Sunday, 7 April 2019

Tasting the new Old Pulteney range with Distillery Manager Malcolm Waring (Tasted #450 - 454)

It's been a while since we've featured Old Pulteney on this blog. Over four years, in fact. Not because there's any issue with the whisky (quite the opposite), but mainly because we'd tried most of the core range, and there wasn't much new to speak of in that time, save a few travel retail releases, and a few fantastic single casks that I tried but never took decent notes on.

That all changed last year however, when Pulteney Distillery released an entirely refreshed core range - new ages, new labels, new names and (in many cases) new whisky. It's always a risk for a distillery to make major changes to its core line-up, especially when those changes involve discontinuing long-time fan favourites and award winners like the Old Pulteney 17 & Old Pulteney 21, but that's what they did, introducing a "new" 12, NAS, 15 and 18 year old in new packaging.

The new range took a little while to make its way to Hong Kong, but it's now here, and recently we were fortunate enough to join a tasting with distillery manager Malcolm Waring who talked us through his 30 years in the industry, the history of Pulteney and it's northern home of Wick, and the "quirky" character of their whiskies.

(Rather than write about the saline / salty characteristics found in Old Pulteney's whisky, which we only touched on very briefly during the tasting, I'll defer to Matthew Fergusson-Stewart's excellent Facbeook post which explores the topic and offers some insights from Malcolm.)

So...a new range with 3 age statements, a NAS, and the replacement of two much-loved whiskies. How does it stack up? Let's find out...

Old Pulteney 12 year old (40% ABV, 12yo, Highlands Scotland, $568HKD / $79.99AUD£25.83 ex-VAT)
New in label design only, the liquid inside the "new" 12yo is the same as the previous 12yo - 100% American Oak barrels, mostly re-fill, chill-filtered.

Colour: Yellow gold.

Nose: Floral, briney, with creamy notes of vanilla.

Palate: More vanilla (vanilla cream), slightly saline, with notes of grapefruit.

Finish: Medium in length with hints of grapefruit and a slight oak bitterness at the very end.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  89/100.

Old Pulteney "Huddart" (46% ABV, NAS, Highlands, Scotland, £36.50 ex-VAT / HK and AU pricing not available)
Named after the street on which the distillery resides, and finished in peated anCnoc casks. Non-chill filtered, no colouring. Interestingly this, like the 12, uses a type of Optic barley which can't be obtained anymore, as the farmer responsible no longer grows it.

Colour: Orange-yellow sunset.

Nose: Caramel, some earthy smoke and notes of dried/aged leather

Palate: Orchard fruits, confectionary, smoked pears and apricots.

Finish: Medium in length, with the peated notes coming through a little stronger. A little "thin", with some tannins showing. In fact, not dissimilar to Scapa Glansa, which was also finished in peated casks.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  86/100.

Old Pulteney 15 year old (46% ABV, 15yo, Highlands Scotland, £56.83 ex-VAT / HK and AU pricing not available)
Finished in Oloroso-seasoned Spanish butts ("for a number of years") in a dunnage warehouse. Non-chill filtered, no colouring.

Colour: Golden-orange amber.

Nose: Lovely. Milk chocolate, maple syrup, sweet vanilla bean and custard apple.

Palate: Oily, viscous, spicier than the previous two, with some red fruit (strawberries, raspberries) & freshly oiled leather.

Finish: Long, berries, oak and leather.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  90/100.

Old Pulteney 18 year old (46% ABV, 18yo, Highlands, Scotland, £93.33 ex-VAT / HK and AU pricing not available)
A combination of ex-Bourbon and ex-Spanish Oak sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, no colouring.

Colour: Copper gold.

Nose: Banana chips, wafts of sweet smoke and milk chocolate.

Palate: Big in the mouth initially. Crème brûlée, Allen's Bananas, barbecued bananas. Dark chocolate and a noticeable maltiness.

Finish: Long, smoked banana with a residual meaty note.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  91/100.

Malcolm was also kind enough to bring some New Make Spirit along, at 68.5%. I found it meaty on the nose, and fruity on the palate, with some noticeable hints of Grape Hubba Bubba bubblegum.

Old Pulteney 25 year old (46% ABV, 25yo, Highlands, Scotland, £231.54 ex-VAT / HK and AU pricing not available)
American Oak, finished in Spanish oak in Dunnage Warehouse No.6, where floor-malting previously took place. Non-chill filtered, no colouring.

Colour: Copper gold.

Nose: Grassy, orange, cherry, grapefruit, rich spice and dark chocolate.

Palate: Initially subtle, then opening up into notes of tobacco, cigar box, dark chocolate, sherry-soaked fruit compote (apricots, pears, peaches), and Brazil nuts. Those salty / saline characteristics are noticeable too.

Finish: Orange peel, dried oak, dark chocolate. Oak tannins are there, but minimal.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  92/100. Very nicely done indeed.

As mentioned, it's a risky approach to replace a well-known and much-loved core range, but Pulteney have done it very well - the new 15 and 18 are worthy replacements for the 17 and 21, and the Huddart explores an interesting twist which, whilst perhaps not to everyone's taste, certainly offers drinkers the chance to see Old Pulteney spirit in a new light.

A big thanks to Malcolm, Interbev, Whisky Magazine Hong Kong and Tiffany's New York Bar for the tasting.


Friday, 5 April 2019

Westward - getting to know Miles Munroe, Lead Distiller (Tasted #449)

Launching last month in Australia is a new single malt 'whiskey' from the Portland, Oregon. Well known for its hipster and craft culture, it is no surprise to see a craft single malt whiskey borne out of one of the most diverse, food-centric city in the United States. As a category, American single malts are still uncommon as compared to its bourbon brethren though the category is growing, riding on the wave of the boom in scotch and new world single malt whiskies globally. According to International Wine & Spirit Research (IWSR), the American single malts category grew 131% from 2014 through to 2017 which is a significant growth over a mere three years.

