Sunday, 14 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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


Please note - these aren't the staff!

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

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

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

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

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

....and Annabel working hard as well!

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

Forward momentum

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

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

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

You can't drink a Jimmy Choo!

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 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.


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 -