Monthly Archives: September 2011

A visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience

My promised contribution to this blog is long overdue. It’s been more than a month since my visit to Scotland, and, more specifically, the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE) situated on the Royal Mile, a stone’s throw from Edinburgh Castle.

The slick SWE entrance set amidst old Edinburghian stone

Before I continue, let me make it very clear that I know next to nothing about whisky. What I do know has been gleaned from many a night listening to my husband wax lyrical about his favourite drink.  So any knowledge that I might have acquired has been incidental.

I was in Edinburgh to visit my dad – a very Italian whisky lover, conveniently living in Scotland.  The last time I visited we took a lovely drive through the Highlands and stopped off at a few well-known distilleries along the way.  On this occasion we didn’t have the time to travel out of the city however we had been offered a complimentary visit to the SWE, courtesy of the very friendly and welcoming team (thanks to Angela in particular!) that WoW had come to know through this post.

The SWE building is surprisingly modern, considering the historic nature of its immediate surrounds.  The tour options cater for varying needs, from those wanting a relatively quick introductory circuit, to those wanting something a bit more in-depth (with a couple of extra tastings thrown in of course!).  We were offered the Silver tour, which lasted approximately 1 hour.

It began with an entertaining audio-visual presentation: we were seated in a “vehicle”, aesthetically fashioned like a still, which then moved around like the teacups and saucers ride at a fairground.  This was followed by a ten minute browse in a room decorated with photos and information that explained the whisky-making process in some detail.  For foreigners there is a very nifty tool, resembling one of the original Motorola cell phones, which takes you through whisky-making blow-by-blow in your preferred language.  My father tried out the handset and was highly impressed with the quality of the Italian translation!  It saved me from having to explain some of the more technical English terms.

The next stop was a small auditorium, where all the seats were accompanied by a tasting glass, and a colour and taste chart.  A short presentation followed, which took you through key information about the whisky industry, the difference between single malts and blends, the defined whisky regions in Scotland, and the styles of whiskies that emanate from each region and why.  This presentation is great for novices like myself and even for the more informed I would imagine that it would be very entertaining, if not terribly educational.

Our colour charts were divided into the 4 whisky regions and as we were introduced to the characteristics of each region we were prompted to scratch the corresponding section on the cards to release aromas typical of the whiskies from that region.  This was a very interactive and engaging way of demonstrating the various flavour groups.  We were then given the opportunity to choose the profile that most appealed to us so that we could have a tasting of a whisky from that region (if you were fortunate enough to be on the platinum tour you got to have a dram from each region).  I chose a whisky from the Lowlands, because whiskies from this region were described as being light and fragrant, and more palatable for those of us who are not yet accustomed to drinking whisky.  For the first time in my life I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed a whisky!  I fell in love not only with the whisky, but with its lyrical name – “Auchentoshen”.  The distillery is actually owned by the famous Japanese whisky company Suntory.  Unfortunately I haven’t come across it again since returning home to Cape Town.

Triple-distilled Lowland Scotch whisky

Our final destination, and the real highlight of the tour, was a viewing of the worlds’ largest whisky collection.  Previously owned by Claive Vidiz of Brazil, who had amassed over 3300 bottles during the course of many years, in 2009 the collection was sold to Diageo, the world’s largest distributor of whiskies.  To be in a room surrounded by so many different, special whiskies was awe-inspiring.  Claive did not discriminate and his love of whisky led him to collecting all sorts from blends to malts – some young, some very old.  The collection is very well looked after with the bottles cleaned regularly (I would hate to be entrusted with that responsibility – I recall not too long ago knocking over what remained of my husband’s Chivas Century of Malts, much to his dismay!).  The tour pretty much wrapped up as we finished our drams, while looking on in awe at the incredible collection of bottles that lay before us.

