Thought I’d revisit my whisky annual idea, and see if we’ve moved on much from last year?
Whisky Nights are still a regular feature. We’ve managed to visit our other local distillery at Glengoyne, a wintry trip to Islay is in the offing, we’ve stepped up our whisky tastings at Good Spirits, repeated the Festivals, but the big development on the journey is joining the Glasgow Whisky Club. This has introduced us to far more whisky people, mostly more experienced than ourselves, if not quite so nerdy, and we hope that this will broaden our perspectives. Oh, and Neil is cementing his reputation as the “Ard Man”, because if he can’t get Ardmore, he’ll go Ardbeg.
The Blind Tasting
In May, inspired by a malt mate, and whisky evangelist on the internet, called Aqvavitae (see the concept, his video at the end) the Ard Man and myself faced up to our first ever, semi-blind tasting. We knew these whiskies, (well studied) we did the whole coloured stickers, and had Mrs Ard Man pour them.
– They were:
Glenfarclas 10yo, Glenfarclas 105, & Glenfarclas 25yo
Aberlour A’Bunadh, Bunnahabhain XII, Dalmore 15yo
Experience: I found this nerve-wracking, and did not enjoy the fear of discovery of my ineptitude. Would all my so-called “taste” be shown up to be prejudice? I hoped not, but feared so.
My strategy: Knowing the 105 and A’Bunadh to be high percentage ABV, I pulled those two out as a pair – then decided which was the bigger sherry monster. Expecting the 25yo to be the crème-de la crème I smelt for old. Old is also what I think is in BunnyXII. I should recognise the distinctive XII, because we drink that most of all. And I talk about its marmalade-y width of molecule. So sorting into pairs, I thought I had GlenF 25 with XII, and A Bhunadh with 105, and Dalmore15 (which I used to love in 2015, but now score low) with the GlenF 10.
Looking through my tasting book I see in March I scored Bunny XII so many times about 84, GlenF10 83, GlenF 25 90, and the Dalmore 15 which I scored a year earlier 72 (Ard Man 64)! Picking the Dalmore should have been a doddle, look for the dud.
So after about 15 minutes Ard Man says he’s decided! He was looking smug, too. I should have asked him to put some money on his accuracy. I was miles away, and a little intimidated. About 45 mins in, I had made my selection and tried to convince myself that it was okay. And I felt rushed to that point. Ard Man was swiftly back with the bottles.
The result: We both guessed exactly the same line up, and both got 4 from 6 right. By Aqvavitae’s standards this was okay. But we confused the 25 Glen F for the Dalmore15. So digging deeper – I was struggling to distinguish between the GlenF 10 and 25? And Bunny XII with Dalmore 15? It didn’t seem possible.
Recriminations: I have to say disbelief was rampant. Had the Ard Man’s wife played a wee trick on us? Eventually, after some serious thumb screws, Ard Man convincing me to his wife’s character, we wondered why we got it so wrong. A 90+ whisky beaten by a low scorer? E150a infused (and who knows what else?) but the iffy colour was what finally convinced me that Mrs Ard Man hadn’t confused the bottles. Her one sneakiness was putting GlenF 25 first in the line up, where as we would normally build to it.
Conclusion: Were we dabbling amateurs? Well of course we are, but we don’t like to appear so! We went too fast, but the experiment must be repeated, maybe with things we know less well.
We visited on a beautiful sunny July day when the place was abuzz. Our tour was “Gold Medal Parade”, and once in the lovely Manager’s House, we tried their 12yo (20% Bbn, 20% Sherry, 60% refill), 18yo (50% sherry and 50% refill) and 21yo (oloroso sherry casks). Then we were whisked (a little too promptly – Glengoyne’s older whiskies are complex and need to be nurtured and savoured over time) to try the cask strength (NAS) in the shop where our tour ended. All natural colour, but chill filtered except the cask strength. I came away with a bottle of the cask strength and the 21yo.
My notes say that they are currently using Concerto Barley, and a mix of distiller’s and Maori yeast. John Glass does the blending for Glengoyne’s own vattings.
We then adjourned to the Bon Accord and eventually finished off an intense day with a flight of three Ardbegs Kelpie, Kildalton (2014) and Aurieverdes (2014). Well, I was with the Ard Man.
Tastings & the Glasgow Whisky Club
We’ve loved going to quite a few Good Spirits Company tastings. At these we’ve mostly had Roddy presenting, and we’re seeing quite a lot of him, because he is secretary of the Glasgow Whisky Club.
