Tuesday 9 September 2014

Spirit of Freedom - Vote Yes to that

This blog has always been a mixture of opinions - in general - mixed with views on and experiences of the world of whisky and its culture.

From day one, support and favouritism has been given to the 'wee guy'. We firmly believe that small is beautiful. That doesn't mean that big = ugly but really you can't beat something close and tangible to something that's distant in all meanings of that word.

Recently, the media made much of 130 'Scottish' companies who opposed Scottish independence and 200 who are in favour of it. Amongst the names on both sides were some from the whisky world.

Two of the names I noticed were Inver House distillers - in opposition to independence - and Springbank who see it as a golder opportunity. Inver House distillers produce many fine whiskies. But, how to they compare to the well respected Springbank?

This is from Wikipedia's page on Inver House:
Inver House Distillers Limited is a Scottish malt whisky distiller, based in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire. The company is now a subsidiary of Thai Beverages, one of the largest alcoholic-beverage companies in South East Asia, with a market capitalisation in excess of US$4bn.
Inver House Distillers is a leading distiller of single malt whisky, owning and operating five distilleries: Old Pulteney Distillery, The Speyburn-Glenlivet Distillery, Balblair Distillery, Knockdhu Distillery and Balmenach Distillery.
This, from Sprinbank's Wiki page:

Springbank is one of only two distilleries in Scotland to perform every step in the whisky making process, from malting the barley to bottling the spirit, on same premises: the other is Kilchoman Distillery who also grow their own barley. While a few others still maintain the first step in the process, the malting of barley (which is becoming more rare), Springbank also bottles their own whisky.

Springbank is one of the few remaining family owned distilleries. Nearly all of its whisky is sold as a single malt, with little of it finding its way into blends. Most blends are produced by larger conglomerates who tend to use the single malts from the distilleries that they own in their blends. Springbank produces two of its own blends, 5 year old Campbeltown Loch, and Mitchell's 12 year old.
So, here we have it. One group of distilleries is owned by a 'faceless' international conglomerate and the other is, well, independent. As to the whiskies themselves, all have their qualities though personally I have found in the last two years that my whisky purchases increasingly include those from the Springbank stable. The new Longrow Red is likely to be my next.

Quoted in the Scotsman, Neil Clapperton of Springbank:

But Mr Clapperton, managing director of Springbank Distillers, said: “The Scottish whisky industry has nothing to lose and everything to gain from independence. Whisky is an iconic Scottish product hugely important to our economy. It accounts for a quarter of all UK food and drink exports, earning £135 every second.

“We must do all we can to support every stage of its production here in Scotland, from our barley farmers through to our whisky producers. I am certain that is best done as a normal nation with the full powers of an independent country.”

He warned: “The biggest threat to the whisky industry comes from the in/out European Union referendum the UK is planning, and the fact this could close EU influence in getting whisky into foreign markets.”

In the pro-Yes letter, the Springbank boss and others state that “independence is in the best interests of Scotland’s economy and its people”.

As with crofting communities, local ownership has to be the preferred option for whisky distilleries if they seek to benefit the local community as well as those with vested interests, financially, in the business.

This must count for nations as well. There is always uncertainty and there will be whether or not we vote yes or no to our self-determination - not least will we see a Tory-Ukip coalition in Downing St that takes us out of Europe whether we like it or not. However, at the end of day, do we want to leave control over important issues to a handful of distant millionaires or do we trust ourselves to do what's best for our country.

Who should deal with...
  • welfare? Who is best placed to provide for our pensioners, working families, disabled, students as well as those without work?
  • pensions? Why are we working longer and paying more to receive smaller pensions when we can 'afford' an unelected House of Lords with 800 members who receive £800 a day expenses?
  • political priorities? Is it really necessary for the UK government to spend £billions on Trident and more recently, £4billion on 600 armoured vehicles?! Or could we provide something more tangible to our citizens in the form of more nurses, doctors, teachers and better public transport?
  • our wealth? Whisky apparently brings in £130 per second to the London treasury. Oil, tourism, the financial sector, food, research, technologies and renewable energy adds to this wealth. Do we trust ourselves to spend it according to our needs or do we leave it to a succession of Westminster governments who have, arguably, wasted it for the past 40 years?
I have always been decided on this issue. But for those who aren't, I am reliably informed that the Wee Blue Book is an invaluable source of information on what Scottish self-determination could look like.

