Tag Archives: Tasting

A night of big sherry

Last week I scrounged a back-door invitation to a GlenDronach tasting.  It was hosted by the Bascule, and after I’d arrived it gradually dawned on me that I had kind-of gate-crashed a get-together of their whisky club.  I felt bad about it, but sometimes these things need to be done in pursuit of a higher purpose.

It turned out to be well worth the momentary embarrassment.  During a tasting that was expertly led by the amicable, Scottish-accented (which always lends a certain authenticity) David Wyllie, we were served a sextet of exquisite drams from a stable renowned for their sherried whiskies.   I’m a big fan of sherry-casked whisky – you could say that I’m the sherry equivalent of a peat-freak – so this was quite a treat, and also the motivation for my dubious presence at the event.

We tasted the 12, 15 and 18 YO’s from the core range, a 14YO finished in Sauternes casks, a 1992 Single Cask bottled exclusively for the South African market, and, last but not least, a whisky about which we were asked not to publicise details.  This was a special bottling, supposedly not authorised for public consumption.   It’s widely known that a whisky lover relishes nothing more than the opportunity to taste something exclusive and uncommon, so I’m pretty sure that the GlenDronach guys were blowing a bit of smoke up our arses – but I appreciated the sentiment and the whisky regardless.

Interestingly the 14YO, which is sadly not available in SA, was made from a stock of virgin-casked whisky (European oak) which was then re-racked into a variety of casks for finishing.  I found this Saturnes version interesting if somewhat overly woody.  Taste can be suggestible though and I wonder if I would have come to this same conclusion had I not known its provenance.  I suggest that you try it if you get the chance.  Virgin casks are blended into bottlings occasionally, although perhaps with increasing regularity in recent years, but whisky which is made primarily from virgin casks is exceedingly rare.  In fact this style is probably limited to the few available organic whiskies.

Finished virgins.

Amongst the core range the 15YO stood out, at least for me – the signature sherry flavours were offset by the freshness and vibrancy of a pine forest.  It also has a spectacular nose which drew oohs and aahs from the audience, myself included.  The other whiskies were similarly impressive – only enhancing my affinity for this distillery and its creations.

Corker!

I was struck by a final observation before heading home, which reinforced to me why I’m passionate about whisky rather than other potential candidates – i.e. why I’m not spending my time writing about chocolates, or teas, or bicycles, or somesuch.  There is artistry and skill required for all of these and hundreds of others, but whisky has a certain uncommon magic.  The 1992 and the mystery bottle were both from Oloroso casks, probably sourced from the same bodega.  The latter was significantly older.  And yet the 1992 was considerably darker and its sherry flavours more pronounced.  In fact the mystery whisky has citrus notes, which are unusual in sherry casks.  This is the enigma of wood.  It contributes a visceral organicity to whisky which sets it apart from other industrial production, and gives it the constant ability to surprise and to astound.

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This is the Chivas life

After my recent tasting of Pride I began to see myself as a bit of a whisky hero.  I’d ripped back that dram with what I was coming to believe was a practiced hand.  Yes, it’s true that I drive around on a scooter, but such realities fade after a few drinks.  From now on when it comes to whisky the sky would be the limit.  In a field of barley when I called it they would come!

Ok, who am I kidding?  That delusion died quickly. In the real world I embrace thrifty efficiency as a way of life…although I’ve heard others describe my philosophy in somewhat less glowing terms – water off a duck’s back.  Anyhow, it was thus somewhat out of character when I made the decision to break the seal on a bottle of Chivas Brothers 30yo that I’d been hoarding for some time.

Out into the light

My thought process was as follows:

–        The Whisky Exchange sells this bottle for £425 ≈ R5100.

–        Further, mine just happened to be signed by Master Distiller Colin Scott – making it a limited edition of a limited edition and adding I’d hazard about 20% to its value.  So let’s call it at R6k, or just over.

–        Cue in the delicious Glenmorangie Lasanta, going for R469.99 a pop on WHISKYdotcoza.

–        The opportunity cost?  13 bottles of sherry barrelled bliss.

You’ve now probably guessed that I didn’t buy this bottle myself, and you’d be correct.  It was a gift from my erstwhile employer, Seagram, given to certain staff on the event of Chivas Brothers’ 200th anniversary (2001).   The special occasions for which I’d been saving it had come and gone, the bottle either forgotten or the opening thereof deferred.  My major remaining milestone is the arrival of my first-born, but I reckon I’ll need my wits about me if and when that happens.