And we did Angus MacRaild’s Old and Rare (£45 cash only), but found it a little rushed and without quite reaching the heights of some GWC tastings. Angus is Serge Valantin’s occasional co-reviewer on http://www.whiskyfun.com/ which I find myself looking at quite a bit.
The GWC is a newish development (from late August). We’d targeted joining one to grow the circle, because we were beginning to get into Ard Man and precarious dave group think, with replicated collections, and needed breadth. We’d met a couple of members (Aqvavitae and young Roy) at a whisky tasting or two, and then … well, its complicated, but, via Roddy and Julie (thanks to both), we’ve immersed ourselves. I’ve more availability than the Ard Man, of course, but what great evenings we’ve had already in the Bon Accord, and the Iron Horse. One highlight stands out so far, In October, flying solo, a Peat and Sherry night – a real highlight. 7 Whiskies and no duds. Unusually it split the room’s vote wide open, no clear winner. The GWC may become a dominant part of the whisky journey, I think, and I’m trying to get to know the other members quickly.
Edinburgh Whisky Fringe
Fantastic again this year with the Friday and Sunday tickets, bought quickly on opening sale day in March. (Shared this experience with Malt Mates Rich, Ewan, Michael, and David) Two absolute highlights were:
- getting to speak again to Johnny MacMillan of Berry Brothers and Rudd, who had run the Dramboree camping idea and is a real enthusiast, very knowledgeable, (and the exhausted chap we met at Glasgow at the end of 2017 Glasgow Whisky Festival, whose name I didn’t then know). We will continue to seek him out and be pointed by him which drams deserve our attention. I bought a bottle of BBR’s “A blended whisky” immediately, having wondered in my research how they could justify a high price for it. In truth it seems a barrel that escaped its label, so it could be anything, but it tastes divine.
- Meeting and sampling the extraordinary Daftmill. I had followed the videos of both Ralfy’s and Charles MacLean’s visit to this farm distillery (new way back, craft style, distilling when not otherwised engaged as farmers) in Fife which started distilling in 2005 and then had gone silent, because Francis Cuthbert said they would bottle it “when it was ready”. Then the blogosphere went very quiet. Silent, despite much googling. The website seems to be the original! Then in 2017 it emerged that Berry Brothers and Rudd would handle distribution, and the Inaugural Release sold out instantly and was on auction sites straight away for £650. The 2005 Summer release was also sold out pre- Festival but that was what Francis was offering the Fringers. In auctions it was £140 in summer, but now £190. We made a bee line, right at the start. It was a great dram – light, fruity, summery. Francis was lovely too – such a nice guy and his (and my) Half Time Orange was the Inaugural Release, so now I’ve tried them both! Yipee. It really is wonderful flavoursome stuff. We even got to try a little of his Sherried cask sample, which I was keen on, but Francis felt might have had too long in the cask. Real highlight for me.
These two drams were voted number one and number two by the Fringers, who showed excellent taste in agreeing with me. Adelphi continue to be excellent selectors but fullest pricers of the independents. We also had a good chat from Hunter Laing Representative [Hugh Muir], and I enjoyed testing the whole line up of Glengoyne, and Balblair. With two split days, we could be a little more eclectic in our selections, and I think my criteria are completely different from 2 years ago.
Glasgow Whisky Festival 2018
November at Hampden Park, but fortunately inside once the queuing in the rain was over. A good spread of desks from Distilleries, and Independent Bottlers, and a few hefty price tags amongst them, and I was beginning to recognise quite a few staff of the Festival as fellow members of the GWC. Maybe next year, rather than sampling our fair share, we will be escorting out the odd gentleman who has over-imbibed! Our malt mates this time was David, The Ard Man, Jeremy and Myself.
What I tried (no notes, just marks on the programme; seems like 16 x 10ml drams – not too much):
- Started with Daftmill Winter 2006 (Forthcoming and very nice) plus a sample of a single Bourbon Cask being considered for bottling, sadly not available to buy.
- BBR Orkney Single Malt 2002,
- Douglas Laing’s Provenance Glengoyne 10yo,
- SWWS Bunnahabhain,
- North Star’s Campbeltown 4yo,
- Murray McDavid’s Ledaig 17yo,
- Speciality Brands IL Bn7yo (Sherried Bunnahabhain), and their Port Askaig 14yo Bourbon,
- Hazelburn 10yo, for reference,
- Kilkerran’s next batch of 8yo due for release shortly (and good chat from Grant of Springbank). I will be looking out for this batch.
