Friday, August 26, 2016

A Taste of India with Amrut

The line-up.
We had a muggy, wet August evening for our latest tasting, which about as close as Manchester gets to simulating the climate of Bangalore, origin of the line-up of whiskies from Indian distiller Amrut.

The Amrut Cask Strength.
Stef Holt from Speciality Brands was on hand to guide us through proceedings, and she started us off with Amrut's Cask Strength offering.

Clocking in at 61.8% this seemed like a bold start to the evening, but, while obviously strong, it didn't pack nearly as powerful a punch as might have been expected. In fact, "worryingly drinkable" was one comment as club members got their mouths around the cereal and buttery notes of this one. At a very affordable £54, it may not be the last time some of us try it, either.

Amrut Fusion.
An old club favourite was up next, Amrut Fusion. We last had it during a round-the-world tasting in 2014 and, if memory serves, it ended up with dram of the night.

A flagship drink for the Amrut brand, it's named because it uses a mixture of Indian and Scottish barley, the latter peated for good measure. It's again quite easy to drink considering the ABV (this time 50%), with a nice palate and, according to one club member, a "silky" texture. You can usually get it for under £50, also excellent value.

Amrut Peated.
All of the Amrut whiskies come without an age statement, which Stef explained was to do with the warm climate.

The whiskies are usually only aged for about four years, unavoidable because of the huge annual angel's share of 12-15%, but a figure best kept off the packaging to avoid unfair comparisons with more familiar Scottish whiskies.

The next two whiskies were both Amrut Peated. The first was the standard bottling at 46%, the other its cask strength sibling at 62%. The standard dram was, perhaps surprisingly, a little less complex and actually harsher in a way than the two stronger whiskies already tasted.

Amrut Peated Cask Strength.
Citrus came through almost more strongly than the peat, with orange rather than lemon to the fore. Not bad at all, especially with a £40 price tag, but maybe not the standout whisky from the range.

The cask strength version had a familiar sort of taste, all peat and salty seaside. The surprising thing is that Bangalore is actually nowhere near the sea. Which sort of implies that the distinctive flavour of several well-known island whiskies might have less to do with the exact geographical location of the distilleries than we like to think.

But anyway, that's a bit of a leap. The important aspect is that this one probably shades its little brother for both taste and, at £54, value.

Amrut Portonova.
After the traditional oatcake break, Stef encouraged us to keep a drop of the Cask Strength in our glasses to have before another go at the Fusion. Tasting it after the peated whisky certainly boosted some of the wood and citrus notes, although views were mixed about whether it was actually better or not the second time around!

The evening finished with Amrut's Portonova. Stef described the "sandwich method" used in its production, with the liquid moved from American oak into old-style (and hard to find) port pipes, before going back to American oak to finish.

Stef in full flow.
Again a strong drop at 62%, although this one tasted more like its ABV than the others, at least after the nose which wasn't quite as notable. On the palate some of the fruity and spicy notes which had proved to be a regular feature of the evening were certainly present.

A bit pricier than the others at £80, but the favourite for many of the club members. In fact, it tied in the dram of the night voting with Amrut Fusion, while the very first Cask Strength also picked up a few votes. I suppose we'll just have to try them all again to decide which we really like best.

Thanks to Stef for great evening, and it was particularly good to see so many members both old and new at the tasting. Thanks also once again to everyone at the Briton's Protection for being excellent hosts, as ever.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Lowlands Night: How Low Can You Go?

The line-up.
With several of the group fresh from taking the high road to Loch Lomond for Dramboree 2016, we all took the low road to this month's tasting with a series of whiskies from lowland distilleries.

The Ailsa Bay.
Our first stop was the Ayrshire coast and a bottle of Ailsa Bay, the first release from the distillery of the same name, owned by Grant's.

What's inside is of course always more important than the packaging, but this particular bottle won some early plaudits for a stylish, straight design and a bit of the famous Ailsa Craig granite, better known as the source of the world's entire supply of curling stones, as part of the stopper.

Surprise new club member.
The drink itself is a no-age statement peated whisky. Martin, acting as whisky master for the evening, noted that it was unusual to begin a tasting with something peated, but this certainly isn't the sort of heavy peat monster you'd want to save until the end.

Nice and light, it also tasted on the young side, and there was widespread agreement it would improve further with future expressions. Costing around the £55 mark and bottled at 48.9%, it's one to keep an eye out for.

The Littlemill.
That's not something that can be said for our next whisky, the 12yo Littlemill. This particular distillery on the banks of the Clyde was in and out of mothballs down the years, but finally closed in the mid-90s and eventually burnt down. So to find a bottle is relatively rare these days. Indeed, ours was sourced from a whisky auction site.

