Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New releases > Jura 21 years old 200th Anniversary

jura 21 years old - 200th anniversary bottlingThe isle of Jura's only distillery
The Jura distillery is located on the isle of Jura, which lies off the west coast of Scotland next to the famous whisky island of Islay. The distillery was founded in 1810 by Archibald Campbell and was originally called the Small Isles distillery - named after the numerous small islands located in Craighouse Bay, which the distillery overlooks. It was closed for a long period between 1901 and 1960, at which point it was rebuilt and re-named as Jura by Charles Mackinlay & Co. Production restarted in 1963. The distillery has an annual production capacity of two million litres, which is reasonably large when considering its remoteness and the small population of the island (currently only 220 people). In fact, Jura translates as 'deer island' from the old Nordic language (in ancient times the island was invaded by Nordic warriors) and the deer out number people by a staggering ratio of 20:1.

Limited edition and special casks
The current owners of Jura are Whyte & Mackay, which is in turn owned by the Indian drinks company United Spirits. They use the whisky produced at Jura in their popular range of blended whiskies. However, they are putting more in to promoting Jura as a single malt whisky and sales have improved greatly. The current range consists of a 10, 16, 18 and 21 years old in a non-smoky style plus the mildly smoky Superstition and the very smoky Prophecy. There are other older or limited releases from time to time, such as this 21 years old, which has been specially selected to celebrate the distillery's 200th anniversary. This whisky has been finished in ex-sherry casks from the famous sherry bodegas of Gonzalez Byass, which date back to 1963 - the year that whisky production restarted at Jura. It is limited to just 1200 bottles, has a strength of 44% ABV and should cost around £90-100 from specialist retailers.

Our tasting notes
The colour of this 21 years old is golden amber and the nose seems initially sweet and malty. Distinct aromas of cereal grains are quickly joined by those of dark dried fruits (think of raisins, prunes and candied orange peel) and caramel. With time some more subtle aromas begin to come through - vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and something nutty (hard to pinpoint, but most reminiscent of walnuts). On the palate, this feels silky and rich and coats the inside of the mouth. There are plenty of caramel notes to begin with and with time, these turn slightly more towards burnt sugar. The notes of malty cereal and dried fruits from the nose develop well, with a particular emphasis on the candied orange peel. In fact, the combination with the increasing nutmeg and cinnamon notes are reminiscent of spiced oranges. The palate becomes increasingly dry and a slightly sulphuric coal smoke notes appears right at the end - this may sound unpleasant but adds much needed balance to the other much sweeter notes, especially the caramel. The finish is pleasant but surprisingly short, given the richness of the whisky. The dried fruits and caramel again play a big part before the spices, burnt sugar and malty grain notes finish things off.

What's the verdict?
This 200th Anniversary bottling is a pleasant and rich whisky that is very easy drinking. A mention must be made of the excellent packaging (which can be seen in the image, above) - the bottle stands on its own plinth, next to a rolled certificate of authenticity signed by Jura's Distillery Willie Cochrane (this doubles as an invite to visit the distillery), with a section that clips over the top and contains an old black and white photo of the distillery. The combination of its limited number, decent quality and innovative packaging make it a good choice as a present for a whisky lover, if your budget is around £90-100!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Have just tried > Kilkerran 'Work In Progress' 2

kilkerran 'work in progress' 2A distillery reborn
Kilkerran is a single malt whisky that is made at the Glengyle distillery. Glengyle is located in the town of Campbeltown, on the west Highland coast of Scotland. The distillery was founded by William Mitchell, who was co-owner with his brother John at the nearby Springbank distillery, in 1872. Glengyle’s history was relatively short and it closed down due to financial problems in 1925. It did not reopen until 2000, when Hedley Smith, the chairman of J&A Mitchell and Co. Ltd - the owners of Springbank, founded the Mitchell's Glengyle Ltd. Their aim was to completely refurbish the derelict buildings, restarting whisky production and attempt to kick-start the Campbeltown whisky industry. The first spirit was distilled in April 2004.

Local historical site
This Kilkerran Work in Progress 2 is only the second official single malt whisky released by Glengyle and is bottled at six years of age with a strength of 46% ABV. The first Work in Progress was released in 2009 and won much praise. The Work in Progress will be a series of whiskies released once a year and will chart the development of Glengyle’s Kilkerran whisky between the ages of five and twelve years. The name of ‘Kilkerran’ is derived from the Gaelic 'Caenn Loch Cille Chiarain' (which translates as 'head of the loch of Saint Kerran'). This was a site that Saint Kerran had travelled to in the Middle Ages and set up a religious group, which is where the town of Campbeltown now stands.

Our tasting notes
The colour of Work in Progress 2 is a light gold with a hint of brown. The nose is fresh and full of vibrant aromas - robust cereal grains come first and remain prominent throughout, with dried grasses (imagine straw), honey and vanilla notes coming through. There is also a zesty lemon tang and a whiff of floral honeysuckle. It is a promising beginning. On the palate, this is creamy and pleasantly coats the inside of the mouth. Again, the robust and distinctive cereal notes kick things off and they have a lovely gristy, oaty character. This gives a bittersweet edge which is complimented by some sweetness (think of honey and vanilla notes) and some fresh fruity notes (imagine the lemon zest again plus some green apples). There is also a pinch of pepper spice and increasing dryness with the dried grassy notes from the nose coming through strongly. This dryness and the peppery nature get carried through to the finish, which is of decent length for a young, fresh whisky. A dash of sugary honey sweetness hits the end of your tongue right at the end.

What's the verdict?
This is a very interesting and expressive whisky that seems a little older than it is. It shows amazing potential and is clearly well made and matured in quality casks. Kilkerran is showing plenty of character and it will be interesting to see how it develops as the Work in Progress series progresses with age. As it stands, 'part two' is delicious, creamy and equally as enjoyable as 'part one'. If you get the chance to try it, either by buying it (a bottle should be £30-35 from specialist whisky retailers) or by sampling it at a whisky show, then do so. We thank Iain Scott of Springbank for the chance to try this lovely dram.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Explain about > Buying whisky as a present

christmas presentWith Christmas fast approaching and the decorations are going up, people are starting to consider (or panic!) about what presents they are going to buy. Whisky is a popular choice and it is a time when people buy whisky either to enjoy themselves over the festive period or to give as a gift. For many shoppers or consumers, it may be the only time in the year that they purchase a bottle of whisky and it can be a daunting experience to go into a supermarket or specialist retailer. The ultimate question is - which one of the vast array of bottles on the shelves is the right one to go for?

Last Christmas, we wrote an article that tried to help with a few suggestions and things to think about when purchasing whisky as a present. Now, we have re-written and updated this article with further suggestions and new whisky releases. Naturally, the points can be used to buy whisky at any time of the year and not just at Christmas!

What do I need to consider?
It is a common misconception that you as a shopper need to know lots about whisky in order to buy something other than the big popular brands. This is not true. How much you know about whisky is actually not important at all - what has to be considered is what you think you the gift's recipient would like or prefer. If you are not sure, then think what other things and flavours that the person receiving the gift usually enjoys. This can be other spirits, wine, food etc - do they enjoy strong, rich flavours or something lighter and fresher? Do they drink white spirits like gin and vodka or sweeter, heavier ones like dark rum or Cognac? This will give you some clues. It may be that you know a whisky that the recipient of your present likes and you can ask for help in selecting something similar. Also think about if you want a famous brand/distillery or something a bit less well known.

