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 soupçon 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    

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Twitter photos - August 2013

Time to open something special to mark the passing of my brother in an RTA on Monday.

Slainte bro. Always loved, RIP 22.09.13

Back from family trip & these beauties waiting for me. 

Top Tweet tasting next week 19.08.13

Hazelburn 12, Innis & Gunn Spiced Rum finished beer, 

Ryan Adams & Laura Marling singing - Oh my Sweet Carolina - bliss 16.08.13

Winding down with a lovely drop of Nadurra CS. 

It's been a long year....11.09.13

A dram that ignited my whisky passion 10 years ago. 

The dram is gone, the passion burns brightly, long live the dram. 11.08.13

It takes some of that "On the Waterfront" Ledaig rough diamond beauty, 

& fashions a 61.2% bombshell! 09.08.13

Innis & Gunn Irish Whisky Cask, & Connemara Cask Strength. 

Celtic connections for the evening's starter. 08.08.13

Dawn breaks after a quality tasting. 

Don't ask about the garlic mayo or novel use of a potting tray! 06.08.13

All great drams Graeme, all @CompassBox & all affordable. 

Might have myself some Hedonism : ) 04.08.13

'tis a small thing but it is mine own

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Let "La Reine" commence - Queen Margot (40%abv, Lidl).

Before you read any further I'll state my position clearly. I would recommend buying a bottle of this if you get the chance. 

There are times when I want a dram to slap me in the face, push my eyebrows into the surprised position, and turn the corners of my mouth up into "you little beauty mode" - this dram doesn't quite do that for me. It lacks a certain depth and "roundedness" that I have come to expect from some of the more well known (and much more expensive) blends. However, there are those drams that take you by surprise for other reasons...this dram does just that.

When Lidl hit our shores in the mid 1990's its reputation was, let's be blunt, somewhere on the shit side of shabby. Its early infamy rested to a large part on the fact that you could buy booze on the cheap side of free, and that, as a consequence, the stores supposedly attracted a clientèle seeking instant alcoholic gratification (often at the expense of a bed for the night). Indeed, there was a joke circulating the streets of the North West in the 90's that went something like - 

Q. "What's 40ft long and smells of p**s?"
A. "The queue outside Lidl"

Whilst the "joke" was (and is) in poor taste, it reflected the challenge that the German chain had to overcome in seducing a somewhat staid, unexperimental, and domestically conservative British public. But perseverance, resilience, and canny marketing have slowly transformed Lidl perception to the point where, alongside Aldi, they are nipping at the heels of some of the supermarket pack leaders.

Lidl has flirted with the whisky market for some time but has, some might say, finally arrived with Queen Margot 8yo, a gold medal winner at the recent IWSC. Not only has it arrived, it arrived without fanfare, without lumpen, doorstop decanter paraphernlia, without Beckhamesque braggadocio, and without the disingenuous pomposity of the "tyranny of the age statement" brigade. Indeed, it wears its age proudly on its somewhat basic label...8 year old.

But what else can we say about it?

Appearance: A grainy gold, oily in the glass dram...nice legs! 

Nose: Sweet fruits, honey with a touch of lavender and citrus notes.

Palate: The creamy maltiness is prominent in what is a very pleasant mouth-feel. The fruitiness is still there although for me, no particular fruit dominated. Many of the existing reviews indicate the presence of coconut notes although for me, this was just a hint at the back of the palate.

Finish: There's a warmth to the finish which complements and extends the fruit and malt notes. Interestingly, as the flavours ebbed I detected a slightly soapy note although this didn't affect my overall enjoyment. 

Overall comments: I had to work a little on this whisky, it certainly doesn't take the palate by storm but nor does it disappear without a trace. I revisited it a number of times, compared it to other whiskies at slightly higher price points, tasted it after drinking some of the more high end malts, and I kept coming back to the same conclusion - this is a really solid and enjoyable blend. For the price, it represents outstanding value. It retails between £11.99 - £13.50 ......Yes, that's right! 

I would recommend buying at least one bottle of this, I don't think you'd regret it. I had a dram on four consecutive nights and from a starting point of "this isn't bad at all", my appreciation increased significantly.

One day, mayhap they'll
name a whisky after me!

