Sunday, 28 June 2015

Springbank single cask 12 yo Port Pipe: A most rambunctious dram

Nose: Rambunctious...there, I've said it. There's some sort of fracas going on in this glass. A lot of adolescent exuberance tempered by the sagacious influence of the port. Some vegetal notes & wait, I need to double check, yes, hints of cola! It feels "glossy"& crisp, clean .... like sitting in a room freshly painted with whisky infused anaglypta. There are fruits as you might expect from such a fine distillery (fill in from the following & you'd be right - raisins, plums, prunes, and I'm getting cherries as well), but the fruits aren't the dominant influence for me, it's in the interplay between 12 years, the Springbank tradition, cask strength (58.3% abv) & the Port influence.

Unforgiven by Metallica has smashed from my speakers, rasping into the room like the hoarse, dying utterances of fettered ambition this some kind of portent of what's to come?

Palate: Without water there's a kick, nothing brutal, nothing malicious, this isn't "psychodistillers revenge" (a fine cocktail name methinks), it's warming & spicy. As my mouth accommodates, I'm sensing beyond the "big boy abv"...seeing beyond the unruliness of the palate, glimpsing....well...what am I getting? There are tobacco leaves, baccy, snout, it's post prison visit bliss! A touch of dried cranberry astringency, only fleeting, & succumbing to an "afternoon tea" of sweet delights - an iced rum & coke float of a dram, a cauldron of complexity, a lively, rambunctious dram (there, I've used the word again!),

Sod the water, I couldn't be arsed! Why ruin a great experience for the sake of balance! I'll do the water thing on another day.

Finish: Long, long, long. I don't wish to be rhapsodical about this whisky, but it's pushed a fair selection of my "right" buttons.

Flunk's cover of Blue Monday has forged it's way out of my speakers, like an innocent child manipulating a complex problem with playful disregard. A sublime reworking that's strangely fitting as I dwell on what is a dram I will savour for some time to come.

NB: definition of "Rambunctious" - Difficult to control, boisterous, exuberant

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Cruising in the cradle of Pulteney: Part 2

Day 2 & 3: The boat trip, Old Pulteney, and the rock pools at John O'Groats

Day 2 began with a relatively early morning start, a taxi ride through heavy rain to Edinburgh airport, and a short flight to Wick. Connections and re connections were being made at all points North. At the airport, a reconnection with Jamie Milne (@DramblerJm), a reconnection with some sample drams (e.g. Balblair 04) and new connections were forged - there was a video production team present, tasked with putting together a promo for the Whisky Shop (reference supplied later), it was great to meet Andy Gemmell (@andydrink) & Niall Webster (@MrWebsterFilm). There was also a chance and all too brief meeting with Rachel Barrie (@theladyblender) who was en route to London. An uneventful flight, some interesting whisky related conversation, a reconnection with Steve Prentice (@steveprentice) who was joining us for the day, and a short drive to Old Pulteney distillery. 

Before the tour and tasting we were privileged to experience another connection, that between the land, the sea, history and whisky. Having been squeezed, prodded and poked into suitable waterproof gear, we sat, two by two, on a high powered speedboat (a 10m RIB - Rigid Inflatable Boat), and were taken out to sea as part of the Caithness Seacoast experience (if you get the it!).   

@samanthapeter @WhiskyCast @andydrink  @alembic_tweets @whiskydiscovery Pete Powell @DramblerJM @whiskyrepublic  @chrishoban @MrWebsterFilm @steveprentice 

This wasn't a random time filler but was an opportunity to make a connection between some of the whiskies we would be tasting and the elemental/human forces that both influence and drive whisky production at Old Pulteney, past, present ...and future. The swaggering sea and crafty currents, the sheer cliff faces, an undercurrent of sly rocks ready to ambush, salt spray, the coastal architecture, echoes of history, punctuated by the calls of herring gull, cormorant, kitiwake, and gannet, all served to create a sense that we were cruising in the cradle of Pulteney.

...and so to the whisky! We were in the privileged company of Malcolm Waring, the distillery manager, genial, passionate and knowledgeable about not only the liquid, but the bricks and mortar, the copper and oak, the very bones of Old Pulteney. There is something very special about the connections between time, place and dram. Tasting a selection of quality Old Pulteney drams in the place where they were created, with sea salt in our clothes, with their creator on hand to guide us, was one of those special moments.


We were treated to 5 single malts, the 12, 17, 21, 35yo, and the peated cask1990. On occasions such as this, it's not my inclination to take notes, my inclination is to "savour the experience". Having said that, the core Old Pulteney elements were all present to a greater or lesser degree, the intoxicating marriage of salt and sweet, the floral, nutty, vanilla notes of the 12, added hints of menthol and oak in the 17, the "boom" of the 21 with its explosion in a confectionary shop notes, all "cakes in the oven, jams on the boil, and salted caramels", the subtle, undeniable beauty of the 35 (think - relaxing in a worn, wingback chair in front of a blazing log fire, the air infused with exotic fruit, pine and menthol, offering extended moments of reflection), and finally the subtle peat notes of the 1990, hints of last night's fire as you indulge in an early morning chocolate. What a range! These were "dangerous" whiskies, if left to my own devices I would have spent more time with them,                             gradually curling up and drowning in a pool of my own reflections....