How much do I want to spend?
Your budget is an important consideration. Set an upper limit - any salesman worth their salt will try and get you to spend more but stick to it! Single malt whiskies start around £25 for a 70cl bottle and most will be under or around £50. Blended whiskies can start for as little as £10 (sometimes even less if it is a supermarket own brand). Of course, there are whiskies that can fit any budget, from the cheap and cheerful to those costing hundreds and even thousands of pounds! If you only have a small budget, then you could buy a half sized bottle or a pack of miniatures - many of the companies release special gift packs at Christmas time. You can even buy a single miniature if you just need a stocking filler.

the whisky shop, london branchWhat are my shopping choices?
There are a few options - specialist whisky retailers, supermarkets, liquor stores and the internet. Specialist retailers, such as The Whisky Shop chain (the London branch is pictured, left) offer a wider range of whiskies and will have knowledgeable staff that can explain the differences and advise you to make the correct decision. These shops can be daunting but if you go in having considered the first two points, then they will be able to recommend you some great choices. They will also generally have some bottles of whisky open that you can sample and this can help you make a better decision.

Supermarkets are different in that they sell the products but staff may not know a great deal about them, especially as many have cut back on specialist wine and spirit staff in the recession. The distilleries marketing departments help you here, as many of them now print basic tasting notes on their packaging and this will give you an idea if you like the sound of it or not. The range will be tighter, although many chains will expand their whisky ranges and offer decent discounts around the festive period.

Liquor stores can vary from the knowledgeable to those that stock whisky but don't know much about it. Knowledgeable stores can be up there in the specialist retail league but the others can still offer some real hidden gems and great bargains, as they may not know what they have (ie - a rare whisky marked at a ridiculously low price). The trick is to pop in for cheaper beer or wine and have a nose around, then do a little research on the bottles you have spied.

With the internet there are many places to buy whisky - some are online specialists, while others are websites of the specialist whisky retailers or supermarkets - and many of these print helpful tasting notes on each page, with some giving more information, customer reviews and distillery facts to help you make your choice.

Our recommendations
If you consider each of the above points before shopping it will make your life, and that of the shop assistant, easier. We are now going to give some suggestions considering each of the points. Most of the whiskies recommended have been reviewed by us and more detailed tasting notes can be reached by clicking on the name of the whisky. We have split the whiskies in to the four main categories to cover the wide scope of flavours and tastes that could be encountered. Naturally, this is not definitive, as there are many nuances of flavour within each category ... but we hope it helps! We have set a budget of £30-35, as this is the most common price point for gift purchases of whisky.

benriach 12 years oldLight and fresh
This can be described as light, clean, delicate, fresh and crisp so look out for these words on packaging. Key flavour characters may be vanilla, cereal grains, nuts, grassiness (fresh or dried) and floral. Famous examples of this style are the Glenfiddich 12 years old, Glenmorangie Original and Glenlivet 12 years old. You could go for one of these as they are all very good and are some of the best selling whiskies in the world but what if you want something different. There are some very under rated whiskies in this category and ones worth considering included Glen Grant, Speyburn and Glengoyne which all release good 10 year olds. Also, there are the Benriach 12 years old (pictured, above) and AnCnoc 12 years old. For something slightly different, try the Japanese single malt Yamazaki 10 years old.

dalmore 12 years oldRich and sweet
These whiskies are much fuller bodied, sweeter and richer than the previous category. They can be described as thick and creamy and have key flavour words such as caramel, dried fruits and citrus peel, spicy and toffee. The Macallan 10 years old is the best selling and most well known brand of this style of whisky. There are many others worth considering including the Dalmore 12 years old (pictured, left), Glenrothes Select Reserve and Glenfarclas 10 years old, which are reasonably common. The Tomintoul 10 years old and Glendronach 12 years old are harder to find but worth tracking down. If you are wanting something non-Scottish then look towards something like the Bushmills Black Bush or a bourbon such as Bulleit Bourbon or Maker's Mark. Most bourbons would actually fall in to this category, as would the popular Tennessee whiskey Jack Daniel's.

A little bit smoky and peaty
This category is relatively small compared to the others. Generally, they are more robust but not always and have some of the peaty, earthy, smoky flavour and aroma but not as much as the next category. They tend to be from the islands around Scotland, but not always. The most well known examples of this style are the Talisker 10 years old, Highland Park 12 years old and Bowmore 12 years old. Other examples worth checking out include Ledaig 10 years old and Jura Superstition. Some whiskies have just the slightest hint of smoke and many people enjoy these as it is not too overpowering - Clynelish 14 years old, Springbank 10 years old, Tomintoul Peaty Tang and Glenfiddich Caoran Reserve 12 years old.

laphroaig quarter caskVery smoky and peaty
These are the big, heavy whiskies that are normally from the western Scottish island of Islay (although, again not always!). These will be labelled as rich, peaty, robust, fiery, earthy and smoky. If you see the word 'Islay' on an own brand supermarket whisky then 99.9 times out of 100, it will be in this style. The most famous and best selling brand of this style of whisky is the Laphroaig 10 years old. Laphroaig release another whisky in this £30-35 price bracket that is also very good and this is called Quarter Cask (pictured, left). Other quality whiskies to look for in this smoky style include Ardbeg 10 years old, Caol Ila 12 years old and Smokehead. If you want something smoky but not from Islay, then try the Benriach 10 years old 'Curiositas' from Speyside, Ardmore Traditional Cask from the Highlands or Longrow CV from Campbeltown.

Please note > the present image at the top of this post is taken from www.bargainshopper.com.au.

Inbox > November 26, 2010

Inbox is a weekly round up of whisky news and PR type material that has found its way in to our email inbox. Sadly, we cannot write full articles or do justice to every piece that we receive, so Inbox has been born! It will feature items from around the world of whisky and will be published by us each Friday. Within Inbox we will write a couple of lines about each press release/piece of news/PR event that we have received and provide links, where possible, for you to find out further information if you want to. So grab a dram and we hope that you enjoy ...
Glengoyne - wins a top prize
The distillery, owned by Ian MacLeod Distillers, has won the gold medal in the Scottish Field Whisky Challenge for its 21 years old release. The Challenge was launched in 2001 and has quickly become one of the most prestigious and highly anticipated awards in the whisky industry. This year's judges included Darren Leitch of The Whisky Shop chain, Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies, Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies and Tatsuya Minagawa of The Highland Inn. The Glengoyne 21 years old is 100% matured in ex-sherry casks and Alan Wardrop, UK sales manager at Ian Macleod Distillers, commented: "It is a real honour to be so highly commended by a team of such well-respected judges. It really is testimony to Glengoyne’s craftsmanship and heritage passed down over the generations".

Masters of Malt - win a year's supply of whisky
The online retailer has launched their new 'Golden Dram' competition in which five lucky winners will each receive a year's supply of whisky. The competition celebrates the release of Master of Malt's new dram sets - these consist of 24 different tasting sample sets, with each including five labeled samples. Sets available include the 'Super Peaty', 'Regions of Scotland' and 'Old and Rare Malts'. The 'Golden Dram' tickets have been hidden in five random tasting sets and if you find one before the end of November then you will win a free Gold Membership, worth £499.95. Gold members receive a year's supply of whisky, with 10 drams every month. For further information and to order your tasting sets, visit www.mastersofmalt.com.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Have just tried > The AnCnoc range

the sncnoc single malt rangeThe AnCnoc (pronounced a-nock) single malt whisky range is produced at the Knockdhu distillery. Knockdhu (pronounced nock-doo) lies deep in the rugged countryside of the eastern Highlands, with the closest town being Huntly. The distillery is one of the most traditional in the Scottish whisky industry with no computers to aid production. Everything is controlled by the skills of the distillery workers and Knockdhu produces approximately one million litres of spirit per year. Knockdhu translates as 'black hill' from Gaelic and the name of the single malts were changed to AnCnoc (simply 'the hill' in Gaelic) in the 1990s, so as to avoid consumer confusion with the similarly named Speyside distillery of Knockando. It is currently owned by Inver House Distillers.

