Tag Archives: Tasting

Fireside chat with Highland Park

One of my most picture perfect whisky memories dates to some 10 years ago. The setting was Shamwari at sunset, the awe of bushveld at its most inspiring. I wish I could claim to be a regular visitor to this magnificent game reserve, but alas my sheckles are too few in number, and my distribution thereof too retrained. I was there on the company dime, and alert to the knowledge that I might not be returning in a hurry, so I was particularly intent on savouring the experience. We had finished a game drive, and had stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, surrounded by big sky, bush to the horizons, the quiet noise of the wild, and the biting cold of the veld at evening. I sipped on a dram of Chivas next to a roaring fire, contemplated Africa, and wondered if this was how Livingstone must have felt. Ok, admittedly the adjacent Land Rovers and the proximity of a 5-star lodge probably separated our perspectives somewhat. Some may also contend that the Eastern Cape hardly qualifies – can an area so close to Slummies really be considered to be genuine African bushveld? But still, the moment felt huge, and the whisky tasted sweeter than ever.

Shamwari sunset

I’m reminded of it whenever I enjoy a whisky by the fire, which is a bit of a stretch I grant you, but that’s just how the mind works…well mine anyhow. Recently, on a glacial peninsula evening, having put my fireplace to good use, I decided to unleash a bottle of Highland Park 12yo. This wasn’t done lightly, not because it’s expensive or rare, but rather because it’s a whisky that deserves to be shown respect. In my opinion it should only be drunk in the right setting, and if you’re in the right frame of mind – unrushed, relaxed – to appreciate it fully, otherwise it would be a waste. I sat myself down, the toasty glow of the fire at my back and the spirit of the bush in my heart, and I put the golden liquid to my lips.

HP next to the fire - a winning combination

I should declare at this point that I’m a big fan of the Edrington Group, owners of Highland Park and also of Macallan and Famous Grouse. I like their whisky making ethic – I’m particularly partial to a strong sherry wood influence and these guys are the doyens of sherried whisky. I also fondly remember tasting Highland Park for the first time with good friends in London some 5 years ago, so the brand has a certain sentimental value for me. My review as a result may be somewhat emotive, and so it should be I think. Whisky is beyond the purely clinical.

Highland Park is a bit of an iconic brand of whisky, holding the somewhat romantic status of being the northern-most distillery in Scotland. It is located on the Orkney Islands, and the local peat has a pronounced influence on the flavour of this whisky. I’ve mentioned before that whilst I can appreciate an Islay malt I’m not peat-freak. The gentler, honeyed smoke of the Orkney variety as evidenced in Highland Park is more to my taste. Intermingled with the smoke are elements of wispy heather, oaky malt, sweet honey, and, whilst I believe recent bottlings have been upweighted with American wood, a prevailing dense, dried fruit, sherry presence nonetheless. These elements are all beautifully balanced – picture identical twins on a see-saw, one giving way to the other but returning in between to a perfect equilibrium (btw, for best effect imagine twins that look like Scarlett Johanssen, that’s what I’m doing).

I don’t believe in quantitative ratings, and I’ll never make claim to a “favourite” whisky, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out, nay emphasise, that this is one damned good whisky. As Jim Morrisson said (sort of) – get some and it’ll do the rest.

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Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky

I had an eventful last week dealing with the Bell’s Father’s Day promotion – see The return of WHISKYdotcoza.  We’ve now dispatched the bulk of the orders, so hopefully there’ll be a host of happy customers dramming Bell’s Special Reserve from personalised tumblers in the very near future.

Despite all this activity, I managed to work in a few tastings.  No matter how busy you are you can and should always find time to chill out with a friendly whisky.  It’s good for the soul.

On Saturday I went to my brother’s place for dinner, and, true to form, we ate late.  He and his wife like to partake of some extended kuiering and slowly ease into their evening meals…take a long-limbed, ambling fast bowler’s run-up to the crease if you will.  Their inclinations in this regard gave me ample opportunity to settle in with a few unrushed whiskies.  I opted to start with Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, with which I was unacquainted.  In fact – North American whiskeys aside – I’m unfamiliar with single grain whisky as a style, so it was a pleasant surprise to have one at hand to sample.  The brand is named after the mind-numbingly spectacular Bain’s Kloof Pass, built, quite fittingly for the subject of this post, by a Scottish settler.

The pass from above

I’ve driven through it on several occasions and it ranks in my opinion as one of the most epic stretches of road in the country.  So the name is a winner, conjuring up the right frame of mind to relax, sip whisky, and unleash one’s imagination.  Onward then.  This is an easy drinking, immediately accessible whisky.  I’d suggest that it would be an ideal introduction to whisky for the novice drinker.  My brother felt that it had more in common with bourbon than scotch, and I wouldn’t disagree.  The verbage on the pack talks about double maturation in first-fill, otherwise unspecified oak casks, but it tastes as if it was aged in virgin wood.  Its overwhelming impression is one of sweetness, a touch cloying but not unpleasant, with notes of vanilla, toffee, and very ripe fruit – apricot and maybe a bit of guava on the palate.   Strikingly, it lavishes you with a great full, thick mouthfeel.  All considered this is a commendable effort by the local industry.  Let’s hope we forge ahead with more challenging, more complex offers in the future.