Craft distillation is also growing at a staggering rate in United States with different distillers driving a range of innovations to mold and shape the quality of their whisky. Miles Munroe, Westward Lead Distiller told us that Westward, like others, are continuing to explore various innovative techniques and have been given the freedom and flexibility through which they can do this in. Their latest bottling, Westward Stout Cask Finish is a result of a collaboration between Westward and various local breweries and he is also exploring cask finishes and other ways to alter the farm to table approach so as to influence the overall profile of the final whisky.

Those with keen eyes may have picked up that Westward has actually been in existence for some time. In fact, Westward has been making whiskey since Christian Krogstad, Founder of Westward founded House Spirits 15 years ago. Though the focus significantly changed in 2015 when, under the direction of current CEO and co-owner Thomas Mooney, Westward built its current Portland, Oregon distillery. Westward became the largest independent distiller of American single malt whiskey with a daily production quota of around 3,000 gallons of pale ale whiskey wash. Prior, releases have been single barrels and in smaller quantity. Facing the same challenges as smaller Australian distilleries, there was never enough barrels mature enough to blend and to supply the local and global markets. This all changed when production ramped up with the new Portland distillery.

Embracing the "farm to table, grain to glass" phenomenon worldwide, Westward is brewed and distilled using locally malted Pacific Northwest barley and ale yeast. The style takes inspiration from Portland's craft brewing culture and in fact, if you research Westward notes, it has often been said that Westward does exhibit beer like profile which makes it quite distinct though may detract some from the product. The production sees Westward double pot distilled and matured in American Oak newly charred barrels for a couple of years before being mingled in batches and bottled at 45% ABV (the ABV has remained the same since its single barrel days).

In September last year, Westward, shared similar news to another distillery with a similar name, Starward - they announced a strategic investment from Diageo via Distill Ventures; Diageo's independent spirits accelerator entity. The investment has accelerated investment in the brand, enabled capacity expansion by around 40% and allow Westward to meet its growing demand.

I sat down with Miles Munroe last month to hear more from him on the brand and what we can expect.
1. How did you become the Lead Distiller for Westward? 
As a bit of history, I've got a biology background but really I wasn' using it that much until I started managing this whisky bar in Kansas City, Missouri at the top floor of this ancient steakhouse, a classic roost there. I was given an opportunity to work with lots of single malt whiskies that I have never come across. 
Growing up in the states it was bourbon and if you wanted something nice, it was small batch bourbon so it was exciting to experience this massive collection so I decided to taste my way through. 
That's when I had this epiphany, it was something that I wanted to get involved with, to create and be part of. What struck me the most about single malt was its variability. Not only from region to region but from producer to producer, you can sense their style, technique and it's something I've ever experienced with whisky before. The whole thing actually started with Edradour, back in 2005. 
There was a lot kicking around at the time and I had this realisation on the limitless possibilities in the way you can modify barley during the malting process and how it can be handled in different ways. There are really limitless ways to create just from the one raw material. Growing up in the states, there's a lot of corn whisky and it's not something that really featured in the final spirit and this contrasts with barley where it does feature in the final spirit. That was what really kicked it off. 
The journey with Westward started when I became a brewer, going to tasting, eventually hosting tasting, talking to any brand ambassadors, reps I could find. I was reading this quote, essentially a good single malt is a beer first. If I wanted to be a great single malt maker and have something to contribute to the world of single malt,  I should become a brewer first, understand fermentation at that level, understand the nuances of the different yeast strains and what those can do as far as flavour profiles go. I went to Portland and studied at the American Brewers Guild and studied Brewing Science and Engineering and became a brewer. But the intention has always to get to distillation, single malt specifically. 
I brewed beers for a few years in Portland and worked for some great craft breweries. The idea was to brew in Portland for a while then move to Scotland, potentially Japan. But in the meantime, I started to hear about Westward. Whispers around town was about this distillery that was starting a single malt label. So obviously I was immediately fascinated and I started knocking on their door and bugging them about it and eventually I was brought on. 
It was an interesting time for Westward, they were just starting to build up the stock so they've started to bottle these half bottles, single barrel, half bottles, it was what was available at the time because we had do one barrel at a time. It wasn't an exvluexcl thing, it was what was there. 
When I was hired in March 2013, they actually hadn't turned the whisky still on since the previous October. I was brought on because of my brewing experience to help develop the flavour profile of Westward a bit more and actually produce a lot more of the spirit. At the time I was the only Production Distiller and there was a Distiller that hired me on but he had to take on operation duties so it was just me and the stills. I had no idea whether it was going to work. The Distiller that brought me on was an ex brewer, the founder, Christian Krogstad, was also an ex brewer so I knew I was in good hands. 
2. The number one challenge facing Australian whisky is the lack of supply. What are the biggest challenges you're facing at the moment? 
The first bottlings were put out six months before I was hired on. It wasn't very well known but for people that spotted it, it attracted an influx of collectors thinking it was a very exclusive thing but in fact it was our (limited) supply so we had to raise the price, almost to an absurd amount to slow down people from snatching it all up. 
We were conscious of that from the beginning, your supply needs to meet demand from the market. That's tough with whisky when you're not sourcing the spirit and when you're making it from scratch, grain to glass, that takes time, that takes money, takes patience and so I don't think we were ever short in supply as we never had overreach but over the six years that I've been there, we had fits and starts. There have been a few times where we had overreach a little bit here and there. 
I'm very thankful that I've always been trusted with the final say on when the whisky is ready. Even when we were trying to grow a little more in certain markets, in certain ways, it was up to me to decide when it was actually going to hit the bottle. Which I think is also a rarity, especially when you're talking about putting all this money into this product that just has to sit there and take time without a whole lot of revenue, without return on investment but I'm privileged to be in that position to have the final say.
On the contrary, we have also had other issue growing up as a distillery, there's this funny role reversal recently. In 2015, we built a distillery that was designed specifically to make a lot more of Westward. It was great to grow and design this facility the way we want to. The Director and I studied at the same Brewing School and we studied how to grow a distillery, the logistic and it was great to sit down and plot your dream distillery. We moved into there and started hiring more Distillers and we grew from about 4-6 barrels of whisky a month to 20 barrels a week, huge expansion. But that stock wasn't going to be ready for more years. Fast forward to early this year, there's almost a role reversal now where the stocks have been maturing for around 3 years and as of the last few months the view have changed from "when's the whisky ready, when's the whisky ready, please package more" to now where we are opening the floodgates. 
3. What do you think will be the next big thing on the whisky scene? and the American whiskey scene? 
I know what we would like to see people become more savvy, to rid of this stigma against blended whisky. In the US, we associate blended whisky with cheap Canadian whisky. There's demerit there. 
But I love what the Japanese have been doing for years now. It would be amazing to see more craft blended whisky in that (Japanese) style, some triple aged grain spirit with great old malt which makes some fantastic whisky. Because I think that's something that people, at least in the states tend to baulk at, we have access to so much whiskies and at such a low price. You can try something else, craft whiskies at a bit higher price but people get put off by it 
As far as the trend goes, and once people become familiar and shake off the idea that more age is better quality, they can then enjoy younger whisky. We are also featuring more of the raw material aspect and not age the whisky too much otherwise various elements will disappear. To see more blended style, make it more approachable, great entry whisky and you can bring the price down 
4. Without giving away any secrets, what are some of the styles or trends we might expect over the next couple of years? More finishing, more multi-cask bottlings, more single cask bottlings etc? 
We built this new distillery to build our core, our flagship. It's a lot of work to make that consistently at our scale. We get creative here and there. We're also Distillers, ex-Brewers and always keen to try something new. A couple of weeks ago we tried stout cask finish. 
We're also developing a partnership with a brewery in Oregon, Deschutes, to make a lot more of the stout cask finish bottlings. I'll be sending a couple hundred of recently empty barrels to them where they age the stock and they'll send back and as a second expression, get it outside the states and eventually outside the country and I'd love to send it here. 
Portland is in the Willamette Valley which is known for its Pinot Noir, excellent, excellent Pinot Noir and so there's plenty of winemakers and they also want to give us some of their barrels too and in the spirit of new world whisky and in the spirit of American single malt. Rather than putting our whisky in sherry or port, why not put our whisky in a local winery that is more renown. 
I find younger whisky responds a little better and again, we're so careful to not want to over oak or mask any of those grain and fermentation flavours that something a little less assertive than a sherry, something like pinot noir barrel elements, it's got a nice light toast on it, I think pairs perfectly with whisky and allow attributes to shine through without stepping all over it, like sherry flavoured whisky. we're doing some finish with some pinot 
We've also experimented here and there with 10% malted rye, 30% midnight wheat, just to see what comes out. 
As brewers, we have an idea of what the mash and fermentation are going to be like and we have a pretty good idea of what the new make is going to be like. 
We have been collaborating with other brewers around the city and around the states where we actually invite them and sit down with them to drink our whisky and rink their beer and we talk about what beer would make a good single malt. 
5. You've been with Westward, since 2013. If you had to pick one highlight moment, one moment that made you proud, what would it be? 
Highlights, I think, I have to say, the biggest highlight for me was being a part of the team to plan out and plot the new facility. Getting in there was exciting but our hands were tied financially, equipment wise, capacity - so being able to build the new facility ground up, that was incredibly exciting!