                   The video shot over the few days at Old Pulteney can be seen here: Old Pulteney distillery visit

After a quality meal in Wick, we were driven to our overnight accommodation. In the dark, there was little one could make of the surroundings suffice to say that the noise of wave on rock betrayed our proximity to the sea. As you might expect after another day immersed in all things whisky, our spirits were high, conversation flowed, whisky flowed, anecdotes were shared, stories slipped from eager mouths, and laughter became the music of the evening....that was until one of our group recalled a tweet exchange from a few weeks back in which I shared my amusement at the fact that an ex band member had posted video footage of my band from 20+ years ago on YouTube. What happened next was no surprise, a frantic fumbling for remotes, an assessment of the TV's wifi credibility, and lo, the surreal moment when a 50 something man is coerced (good humouredly it must be said) to sit next to a large screen TV whilst his much younger self ponces about on stage (if you're wondering, I'm the singer with the plait!). A younger version of me!

But that wasn't the only connection to past musical adventure. A quietly whispered, off the cuff comment from Andy Gemmell about the fact that he too was once in a music vid in the eighties brought out the feverish vulture in our by now bonhomie blessed group. More fumblings, more Youtubing and there it was. But which one was Andy? I'm not going to give it away that easily but here's a hint; if you cross Charlie Carole with Barry McGuigan you'll be on the right track. The Unsinkable Boxer

The following morning, 06.45, a solitary beach stroll in the clear, morning air, one of those meditative experiences that, unless some clumsy attempt is made to capture
it, will fade over time until it is lost forever, a very personal and meaningful connection for me....the rock pool. 

                                                                Day 3: The rock pool at John O' Groats.

 The slap and shush of murmuring seas, sure as lighthouse clocks, tick tocking on rocks festooned with discarded film reel kelp fronds. An orchestra of gulls, fleet and flocking, wearing their velocity like plumed morning dress, diving, inflicting transient holes into the whaleback swell. All rush, counterpoint, and whirlwind around the silent, pale silent, cathedral silent, deep silent rock pools. I am drawn to the limpet lined, limpid, morning light pools. Each step on the unpredictable rock and sea draws years from my bones and I become more sure-footed, angling my feet to accomodate the clint and gryke, crag and shear of the ancient rock. I'm losing my present, being usurped by the child, and I kneel before the pool, peering into the kalaidoscope clear, miniature, mirafiori cosmos, seeing in that mirror not the ageing man, but a boy....still....wide eyed in the spirit level water, a reflection of childhood long passed but now                                                                               thrust into the present, as powerful as mischief, as excited as wrapping paper, and as innocent                                                                           as a lion cub. 

Thrusting my hands into that telling water, cold as a baptism, turning rocks in that feverish search for crab and claw, an exquisite mingling of fear and excitement is fixed through my veins. The very act of connecting flesh and water serves to complete some magical temporal circuitry and I am sensing my childhood, "summer holiday" self, all short trousers and shrieks, smiles and sun lotion, bruises and discoveries, my childhood self, all shortness of breath, running and eagerness, fish & chips, my childhood self, fragile and reckless, all love and hate, all or nothing, all or nothing, all....or nothing, my childhood...... cut me and I will bleed innocence.

And so, there, at the bay of some immense horizon, beside this profound pool, a miracle of light and liquid, thrown from a slumbering, unfathomed leviathan, revealed in a twice daily act of anarchic, lunar creativity, I am father, man, boy and babe ...for a few glorious moments. 
(c) Alcock 2015


                                                                                                 Next post.....and then on to Balblair!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

"You can't drink a Jimmy Choo!" - Part 1

This is the first of three posts related to a recent excursion to Scotland to “experience” some of the fine drams under the Inver House label, namely, Hankey Bannister, Old Pulteney, Balblair, An Cnoc and Speyburn. Under the watchful eyes of Lukasz Dynowiak and Samantha Peter, five eager whisky passionistas (Annabel Miekle @thewhiskybelle; Dave Worthington @whiskydiscovery; Chris Hoban @Edinburghwhisky; Mark Gillespie @whiskycast and myself @whiskyrepublic, spent four and a half days immersed in all things whisky, not just the liquid but the environment, the terroire, and perhaps most importantly, the passion.