So, sometime last year, I thought #u%& @t, I’m going to crack this bad boy.  Perhaps it was a remnant of Pride-induced grandeur, perhaps it was a stupor induced by who-knows-what, or perhaps, just perhaps, it was a glimmer of good sense.  Whatever it was I don’t regret it for an instant.  You should look back on life as a collection of the greater moments, and this one was epic.

How was I to go about executing this brave decision though?  I quite enjoy the expression “to cast pearls before swine”.  It tickles my fancy…I can almost hear the crunching noises.  Needless to say it’s a situation best avoided.  This whisky had to be properly appreciated.  It was a MUST.  The answer was simple enough – I would share it with some of Cape Town’s pre-eminent whisky personalities, most of whom I’ve come to know as both fellow travellers and friends.  We would also quest for the glory of documenting what I believe is this whisky’s first set of tasting notes, although I can’t 100% verify that this would be either glorious or true.

In attendance at the cathedral (the Bascule) were Candice Baker and Niel Hendriksz, the charming ambassadors for Glenmorangie, Macallan and other esteemed whisky brands, Bernard Gutman, that local whisky legend of prolific extent, Marsh/Miles/Mash Middleton, Whisky Magazine’s editor of the ether, and, of course, yours truly.  A quick aside: big thanks George for allowing me to bring in the bottle so that we could enjoy it in appropriately ‘Grace-ful’ surroundings.

And so it was that on a picture perfect Cape Town afternoon, the five of us seated ourselves adjacent to some luxury yachts – owned by people who probably drink this dram daily, curse them.  Things started badly.  The cork broke eliciting some momentary panic.  This though was quickly resolved with a fine sieve.  Disaster averted we cascaded the golden liquid into our glasses and sat back to ponder this whisky, whisky in general, and just about everything else.

Close call

I’m not really a tasting notes kind of guy.  So despite coming up with this quest I didn’t have the diligence to actually make any notes.  Luckily some of the others were more conscientious so I have some fairly reliable information to add to the flotsam left in my memory.

Packaging:

Elegant, dark bottle with dodgy cork closure.  Simple board box with silk-like fabric covering the interior.  Adequate in 2001.  Somewhat below par in the current era of decadent over-the-top presentation.

Appearance:

Dark burnished gold, betraying a substantial sherry provenance.

Nose:

Wonderful  treacle marzipan nose, delicate hint of espresso.  Dusty dates baked under the Sahara sun.  Caramel.  Toffee.  Sherry, and lots of it.

Palate:

Caramelised tropical fruits, slight bitterness.  Dryish cigar smoke.  Comes to life with water.  The grain component ostensibly lends a wonderful oily-textured mouthfeel.

Finish:

Long lingering, flavoursome, well-balanced finish.

Conclusion:

A classic heavy-hitting blend.  Luxuriant, but stops short of mind-blowing.

Drinking the fair share that I appropriated for myself I felt like a bear drizzling honey down its throat.  I was lightly toasted by the time I left and I couldn’t help but reflect that I was on whisky buzz that could best be described as premium.  There would be no ill-effects.

A gift from the gods. Ok, actually from Seagram – more bootleggers than gods. You get the idea.

It was an afternoon to be savoured for a long while.  The chaps made some noises about regular gatherings to enjoy fine whisky of the same ilk, so I wait with bated breath to see with what they’ll come up.

From me on this fine February evening – may the dram be with you!

Photos courtesy of Marsh Middleton.

How much is too much?

I was privileged a few weeks ago to attend the launch of Pride 1981, the new glittering gem in the Glenmorangie crown.  I say privileged because at R30 000 per bottle, and with only 1000 bottles available worldwide (and – at this stage – only one in South Africa), I am destined to be amongst the rare few ever to taste this whisky.  It’s my guess that this is a big part of what Pride is about: making people feel special.

Hot chicks. Is there anything they can't sell?