Here are my notes on the new Westward 'blended' single malt whiskey:

Westward 700mL (45% ABV, NAS, Blend, Portland, Oregon, A$129)

Colour: Bronze

Nose: The nose is striking, rich and sharp - you can smell a bit of beer here. Honey, molasses, treacle, cinnamon scroll, oak, caramel, vanilla, orange peel, mint

Palate: The palate is soft and light with growing orange citrus note, peppermint, dark chocolate butterscotch followed by cinnamon and black pepper,

Finish:  The finish is drying, waxing, there is a subtle herbal note that  slowly disappears leaving a trickle of, fresh peppermint

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 91/100

Westward makes its Australian debut via an exclusive partnership with Baranows Emporium, a premium spirits distributor that has been behind the rollout of brands including Diplomatico rum, Monkey 47 gin (prior to the Pernod-Ricard takeover), and Tapatio tequila.

Thanks to Miles Munroe for travelling all the way down to Australia and sharing his stories with us. I'd also like to thank Margo Jamieson from House Spirits, the team from Barranows for inviting us.


Saturday, 23 March 2019

Arbikie Highland Rye Single Grain Scotch Whisky (Tasted #448)

There's been a huge increase in the number of "craft", "startup" or just plain "new" Scottish distilleries over the past few years, which is awesome (and I wish them all immense success), but it's always nice to see someone doing something a little different. what Arbikie Highland Estate have done, distilling the first rye whisky in Scotland in over 100 years. Single grain Scottish whisky is by no means a new thing, but when that grain is rye? That's unique.

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Not only that, but they've done so using "Arantes" rye grown on their own estate (52%, along with 33% wheat and 15% malted barley also self-grown), for a truly "field to bottle" whisky. Distilled in copper pot stills, the spirit has been matured in charred 1st Fill American Oak barrels, finished in ex-PX barrels, and is bottled with no colouring or chill filtration. Those casks must have been fairly active, because the whisky gives off a lovely colour for only ~3 years old.

...but how does it taste? Well Arbikie, along with good friends Leigh and Dea from 15PL (who run the Whisky Ambassador course in HK and other parts of Asia) were kind enough to send a generous sample all the way to HK, so I could find out.

Arbikie Highland Rye Single Grain Scotch Whisky (46% ABV, 3yo (distilled 2015), Highlands, Scotland, Casks #9, #11 and #16, 998 bottles, £250)
Colour: Rusty golden-copper.

