Saturday, 2 December 2017

A Whisky Christmas - “It’s not the gift.” -  A few reflections on the process of giving.


                                                                   "The Mission"

The planning was over. He'd managed a little overnight sleep but in those early morning, winterchill hours the mission was uppermost in his thoughts. The timing had to be perfect, the site was confirmed, the car had been checked over, the targets had been researched, identified, and their locations within the building checked and rechecked. He knew which one to hit first, clinical, swift (but not too rushed), in/out, and on to the next target. He'd estimated that he could complete within 45 minutes. His military training was non-existent and he was relying on his distant memories of venture scout activities to provide him with the focus for what was to come. The 20 minute car journey was uneventful; he parked some way off from the entrance to the building, thereby lessening the chances of getting caught up in the anticipated bloat and heave of traffic when making his escape. Despite the crisp, clear, surgical cold of the December morning, a bead of sweat traversed his left temple.

It was 8.24am....he was three minutes ahead of schedule, a few punters, some shuffling, some striding purposefully, populated the vast space and the sound of metal shutters being raised, together with the drone of a floor cleaning machine offered an ironic counterpoint to the waft of cheery music that permeated the cavernous interior. There it was, Target 1, shutters slowly rising, the interior well lit, only two members of staff visible but that was OK, manageable. His pace quickened as he approached, he was in! Breathing a little shallow, voice a semi-tone higher than normal, he braced himself for the first hit ...“Do you still have the handbag that was advertised on the telly?", a nod of confirmation from the smiling attendant, he reached inside his jacket for his weapon....."Is that a credit or debit card Sir?".....and there it was, present 1 acquired, in the bag, both literally and metaphorically.....and now for Target 2!


Over the years many of us will have had a range of experiences when it comes to buying, giving and receiving gifts; from positive, slick, exciting experiences to stressful, disappointing, and exhausting experiences (with everything in between) .... and now we are here, at the sharp end of the "gifting" year, Christmas. I'll come back to Christmas a little later, before that, let's reflect a little on some surprisingly complex processes associated with "gifting". I might add at this point that, until recently, I wasn't aware of the word "gifting" as a verb but such is the beauty of language evolution.

Why do we give gifts? On the surface the answer is a simple one, we give them because we think they (whoever the recipient is) will like it; it will make them feel good or better in some way shape or form. This may well be true but it's only part of the process. One might argue that we give gifts because "giving them" makes us feel good. From St Paul "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35), to Albert Einstein, "The value of a man resides in what he gives and not what he is capable of receiving", the value and virtue of giving has been extolled over the millennia. Consider the last time you gave a dear friend or loved one a gift, the look of joy on their face, the smiles, the eye-contact, the warmth in the voice, the connection with them in that moment; it made you feel good didn't it? This doesn't mean that giving is a selfish act; it simply means that giving can be a reciprocal act of shared enjoyment, and as such, a moment to be savoured. The giving and receiving of a gift represents an emotional bond, the depth and complexity of which will depend on the relationship between the two parties, but make no mistake, the experience has an emotional/feelings component. 

                                                                         "The Gift."

When Princeton alumni, Van Dyke (Henry not Dick), wrote that "It's not the gift, but the thought that counts" was he on to something? What prompted such a sagacious statement? Was it some well thought through apologia to an acquaintance for whom he had purchased something that, on reflection, was a little "cheap" or a tad inappropriate? Was it a statement made after betraying his reactions to an odd gift from a dear friend? "I'm sure that when I purchase a sheep, the shears will come in very handy.....but anyway, it's not the gift, it’s ......" Let's consider this more closely; it's clear that if the gift is so way off beam, so out of touch with the recipient's world, then either not enough thought has gone into it, or the giver has little or no understanding of who you are. On the other hand, if the gift says more about the giver than the receiver then there is the potential for misunderstanding or disgruntlement. A well chosen gift is an expression of mutual empathy, a demonstration of our ability to connect to the affective/emotional state of another.