Day 1: Hankey Bannister whisky tasting at a Ruffians Barbers. What a setting! Sweeney Todd meets ...  What to expect? As a follicly challenged male, the prospect of an evening in a "barbershop" was to say the least, intriguing, and I was relying on memories of distant pasts to envisage what I might face; my childhood visits to the local barbers for the regulatory “short, back & sides”, the red and white striped barbers pole (with its origins in “bloodletting”), pomades and hair tonics (Brilliantine, Brylcreem, and Vitalis), the click and buzz of hair clippers, old men in high back chairs smelling of woodbines and talking football, echoes of the phrase "....and something for the weekend sir?" accompanied by surreptitious glances at rows of condoms, seeped into my mind.

Indeed, upon entering Ruffians barbers, there were some architectural markers of that bygone time (the black & white tiles, the barbers chairs), but there the similarity ended. In this most modern of barbershops, “products, accessories, and fragrances”, are neatly arranged in an environment that is fashioned in nostalgia and draped in retro chic. Words like carnauba, citrus, kaolin, beeswax, coconut & ginger root wouldn’t raise a well trimmed eyebrow here. This is a playful homage to the tearaway, the rapscallion, the “ruffian”, and even though it’s probably not aimed at a middle aged man such as me, I couldn’t help but like it!

Before addressing the main event of the evening, namely, a leisurely stroll through a selection of Hankey Bannister drams, we were invited to have a "hot/cold towel and head massage" experience. I was apprehensive......I have list of people who are (or were) officially allowed to touch my bald head (Dolly Parton, Burt Lancaster, Jenna-Louise Coleman (Dr Who's last assistant), and Ingrid Bergman, to name a few), anyway, suffice to say, the staff at an upmarket “coiffeteria” were not on the list! However, what at first seemed like a bizarre but fun way to begin a whisky tasting turned into an inspired choice.


Please note - these aren't the staff!

Under the beneficent ministrations of the knowledgeable and engaging staff, the hot/cold towel and head and face massage was a revelation! To quote Joni "you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone".... and what I clearly had was a shitload of stress & tension that had been inhabiting my shoulders, head, face & neck, lurking there, insidiously tightening their grip on my psyche. The heat, the cold, the exquisite, deft, and expert manipulation of hand on head, unearthed, unpicked, and discarded, a knotweed of baggage, and in that seemingly fleeting 5 minutes, the stresses of the previous few days (even weeks), simply melted away. 

In all honesty, I would have been content for one of the team to insert a straw through the towels, into my mouth, and have the whisky delivered to me "drip style" in what would be the ultimate blind was that good! 

Mark, Chris, Dave W & Dave A hard at work

Hankey Bannister.....and so to the whiskies! After some informative scene setting from Lynne Buckley (Brand Manager for Hankey Bannister), including an insight into the evolution of the brand and where it sees itself in the future, Stuart Harvey (Master blender for Inver House Distillers), escorted us on a tour of the range. Both Lynne and Stuart were expressive and informative, conveying both any technical information that we sought with passion and commitment. Like any quality tasting, it was akin to having a soundtrack accompanying the whisky such that you could almost feel the brand developing. 

In preparation for the trip I'd bought a bottle of the Hankey Bannister 12yo but I hadn't had the opportunity to open it and was therefore immersing myself in the range as an HB virgin.
The Original, 12yo and 21yo sit comfortably in the fruity & sweet domain with the 21yo exhibiting a fuller body. The Original blend contains malts from all five of the International Beverage distilleries: Old Pulteney, Knockdhu, Balblair, Speyburn and Balmenach. For those with a penchant for the smokier dram, the Heritage Blend could be right up your street (think full body, delicate smoke, honey, citrus & vanilla). The prices of the range are very, very reasonable indeed.

....and Annabel working hard as well!

I can’t speak for everyone but it would be fair to say that the expressions took some of us by surprise in terms of their quality. This is a range of high quality blends! It may have been the "headiness" and intoxication of the first night away but I distinctly remember one or two of us suggesting that these drams were somewhat "underpriced" in relation to whiskies with a similar profile....(heaven forefend and please don't slap me should our paths cross at some time in the future!). So why isn’t this brand right up there in the minds of European consumers given that the quality is certainly there in abundance?

Forward momentum

Lynne explained that the brand does have a much higher profile within the global market but it became apparent to me that there were potentially one or two challenges in terms of taking the brand forward closer to home. This may be a really minor issue but I found it very interesting that when I held the 12yo I was struck by how small the bottle felt in my hand. The box itself is actually smaller than most boxes that hold this glorious liquid. 

When I think of the “shelf aesthetic” in relation to this range I find myself picturing how it looks when placed side by side with other whiskies. What's going to draw the attention of the potential purchaser? The bottle design is, to my way of thinking, spot on. Neither generic nor wacky, it carries more than a nod to it's distinguished ancestry. Indeed, the black glass and wording on the Heritage Blend is unashamedly modelled on a 1920's bottle of HB unearthed in 2012.  