Nose: Spicy orange, paprika, flamed orange peel and cloves. It's young, there's no getting away from it, but some nice notes have developed in a few short years.

Palate: Wow...the youth is nowhere near as evident here. Big, jammy, orange marmalade and less spicy than the nose suggests (it's there - paprika and white pepper, but less noticeable). Sweet, with thick treacle, honey, maple syrup. I'm not exaggerating when I say this is an incredibly delicious and moreish dram.

Finish: Medium to long in length, initially sweet, then the spice returns, and finally a slight hint of oak tannins from the first fill American oak casks.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  90/100. For a 3yo Scottish whisky, this is incredibly impressive. Flavourful, delicious, complex...congratulations to Arbikie Highland Estate for crafting a fantastic and unique Scottish whisky. If I wasn't saving the rest of this bottle to share with a few friends, it'd be empty by now.

Arbikie also have single malt on the way (in "a few years") and given the quality of this release, I can't wait to try it!


Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Starward Journey (Tasted #447)

The Australian whisky industry has rapidly grown over the past couple of years and has established a formidable reputation globally. There is a deep interest in the category as David Vitale, Starward  Founder found during his time in Los Angeles last year, presenting his Starward story, the Australian whisky profile as well as introducing people to the notion of wine cask whisky maturation – a slightly foreign concept in the Bourbon-saturated market.

With over 200 distilleries in Australia (many producing whisky), the opportunity is ripe to build up the profile of Australian whisky abroad and Starward, together with a few other Australian distilleries are at the helm.

David mentioned during the Two Fold launch last year that it wasn't that long ago that there were only a handful of craft whisky distilleries in Australia, and that:
"We ought to owe it to Bill Lark for the booming craft whisky distillery industry that we now see. Bill questioned the 1901 Distillation Act and lobbied the government for the Act to be amended so as to allow acquiring of the distillation licence with no archaic requirement for large volume distillation. Lark then became the first distillery to open in Tasmania since 1839."

The story of Starward, on the other hand, began after David worked in a prominent Tasmanian distillery in 2007. David had set out to create a whisky that can bring together his love of food, craft beer, family and one that can reflect his hometown of Melbourne and that of Australia - from its culture to Melbourne's famed ‘four seasons in a day'.

When we sat down with David back in early 2013, and toured the distillery in late 2013, Starward Whisky was then known as the New World Whisky Distillery (NWWD, and before that, Victoria Valley Distillery). The whole operation stemmed from an idea in 2004 with NWWD beginning its operations in 2007 and filling their first barrel at the beginning of 2010. At the time, David and his team had the vision to create a whisky that was "just like the country it is made in - youthful, rich and bright".

Although distilling whisky in Melbourne (initially near Essendon Airport and now at Port Melbourne) actually dates back to 1862, as a country we're not well-known for having a long history of whisky, a fact which has given NWWD the perfect opportunity to create something unique.

This notion of whisky maturation is different here in Australia, as compared to Scotland or the United States. David believes that the difference is even more prominent in Melbourne with its weather complex and temperature differentials that can help mature whisky quickly and yet still produce a complex, flavourful and rich whisky.

The same can be said for many craft distilleries dotted across Australia. Unbounded by any maturation rules, the Australian weather has been a blessing (sometimes a curse) in the influencing of whisky maturation here in Australia. The final whisky can vary in profile though regardless, it is both exciting and different.

David's creation, dubbed 'Starward,' - a brand that is now synonymous with Australian whisky - is a whisky matured in Australian wine barrels for 3 “Melbourne Years” and was first launched in 2013. Following the launch, Starward was instantly recognised for its bold spirit and flavour, leading to it to become what is now the fastest growing Australian whisky brand, and one of the few Australian distilleries that can distil at scale. In developing Starward, David had to bring together brewers, ex-winemakers and fresh talents and the effort has seen Starward consistently commended for its quality and expressions.

Fast forward to 2019 with the recent launch of Starward’s two new bottlings; Starward Two Fold and The Seafarer.

The former, Two Fold was a significant milestone for Starward as it is the first blended grain whisky to be launched in Australia and at the same time, priced at a point that makes it quite accessible. David is keen to drive the strategy to make Starward the whisky of choice at every Australian's dining table. He is also a believer that there is a place in the world for Australian craft whiskies - which have given him focus to grow Starward abroad, in particular most recently within the United States. Since launched, Two Fold has garnered quite a reputation and was recently awarded whisky of the year by the Oak Barrel (Sydney).

The latter, the Sea Farer was launched in February 2019 and was borne out of a 225-litre French oak wine barrel filled with Starward and matured on the Queen Elizabeth’s ship deck for almost a year. The barrel experienced temperatures as cold as zero as it visited Helsinki, St Petersburg, Lisbon, Venice, Hong Kong, Penang and Cape Town. Temperature can be as balmy as 32 centigrade, as the barrel snaked its way across the globe over exactly 347 days.

The journey for Starward and Australian whiskies has just begun (in the grand scheme of things) and distillers across Australia are now banding together to raise the profile of the industry and the uniqueness within and personally, I'm excited about what the future brings.

Starward Two Fold Double Grain Australian Whisky 700mL (40% ABV, NAS, Blend, Scotland, $69.99)
Simple, clean and still tasty. A very different Starward release to their single malt bottling Nova. Whilst unmistakably blended, it is still enjoyable with lots of Starward classic flavours of vanilla, banana and berries.

Colour: Caramel

Nose: The nose is sweet and appealing. There is a mix of vanilla, banana,  berries combined with a hint of citrus, malted cereals and a subtle hint of peat smoke.

Palate: The palate is laden with honey, peaches, malt, white pepper, berries before becoming a bit tannic.

Finish:  The finish continues with a tannic, drying, medium long length.

