Sunday, 6 September 2015





Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Irish Eyes are Smiling

Hyde 10yo Presidents Cask - 46%

Picture from

There was once a time when the emerald isle could boast more distilleries than you could shake a shillelagh at. Then, in the mid to late 19th century, things took a downward turn. A combination of factors, not least the second wave of temperance and Scotland's adoption of the Coffey still, resulted in the near total annihilation of Irish distilleries. In fact, at one point, whiskey production in Ireland was, quite literally, a two-horse race.

Skip forward to modern times and the Irish whiskey industry is booming, huzzah! However, this poses a problem to would-be whiskey barons. You see, whiskey isn't an 'instant' product like gin or vodka. Apart from the minimum maturation period required by law, the vast majority of people would agree that even Irish whiskey, historically a lighter spirit, needs a good five years or so in the barrel before hitting its stride. Five years is an awful long time to have no turnover. So how does an up and coming distillery make a name for itself and start tapping the whiskey-fever tree for all that lovely sap? Simple, they play independent bottler for a while.

This limited release Hyde 10yo from Hibernia Distillers was, rumour has it, sourced from Kilbeggan's Cooley distillery. Having spent 10 years maturing in first-fill bourbon barrels, it was finished for a period of six months in toasted Oloroso sherry casks. Cut with Irish spring water to a robust strength of 46%, it has also been spared the indignity of chill-filtration. I'm liking the sound of this already. How does it taste?


Malt loaf, banana bread, nectarines and grape must. Plenty going on and a lovely balance. Give it a while and a couple of drops of water and a creaminess develops, putting me in mind of vanilla and honey semifreddo.


Big, bi-hi-hig delivery with spirit bubblegum and bourbon wood. Black pepper and peaches with the occasional floral flash. Caramel ice-cream pops its head up now and again but only to whisper hello. With water, like the nose, the whole affair becomes creamier.


Medium-long in length with spices galore. Unashamedly bold and oaky.


Very competent and well constructed. The nose is the star of the show although the palate is most enjoyable, if a tad unbalanced and spirit-led at full strength. The finish is hearty and substantial.
Quite the opening gambit from Hibernia. Currently available online for a shade over £50, NCF and bottled at 46%. If this is a sign of things to come, count me in.
Thanks to Hibernia Distillers for the official sample.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Cutty Sark Tweet Tasting

Cutty Sark 33yo - 41.7%

In celebration of the launch of their Art Deco inspired 33 year old whisky, Cutty Sark recently teamed up with The Whisky Wire to create a live Twitter tasting of the new release. Following this, in honour of World Cocktail Day, were some era-appropriate whisky cocktails with a twist (I couldn't resist it) prepared by the chaps at the White Lyan Bar, who are to cocktails what Heston Blumenthal is to food.

Now, I have to state for the record that whilst eating, sleeping and (of course) drinking whisky, I'm a complete cocktail dunce. Up until quite recently, I thought a Rusty Nail was a tetanus risk and an Old-Fashioned was an intimate act performed on the back seat of a car. I was glad to find out, therefore, that we were to start the event firmly within whisky territory.

Cutty Sark 33yo - 41.7%

Massive hit of honeyed bourbon wood to start; it really is the major player here. Joining the oak are wax, polish and vanilla, with the pleasant dustiness you sometimes find in older whisky. It's a low ABV whisky, so I dare not add water to this but am pleased to say a little warming in the hands releases sweet aromas. Caramel, poached pears and fleeting cinder-toffee notes. After a while the whole affair turns a bit bready; biscuits and lady fingers spring to mind but the wood and wax are always there in the background, keeping things from getting too sweet. It's a wonderful experience that rewards patience.

Gentler than I expected. The first thing that strikes me is citrus; soft, pink grapefruit and lemon peel. A few more sips and the flavour starts to build, not too much though; while robust, this couldn't be labelled as overblown. There's a freshness and vibrance here that belies its age. Well structured with waves of fruit, honey, wood, spice and more fruit. A few more sips and the whisky shows a herbal side with peppercorns and warming spices near the finish. The bourbon wood note is very prominent here too. A well engineered blend, although one to enjoy on a clear palate as, apart from that weighty, citrus/wood core, a lot of the supporting flavours are subtle.

I'm a big fan of trying to dissect blends, although I'm awful at it, so I'd love to know what's in here. Whatever it is, the team at Cutty Sark aren't telling. This has one of the best noses I've experienced on a blended whisky. So much going on, so entertaining and it really showcases what can be achieved with the right stock and the right skill. The palate delivers too, although plays second fiddle to the nose, in my book. This is currently available on the Cutty Sark website for £650, so although not particularly rich on the palate, it is too rich for my blood.