How often do we really try to empathise, to put ourselves in another's position; to lose our "self" in search of an awareness of someone else's world? Is it possible that our like and dislike of a gift is not primarily to do with the gift itself, but either consciously or unconsciously, to our belief that the giver either understands or does not understand elements of who we actually are? A well-chosen gift says "I know something of you and your world and I think that you might like and/or value this" An ill-chosen gift might say many things - "You don't know me at all", "You are giving to me what you really want for yourself", "You've been too busy to think of me" and so on. This doesn't make buying a gift a minefield; it simply suggests that we might need to dedicate time to a consideration of what the other person might really want. Done properly, the rewards for both parties can be profound.

                                                                "A Whisky" Christmas."

So then, let us briefly consider the Christmas experience. As a psychologist, the prospect of a red Santa, squeezing his way down a narrow chimney and emptying his sack over the floor leaves little room for manoeuvre within my Freudian imagination, but to confine Christmas to the reductionist unconscious would be churlish. It can be more, much more than that. Regardless of the religious connotations (which are well-documented), and attempts by the marketing machine to wrestle our free will to the ground, this time of year represents an opportunity to connect with those close to us and also to wider community. Yes, we could be doing this all year round, but, much like New Year's Day acts as a prompt for new ways of being, Christmas could act as either a prompt or a reminder that "giving" can be a mutually rewarding experience.

As a gift, whisky can be a truly wonderful choice. There are so many potential meanings behind the choice of whisky that you may buy for someone; a whisky that represents a first meeting ("Our eyes met across a crowded room at a … insert your favourite distillery here… tasting!"), a whisky that has a deeply personal resonance (a "birth" whisky - one distilled on or near the recipients birthday), an anniversary whisky (marriage date, length of time together etc), a whisky distilled in your favourite getaway/holiday location, a whisky who's flavours remind you of a particular time (Christmas notes, Caribbean notes etc), and so on.

A well-chosen whisky gift is not necessarily about how expensive it is, or how rare it is (I recognise that the two often go hand in hand), but is about the connection between the dram and the person who will be drinking it.

Slainte & (if you celebrate it) Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

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    

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Penderyn: Part of a bigger conversation

What connection does a distillery have with its surroundings?  Is context important when considering the location of a distillery? Clearly there are a number of logistical necessities (e.g. a suitable water source) but lets delve a little deeper. The easiest consideration of this question is located in an exploration of its geography and more often than not, the history associated with that geography. For many distilleries, with heritage stretching back for generations, talking to the past as a way of illuminating and exciting the present is a “privilege of heritage”; and one that is not available to every distillery. What of distilleries that don't have the luxury of decades, that don't have grainy black-and-white photos adorning musty and damp rock walls, the graffiti of generations etched into the out of kilter, off centre, architecturally suspect, cutesy nooks and crannies that seem to be the purview of many of our older distillery brethren?

The untrained eye could be forgiven for missing Penderyn distillery; it nestles by the side of an innocuous A-road, on a ribbon development that offers no clues as to history or context. You might drive through, only glimpsing the seam of gold on the distillery façade out of the corner of your eye and....gone...but that would be a shame. Heading North on the A4059, take a left turn just past the distillery and you are elevated quickly into rustic, yore byways, sunken, slate grey pubs and the cemetery stone overgrowth of a different history.

Get out of the car and you're walking in the footsteps of Welsh sinners wending chapel way, catching whispers of gossip on fading dialects borne on unalloyed Welsh air; it is peaceful, bucolic, and tinged with nostalgia...but back to business.

The satnav shenanigans failed to disrupt my morning given that I always set out to arrive around 30 minutes earlier than scheduled, and so it was that I arrived at Penderyn village with 5 minutes to spare. Five minutes in which to compose, prepare, focus, savour.....but I'd done no preparation, paradoxically, not preparing was the preparation. I was coming in cold, unarmed, but quietly confident that the conversation that was about to take place would be enjoyable, illuminative, interesting and, perhaps most importantly, underpinned with passion. In the event, I was not to be disappointed.