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 92/100


Thanks to Starward and Dialogue PR for inviting Time for Whisky to the Starward Two Fold launch.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Tasted #446: Lagavulin "Casks of Distinction" 23yo bottled for Vincent Leung of Ginger and Rex Tong of Whisky Lovers HK

A few weeks ago I wrote about a stunning 35yo Clynelish bottled under Diageo's "Casks of Distinction" programme*, for Dram Good Stuff (a Hong Kong whisky store) and Aaron Chan (renowned HK whisky collector and owner of Club Qing whisky bar). 

Stunning though it was, it's not the only "Cask of Distinction" bottling to hit HK recently, with Vincent Leung (of HK's other great whisky enthusiast bar, Ginger) and Rex Tong (of Whisky Lovers HK / Ming Kee Wine Cellar) recently bottling a 23yo "Select Cask" 1995 Lagavulin.

("Select Cask" being Diageo's terminology for whisky bottled from a single cask that potentially contained a vatting of multiple casks, versus "Single Cask" which refers to whisky matured in one single cask for its entire life. Under SWA regulations, both are technically still considered "Single Casks" and allowed to be labelled as such.)

Vincent and Rex recently invited me to Ming Kee Wine Cellar for a taste, which I graciously accepted.

1995 Lagavulin 23yo "Casks of Distinction"Select Cask #9001 exclusively bottled for Vincent Leung and Rex Tong (48.7% ABV, 23yo, Islay, bottle 254 of 396)
Colour: Vibrant yellow gold.

Nose: Pear fruitiness initially, then some dried oak, wood spice and dusty sherry. There's slight hints of peat, but it's sweet fruity peat. It's a beautiful nose, but not one you'd typically associate with a Lagavulin.

Palate: Grilled / BBQ'd pineapple rings. There's smoke, but it's fruity, meaty. There's an underlying confectionary sweetness (pineapple chews, yellow jelly babies), then slight hints of white pepper and lemon peel emerge. There's oak (but never too dominant), icing sugar and some orange zest.

Finish: Long, sweet pineapple smoke.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  92/100. Not at all what I'd expected, and nothing like any other Lagavulin I've tried before...but that just makes an already delicious whisky even more interesting.

Well done to Rex and Vincent on the cask selection. Anyone wanting to try this will find it occasionally open at Ginger whisky bar in Hong Kong.

* For more about the "Casks of Distinction" programme, see our visit to Johnnie Walker House Singapore post.


Sunday, 10 March 2019

Diageo Special Releases 2018/2019 (Tasted #440 - #445)

The Diageo Special Releases 2018/2019 have finally cleared customs and have arrived on Australian shores. Notably missing from the series this year is the Port Ellen and Brora combo, which will now receive their own separate annual releases. Having sampled some of the releases at the launch event this week - I don't believe the absence of Port Ellen and Brora have detracted from the appeal.

This year's series is made up of ten "impeccable, meticulously crafted, limited edition" whiskies including Inchgower 27yo, Caol Ila 35yo, The Singleton of Glen Ord 14yo, Carsebridge 48yo, Talisker 8yo, Oban 21yo, Lagavulin 12yo, Caol Ila Unpeated 15yo as well as the bottle from the ghost distillery Pittyvaich 28yo and the final release, The Cladach (a blend).

The launch, held at Hotel Centennial in Woolahra, Sydney saw three rooms transformed into the respective Diageo Special Releases categories including (in order) Highlands & Speyside, Ghost Distilleries, Coastal and Islay. The Diageo team led by Simon McGoram previewed the releases in the individual rooms.

In the same order as above, we first tasted The Singleton of Glen Ord, followed by Inchgower at the Highland & Speyside station that was led by Simon.

This was followed by the tasting of Pittyvaich, a rarely seen and a distillery famous for cask age that is older than its years of distillery operation (between 1975 and 1993). The Carsebridge 48yo (the oldest Carsebridge thus far) was not available though the Pittyvaich did garner lots of interest from the crowd.

The wrap up was the most interesting in terms of line ups and flavour profile. The "coastal" journey started with the Oban 21yo followed by Cladach, a 'coastal' blended malt that marries whiskies from Caol Ila, Clyenish, Inchgower, Lagavulin, Oban and Talisker and carries a name that means shoreline in Gaelic. The Cladach was certainly unique and surprised many with its flavour profile.

The last set focused on Islay with the Caol Ila 35yo on pour. The staple Caol Ila Unpeated (15yo), the moderately aged Lagavulin 12yo and Talisker 8yo were not available for tasting though the 35yo certainly did make up for their absence.
Here are my notes on some of the releases which were available for tasting on the night (in no particular order).

Highland & Speyside

The Singleton Glen Ord 700mL (57.6% ABV, 14yo, Highlands, Scotland, A$179.99)
A classic The Singleton Glen Ord matured in Refill American Oak Hogsheads and Ex-Bodega European Oak butts followed by a unique maturation and marrying process. The maturation process is slightly unique though did lead to a fine tasting whisky.

Colour: Champagne
Nose: Fruity with lots of apples, baked apple pie, vanilla, a tinge of peppercorn
Palate: The palate is mouth coating, subtly tannic, nutty, orange zest is thrown in for fun, peanut brittles, creamy, transforms into peppermint spice, cloves, honey, caramel
Finish:  The finish is long, warming tannic dry and leaves spices remnants

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 93/100

Inchgower 700mL (55.3% ABV, 27yo, Speyside, Scotland, A$499.99)
Full yellow gold, a complex and surprising malt from a little known yet historic distillery that has retained the distillery character well; nutty and spicy, it is vivacious for its twenty-seven years. Cask: Refill American Oak. 8,544 bottles available worldwide.