"It's not how it looks its how it tastes that matter" I can hear many of you mouthing as you read this. I think that would be somewhat naive. Perception, anticipation, and emotion are just three constructs that play important roles in determining whether we buy one whisky over another. It is a simple fact that we must "engage" with a product before purchasing. Having made the purchase, then clearly it is the liquid itself that becomes the dominant element. In this case, when it comes to the liquid, the product speaks for itself and having sampled the drams I was reminded of the adage "big things come in small packages".

You can't drink a Jimmy Choo!

"Hanky Bannister, Hankey Bannister, Hankey Bannister".... the more you say the words, the less unfamiliar they become. There are solid branding reasons why the whisky is called what it is. From the Inver House publicity material we know that the brand dates back to 1757, and that Beaumont Hankey & Hugh Bannister were two gentlemen of passion, the former, a flamboyant socialite who “loved to charm the aristocracy”, the latter, a more considered and business minded individual. The blend of the two personalities, around which the brand has been built, is framed in the phrase “style and substance” and having sampled the range, I have absolutely no problem with that.

Building a brand around a name (in this case, two names) can be a challenging affair but the rewards can be powerful. Think of some of the high profile brands that have been meticulously constructed around a name...Johnnie Walker, Georgio Armani, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, William Grant, Jimmy Choo and so on. Love 'em or loath 'em they have become established brands, so much so that, in some cases you don't even have to use the full name in order to get the reference (e.g. "I'll have a JD & coke") - they are ubiquitous, part of our cultural norm. 

I wouldn't think that team Hankey Bannister harbour thoughts of global domination on the scale of GA, JD, JB, or JC but shifting the mindset away from any thoughts of illicit, cheeky, sexual encounters (a la Hanky Panky) to a default recognition of Hankey Bannister as a marker of quality blendage may take a little time. On a slightly more serious note, I'll be really interested in seeing how the brand progresses. It deserves a wider audience. I've never fully understood any snobbishness when it comes to the "malts over blends" discussions. Good whisky is good whisky....end of. If you're ever caught in that all too common dilemma of having to choose some nice shoes over a good quality whisky, can't drink a Jimmy Choo!

What a great night! Good company, good conversation, quality whisky, and a wonderful setting. A big thanks to Stuart, Lynne, Lukasz, Samantha and the staff at Ruffians.....roll on the rest of the week.....

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A family gathering: Five Ledaig expressions


I've always liked Ledaig. There, I've said it. My first experience of it was the basic expression purchased from Morrisons some years ago. At the time I didn't know why I liked it, it was brash, in your face, as well as making me feel somewhat "dirty", it made me think of burned things, but I think my initial liking related to the fact that most of those around me didn't like it. In that sense, it allowed me to express a degree of individuality, to be different from the rest, and maybe to seem somehow more "knowing" than those who disliked it. Whatever the reason, I continued to drink it and looked for opportunities to develop my knowledge and experience of this fine spirit from the Tobermory distillery. Over the last couple of years I've acquired a few different expressions and it was the visit of whisky buddy Jason @jasonbstanding to the whisky shed, who came bearing a wonderful old Ledaig expression, that prompted this piece.

Ledaig Single Malt Scotch Whisky (NAS) 42%abv (Distillery bottling)

Let's start with this bad boy. I use the term "bad boy" advisedly given that this dram, in familial terms, reminds me of the nephew that you find somewhat irritating. You know the one, you're at a family gathering, there are brothers and sisters, children, aunt's, uncle's etc. Your own children are well under control, adhering to the parental mantra "don't show us up"...but the others....pulling the cat's tail, shouting, running about at high speeds, bumping into chairs, eating too much, whining, constantly asking for the toilet, generally doing the things that "you wouldn't see our kids doing". But let's be clear, this dram is not irritating, it's simply playing around in a somewhat youthful and uncontrolled way. It's got the genetic material that could lead to the more mature, well rounded, qualities of the wider Ledaig family but at present they are simply possible futures.

        Nose: Burning hay, earthy notes, spent log fires, vanilla and tar, quite raw.

        Palate: Surprisingly gentle after the somewhat abrasive nose. There's a sweet 

        peatiness and I get a fleeting hint of mint

        Finish: Short and quite dry.

        I like it but I do have reservations. As an entry level Ledaig (whilst recognising 

        that some might see the 10yo as the entry level expression), this dram 

        might deter some from further exploration of the range. In the context of the other 

        delightful Ledaig expressions, this is definitely the most basic.

Ledaig (1998) 13 yo Malts of Scotland; Sherry Butt: Cask MoS 11010:  61.2% abv

     Give this a swirl and you're left with a caldera like oily rim round the glass, thick,

    viscous, and still present after three or four minutes.


