Thursday 26 January 2017

A visit to Diageo's Johnnie Walker House Singapore

A few weeks before my recent trip to Singapore, Diageo were kind enough to invite me to "Johnnie Walker House", to experience something which, until that point, I'd only seen glimpses of via Instagram.

Unlike the Jonnie Walker Houses in Mumbai, Taipei and select other airports, Johnnie Walker House Singapore is a private affair - open by invitation only, and designed for Diageo's private clients.

Located within Diageo's Singapore offices, the House is a tastefully decorated suite overlooking the historic trading port of Boat Quay (where the very first Johnnie Walker bottles would have arrived in Singapore in the 1800s), providing a nice link back to the earliest days of the brand. A large-format coffee table book ("bible" may be more apt) also provides insights into the brand's history in Singapore, whilst a video conferencing link allows customers to get real-time insights into the operation of some of Diageo's distilleries today.

Diageo's Private Clients team use the House to demonstrate their higher end, often more bespoke offerings, including personal cask ownership and signature blends. Basically, this isn't where you go to pick up a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue...

Upon entering the House, you're greeted by a large flavour map, mapping out Diageo's 39 malt distilleries (28 operating, 11 closed) in terms of profile. You may not agree with the all the placements, but you'll have to take it up with Dave Broom, as he mapped each distillery.

Against the far wall sits a showcase of Diageo's more exclusive products, including high-end Johnnie Walker blends (think the ~$48k USD McLaren Mercedes Edition and $200k USD Diamond Jubilee), followed by an overview of JW's "Signature Blend" program, allowing customers to determine their preferred flavour profile via a series of tastings, which Master Blender Dr Jim Beveridge then interprets into a custom JW Blend, drawing on the 8 million+ casks at his disposal.

Further along sat a curious bottle of Port Ellen (below) - clearly not part of the annual "Special Releases". I learnt that this was a bottling from Diageo's "Casks of Distinction" program - an incredibly limited program through which customers can purchase an entire cask from select distilleries, and choose to either bottle it, or continue ageing it (in Diageo's bonded warehouses) for bottling at a later date. 

The casks and distilleries available vary over time, but do occasionally include closed distilleries like Port Ellen and Rosebank, alongside operational distilleries like Lagavulin.

To have your own, private cask of Port Ellen and Rosebank bottled with your name would be pretty special...and the packaging certainly seems to befit the exclusivity, with bottles packaged in wooden 6 bottle crates, accompanied by a chest containing crystal glassware.

Having thoroughly toured the House and learnt all about Diageo's most exclusive offerings, there was only one thing left to do....taste!

I'll save the tasting notes for another post, but suffice to say, tasting 6 "Special Releases" bottlings (including 2016's 37yo Port Ellen and 38yo Brora, as well as a delightfully unique 40yo Cambus) was a pretty fantastic way to end a wonderfully detailed insight into the world of Diageo's bespoke offerings.

A huge thanks must go to Diageo and Ketchum for their hospitality during my visit (and of course, for the generous tasting).


Monday 16 January 2017

Edinburgh Whisky Academy: Accredited, in-depth Scotch Whisky education courses

Readers from Hong Kong may well be familiar with Malt Masters, founded by Ian McKerrow and responsible for Hong Kong's very first whisky show (not to mention being one of the first HK organisations to really promote and grow whisky appreciation in the SAR).

Ian comes from a family steeped in Scotch Whisky tradition (his family started Mackinlay's Whisky in the 1800s, and his dad ran Glenmorangie for a time), and clearly that tradition has extended beyond the males in the family, as Ian's sister, Kirsty McKerrow (former Nordic brand ambassador for for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg) has recently opened the Edinburgh Whisky Academy, a Scottish Qualifications Authority-accredited centre dedicated to in-depth Scotch Whisky education.

From a personal perspective, I have to say I've been (very pleasantly) surprised at just how much interest there is in formal whisky education since moving to Hong Kong in 2014. I regularly meet people at whisky events who proudly proclaim they've undertaken a formal qualification (most commonly the Whisky Ambassador course, run here in HK by good mate Eddie Nara) and when you ask what it is they do in the whisky industry, their response is usually something along the lines of "Oh, I'm an artist / banker / chef / writer / whatever - I just really love whisky!"

Clearly the demand for formal whisky education is there, a fact Kristy has obviously noted too, who in September last year launched the two day "Diploma in Single Malt Whisky", which is (in Kristy's words):
“written and delivered by independent industry experts...compact and in-depth and will provide a true and factual grounding for whisky knowledge“

Set in the beautiful Arniston House (just outside of Glasgow), the two day course is led by Vic Cameron, a 23 year veteran of distillation with Diageo and regular whisky educator, and covers 7 modules:

    1. The Historical Development of Distillation & Whisky
    2. The Business of Whisky
    3. The Raw Materials & Their Preparation
    4. The Batch Distillation Process 
    5. The Maturation Process 
    6. World Single Malt Whiskies
    7. Sensory Aspects of Single Malt Whisky
    The Academy also offers a 1 day course in whisky tasting, and plans to offer a diploma in blended whisky too.

