Wednesday 31 December 2014

Martin's 2014 Whisk(e)y predictions revisited

In December 2013 I wrote up my "10 predictions for whisky trends in 2014" (5 serious, 5 not so serious). 365 days later, after a fantastic year for whisky (and this blog), and after an amazing week of whisky distilleries and bars in Japan, it's time to re-visit those predictions and see how accurate the crystal ball was...


1. The rise and rise of NAS (Non-Age Statement) whiskies.I'd feel comfortable saying this one was relatively accurate. We continue to see NAS whiskies proliferate in travel retail (especially in Asia), but increasingly in off-premise too. Suntory's "Distiller's Reserve" Yamazaki and Hakushu releases have replaced the 10yo / 12yo (depending on the market) as the "base level" whiskies, and they're absolutely fantastic. On the Scotch side of things we've seen new Glenmorangies, Ardbegs and The Macallans (to name just a few) in retail markets, all with no age statements. Not just at the "budget" end of the spectrum either, with whiskies like Ardbeg's 2014 Supernova and The Macallan's "Masters of Photography: Mario Testino Edition" (tasting notes up shortly) commanding premium prices.

They haven't all been winners, but the majority (including those mentioned above) certainly have been, and as the global whisky market continues to grow, I see no issues with the continuing rise of NAS long as they're good whiskies.

2. The rise of "New World" whiskies.We didn't see Indian whiskies particularly increase their status (that's not to say there weren't already some good ones), but we certainly saw the overall category of "New World" whiskies grow, with increased recognition of Australian whisky in particular. Just look at the Sullivans Cove win, and the rise of craft distillers like Peter Bignell's Belgrove. Not to mention New World Whisky Distillery (makers of Starward single malt), and their truly excellent young single cask releases. I expect we'll see big things from these guys in the future. Global awards perhaps? In time, I think so.

Add in Sweden's Mackmyra (who have done some very interesting things this year) as just another example, and I'd say this prediction overall was accurate.

3. Craft / quality Bourbon (and American whiskey in general) will grow in popularity in Australia. This one may take some more time, as I wouldn't say Australia has yet fully embraced Bourbon / American Whiskies as wholly as single malt just yet, but I definitely think we're seeing the start. American Whiskey tastings (like those at Shirt Bar) frequently fill up, and we even saw a SMWS Bourbon release this year sell out in a short period of time.

Give this prediction another 2-3 years and I reckon it'll be spot on.

4. Flavoured whiskies. This one definitely eventuated (ref: Ballantines' "Brasil", J&B "Urban Honey" and JD's "Tennessee Fire"). Though hey, if acts as a "gateway" to get people more interested in whisk(e)y, I've got no issues with it.

5. Stronger whiskyI wouldn't really say this one came true, though in retrospect, given the taxation on alcohol and its relation to strength / ABV in many markets, that's not really surprising.

Sarcastic / not so serious:

1. An Australian whisky will win a global award, and we won't hear the end of it for months.
Wow did this one come true!

2. The 2014 releases of Port Ellen and Pappy Van Winkle 23yo will cost an absurd amount, and will still sell out in minutes. My guess is £2,000 for Port Ellen, though £2,500 wouldn't surprise me.
£2,200 for the Port Ellen, $249USD for the PVW (though good luck finding the latter for that price). Incredibly difficult to get a hold of either. Fair to say this prediction was pretty close.

3. A new "world's most expensive / oldest" whisky will be released (and will probably taste like eating a chunk of wood).
While we did see a number of very old Original Bottlings in 2014 (two 50yo Balvenies and a 50yo The Glenlivet to name three), I don't believe we saw anything older than 70yo come out in 2014.

4. William Grant & Sons will release at least 3 new Global Travel Retail editions for 2014...and I'll try to buy them all.
Perhaps not three, but we did see a new Kininvie (17yo Batch 1) hit the Asian travel retail market, of which I may have bought one or two...(tasting notes up shortly).

5. Jim Murray will make a controversial statement in 2014, everyone will talk about it, but deep down, no one will really care.
Oh certainly did, and it was the talk of the town. Did anyone care? Some probably did, but not me. I knew Japanese whisky was playing on the world stage years ago - I didn't need Mr Murray to tell me that (for what it's worth, having tasted the Yamazaki Sherry Cask*, I'd have to say it was good, but the single cask 11yo Spanish Oak Yamazaki I tried in Japan last week was much better! Notes up in January).