We recently visited the Knockdhu distillery and were delighted to be shown around by Gordon Bruce, the Distillery Manager. For more information on the distillery and to read about our visit - click here. At the end of the tour, Gordon took us through some of the AnCnoc single malt range and the tasting notes for these can be found below. Our thanks go to Gordon for his knowledge, insight and hospitality, which made our visit so memorable.

Only around 15% of the whisky produced and matured at Knockdhu is then bottled as single malt, although this figure is increasing as AnCnoc becomes more recognised and popular. The main markets for AnCnoc are Germany, Sweden, the UK and the USA. The rest is used in a wide variety of blended whiskies. The core range consists of the 10 and 16 year olds and these are supplemented by limited edition releases which carry a vintage statement showing the year they were distilled. Independent bottlings are rare and will generally be released under the Knockdhu name.

Knockdhu new make
This new make spirit had only been distilled on the previous day and had an alcoholic strength of 69% ABV. The chance to try new make spirit is a rare one and is interesting as it gives big clues about the characteristics that you will find in the final bottled whiskies. This was a clear liquid with a very fresh nose that was fruity (think of green pears and apples) and peppery. These were also present on the palate and were joined by hints of honey, vanilla essence and lemon zest. It feels slightly oily in the mouth and the hot pepper spice returns for a crisp finish.

ancnoc 12 years oldAnCnoc 12 years old
This whisky is the cornerstone of the AnCnoc single malt range. It has a golden colour and the nose smells very promising with a pleasant mixture of honey, vanilla, a hint of dried fruit (think of sultanas) and zingy citrus notes (imagine lemon zest). On the palate, this feels thin and is light and fresh with some dried fruitiness (sultanas again), vanilla, honey and that citrus element. These are joined by notes of distinct cereal grains and dried grasses, which add an underlying dryness that tempers the earlier sweetness well. The finish is crisp, refreshing if not a little short. This is easy drinking and would be great as an aperitif but may be a bit light for some palates.

ancnoc 16 years oldAnCnoc 16 years old
This is the only single malt in the AnCnoc range that is 100% ex-bourbon cask matured. All of the others have differing percentage mixes of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. This is pale lemon in colour with a fresh, aromatic nose - vanilla, cereals and crisp green apple notes are prominent with some citrusy lemon zest, coconut and fresh grass notes joining in. with time a linen-like aroma comes through. On the palate, this is crisp and lighter than the nose suggests with a pleasant mixture of vanilla oakiness, citrus, coconut, grasses and some spiciness (imagine ginger and cinnamon). The finish is short and drying with the vanilla and spices dominating. A lovely, refreshing whisky that was much better than we remembered.

ancnoc 1995 vintageAnCnoc 1995 vintage
This whisky was a very limited edition that was only put in to the German and Russian markets. Gordon fished this one out from his 'special' cupboard, so the chance to try it was easily taken! The colour is golden amber and the nose is distinctly fruity (think of sultanas and raisins). There is also plenty of fudge, vanilla and oak aromas, plus hints of honey and cinnamon spice. More of the sweet fudge and vanilla notes come through on the palate, although this turns slightly bitter and more reminiscent of burnt sugar with time. It feels creamier than most of the other AnCnoc's in the mouth, with the dried fruits and pleasant spice again present. The finish is of good length and is decently dry and oaky.

ancnoc 1994 vintageAnCnoc 1994 vintage
The colour is of this limited edition whisky golden with a hint of amber tone. The 1994 is the latest vintage release in the core range of AnCnoc, following on from a 1993 one. The nose is expressive and obviously sweet to begin with - initial honey and sultana notes are joined by a prominent cereal grain note plus something nutty (think of almonds) and grassy (imagine dry hay or straw). The palate reflects the characteristics of the nose well, although the cereals become more dominant with time. The finish is equally as grainy with an interesting mix of honey, vanilla and some dry wood spices (especially cinnamon). A good and easy drinking dram that offers something sweeter to the AnCnoc range.

ancnoc 1975 vintageAnCnoc 1975 vintage
The oldest AnCnoc single malt that is currently on the market. This whisky is a very different beast to any of the others that we tried. The colour is a dark golden amber and the nose is packed with interesting and intense aromas - vanilla, ginger, candied peel, cinnamon, cereals and orange oil. On the palate, this feels rich and full bodied with an intense woody spice (the cinnamon and ginger again) giving way and incorporating delicious notes of vanilla, cereal grains, coconut and orange. A hint of cocoa powder comes through right at the end. The intensity is fantastic but may be too much for some, so we tried it with a few drops of water - it remains very good with the orange note becoming even stronger and the spiciness dying slightly. The finish is dry and oaky. A great dram.

Distillery visit > Knockdhu

knockdhu distilleryThe final part of our recent tour took us to Knockdhu (pronounced nock-doo) distillery. The tour saw us visit a trilogy of whisky distilleries owned by Inver House Distillers, which is a subsidiary of the larger Thai Beverages company. Knockdhu was founded in 1893 by a group called Distillers Company Limited (DCL), who discovered natural springs in the surrounding hills, with production of whisky beginning in October 1894. The name of Knockdhu comes from the Gaelic language and translates as 'black hill'. The single malt whisky released from the distillery is known as AnCnoc (pronounced as a-nock) and this simply translates from gaelic as 'the hill'. Inver House took the decision to change the name of the single malts from Knockdhu in the 1990s, so that consumers would not confuse it with the Knockando distillery in Speyside.

The address of the distillery is given as Knock, near Huntly. As we discovered, addresses can sometimes be misleading! We skirted around the edge of the town of Huntly and headed off the main road in search of the village of Knock and therefore, the distillery. Over half an hour of driving passed as we drove down increasingly narrow roads in to the impending gloom of dusk and a developing fog. The two main questions being that "we must be there soon, mustn't we?" and "where the hell is this place?" The answer turned out to be that the village of Knock and its distillery are in the middle of nowhere, certainly not 'near' Huntly! The village has just a few houses plus the distillery and it sits at the bottom of an imposing black hill, which gives Knockdhu its name. The first impression was of a stunning location.

gordon bruce - knockdhu distillery managerOur tour was taken by Gordon Bruce, the Distillery Manager of Knockdhu (pictured, left). Gordon has worked his way up through the ranks, having started as a mash-man at Pulteney distillery back in 1986 and has come to Knockdhu via Balblair. He has held the position of Distillery Manager at 'The Knock', as he affectionately calls it, since 2006. We discover that he lives with his family in one of the few houses in the tiny village of Knock, is on call at the distillery 24/7 and that his two dogs frequent the distillery regularly - the comment being that "they are more photogenic than anyone else who works here!" Sadly, they were not there on the day of our visit.

ruined warehouse at knockdhu distilleryKnockdhu is not open to the public, so the chance to have a look around was to be a real treat. Despite this, Gordon commented that he has never turned any visitor away in his four years as Distillery Manager and has always found the time for himself or another member of staff to show them around. We begin with a short walk to the back of the distillery and pass two piles of rubble (pictured, left). Gordon explains that these are the remains of two of Knockdhu's five warehouses, which collapsed under the weight of heavy snow last winter. They managed to save most of the maturing whisky but he gets visibly emotional as he describes the loss of 18 casks - the roof caved in and the side walls were pulled down as a result, smashing the casks. This damage equated to £150,000 worth of whisky and included casks from 1989 to 2009.