I can, with little persuasion, wax lyrical about this wonderful whisky and I will be doing so.  It is without a doubt magnificent.  But, let’s not deny it, its single most remarkable attribute, jumping out at you suddenly like sixteen men in the dark Scottish night, is its price.   It’s bloody expensive.  Insanely expensive!  But then any whisky costing what I’d anticipate spending to refurbish a bathroom seems excessive to me.  Sadly, I’m simply not in this league…or anywhere near it for that matter.  Nevertheless, in the pursuit of objectivity, to give Pride and its hefty price tag a fair shake, I decided to cast myself in the role of a realistic potential buyer.  As a suave Bugatti driving, supermodel dating, beachfront habitating, yacht sailing, island owning, whisky loving billionaire, would Pride get me reaching for my Hermes wallet?

Wow!

To answer this question I had evaluate how the whisky stacks up against its peers.  This required a little twenty-first century window shopping (Windows browsing?).  Strap yourselves in.

I based my review on an analysis of the following criteria:

Style and scarcity – Pride is a vintage, single malt Scotch whisky.  This means that all of the liquid used in the bottling of Pride was distilled in the same year, specifically 1981.  The typical single malt will usually combine whiskies of different ages from distillations having occurred in different years.  This is done to ensure consistency of flavour from bottling to bottling.  Vintage whiskies are unique in flavour, and usually very limited in quantity, hence they attract a premium.  Pride – with a release of 1000 1L bottles – is indeed limited, but not really limited enough to justify its price.  Other heavyweights punching in this class – such as the Dalmore 1974 Aurora and the Talisker 1973 – were limited to 200 and 100 70cl bottles respectively, so considerably more exclusive.  It should also be noted that many of Pride’s contemporaries are single casks, a style that appears to command an additional premium.  I personally don’t see the justification.  In commercial terms a vintage is by definition equivalent to a single cask (or maybe not: I guess there’s always the possibility of releasing more of a vintage, whereas once a single cask is done, it’s done).   Whichever, the fact is that these further diminish Pride’s claims on the basis of this criterion.  If we were to stop the analysis here this wouldn’t seem to be such a clever purchase.

Age – Older whiskies are typically more expensive.  Pride is a 28 year old whisky, old but not that old.  There are equivalent and older whiskies available which represent much better value for money purely given their age.  For instance I came across a Glenlivet 1965 – a 40 year old whisky – at £999.  Pride at the same outlet sells for £2450.

ABV – Ok, so now the momentum starts to swing.  Cask strength generally fetches more than standard bottling strength, because it’s the undiluted real deal.  Pride, at a whopping 56.7%, would significantly stretch my billionaire persona’s per bottle drinking pleasure.

Volume – Pride is bottled in litres.  That warrants a bottle price of up to 43% more than if it were 70cl.

Brand – Glenmorangie is single malt aristocracy, and it should be priced accordingly.  It is the natural order that a prince would be ransomed at a higher price than a peasant.  Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Packaging – Ultra-premium products are intended to impress, and packaging has a big part to play in this regard.  Pride has some of the most elaborate packaging that I’ve ever seen in the category – the Baccarat crystal decanter and the cantilevered box set a new standard.

At this stage I was still hesitant.  There may after all be no need to reach into the pocket of my Saville Row suit.  One important bit of information was still to be considered however, and here’s where Pride really comes into its own.

Maturation – Pride is double-matured, having been accommodated for the latter iteration, a duration of some 10 years, in some very special Sauternes casks from the legendary Chateau D’Yquem vineyards.  I doubt that there’s anything out there that’s even remotely similar.  To make the matter even more compelling double-maturation (and the specific instance of it known as finishing) is unusual in older whiskies.  I’m guessing that as a whisky ages there’s increasingly more value at stake, and it becomes less and less sensible to fool around with it.  High risk deserves high rewards.  Once I’d taken into account this interesting, highly unusual ageing process and the exceptional casks in which it was executed there was only one possible conclusion: Pride is a standout.

It is this alone – the quality and rarity of its maturation – that seals the deal.  It might be expensive, but justifiably so.

Now that that’s settled onto the whisky itself.  I’ll keep my musings down to two impressions:

–        Firstly, this is a rich, intense whisky.  It is magnetic, commanding of attention, all-consuming.  It brooks no distractions.  Perhaps it was the hype, perhaps the dramatic pre-amble, or even the knowledge that this would be my first and last dram of Pride, whatever it was, and I believe that the flavour had no small part to play, I was fixated on it with single-minded focus, drawn to it like a moth to a flame.  The experience was almost spiritual.