Unfortunately, it didn't get a rapturous reception from the members. Good on the nose, it sadly disappointed many with a lukewarm showing on the palate, although it did improve a little after a few sips.

This 40% dram has been well-reviewed elsewhere, so there was some suspicion that this particular bottle's curious history - it had been to Greece and back - may have affected the taste by the time we finally got our hands on it.

Place mat.
Whiskybroker - also known as Martin Armstrong - has long been one of the club's favoured independent bottlers, with an Aultmore of his a particular hit last year.

This month's dram number three was a bit of a family occasion as it was an 8yo Bladnoch, from Scotland's most southerly distillery which was run for some time by Martin's dad Raymond (it's now been acquired by an Australian yoghurt entrepreneur - fill in your own punchline).

The Bladnoch.
The nose on this was quite something, and not really in a good way. "Baby vomit" was about as close to a consensus as we got. It had many of the most experienced club members racking their brains to think of a time they'd smelt something quite so pungent in a glass.

It was much better on the palate, although as someone pointed out, that was setting the bar pretty low. Wine finished, a bit buttery maybe and certainly not unpleasant at 43%. It had its supporters in the room but it didn't really do enough to send anyone online to snap up a bottle for £55.

There were high hopes for the last two bottles of the night though, and they lived up to the billing.

The Glenkinchie.
The fourth dram was a limited release 12yo Glenkinchie, a Diageo distillery near Edinburgh. As Martin pointed out, the standard Glenkinchie bottling is also a 12yo and it's probably available in your local supermarket. But this particular expression is a cask strength 58.7%, produced as part of the Friend of the Classic Malts offer and again on this occasion bought from an auction site for just over £60.

And despite the strength, it was very drinkable. This one got murmurs of approval all round straight away. With 5,000 bottles produced it's certainly worth tracking down, even if it may take a bit of searching.

Auchentoshan excitement.
It was back across the country to Clydeside for the final bottle of the night, a distillery cask sherried dram from Auchentoshan. And it was well worth waiting for.

This is officially a no age statement expression, although the dates on the back gave it away as just over 11 years old. Aged in Oloroso sherry casks, this had a lovely, deep colour with a taste to match, all fruitcake and Boxing Day regret.

For dram of the night it came down to the Glenkinchie and the Auchentoshan and, although there was a good deal of support for the former, the sherry lovers of the club won the day.

Thank you to Martin for running another successful tasting and for everyone who came, it was another busy evening with barely enough whisky to go round. And thanks as ever to the staff of the Britons Protection for being generous hosts.

The voting.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Independent Bottlings Night

The line-up.
At our June tasting we were delighted to welcome several new paid-up members to the club, and they had five whiskies from a variety of independent bottlers to enjoy, as yet more summer rain lashed down outside the Britons Protection.

The Inchmurrin 19yo.
Tom acted as whisky master for the evening, and he started us off with a 19yo Inchmurrin, bottled by Signatory. As Tom revealed, Inchmurrin is made at the Loch Lomond distillery and is named for the island in the middle of the loch, which is possibly best known for being the home of a naturist colony.

Not that the dram itself was naked. It's finished in sherry casks, something clearly in evidence just from the nose. That sherried sweetness won quite a few approving nods on first taste, but if anything this whisky disappointed a little thereafter, just sort of fading away after a strong start. However, at £40, it's not bad value.

That TBWC label.
Up next was a no-age statement dram from That Boutique-y Whisky Company from the Allt-á-Bhainne distillery near Dufftown. Somewhat tenuously, because Allt-á-Bhainne sounds a bit like House of Pain, the label features cows listening to old school classic Jump Around, while standing next to a river of milk (which is what Allt-á-Bhainne actually means).

But enough about the packaging, and on to the whisky. This one's herby on the nose, vaguely reminiscent of dandelion and burdock. And we got a range of opinions from the membership, although most could at least agree that this was an "interesting" drop. It retails at a shade under £50, which would be fine if it was in a proper 70cl bottle!

The Glenburgie 19yo.
The most expensive whisky of the night was next and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it turned out to be our favourite. It was a Glenburgie 19yo, not just sold by Master of Malt but also bottled by them.

Appropriately enough for Wimbledon fortnight, this one had strawberries if not cream, along with distinct notes of butterscotch and a bit of citrus later on in the finish. Despite general warm approval, this wasn't a bottle that got the membership reaching for their phones and credit cards - purely because of the price at more than £90.