Otherwise, vote Yes on September 18. Then, enjoy a dram or three at the mother of parties that will follow a Yes vote and look forward to a bright new future.

Monday 21 April 2014

Redemption in Uigeadail

Holiday time and a trip through duty-free sees me in 'boy in sweetie shop' mode. Edinburgh Airport's selection doesn't seem to be what it used to though. There is variety but much of it seems to be underwhelming 'travel-retail only' from some of the industry's big guns who jump at the chance to proffer a new name or two with no age-statement and the auld ABV of 40%. Some of it is more or less the same stuff you can buy in a local supermarket except that here you have 'trained' sales-rep types mangling the Gaelic names on the likes of Glenlivet or Glenmorangie.... "La Santa? You mean LASanta?!"

I had decided beforehand that the bottle to keep me warm on this holiday would be the Bowmore 100 Degrees Proof or maybe the Ardbeg Uigeadail. The absence of the Bowmore rendered the decision an easy one.

Ardbeg though has been disappointing of late. Last year's purchase of the Corryvreckan was a mistake. It was underwhelming. More so when I had the choice of the Uigeadail. It may be another NoAgeStatement but it's reasonably priced and it's a flaming great dram. It has a fabulously filthy flavour if you excuse the alliteration. Oily with flavours of TCP, dirty leather and the old Portobello swimming baths back when they were filled with seawater from the Firth of Forth. On top of the peat though there's a little sweetness. It's drinkable at the ABV of 54.2% though a smidgen on water does no harm.

Here's hoping Ardbeg get back to the robust and direct approach to whisky that gave us Renaissance and Airigh nam Beist as well as Uigeadail. An approach that married simplicity with complexity without over the top marketing or cask-strength gimmickry.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Bread, beer and whisky from one year to the next

What else do you need for the glum darkness of a Scottish December as it merges into a new year?

I hardly ever make any sort of bread but seeing a recipe on Innis & Gunn's site for their IPA bread gave me renewed confidence in my baking skills. The recipe here, worked a treat. For good measure, I threw in a variety of other ingredients to add interest to the mix and to 'beef' it up a bit - black Greek olives, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and some battered brazil nuts. I'm not usually an IPA fan - tastes too much like a bunch of flowers for me - but Innis & Gunn's habit of maturing their liquid in casks makes this the most palatable.

Around the same time, a triple barrelled package with a combined age of 67 arrived from Whiskybroker. Though myself and others were disappointed that the promised Macallan didn't materialise, due to price apparently, the other releases were both of significant interest and high quality.

Having exhausted my previous bottle of grain, the Invergordon 25yo was a welcome addition to the shelf. It has all the hallmarks of an aged grain - smooth, creamy with lots of vanilla but this one has a little lemon zest in there.

In all my years of imbibing, I had never knowingly drank an Auchroisk. Whiskybroker's 21 year old is an excellent place to start. Smooth, sweet and so damn tasty with a wee hint of wood.

Lastly was the 21yo Ardbeg. Much sought after though more so for the reputation of it and the perceived kudos at having such a bottle on the shelf. The nose is fantastic - lots of peat and saline that takes me back to Airigh nam Beist. As is usual for the age, the peat on the palate is not as pronounced but is there nevertheless. Dignified and quiet and well worth it at the price.

And there's enough left over for an impending Burns' Nicht.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Speyside #3: Balvenie/ Kininvie and Glen Moray

At £35, it ain't cheap compared to some distillery tours. It's also worth every penny. Balvenie may have a reputation as a 'classy' whisky but the tour takes us to all the dusty and damp recesses while coating your tongue with beautiful tasting liquid.

The tour lasts nigh on three hours. Malt is tasted and wash savoured. Practises are explained without too much air brushing. Despite being almost a home boutique distillery, it is admitted that the core expressions for the mass market are tankered off to be bottled near Glasgow.

The kiln
Kininvie new washbacks
In the much vaunted Warehouse 24, visitors get a chance to taste three whiskies straight from the cask as well as bottling a 20cl with your chosen liquid. All are around 12yo with one sherry, one first fill bourbon and one refill bourbon. The first fill bourbon is pretty good. The other two are outstanding. Further to this, members of Balvenie's fanclub, 'Warehouse 24', are entitled to a complimentary dram. 'Not bad' I thought. However, when presented with a dram of a 39yo, distilled in 1974, I was more than happy. A superb and classy aged Balvenie with just a hint of peat. Does life get better?