- Barelegs Islay Single Malt AND Flatnose Blended Malt.
- The Single Cask’s Auchriosk 21yo,
- Tomatin 12yo,
- Mackmyra – don’t remember the expression name, bourbon style from Sweden.
When I look at this list in the cold light of day, I see no great plan, no strategy, a lot of being led by the desk representative, or I wonder why? My plan had been not to do peat in the first hour and a half. After 2½ hours I hadn’t been overly impressed until Springbank and Tomatin came to the rescue. And I came away with a bottle of Barelegs Islay Single Malt, reputed to be Laphroaig 7yo at 46%.
I’m a subscriber and patreon to Ralfy’s vlog. I watch each week. He is the real McCoy. I occasionally get completely carried away and order the whisky off the internet on Ralfy’s say so, alone. “Steam punker”, “minute in the glass, for each year in the cask”, “malt mention”, “just saying”, “Manx Bothy in the middle of the Irish Sea”. Natural colour? Chill filtration?
Ralfy bingo in each episode.
We keenly watched Good Spirits in the hope that Ralfy would reappear, for charity, after last year’s legendary tasting event. Different format this time and Ralfy had asked for questions, written on the back of the tickets, and put in a Talisker box for random selection. Question one was “Can I have your bonnet?”. Ralfy immediately gave away his fetching bonnet. Aqvavitae’s question later asked where he got his jacket each year. In an extraordinary move, Ralfy gave Aqvavitae his jacket.
I should explain: Ralfy’s branding and presentation is known for consistency. The jacket changes once a year. The wee sampler paint colour card stuck on the desk saying Ralfy.com, handwritten, changes to match the new year’s colours. Ralfy doesn’t edit. It’s shooting from the hip. In almost ten years, the format hasn’t changed much. Just last years move to a simple tasting and then the extras.
We will see how he explains the jacket away in the next review! I think Aqvavitae was rather moved, and I started to think to myself “Changing of the guard?” “I was there when …” but now think I’ve got a little bit carried away. It was just a jacket and Ralfy’s worst colour selection for years. I’m glad it’s gone.
Moving on, as Ralfy might say, my own question was picked fortuitously (and Ralfy said it was a good question – high praise) about storing open bottles. A full answer followed.
The whiskies weren’t quite the legendary set we had last year, but that is NOT a complaint. They were all very good, with the Ralfy seal of approval:
- North Star Glentauchers 11yo 58.9%,
- Clyneleish 14yo OB 46%
- GlenScotia 15yo OB 46%
- Tobermory 17yo 55.5%
- Old Perth Blended Malt 21 yo 55.4%
- Bon Accord Staff Blend 40yo 42.9% (Mostly Bunnahabhain)
The Tobermory was unexpectedly good for me, but the winner was the final dram.
And there was a bonus issue. American attendees produced a Bourbon 12yo that was immediately polaxed, and up to scratch, I’d say.
A good bevy of Ralfy groupies adjourned to the Pot Still, and afternoon became evening, with
- Old Pulteney Single Cask – date and bottler?
- Deanston 12yo OB
- Loch Lomond 12yo Sherried
And a wee bonus issue Kilchoman Machir Bay with Arne and Hannes from Germany, who were in there as well, and Thomas – Anna’s partner – they’d been at Ralfy’s … phew. What a weekend!
Pilgrimage to Islay
And then, in December, we went to Islay. We visited Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin and Ardbeg and we were very enthusiastic.
Distillery of the year?
Now I’ve reviewed my notes and, excepting the Festivals, what is my whisky of the year? It has to be an Ardbeg. Aurieverdes I marked 92, Ardbeg Kelpie next at 91, Ardbeg 10 year old at 89. The only other marks to reach 90 were old favourites of last year Bunnahabhain and GlenF 25.
This has been the year of Ardbeg for me. Side note: [When I voted for Uigeadail at the GWC “peat and sherry” evening, the complaint of others is that they remember how good Ardbeg was! Sort of how I think of Bunnahabhain currently, or at least until I visited the distillery.]
And reviewing the jotter, I see Springbank marks are quietly improving for all styles (ie. Hazelburn, and Longrow too). Will I join the group-think of WGC and find Springbank unfaultable in a year’s time? More from Campbeltown next year.