–        Secondly, the fruity, jammy, treacly flavours reminded me, quite strikingly, of a delicious, dense, dried-fruit compote that was part of my Mom’s culinary repertoire back in the day.  I was transported to my youth as I nosed and sipped, and nursed the precious dregs.  All that was missing was the “crème à la vanille” by which that compote was usually accompanied.  Mmm, I’m licking my lips as I’m writing this…

The long and short of it, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, is that Pride is magnificent.  If you’ve got the dough then I strongly recommend that you don’t miss the show.  If you don’t got the dough, then you may want to try Nectar D’Or, the budget version of Pride, 10 year old Glenmorangie Original finished in Sauternes casks for some 2 years, a fine whisky that I’ve often enjoyed, but poured for me immediately after my dram of Pride had expired it lacked its usual lustre.  How easy it is to become accustomed to the finer things…

Photos are courtesy of David Lazarus, with special thanks to Patrick Leslie.

Our charming host and hostess, Niel Hendriksz and Karen Fullerton from Glenmorangie.

Fiona MacDonald from Whisky Magazine and some guy whose name I don't know. Wait, hang on, it's Marcus.

SA whisky legend Bernard Gutman. Seems he prefers his whisky with a twist 🙂

The whisky tasting deconstructed part 3

Wow, I’ve been so caught up by the World Cup (let’s say no more about it), by my regular work (the irksome distraction that puts bread on the table), and by my recent holiday (less irksome) that I’ve let the blogging slip.  Well I’m now breaking out of the post-vac funk.  This series on tasting was not in fact prematurely cancelled by the networks: here’s the final episode.

We left off at appearance before I meandered about somewhat gratuitously.

Next up then the nose or aroma.  In part 2 I made a strong case – or so I thought – for giving the nose its pre-eminent due.  It seems however that when it comes to my powers of persuasion a gap exists between my perception and cold reality.  My own brother – he who is flesh of my flesh, and blood of my blood – ridiculed my new whisky glasses (I can still feel the hurt 😦 ) and was generally disdainful about the whole notion of nosing.  Pretentious, he called it.  For a split second – before logic prevailed – it made me question myself: have I managed to get sufficiently far up my own arse that I’ve become one of those anoraks whom I despise?  Is nosing just the expected form for a whisky lover?  This is actually an important question to consider.  It’s easy to get caught up in ritual.  Let’s break away from whisky for a moment.  Imagine bread, freshly baked, voluptuous, just out of the oven.  A thick steaming slice is spread with rich Danish butter, which then melts into the hot bread.  You reach for a pot of ripe youngberry jam.

Yum

Freeze it there.  Now give yourself a blocked nose – you can’t smell a thing – and picture the scene again.  Hell, you might as well be eating a dog biscuit.  No, I would suggest, and most would agree I think, that nose is undisputedly important…nay, critical.  The aromas in whisky may be more subtle than those in baking, but understated charms have their own powerful appeal.  Scientists have identified multiple hundreds of distinct flavour bearing compounds in whisky.  The nose is essential to “unlocking” and enjoying these flavours.  It deserves dedicated attention.

I don’t like to oversell.  But here I’m going to chuck in a little extra – some hard-earned knowledge that I managed to prise from the internet.  Our sense of smell is derived from the olfactory bulb which is part of the brain’s limbic system, a region also closely linked with memory and emotion.  This physiological connection is the reason why smell has the ability to call up memories and emotional responses almost instantaneously.  So, on a deep and personal level aromas, or at least certain aromas to certain people, are intrinsically interesting.    The nose of my Redbreast 12yo was redolent of cut-grass and caramelised sugar.  It evoked memories of cricket games on mowed turf, of sprinting across the outfield to cut off a boundary, and of the toffee-ish crust on my Mom’s apple-bake.  Why would I or anyone else want to ignore such an evocative part of this experience?  I, we, don’t.

Those halcyon days

So how do you go about nosing a whisky thoroughly?  Do you just stick your snoot in the glass and inhale?  When it comes to whisky be prepared to be humbled.  There’s always more to learn, and sometimes it’s basic stuff.  I was recently invited to an event hosted by The Macallan – an excellent evening spent viewing fine photography and sampling even finer whisky – to which I was accompanied by my non-noseworthy brother, his wife (also unconverted), and an old friend, a local film producer of such legendary status that dropping his name would be downright gauche.  For the purposes of this post let’s call him Carson.  Carson had recently been to a tasting where he’d been prompted to open his mouth whilst nosing whisky.  I was dubious but gave it a try, and wow, what a difference it makes!  It was the equivalent of fuzzy vision suddenly being focused – everything seemed more precise, more acute, more definitive.  Cats apparently smell in this way.  There are organs in their mouths, called vomeronasal organs, that supplement their sense of smell.  These organs are also present in humans but are thought to be vestigial (i.e. like the appendix no longer serving a function).  Maybe not though.  Or maybe there’s some other simple explanation for Carson’s nosing style – Google can only get you so far.  Regardless, if you weren’t aware of this nifty little trick, give it a go – it’s easy and it works.

