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.


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