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 -