Nose: Big spices and furniture varnish hit you quite hard then fizzles out to a light, floral note mixed with peppercorn, nutty cereal
Palate: The peppermint or is it fruit excites the palate. The mouthfeel is buttery, there is a hint of cucumber, fresh gentle vanilla, a bit of oak, more tasting like nutmeg spice
Finish:  The finish is spiced, that nutmeg continues and then some more peppermint, lingering mint

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 92/100

Ghost Distilleries

Pittyvaich 700mL (52.1% ABV, 28yo, Speyside, Scotland, A$499.99)
It takes time to appreciate the full impact of this appetisingly pithy, charred, occasionally sweet Pittyvaich, which is at one and the same time straightforward, yet also full- flavoured and forceful, with a long finish and a late, drying, bracing quality. Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads. 4,680 bottles.

Colour: Light gold
Nose: Fruity and floral with  a hint of buttery creme brulle,  peanut brittles
Palate: More peanut brittles before the light fruits come out followed by spices yet in the background the wax is growing before leaving the palate with a waxy and tannic note.
Finish:  The finish is medium, extremely tannic though remains fruity and salty (sweet and salty?!)

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 93/100


Oban 21yo 700mL (57.9% ABV, 21yo, Highlands, Scotland, A$824.99)
My pick from the series with its dramatic, brooding and compressed, the nose spans a whole range of senses as it shows malt, fruit, oak, peat and sea- air. The taste is intense and sweet, with some saltiness. Cask: Refill European Oak Butts.

Colour: Light gold
Nose: Sweet sticky pudding that is pleasant to smell, that sweetness hits you, with some fruits. There's also the notable caramel, briny
Palate: The palate is interesting, it is coastal, briny, creamy, floral with stone fruits before the spices develop
Finish:  The finish is rather beautiful, sweet, brine water remains for a long time

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 95/100

The Cladach 700mL (57.1% ABV, NAS, Highlands, Scotland, A$249.99)
Full gold, with a series of coastal aromas that a dash of water brings together superbly; the palate and finish are equally flawless. A whisky that is the very essence of a coastal malt. Cask: First Fill American Oak ex-Bourbon casks, Refill American Oak Hogsheads, Refill European Oak Butts, Ex Bodega European Oak Butts. A beautiful blend kudos to Keith Law, Diageo's veteran member of the blending team.

Nose: Then nose is creamy and briny, there's an orange citrus note with a vanilla undertone
Palate: The peat and smoke have arrived loud and clear at the start though there's the bonfire continuing before the palate becomes creamy, fruity yet with a lingering brine
Finish:  The finish is long with fizzling smoke

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 94/100


Caol Ila 35yo 700mL (58.1% ABV, 35yo, Islay, Scotland, A$1249.99)
The oldest Caol Ila yet with its antique gold colour, floral and fruity notes with a fresh-clean, smoky base. Cooling and fluid, with a smooth texture. Starts sweetly and soon dries, with a rising peaty pungency and a spicy-sweet finish. Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads & Refill European Oak Butts. 3,276 bottles.

Colour: Old unpolished gold
Nose: The nose is rich and buttery, the iodine and smoke are still highly active even after all these years. Overall it is clean, crisp, with a subtle hint of bonfire. The smoke is very delicate.
Palate: Spiced with some chilli and ginger, delicate peat bonfire, there's that smoke by the beach. Spice increases towards the end with plenty of red chilli, cloves, ginger bread (?).
Finish:  The finish is long and warming before becoming sweet, fruity, tannic and drying. There is the lingering smoke.

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 94/100

Thanks to Diageo, Lea Nguyen and Coco Stephens of We Are Example and Sweet and Chili Drinks Agency for having us at the Special Release Launch.


Friday, 8 March 2019

Tasted #439: Benromach Heritage 1972 46yo

Benromach is a distillery I've had a lot of respect for, ever since first trying their whisky back in 2013. Since that first tasting we've tried some incredible and well-aged releases from the distillery, as well as some fantastic single casks, but none quite so old as this one, which arrived out of the blue last week.

Aged for 46 years, this "Benromach Heritage 1972" is part of a recent duo of "Heritage" releases releases (the other being a 41yo from 1977), and was aged in a single refill American Hogshead, bottled at an impressive 55.7% ABV

Sidenote: I always love it when well-aged whisky is bottled at a high ABV, because it suggests the whisky was bottled based on taste, rather than simply eking out every last possible year, and sometimes ending up with an oaky 40.1% ABV mess...

Only 75 bottles are being released (true rarity, if you ask me) @ £1,500 (HK and Australian pricing TBC).

Benromach Heritage 1972 (55.7% ABV, 46yo, Cask #4471, Speyside, £1,500 (HK / AU pricing TBC))
Colour: Intense deep orange copper.

Nose: There's a big citrus whack initially, some resinous oak, varnish, sweet mentholated notes, then some floral hints emerging - orange blossom mostly. Cassis (black currant) and pineapple notes show too. With a few drops of water, there's more pineapple (dried this time) and some honey. Beautiful. 

Palate: More citrus, but with earthy, tobacco undertones. There's some mango and pineapple, but now they've been charred on the BBQ. Slight coconut hints show, along with oak which develops on the tongue over time. With some water, it becomes significantly more tropical - more pineapple and more honey.

Finish: Long, citrus, oak and some grapefruit (which is accentuated by water).

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  92/100. A fantastic example of age bringing complexity without the cask dominating everything.

A big thanks to Benromach and G&M for the sample.


Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Why Glenmorangie's new 2019 Private Edition "Allta" is a good thing for whisky (Tasted #438)

If you follow any form of whisky social media (especially the more active Facebook groups), it seems that when it comes to limited edition whiskies, distilleries just can't win these days. They either release a whisky in a truly limited outturn (i.e. a few hundred bottles not 10,000+, perhaps from a single cask), and it sells out in a heartbeat (usually accompanied by a crashed website or traffic jam), with bottles ending up at auction the next month for 3-4x their retail price..

..and people complain.

OR they make it a more accessible release. Usually NAS, often without a stated outturn, but with unique properties, keen pricing and relative accessibility to whisky markets around the world...

..and still people complain.