To be honest, I wasn't even sure who I would be meeting other than Jon Tregenna, the marketing manager who gave me a warm welcome. My brief was remarkably simple, just two words, Penderyn was a taboola rasa, a blank slate on which I could choose to daub my notes. 

A brief introduction and a skip up the stairs to the Boardroom where I met fellow conversees, Stephen Davies, the MD of Penderyn, and Sian Whitelock, the commercial director. Stephen and Sian evolved into the distillery business from the somewhat less glamorous steel industry (a fortuitous occurrence in the light of the current economic challenges) but are now fully immersed in all things whisky. Jon's route into the business was somewhat unconventional (a YouTube ambush of a Penderyn competition no less!) We began to talk....

The short, slow and steady history of Penderyn. 

Opened in 2004 and slowly increasing production to 230,000 70cl bottles last year this is a distillery short on history but long on ambition. That 230,000 total is nearer half a million if you include the other spirits produced at Penderyn (e.g. Brecon Gin, Five Vodka & Merlin cream liqueur). Fundamental questions had to be answered in the early days – Steve: "We knew from the off that we had to make the business a certain size in order to make it viable, and there were some tough conversations early on with the shareholders in terms of "Do you want to be a large part of something small, or a small part of something a bit bigger, but that's only going to be viable in the longer term. These were difficult conversations to have..." The successful resolution of those fundamental questions clearly provided the management team with a sense of direction and commitment; the Penderyn journey had begun. 

So what of the whiskies themselves? There is an expanding range of expressions with the Madeira finish being the most well known. These are whiskies that more than hold their own in the category that I would call "aperitif" drams and are drams that I often refer to as "dangerously quaffable!” They are not "heavy hitters" in terms of drams that place a ransom note on your palate, but they possess a clean, light, fruitiness that is having an increasingly broad appeal both nationally and globally. In terms of current debates within the whisky world, it is interesting to note that their predominant output is in the NAS (no age statement) arena. Indeed, it would be fair to say that, since opening in 2004, Penderyn has worn its heart on its sleeve in relation to a commitment to NAS expressions. This was not without its challenges and in the beginning there was a recognition that this market was somewhat uncertain, Steve: "Back in 2004 we were one of the first to produce NAS whisky and a lot of people weren't convinced at the time (2004). That's changed now and a lot of the major brands are doing it for a lot of good reasons; yes, due to shortage of stock, but also the realisation that you can make good NAS was nice that we there early and it hopefully gives us some credibility". I was curious to know if there were any plans for diversification into the "age statement" market. My question was met with an unequivocal and unified "No" from Sian, Steve and Jon. Steve went on to say "...we don't plan to put an age statement on the whiskies. We might do special editions e.g. Vintage 2000, but it would be wrong of us, almost dishonest, to suddenly say that age statements are important." (Note to self: Honesty is a thread that runs through much of this conversation). 

So first principles were established; honesty, commitment to high quality spirit, and a sense of Penderyn’s place in relation to Brecon and the wider Welsh context; so how to "grow the product"? The marketing of Penderyn is certainly worthy of consideration. The honesty associated with their commitment to the whisky is echoed in the marketing choices that they have made. Whilst not shunning the traditional Welsh cultural stereotypes, the message from Penderyn selectively taps into icons that resonate with what one might guardedly call a more contemporary audience. There is none of the traditional Welsh folksiness that for many would have been the obvious choice for the first commercial whisky produced in Wales. There are no leeks, Welsh ladies in tall hats sat spinning wool outside a bwthyn by a llyn, no daffodils; instead, you will see a contemporary thread that connects to a modern Wales. 