The tour begins with a rare treat - a trip to see the distillery's old kiln and the chance to go inside it! Nowadays, most distilleries do not produce their own malted barley, so the malting floors and kilns are redundant. The kiln at a distillery is housed in the pagoda structure (Knockdhu's is pictured, below left) and these charismatic buildings give a distillery some photographic charm, but little else these days. Knockdhu's pagoda and kiln hasn't been used for around 40 years.

left - pagoda at knockdhu distillery, centre - inside the pagoda, right - view up in to pagoda ventWe firstly take a look at the large oven before moving upstairs, where Gordon opens a small doorway and beckons Matt, who happens to be first on the scene, inside. Faced with blackness and a fear of heights, Matt is reluctant - only for Gordon to reassure him with the words, "trust me, I'm a distiller!" before patting him on the back to coax him in! Once inside, we are standing on the mesh floor where the grains once sat with the kiln oven directly below us. The inside of the structure (pictured, above centre) is in some disrepair but plans are in place to renovate it. Gordon tells us that with a bit of work the kiln and its pagoda could function again, as everything including the triangular vent (viewed from directly below, above right) is operational. This was a totally unique experience and was put in to perspective when we were told that the room we had stood in could hold 25 tonnes of malted barley at a time.

mash tun at knockdhu distilleryAfter a brief visit to the milling room, which includes a Porteus mill from 1964 and a state-of-the-art grain filtering machine, we move on to the mash room. This room is is dominated by the huge circular stainless steel mash tun, where the malted barley is mixed with warm water to dissolve the soluble sugars from the grain. This water is added in three stages, with each stage at a higher temperature - this helps to ensure that the maximum amount of sugars are extracted from the barley. The three temperatures at Knockdhu are approximately 63°C, then 72°C and finally 82°C. This mash tun is new, having been installed in the summer of 2009, and boasts a striking domed copper top which replicates that of their previous mash tuns. We get to see the second water being added here.

washbacks at knockdhu distilleryNext up is the room where the fermentation takes place. This houses six large wooden tanks, known as washbacks. Here they take the sugary liquid from the mash tun (called wort) and add yeast to create alcohol. Each washback holds 21,500 litres of wort and to this they add 100 litres of liquid distillers yeast. The final product is called 'wash' and this has an alcohol level of around 8% ABV - the equivalent to a strong beer. It is interesting to hear that Gordon finds this the most interesting part of the whole whisky making process. The reason is that it is the one part that is hardest to control as you are relying on nature to do the job for you. In contrast everything else can be controlled by the workers - milling, mashing, distilling etc. We take the opportunity to try the 'wash', which is reminiscent of a malty, fruity ale.

It is only after Gordon's comments above on the fermentation and his emphasis on the skill of the distillery workers, that something becomes obviously apparent. This 'something' is confirmed in the still house - Knockdhu has no computers operating any stage of its whisky making process. Computers are now commonplace in many distilleries and control all aspects of production, so to see a distillery that is totally reliant on the traditional skills of its workers is unusual and refreshing. One of our group points this out and Gordon shows us the only 'computer' in the distillery ... a calculator!

stills at knockdhu distilleryThe still room at Knockdhu is on the small side but feels much less cramped than those at Balblair and Pulteney. Here the stills (pictured, left) have more room and have flatter than normal bases, in comparison to many distilleries that have more bulbous ones. This forces the alcohol vapours to travel up tall narrow neck of the stills and helps to ultimately produce the light, fresh style of spirit that Knockdhu is well regarded for. The vapours then move along the horizontal lyne arms and out through the side wall of the still room in to a worm tub. Worm tubs are large tanks of cold water through which a spiraled copper pipe passes and this condenses the alcohol vapour back to a liquid spirit. Few distilleries still have worm tubs these days, preferring condensing units. Knockdhu is unique in the Scottish whisky industry as it is the only one to have both stills connected to the same worm tub. Sadly, it was dark by this point so we could not go up and see the coiled piping and water inside the worm tub properly.

The darkness and ever increasing fog prevented us from having a look in one of the remaining warehouses but Gordon then took us back to the offices, where he took us through a tasting of some of the whiskies bottled under the AnCnoc name. The brief tasting notes for these whiskies will follow shortly in a separate post. A massive thanks goes to Gordon for his time, insight, information and hospitality on our visit. We highly recommend a visit to this fascinating traditional whisky distillery and remember, you will never be turned away ...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Have just tried > The Balblair range

tasting glasses at balblairWe recently were lucky enough to visit the northern Highland distillery of Balblair, which is one of Scotland's oldest and most traditional. To read our visit notes - click here. We were even more lucky to be shown around by the Distillery Manager, John MacDonald, and the final part of our tour was a tasting of some Balblair whiskies. You will find our tasting notes below and a massive thanks goes to John for providing a wonderful experience. Only about 15% of the whisky made and maturing at the distillery is released as Balblair single malt. However, this amount is rising as Balblair becomes more widely recognised and the latest range continues to add to the numerous worldwide awards that it has recently won.

Interestingly, the core range is released as vintages, rather than the more common age statement in numbers of years - John tells us the reason for this is that "our whisky tells us when it's ready, not the other way round. Each vintage is hand picked from a selection of our finest casks, once its optimum maturation point is reached". The core range includes current vintages of 1965, 1978, 1989 and 2000. Not many distilleries or companies use this vintage system, so it was interesting to learn about the ethos behind it. Independent bottlings are occassionally available but stocks vary from year to year, with less now being released by the distillery to these bottlers.

Balblair new make spirit
Our tasting with John began with the rare opportunity to taste some new make spirit. This sample was distilled on the previous day and had an alcohol strength of 68% ABV. The colour is clear but has a hint of yellow to it and the nose is full of fresh green fruit - think of crisp apples especially. On the palate, the fruitiness is again prominent but the apple note is joined by a distinct lemony citrus tang. The spirit feels oily in the mouth and with time other notes battle through the high level of alcohol - vanilla, dried grass, honey and nuts. The finish is very fresh, tangy and hot with a chilli spiciness and the citrus from earlier particularly prominent.

balblair 2000 vintageBalblair 2000
This whisky is brand new, replacing the 1997 vintage in the core range and has been matured in second fill ex-bourbon casks. The colour is a pale gold and the nose is very fresh and very fruity. There are plenty of green pear and apple notes and these are backed up by vanilla, coconut and a whiff of mint (the coconut becomes more prominent with time). On the palate, this is again fresh with a lovely combination of flavours - peardrops, lemon zest, vanilla, honey, cereal grains and something reminiscent of icing sugar or sherbet. The finish is tangy but fairly short. This is an easy drinking dram that would be great in hot weather or as an aperitif.

balblair 1997 vintageBalblair 1997
As mentioned, this has now been replaced by the 2000 vintage above. However, we were still offered the chance to sample it for one last time! The whisky has a golden colour with a succulent nose that has aromas of dried fruits (sultanas and candied peel), vanilla, honey, spices (nutmeg and cinnamon) and hints of dried tropical fruit (pineapple and mango). On the palate, these elements combine with more citrus peel (think of orange marmalade), fresh stone fruits (peaches or apricots) and more sweet vanilla. The nutmeg spiciness from the nose comes through well. The finish is long with the sultana, vanilla and spice notes coming to the fore. Delicious stuff - goodbye old friend!