As we end 2014, dram in hand, we'd just like to say thanks for all your support this year. 2014 saw Steph and I move to a new country, explore new whisky markets, and saw Hendy come on board to continue coverage of the Australian whisky scene (captured not just in words, but also through his stunning photography). It's been a great year for us, and we hope it has been for you too.

Hope you have a fantastic New Years celebration, and an equally fantastic 2015. Stay tuned for more posts in 2015 (covering both Asia and Australia) and expect a barrage of Japan posts (distillery tours, whisky bar reviews and 40+ tasting notes) starting in the next few days!


* Admittedly the 2014 release and not the award-winning 2013 release.

Friday 19 December 2014

Johnnie Walker Blue Label 2015 Hong Kong Launch - A Private Reception In Quest of Rarity, Depth and Character (Tasted #147)

Tuesday night saw Hong Kong's Armani/Prive transformed into a subtle sea of blue, as Moët Hennessy Diageo celebrated the end of the year and the launch of the limited edition 2015 Johnnie Walker Blue Label, with a stunning event complete with four Stradavarius violins and a performance from Amelia Chan, the newly appointed Concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong.

On arrival guests were greeted with a handsome (blue, of course) cocktail menu offering a choice of four cocktails - from the light "Traveler's Smash" (served tall with mint, apple, zest and of course Johnnie Walker) to the strong "Dark Fashion" (Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve with Vanilla, chocolate and a blend of bitters, served Old Fashioned style), prepared by Ricky Liau, fellow Aussie and 2013 Diageo World Class HK Champion (who we're told may be heading to Perth/Melbourne soon, if any bars are looking for a gun bartender). There was something for everyone and judging by the popularity of all four cocktails, the whole menu was well received (especially the Negroni-esque "Burning Light", combining Double Black with sweet vermouth and Talisker 10).

But of course, it was Blue Label we were there to celebrate, and so after the crowd had enjoyed a cocktail or two and Armani/Prive's fantastic canapés, Drew Mills (Marketing Director, Diageo Brands) took to the stage to present the main event - a (generous) tasting of the new 2015 release (the makeup of which we understand is still a closely-guarded secret, although I'd be willing to bet there's a little well-aged Islay malt in there, given the subtle peat smoke).

Long-time readers of this blog would know we mostly feature single malts, although have certainly featured (and enjoyed) many blends over the years. It'd been a good 3 years since I'd last tasted Blue Label, and that was from an old bottle back in Sydney which had been sitting 90% empty for far too long (and like any spirit, had likely dulled).

I have to say...while the main point of difference with the new 2015 release might be the bottle and packaging design, the whisky itself certainly impressed me more than I remember it doing years ago (and we were tasting it out of a tumbler too). 

Johnnie Walker Blue Label 2015 release (40% ABV, NAS, Scotland, $1,780HKD)
Colour: ...a little hard to tell with all the blue light. Probably not so blue under natural light ;)
Nose: Nutty and rich, with a lot of orange citrus, and very slight peat smoke - reminiscent of an older (say 20yo+) Islay malt, Lagavulin most notably. The peat smoke is there, but it's almost not, and certainly not the dominant characteristic.
Palate: Rich, oily and mouthfilling, with lots of orange zest and some noticeable maltiness. Incredibly smooth. Some hints of varnish, oak and leather too. The smoke is there, but it's increasingly subtle.
Finish: Long, smoke, wafers, and varnish at the very end. Very enjoyable.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 93/100. A great nose, carried through right through to the finish. Complex, but at the same time approachable. Definitely a dram I'd be happy to have a second of!

Whilst enjoying the remainder of our Blue, Amelia Chan, Concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong took her place on stage, with a $6.5m USD Stradavarius in hand, and gave us a stunning rendition of two pieces, including a Bach (which was all the more impressive to played the violin for about 9 years but never got past Grade 1...).

It was interesting to note the quiet and respectful nature of the crowd, which was a direct contradiction to other HK whisky and music events we've been to. Everyone seemed to enjoy the performances, and of course the whisky - a great match.