The cultural currency of their marketing hints at a more recent past (Dylan Thomas - A Sherrywood expression in the Icons of Wales series), locates itself in innovative contexts (Welsh Rugby - The “Grand Slam” expressions & "That Try"), and interconnects with a variety of artistic experiences (Welsh National Opera, the Penderyn Music Book Prize). Interestingly, it is only after recent discussions with their increasingly impressive European market that Penderyn have taken some more overt steps to "embrace the dragon" as it were. Sian - "...our connections in Europe (e.g. La Maison du Whisky) wanted a little more Welshness connected with the brand." The result can be seen in the "Myth" expression (ex bourbon cask - Buffalo Trace).

As someone who is interested in any opportunities for creativity within the whisky world and someone who has fumbled with guitar strings for decades, I was particularly interested in the Penderyn Music Book Prize. This is "the first UK prize specifically for music titles (history, theory, biography, autobiography)". Any connection between literary/musical luminaries such as prize judges John Cooper-Clarke, Shane McGowan, Beth Orton and Mark Lewisohn (inaugural winner with his book "The Beatles - All these Years: Volume One”), and the whisky community, is a bang on winner for me!

Two new Lantern Stills

So what about the future? In terms of creativity and innovation there are some exciting times ahead. The installation of Penderyn's own Mash Tun has created opportunities for a more nuanced approach to whisky production. The two Pot Stills and two Penderyn stills have increased opportunities to work with different styles of new make spirit, and there is a new, bespoke Penderyn bottle on the horizon (which I find really exciting!). The close collaboration with Dr Jim Swan (legendary distilling consultant) is set to continue. I noted that Steve referred to Jim as a tremendous force for creativity. 

Jon (who is a gifted "outside the still" thinker), will continue to seek stories that are "organic and honest to the business". He goes on to say that, in relation to the context of Penderyn, "we're part of a bigger conversation" which for me at that moment, was (and still is) an illuminative and telling statement. If passion was fuel then this distillery's tanks are full. The question "What does Penderyn distillery mean to you?" took the trio by surprise, but was answered with both eloquence and honesty. Sian - "It is part of me; it feels like my child, we get to bring the brand to life". Steve - "The first sip of Penderyn was astonishing to me. It's a very intense thing being part of a brand" Jon - “My grandfather was from the Rhondda, just over the mountain. I’ve always felt a strong connection here, and Penderyn defines the spirit of Wales.

So the guardians of whisky production at Penderyn are at their posts. There appears to be an exciting creative dynamic at work that, allied with a business acumen located at the coal face of the whisky business, bodes well for the future of this exciting distillery. I for one am excited by the possibilities.

This article was originally written for Issue 5 of Whisky Quarterly magazine. The magazine will soon be available as a free download.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Glenallachie, Glenallachie, Glenallachie - "A Heel Calling"

Is exciting the right word? I'm in the shed trying to tap into my emotional state as I ponder three whiskies separated by almost four decades. It will certainly be interesting. I've decided to write about the experience and that adds a certain frisson to the evening. I need to be attentive, I need to find ways of articulating my experience in a way that can both entertain and illuminate (history tells me that I will focus more on entertainment that illumination!).

The whiskies will be different, that's a given, but how different and in what ways? Will I like them?. Well that's almost always a given in that I am both blessed and cursed with a love of nearly all whisky I've ever tasted (with one or two notable exceptions). Will they fall into my favourite category, that of "smiler". You know the feeling, that moment when you lift a glass of whisky to your nose, take in the aromas ..... and you can't stop yourself, a smile insinuates itself into your visage - "it's a smiler of a dram". I'm going to enjoy this!

I'll be straight with you, I've had the 1973 for a few years, it was a smiler when I first opened it and it remains so, even though it's only a few drams short of gone. The other two are newbies.....and that's the key to my emotional state! It's antici........pation. "Anticipation", the lesser, more controlled and measured, less volatile cousin of excitement. And so it is, with high levels of anticipation and my whisky writers hat on, that I stand before these three bottles.