balblair 1989 vintageBalblair 1989
This whisky is from the second batch of the 1989 vintage that was bottled just a couple of months ago. The first batch was a multi award winning whisky, so we were very interested to try the new version. The colour is gold with a hint of amber and the nose is complex, soft and elegant. There are aromas of toffee, nuts, coconut, cereals plus an interesting ripe banana note. On the palate, this is creamy and mouth coating. It is soft and sumptuous with the notes from the nose present, in addition to some caramel, wood spice (cinnamon and nutmeg), pears and apples. The finish is long with the sweet elements (caramel and cereals especially) and the woody spices prominent.

balblair 1978 vintageBalblair 1978
Another recent addition to the range. This single malt was bottled as a 3,000 bottle limited edition in 2009 and replaced the 1975 vintage. The colour is dark gold with an amber tint. The nose is rich, deep and intense with plenty of dark dried fruits (raisins, sultanas and dates), toffee and spicy cinnamon bark. On the palate, this is rich and complex. There are many notes combining with those from the nose - vanilla, coconut, honey, stewed apples, hints of pepper and tropical fruits (especially mango and pineapple). The finish is long - it begins sweetly before becoming increasingly dry and spicy (especially the cinnamon), with some distinct cereal grains coming through.

> Please note that all of the single malts are bottled at 43% ABV, with the exception of the 1978 vintage which is 46% ABV.

Inbox > November 19, 2010

Inbox is a weekly round up of whisky news and PR type material that has found its way in to our email inbox. Sadly, we cannot write full articles or do justice to every piece that we receive, so Inbox has been born! It will feature items from around the world of whisky and will be published by us each Friday. Within Inbox we will write a couple of lines about each press release/piece of news/PR event that we have received and provide links, where possible, for you to find out further information if you want to. So grab a dram and we hope that you enjoy ...
International Wine & Spirits Competition awards
A number of distilleries and whisky companies are celebrating following the prestigious International Wine & Spirits Competition (or IWSC) awards night, which was held in London this week. Here are a few of the notable winners from the press releases that we have received.

Independent Irish distillery Cooley have won the European Distillery of the Year for the third year running, with Managing Director Jack Teeling commenting, “our success is based on innovation, a range of world class whiskies and a lot of hard work!” Elsewhere, the family owned William Grant & Sons were awarded two top prizes – Distiller of the Year and International Distiller of the Year. Brian Kinsman, Grants’ Master Blender, commented, “We’re absolutely delighted – it is truly testament to the hard work that the whole team put in to produce the very best drams”.

Macallan – 64 years old sells for $460,000!
This bottle of Macallan single malt was sold earlier this week by auction house Sotherby’s in New York. An unidentified female buyer paid a whopping $460,00 (£288,000) for it, making it by far the most expensive whisky ever sold. The money from the sale, plus other money raised from a 12 city world tour where consumers could pay for 10cl samples, will go to charity:water – an organisation that helps provide safe drinking water in under privileged areas of the world. The whisky is so expensive as it is the oldest Macallan single malt whisky ever released (64 years of age) and is housed in a bespoke and unique handmade crystal decanter from the famous Lalique company.

The Whisky Shop – New TV advert
The UK’s largest whisky retail chain has launched its new innovative TV advert. The Whisky Shop chain currently has 16 stores in Scotland and England – for store locations, check out their website www.whiskyshop.com - and the advert will be screened over the next two weeks on Scottish TV. The advert attempts to make buying whisky easier by demystify the tasting notes associated with whisky. This is shown by physically mixing two key descriptors together, next to the whisky for which these descriptors are commonly used. To view the advert, click the link below.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Distillery visit > Balblair

balblair distilleryBalblair is located in the northern Highlands of Scotland in the picturesque village of Edderton, near to the town of Tain. It lies close to the shores of the Dornoch Firth, one of Scotland’s largest estuaries, with the Highlands rising behind it and the North Highland Inverness-Thurso railway track running next to it. The distillery is one of Scotland's oldest, having been founded by John Ross in 1790 - only Glenturret, Bowmore and Strathisla have been operating longer – although the current buildings were all built in 1893. Balblair is currently owned by Inver House Distillers, which is a subsidiary of the larger Thai Beverages group, and they have owned it since 1996.

Our tour of the Balblair distillery starts with the short drive from Tain to Edderton, a gorgeous little village that could adorn many a tin of shortbread, especially given the amazing display of vibrant autumn colours. The drive takes us passed the gates to Glenmorangie – Balblair’s larger and more illustrious immediate neighbour – before we turn off down a narrow lane to Balblair. The distillery is not currently open to the public, so the chance to look around felt like a privileged one.

john macdonald - distillery manager at balblairWe begin in the large open courtyard outside the Balblair offices, where we are greeted by John MacDonald (pictured, left). He has been the Distillery Manager at Balblair since 2006 and this follows 17 years service down the road at Glenmorangie, where he worked his way up through the ranks to the position of Assistant Manager. He puts his current success at Balblair, where his whiskies are winning many awards, down to the fact that he has done every job within a distillery – warehouseman, mill-man, mash-man, still-man and then senior management.

clach boirach standing stone at balblairJohn tells us a number of interesting geological and historical facts relating to the distillery and its local vicinity. Balblair means ‘battlefield’ in the ancient Pictish language and the area around Tain and Edderton was a Pict stronghold over 2,000 years ago. Clach Biorach, the local standing stone (pictured, left), was believed to be the centre of their community and stands close to the distillery. The stone has inspired the new packaging of Balblair’s whiskies, where they have used depictions of Pictish symbols and carvings on the bottle and box.

new visitor centre at balblair distilleryWe also learn that the water source for Balblair is the Allt Dearg spring, which is located high up in the hills about 4 and a half miles away from the distillery – this is one of the longest distances between any water source and a distillery in Scotland. The water runs using gravity via an open ditch from the source to the distillery and is used for all Balblair’s production and cooling needs. As it begins to rain, we move inside to the former floor malting room. This room (pictured, left) is earmarked to be the new visitor centre, which will open at Balblair next year. It has a distinctly ‘unfinished’ feel at the moment but the space is amazing and will make a memorable place for visitors to start their distillery tours in the future.

The mill room and adjoining malt storage area are next. The malted barley used for Balblair’s whiskies has a very low level of peat (approximately 1.5ppm – phenols per million) and they use several strains of barley. The mill is made by the now defunct Porteus company in 1981 (Porteus were a victim of their own success, making milling equipment that rarely broke or needed replacing - therefore no distilleries ever needed new ones!) The malt is stored in 10 huge silos, which hold 3 tonnes each. Therefore a total of 30 tonnes can be held and this fuels the distillery for 3 and a half weeks. This means that Balblair can maintain full operation during periods of bad winter weather when lorries cannot reach the distillery to deliver grain. At Balblair one tonne of barley produces 405 litres of spirit and it is on course to reach 1.36 million litres this year.

mash tun at balblair distilleryWe move on to the mashing room, which one of our tour party described as having a ‘Bond baddie evil hideout’ feel. This equates to lots of stainless steel equipment, piping across the ceiling and electrical panels with illuminated buttons! There is a stainless steel mash tun (pictured, above), where water is mixed with the milled barley (called grist) to extract the soluble sugars needed later in the whisky making process. This process is done at three different temperatures – 65°C, then 82°C and then 92°C. Balblair’s mashing time is one of the slowest in the industry at over six hours, as they use a rare natural drainage system. John explains that as a result the drained sugary liquid (known as wort) has a very low concentration of fatty compounds and this gives Balblair spirit its flavoursome and fruity characters.