A display was set up to explain a little more about the violins' histories (most dating back to the 1700s) along with tasting notes for the Blue Label. Another interesting set up was the nosing sticks (above), which separated the key notes found in Johnnie Walker and allowed guests to experience them individually.

After another cocktail and further chat with the friendly Diageo and PR teams, it was time to head home, a great night had by all.

Martin. would like to thank MHDHK and QNMPR for the invitation to what was a very enjoyable night.

Monday 15 December 2014

Malt & Grain Whisk(e)y Society Hong Kong & Chat with co-founder Eddie Nara

Despite Hong Kong boasting many whisky bars, hugely popular whisk(e)y auctions and a growing love of the spirit, Steph and I were surprised to find a lack of whisk(e)y societies or clubs on our arrival. Having been used to regular tastings at the likes of Shirt Bar's Scotch Club in Sydney, Oak Barrel and of course the many and wonderful SMWS events, we were suddenly left without any regular tasting nights. Sure there was the occasional tasting (such as those run by the excellent Angels' Share in Central), but no regular club or society.

As we started to attend various launches and events, we started to meet more people in the industry, and soon found ourselves introduced to Eddie Nara, who, it turns out, had just very recently started up a Hong Kong Whisk(e)y Society - the Malt & Grain Whisk(e)y Society Hong Kong!

Described as "a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting and sharing knowledge and enjoyment of all kinds of whiskies/whiskeys from all around the world", MAGWSHK aims to explore not only the world of Scottish and Japanese malt whiskies, but whiskies from all over the world, including Grain whiskies as the name suggests.

We had a chat to co-founder Eddie Nara recently to understand a bit more about the club and some of its upcoming plans.

Hi Eddie, thanks for your time. Can you give us a bit more insight into your own background / history in the spirits/whisky industry?
Currently working full-time in the oil industry… jet fuel to be specific. Started to do WSET level 2 in 2009, now still working on my WSET level 4 (i.e. Diploma). I’m a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS), awarded by the Society of Wine Educators, based in the USA. I’m also a Certified Whisky Ambassador, awarded by The Whisky Ambassador, based in Glasgow, Scotland.

I founded Barrel Concepts in 2011, a business that specialises in whisk(e)y events, education and consultancy services.  I co-founded the Malt & Grain Whisk(e)y Society HK in 2014, the first registered whisk(e)y appreciation club in Hong Kong, where I am currently the Chairman. 

I’m also a Spirit Judge with the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Competition, and have been invited to conduct a number of whisk(e)y classes/talks, e.g. City’Super, Cru Magazine, IWSC etc...

Quite involved in the industry then! Why did you start the MAGWSHK?
I wanted to educate and promote whisk(e)y drinking here in HK, and also wanted to correct some of people’s misconceptions: for example older age is not always better then younger age; and blended is not necessarily inferior to single malts 

What do you plan to do with the society? What sort of events can members expect?
Tasting events; master classes; whisk(e)y dinners and whisk(e)y/food pairing workshops. My priority is to invite the brand ambassadors to conduct the tastings/workshops, but then I may also invite the regional/local brand managers or experts. 

How you think the “typical" Hong Kong whisky drinker is changing?
HK drinkers (Asian palates) tend to favor the sherry cask whisk(e)ys, this is probably one of the reasons why The Macallans and certain Japanese ones (Karuizawas, Hanyus) are so popular in Asia. 

As an experiment, I let a few of my friends blind taste the Tullamore Dew Phoenix, which is a typical Irish blended whiskey, but finished in Oloroso sherry casks (at 55% abv), almost everyone tried it liked it, and never thought it was an Irish!

The trend… no doubt they would still choose single malts over blends, and a lot of people are going after the vintages, single cask/cask strength versions.  I also see people are open to try the smaller or not so well-known distilleries.

What events are upcoming (that you can share)?
We just had a Whisky x Oyster pairing workshop (on 13 Nov), and a MBD tasting event with Gordon Dundas on 26 Nov (with a few limited editions from Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, and the Bowmore Devil’s Cask release 2). 
[Recently announced is a "bring your own bottle" Christmas dinner on 23 December. See the MAGWSHK Facebook page for further details.]