While on the tour, it was hard to avoid noticing the references here and there to Kininvie - a 'distillery' which I understood to be 'closed'. It is anything but. Whether or not it counts as a separate distillery, I don't know. Maybe it's more like Balvenie's bidie-in that labours away in the background making 'industrial' malt for blending. Whatever, we also get treated to the sight of new washbacks being installed for Kininvie. A statement in itself, no?

At work in the cooperage

Balvenie stills
The tour is rounded off with a 5 dram tasting, including the renowned and expensive Tun 1401. What more could a whisky novice or connoisseur wish for?

As it says on the tin

For us, the whisky day is completed by a visit to Glen Moray. I've always viewed GM as a 'cheap' and perhaps unappealing dram. Possibly because I can recall purchasing a bottle for £14 many years ago and before I my whisky palate had developed. This view changed upon tasting both their peated spirit and 8yo cask-strength Chenin Blanc cask at the Whisky Fringe two years ago.

Their indepth 'Fifth Chapter' tour being unavailable we were nevertheless determined to visit the shop with a view to purchase something tasty. Unfortunately, the 30yo at £70 had sold out funnily enough. However, a chance to bottle a 9yo straight from a Chenin Blanc cask at £45 was too good to pass up. A lovely, mouth-filling and sweet whisky.

Respect to Balvenie and Glen Moray.

Speyside virginity lost
Speyside #2 - Lost and Reborn

Thursday 24 October 2013

Speyside #2 - lost and reborn

On the road between Ballindalloch, I like it how signs point you to airts and pairts with 'distillery' names such as Benrinnes, Dailuaine, Knockando and Glenallachie. All seem to be closed to visitors though unless you manage to get lucky during the Speyside Whisky fest.

They once were neighbours.
It doesn't stop you from distillery spotting though. And maybe this is the difference between whisky and train aficionados - getting into a distillery, sniffing the mash tuns, viewing the stills and sampling from the cask in a cold dank warehouse must be the equivalent of driving your own steam engine instead of just watching it from the concrete.

We take the road to Dailuaine/ Carron and are soon rewarded by the sight of Dailuaine's warehouses. The product of this distillery that I've tasted has so far been pretty good. Not least the recent offering from Whiskybroker. It's certainly a busy place though even though the industrial appearance of the plant leads one to figure that the 'green meadow' or dail uaine (da-il oo-ine-ye) lies outwith the distillery boundaries.

We follow the steam from Dailuaine further down the glen to find it hanging over the Site Formerly Known as Imperial. Memories of a Gordon&MacPhail 13yo sherry cask Imperial come flooding back. Beautiful stuff, Unfortunately, the status of Imperial went from 'mothballed' to 'demolished' in January of this year.
What remains of Imperial

The dunnage warehouses still stand and perhaps that's a fitting testament to a famous auld whisky. However, a new distillery is rising from the soil. What will it be called? No-one seems to know but one or two locals claim that 'Glen Carron' could be a good bet.

Rising from the ashes - Glen Carron?
One long gone whisky with the parent distillery - buildings at least - still intact is Parkmore. Taking the road from Dufftown past Glenfiddich and Balvenie Castle you soon spot the revived Speyside Railway track parallel to the road. The pagodas of Parkmore stick up from the glen below. Visually, it is a living tourist brochure. Though departed distilleries understandably pull at the heartstrings of many it seems as if Parkmore's product was so poorly regarded that the remaining casks of it were smashed when the distillery ceased distilling. As Whisky Dufftown puts it:
Built in 1894, Parkmore has been silent since 1931 because of problems with its water source. Although the maltings were in use until the late 1960's and the warehouses are still in use today. Parkmore's whisky is no longer available - it is reputed that all the casks remaining in the distillery were smashed when it closed.
Parkmore's postcard view
Fleeting visits are paid to Cragganmore and Strathisla as well though time doesn't allow for tours to be undertaken. Craggamore has a few people in already but the welcoming ladies on duty still offer us a dram anyway. Strathisla is a graveyard with one bored guy staffing the visitor centre. Despite the lack of interest from the public and our interest in products and tours, we don't get offered a sniff. It's a PR win for Cragganmore.

Fortunately, memories of a stingy Strathisla are erased by the following days tour of Balvenie...