fermentation washbacks at balblair distilleryBeyond the mash room is the room where the fermentation takes place. Balblair has six massive traditional wooden washbacks (pictured, left), with each one containing fermenting liquid at different timings in the process. Each washback can hold 21,500 litres of the sugary wort, to which 100 litres of liquid distiller's yeast is added. This then ferments for up to 62 hours, which is one of the longest times in the industry. This is so that the micro-flora bacteria held within wood of the washbacks have the maximum opportunity to add their character to the fermenting wash. Once finished, the wash has an alcoholic strength of 7.5% ABV and is like a strong ale - John let us taste the wash and it was very very fruity, reminiscent of a wheat beer.

stills at balblair distilleryNext, John leads us in to the still room. You quickly get an idea of how cramped it is going to be by hastily ducking under a slightly low copper pipe as you enter! They have one pair of stills at Balblair - one wash still and one spirit still (pictured, left). Unusually, there is also a third still at the far end. It is unorthodox to see an odd number of stills, as they tend to work in pairs. The story behind this third still is that it has not operated since 1969, when it was replaced, and it is too difficult to remove from the building! The stills have very large bulbous bases and short fat necks, which helps to create a heavier, more robust and oily style of spirit. Both lyne arms run outside through the still room wall, where the alcohol vapours are passed through condensers to become liquid again.

dunnage warehouses at balblair distilleryWith the weather closing in again, we are taken to shelter from the rain in one of Balblair's eight dunnage warehouses. The word 'dunnage' means to 'provide ventilation' but in this case refers to the traditional style of warehouse building that have stone walls, earth floors and a tiled roof (as pictured, left). These buildings provide the perfect environment, temperature and 'ventilation' for the maturing whisky. To further aid the maturation, the whisky casks are only stacked three high. Balblair's eight warehouses have a capacity of 26,000 casks of which around 15% are earmarked for single malt release. The rest is maturing for inclusion in a wide range of blends such as the popular Chivas Regal and Inver House's own Hankey Bannister range. John informs us that approximately 97% of the whisky is maturing in ex-bourbon casks, with the further 3% in ex-sherry casks.

Our tour concluded with a tasting hosted by John and then a large lunch. The reviews and tasting notes for this lovely range of whiskies can be found in a separate post - click here to view. We would like to take this opportunity to thank John for his insight in to the industry and his distillery, his information and his hospitality. If you are in that part of Scotland next year, then be sure to pay a visit and join one of their new tours. What you will find is a picturesque and traditional whisky distillery, that is hard to beat on both fronts.

News > Penderyn launch Welsh Whisky Wednesdays

penderyn madeira finishWe are delighted to announce that Penderyn, the only Welsh single malt whisky, are today launching a new initiative - Welsh Whisky Wednesday. The aim of this new initiative is to raise awareness of Penderyn whisky and get more people to sample it, especially those who may not previously tried it or considered trying it. Each wednesday the Welsh distillery will be placing sampling bottles of Penderyn behind some of London's best bars and these venues will change each week. The venues will be announced each wednesday morning and the first two venues are the iconic whisky bar Albannach on Trafalgar Square and the Mint Leaf Lounge in The City.

So, how does it work? Firstly, you have to be over 18 years of age but otherwise it sounds easy! The sample of Penderyn is free to every consumer who comes to one of the venues between 5-7pm and mentions 'Welsh Whisky Wednesday' to the bar staff. They will then give you a complimentary dram of Aur Cymru ('Welsh Gold' in English) Penderyn whisky. This is limited to one dram per person. You don't need to book ahead, pay or buy anything else, join or sign up for a club - just turn up and ask for your free Penderyn dram!

As mentioned, Penderyn will be announcing the new promotional venues for Welsh Whisky Wednesday each wednesday morning. You can find these out via Penderyn's Facebook page or @PenderynWhisky on Twitter. For further information on the Penderyn distillery, go to their website www.welsh-whisky.co.uk or check out our distillery visit review and notes. Enjoy!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Inbox > November 12, 2010

Inbox is a weekly round up of whisky news and PR type material that has found its way in to our email inbox. Sadly, we cannot write full articles or do justice to every piece that we receive, so Inbox has been born! It will feature items from around the world of whisky and will be published by us each Friday. Within Inbox we will write a couple of lines about each press release/piece of news/PR event that we have received and provide links, where possible, for you to find out further information if you want to. So grab a dram and we hope that you enjoy ...
Azerbaijan starts making whisky
The former Soviet state is starting to produce its own whisky in December. It will be made by the Tovuz-Baltiya Company, which was founded in 1989, who already make a range of fruit wines, brandies and vodka. Tovuz-Baltiya's general director, Naig Mammadhasanov, has said that their new whisky will be exported to the local market plus new expanding markets such as China, Eastern Europe and India. Watch this space!

EliteMarket.com - new 3D whisky shopping experience
EliteMarket.com, an innovative and revolutionary luxury brand website, has launched their new Fine Malt Whisky Cellar. This offers the world's first ever virtual 3D platform to offer a fully immersive shopping environment in which users can access information and purchase some of the finest malt whisky brands on the market. The brands used in the launch are Balblair, Dalmore, Fettercairn and Old Pulteney, with more to join soon. We tried it out and it is great fun and very easy to use! To take your own tour of the EliteMarket Fine Malt Whisky Cellar and to make any purchases - click here. For further information on the EliteMarket and the other facets of luxury lifestyle that they cater for, please visit www.elitemarket.com.
elitemarket.com balblair malt cellar
Yamazaki - 1984 bottling wins highest accolade
A whisky from Japan's oldest whisky distillery has won the top prize at the International Spirits Challenge awards, held in London this week. Yamazaki, the Suntory owned distillery that was formed in 1923, entered their 1984 vintage whisky against 300 other whiskies from around the globe and walked off with first prize. The whisky then went on to win the Supreme Spirit Champion prize, which is awarded to the best spirit from across all the spirit categories. This makes it the first Japanese product to win either of the prestigious awards.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New releases > Double Single by Compass Box

double single by compass boxModern day whisky innovators
Compass Box is a boutique independent whisky producer that was founded in 2000 by John Glaser and is based in London and Edinburgh. Their ethos is to buy whisky from a small number of distilleries and then craft them together into their own unique whiskies. The range includes single grain whiskies, vatted malts, blended whiskies such as this Double Single and other limited releases. All are produced and released in small batches, often using only two or three whiskies to create a unique product with a catchy name. By doing their own blending and vatting, Compass Box have less restrictions than traditional independent bottlers and as a result, is a former winner of the prestigious Whisky Magazine's Innovator of the Year.

A celebration bottling
The Double Single is a new bottling to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Compass Box. As the name suggests, it is made from two single casks - one single malt and one grain whisky - to make a unique new blended whisky. The single malt is from the Glen Elgin distillery in Speyside, which is located close to the city of Elgin (unsurprisingly!), and the grain whisky is from the Port Dundas distillery in Glasgow. The Glen Elgin is an 18 years old, is from a large ex-bourbon cask and forms approximately three quarters of the blend. The Port Dundas grain whisky is a 21 years old, also from an ex-bourbon cask.

The Double Single is a revival of a limited bottling that Compass Box produced for the famous Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, Speyside in 2003 and has an alcohol strength is 53.3% ABV. There are only 876 bottles available and they will be in specialist whisky retailers and can also be purchased from the Compass Box website for £99 each.