     Nose: Despite the 61.2% abv, the nose is gentle & there are soft sherry notes, caramelised 

     sultanas with a hint of  liquorice. Peaty, antiseptic leather notes combine with a burnt grassy


     Palate: Wow... this one hits the sweet spot. Smoky, getting some orange, more tar, the "sherry 

     line" integrated beautifully, but the sum is greater than the component's glorious!

     With water: Recommended; taking it down to 40-45% abv. The majority of drams, with the 

     addition of a few drops of water, open up gently, revealing more of themselves. There are also 

     those drams that have the capacity to deliver twice, and to do so in a very dynamic way, offering 

     new levels of complexity, releasing flavours held captive within the higher abv, and creating an 

     equally beguiling alter ego that is not simply a nuanced shade of the original...this is such a 


My mind wanders during the tasting of these lovely drams and I'm drawn into memories of the summer walks to primary school in the sixties, not a long walk, about a mile and a half in total. My mum and dad couldn't afford a car so the walk was an integral part of our daily routine. As part of the journey we had to pass Orford tannery, a Victorian/Dickensian, stained, smoke scarred, stuck with blood building, oozing thick, unctuous odours; smells and vapours that contorted the face, pulled the nostrils apart, wedged them open, and insinuated dread, fear, and primordial horror into the naive olfactory senses of our incomplete bodies. In the winter this wasn't a problem, the cold air deadened the dead, but in the summer, the languid passive aggressive heat slow cooked the edifice, and passing the Tannery necessitated a two hundred yard sprint accompanied by attempts to trip each other, with the aim of leaving one of our merry troupe simultaneously squirming, laughing and puking, stuck fast in the miasma of long dead animals.

On those days when the wind direction and air temperature allowed a more leisurely stroll past the tannery, we would often pause and look beyond the weatherworn "Trespassers will be prosecuted" sign into the forbidden, mysterious tannery scrubland. Through the barbed wire fence we could see the lime pits....solid black pustulated ponds that generated many a scare story for us as kids. Fabricated, "excited child", bravado laden stories of bodies being thrown in, left to sink and dissolve, stories of narrow escapes, of being pulled from the pits before disappearing without a trace. Occasionally, we would be able to lauch hefty lumps of rock over the fence and into the nearest pit. The rock would hit with a resonant, onomatopoeic "perdunch", rest for a moment on the rippleless, tar-like surface before slowly dropping. It didn't sink, it was eaten by the pit, the thick, black, viscous lime jaws savouring the latest victim.

More often than not, our activities were curtailed by the muffled, smoke choked, garbled ranting of the caretaker who we nicknamed "Peggy". We knew little of him other than he was, to us, incredibly old (in reality probably mid to late 60's), he had "fag" on the go constantly, he had a club foot (possibly due to childhood polio), and he walked with a profound limp. This combination meant he was not the most agile of caretakers, wheezing his way round the perimeter fence with a "Capstan full strength" or "Players No6" plume of smoke in his wake, uttering gutteral and threatening noises directed at potential (and hypothetical) ingressors. Once "discovered" we would switch our 8 year old limbs into "run mode", let fly a volley of abuse, each member of our gang trying to outdo the other in terms of the quality and offensiveness of our tirade, and scarper....making our way either on to school or home.

NB. For those across the water - the word "Fag" refers to a cigarette's amazing where a drop of whisky can take you!

Gordon & MacPhail Cask Strength Ledaig (1997) 56.8% abv - Refill Sherry Hogshead

Nose: Rich, deep, pungent....leather, tobacco, someone's left some cheese behind the lowest shelf in an antiquarian bookstore....there's a wonderful decadence to the nose.

Palate: Definitely a big hitter. The leather & tobacco notes continue onto the palate and are joined by fruit, wood and brine notes; it's a sumptuous combination!

Finish: Lingering....fruit, peat, is that a hint of chocolate?

This is the Black Sheep of the family. The mysterious, swarthy uncle who you've "been warned about". "Don't you dare go out for a pint with know what will happen!" "Uncle Phil was never the same after that weekend!" and so on. He gets on well with the kids and seems to simply "tolerate" the other adults. He has the look of a man of stories, tales to tell, dark adventures, and a life immersed in chaos and danger.

Dramboree: Ledaig: 8yo (58.8% abv) Sherry Butt no 900173 (still available from The Whisky Exchange at time of writing £55)

        Not as viscous as the MoS but still a bit of a "glass hugger"

        Nose: There are sweet, smokey, sherried notes on what is, given the 58.8% abv, a 
        surprisingly gentle nose. There's the signature "earthy vegetal" notes that I find in most Ledaig 

        Palate: There's proper power in this dram! (although different from the G&M). To quote a Who 
        line, it's "Meaty, beaty, big & bouncy"! (being picky, I'd want to add "fruity" to that phrase)
        Finish: Med-long...lingering hints of liquorice.

        In comparison to the G&M this has sweeter, almost bubble gum notes. Water again adds 
        another dimension that is crying out for exploration.