There are a few other “tricks” worth investigating, if you’re so inclined:

–        When you start nosing whisky, and even if you’ve been doing it for a while, you’re likely to be asking yourself whether you’re really smelling some of these subtle aromas, or whether they might be a figment of your over-exuberance.  You think that you smell something but you can’t quite put a finger on it.  Consider this: you met someone briefly years ago.  Unexpectedly you see the person whilst you’re out and about in a public space.  The face seems familiar, but you can’t place it, or associate it to a name.  This is the olfactory predicament.  Our sense of smell is the poor relative – deprioritized, often ignored, and mostly deprived of attention.  Recognition comes with repetition.  You may not remember that fleeting face in the crowd, but you won’t forget your wife’s.  It’s got to do with observation.  Smells can be observed just like sights and sounds.  Pay greater heed to aromas in daily life and it’ll enhance your ability to more readily identify these in your whisky.  To what extent will this amplify your enjoyment, if at all?  I’m not sure.  The optimal fun/work balance is different for each of us.

–        Alternate between two different, and somewhat polarized, techniques. Firstly focus on a particular reference point, i.e. a single aroma, and attempt to identify this in the nose.  This reference can be sourced from tasting notes about the whisky, from the impressions of others who may be tasting the whisky with you, or from a standardized model.  Secondly, make your mind blank and indulge in some free association.  Let your imagination loose.  There are no wrong answers.  I favour the latter because of its fun factor domination.

These tips above are of equal relevance for the taste of a whisky, but the next one is specific to the nose:

–        You now know about the cat thing, so try varying it up some more:  long draws, short sniffs, and, discreetly (I wouldn’t let my brother see me do this), block one nostril at a time.  Each iteration might give you a different perspective.

Although I’ve focused on this aspect of it, nosing isn’t just isolated to aromas.  You should also be aware of the nosing effects – the sensation on the epithelium or lining of the nose (like mouthfeel for taste) – and how these influence your personal impressions of a whisky.  One of the flavour standardization models which I have at hand labels these effects as any one of pungent, prickling, nose-warming and nose-drying.  I’m not convinced that it’s particularly necessary to get caught up in these details, but getting a gauge on the level of prickling can be useful in guiding reduction, since this can largely be attributed to the bite of the alcohol.     Add water gradually from neat until the prickling dissipates.

Moving on.  You’re now ready to toss it back.  This is where formal tastings can really get pedantic.  Let’s struggle through it.

First up you should evaluate mouthfeel.  I was given an old Glenmorangie tasting manual which provides some useful vocabulary to guide you through this process.  According to the venerable gentlemen who bring us this fine Highland malt (there are apparently sixteen of them, residing in a place called Tain) a whisky can either be mouth-coating (oily, creamy or smooth), mouth-warming (like Nando’s peri-peri mild to fiery), mouth-watering, or mouth-furring (astringent or dry).  Related – in that it influences mouthfeel – but separate is the body or texture of the whisky, ranging from light and watery to full and dense.  The aromatics have now been fully appraised and are nevertheless trapped in your mouth so feel free to roll the whisky about as if it were Listerine.

Secondly, you’re now finding yourself in the home-stretch, the taste.  Remember that it can be meaningful to taste both neat and reduced.  There are 4 primary tastes – bitter, salty, sour, and sweet – which may be present in a whisky, either individually or, more likely, in combination.  Other flavours, which you interpret as taste, are in fact aromas detected by the nasal passage at the back of your mouth.  Swallow and savour the finish, the persisting flavour of the whisky after consumption.  Does it linger long or is this whisky lingerless?   Is there an aftertaste – new nuances that were not initially evident but might appear after a second sip or after a few minutes have elapsed?