This led to the quote of the evening from Nic: "I'd buy it, but I wouldn't share it!"

Douglas Laing's Double Barrel.
After a mid-tasting break, we were back with bottle four and a mash-up of Ardbeg and Inchgower in the form of Douglas Laing's Double Barrel. If this was a marriage of Islay and Speyside, it was clear on both the nose and the palate that Islay was the dominant partner, with a peatiness and saltiness that really took over the drink.

It was felt that the Inchgower got a little lost up against its distinctive bottle-mate. While decent value at £45, some of Douglas Laing's offerings which we've had at the club in the past - Scallywag in particular - are probably a better bet for a slightly lower price.

The Paul John 6yo.
We finished with a passage to India and the 6yo Paul John, another bottling by Master of Malt. A young whisky, but not by Indian standards where, it's said, the heat makes six years equivalent to three times as long in rainy old Scotland.

Reactions to this one can be divided into those who drank it before and after adding water. Initially, it tasted very strong, as well it might at 59.7%. In the words of one member, it tasted "like cardboard". But when we started to put a few drops of water in there, things opened up considerably and it became much more palatable. That dreaded word again - "interesting" - but probably not worth splashing out the £78 retail price for.

The vote at the end of the night when decisively in favour of the Glenburgie. No chance of a 52/48 split here! Thanks to Tom for leading another great tasting, and to the faces old and new who came down.
The vote. No secret ballots here.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Taste Of Teeling

The Teeling range, about to be sampled.
Bottles of Ireland's Teeling whisky have been well received at the club over the past couple of years, so we were delighted this month to host an evening dedicated to the stuff, courtesy of Craig from Eaux de Vie.

The Poitin!
Before opening the first bottle, Craig filled us in on the story of Irish whiskey and how Teeling fits into that. Ireland had once been a far larger player in the world whiskey market than it is today, but its share was devastated by the twin issues of prohibition in the US, and trade restrictions in the UK related to the fallout from Irish independence.

At one stage, Irish whiskey was down to the merged Irish Distillers and that was about it. But, things are looking up, with Craig telling us that sales of Irish whiskey are now going up at the rate of about 20% each year, impressive growth albeit from a low base.

Teeling Small Batch
We didn't get straight into the whiskey. Instead, the first drink of the night was Teeling's poitin, a drink usually known here in its anglicised form as pocheen. It's basically very strong Irish moonshine, and a few club members had hazy memories of having some in the past. Teeling's poitin is not as powerful as some, but at 61.4% it still packs a significant punch alongside a pleasant sweetness reminiscent of pear drops. Not one for a session, but as Craig suggested, a drink to have a bit of fun with from time to time. It retails for £30.

On we went to the first of the four whiskies. The Teeling family has a long history in distilling, going right back to 1782. The modern Teeling company was founded in 2012 by Jack Teeling, who left his job running the Cooley Distillery when it was sold to Jim Beam, but struck a deal to keep 16,000 barrels to get him started with his new venture.

Teeling Single Grain
And the first drop of that we got to taste was the Teeling Small Batch. Finished for six months in old rum casks, it again had a sweetness about it, although at 46% it was a lot lighter than the Poitin. This got an enthusiastic reception from virtually everyone. Available at £33 from Master of Malt, it's good value, too.

This was surpassed by the next dram, though, the Teeling Single Grain, fully matured in Californian red Cabernet Sauvignon casks. If we'd had pear drops earlier, this was a move further into the sweet shop to the toffee jar. As Craig noted, another lighter drop, particularly good for enjoying at this time of year. And again super value, at about the £35 mark.

At the half time break, Craig generously offered the bottle around again and there were several enthusiastic takers!

Teeling Single Malt
The fourth drink of the evening was Teeling's vatted Single Malt, and what a mixed bag it was. The bottle features whiskies aged up to 23 years, matured in a real range of wine casks: sherry, port, Madeira, white Burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon.

While another enjoyable drop, there was a general feeling in the room that all those influences meant there was just a bit too much going on here. It possibly suffered slightly having come after the outstanding Single Grain, but "it just needs a bit more knitting together" was one comment echoed by a few of the members. It's a little more expensive than the others, but can still be found for less than £40.

Teeling Revival
Craig finished off the evening with Teeling's 15yo Revival, aged in rum casks and produced in honour of the fact Teeling's is the first new distillery to open in Dublin for 125 years. This was another light and very enjoyable whisky with a bit of sweetness, clearly hallmarks of Teeling's range in general.

This turned into a strong contender for the dram of the night, but coming in at over £80, the value offered by the Single Grain perhaps allowed it to edge ahead as our favourite of the evening.