Rare Old Single Malt: Ledaig: Distilled 1975 - bottled 2000: 40% abv

Now this is a different beast altogether. Perhaps "beast" is too strong a word, the nose is softer, more mellow. It contains what I would call the signature elements of the Ledaigs I have experienced but they are less pronounced. There is more perfume to this expression. It is gentle from the off, caressing the sides of the glass.

Palate: The smoke & peat, whilst certainly not an afterthought, is not the dominant force that is evident in the other drams. There's vanilla, a slight musty, smokiness....everything is toned down....hints of marshmallow. At forty percent there's no "burn on entry", it's meditative sigh of a dram.

This dram was a huge surprise to me. I admit to having a preference for slightly higher abv drams with certain "in your face" characteristics (all of which are present in the MoS, G&M, and Dramboree), but this expression had a seductive quality that charmed me. 

In terms of the Ledaig family, it is the sage, grandfather, slowly rocking in his favourite chair. It's blind master Po from Kung Fu, it's Obi wan, Yoda, Mr Miyagi, a sensei of a dram. There is none of the impulsive, wilful youth of the basic NAS, none of the "business like, aggressive drive and glorious ostentation of the MoS, Dramboree or G&M, There's a stillness and tranquility that is infectious, the dram sits you down, calms you down, allows you to breath.

                        What a wonderful selection of drams. I'd certainly recommend them if you've not already had the pleasure.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A cocktail of whisky with a soup├žon of positive psychology

So there's something to celebrate is there?

How often do we sit down and savour the moment, pause for reflection and simply become aware of what's going on around us, deliberately focusing on the positives in our lives? There's increasing evidence that this is happening less and less. It seems that, for many people, it's all too easy to let the good things in our lives pass us by, to be drawn to the negative, to be sucked into habitual patterns and engagement with shall we say, the negative mundanities of life (gossip, a focus on the self at the expense of others, being hypercritical as a default position....). One result of this within the world of psychology and more specifically within the therapeutic community has been the evolution of so called "third wave" approaches to both understanding and changing behaviour. Positive psychology (as an approach in its own right), offers a range of really interesting opportunities for changing habitual modes of thinking, away from those that are at odds with good mental health, towards those that may contribute to an altogether healthier mindset. Within the positive psychology approach, "savouring" refers to the use of thoughts and actions to increase the intensity, duration, and appreciation of positive experiences and emotions.

....Don't worry, I'm not evangelising about this approach (although, by and large, I'm comfortable with the basic tenets), this isn't therapy, it's simply a segway into an exploration of what is, I believe, an event to be savoured. The event in this instance is the Dewar's release of a range of whiskies with "age-statements".

An example of the habitual negativity within the whisky community that I've noticed of late, relates to the plethora of NAS (no age statement) whiskies that seem to be proliferating at the moment. I've always baulked at entering the NAS debate on Twitter or Facebook. There are a number of reasons for this but the main reason is that, apart from a few exceptions, the quality of the debate has been mediocre at best, ranging from those offerings that fall into the category of "ill-informed, vitriolic ramblings", those that are simply confused, and those that suffer from a lack of balance. With regard to exceptions, one of the more interesting, balanced, and in-depth online discussions can be found on Allthingswhisky. It's well worth a read as there are contributions from a good number of highly respected whisky writers and bloggers.

One of the few times that I've been tempted to "enter the fray" as it were, occurred when a plonker of a marketer (or worse - an "appendix" of marketers nb my own use of the collective noun), came up with the phrase "the tyranny of the age statement". I'm so grateful for the enlightenment that the "campaign" provided. Up to that point I'd been inhabiting the whisky world in a dissociative fugue, unaware that I'd been at the mercy of numbers for so long, blindly ignoring any bottle of whisky that confronted me "sin numero". What an idiot I was! If I had that person in front of me now I'd like to........Stop! you see what's happening?....Do you see how easy it is to slip into the vitriol, to don bitterness and frustration like a cheap suit? A suit that used to fit so well but one that I like to think I'm slowly outgrowing....let's get back to the point....something worth celebrating.

It was about the time that the NAS debate was in full flow that a group of fellow whisky passionistas and I were invited to the distilleries from which the Dewars range would be released, namely MacDuff, Royal Brackla, Craigellachie, Aultmore, and Aberfeldy. A brief account of some of my experiences on that trip can be found here   "Smoke me kipper I'll be back for breakfast".... It was clear that Stephen Marshall (Global Marketing manager) and his team did not have prescient knowledge of the "NAS hubbub" when 
he told The Spirits Business that We realised we weren’t maximising our assets....We started looking at the malt project four years ago and conducted research on competitors and different markets, speaking to retailers and whisky specialists to get opinions on things like age statements and caramel.”......but the timing was exquisite. 