I copped some flak from smokers because on my comments in part 1.  I’m going to try to make it up to them.  You’ve now reached the point where you can sit back with a self-satisfied look on your face, light up a smoke, and consider your overall impressions of the whisky.

These ones are better for you. The tobacco equivalent of broccoli really...

I tend to focus on one aspect alone – balance.  Are the various flavours in harmony with each other or is this whisky wearing black shoes with a brown belt?  Is the taste consistent with the nose, or does it just talk the talk, but not walk the walk?  Weighty matters indeed…

Incidentally I found the Redbreast 12yo to be beautifully balanced, nimbly performing cartwheels on a tightrope.  I have tears in my eyes as I look at the dregs that are all that remain in the bottle.

On that bittersweet note I’m going to abruptly terminate this series of haphazard musings.  Enjoy the week ahead, and may the dram be with you.

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.

The whisky tasting deconstructed part 1

Recently, after a not inconsiderable amount of effort, I finally acquired that bottle of Redbreast 12yo for which I’d been pining for so long.

As they say in my home town - kiff bru!

My immediate instinct, as someone who writes about whisky, was to conduct a “tasting”, because that’s just what’s expected.  A tasting is one of those serious sessions where one follows a very particular process to tease out one’s impressions of a whisky.  Serious enough in fact that one finds it necessary to resort to the third person.   Too serious.

After thinking about it for a while I favoured the lose-yourself-to-the-moment drink when you don’t have to concentrate on anything other than your own pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like tastings.  I’ve attended some awesome tasting functions, notably those put on by my friends at the College of Whisky.  I’d suggest however that on the education-enjoyment continuum these things are inclined towards the former. Tastings are a bit like school, or work.  They may be useful.    They’re frequently necessary.  They may even be interesting.  But when it comes down to it you’d rather be at the beach.

Let’s consider what’s involved in an optimal tasting:

Firstly, you don’t just uncork on a whim and start chugging.  You have to build the context if you want to do this right.  Our senses are most acute – and hence most receptive (but certainly not most appreciative) – in the morning and when we’re hungry.  In what seems like a past life I worked for a brandy manufacturer, one where the management team was expected to take part in tasting panels…first thing in the morning.  Once a week, the bare minimum, I’d reluctantly haul my arse over to the bottling plant and douse my palate with young, blended brandy – mmm!  Luckily they hadn’t cottoned onto the hunger aspect, or if they had they graciously let us off the hook.

Personally I reckon we should keep mornings for champagne, preferably accompanied by croissants and eggs benedict.

Say NO to hunger

The spartan theme of the thing doesn’t end there – the formula dictates that the tasting area should be well ventilated and free of distracting odours: food, cleaning solutions, dubious personal hygiene, and, ironically, also scented soaps and toiletries.  A smoker would have likely impregnated his or her clothing with cigarette smoke – don’t invite these dodgy buggers to your tasting.

Secondly, you need to be properly equipped.  A tasting should be done using a nosing glass – a tulip-shaped vessel, usually on a stem.  These glasses have a narrowly tapered rim to concentrate the aroma or nose of the whisky.  Sometimes, for blind tastings, or particular sessions where the taster doesn’t want to be influenced by the whisky’s appearance, they might be opaque.  There’s no doubt that they’re fit for purpose, but, in my opinion, they’re also a bit poncy.

Tell me I'm wrong

If I wanted to be doing little pinky salutes with every sip I’d be drinking tea from a china cup.   Admittedly Glencairn’s version – with its satisfyingly masculine foot – has dialled down the pratt-factor somewhat.

Cooler tasting glasses

Nevertheless, give me a solid crystal whisky tumbler any time.  Well-balanced and comfortable in the palm of your hand, this is the ticket to a legendary whisky drinking experience.  These days you get them with an appropriately tapered rim so the nuances of the nose don’t just pass you by.

Glenfarclas 30yo in a Schott crystal tumbler

Thirdly, there’s appearance…which, as they say, can be deceiving.  It’s no different for whisky.  Here you’ll be looking at colour, texture and clarity.

When it comes to colour the basic rule of thumb is that whiskies aged primarily in sherry casks should be darker and more coppery, and those aged primarily in bourbon barrels should be lighter and more golden.  However after you’ve thrown in the possibility of refill variations, finishing in exotic woods, virgin casks, and caramel colouring (the wolf in sheep’s clothing effect), it just becomes a waste of time for anyone other than the keenest expert to extract any kind of meaningful insight.