Our tasting notes
The colour is a pale lemon yellow and the nose is fresh, vibrant and very promising. Considering its apparent lightness, the whisky has an incredibly complex combination of aromas coming from the nose and these increase with time. There are notes of vanilla, green apple, nuts (think of a creamy type of nut like almond or hazelnut), wood shavings or sawdust, fresh coconut, dried grass, cereal grains, tangy kiwi fruit and a sharp whiff of alcohol spirit. On the palate this is light, delicate and elegant. The whisky is again very complex and refreshing with vanilla, honey, dry cereal grains and that woodiness (imagine pencil shavings) particularly prominent. There is also a distinct juicy citrus note (think of lemon juice), some dried grassiness and hints of fresh tropical fruits (that kiwi again plus some pineapple). The palate is delicious, juicy, tangy and fresh. The finish is short and vibrant with sweet vanilla and honey notes tempered by sharper citrus (lemon especially) and drier grassy and cereal notes.

What's the verdict?
The Double Single is a cracking whisky that is one of the best new whiskies of 2010 that we have tasted to date. Why? It offers an insight in to how good and complex a lighter whisky can be if sympathetically matured and blended. The price is high but it is a limited edition and a very good one at that. If you haven't tried any Compass Box whiskies before, then track one down and do so. They are, without exception, all unique and of a consistently high quality.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Have just tried > The Old Pulteney range

water jug and tasting glasses at pulteney distilleryOn our recent visit to the Pulteney distillery – the most northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland – we were lucky enough to sample some of the whiskies that are released, plus a couple of other special treats. The core range of Pulteney consists of a 12, 17, 21 and 30 years old. The whisky is sold as Old Pulteney and is known as ‘the maritime malt’, after its heritage, proximity to the sea and the distinct salty characteristics within it. Below are the tasting notes from the tasting, which was hosted by Malcolm Waring – the Pulteney Distillery Manager. To read our review of the distillery visit – click here.

The Old Pulteney brand has grown massively in the last three years and this has seen it climb into the top 20 for world sales of single malts. Worldwide sales grew by 16% alone in 2008 and this helps Old Pulteney head Inver House’s portfolio for sales (their other distilleries are at Balblair, Balmenach, Knockdhu and Speyburn). In addition to the core range, there is an expanding range of whiskies that are exclusive to the travel retail/Duty Free sector. These include the Isabella Fortuna WK499 (click here to read our review) and two 23 year old – one matured in ex-bourbon casks and one in ex-sherry casks.

Pulteney new make spirit
This sample of new make spirit was made earlier in the day and had an alcoholic strength of 68.6% ABV. The spirit is clear and extremely pungent and savoury on the nose with aromatic pear, cereals, leather, yeast, lemon zest and a slightly dirty sulphur note. It is rich and oily on the palate and it coats the inside of the mouth. The strength of the alcohol gives a spicy heat and this is joined by the elements from the nose, especially the green pear. The finish is long, fruity and robust with that dirty sulphur note returning.

old pulteney 12 years oldOld Pulteney 12 years old
We last reviewed this cornerstone of the Pulteney whisky range way back when we first started writing this blog, so we were interested to try it again. This is bottled at 40% ABV and matured in ex-bourbon casks. The colour is a vibrant gold and the nose has plenty of vanilla, honey, malty cereals and a whiff of salty brine. With time, add in some yeast and over ripe banana. On the palate, this feels oily and soft with plenty of vanilla, coconut, cereals and green apples. More flavours develop, such as some warm baking spices (think of cinnamon and nutmeg) and that banana from the nose (imagine banana cake especially). The finish is long and slightly sharp with a lemon zestiness and briny saltiness prominent.

old pulteney 17 years oldOld Pulteney 17 years old
This whisky is bottled at 46% ABV and is mostly matured in ex-bourbon casks with 10% matured in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. The colour is golden with a hint of amber and the nose is a delicious mix of vanilla, dried fruits (especially sultana), oak, cereals, a hint of liquorice and a whiff of salt. On the palate, this starts very softly and sweet with some cereal and honey prominent before becoming much more spicy. Vanilla especially comes through as does some nutmeg, liquorice and ginger. The finish is particularly dry with a lovely woody spiciness present (think of cinnamon bark) plus a slightly musty, earthy note which appears from somewhere. A salty tang is present but less pronounced than in the 12 years old.

old pulteney 21 years oldOld Pulteney 21 years old
This is also bottled at 46% ABV and has the highest percentage of sherry cask maturation of any Pulteney whisky in the core range (around 30% has been matured in ex-fino sherry casks here). The colour is golden amber and the nose is packed with lovely aromas - almonds, vanilla, oatcakes, crisp red apples and caramel (the combination of the last two is reminiscent of toffee apples). On the palate, this is drier than expected and is packed with oak, cinnamon and nutmeg notes. The fruitiness from the nose is present and joined by sultanas. Also present are almonds, vanilla, some burnt sugar and a hint of saltiness that cuts through the richness and increases with time. The finish is again dry and delicious, if not slightly short.

old pulteney 30 years oldOld Pulteney 30 years old
This has been matured in ex-bourbon casks, is bottled at 44% ABV and is the oldest and most expensive Pulteney single malt whisky ever released. To try it was a real treat. The colour is a dark gold and the nose is very promising. There are notes of vanilla, butterscotch, coconut, cereal biscuits, nuts (probably almonds?), yeast, banana and some soft dried fruits (think of sultanas and mango especially). On the palate, this is equally as complex with many of the notes present. It is soft and rich with a citrus zest note and the signature salty tang cutting through the richness. More of the banana and mango fruitiness come through with time, as does more vanilla. There is also just a pinch of cinnamon-like spice. The finish is shorter than expected and a little dry.

old pulteney 1990 peated caskOld Pulteney 1990 peated single cask
This whisky is only available at the distillery and you can bottle it straight from the cask yourself. It will cost you £80 a bottle and it has an alcohol strength of 57.4% ABV. This single cask is ex-bourbon and has previously held an unnamed peaty, smoky Islay whisky. The colour is golden with a brownish tint and the nose exhibits aromas of vanilla, honey and tropical fruits (imagine mango and banana). Surprisingly, there is little or no sign of any smokiness. This is not the case on the palate as the savoury bonfire-like smoke explodes on your tongue. The whisky is creamy with the vanilla, honey and fruit prominent again. It then becomes very sweet and sugary on the finish with a distinct saltiness making it mouthwatering and refreshing. Very interesting stuff.

What's the verdict?

The opportunity to taste a vertical range from a single distillery is a rare one, especially in the very place where it was produced and matured. This was a great experience and we thank Malcolm for his hospitality. The range is very solid - it contains some very good and under rated whiskies. The best selling 12 years old at its core and this would be a good whisky for a beginner who wanted to explore something a little different and at a decent price (approx. £25-30). The saltiness may put some off but they should be tried. Karen's favourite was the 21 years old and Matt's was the 17 years old, both of which are complex and very enjoyable whiskies.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Distillery visit > Pulteney

entrance to pulteney distilleryThe Pulteney distillery is the most northerly mainland distillery in Scotland. Located close to the harbour in the Highland fishing town of Wick, it lies just 15 miles south of John O'Groats – the northernmost point on the UK mainland. Pulteney is currently owned by Inver House Distillers, which are a part of the larger Thai Beverages group, and was founded in 1826 by James Henderson. It was named after Sir William Johnstone Pulteney, who was the biggest name in the herring fishing industry at the time.

Wick, or Pulteneytown as it was then known, was one of the major herring ports with over 1000 boats in its harbour at peak times and Henderson decided to open a distillery to give the fishermen a constant supply of whisky. It was located near to the harbour as the town was only accessible by sea in the 1820s. Sadly now, there were only about five or six boats in the harbour as we drove passed. The Pulteney distillery remains one of the few to be named after a person and its whisky is marketed as Old Pulteney or ‘the maritime malt’.