Thanks once again to Craig for a great tasting, and to the team at the Briton's Protection for looking after us as always. Thanks also go to the folks at Aston's of Manchester, who have generously offered club members a discount on these Teeling bottles when we produce our tickets on our next visit.

Craig in full flow.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Speyside Spring Special

The latest monthly tasting was a springtime Speyside special. And while some unseasonal Manchester hailstorms raged outside, we enjoyed a cosy evening upstairs at the Britons with a fine selection of drams.

First up was this 12yo Aultmore. Hopes were high after the particularly good independent Whiskybroker bottling of a 25yo sherried Aultmore went down extremely well at a tasting last summer, but this particular drop ended up getting more solid rather than spectacular reviews from the group.

Very light and pale and with a definite hint of apples and pears, it reminded at least one drinker of the Tesco Finest whisky we'd had at January's budget supermarket night (not necessarily a bad thing, the Tesco dram had been well received and not just because of the amount of Clubcard points it could earn you). Currently retailing at the £42 mark, there's certainly better bottles available for the price.

The evening's whisky master, Tom, came up trumps with the next bottle. This now-discontinued 16yo Longmorn was sourced from Manchester's World of Whiskies, and was one of the last they still had. Hearing this, Tom wisely secured one for himself and one for the club, which is of course as it should be.

There was more apple here and a hint of lemon, although some of us thought it a little chemically. Now retailing in the £70 bracket, considerably more than Tom got his bottles for, the club generally agreed it was now a bit pricey. A reasonable dram all the same, though.

BenRiach is one of the club's favourite distilleries, with expressions such as its 17yo Septendecim getting a delighted reception at past tastings. And the bottle of Cask Strength Batch 1 we had on this occasion proved to be another to add to the list.

Some thought this creamy and others noticed vanilla, but many were pleasantly surprised by how drinkable it was at 57%. So pleasantly surprised in fact, that before long phones were out and bottles were being ordered all over the room at the good value of price of £52. We think we ended up getting nine between us, a new club record!

While no doubt all contributions to the BenRiach coffers are welcome, this was not the only significant financial injection they received last week. Boss Billy Walker announced he had sold BenRiach, along with sister distilleries Glenglassaugh and GlenDronach, to Jack Daniel's owner Brown-Forman for £285m, with a third of that going to the Walkers themselves.

The Aberdeen Press and Journal quoted Billy as saying "it really isn't about the money" which we're sure is true. But then, £95m never hurt anyone.

On we went with another great whisky, this time a Cadenhead's bottling of a 22yo Glen Moray. Initial thoughts were that this was basically an alcoholic Bakewell tart, something of an achievement considering the Peak District is about 400 miles away from Speyside.

It really was very nice indeed, although the price tag (nearly £90) meant there wasn't the same rush to snap it up on the night. One to ask Santa for, perhaps.

The last dram of the night was also the strongest, the peated Glenlivet Nadurra (it means 'natural' in Gaelic) coming in at 61.5%.

It certainly tasted like it which led to a mixed reception from the crowd, some enjoying sensation of having a whisky that slaps you around the face a bit, others finding it a bit off-putting. But at less than £50, it's good value if you like that sort of thing.

The voting for dram of the night initially came down to a tie between the BenRiach and the Cadenhead's Glen Moray (the Glenlivet had a couple of staunch supporters, too), but the BenRiach just got the nod in the end.

Thanks to Tom for an excellent selection of whiskies and thanks once again to the Britons for being gracious hosts. We're all looking forward to May's tasting already.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Islay Farm Distillery

This month we welcomed George Wills from Kilchoman to tell us more about the youngest distillery on the Isle of Islay.

One of three brothers, his father Anthony founded the distillery in 2005. The eldest of the three, he's really lucked out coming to talk to us in Manchester while his unfortunate brothers have been shipped off to two awkward corners of the world (New York and Hawaii) to do similar tastings. It really does pay to be the firstborn sometimes...

Kilchoman was founded with the goal of being small and artisanal. Based at Rockside farm on the Rhinns, just north of the Bruichladdich distillery, they're the only distillery on the island that isn't directly by the sea. In their small mash tun, stills, malting floor and kiln they produce very small batches of whisky at a time and fill around 20 bourbon casks per week, occasionally filling into other cask types. At this pace, they manage about 160,000 litres per year.

Manchester - who'd want to be anywhere else?

Generally Kilchoman release 35-40% of their stock each year, usually when it's around 5 years old. They then keep the rest to age further, except for around 10% of their annual production which is used to experiment with.