It is purely coincidental that this "review", (one of my very occasional whisky reviews), is released during a time of change at Glenallachie (see below). It will be interesting to monitor (and taste) developments over the next few years.

Pernod Ricard (Paris:RI) announces today the signing of an agreement with Billy Walker, Graham Stevenson and Trisha Savage, comprising The Glenallachie Consortium, for the sale of the Glenallachie Distillery, located in Scotland.
The transaction also includes the Glenallachie single malt brand, MacNair’s and White Heather blended scotch brands, and relevant inventories to support future development of those brands.

Anyway, back to the whiskies. A legitimate question that you might ask relates to the fairness of comparison. How can you possibly compare a 38yo with a 7 or 8 year old dram? In many ways, the question is academic, we can only deal with what's in the glasses in front of us at any time. Perhaps the most scientific way would be a blind tasting with the drams poured into dark glasses to avoid the influence of colour.....but I couldn't be arsed, so here goes.

Hepburn Choice Glenallachie 7yo. 2008 Single cask 301bottles 46%. Refill Hogshead

Nose: upon opening the bottle.....liquorice, fennel, anise... and lots of it. Subtle, faint hints of sulphur....a mustiness permeates. After a few minutes "al fresco", sherry influence begin to seep through.....raisins, dark fruits....a little chocolate perhaps.

Dry with some astringency, spicy (pepper), tobacco notes on the finish....nice

Medium....although the dry, peppery notes do linger somewhat.

It's a pleasant dram that had me a little confused at times, elements that spoke of age mingling with some more youthful "adolescent" kicking and shouting.

Signatory Vintage Glenallachie 1991 8yo Single Cask 902 bots 43%

Nose: Having to work quite hard here. A hint of liquorice/anise but nothing is jumping out at me. The legs are very impressive hinting at something deep and viscous.....but....very little on the nose. Distant hints of apple....maybe.

: Sweet and spirity. Some astringency.... The liquorice fades quickly and is followed by vague hints of vanilla....


Not a great whisky by any stretch, indeed, aside from its interest as a counterpoint to the other Glenallachie's, it's destined for one of my blending decanters.

Malts of Scotland Glenallachie 38yo 1973 Bourbon Hogshead 125 bots 44%

A cornucopia of glorious cliches....and some unusual notes, coconut, papaya, lychee...I could stay with this for a loooooong time.

It's like a comfort blanket woven from the finest thread, sewn with precision, infused with both history and presence. The citrusy tropical notes coat the mouth, there's a little dryness and subtle hints of oak. It's a your face but unassuming! It whispers quality....from the rooftops!

Medium to long.......farewell.

On a difference scale, the MoS dram is vastly different to the 7 & 8yo"s. Is that down to the age difference, well how the hell would I know? I am merely a cipher, a mediator, a translator of my experience of each dram. This is a "smiler" of a dram......truth.

So, it's done, the anticipation has dissipated, the drams drunk, opinions formed (but not set in stone), and reflections forming. My emotional state, mixed. I'm always disappointed when a whisky fails to impress and I was underwhelmed by the Signatory....but the Malts of Scotland bottling more than made up for that! 

As a bit of fun, set up a competition to see who could come up with the most apt anagram of "Glenallachie". There were some great responses (a few listed below)

Legal Lice...nah     @thedramble
Anal Chile Gel       @SpiritAndWood
A Gaelic Hell         @AlpacaJo
Hail Clan Glee       @ChrisPawson
Clean Legal Hi      @iheartwhisky
Call a heel gin       @AlpacaJo
Legal Chin ale       @CoherentGuile
All Hail Gneec       @dvdbloke
Chile Lalange       @pwulf

....but the winner was "A Heel Calling" from Mr Johnnie Stumbler @JohnnieStumbler

Extract from Chapter 14 of "Whisky: A Childhood (notes for my two boys)" (c) Alcock 2017.