Moët Hennessy clearly take the latter approach each year, with both their annual Ardbeg Day and Glenmorangie Private Edition releases, and whilst people may whinge that they're not "special" enough, or don't carry an age, or whatever, I think that's what makes them great. These, in my opinion, are whiskies made for drinking. Maybe now, or maybe in the future, but they're not whiskies to flip for 5x their asking price after 1 month, or to sell in 10 years to fund your kid's tertiary education. They're also whiskies you stand a chance of actually obtaining, without emptying your bank account.

Buy them, open them, enjoy them.

...which is the approach we've taken to Glenmorangie Private Editions for a few years now, starting with 2013's Ealanta, 2014's Companta, 2015's Tùsail, 2016's Milsean 2017's Bacalta and last year's 2018 Spios.

..and now, 2019's "Allta", which was released this month in Hong Kong and Australia.

I've always respected Glenmorangie's Private Editions, not just for the reasons outlined above, but because they genuinely are unique departures from the core Glenmorangie range, and often involve significant foresight and planning, more than simply giving the whisky a finish for a few months.

(Last year's Spios for example was wholly aged in ex-Rye casks for 10ish years, whilst 2015's Tùsail involved the use of a unique strain of barley.)

That enterprising spirit that Dr Bill (and now Brendan McCarron) are known for is perhaps no more evident than in this year's release, which moves the focus to yeast rather than maturation, barley or finishing. It all started 20 years ago, when a discussion between the late whisky writer Michael Jackson and Dr Bill (himself a yeast physiologist) about a since-forgotten "house" yeast strain which Glenmorangie used to possess got Dr Bill thinking more about yeast, and specifically how, in his words, "yeast’s influence on taste has been overlooked for years".

That led to Dr Bill to discover a new species of wild yeast ("Saccharomyces diaemath" if you must know), growing on the distillery's Cadboll barley, which was subsequently cultivated, and brought together with the barley itself to distill a unique, brand new Glenmorangie spirit.

That spirit was then matured in a mixture of refill and 2nd fill ex-Bourbon barrels (allowing the spirit to do the talking, rather than the oak), originally intended to be 15 years apparently, but bottled "earlier" as it was thought to be at its peak.

Finally, the spirit was then bottled at 51.2% (a departure from the usual 46% of recent Private Editions) and non chill-filtered...all of which makes for a very interesting whisky.

....but does it make for a great tasting whisky? Let's find out - both Hendy and I have included our notes below.

Glenmorangie "Allta" 10th Priviate Edition 2019 Release (51.2% ABV, NAS, Highlands, HK pricing TBC / $150AUD / £65.70 ex-VAT)
Colour: Deep orange gold.

Nose: Cereal-like at first - porridge with vanilla essence, and Arnotts cream biscuits (orange cream especially). There's some barley sugar too (the type your parents would buy you from the chemist when you were sick), and with water, significantly more perfumed, floral notes.
Hendy: The nose is sweet and enticing. Dessert has been served. Loads of vanilla milkshake, milk chocolate, bubble tea followed by orange and citrus notes. There is a hint of earthiness on the nose towards the end.

Palate: The biscuit notes continue, with some strawberry and peach fruitiness. There's an earthiness underlying the whole thing too, and a robust viscosity throughout, although you wouldn't necessarily pick it as 51%+ - the alcohol content never feels harsh. With a few drops of water, the aforementioned fruity notes are brought to the fore even more.
Hendy: Spelled delicious. The palate is creamy and floral. Sweet strawberry jam biscuits, "strawberry" jam drops coupled with orange cake lapped with a bit of orange icing. The palate then eases into some cinnamon and nutmeg spices and becomes quite tannic and dry.

Finish: Long, with some grapefruit (flesh not peel), underlying oak (never dominating) and a slight earthy peppermint note to finish.
Hendy: Long with everlasting citrus and dry spices that remain.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  90/100. A delicious dram (we'll have no trouble finishing the bottle!) and more importantly, a unique and interesting departure from the core Glenmorangie range, which still clearly a Glenmo.

Allta is available now in Hong Kong and Australia. Many thanks to MHDHK for the bottle of Allta provided for review in HK, and MH Australia for the sample bottle in Sydney.


Sunday, 3 March 2019

Experiencing the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bothy (Tasted #434 - 437)

No strangers to hosting impressive whisky events, Diageo HK exceeded even their own high standards last week with the launch of the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bothy at Test Kitchen in Hong Kong - the global launch of what is to become (over the coming year) an experience whisky fans in a number of countries will get to enjoy.

Non-Scottish readers may be wandering exactly what a "bothy" is, and for that we'll turn to that Oracle of (mostly) truth, Wikipedia:
"A bothy is a basic shelter, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge. It was also a term for basic accommodation, usually for gardeners or other workers on an estate. Bothies are to be found in remote mountainous areas of Scotland, Northern England, Northern Ireland and Wales."
Far from "basic" however, the Johnnie Walker version saw Mr. Noël Berard (Chef de Cuisine at 2 Michelin-starred Écriture Restaurant) and Mr. Nicholas Chew (Executive Chef at BIBO) team up to produce a 5 course tasting menu matched to some of the malt & grain whiskies which make up Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

Kicking things off with a delicious cocktail made with Johnnie Walker Gold Label, caramel and bitters (alongside a Foie gras mousse, Huon Valley cherry and royal schrenki caviar amuse bouche), Diageo Marketing Director Drew Mills welcomed us, explained the concept of the Bothy and introduced us to our two chefs.

Upstairs in the intimate 15 seater dining room, we took our seats and within minutes were poured a healthy serve of JW Blue Label, which Drew assured us would remain topped up throughout the lunch, should we wish. 

Drew explained we'd be taking a tour around Scotland, enjoying four drams from distilleries that make up JW Blue Label, and that these were no ordinary bottlings (two of them being from Diageo's "Special Releases" range, and one being a 2016 40year old Special Releases whisky...but at 43 years of age)! With 10 million casks in reserve (worth more than all the gold in the Bank of England's vaults), Drew explained that Diageo had their fair share of quality whisky upon which to draw...