The press release for the range opened with the following statement: - Glasgow, Scotland, 24 September 2014 – John Dewar & Sons Ltd., one of the most respected names in the world of Scotch whisky, today announced plans to release a range of new expressions and never-before-released single malts – the hidden gems of its single malt portfolio. This bold move, unprecedented in recent years, will introduce a treasure trove of top-shelf whiskies to consumers around the world.

The umbrella term for the range is the "Last Great Malts" collection. So here we have not one, not two, not three, but five distilleries releasing not one, not two, but a range of expressions over the coming months, each wearing their age proudly on their labels (N.B Every release by Bacardi will carry an age statement and be caramel-free). The first two distilleries Craigellachie and Aberfeldy have released their bounties to the public. I won't be reviewing the whiskies in this post, suffice to say that the drams that I tasted on the short tour were lovely. There have been a number of comprehensive reviews of the whiskies across various media outlets.

So for those of us who recognise that there are some superb NAS ( and BFYB "Bang for your Buck") whiskies (e.g. Nikkka from the Barrel, most, if not all of the Compass Box expressions, Karuizawa - Spirit of Asama, Aberlour A'Bunadh and so on ...), and who also love the added dimension of an age statement, and all that that can add to the experience of the whisky, let's pause and savour the moment. "Anticipation" is another experience to savour and with these new expressions on the horizon there is much to anticipate.


Monday, 1 September 2014

A Christmas reflection on whisky, family and memories.

To be fair I was at a low ebb, the last 12 months had been toxic to say the least. Much like the proverbial bus, three had come along in quick succession. In this case the three just happened to be deaths of family members. Firstly, my mum after a short but painful six week illness, then, a few months later my older and only brother in a road traffic accident, then my dad who at the time of writing was still of this world but with only a few weeks left. He was, as Christopher Hitchen’s put it "living dyingly"...and I was on a train travelling North to visit him after an enjoyable but tiring day in London.

 So, there was this guy on the train; sat opposite me. I'd say he was somewhere between 50 and 60 years old. There's a lot of leeway in there but it's not hugely important. He was bald and, in my experience, that adds a degree of uncertainty to the age question (on reflection, he could have been much older). Grey moustache and goatee, cut fairly short, in fact, it was neatly and methodically trimmed. Overweight, but fell into that category of "big bloke"; some might call it fat but that would be a little unkind. In terms of clothing he was travelling light despite it being early December. Jeans, a fawn jacket (draped loosely over an expensive yet worn leather holdall), and a short sleeved shirt festooned with writing that I couldn't make out initially but, after a while, I realised that it was row upon row of the word "Xmas" in different languages (Noel, Natale, Navidad, Kerstmis and so on). Middle-aged man in designer shirt, a little incongruous maybe, some lingering attempt to hang on to the vestiges of youth, perhaps. Anyway, it was a decent enough shirt. 

 We exchanged a fleeting moment of eye contact before settling into the train journey. Carriage life was as expected; the initial hubbub of passengers firing up software before burrowing down to social media activity, hushed shuffles & adjustments of clothing and settings, the well rehearsed rituals of isolation, insulation from conversational contamination, the positioning of elbows, music listening, the extension of the working day etc. Not for me, I was content to let myself drift off into fantasies of one kind or another, those moments of freedom where it's ok to do nothing, to switch off "mainline" and slide languorously into "downtime"; except, "downtime" had become an elusive sanctuary of late, a faraway country, constantly over the horizon or round some distant corner. Moments of genuine rest and relaxation had shuffled inexorably into some labyrinthine backwater of my memory. It wasn't as if I lacked opportunity to relax, it was simply that, when those moments presented themselves, a dull thump and sharp clatter of unresolved and unprocessed "past" would insinuate itself into my failing head. Over time, and through lack of use, I had forgotten the language of R & R. And so it was, on that December evening, that I sat on the train heading north.

 That was until the gentleman opposite began fumbling inside his leather holdall before producing firstly, a small tulip shaped glass, followed by a bottle of whisky. How did I know it was whisky? Well, although his hands were wrapped around the mid section of the bottle I could make out the letters "isky" white on a brownish background (I was certain that it wasn't a bottle of "Frisky" although the thought did amuse me somewhat). From what I could see of the bottle it fitted my experience of what a spirit bottle looked like, I'd had a “pleasure” of whisky in my time, and it didn't take a great leap of the imagination to reach this simple conclusion. But it wasn't the whisky bottle that first caught my attention, it was his hands. I hadn't noticed them when he first inhabited the seat opposite, but now...

