more and the anejo for £49.49.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Brecon 'Special Reserve' Gin

This is the other sample of Penderyn's 'other spirits' that I picked up form Wales over the summer. With more distilleries springing up over the UK seemingly every week there is a huge number of new gins hitting the market. With whisky taking such a long time to reach a level where it can even be called whisky, gin and vodka allow a faster return on an investment. Of course there is the danger that they become a route to a quick buck, an afterthought rather than something to be proud of. This is definitely not the case with Penderyn, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The gin! It's bright, clear and water-white, as you would expect. It's really fresh and floral on the nose, beautifully clean-smelling. Along with the juniper there is a citrus sweetness - tangerine aromas abound. With the addition of a touch of water the sweet fruit comes through all the more.

On the palate it's just off-dry, with smoothly integrated alcohol. The botanicals give it a bit of body, it's not so light as the vodka. There are spices as well as the citrus popping up again, from reading up on it after tasting they use orange and lemon peel, cinnamon and nutmeg, which lends it a subtle sweetness to back up the fragrant spice. I think this is a cracking gin for the price if you're a fan of a lighter style. It's not a big bruiser like some of the super-premium ones can be, there is a gentle subtlety to the use of the botanicals, and I think it's all the better for it.

40% abv. £19.80 (70cl) direct from Penderyn.

If you are a gin drinker and would like to know more about the new releases as they come out I'd highly recommend a read of The Gin Blog - no prizes for guessing what that's about.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Brecon Five Vodka

I picked this one up when I was down in Wales over the summer, knowing I'd have to stock up on the weird and wonderful before my spirits exam in November. I'm a big fan of Pendreryn whisky, so it was interesting to find out what they do with a couple of different spirits (I got the gin too).

Vodka's always a difficult one to pin down for me, but this was an excellent example of a light, delicate vodka. On the nose there's a faint whiff of smoke from somewhere, along with pleasant grainy and flour notes. It's dry, with well-integrated alcohol; which for me is always crucial, any burn and they've not done their job properly. The light to medium body complements the delicate floral and grain flavours. Everything being light means everything balances out rather nicely, right up to the clean cereal-textured finish.

If it were me I'd have allowed a little more character to come through, but then I'm not particularly a vodka drinker - it's very good, but as a recreational drink I'll stick to its big brother I think.

40% abv. £29.03 direct from Penderynn, although I picked up the miniature from Celtic Vision in Narberth, which is to all outward appearances a camera shop - see here for a bit of an explanation.