They only ever buy fresh casks with the bourbons all coming from Buffalo Trace. They arrive still assembled, often still damp with even a little bit of bourbon left in the bottom. All the refills they use are their own refills.

Coming up to ten years old this year, they do plan on releasing a 10 year old. However, in 2005, their first year, they only filled 7 casks so they're not quite ready just yet for that milestone. Perhaps next year... George tells us they'll do a seven year old soon, and a Madeira cask finish as well - exciting!

Our evening's glorious line-up

Kilchoman 100% Islay 4th Edition

Up first is the 100% Islay 4th edition. The barley is grown, malted, smoked, mashed, distilled, matured, and bottled  at the farm and they grow 100 tons of optic barley per year just for this annual release. Bottled at 50% and matured exclusively in 1st fill buffalo trace bourbon, this one's a light and floral introduction to the range with a lighter peating level than the others in the line-up.

Nose: Sweet vanilla, spring blossoms, wax crayons. Earthy, like the smell you get with fresh soil while gardening. Slightly nutty.
Palate: Sweet grassy barley, lots of vanilla with salty earth and dry vegetal peat.
Finish: A little waxy with smoky ashes.

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014

Second in the line-up is Machir Bay 2014. This one's made with barley from Diageo's Port Ellen maltings, produced at a similar spec to Ardbeg. 90% of the whisky is matured in Bourbon, and 10% in Oloroso, which are then vatted together and bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Wafts of citrus, with sea breeze and sweet barley. Rock dust and linen.
Palate: Sweet vanilla and lemon candy, dry peat, barley sugar and a little mint.
Finish: Gentle oak with a tingle of peat. Drying.

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2015

Now here's a treat! The brand-new Loch Gorm 2015, released just this week. This is a full maturation in Oloroso Sherry hogsheads (not butts). It's not overpoweringly sweet, and has a lot of interesting savoury notes coming through.

Nose: Rubber shoe soles, struck matches, sultanas, glace cherries, custard powder, salted nuts, dry dusty earth.
Palate: Peated salty syrup with sweet barley malt, plums and figs, a little dark chocolate, leading to herbal oregano and peppercorns.
Finish: Spicy clove with lime juice. More delicious dry peat, quite sticky this time.

Kilchoman Original Cask Strength

After a short break, we move onto the cask strength section of our tasting, starting with the Original Cask Strength. This was released October 2014 round about the time of the London Whisky Show. A limited release, this was produced with 35 fresh first fill Bourbon casks and bottled aged five years.

Nose: Wood spice, candy, liqourice, hay, farmyard, salty rocks, herby vegetation and dry straw.
Palate: Oily and sweet. Vanilla, peated custard with cinnamon. A little bit of seaweed. Peat rises to become salty and dry.
Finish: Long and warming with savoury smoke, oak, and salt.

Kilchoman Port Cask Matured

Now this is a really interesting one... A Kilchoman matured for three years in a Ruby Port Cask. The distillery started with 20 fresh 1st-fill port casks and filled them with spirit straight away to capture the flavour.  At 3 years old they decided to release it because the port was having such a strong influence on the whisky. Any longer and it'd have looked like Ribena! The colour after 3 years is already pretty fantastic...

This was released last year and sold out very quickly indeed. We're very lucky tonight because this isn't the official 55% release. George managed to get a full cask strength sample at 59%!

Nose: Smoked cheese with brandied cherries. Musty dunnage warehouse. Barley grain.
Palate: Fizzy sour strawberry laces, with tart raspberry, soft grape, and a Lapsang Souchoung smoke running through.
Finish: Drying with chewy peat and savoury oak.

Kilchoman Cask Sample Oloroso 2009

And now the piece de resistance, a single cask Kilchoman from a 1st fill Oloroso sherry butt. Distilled in 2009, and bottled at a cask strength of 59.2% ABV. This particular release will be released in Belgium but there'll be a very similar one in the UK soon so keep your eyes peeled.

Nose: Sesame seed, caramel wafers, coal tar, plasticine, marzipan, plum sauce.
Palate: Sweet and syrupy with tangy cough drops, cola, orange zest, and tingly sour smoke.
Finish: Long and smoky with plenty of earth and tar. Reminiscent of Ardbeg.

Staggeringly good for a 5 year old. This one really made the night for a lot of the club members. Wow!

What a brilliant tasting. Thanks so much to George Wills and the Kilchoman distillery for coming down to Manchester and sharing such beautiful whisky with us. It'll be lovely to see just how much this already delicious whisky improves over time...