 His hands were works of art; they were at the same time beautiful and terrifying. Big, powerful, well defined veins sprang from his wrists, flowing under and around cartilage and calloused knuckle, into fingers, purposeful and deliberate. The knuckles were a gnarled chain of worn peaks. Scuffing and scar tissue hinted at potent visceral experiences past, of manual labour, of heavy contact, of pain endured, of reaction to events rather than well thought through planned responses. The nails on the fingers of his left hand (the hand obscuring most of the wording on the bottle), were broken and bitten, like four worn piston heads locked at the end of his arm. In sharp contrast, the nails on the right hand whispered of quieter, more considered experiences. There was nothing rushed about those nails. Well tended, manicured, and shaped with a precision that did more than simply hint at attention to detail. I couldn't help but feel that the right hand was more of a window into this man, a glimpse into processes that went beyond the merely superficial.

 What had begun as a somewhat tentative exploration of the contents of the holdall had metamorphosed into a confident, assertive, almost dexterous celebration of........something. He handled the whisky bottle in an almost reverential manner, his strong hands at the same time vice-like and agile.  It was clearly something special to him and whilst the bottle was not totally unfamiliar to me, it had elements that were unlike any I'd seen before. There seemed to be facets at various points that served to suck in the carriage light, bend and refract it through the dark, lustrous liquid within. The colour of the whisky shifted with the movement of hand and train; at one moment a flickering gold, then to bronze, through ruby, vermillion, coral before trembling to a mercurial burnished ochre, and then on again...

  His left hand tightened around the body of the bottle, the right slid up the neck and embraced the cork stopper. Two twists of the right hand and the job was done. Just as the bottle had absorbed and then transformed the light, the short muffled pop of cork leaving bottle served to call all of the senses to attention, and then fold them, twist them, massage and gently play with them. That dull, innocuous pop resonated around the carriage paradoxically drowning out the thrub and rattle of the train, drawing attention to the bottle, and then alerting other senses to something extraordinary. In the now hushed carriage, perfumes, aromas, and scents emanated from the unveiled whisky, firstly permeating the somewhat stale carriage air before becoming the singular sovereign essence within that space. It was intoxicating; I could feel the chair supporting my back, my head cushioned on the headrest, my legs, indeed my whole body seemed lighter, my breath slowed and deepened, background noise faded and then disappeared eyes closed.

 Colours, memories, exotic fragrances and earthy aromas intermingled in a random sensory seduction. Faint breezes fashioned fallen fruit carpets on burnished autumn forest floors, bittersweet bucolic spring charms fell like rose petals, sea-breeze sands, rock pool memories and salt water spume upended me in a turbulent, tumbler sea...I was not drowning but waving. 
Yellow, hay baled and supine, sun-kissed in sublime, late summer magnificence. An "old gold" signet ring belonging to a grandfather I never knew. Saffron and brimstone wrapped and bubbled in sweetly spiced braziers, and warmth emanated from embers of Christmas fires past. Red, bronze, copper and carmine collided in sunsets long forgotten, unearthing residual traces of conversations long since spoken. I could hear faint whispers from the mouths of lost loved ones. The accents of my childhood reached out from within like a reassuring caress murmuring "It's OK, you'll be fine" 

 Slowly, the kaleidoscope took on a clearer coherence, became tangible, touchable, understandable. I could feel, touch, and smell the memories......and in that moment, I saw my dad holding my mum wiping my face with a tissue dampened with her spit.....and my brother laughing and running off with a ball. I wanted to play, eager to escape mum's beneficent ministrations, to experience the unconfined, uninhibited freedom so often the preserve of a loving inhabit that time when freedom and safety coexisted.....but that time had gone, and they were gone, and there were no more of mum's tissues, and there was no more brotherly kickabouts, and there would be no more walking with dad whilst holding his hand. 

I could feel a deep, resonant, and profound swell of sadness forming in the pit of my stomach, slowly leeching its way into my chest, becoming cavernous and gaping as it tried to swallow me, whole and helpless. But before my throat and eyes succumbed, I saw my family once again. It wasn't some beatific vision, some angelic scene viewed through pastel lenses in an exotic paradisiacal location. I was at home, about 10 years old, lying in front of our busy, smoky coal fire, watching our black and white TV. I turned away and looked at each of my family in turn, dad (smoking a cigarette in "his" chair), mum (emerging from the kitchen with a freshly baked mince pie in one hand and my 2 year old sister who was holding a ragged doll, secure in her other arm), my brother (lying just opposite me), and my other sister (sat on settee). My sudden turn caught their attention and as I made eye contact with each one, we exchanged the briefest of smiles (all except my youngest sister who was chattering to her dolly)....and that was all. 


I sensed the dull commotion of the carriage returning. I opened my eyes, I was smiling, and I felt a serenity that had long been lost to me. My mum and brother had gone, my dad would soon be gone, but they would always be with me. Death's slick timing had muffled my mum's passing, scratched out my brother in an instant, but had not yet sucked my dad from this world....and there was still time to hold his hand.

 It took me a moment to realise that the gentleman opposite was no longer there. I looked around the carriage but he had gone. I looked at the table, empty but for the tulip shaped glass....half full. 


(c) Alcock 2013