We're all for any clubs which aim to increase the understanding and appreciate of whisk(e)y, and MAGWSHK aims to do just that, without any pretentiousness.

Membership to the club is $500HKD for the first year ($250 for subsequent years), or $1,000 for lifetime membership. Both membership options include a whisky glass and a mystery bottle of whisky (that we're assured is very good!)

We may well see you at a future event!


Friday 12 December 2014

PR #24: The Macallan "Masters of Photography" - Mario Testino Edition

Not content with simply producing one of the world's best single malts (and the only one regularly referred to as the "Rolls Royce" of malts), the past few years have seen The Macallan team up with some of the world's most prolific photographers for a series called the "Masters of Photography". Annie Leibovitz was the first, with Elliott Erwitt, Albert Watson and Rankin following. Now, the fifth in the series has been unveiled as Mario Testino.
"The fifth edition of Masters of Photography paid homage to The Macallan’s foundation stones, The Six Pillars, of which Mario Testino brought to life through the characterization of six individual personalities, forming a distinctive group that embodied the spirit of the ultimate party. Shot in a former palace near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the photographs recalled the vibrancy and luxury of the realm of The Macallan, and were instilled with cultural allusions.   

Much like Testino’s approach in casting each persona, the Master Whisky Maker meticulously selected six of over 200,000 casks maturing at The Macallan. Characterized by varying aromas, flavours and an unparalleled depth and complexity, these malts most certainly encapsulated each one of the unprecedented Six Pillars that The Macallan has built its stellar reputation upon, and produced a multi-dimensional flavour experience that can only be attributed to the casks of Spanish and American 100% sherry seasoned oak butt and puncheon each malt matured in.  

“Whisky was the choice of drink in my country during the years I was growing up. When I was approached by The Macallan to take part in the Masters of Photography Series I decided to capture the moment when people get together to celebrate, in the atmosphere of a whisky environment – a whisky club!,” comments Mario Testino.

Differing somewhat to the previous releases, the Mario Testino edition includes one full size bottle and 6 miniatures, each a single cask bottling in the high 56%+ ABV range.

Each box is individually numbered and includes an exclusive photo-archival booklet featuring a total of 20 images, with an additional hidden compartment that encloses the aforementioned six miniatures.

The Macallan Masters of Photography: Mario Testino edition will be available in Hong Kong at HK$28000 at premium wine and spirit shops. We hope to bring you some more detail and close-up photos when we attend the launch tonight, and will post up tasting notes shortly!


Thursday 11 December 2014

Tasted #146: Seppeltsfield Para 1913 Port (100 years old)

As you may have guessed from the title, this is not a whisky tasting post. It's rare that we feature something other than whisk(e)y on this blog, but it does happen from time to time. Generally it needs to be something unique, interesting, rare, or special.

...something like a port that's been aged in oak for 100 years. Something like Seppeltsfield's 100 year old Para Tawny (previously known as Port, before the European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines forced everyone outside of the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal to take on a different name).

Steph and I had the pleasure of touring the Seppeltsfield Winery in South Australia's Barossa Valley earlier this year, and jumped at the chance to take the "Centenary Tour" which (as well as being a fascinating insight into the history of the winery) offers two very special tastings at the end - a tasting of your birth year, and a tasting of the latest release 100 year old Para (in our case, the 1913).

At $95/head it's one of the more expensive winery tours, but how often do you get to taste something that's been ageing in oak since before World War I began (and in a room containing filled barrels dating back to 1878, no less)?


Seppeltsfield 100 year old Para Port (100yo, Barossa Valley, South Australia, $1,650AUD for 375mL)

Colour: Black and syrupy. Thick, oily, with the longest legs I've ever seen.

Nose: Coffee, toffee, fresh(!!) vanilla bean.

Palate: Chilli, cayenne pepper, but classic Port / Tawny notes - Christmas cake, raisins. Very strong vanilla notes.

Finish: Christmas cake. Extremely long. Keeps going, and going, and going.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 96/100. Amazing freshness.