Starting with the islands of the West Coast, our first dram was Talisker 25 Year Old (45.8%), matched with Smoked Scottish langoustine, onion dashi jelly and beetroot feuillantine (by Écriture). Absolutely no word of a lie - this was the best whisky and food pairing I've ever had. The langoustine and Talisker each accentuated the saltiness in the other, but there was a beautiful underlying sweetness from the jelly. This was one of those pairings where everything just worked perfectly, and both food and whisky (whilst excellent on their own) were dramatically improved by each other.

Talisker 25 Year Old (45.8% ABV, 25yo, Skye, £216.58, but not available at time of writing)
Colour: Golden orange sunset.

Nose: Rich salted caramel and red berries. Aged oak, and more rich fragrant caramel.

Palate: Lots of citrus initially - whole oranges, and even some nectarines. Then creamy toffee apple notes, some subtle underlying salt-laden sea air, caramel chews, BBQ smoke and dried mango pieces.

Finish: Long, sweet with an underlying salty smoke to the end.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  91/100.

Next we moved over to the Highlands - Teaninich specifically, in the form of Teaninich 1999 17yo (55.9% ABV) from Diageo's 2017 Special Releases line-up, paired with Celeriac, sepia ink, Hokkaido oursin/urchin and Lardo di Colonnata (by BIBO)

Another stunning pairing (quite possibly the second best I've ever had), the whisky and Lardo di Colonnata produced this rich, creamy, vanilla sensation together which was truly delicious.

(Having enjoyed my fair share of whisky lunches and dinners since starting this blog, it was incredible that the first two pairings qualified as the best I'd ever had. Clearly a lot of thought went into this lunch on both the food and whisky side.)

Teaninich 1999 17yo (Special Releases 2017) (55.9% ABV, 17yo, Highlands, £220.83)
Colour: Light straw.

Nose: Malty, oat cakes. Some subtle pineapple, rockmelon and Malteaser chocolates.

Palate: Big, sweet and fruity - pears and apples predominantly. There's a lot of wax here too - if someone told you it was a Clynelish, you may just believe them.

Finish: Long, with hints of waxy apples and toffee.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  92/100.

For our last savoury course, it was over to Speyside, for a dram of Glen Elgin 18yo 1998 *54.8% ABV), also from Diageo's 2017 Special Releases. Matched with A4 Wagyu, truffle and seaweed compote and horseradish (by Écriture), this was another solid pairing with the whisky seemingly bringing out more earthiness from the truffle, which was otherwise somewhat subtle.

I didn't realise when I first tried the  2017 Special Releases, but this wasn't just an ordinary, higher-ABV 18yo Glen Elgin. It was actually an interesting experiment in...yeast! The 5,352 bottle outturn was a vatting of two whiskies - one an 18yo made with the use of "Pombe" yeast (matured in ex-bodega casks), the other an 18yo made with the more traditional "cerevisiae" yeast (matured in refill European butts). The Pombe yeast is said to give some strong apple notes, and that was certainly the case with this dram.

Glen Elgin 1998 18yo (Special Releases 2017) (54.8% ABV, 18yo, Speyside, £229.12)
Colour: Pale straw.

Nose: Fresh apples, lemon juice. Quite tart.

Palate: Big orchard fruits - pears (stewed) and apples (both fresh and cooked). There's a maltiness, a creaminess, and some honey. Very much a "breakfast" whisky - grains, honey, toast and fruit!

Finish: Huge on the stewed apples, with a slight underlying hint of oak and lingering sweet apple chew lollies at the end.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  91/100.

Our last whisky saw us heading to the Lowlands, for a 43yo Cambus (distilled in 1975, 51.6% ABV) paired with Chocolate 'Trio' & pistachio nougatine (by BIBO). Now a 43yo single grain whisky might sound pretty special, but this one was extra special for me. 

In 2016 I'd been fortunate enough to try a few of the 2016 Diageo Special Releases (during a visit to Johnnie Walker House in Singapore), and was absolutely floored by the Cambus 40yo, which I'd given 95 points. When I heard about the Bothy, and read the line-up, it appeared we'd be tasting the same whisky (and indeed, the menu suggests so, as does the label on the bottle below).

...but no. And yes. The whisky paired with this course was indeed that whisky, but with another 3 years of age (left in the vat presumably as it wasn't a single cask), and with a 0.9% reduction in ABV. As a whisky geek, this is the sort of stuff I love...especially when it involves a whisky I enjoyed so much the first time. I have to admit, I didn't really try much of the whisky paired with the dessert here. For me, the whisky was the dessert (although having said that, the dessert on its own was absolutely delicious, with three different chocolate cacao percentages all coming together beautifully).

Cambus 1975 43yo (Special Releases 2017) (51.6% ABV, 43yo, Lowlands, not commercially available however the 40yo release from 2016 is £662.50)
Colour: Honey gold.

Nose: Rich varnish, sweet, fruit. Some of the grape notes I originally found on the 40 were still there, but there was more oak this time alongside them.

Palate: There's the grape notes - grape hard candy, grape Hubba Bubba, a toffee creaminess, with some peaches and cream.

Finish: Long, fruity and creamy. More peach, more grape, and no noticeable oak tannins.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale):  93/100. I scored this higher in 40yo guise, however this was still a fantastic dram.

Having enjoyed such an incredible meal, there was nothing left to do but savour the remainder of our Johnnie Walker Blue Label downstairs in the comfort of the bar, perusing one of only 8 copies of "Around the World" in existence - a travel guide (of sorts) created by Alexander Walker himself covering all the markets Johnnie Walker was sold in at the time.

An absolutely huge thanks must go to MHDHK, Drew, and the PR team for the invitation to this stunning event. If and when a Bothy pops up in your city, I can highly recommend the experience.