Friday, 18 July 2014

Smoke me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast

What a trip....a whirlwind of planes, distilleries, dinners, drams, distinguished whisky folk, a little learning, occasional moments of spiritual peace, a missed flight, lost car keys.....and a tun of fun! The occasion was a press trip  for a few lucky whisky press/blog passionistas (organised by Quercus communications), we were to be given an insight into the forthcoming Dewar's launch of a range of  single malts from MacDuff, Aultmore, Royal Brackla, Craigallachie, and Aberfeldy. Two days, five distilleries, one night in Craigallachie, one night in Edinburgh, one set of great memories added to the file marked "whisky tales of the unexpected".

The stories of the distilleries and the forthcoming releases will, I'm sure, percolate through the Twittersphere, Blogscape, & Facebook fauna over the next few weeks, building to a crescendo in August when the new releases begin to orbit the whisky world. Of the new releases very little can be said at present suffice to say that there is a lot to take in, a lot of variety, quality, and innovation. My musings, as those who know me will know, tend to focus on the experience of whisky. In the case of this blog post, some of the lovely, endearing, human stories that are an inevitable consequence of dipping a group of enthusiasts into the object of their affections, swirling them round.....and then adding more than a glencairn  of hospitality.

For the purpose of this piece, the names of some of the individuals have been replaced with psuedonyms to protect both their professional status....and their dignity. It must be noted that I write with a genuine respect for, and appreciation of their friendship....I hope it stays that way, for they will know who they are! There are those whose names can, and should be mentioned in all their glory, namely, Stephen Marshall (Global Marketing Manager for Dewars), Charles MacLean (sage of the whisky world, all round good guy, hero to many.....smoke me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast!) and the all seeing über host, Marcin Miller (smoke me another kipper)

Day 1:  MacDuff, Aultmore & Royal Brackla

A small but ample coach (a coachette if you will) transported us through the lush scenery, the hills, alonside rivers and then on the coast road to the sea, first stop - MacDuff distillery.

Our first drams of the day on the banks of the Deveron and for me a first - seeing an otter in the wild (it tasted a bit like chicken). It was to be a trip with many exciting "firsts" Our primary host, Stephen, is by this time, beginning to assert his "quirky" enthusiasm and undoubted depth of knowledge, there's that passion, infectious, stimulating, good to be around, Charles is waltzing us through some of the sumptuous whiskies on offer (I say "waltz" but, due to the demands of the schedule, it was more of a delightful quickstep.....and then, in a whisky minute, on to Aultmore, away from the sea, through the hills, over the rivers. Despite my relatively meagre experiences of Scotland, the roads have a warming familiarity to them. 

At Aultmore, a selection of drams, some of the releases to come (not all of which are at their final state), a short, interesting presentation ......and on to The Highlander Inn in Craigallachie, through the hills, over rivers, past distilleries present and those long departed. A hearty lunch in what can only be described as a Whisky "sweetie shop" - (substitute GlenFarclas Family casks for mint humbugs, Mars Maltage 3+25 for sherbet flying saucers, Aberfeldy 21yo for get the picture...a cornucopia of drammage!). We then move on to Royal Brackla, for me the most picturesque of the three distilleries. Whilst the stills were cool to the touch, quiet, due to the "silent season" (the annual maintenance shutdown), the music of whisky production past permeated the air, both rhythm and stillness existing at the same time, it felt like a "behind the scenes" excursion, which in many ways it was. All of the group I spoke to were, to put it simply, smitten by the surroundings.

Back to Craigallachie, check in, and half an hour later, a pre-dinner tasting led by Charles MacLean, a doyenne, raconteur, all round top bloke, willing to share, willing to listen, generally good fun to be around. Food, drink, conversation, drink, and for me, bed at a relatively civilised 12.30. One hell of a day....

Day 2: Craigallachie & Aberfeldy

...and in the morning, an early rise (06.50) and down to breakfast for 08.00. A couple of phonecalls to fellow travellers to politely enquire of their time of breaking fast is met with some "terse", pillow bitten, hoarse throated, and to be honest, objectionable language requesting that I frequent some faraway place. So breakfast alone save for one of our company with whom I have a wonderful early morning chat, picking apart the events of the night before, and anticipating the delights to come. 

