Friday, 22 February 2013

Blog Retirement

I'm in the process of combining my two blogs. This wineadvice blog has been a bit of a misnomer for a while since I work in the whisky industry, and time constraints mean that I am devoting less time to my beer blog. Thus, the two will be united in what will probably be a beer and whisky fueled combination under Drinks Advice... I'm still a whisky adviser after all.

Thanks for reading and I hope you will carry on doing so in the new location.

Cheers!

Friday, 8 February 2013

Burns' Night Whisky Tasting

Note: This is a post I wrote for the Whisky Shop's W-Club Blog so it might come across as a bit 'worky.' I thought other readers might find it interesting though so here it is. Also worth mentioning that the Paternoster tasting I mention in the final paragraph has been and gone.

The Whisky Shop Nottingham's Burns' Night tasting was hosted by Colin Dunn of Diageo. Twenty years ago Colin sat the Wine and Spirits Diploma that I have just got through and it doesn't sound like he ever looked back. Before working for Diageo he worked for Suntory/Morrison Bowmore and Van Winkle. His job title may be 'Whisky Ambassador' but having met him and watched him in action that seems a little formal, he's more of a whisky showman, using his own enthusiasm and experience to act as a catalyst for the whiskies to express thaemselves. Diageo have an incomparable portfolio of distilleries; even for someone with Colin's impressive energy there's a lot of whisky to show off.

First up was the Cardhu 12. This is one of Diageo's best selling single malt whiskies* - something that might be a surprise to many when you consider big hitters like Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie and Talisker are part of their team. The reason is that it's a massive seller in Spain, where almost all of it is sold. Often it's mixed; sold as part of a long drink - it would be well worth trying as a part of the highball recipe featured in the last Whiskeria magazine - at least once we get back to summer. It's grassy, sweet, rich and moreish, with notes of marzipan and cinder toffee. A perfectly smooth dram, and one add to the list of 'whiskies to convert the uninitiated.'

Johnnie Walker Double Black is a new addition to the Johnnie Walker family, only having been released last year. The figures on Johnnie Walker sales are staggering; listening to Colin recite them is kind of like watching Brian Cox talking about the history of the universe on the television - there are some big numbers involved. Colin described the Double Black as 'Black label in HD.' The fruit and the smoke dials are turned up a couple of notches; there's extra lashings of Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Some forty or so different whiskies go into the JW blends, all married together for six months or so at the Cardhu distillery, before rolling out to all corners of the globe. Like them or loathe them blends are what whisky is to many people around the world, and Johnnie Walker is the biggest of them all. Diageo are a blending company that also release single malts, and this is their number one tool to bring whisky, and particularly in the case of the Double Black, peaty whisky, to emerging markets in Brazil, Russia, India and China. Without Johnnie Walker the single malts that we enjoyed in this tasting probably would not have survived; it's a whisky ambassador in a bottle.

Speaking of ambassadors, it's time for chocolate. Not Ferrero Rocher as such, but Green & Black's organic 70% cocoa dark chocolate - an ideal accompaniment to Cragganmore Distiller's Edition. Much of Cragganmore ends up in blends for the South American market. This, though, is the product of an experiment that led to the re-discovery of older, more traditional maturation vessels, in this case port pipes, which is what many whiskies were matured in prior to the lifting of prohibition and the prevalence of bourbon casks. It's a meaty, chewy whisky, with notes of cherry and smoke. It's not as 'porty' as I remember some older vintages being, but that's not a criticism, it really is a lovely drop.

After the turn came the Dalwhinnie Distiller's Edition, another product of cask experimentation, although this time perhaps on more familiar territory in Olorosso sherry. The regular fifteen year expression is all bourbon-cask matured  up in the highest of the highland distilleries. Around a hundred barrels a year are tweaked; given an extra six months or so in sherry casks to add an extra layer of complexity. It's nutty and silky smooth with caramel and barley sugar notes - like liquid fruit cake.