The well preserved Claive Vidiz Collection

The experience managed to be highly informative, without being overwhelming.  As I already mentioned, there are a number of tours to suit one’s specific needs – the silver, gold and platinum tours which are 50mins, 1h10 and 1h30 long respectively.  Each tour offers slightly more value, although the 50min tour was just perfect for me, as a relative newcomer to the world of whisky.  I would imagine that the gold and platinum tours would suit those of you who are already passionate.  The staff were extremely knowledgeable and although Diageo is a major player supporting the SWE, there was no bias at all (except toward Scotch whisky in general!).  All in all, well worth the visit.   Don’t miss out if you happen to be in Edinburgh.

A journey to the heart of whisky

A good while back I was having dinner with a friend at his home when he pulled out an unusual-looking bottle of whisky.  It had a distinctive hand-applied wax seal, and it didn’t have the type of slick label that big brands spend thousands developing.   The thing radiated an authentic old world charm. “You’ve got to try this whisky”, he urged, “it’s made by Michel Couvreur”.  “Who?” I replied.

Michel Couvreur, that’s who!

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m at another dinner – just outside the city of Beaune in Burgundy – with none other than Monsieur Couvreur himself.  He’d invited me to an amazing restaurant.  Aperitifs and amuse-bouches on a pagodaed terrace to the dulce sounds of a string quartet.  Three courses of lobster, each paired with an exquisite wine.  A cheese trolley of astounding proportions and variety.  Grand Marnier soufflé with sorbet.  Coffees (of the civet variety no doubt).  An audience with the head chef.   If he’d set out to impress he’d succeeded in spades.  Next time someone mentioned Michel Couvreur I wouldn’t be hooting like an owl.

That epic dinner was the culmination of events put in motion at the previous dinner.  We had ruminated deep into the night about the sorry selection of whiskies in South Africa.  You’d struggle to find a regular independent bottling, but something like this – an artisanal whisky, of the style that was originally made by the doyens of Scotch whisky before their names became mass brands, something truly special and out of the ordinary – was completely beyond grasp.  So, motivated by nothing other than the love of this fine whisky and a thirst (pun intended) for the adventure, we decide to seek out Michel Couvreur and convince him to ship us his goods.

Checking out Michel Couvreur’s Special Vatting

Eventually I ended up in the small village of Bouze-les-Beaune, iconically midway between Scotland, from whence Monsieur Couvreur has “clerach” (a fancy name for new-make) distilled to his personal specifications, and Andalusia, where he sources many of his casks.  The whisky philosophy of this deeply philosophical man is simple – it is based on the conviction that 90% of a whisky’s character and quality can be attributed to the wood in which it has been aged.  This has raised some ire amongst certain whisky commentators.  The influential Malt Maniac Serge Valentin had this to say in 2008: “Indeed, twelve years ago or so, I attended a Michel Couvreur session where they claimed that the distillery didn’t matter, that only the casks did, thus implying that displaying the distillery’s name on a Scotch single malt whisky was useless.  No need to say that that did really put me off, and that anything branded ‘Michel Couvreur’ used to make me frown – at best – since that very session”.  It may be an extreme position – and I’m not sure that Monsieur Couvreur uses the word, or even implication, “useless” – but I don’t know of anyone who argues against wood as the dominant influence on the flavour of a whisky.  I personally wouldn’t put a number to it, the specifics would vary I’m sure from whisky to whisky, but I’ve seen it done:  the guys at Glenrothes have it at 60%.  Is 90% categorically unreasonable?  I’m not so sure.  My host during the tasting at the Couvreur cellar was Jean-Arnaud Frantzen, a young guy with an advanced science degree (I forget the discipline) who decided to pack it all in to study whisky at the feet of this master.  He presented me with the results of an experiment – identical new-make aged for 7 years (if I remember correctly) in two separate casks, one bourbon, one sherry.  I’m a taster-in-training, and I will be for many years to come.  I don’t claim any extraordinary talent.  Nevertheless it was obvious that the two were significantly different.  60% different?  90%?  Why quibble?  Michel Couvreur has focused his efforts on indisputably the most important aspect of whisky-making, and in doing so he has forged a reputation as a maturation specialist of incomparable skill.  In fact, despite his conceptual misgivings, Serge went on to hand out impressive scores of 88-90 points to the flagship Couvreur malts.