.......and in 1973, as Noel Coward breathed his last, an oak cask in Glenallachie was being given the whisky kiss of life. Staves that may have dried, withered and succumbed, were caressed by an earthly spirit and, embracing that same spirit, a marriage was formed that would hold true for the next 38 years

....and in 1973 times were turbulent. The "troubles", a euphemism for the internecine politico/religious warfare between the "British" and the "Irish" (in the shape of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA), expressed itself in the form of bombs in London & Manchester, children attacking army troops, deaths and accusations..... no progress and the promise of more to come. Another war, the "cod" war, was rolling out across the Atlantic as we proudly defended our fishing fleet from those who would "steal our cod".....I kid you not. Rail workers were on strike, civil servants were on strike, and miners were dying in colliery disasters (Lofthouse and Markham).

Spread over the year,  these events had little impact on me, I felt sad at times, angry at times, confused at times, and, on reflection, I can see that as I processed each event, the jigsaw of my sensibilities was being shaped, affirmed, deconstructed, and reshaped, I was changing. Indicators of who I was to become were forming.

....and in 1973 times were, as they always were, punctuated by sporting highs - Ian Porterfield's goal to win the FA Cup against a much fancied Liverpool. A David and Goliath event that (unless you were a Liverpool fan) stirred the soul and provided us with a sense of power, optimism, and hope. Punctuated by new options for travelling, new cars were revealed, the exotic "Austin Allegro". Punctuated by news of Royalty, who surfed the waves of popularity, bestowing on the populous a sense of stability, of trust in higher things, and unconsciously reaffirming our place in the world - Princess Anne married Mark Philips. We were introduced to new forms of eating as Pizza Hut opened their first restaurant.   

....and in 1973....Dark Side of the Moon....was released! That simple , iconic cover that came to mean so much to so many (myself included) hit the streets on the 24th March. I was 14 and continuing to flex my somewhat flimsy, adolescent muscles. I was also still immersed in Catholicism, it encased me like an iron lung, heavy, pressing, restricting my movement, exerting a painful grip on the child as the ever so young man tried to break free. Mum and dad, unbeknown to them, were the ward orderlies, dressing (and addressing) me in the acoutrements of their religion. It had become their religion and not mine, even though I was still wearing it like a hair shirt ..... fuck me, I was still an altar boy!

Now for those of you not familiar with the regimens of religious practices, "altar boy" was not denoting of any super powers, it wasn't the ecclesiastical/adolescent equivalent of Superman or Spider-Man, I was not able to look into people's eyes and see their sins from 100 yards away (now that would be a power!). No, every Sunday I would don the black and white cassock and parade myself in the church as the priest's assistant, self-conscious, increasingly uncomfortable, hoping that there would be no girls that I knew in the congregation, (my emerging sexuality did not sit well with role playing a servant in a dress every Sunday). But there I was, mouthing the words of the mass (still latin at that time), In nómine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Ae secolor secolorum, Gloria in exelsis....and so on. 

Even now I can remember the rhythmic thrum of the congregation, mouthing phrases that they had mouthed for the last week, year, decade, decades. I can see the familiar, devout, regular church goers, some holding rosary beads, some in a soma like reverie, some ticking off the prayers as if they were unpicking stitches in a wound they had inflicted on themselves, some with the look of browbeaten supplicants, plaintif's at a hearing they have no hope of winning, some wearing the smiles of the beatified, content, grateful, relieved, but in the eyes of the church, they/we/I ....were sinners one and all. My rupture from Catholicism was some way off, and the desire to be free was growing more powerful as each week passed.

...but back to Floyd. My brother Tony, got tickets for us to see them at the Liverpool stadium. In that mid adolescent maelstrom of emotion, seemingly innocuous events elevate to events of dramatic importance, and this was one of them.

.......more to follow.