In case it's not clear that this was a very very old liquor, here are a few things that happened the year this port was put into a 500lt oak barrel, it's home for the next 100 years:
  • Aston Martin was founded
  • Stainless Steel was Invented
  • Henry Ford brought us the first automobile assembly line
  • World War I....nope, it hadn't started yet.
A fascinating and delicious piece of history. If you ever get the chance, I can highly recommend it.


Wednesday 10 December 2014

Tasted #145: SIA Scotch whisky

In October we mentioned SIA Scotch and their successful Kickstarter campaign, and I've finally gotten around to posting up the tasting notes.

I have to say...this wasn't just any young Douglas Laing blend (not that that would necessarily be a bad thing). This was a very enjoyable, very "sippable" whisky, more complex than I'd expected.

SIA Scotch Whisky (43% ABV, NAS, Speyside/Highlands/Islay, Scotland, $49.99USD)
Colour: Orange-gold.

Nose: Spirity, but with tropical fruits (passionfruit, pineapple). After time, it smooths out and takes on a more complex nose with some oats and porridge joining the fray.

Palate: Not at all what the nose suggests. No fruit and not overly sweet (I'll be honest, I was expecting it to be quite sweet). Oats, grains, cornflakes, with some oranges.

Finish: Medium length, much the same as the palate. Slightest hint of alcohol burn at the end, but certainly not overly noticeable.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 92/100. Very moreish. The palate is the highlight, and (together with the nose) showed complexity beyond what I was expecting.


Tuesday 9 December 2014

This week in whisk(e)y #15

As you might know if you read this blog regularly, we get a fair few interesting press releases and news articles here at TimeforWhisky, and usually try to feature them with our own spin, experiences or comments. Sometimes though, they come thick and fast, and we just don't have time to do them all justice.

So we've decided to take a leaf out of some other excellent whisky blogs, and feature a "PR roundup" every now and then - basically a wrap-up of relevant press releases we've received in the previous week or so (including other interesting whisk(e)y news Steph & I think you might enjoy). So on with it then... the sky?
No it's not a new method of whisky maturation (although we've seen space and sea maturation, so why not?) No, this is a unique event being held in Tasmania to attend a whisky tasting suspended 50 metres in the air.
"Imagine mingling in a clear roof VIP Marquee near Hobart's stunning waterfront before being lifted into the sky, 50 metres above ground level (higher than both the Marine Board & Hydro buildings) to watch the Sydney to Hobart Yachts cross the finish line. 
Guests will relax in their comfy recliner to take in Tasmania's stunning scenery, while sampling some very rare Overeem Single Malt Whisky supplied and presented by Casey Overeem himself. Accompanying the whisky will be selections of mouth-watering Tasmanian cheeses. 
The tasting table is suspended by a crane installed by a team of accredited professionals.
There will only be two whisky elevations. Casey Overeem will present on one, and Bill Lark (Lark Whisky) will present on another.
December 28 at 3:00pm - 4:00pm (Boarding from 2:30pm) - Lark
December 28 at 4:15pm - 5:15pm (Boarding from 3:45pm) - Overeem
This is an exclusive event. Tickets are on sale now and will not last long! There are only 19 spots for public per elevation"
I love Lark and Overeem and can't think of a better way to enjoy them. If we were in the country, I would have been pretty keen for this. Tickets are available from here and are $290AUD each (18+ only).

It's a Laphroaig "Smoky Christmas" at The Wild Rover
The Wild Rover, and their Campbell Corner Whisk(e)y Co-Operative (which we've featured a few times on this site) are hosting a Laphroaig 'Smoky Xmas' on Friday 19th December, from 4pm-6pm. Dan Woolley and Michael Nouri will host an afternoon of whisky, cocktails, live music and freshly shucked oysters from Ralston Bros Oyster Farm.

The boys at "the Rover" know how to throw a bloody good party, and we have no doubt this one will be no different. Details on their Facebook page. We won't be able to be there, so have a 'phroaig for us!

"STORM" Malt Scotch Whisky
A few weeks ago at the HK Wine and Spirits Fair we came across a curious bottle of whisky called "Storm", from Lombard Scotch Whisky. Not having heard of Lombard, I enquired further and learned they have been in the industry since the 60s, as independent bottlers but also blenders, and previous suppliers to blenders. "Storm" is a vatted/pure/whatever the industry is calling it these days malt (i.e. a blend of malt whiskies only, no grain whisky) and whilst distilleries aren't provided, whiskies are described as being "influenced by the salt air and the sea" (which granted, could be one of many distilleries).