Today most industrial whisky producers favour Bourbon barrels because they are dramatically less expensive than sherry casks (from which traditional whisky flavours evolved).  Monsieur Couvreur has resisted this impulse.  Over the course of decades he has unwaveringly dedicated himself to seeking out the highest quality casks, personally visiting small bodegas in the great sherry producing regions of Spain, particularly Andalusia, to individually select the best of the best.  These are then transported to his estate, filled with whisky (or whisky-to-be), and placed in his subterranean cellar.  This cellar, a maze-like structure with a couple of casks around every corner, mostly sherry but some bourbon and a smattering of the exotic (notably the Jura Vin Jaune), offers the ideal conditions for ageing whisky.  Down there, guided through passages hewn from the rock, I felt transported back in time to a golden age of whisky, captivated by the aura of the man, by his passion for his craft, and by the almost holy setting.

MC in the cellar

It is no surprise then that his small-batch whiskies, unheralded and unadvertised, have found their way from his legendary cellar to the four corners, promoted by nothing more than word of mouth and a recognition of their excellence, in the process making him a cult figure amongst connoisseurs and aficionados.  His premises, whilst impressive, are inconspicuous, un-signposted, just another elegant building in the elegant French countryside, and yet, whilst I was visiting, a group of whisky fans had managed to track him down and were knocking on his door requesting a visit.  He shrugged and asked to be excused – apparently this was a standard occurrence.

I was lucky enough to be offered a taste of his Ever Young Pristine 35yo during my visit – as was my wife, not the most avid whisky drinker, so from whom I then inherited a second dram.  I’m not one to ascribe the descriptors “best” or “favourite” to a whisky but if I were then this would be a strong contender.  It was utterly magnificent.  Sadly, I’ll be one of the last few people to have the honour of tasting this whisky.  Like many Couvreur single malts, this is a vintage single cask, of which few bottles remain.

The Big Daddy

Whether you agree with his ideas or not, in this era when the industry is defined by rampant corporate proliferation, when it is the trade and not the craft that calls the tune, Michel Couvreur and his small team of successors truly stand apart.  Hailed as “the last of the Mohicans”, a moniker bestowed on him by the Danish press, he is a hidden treasure and the heir to an endangered heritage.    He adds colour, heart and charm – and damn good drinking – to the whisky landscape.

The whisky tasting deconstructed part 2

If you missed it, part 1 can viewed by clicking here.

So what is flavour?  Most people think of flavour as taste.  In general language we would equate taste with flavour and aroma with fragrance.  In a whisky context however it is an umbrella term referring to both taste and aroma (or nose).  And whilst it’s easy to get side-tracked by peripheral discussions to do with casks, chill filtration, stills, and so forth – all admittedly interesting and all impacting on flavour – this, the actual flavour itself, is where you’ll find the real action.

You’ll have picked up by now that I’m not huge on rigid protocol in whisky tastings.  The alphabet aside, fun should come above formula.  Nevertheless, as you get down to the business end, there are some important basic “rules” to bear in mind.   Allow me a little soliloquy then before I continue on with the ritual of the thing.

Rule #1:  Don’t ignore the nose (or your other senses).  People tend to become fixated on the taste of the whisky – probably because taste is the pre-culminating moment in the consumption process, and it’s the act of consumption that gives satisfaction.  However, on a sensory level, taste is relatively limited when compared to smell; there are only 4 primary tastes but 32 primary aromas.   In fact, calling the whole experience a “tasting” is a bit of a misnomer, since smell is integral and indeed all the other senses – feeling (texture), sight (appearance), and sound (hearing others’ impressions) – should be involved to some extent or another.  So, savour the nose – it’s a “hidden” dimension of enjoyment waiting to be discovered.  With just this in mind I’ve recently invested in some new, nose-accentuating whisky tumblers.  In fact I liked the look of them so much that I bought a few sets for my whisky loving friends as well, and now I’m getting some for my twitter friends too.

Cool bananas!