Cocktail 1: Artist's Special
Cutty Sark Original
Oloroso Sherry

Ok, I'm breaking new ground here. I'm sat in my manly chair at my manly table with a frozen, long-stemmed conical glass (ice is a dirty word at White Lyan), quarter-filled with a bright red/pink liquid. My wife, used to seeing me through a haze of peat fumes, is giving me some very strange looks. The shape and temperature of the glass aren't really conducive to proper nosing notes, so I hope for the best and take a sip.

In for a penny......
Do you know what? It's not half-bad. Actually it's rather good. The whisky definitely makes its presence felt and there's Oloroso in there dialled up to 11. I can certainly taste the redcurrant but the lemon is in the background keeping things honest. The Oloroso keeps coming back in a big way but the mix is such that the individual flavours never get truly lost. I'm not considering buying a white suit and some aviator shades just yet but this is certainly interesting.

Cocktail 2: Seelbach
Cutty Sark Original
Triple Sec
Soda Water

I confess to not knowing the difference between soda water and sparkling Highland Spring, but I can't see my ignorance having too detrimental an effect so I plough on. As I start to consume another red/pink drink, Mrs Stumbler makes a joke about a tutu but I'm too busy dancing round my handbag to hear it properly.

Don't drink and tweet, folks.
Worryingly, this one's pretty good too. A little more grown up than the first. Loving the acidic edge and the drying/mouthwatering finale. Again, the whisky is evident but not the star of the show by any means. Not quite sure what 'Bitters' are but I like them; I'm guessing nothing to do with John Smith's.

Cocktail 3: Beeswax Old Fashioned
Cutty Sark Original
Beeswax (yes, actual beeswax)
Gold Flakes

This one calls for a frozen whisky glass; that, I can do. Unlike the previous two, this has a hue I'm more used to in my glass, although crumbled cork pieces usually look up at me from the bottom, not gold. After briefly wondering whether this would have a 'disco-ball' effect somewhere in my near future, I figure what the hell. for a pound
Superb. I mean, just superb. I'll admit I know nothing about cocktails but I know what I like. This is heavy, honeyed and chewy. Really bang on. A great one to finish the night on and takes the cocktail crown for me. 

Final Thoughts
Not only has this been immense fun, it's been a real eye opener. Whilst, I can't see myself frequenting trendy cocktail bars, or even doing 2-4-1 Jagerbombs in a sticky-carpeted Yates' Wine Lodge, this has certainly dispelled a few misconceptions I had about the subject as a whole. I dare say I'll be tempted one day to have a crack at it, in my own ham-fisted way. That being said, whisky is my true passion and the highlight of the evening for me was getting to try Cutty Sark's latest offering. Whilst I can't see myself stretching for the 33yo, the quality it exhibits makes me want to check out the rest of the range.

Huge thanks to the teams at Cutty Sark and White Lyan for catering, to Steve for organising and conducting the evening and to my fellow tasters for the belly-laughs, banter and bonhomie. A true pleasure.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

SMWS does Feis Ile

SMWS 3.243 Dark, smouldering flamenco gypsy - 57.1%


May is upon us. In the mind of the peat-head that can mean only one thing - Feis Ile, the Islay festival of malt and music. For it is at this time of year the phenolic faithful descend upon the Queen of the Hebrides to visit her distilleries, sample her wares and snap up a few of the distillery-only festival bottlings on offer.


Such is the popularity of this annual pilgrimage that over the past couple of years, a few of the better known independent bottlers have got in on the act and put out their own releases to commemorate the festival, and this year is no exception.

This year those marvellous chaps over at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (Declaration of Interest: I'm a member and a huge fan) will be holding their own Feis Ile open day on Friday 22 May at the Islay House Hotel, Bridgend. Open to members and non-members alike, the event will play host to, amongst other things, a couple of SMWS Masterclasses and the release of their very own Feis Ile bottling. Sourced from Islay's oldest distillery, the whisky has been matured in a refill sherry butt for over 17 years and bottled at its cask strength of 57.1%.
I have to admit that official bottlings from this specific distillery can leave me a little underwhelmed, although some of the best independent versions I've tried have come from the cellars of SMWS (Mermaids at play, anyone?). This is going to be interesting.
Fruity! A robust hit of prunes and caramelised apples with menacing wafts of smoke and bitumen. Molasses, scorched timber and crispy, sweetcure bacon. A little time to bloom produces dry varnish and buffed mahogany. The nose strikes an excellent balance between peat and sherry without sacrificing the finer points of each.
Initially powerful, although the initial blast fades quickly and leaves a medley of jammy fruits and peat. Thick, chewy mouthfeel that opens up into plums and figs with ginger and cinnamon lending support.
Long and warming. Doesn't overload the senses with heat and spice on the way out, even at full strength. Leaves the mouth coated with a mixture of burnt maple bacon and the dying embers of a wood fire.
The society puts out a lot of bottlings from this distillery, some less to my tastes than others, but when they get it right, they can be spectacular. This is very good indeed. The flavour profile screams autumn/winter rather than spring/summer but there's no denying the quality in the glass. Someone grab me a bottle while you're over there.
Sample provided by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Cry God for Harry........