In evaluating texture (and later the nose) the tasting presents a Shakespearean dilemma: to swirl or not to swirl that is the question.  A conventional tasting guide will encourage you to swirl the whisky about in your glass so that you can ogle the “legs” of the whisky (sometimes also called “tears”, less fun).  These are the little rivulets that form as the swirled whisky runs down the sides of the glass.  These can be long or short, and fast or slow-moving – from which you can draw inferences about alcohol content, and texture.  There’s another camp that suggests that whisky should not be swirled.  SA wine and spirits guru Dave Hughes, a man worth calling for his answering machine message alone, was quoted as follows on the subject:  “don’t vigorously swirl the whisky in the glass as you would wine.  Leave it idle since the aromatics are important – and delicate – and you don’t want those escaping as you agitate the glass violently”.  I’m going to answer the Hamlet question with another question.  This gimmick is quite nifty, especially at a promotional tasting.  It has an impressive feel about it.  Novices sense they’re learning something – they’re virtually on their way to becoming master distillers.  But take a step back.  Does it really add value?   The alcohol strength can be gleaned far more precisely from the label.  And texture is only important once the whisky’s being drunk, at which time you should feel free to swill it about with gay abandon and get a good gauge of the mouth feel.

The last element to consider in assessing appearance is clarity.  This is actually more meaningful, and it’s worthwhile doing.  Here you’ll be trying to deduce whether this whisky is chill-filtered or not.  You may remember from this post that chill filtration essentially removes flavour from the whisky, so for the true whisky lover it’s an abomination.  Lift the glass to the light and scrutinize the whisky for any cloudiness.  If it’s crystal clear it means that the whisky has likely been chill-filtered; if you can pick up a bit of haze then it’s likely to be what’s called a “non-chill filtered” whisky, or possibly a whisky that’s been less aggressively chill filtered.  You’ll be able to do this more reliably by chucking in a bit of ice or some cold water since this will precipitate the congeners that form the haze.  I wouldn’t encourage this though – unless it’s a warm day.  Cold inhibits the flavour of the whisky on your nose and palate.

In the next post we get down to brass tacks – the flavour.  Until then, may the dram be with you.

Indian whisky part 1

A while back I pulled out both pistols and let loose at the Indian whisky industry – see Whisky and all.  Today I’m starting off by reloading.  I’m a say-what-you-mean, do-what-you-say kind of person…or at least I try to be.  So I find it intrinsically offensive, nay incensing, that these guys are bottling cheap liquor – much of it made from molasses, unaged, and artificially flavoured – and calling it whisky.

Indian barley

The situation is of course a source of some controversy, for two reasons:

Firstly, this Indian product cannot be sold in the EU (and elsewhere) under the name whisky, despite the vigorous protests of whisky-magnate Vijay Mallya, and others of his ilk.  The basis for their objections seem spurious to me, justified more by their obvious agenda than by any logic.  A name is important.  It is the source of identity, and the means by which we define the world around us.  In a sense names are the foundation of all meaning in the world.  Indian “whisky” is a con-job and an identity theft.

Secondly, foreign whisky imported into India is taxed at astronomical levels, flouting the agreements and the general spirit of the World Trade Organisation.  Supposedly this has its roots in the cultural attitude towards liquor in India.  Whilst I don’t have enough insight into the subject to convincingly dispute this point of view, I can’t help but wonder.  It sounds like a conveniently nebulous cover story.  India is the largest whisky market in the world, and it’s also the world’s most corrupt democracy – connect the dots.  I’m picturing Indian politicians in upmarket villas…and to add insult to injury they’re certainly not drinking Bagpiper.

There’s little incentive to make genuine, quality whisky in this market, given that one would be competing in the same arena as opposition with a significant cost advantage, and yet the talk of the whisky town for the last year has been none other than an Indian whisky (note no inverted commas).  So much for preconceived notions then.  This whisky has been garnering awards and plaudits from the four corners, such is its merit.  It is so far removed from its cousins that it’s insulting to imply any familial relationship whatsoever.  They may share geographical origins but that’s where the similarities end.

The distillery is Amrut, and the whisky is Amrut Fusion.  It’s a glimpse into the future.  I managed to get hold of a bottle and before I could blink half of it was gone, my guests (Indian whisky?!?) making light work of their scepticism.

Surf over to WoW tomorrow for my review of Amrut Fusion.