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Progressive Hebridean Distillers

Bands of gold

BRUICHLADDICH have gotten themselves something of a maverick reputation in the whisky industry...

Rescued in 2001 by an independent group of investors, the distillery was rebooted and has spent the last fifteen years endeavouring to produce thought-provoking whisky that captures the essence of Islay and its people.

Bought by Remy-Cointreau in 2012, the folks from the shores of Loch Indaal continue to shake things up. Renowned for experimentation, putting out a lot of limited expressions, unusual cask selections, and going against the grain of the industry expectations (please, forgive my puns...).

Joining Us...

Joining us for the tasting we have "The Bruichlassies", Joanne Brown and Kate Hannett, both Ileachs with a passion for the Isle of Islay; and, we're also joined by Brian Copeland - Remy Cointreau's "Man In The North" (is it just me, or does that sound like a title from Game of Thrones...?).

Left to right: Jo, Kate, and Brian.

Up first on stage is Jo, a brand ambassador for Bruichladdich, whose job it is to travel the world selling whisky. Hard life, but someone has to do it! We're given a lesson in pronounciation - it's "eye-luh", not "izzlay", or "eye-lay"; and it's "bruck-laddie", not "bruch-lad-ditch" or "bruckladdock".

Growing up on Islay, she's been immersed in whisky since she was a child. In fact, at the tender age of five her school sent her class on a trip to the Bowmore distillery. That's pretty rock-and-roll; when I was at school they sent us to visit a cardboard box factory -_-

1. Bruichladdich Scottish Barley, "The Classic Laddie"

Jo introduces the first dram of the evening, the vibrant aquamarine bottle of Bruichladdich Scottish Barley, "The Classic Laddie". The story goes that, when Mark Reynier (one of the band of independent investors) first visited the distillery this is what colour the sea water was in Loch Indaal.

This is a multi-vintage whisky (a.k.a. No Age Statement, or NAS) but Jo's happy to tell us it's around 5/6 years old. When it comes to their whisky, Bruichladdich don't keep many secrets.

Produced in a mixture of American oak ex bourbon casks, and European oak ex fino sherry casks, the whisky is unpeated and bottle at 50% ABV. All the distillery's bottlings are non chill filtered and free from colouring.

Nose: Salty, earthy and grassy with limes and bananas. Slightly rubbery with a strong mineral smell.

Palate: Salty custard with limes and cinnamon. After sitting in the glass a while, vanilla sponge cake.

Finish: Oily walnuts, sultanas.

Deceptively simple at first but reveals more character with each sip. Very approachable and smooth at 50%. A solid introduction to the core range of Bruichladdich whiskies.

Jo also talks us through why they avoid chill filtering their whiskies and why they bottle the whisky at 50% - it's all to do with oil.

To demonstrate this, Jo pours a generous measure and then carefully and slowly trickles water into the tilted glass. With a light behind the glass, you can clearly see the "band of gold" form at the top. This is where the oil and the water have separated out, leaving the oil floating on top.

Dipping your finger into this, you can feel the oil on your skin - give it a rub on your hands and you can get a lot of the aromatic profile of the barley coming through. Plus, as we're told by Jo and Kate, if you go home reeking of whisky you can explain you were just rubbing it on your skin!

That oil gives the whisky a smooth, buttery mouthfeel. Chill filtering would prevent the whisky from going cloudy at cooler temperatures, but you'd sacrifice that soft, smooth texture in your mouth and most likely a good deal of the flavour imparted by the oils.

The night's certainly shaping up to be an education!

Now we go over to Kate for....

2. Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006

Kate takes the stage and talks us through the Islay Barley expression.

The barley in this was grown in 2006, distilled in 2007 and matured purely in bourbon casks until it was bottled at 50% ABV. Apparently, the Islay farmers were paid for their barley (at least partially) in whisky!

Nose: Farms, stable-smell of hay and straw, salty again, wet flowers.

Palate: Creamy. Salty porridge with apple. No citrus this time, but a touch of menthol and spicy nutmeg.

Finish: Hazelnuts and a little more salt.

Bruichladdich was rebooted by two wine buffs, and two whisky experts. In France, the concept of "terroir" explains the character of wine, cheese, whisky, brandy etc by considering the place in which it's made. The soil, climate, variety of barley, locality to the coast, location of warehouses, origin of cask, colour of the stillman's underwear (!) all feasibly impart an effect on the flavour and overall character of a whisky.