Talisker 57 Degrees North came with a challenge, and some blue cheese. The challenge was to hold it in the mouth for as long as we did with the Cardhu - and it certainly led to some red faces and deep breaths afterwards. It's a big bruiser of a whisky, the ultimate reflection of Skye's rugged landscape. Less of a whisky for dwelling on than one to fight off the winter. After a few seconds in the mouth the characteristic Talisker pepper and chilli heat explodes, and all of a sudden it feels like you are surrounded by a warming cloud of peat. Normally whiskies at (or in this case close to) cask strength are improved with a drop of water, but this is all about the power. One customer described it as 'a liquid fisherman's friend' - what more could you wish for in your hip flask than a drop of this to restore the constitution?

Caol Ila, as a single malt, is a relative newcomer, only having been available for just over ten years, despite the distillery having been around since the 1830s. Again most of Caol Ila's destiny lies in the Johnnie Walker blends, but it has established itself as one of Islay's best selling single malts. It's mainly matured in first fill bourbon casks, the honeyed notes complementing the burnt peat nose and showing off the clean, briny medicinal iodine qualities.

To finish off, Colin broke out the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition. Its secondary maturation is in Pedro Ximénez sweet sherry casks to give it a smooth, fruity quality on top of the tarry leather and thick smoke notes. This has always been a somewhat divisive whisky, but for me it's magnificent, and a perfect dessert to the evening's main courses. I love that almost liqueur quality that it has - Colin described it as having similarities with Grand Marnier.

Many, many thanks to Colin for making the trip up to Nottingham, I think everyone really enjoyed the evening and I hope we'll get a chance to meet up again. Colin is re-appearing next Friday in The Whisky Shop's Paternoster store. For those that are going, it'll be cracking evening, and I am terribly jealous. For those who are not going, if there are tickets left, cancel whatever plans you have and get yourself down there!

* At the time of the 2012 Malt Whisky Yearbook's writing  (p.292) it was the sixth best selling single malt globally and Diageo's biggest selling single.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

What's in an age?

I've not long started working for The Whisky Shop. I don't consider myself an expert in whisky; while I do have qualifications in wines and spirits through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, wine is the dominant part of the syllabuses and whisky is only a part of the spirits components. Much of what I have learnt about whisky prior to working in the Whisky Shop is through working in wine retail, reading around and, of course, drinking it! So my new line of work is very much a continuation of that learning process, and it's one reason I enjoy it; I get to learn every day.

A gentleman came in a while ago asking about Jura Superstition. It's a whisky that's obviously highly regarded by Whisky Shop customers, having just won the whisky of the year award, but because it didn't carry an age statement he had his doubts. I offered a sample but it was a bit early and he declined, and so the 'proof of the pudding' adage couldn't be applied.

In that gentleman's opinion the age statement on a whisky is a vital thing. Even as a fan of Jura he wasn't prepared to buy a version that didn't carry that all important statement. This raises an interesting question about whisky in general, but to use a specific example; does a heavily peated whisky such as Ardbeg need to be ten years old before becoming a fantastic drop? Well, if a scientific sample of the rate of how quickly a bottle of their Still Young got drank round at my house a few years back is anything to go by, then it's a resounding no! It's a whisky that's all about the peat, and I would argue that a much older version, while being more expensive, may well lose that freshness and vitality that makes Ardbeg the purest expression of what Islay is all about. However, an expression that could mix that freshness with older cask character? Well, that would be a different animal indeed.

As was pointed out in a comment after a post I wrote back in October about blended whiskies, even single malts are blended, even if they're not referred to as 'blended whiskies' per se. It's becoming conventional wisdom that whiskies can be great at younger ages than ever before, and so it follows that younger whiskies can contribute an important character and complexity to a single malt. The flip side, and this is why it's interesting that sherry barrel advocates Macallan have come out and rejected age statements in their younger (below 18 yo) whiskies, is that if much of the whisky's character does come from the cask, then that point of maturity becomes crucial, because I sure as hell don't want my whisky to have 'character' that comes from caramel colouring.

The problem is one of reassurance. How can consumers be convinced that age statements aren't being removed as a short-cut, a way of getting the same money out of a customer whilst reducing costs? Well, I'd say take the time to pop into your friendly local whisky specialist and they'll let you try some to prove it one way or the other, and I'm not even going to attempt to claim a lack of bias with that one.