English Whisky Chapter 16 - Peated, Sherry Cask - 46%

Kicking arse and taking names (and slaying dragons)

Englishmen. We're a strange breed. An historic hotch-potch of Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Norsemen and Celts, we love a good queue, think nothing of going out in the midday sun and have a nasty habit of getting a bit 'fighty' and invading other countries (sorry about that, by the way). Where we really excel, however, is in the art of tutting; we're World Champions at it.

Walter J. Stumbler frowns upon your shenanigans
I myself come from a long line of accomplished tutters. In fact, I have it on good authority that my grandfather tutted for Oxford and would have gone to the '48 Summer Olympics had he not relinquished his amateur status shortly after the war.

One thing guaranteed to provoke a chorus of tuts up and down the land is the subject of St. George's Day. What follows is a conversation heard in my office yesterday:

#1: "St. George's Day tomorrow."
#2: "Yeah."
#1: "Why don't we ever celebrate it?"
#2: "Dunno."
#1: "The Irish go mad for St. Paddy's"
#2: "Yeah."
#1: "Tut."
#2: "Tut."

Every. Bloody. Year.

Definitely worth a visit
Evidently, those chaps down at the St. George's distillery in Norfolk have bucked the trend of apathetic patriotism and, by putting out some excellent young whisky, have been doing their damnedest to put the spirit back into St. George. Therefore, I think it's only fair that on today of all days, I do my duty as an Englishman and sample the spirit coming out.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

School pencil cases, or rather, the contents. The first thing that comes through here is old pencil sharpenings mixed with wax and wisps of burnt rubber. This isn't giving off a lot of peat but there's a pleasing smoke there. Sweeter aromas come to the fore as the casks start making a play, although with a sugariness that puts me in mind of rum rather than sherry. A bit of patience brings dates, sugared almonds and toffee. 20

A little thin to begin with. Hot, spicy and a tad flat. Give it a while though and a sweet creaminess builds, the woody smoke makes an appearance and...yep...there's the peat. Ten minutes go by and the palate becomes more fleshed out, more structured and more-ish. Orange oil, cinnamon, cardamom and a touch of clove. Still a tad on the fiery side so a few drops of water is advisable to calm things down. 21

Roaring finish with a decent amount of wood, spice and sherried nuttiness. Excellent length, if a little numbing. 22

Very good. A bit of wood, a bit of smoke, a whisper of peat and some sherried sweetness to hold it together. Balancing peat and sherry can be a tricky business but I'm glad to say that nothing really gets too boisterous to take away from the overall presentation. 21

This took a lot of opening up before the quality came through, but come through it did. It's a precocious malt with some excellent traits. Wish I'd bought a full bottle.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Arran Whisky Tweet Tasting

Arran Whisky: A Journey

Ahh, they grow up so fast. It seems like barely a moment ago that the chaps at Arran whisky were making solid progress with their 12yo and thrilling us with their 14yo. Now their whisky has earned the right to vote (just in time!) and the eagerly awaited 18yo has hit the shelves. 

Not content with this, they're also on the verge of their first "White Stag" release, a bottling chosen by their very own members' tasting panel. Needless to say, when I saw the opportunity to give them a bash, I didn't hesitate.

Arran Sauternes Finish - 50%

Hello honey! Sweet opening with some fruit lurking in the background. The fruit develops more clearly into peaches, pears and maybe a hint of strawberry mousse. With patience, the whole affair becomes more syrupy; the peaches are tinned and there's some grape must in the mix. A little more time brings barley sugar and a hint of spice.

Oof! After being seduced by the sweet playful nose, a bit of oomph on the palate catches me by surprise. Thick, sweet and honeyed with a fair amount of fire in its belly; good level of spice here. Fruity but underscored by a pleasing woodiness. A bit of time delivers more fruit, honey and some stem ginger but all the while there's a decent amount of wood to keep things from getting too one-trick.

One for the sweet-toothed among you. It's good quality, although not especially balanced. A good after-dinner dram.

Arran 18yo - 46%

This is a little more balanced than the Sauternes finish.There's a creaminess at first but this is tempered by a light, waxy note. Green orchard fruits to follow and some herbal flashes. Very good indeed with plenty going on. The nose is changeable but nothing ever shouts too loudly and spoils the party. After a while the fruit drops away and it goes a bit floral. Superior.

Soft, patient arrival with a grassy, herbal, floral vibe. This opens up into a sweet, buttery pastry wrapped around apple compote. Every inch as balanced on the palate. A little demerara sugar and a fine, woody finale. Not the thickest of whiskies but excellent structure nonetheless.