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Friday, 30 June 2017

Don't mess with my baby.....Knob Creek 9yo vs Knob Creek NAS

This isn't an ambush, I know what I might be getting into, indeed, I'm drawn inexorably to experience it.....but there are dangers. Knob Creek 9yo has been one of my go to, bang for your buck bourbons for many years. I'd transitioned through the childhood traumas of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, I'd had treatment for ptds (post traumatic dram stress) and I'd emerged on the other side. Yes, during the transition from adolescent to adult there were the inevitable puking like a dog moments, the "I'll never drink again" moments, the opprobrium of strangers, the memory loss, the waking up in unfamiliar environments; countless floors in unknown locations, swaddled in carpet/duvet/blanket/towel, in beds, baths, chairs and sofas, in strange houses, a different city, a rubbish skip on Oxford Road (Manchester, 1979), a different country (Dublin, Ireland 1982), a police name but a few. I'd worked diligently through the embarrassment, humiliation, occasional moments of clarity and retained a reasonable, if at times flimsy, grip on my sense of self, but I'd experienced nothing that might turn a whiskey into my own personal kryptonite.... and here I was, with two bottles in front of me, (and not a frontal lobotomy - badum tish!) 

     Setting the scene.

Ah, the whiskey boom! The growing realisation that this glorious liquid offers big rewards to drinkers for relatively little investment. The inevitable increase in demand, the commensurate increase in production (for some distilleries), the realisation that the impact on stocks was far more pronounced than at first thought, and then the panic. Cue the marketers....."How can we turn this into a positive?" Now I'm a fairly phlegmatic individual, the situation regarding stocks is what it is, the industry will learn from it and plan accordingly, there are some great NAS expressions out there (and some poor ones), the same goes for age statements. But….to be honest, I'm totally fucking bored with the "age statement/no age statement' debate. There have been some high quality, illuminative posts written but now the arguments have all been aired endlessly, and yet it seems as though the world and it's wife still seek opportunities to wax unlyrically, to rake over old coals, and to regurgitate overly masticated sound bites as novel insight.

Now here’s the thing, whilst I’ve come to terms with the NAS/age statement tension, I don’t like to be taken for a sap. I kick back vigorously against perceived clumsy and ill thought through attempts at manipulation. I first experienced this in my whisky world when I was faced with the phrase “the tyranny of the age statement”. Like all good marketing strategies, the trick is to interlace elements of a message that are widely accepted with the bullshit in the hope that the receivers of the message will accept the statement as a factual whole. In this instance, there is reference to the debate around a perception that older whisky is, simply by virtue of its age, better than younger whisky (including NAS whisky).

It’s a discussion that I’m sure many/most/all of you will have had at some point, so far so good. Now here’s the kicker, the statement refers to the “tyranny” of the age statement. If you accept the statement as a whole then you are accepting the fact that you have been tyrannized, you have been oppressed, repressed, suppressed, browbeaten…..and you didn’t know it until it was pointed out to you! Patronising bullshit! I could go on but I need to refocus on Knob Creek…..

The pitch for the successor

When the stock crisis began to bite we began to see statements such as: 

“Given our stocks of ageing Knob Creek, we will in future years use liquid on both sides of nine years to ensure that we always maintain the brand’s taste standard….This means the Knob Creek label will no longer feature an age statement.

Let’s consider the statement. Kudos for the honesty re the stock situation, there’s an intriguing hint at possibilities of both younger and older Knob, a commitment to maintaining standards, and to finish, an unequivocal statement re the loss of the age statement. If it ended there I would be disappointed but accepting, it’s not their fault that stocks are low, alongside most other whisky producers they are a victim of their own success….but….they didn’t stop there.