The Snapper: I want to take a few photos - the Spey, the Iron bridge, the early morning sunshine, the clear, bronzed flowing river, the sputter, spit and lick of water over stone and under bridge, the half laugh, hyena heckled call of oyster catchers frenzying about their familial duties.

I want to share the experience, and who better to share with than my friend, who I shall call " the snapper". I hasten back to the hotel but he is nowhere to be found, a few guests have materialised in the breakfast room, one of whom is also looking for him. Another cup of tea on the patio in the early morning mid-summer sun - a quintessential Speyside tableau (well it would have been if you'd substituted a dram for the tea). 

I re-enter the hotel and there he is, flumbling down the stairs - a ghost within a ghost, a man both distant and present, he recognises me but doesn't seem to know what comes I approach he seems both relieved and fearful at the same time. His demeanour smacks of someone who has had, to put it mildly, a somewhat heavy night. His hair is telling a story, every follicle narrating the events of the evening/early morning, refusing to shut up, refusing to stay in place, wafting like anorexic kelp in some unseen breakfast bar current.  The face muscles are relying on memory to effect the bare minimum of expression, all masked behind a hapless but totally endearing smile and eyes that were pleading, penitent, begging for answers to the question "What the fuck happened last night?"......and possibly "Who am I?"

I am moved to care for him, to ease his troubled brow, to be the nanny that he hasn't seen for many a year....but he has other ideas. Apparently, he'd seen some quality drammage on sale at Costcutter in Dufftown and had arranged a bone jolting, knee jarring, head rolling, jeep ride to pick up a few bottles before our next distillery visit, oh the pain of that journey but so sweet the reward...such dedication, wars have been won on less. Time moves on and we've got more distilleries to visit. Onward and dramward, we walk the short distance to Craigallachie distillery. Another short, interesting experience of a distillery not often frequented by visitors.

From Craigallachie we board the dramsporter and hit the wode to Aberfeldy.....

Wordplay on the wode to Aberfeldy: Squrabble (portmanteau - Squabble + Scrabble)

 A throw away comment to a fellow traveller - 
"What App is that Jon?
"It's scrabble Dave, do you want a game?
"yeah I'd love to mate
......a voice from the row behind.... "Can we play?
......and then from the seat in front..... "Can I play too?
.....the scene is set.

Opening gambits: We are throwing away words with an extravagance that shouted "I'm not competitive, I just enjoy the game", "look at us having fun" and "watch us play". The carefree ease of play is revealed in some of the less ambitious words being produced. The first few rounds continue in that vein, a hastily mixed cocktail of bonhomie and largesse.....however, you can learn a lot about people from the way they engage with "games" and this was no exception. 

The middle game: As the words drift inexorably into "triple word" territory there is a subtle shift in tone. Gradually, the time taken to make a move increases, there are the occasional mutterings, and the humming of the Countdown theme tune is heard once or twice....players are now concentrating...and there it is, that little pulse on the temple, ba bum, ba bum, ba bum; the superficial temporal artery - now that's a baby that doesn't bum, ba bum, ba bum.... I can see it glistening under the rivulet of scrabble sweat emanating from just under the hairline, running along the furrowed brow and down the left cheek, pulsing out a morse code message that translates as "fuck me, I've got six vowels!" The emergence of the "scrabble nerd" is imminent....and there it is, the two-letter word that only scrabble nerds know, "Za" (I've got six vowels and a zed...screw you!"). Two rounds later and there's another one, "Qi"...but there are limits to what the scrabble nerd can achieve and in this case, a momentary flaring of pyrotechnic scrabble genius, is quickly replaced by frustration and the submission of mundane wordage.

The end game: Energy wanes, there are players who know they cannot now win and they are going through the motions. There is a re-emergence of the opening gambit nonchalance but the mood is different...".let it end.....for God's sake let it be over" They abandon any sense of tactics and open the game up, providing easy access to triple word opportunities for those who's turn follows theirs. The end is quick, decisive; heralded by the unexpected cry of "we've won!"......but how can that be? I still have letters left. In the Scrabble world of my youth the game continued until everyone had used as many of their letters as they could, I had been saving an "s" and and "ed" for the scrabble equivalent of a coup de grace, but what had been a posssible famous victory had turned into seppuku (or Harakiri) as I fell onto my letters, a broken man, defeated, bitter, resentful, angry, malevolent, lusting for vengeance, raging against the dying of the game........well actually, none of that, I was a little surprised, a little relieved, happy for the victors, and sufficiently regrouped to focus on the next distillery.