Many distilleries, due to demand, have to import barley from abroad. This would compromise the terroir of the spirit, so Bruichladdich only use Scottish barley in all their whiskies. For this expression, they've gone one further and made it exclusively with barley grown on Islay. Specifically, at Rockside farm just up the hill where Kilchoman distill their whisky.

Kate talks a bit about growing barley on Islay. From the island to the West you've got very little across the Atlantic until you get to Canada. She explains the climate like this:

"On Islay, everyone has the same hairstyle - whichever way the wind is blowing."

Now - in the words of Monty Python - for something completely different!

3. The Botanist Gin

You're seeing this increasingly - distilleries producing clear spirits in addition to aged spirits. Whisky's a long waiting game, so being able to distill something that can hit the shelves immediately really helps cash flow in a small distillery.

Jim McEwan, the master distiller at Bruichladdich, entered into the task of gin production by sampling different grain alcohols. Typically, a gin is made by buying pure neutral grain alcohol and soaking botanicals in it. This is then re-distilled with a still that filters the vapours through a container holding more botanicals.

Jim went for a 100% wheat alcohol, due to the sweeter flavour. This gets loaded into the Laddie gin still, the fierce lady known affectionately as "Ugly Betty". Betty is an old Lomond-style still, and so is squat and dumpy compared with the tall, slender necked whisky stills. She puts out an 80% ABV gin which is then watered down with spring water to a bottling strength of 46%.

Mary, one of the distillery's "ninja grannies" decided one day to make a cheese cake. To make it more fun, she decided to add some Botanist gin to the recipe. Somehow, she "accidentally" used the concentrated pre-bottling strength gin... and you can guess what kind of an afternoon the staff had at the distillery when she shared it out!

Nose: Mint, juniper, aniseed, cumin, lemon, touch of coconut.

Palate: Very refreshing neat. Tangy salted lemons and bitter citrus peel.

Finish: Slightly drying cloves.

The Botanist contains nine base botanicals which include juniper, cassia bark, angelica, liquorice, and citrus peels.

The condenser box contains twenty-two foraged botanicals from Islay which are infused during distillation - these include three types of mint, bog myrtle, sweet Sicily, heather, and (to my delight) gorse.

Gorse is that yellow flower you see growing on knarled clifftop bushes by the coast. At the right time of year, they smell of coconuts - a bit like the smell of some sun cream, or maybe even a Piña Colada.

A History Lesson

It's the halfway point for this evening's drams... time for some history!

The Victorian still house at Bruichladdich
Bruichladdich was founded in 1881 by a family from Glasgow. They brought their engineering and business acumen to Islay and built what was considered a state-of-the-art distillery at the time with tall, slim neck stills to produce a lighter, more delicate spirit.

There have been many changes of ownership over the years. Jim Beam shut it down in 1994 until it was rescued in 2001 by a group of independent investors. It was bought for £6.5 million and around £5 million of that price was to pay for the existing stock of between 6,000 and 8,000 casks. The stock was potholed with gaps, which is one reason the distillery have produced so many limited release expressions and experimental finishes.

Jim McEwan was brought in from Bowmore distillery as the master distiller. He started age 15 as a cooper and has now clocked up over 50 years working with whisky. He's something of a rock star in the whisky industry, well known for his passion and humour.

Jim "Springsteen" McEwan
The distillery and all its stock was sold to Remy Couintreau in 2012 for £58 million. Not a bad little profit on the original £6.5 million! All the members of staff had shares, so their hard work over the years paid off nicely, though Jo made a point to discourage us from buying Lamborghinis as she says they're pretty terrible to drive!

Today, the distillery employs 71 full time members of staff and still uses the original Victorian equipment with no computers in sight except for book-keeping and running the webcams.

Enough history - time for the second half!

4. Bruichladdich Black Art 4th Release

Now things get serious... Here's the 4th release of the Bruichladdich Black art, a 23-year old mystery expression whose secret recipe is known only to Jim McEwan himself.

Lot's of interesting occult iconography on the bottle too...

It's bottled at 49.2%ABV, most likely has a sherry influence, and that's about all we know. People have pondered over the years whether it's port, sauternes, shiraz, fino, PX, oloroso, rum... we're told it's likely around 6 different casks.

Nose: Icing sugar, slight smoke, dates, sweet tobacco, custard powder.

Palate: Golden malt, rich and oily with spices. Green apples, then sticky figs, soft dates, chocolate, Brazil nuts, and banana bread.

Finish: Long, chewy, oaky finish with wafts of fruit coming through.

Jim mixes up every release of Black Art, so each one has different characteristics. I enjoyed the 3rd release very much, and this one's just as appealing. Given time, it yields a lot of different flavours...