Lombard also do a number of single cask releases under their "Jewels of Scotland" label, and I was impressed to see the variety of distilleries available, some of which showed they've clearly been keeping casks for a long time (such as Brora). To quote the company:
"The collection covers the 6 areas: Speyside, Highland, Lowland, Campbeltown, Islay and Islands.  Ages range from 18 years to 42 years."
I wasn't able to take proper tasting notes of the small sample I tried at the show, but hopefully I'll be able to track the "Storm" down again (and a few of the single cask releases) and post up a proper review.


Tuesday 2 December 2014

A little more sherry for Chivas Extra (Tasted #144)

The Chivas Regal blended scotch family is one that has been known for its intimate yet quality expressions. The introduction of this new expression (the first outside the travel retail market in almost 10 years), aptly named "Extra", hinted that there would perhaps be something more to this release.

The launch of the new Chivas Regal Extra was held at the equally elegant and intimate Eau de Vie Sydney, with the tasting held in the private "whisky locker" room behind the main bar area. Upon entering the bar, the first thing I noted was the distinctly unique Chivas Regal Extra bottle. Both the bottle and the box were emblazed with the famous royal-esque Chivas Regal crest and notably finished in the distinct colouring reserved for the Extra, red and gold.

As our host Colin Scott, the Chivas Regal Master Blender attested, this new expression is one of the richest and most discerning offerings presented. The secret of this particular blend (and most other blends for that matter) would never be disclosed though Colin did suggest a composition of somewhere between 30-50 different whiskies. Similar to other Chivas expressions, the dominant, cornerstone whisky used in the Extra is the full bodied, nutty single malt whisky from the Strathisla distillery. The new Extra expression has been tweaked with a considerable portion of Oloroso sherry cask-matured whiskies to give the blend its inherent richness and depth.

I had the pleasure of tasting the Extra the night before at The Barber Shop and what a pleasant dram it was. It was smooth (as you would normally expect from a well-blended whisky), deep and rich and quite a remarkable contrast to the lighter 12yo. Although not officially tagged with an age statement, the Extra has been pitched to sit comfortably between the 12yo and the 18yo. Colin explains that the "Extra" relates to the "Extra" latitude that the expression profoundly exhibits from the collection of fine and rare single malts that have predominantly been matured in sherry casks and added into the blend. Personally, I believe that Chivas Regal has hit the mark with the Extra and it was definitely my pick from the three expressions offered on the tasting board on the day - 12yo, Extra and 18yo.


The Extra also proved to be an effective base for a number of Extra-inspired and infused cocktails. Curated by Max Warner, Chivas Regal's Head Mixologist, we were presented with three different cocktails that incorporated the Extra. This particular spring-fitting, Rob Roy-inspired Sunset Boulevardier combined a touch of the Extra, Regal Rouge, Lillet rose, cherry liqueur, peach and orange bitters, and was simple, warming and quite delightful. 

So, with all that Extra talk, how did it really pan out on its own?

Chivas Regal Extra (40% ABV, NAS, Scotland, $54.95AUD / not yet available in HK)
Colour: Dark toffee
Nose: Dates, sweet, fruit, honeydew, pear
Palate: Subtle, balanced warmth, pear, cinnamon, vanilla.
Finish: Medium.
Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 90/100

- Hendy.

Ed (Martin): Despite missing out on the above launch (I was back in Sydney that week, but missed the event by one day!), I managed to taste the Extra thanks to a bottle kindly being sent to me by Pernod Ricard Australia. For comparison, here are my notes:

Colour: Deep, orange copper.
Nose: Rich, oranges, some cherries. Perfumed.
Palate: Spicy, drying (slightly tannic). Raspberry jam on toast. Some cinnamon. Rich in taste but initially a bit "thin" on the palate.
Finish: Medium to long, smooth, nutty with a hint of spice - paprika?
Rating (on Martin's very non-scientific scale): 90/100. Seems great minds think alike.