Such carefully chosen words, lovingly assembled, crafted to derail accusations of falsehood or fraudulent advertising. It’s not claiming that the liquid tastes the same as the 9yo, simply that the taste profile is the same……and the two can be very different. The phrase “the only thing that’s changing is the label” surely borders on an untruth. What was bourbon aged for 9 years is being replaced with “liquid on both sides of nine years” How can both liquids be the same? What follows is an acceptable sliver of virtue signalling common to any promotional copy: -

“Knob Creek will always stand for big, full-flavoured bourbon – one
that’s distilled, aged and blended in limited quantities and bottled at 100 proof, to achieve the award-winning, consistent taste profile that Booker Noe demanded. THAT’S what defines Knob Creek.

It ends with a common strategy used in attempts to influence attitude change – the positive association. If A says it’s good (and “A” is a well-known, well respected, expert in the field) then it must be good.

“Fred Noe is in charge of determining the liquid that’s put into the bottle, and it’s not Knob Creek until he says so.”


Everything is designed to send out the message, “this is as good as the 9 year old”….I needed to find out for myself.

Knob Creek 9yo & NAS: Two Knobs rubbing against each other

The tasting was done blind. A dram of each was poured for me and I was left to ponder, to taste, to cogitate, to drink, to savour......or not as the case may be. For the purpose of the exercise the bourbons will be referred to as Dram A and Dram B.

The Nose:

Dram A: Tobacco leaves, musty, sweet herbaceous notes, hints of vanilla, alluringly medicinal, it is both vibrant and lively. I've already formed an opinion!

Dram B: It's "dram A lite", a skinnier expression, I'm having to work harder. It's not unpleasant. It's as if A and I are staring intently at each other whilst B throws me a sideways, diffident glance. B is sharper, more clinical, terse, and there's little in the way of complexity. Not unpleasant but nothing to dram on about.

The Palate

Dram A: A warmth pulsates around the mouth, sweet & spicy, I smile, wood shavings, teak oil, tobacco, hints of chocolate and caramel, cinnamon and brown sugar. The finish is quite long, spicy and the warmth stays with me. A lovely interplay between barley, rye and charred cask. I close my eyes and am in one of my go to whiskey locations, sat in a wing-back chair in a musty bookshop fumbling a worn copy of Mr Wilde's "The picture of Dorian Gray"

Dram B: Take everything down a notch, put the palate mufflers on, and let the whiskey whisper to your senses. It's not inaudible, it's not's just not quite there. It feels somewhat emaciated, as if the core essence of "what was" has been hollowed out and "what is" is something else, a doppelgänger, a dupe, an imposter. It's a not so evil twin, a bourbon antagonist in an NAS whiskey soap opera, it's both of Cinderella's sisters jealously prodding their more accomplished nemesis.....I realise what I'm doing, I'm writing as if Dram B is the NAS.

Remember, at this point I still haven't been told which dram is which....but surely there can be only one answer. I admit to feeling slightly trepidatious as I ask my partner to carry out the big reveal. If I've got it wrong I'll feel bad, it will ruin my evening, but I will cope; after all, it's just whiskey and there are bigger things going on in the world.....but I am not wrong. Dram A is indeed the 9 year old I've come to love and appreciate.

Don't get me wrong, Knob Creek NAS isn't a disaster, indeed, were I in a boozer, in convivial company, near the end of an engaging evening, enjoying a hauf ‘n hauf, it would most certainly hit the D spot. However, when it's sat next to its older brother, looking longingly at him, wide eyed, in awe, hoping that one day it will do the things that he can do, it pales, it wails....and it fails.

The new expression may be patiently aged, but it is, in my opinion patently inferior....and sold at the same price point. It's still decent but now sits alongside a host of other bourbons as opposed to looking down on them.

Post script: As a result of my experience, the very next day I trawled the internet seeking out the 9yo. I ordered two bottles only to find that, upon delivery, they were the new NAS. I returned the bottles and, when seeking other bottles of the 9yo, I asked the sellers to verify that they were stocking the 9yo, only to find that 90% of them were showing the 9yo on their websites but were actually stocking the NAS. Buyer beware!