Rule #2:  Use water.  If you want to be pedantic, and strictly conducted whisky tastings are pedantic, nose and taste the whisky neat first.  I don’t really bother with this anymore, but I’ll concede that it can on occasion give you an added perspective on the flavour.  Nose with restraint – the alcohol fumes coming off neat whisky can be lightly anaesthetizing.  Some people prefer to drink their whisky neat as a matter of course.  All power to them – I fully endorse their right of individual choice.  Some people also choose to believe that the earth is flat.  In both cases however there’s reason to suggest that the alternative is better.  Adding a splash of water to your dram is what’s known as “releasing the serpent”- the water reacts with the flavour-bearing congeners in the whisky and in doing so unlocks its aromas.  It’s meaningless to prescribe how much water should be added.  The rule of thumb is equal parts water to whisky, but this can and should vary according to individual taste, and the nature of the whisky and its alcohol content.  Water also softens the alcoholic edge of the whisky, which can otherwise be numbing and/or obstructive, although die-hards will tell you that saliva does the same job.  I think not.

To each their own

A corollary to this rule – use still mineral water, or something similarly pure.  Water purifying chemicals such as chlorine do not belong in your expensive whisky.

Rule #3:  Remember to enjoy yourself.    I mentioned earlier that tastings play out on an enjoyment-education continuum.   On the one end you get the serious – the people who do this for a living:  industry professionals, heavyweight reviewers, and the like; and sidling up to them the anoraks – those pseudo-expert whisky fans who’re slightly too far up their own arses.  The latter are easy to spot: they’ll swirl the whisky about dramatically, peer at it intently, nose and taste it ponderously, and agonise over each nuance of flavour, with suitably meaningful pauses in between, and the odd, highly focused, introspective stare into the distance.  Don’t be one of these guys.  Stick to (or at least towards) the other end.  Drinking whisky should be fun.

I’m satisfied much of the time with contemplating just a single nugget of flavour, the one that floats unprompted to the top and builds my overall impression, and that distinguishes that whisky from others.  In Bushmills 10yo it was turkish delight, in Bain’s it was overripe fruit, in Highland Park 12yo the gentle honeyed smoke.

I write about whisky, so often I’ll persevere, concentrate, tease out a greater array of flavours – but when I do I can feel myself shifting on that continuum – my day at the beach takes on that heavy Sunday evening cloudiness.  The fun starts to seeps away.

Rule #4:  Learn something.  Hang on, you’re telling yourself, what’s with this dude?  Ok, it might seem like I’m contradicting myself but give me a chance.  As you’re aware, when you love whisky, you want to know more about it.  And no matter how expert you believe you may be, there’s always more to learn.  A certain measure of incremental learning is essential, and each tasting presents an opportunity to add to your knowledge, and with it your affinity.  Your goal here is to understand the whisky relative to others – so that you can continue on your epic journey.

We can all identify the same basic flavours – admittedly to various degrees of proficiency – but we may not be able to describe them in a way that makes sense to or resonates with others…or reference them in relation to other flavours.  The answer is standardization.   There are various models – the Pentlands Wheel, the Diageo/Dave Broom inspired Flavour Map and its associated Flavour Camps, Serge Valentin’s SGP system, and I’m sure many others – all of which seek to standardize the flavour describing lexicon and get some sort of order and classification in place.  It’s worthwhile to be familiar with these models, or at least with their vocabulary, so that you can identify whiskies that you may want to try.  I’m all for prolific experimentation but premium whiskies cost long dollars – so unless you have a wallet built like a prop forward (the World Cup’s starting today, here’s my contribution to the rugby excitement) some discrimination may well be necessary.

Pentlands Wheel - courtesy of Whisky Magazine

Rule #5: The T in tasting is for team.  Share your whisky, share the fun, share your impressions.  Enough said.

Ok, that’s my bit of preaching done.  Part 3 – the rest of the formula for an optimal tasting (coming soon to Words on Whisky) – will conclude this series.

Fellow rugby fans – we’re caught in a bastardly time zone predicament.  I’m quite partial to sipping on a dram whilst watching my team pound others into submission, but not at 10h30.  How early is it reasonable to start drinking whisky?

To the Springboks – may the dram be with you!  Preferably after the games though.