Aberfeldy - in terms of the environment, the most visitor friendly of the five distilleries. A newly refurbished visitor centre, a small cinema/theatre, interactive this and that's, a jovial hogshead of knowledgeable staff, a benevolent sun still beating down, a short stroll to the water source.... and another tasting. 

We've now finished our tour of the distilleries. The experience has been exhilarating, the company an utter blast, and the whiskies delightful. There are some really stand out drams on the horizon. What's more, I was particularly impressed with the commitment to "age statement whiskies". I've deliberately not entered the "which tastes better" debate, for me it's an absolute non-starter - whisky is the most egalitarian of spirits - if you like what you're tasting then who's to say you're wrong? No, for me, the mileage lies in exposing marketing bollocks such as "the tyranny of the age statement" for what it actually is.   

We leave Aberfeldy with a bottle each of hand fill single cask lusciousness, enjoying the moment, rain threatens and then retreats. One of our merry band is gently persuaded to open a "spare" bottle (destined for a festival in the not too distant future)...after a moment's hesitation she acquiesces and bonhomie once again asserts itself within the coachette. 

Roll mop: Like the wonderful drams we were experiencing, conversations ebbed and flowed, obscure connections appeared to weave themselves seamlessly into a coherent tartan thread. I dismiss a comment about there being snow on the hills (in July!) as being fanciful, only to realise that it was indeed an accurate observation. If ignorance is bliss then I must be the most euphoric of individuals. The geology of Scotland, the history of the distilleries we passed, the value of whisky, the impact of independence, the "characters" of the whisky world were all picked over (in a lighthearted way).

The conversation turned to focus to our place of destination for the evening - Edinburgh. With the mighty splendour of the Fourth Bridge to our left, and a semi static line of lorries & cars in front of us, mutterings of traffic chaos ensued. But the bridge!

What a bridge! All splayed steel teeth and girth, spearing the North Sea like some outlandish meccano zip, fashioned into wrought beauty, gripping both sky and sea. A series of Andy Warhol lip-like sofas pouting at nature.  From certain angles there's even a Tartanesque quality to the spans, uprights, the general weft of the metal. 

It was as we crawled along the A90 that one of our group, let's call him "roll mop" (for culinary reasons that can't be revealed in this blog), began to wax lyrical about Edinburgh's new tram system. His enthusiasm was self evident, despite the demands of the day and the general air of tiredness within the group, his movements were animated, his voice shifted up a semi-tone, his breathing became shallow as he tried to eject words in an increasingly agitated attempt to infect his audience with his tram passion. It suddenly occurred to me....could it be that Roll mop was.....a tramsexual? 

Now I'm aware that the love of a long, thin, metal tube that squirts passengers out from time to time might simply be a reflection of one mans love of transport machinery........however, just as Santa squeezing down a thin chimney before emptying his sack over the floor could well be indicative of a love of Christmas, there may be more to it than meets the eye. This was an elephant in the coachette that couldn't be ignored....I felt compelled to ask the question! I also felt that the supportive environment, the presence of friends, an air of liberality & laissez faire might encourage Roll mop to "out" himself, to release the pent up frustrations of decades of secrecy and shame, to allow him to wax lyrical about his love of the street-car, his desire for girder rail, and his titillation at all things "tram".

"Are you a tramsexual?"....pregnant pause...

....and that was that. Or so I thought. After the briefest of moments came the retort...."Are you a dramsexual?". This was indeed an unexpected turn within the conversation, and one that I have since ruminated on from time to time. The answer to the question.....well that's another story.

It was a truly wonderful two days. When the new Dewar's expressions hit the streets they will, no doubt, cause quite a stir. I'm looking forward to trying them again as a fleeting embrace was simply not enough. 

When I use the word "privilege" I do so with an understanding of all that the word means. It was a privilege to spend time with fellow passionistas in surroundings that were/are majestic, uplifting, serene, tasting whiskies that told stories of the past and provided hints at what the future might hold, developing deeper understandings of whisky production and the people who make it happen, making connections, unearthing passions that had lain dormant for some time, and adding an indelible stamp into the memory bank.....thanks one and all.

As for the "smoke me a kipper" reference -