Up on arriving in the town of Wick, you cannot help but notice that almost everything seems grey, even on a lovely late autumn afternoon with the sun setting. This is due to the local dark slate-coloured stone that is used to construct nearly all of the town’s buildings. The Pulteney distillery is constructed in the same way and sits in a central location overlooking the harbour and the town. Both factors tend to make the initial impression of Pulteney that it is not the most picturesque of distilleries – there are no green trees or sweeping countryside in the background, no photogenic pagoda or pomp and circumstance for tourists – just grey buildings … in a street. However, we were to see and learn that what Pulteney lacks in the looks department, it makes up for everywhere else.

malcolm waring - pulteney distillery managerOur tour and subsequent whisky tasting session were hosted by Malcolm Waring, the Pulteney Distillery Manager (pictured, left). He started his whisky career at Pulteney over 20 years ago and has worked at all of Inver House’s distilleries, with the exception of Speyburn, working his way up through the ranks. He then went full circle and returned to Pulteney to become Distillery Manager in 2006. Throughout the tour and tasting Malcolm told us many facts about the distillery, which is clearly close to his heart, and we have tried to include as many of these below. We also discovered that he is learning to play the bagpipes and has started his own pig farm!

We begin in the entrance to the visitor centre, which has a homely feel and contains a small gift shop. The distillery receives approximately 4,500 visitors a year and they run a regular tour for £4 per person, plus Master Class and Whisky Connoisseur tours for £15 and £30 respectively . From here we go through a narrow hallway, which was adorned with maritime related paraphernalia (portholes on the wall, a wooden boat steering wheel etc) and play on the ‘maritime malt’ theme. The main part of the visitor centre is housed in an area that used to house the distillery kiln and cooperage. A basic exhibition shows old photographs, pieces of old equipment and explains each part of the whisky making process with text and easy to follow diagrams. The language of the exhibition is concise and perfect for a whisky beginner.

Malcolm gives us some interesting facts before we move on – the distillery is built on the site of an old quarry, it employs just 11 staff (eight distillery shift workers including himself, two in the shop and one in the office) and that the whisky is also know as ‘the manzanilla of the north’ because of its saltiness which is similar to that found in manzanilla sherry. We cross the central courtyard and go in to the mill room, which houses a 90 years old Porteus mill. This amazing and ancient piece of equipment mills down 5 tonnes of malted barley every two and a half hours. It gets through a staggering 160 tonnes in a 12 day cycle. Each tonne of milled barley (or grist) will produce 410 litres of alcohol spirit. The malted barley used has no peat included, although the distillery did use heavily peated malt and produce a robust, smoky style of whisky prior to 1959.

mash tun at pulteney distilleryNext is the mash room, which can be described in one word – tiny! The mash tun (pictured, left)fills the room and you have to squeeze around the sides of it to look in or move on. Malcolm explained that the mash tun is due to be replaced in two years time and that they would have to take the roof off to get this old one out and the new one in! He also told us that Pulteney use a four water cycle when mashing their grist and this involves adding water at four different temperatures – 68.5°C then 72°C, 85°C and 87°C - to try and extract the most soluble sugars possible. The capacity of the mash tun is 15,700 litres.

washbacks at pulteney distilleryAfter the claustrophobic mash room, we are taken through to the larger washback room where the fermentation process takes place. There are six washback tanks, each with a capacity of 23,500 litres, but true to Pulteney’s quirky nature the story doesn’t end there. Five are made from Corten steel, which is a rarely used material for washbacks these days (in fact, only Glen Scotia in Campbeltown still has them) and the other is stainless steel. Add to this that the five steel washbacks are in one room with the sixth stainless steel one is located in the still house and you start to get the idea of Pulteney’s unconventional layout.

In a further quirk, we discover that the distillery is one of only four in Scotland to use dried yeast for fermentation, rather than liquid yeast cultures – Malcolm naming Auchentoshan, Bruichladdich and Highland Park as the others. This yeast is purchased from South Africa. The impact of this is that Pulteney has a longer fermentation time than most, as it takes an additional two hours for the yeast to rehydrate and ‘get going’. This is done by adding the dried yeast pellets to warm water at 36°C. The total time for fermentation is 52 hours and each washback contains liquid at different stages of the fermentation process.

This place is a rabbit warren - we double back on ourselves through a narrow passageway and emerge in to what must be one of the smallest and most idiosyncratic still rooms in the industry. The initial response from us was "is this it?" but plenty of interest was soon revealed. The Pulteney still room has one pair of stills (one wash still and one spirit still), which are based on originals from the 1920s, and that sixth stainless steel fermentation washback crammed in the far corner. Both stills have unconventional elements to them, including the large bulbous parts below the neck (the unique design of Old Pulteney’s whisky bottles are influenced by this shape). This unusually large bulb shape helps to give their spirit its distinctive oily, heavy character.

pulteney distillery stills and wormtub
The wash still (pictured, above left) holds 21,000 litres of fermented wash. However, the most interesting thing is that the top of the neck has been crudely sliced off and a makeshift lyne arm welded to the side. The reason for this is rumoured to be that the measurements for a new still were confused and when it was delivered, it didn’t fit … so they hacked the top off and repositioned the lyne arm! They have kept the same design of still ever since the 1920s. The spirit still (pictured, above centre) is smaller, with a capacity of 17,000 litres and it too has a bizarre feature – a lyne arm that resembles a u-bend on a toilet and is unlike anything else in the industry. This is due to the purifier attached to it – when this was fitted, there wasn’t enough space to keep the lyne arm straight without smashing through the outer wall of the building. So, they adapted the lyne arm. We like and admire this type of ingenuity!

spirit safe at pulteney distilleryBoth of the stills run in to their own wormtubs, which are located on the outer wall of the still room (pictured, above right). These are huge water tanks in which coiled copper piping sits - as the spirit vapours travel down the lyne arm from the still, they travel through the coiled pipe and the cold water helps to condense the vapour back to a liquid. This was the traditional method for condensation but has now been largely replaced by modern condensing units at most distilleries. This made it very interesting to see and further enhanced the sense that Pulteney is very much a traditional distillery that has always made its whisky the same way. The last thing to see here was the padlocked spirit safe (pictured, left), which dates back to 1920, and it sits on top of the cast iron spirit receiver of the same age.

casks at pulteney distilleryThe final part of the tour takes us to one of the warehouses across the road, via the cask filling area. Here they undertake minor cask repairs before filling them with newly made spirit. At Pulteney they fill to cask at an alcoholic strength between 68-69% ABV. Today's ABV is 68.6%. Only spirit destined to become Old Pulteney single malt (approximately 2,000 casks a year at present) is stored and matured within their five warehouses on site. Another 1,000 or so casks are produced for the blending market. They currently have 25,000 casks maturing on site, which equates to 3.6 million litres of whisky. Most are in ex-bourbon casks, although some are in casks of various varieties of sherry. The most amazing thing about standing in that warehouse is that you can taste a tangy saltiness in the air - no wonder that Old Pulteney whiskies have that distinct saltiness as one of their main characteristics!

We moved on to taste the current range, plus a couple of special treats, with Malcolm back in the visitor centre. To read our tasting notes - click here. We would like to thank Malcolm for his hospitality and his fascinating insight in to this traditional yet idiosyncratic whisky distillery. Next time someone tells you “once you’ve seen one distillery, you’ve seen them all haven’t you?”, tell them to visit Pulteney and then ask if they have the same opinion!