    Far from just being a classroom exercise, the Single Malt Diploma includes a visit to nearby Glenkinchie for hands-on education, and the upcoming January course (28-29th January) will include a guest appearance by Charlie MacLean (who we can safely say, from personal experience, will make it a course to remember)!

    Whilst we're acutely aware that there is no one single diploma or accreditation in the whisky world, nor even one that is seen (universally across the industry) as "the" accreditation, like say, WSET in the world of wine and broader spirits, we believe that a good accreditation/diploma needs a few key ingredients - knowledgable instructors, real experiences and in-depth content. Whilst none of us have actually personally attended an EWA course, they do seem to have those three elements in spades, and feedback from attendees backs that up.

    The next Single Malt Diploma is being held on 28-29th January and pricing and booking information is available here:


    Saturday 14 January 2017

    Tasted #340: Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky 100 Proof

    Moving onto something a little bit simpler for a change - Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky (Bottled in Bond). I actually bought this for cocktails (I've always enjoyed it in a Manhattan, Sazerac etc.. and find the 50% ABV holds up well), but it's a highly regarded rye on its own, so thought I'd spend some time with it neat, and post up my thoughts.

    Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky100 Proof (50% ABV, NAS, Kentucky, USA, ~$350HKD / £29.99 / $82.99AUD)
    Colour: Copper-brown.

    Nose: Treacle, maple syrup, lots of vanilla pods and some peppercorn.

    Palate: Smooth, slightly viscous, spicy (pepper and cinnamon). There's orange rind and cinnamon sticks, with a dusting of icing sugar and a fair amount of oak. Simply, but tasty.

    Finish: Medium to long in length, peppery.

    Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  88/100. No-one's suggesting this is an earth-shatteringly complex whisky - it's not. It's a simple rye done very well. All the flavours you want in a rye are there, with a bold, solid backbone. The ABV feels spot on and it serves well as a neat dram, or a great base for a booze-forward cocktail.


    Tuesday 10 January 2017

    Tasted #337 - 339: GlenDronach 12yo (distilled in 1963), Macallan 7 year old (1990s bottling) & Balblair 1983 30yo

    Over the many hours spent at Whisky Live Singapore recently, I tried more drams than I could possibly take detailed notes for (at least, subjectively so), but before the palate fatigue set in, I took a few notes on the following interesting bottles.

    GlenDronach 12yo distilled in 1963, bottled in 1975 (43% ABV, 12yo, OB, Speyside, Scotland)
    Colour: Light yellow-gold.

    Nose: So fruity! Passionfruit, peaches. Quite sweet and very perfumed. Lovely, but completely unlike the sherried GlenDronachs of today.

    Palate: Following the nose - oranges and peaches, lots more passionfruit. Incredibly smooth and easy drinking, without feeling weak on the ABV front. No spice, no sherry, just a beautiful, fruity ex-Bourbon (I'm assuming) bouquet. It's not complex, it's not "layered", but it's tasty.

    Finish: Medium to long in length, sweet, simple.

    Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  91/100. No one would call this a complex whisky, but I'd wager most people would call it a delicious one. Fun too, because it's such a departure from the usual Sherried GlenDronachs we see today.

    The Macallan 7yo (40% ABV, 7yo, OB, Speyside, Scotland)
    A sherried 7yo Macallan bottled in the 1990s for Italian importer Giovinetti & Figli.

    Colour: Amber-orange gold

    Nose: Fresh laundry. Hints of sherry. Young.

    Palate: Not a whole lot going on. Some caramel chews, toffee. A little spice. Some furniture polish.

    Finish: Short and funky, with a residual earthiness and some mouth-drying tannins.

    Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  85/100. Drinkable, just not all that impressive.

    Balblair 1983 (46% ABV, 30yo, OB, Highlands, Scotland, £179.16)
    Colour: Orange gold.

    Nose: Candied ginger and whole oranges. Vanilla, oak and toffee.

    Palate: A textural mouthfeel, with plenty of citrus (whole oranges, grapefruit) and salt-water taffee. Some butterscotch (Butter Menthols actually) and a little oak to balance things out, but not too much. Some dark chocolate rounds things out.

    Finish: Long, whole orange slices.

    Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  92/100. Glad I got to try this, as I have a bottle stashed away that hasn't yet been opened. I'm not unhappy about the purchase. It's not hugely complex, and the tasting notes might read like many other well-aged ex-Bourbon whiskies, but it's an enjoyable dram and one that definitely hasn't taken on too much oak in its 30 years.


    Monday 9 January 2017

    Whisky Live Singapore 2016 review

    We've attended a few Whisky Live events over the years - Tokyo, London and Sydney twice, but had never attended the Singaporean event, despite having heard good things. When a bit of good fortune put me in Singapore for a conference in the days following Whisky Live, it was a no-brainer to arrive a bit earlier and spend a day at the show.