Balance is the key word here. This is an excellent example of what can be done with the right presentation and an excellent approach to blending. One to sit and savour.

Arran 13yo Single Bourbon Cask #99/103 - 55.3%

Wood shavings to start, with a light, dill pickle note I'd usually associate with bourbon or virgin oak. Lively, so don't nose it too closely. Hob-nobs. Yup. Vanilla custard develops with some tropical fruits and a whiff of damp cellar. Very interesting.

Big, alcoholic punch to begin with but settles down quickly. Unripe mango and a hearty blast of sea-spray. Here comes the fruit and also a pleasing amount of sweet-shop goodies, namely fudge and salted caramels. With water (recommended) it becomes a lot more civilised and adopts a position of balance between sweetness and wood. A nice nutty note nearing the finale too.

Lacks the refinement of the 18 but makes up for it in fun. Big, shouty and unashamed. With water, it's a different beast entirely; so much more structured and cerebral. Quite an achievement.

Arran White Stag Bottling - 1st Release - 54.2%

Unusual. Not what I expected from an oloroso cask at first. Very rich and buttery with the merest suggestion of menthol. A touch of wax too. Patience brings a whiff of coffee cake and steamed milk. Some icing sugar and even light treacle. As things open up we get into more familiar territory with the trademark oloroso nuttiness; hazelnuts, brazils and even a touch of walnut.

That coffee note is back, flanked by crisp, red fruits and a thick sweetness. Well balanced with lemon-pepper notes in one corner and candied fruits in the other. Beautiful mouthfeel and structure.

Whereas the Single Bourbon shouts and punches, this slips quietly in the back door and assassinates you. You don't see this one coming but, boy, does it deliver. A gem.

It's nice to see a good deal of variety in the line-up and I dare say there's something for everyone here. The team at Arran really does pump out some good stuff and, although some of their bottlings can be priced at the upper end of reasonable, I tend to find that they deliver. If I had to pick one to spend my hard-earned cash on though......'s the 18 that wins it for me. It's by no means a session whisky but if you want something to challenge, entertain and reward (and I do), this is the way to go. Keep an eye out for the White Stag though.

A big thank you to the team over at Arran for providing the treats, to Steve at The Whisky Wire for organising the whole affair and to my fellow tweet tasters. As always, a true pleasure.

Friday, 27 February 2015


Auchentoshan 1984 - Berry Bros. & Rudd - 46%

Educational, Entertaining, Eccentric

One of the most beautiful, and yet infuriating, things about this whisky lark is that as soon as you think you're close to figuring out the status quo, someone pulls the rug out from under you. That is precisely what happened to me towards the end of last year while standing in a small corner of an old, prestigious wine merchants in London.  

A little context, I think. The Berry Bros. & Rudd shop has existed in the St. James's area of London since 1698, although I have to admit, I only discovered it in 2013; still, better late than never. Tucked away at the back of the shop is a well-appointed spirits area where you'll invariably find Rob Whitehead, the shop's spirits specialist. Amongst the usual fare you'd expect to see in a prestigious London whisky shop, you will also find a range of single cask bottlings from their own whisky label, Berrys'. I recommend you try some; I've not come across a bad one yet.

Where was I? Right, the rug-pulling, gotcha. Whenever I go into the shop, Rob will end up pouring a few samples from the ever-changing Berrys' range. More often than not he'll do this without telling me what they are and let me have a guess. Whilst this can be tremendously fun, it also means I run the risk of making a complete prat of myself. On my last visit I managed to deftly sidestep ridicule by identifying one of the samples as an old grain but, just as I was starting to feel cocky, he crushed me with the most un-Auchentoshan Auchentoshan I have ever tasted. It was so intriguing, I ended up taking a bottle home with me.

Ladies and gentleman - I give you the Berrys' Auchentoshan 1984.

Parma violets and cut flowers at the outset with soft icing and lightly-candied tropical fruits. A few drops of water give off a light waxiness and old-school furniture polish. Fascinating and superb.

Wow. Huge hit of Parma violets, echoing the nose. Soap shavings and lemon rind. This is 80's Bowmore without the peat. Water brings a lighter citrus and more floral notes and hints of toffee as you approach the finish. It doesn't quite live up to the nose but it's hugely entertaining.

Medium in length. Woody citrus underscored by a lingering floral hum and a white pepper warmth long after the flowers have wilted.

You could have given me fifty guesses when I tasted this blind and I still wouldn't have been able to pin down the distillery. At 29 years, this is by far the oldest 'toshan I've tried. I don't know if they're all like this but the similarities with its Islay stable mate lead me to think that this was distilled after Morrison Bowmore acquired the distillery in 1984. 

Grade: A
I'm not the biggest fan of Auchentoshan and often find better quality in the independent bottlings. Even so, this is a cut above the rest. Entertaining, educational and a little eccentric. Bravo.