#1 Speyside Virginity Lost

Sunday 20 October 2013

Speyside virginity lost

More or less. Having 'done' Islay as well as the south from Glenkinchie to Bladnoch and the southern and eastern Highlands, my experience of Speyside whisky in its own domain has been pretty fleeting. So, a trip to Speyside for the autumn break beckoned and it didn't disappoint. Even better, the Scottish autumn was glorious.

The road north from Perth through Blairgowrie and Braemar on the way to Srath Spè is a stunning highway to the north. For a whisky geek the only thing that can better the autumnal trees of Perthshire is the glut of well-kent names on the map as you approach Tomintoul.

Speyside sheep block the road to Allt a' Bhainne.
With our but'n'ben sitting in Glen Rinnes, the first distillery encountered was the auld timer of Tamnavulin in the hamlet of Tomnavulin. To the locals a generation or two back, it was Toman a' Mhuilinn - the little hillock of the mill. Unfortunately to whisky travellers, the sign in English said 'closed to visitors'. Despite this, seeing the source of a famous Scottish whisky, in the flesh so to speak, still gives the whisky geek a wee thrill. It's probably like train-spotting. Within a few miles of the house, we had the aforementioned Tamnavulin, Braeval (or Braes of Glenlivet as it was), Glenlivet, Allt a' Bhainne, Tomintoul, Benrinnes and Glenallachie. Cragganmore, Glenfarclas and the whisky metropolis that is Dufftown were only slightly further afield.

As we soon found out, this a feature of travel around Speyside. Especially if you take some of the back roads. Distilleries seem to loom up every few minutes.

Despite most lying in 'hidden' glens it is difficult to find much romance about many of them. Most are simply factories with the kind of architecture you'd expect from factories that were built or re-built in recent decades. For every Strathisla there's an Allt a' Bhainne and Aultmore.

What counts though is the welcome, the experience and the liquid.

First stop for a tour was the famed Aberlour. As the Founder's Tour was all booked, I had to settle for the Aberlour Experience. As experiences go, it's not a bad one. Indeed, for a standard tour it is worth the £12.50. Having been rebuilt after a fire as well as modified and enlarged, the architecture is a bit grim save for one or two buildings of the old 'vernacular' which are more pleasing to the eye. We get a glimpse inside one of the warehouses but that's as far as it goes.

The tasting though is excellent. 6 drams including a decent measure of new-make spirit. We also get the two single-cask cask-strength drams that are available for bottle your own - these are both 16yo with one first-fill bourbon and one sherry. The bourbon has a nose that I could caress all day - the taste and finish don't reach such heights though. The sherry is an all-round stoater. It is purchased and comes with its very own whisky coffin. The 12yo French release at 43% is like juice in comparison. The 16yo follows before we finish with the mighty A' Bunadh.

The next day sees us leave one distillery that is very much alive to encounter two that are in different stages of death-rebirth or even a zombie-like purgatory.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Whisky Fringe benefits

The coming and going of this year's Whisky Fringe has more or less consigned Summer 2013 to history. Autumnal nights of log fires, drams and Nordic-noir beckons as the nights begin to fair draw in again.

As always, a superb selection of drams were on offer. Having seen the Spirit of the Fringe awards, I have to admit that most of my drams of the day were not on it. Indeed, perhaps there should also be a 'Stall of the Fringe' award for the table that bears the greatest weight of liquid treasure? If there had been such an award this year then surely the Adelphi display of fire power would've blown most of the others across to Fife or least to an overpriced George St wine bar.

Adelphi seem to have a knack of bottling seriously fine malts. This year's offerings were both fine and interesting. A 6yo Glenrothes sherry cask? Lovely. The sherry theme dominated and did not disappoint. The Bowmore 17 was neck and neck with the Caol Ila 9 for me. It was also good to hear that Adelphi expect distilling to start at their new Ardnamurchan distillery in December of this year.

I was also more than pleased to discover a preview of the forthcoming Longrow Red #2. Like the previous offering, this is an 11yo but this one enjoyed its latter years in a Shiraz cask. Wonderful, wonderful stuff yet again from Campbeltown's finest.

The benefits this year included the chance to sample the Brora 32 as well as Douglas Laing's 15yo Laphroaig.

On the downside was the Balcones Brimstone. If you forgive the religious analogy, this is more happy-clappy than in-your-face Presbyterian fury. The absence of Laphroaig and Bruichladdich was also noted as was the failure of Glen Moray to supply a sequel to last years superb Chenin Blanc 8yo cask strength. Never mind, at least I have this years Laphroaig Càirdeas Port Cask to welcome in the dark evenings.