    After an absolute debacle trying to buy a ticket (without going into too much detail, there was no eTicket / mTicket option, and no option to pick up the tickets at the venue - although the organisers arranged the latter for me after my tickets never arrived at the hotel), I turned up to Capella Hotel on Singapore's Sentosa Island, ready for a day of whisky.

    I'd opted for a 1 day VIP ticket ($173SGD), which gave access to the "VIP Tasting Room" as well as the main floor. I've attended a lot of whisky shows over the past 5 or so years, and whilst I still really enjoy them (probably the social aspect more than the whisky these days!), the whiskies on offer at most shows can be a bit "same same". Sure, sometimes (often) there's something special under the table, and don't get me wrong, the people at these shows absolutely make them worth attending, but sometimes you're just looking for something a bit more unusual/unique on the whisky front - something beyond the usual 12/15/18/NAS lineup. 

    ...and that's where the VIP Tasting Room came in. Singapore's Whisky Live is run by La Maison du Whisky, and as anyone who's come across LmdW knows, they bottle and sell a lot of very special whisky, rum, cognac etc......and a huge number of them were on offer in the VIP Tasting Room. From 43 year old Speysiders to single cask Kavalans, to limited edition Blantons to a whole lot of tasty Indies, to 30yo OB Speysiders and...well I'll let the photos do the talking...


    Certainly not your average whisky show drams, and generous pours were being served (all included in the ticket price). The room never felt busy, and there was always a friendly face or two to chat to.

    Next door though was something even more special - the "Collectors' Room", housing much, much rarer whisky that LmdW had managed to get their hands on - from rare single cask Japanese whiskies (Yamazakis, Karuizawas) to old, old bottles of Laphroaig, Bowmore, Macallan and others. Whilst prices weren't "cheap" (especially not for those who have visited Japanese whisky bars with similar collections), they were for the most part reasonable, considering the rarity of the whiskies.

    1 token was $10SGD.

    Dave Broom was also floating around (having just presented a masterclass on two 1965 Karuizawas!) and being the top bloke he is, was more than happy for a chat and a dram.

    By this time I'd been at the show for about 2 hours and hadn't yet ventured onto the main floor. When I finally did, I got there just in time for a "Dram Full Yum Seng", led by Glenfiddich's Regional Asia Pacific Brand Ambassador Matthew, and a few of his Brand Ambassador colleagues from Pernod Ricard and Edrington.

    Not quite sure what to expect from my first 'Yum Seng", it basically involved yelling "Dram Full" for as long as we possibly could, and then shooting the whiskies on offer (Glenfiddich 21yo, Macallan Rare Cask, amongst others). Not quite the "pacing myself" I'd planned, but a huge amount of fun, and a great welcome to the main floor. There's a video of it here.

    The main floor had the usual complement of brands - with Macallan, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Aberlour, Glenrothes, Glenlivet and others representing Scotch, and Kavalan, Paul John, Teeling and others representing "world whiskies". There were of course a few special pours available if you asked nicely (some I can talk about, some I can't!) and a few fun experiences, like Glenfiddich's virtual reality tour (actually quite good!), Monkey Shoulder cocktails, Arberlour/Glenlivet music pairing, and Balvenie's free customised whisky tasting journals.

    There were also a few indies on tasting from Singapore and Seoul's B28 bar:

    ..and a good selection of masterclasses, priced quite cheaply in most cases (except for the Karuizawa 1965 masterclass which was almost $600SGD/ticket).

    When all the whisky became a bit much and the palate fatigue started to set in, there was a large F&B area outside, and VIP ticket holders were entitled to two servings of food and a cocktail from each of the pop up bars (host by some of the world's best cocktail bars - Bar Trench, 28 Hong Kong Street, Gibson and Jigger & Pony to name a few). A refreshing break (as were the Monkey 47 gin laybacks on offer)!

    As the sun started to set (had it really been 6 hours already!?) I headed back to the VIP Tasting Room to try a few more drams (including some fascinating rums) and enjoy whisky banter well into the night with whisky friends old and new.

    So, overall impressions of Whisky Live Singapore?
    • Fantastic range of whiskies
    • Brilliant collector's room
    • Good value tickets (when you consider the food, cocktails, and all the VIP drams)
    • Great venue layout (great space and really well utilised - it never felt too busy)
    • Great personalities.

    My only complaints would be the ticketing process (which I understand is a limitation of the ticketing company more than LmdW / Whisky Live), and the fact that I had to leave all the samples I'd brought at the front counter, which made it a pain to do the sample swaps I'd arranged beforehand (this might've been a "responsible service of alcohol" type situation, but whisky sample swaps are pretty common at shows like this, and I've never had an issue at shows anywhere else in the world).

    On the whole though, an absolutely brilliant event, and one I'd definitely return for (only next time, I'll buy a 2 day ticket).