Kate tells us now about the hairy, gruff apprentice that Jim is training up to take over when (or if) he eventually retires. Adam, Kate's brother, started 9 years ago at Bruichladdich and has been involved with many of the releases. The latest Port Charlotte release in the PC range is named with a nod to Adam.

5. Port Charlotte Islay Barley

Now we get onto the peated section of our tasting! Port Charlotte has been a huge success over the last few years, with many proclaiming it as the epitome of a modern Islay whisky.

The barley was grown on six different farms on Islay and the spirit was matured in a mix of American and European oak and bottled at 50% ABV.

Nose: A walk on the clifftops. Muddy boots, beeswax, lavender, wet flowers, with dusty icing sugar, barley sugar, salty sand, pear skin and a little tropical papaya.

Palate: Sweet and salty, with a rich and buttery maltiness. Grassy notes with honey and lemon throat sweets, ripe pears and a rising crisp dry peat smoke.

Finish: Toasted oak, black tea.

Port Charlotte whisky gets its name from the village just down the road from the distillery. There was once a real working distillery down in Port Charlotte operating from 1829 until 1929, whereupon it became an early casualty of the Wall Street crash.

The last bottle of whisky distilled at the Port Charlotte distillery was drunk at a funeral on Islay, we're told by Kate. As you can imagine, funerals on Islay involve a large number of the residents and there's a tradition that the whisky is opened and poured while the grieving friends and relatives are at the graveyard.

Not long ago, all coffins were carried by hand from the settled areas of the island to the church as a mark of respect. The men would shoulder the burden and the walk to the church could take a day or two. As sustenance, the men would take with them oat cakes, cheese, and some liquid refreshment in the form of whisky.

At least on one occasion, the men arrived rowdy and merry at the church before realising that not one of them knew any longer where the coffin was...

6. Octomore 06.3 Islay Barley

Oooh yes - it's Octomore time! The barley in this was exclusively produced on Octomore Farm, where there was once an old illicit distillery that eventually closed in the 1840s.

It's quite dark in the glass for a five-year-old. Thick line of oil sticks on swirling. At 64% ABV, this is serious stuff. Matured in a mixture of European and American oak and watered down to 64% with a little spring water from Octomore Farm.

Nose: Savoury, cooked meats, sweet Summer hay, sea spray, thyme and lavender. Quite grassy, and nowhere near as phenolic as you’d expect for such an intensely peated malt.

Palate: Very malty to start. Intense medicinal rush, calms down to reveal a little barbecued banana. Lots of deep, earthy, vegetal and herby notes among the peat. There are sweeter, raisiny, chocolatey, coffee notes in there too.

Finish: Salty butter on toast, liquorice root, smoked cheese. Long – very long. Lip-smacking ages after it’s gone.

Phwoar. This is going down beautifully… It’s comforting, but fierce. Earthy, but sweet too. So many outdoor notes of herbal vegetation – you can nose it for hours and still find more character appearing.

Octomore Farm is now owned and run by Farmer James Brown, "The Godfather of Soil". Turns out he's also Godfather of Joanne - fancy that! This is the ultimate in Islay provenance. All the barley to make this release came from a single field on James' farm. It doesn't get much more local than that...

Releases of Octomore always push the limit when it comes to peating levels but this is a whopper even compared to others in the range. Typical peating levels are 167 parts of phenol per million – this release weighs in at 258PPPM!

A typical peated malt has its barley smoked for a few hours. The barley used in Octomore can take up to seven days continuous smoking at the Inverness maltings!

Thoughts provoked?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I'm known (with good reason) in the club as a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Bruichladdich. I've got shelves of the stuff at home, been to the distillery, done the warehouse tasting tour, and I do literally own the T shirt. So you might want to take my opinion with a pinch of salt here and forgive the gush.

What Jo and Kate have shown us during their tasting is the humour, warmth, passion and spirit of Islay. The brand has been steeped in this since the reboot and it comes across in every aspect of how the business works and presents itself. These are real people, with amazing stories to tell. They're honest, proud, self-deprecating and confident.

People often overlook this, but whisky-drinking is a very emotive, passionate experience. That olfactory connection goes way down deep into your subconscious (and, if you're so inclined, your soul).

Bruichladdich get that. You feel it when you look at the bottles, when you visit the distillery, when you speak to the staff, and when you drink the whisky. The tradition of language, humour, storytelling and character comes through every step of the way.

And the whisky's bloody cracking too.

Thanks again to Jo, Kate, and Brian - hope to see you all again in Manchester soon!

Posted by Sean Handley