South African single grain whisky

Johnnie Walker at the Taste Festival

I attended the Taste Festival over the weekend, courtesy of tickets from my friends at Liquidity. I ambled over to their stall on arrival to say thank you, and sampled their Pyrat rum (part of the Patron stable) whilst I was there. I’m a big fan of rum and this one did not disappoint. With its bold orange taste it’s a great option, indeed one of the very few options, if you’re looking for an aged rum in SA.

Classy Pyrat Rum advertising

The Festival itself was well put together and populated by an interesting variety of stalls, mostly restaurants, but also wineries, bars, and an assorted mix of food and beverage brands. As I mentioned I didn’t pay for my tickets, but I would have been mightily disappointed if I had. It seems that all the entrance fee got you was the opportunity to spend more money. It certainly didn’t seem to have subsidised what was on offer. Tasters from the various restaurants were priced at between R20 to R40, and ranged from ok-fair-enough deals, such as Savour’s Salmon carpaccio and Solms Delta’s Cajun seafood, to ludicrously bad value, witness Nobu’s microscopic yellowtail sashimi. I once had the dubious pleasure of dropping 200 large (as in Sterling) on supper at Nobu, and had to stop at a Burger King on my way home to fill the gap, so no surprise there.

A message then to the organisers: come on guys, we like what you’re doing, but don’t take the piss.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, to the serious business i.e. whisky, of which there wasn’t much to be found at the festival. I kept looking however, kept walking if you will, and my efforts were rewarded. I came upon the Johnnie Walker (JW) stall, beckoning to me like an oasis in the desert…and I needed no second invitation.

A few facts about JW– it’s the best-selling whisky in the world, it’s part of the Diageo stable, and its product philosophy is “Big Flavours”. I’ve pondered the latter often. For marketing purposes it’s great positioning. Whisky is all about flavour, so what could be more appealing than big flavours. Bigger is better after all.

At this stage it might be worth having a quick aside on the topic of chill filtration. Chill filtration is a process that takes place before bottling in which whisky is cooled and passed through a fine mesh filter, trapping and removing certain congeners (fatty acids and oily compounds) that tend to precipitate at lower temperatures. The finer the filter and the more extreme the cooling, the greater the amount of congeners removed. This is done for aesthetic purposes, so that the whisky does not appear hazy, especially when ice is added. However these congeners are a significant contributor to flavour, so many whisky-makers choose not to chill-filter their whiskies, labelling them “non-chill filtered”.  The bottom line is that chill filtering extracts flavour from the whisky.

Ok, back to JW. My question is – does the “Big Flavours” philosophy represent the reality of the product or is it just a line fed to consumers? Well, the range of JW’s is chill filtered. In fact if my industry sources are to be believed, Diageo has a particularly aggressive approach to chill filtering, using fine filters, and low (-4°C) temperatures. I can’t definitively confirm if this is true either generally or specifically for JW, but for the sake of conjecture let’s assume that it is. What does this say about the commitment to “Big Flavours “? Isn’t the removal of flavour at odds with such a claim? Perhaps “Style over Substance” would be more accurate?

I’m being harsh of course. Almost all blended whiskies are chill filtered, at least to some extent, so this is standard practice. And the JW range is superb and flavourful to a man. You don’t get to the top without having the chops. Nevertheless, food for thought…

The tasting itself was exceptional; short of the Glenmorangie Signet sonic tasting, probably one of the best I’ve experienced. The hosts were knowledgeable, the props, lit display cabinets containing flavour cues, were perfectly atmospheric, and the whiskies, as I mentioned, were superb. JW Red is not amongst my preferred whiskies – the Talisker inspired salty-smoky flavour, whilst interesting, is a bit abrasive for me – but Black and Green, the other variants showcased at the tasting, are standouts.

On that note – keep reading (my blog), keeping drinking (responsibly) and keep well.

Black

Red

Glenfarclas tasting and independent bottlings

I was privileged during the weekend to be invited by a good mate to taste a very special whisky; special because it was intrinsically so, and also because it’s a vintage dating from the year in which his late brother was born.  We drank a toast in remembrance – rest in peace Warren.

The whisky in question was a Douglas Laing independent bottling of Glenfarclas that had been distilled in 1967.  It’s part of their Old Malt Cask range, comprising uniquely of single casks all bottled non-chill filtered at 50% abv (sometimes referred to as “the golden strength”).   They have their reasons but it seems restrictive to me.  What would happen if the cask strength for a particular older cask was below 50%?  Worrying, but I only let this view into the abyss deter me momentarily.

Malt that's more mature than me

This is a whisky that was wholly matured in sherry casks, so I was expecting resinous, raisiny, leathery, tannic flavours, and I was conscious that at 42 years old it might be overly oaked.  It turned out to be a tight, well-integrated, balanced whisky, purposeful and sure of itself, and without any excessive wood influence.   Over and above I also identified some nutty aromas, restrained sweetness, and a bit of spice on the palate and finish.  The only drawback was that I had anticipated something more vivid.  The cultivation of tasting ability is a progressive exercise and I’ll admit that mine is still a work in progress, so I may well miss some subtle flavours, simply through lack of experience and education.   I’m not going to get too hung up about it – I don’t want to transform myself into either an anorak or a Hilton old boy (the dark sides of the dram) – so I’ll just trust my instincts:  good, even great whisky, made even better by the company in which I enjoyed it, but not animate enough to be spectacular.

This experience also prompted me to reflect on the whole concept of independent bottling, which I think is fascinating.   Typically an independent bottler would secure new-make spirit from a distillery, mature the spirit themselves, and then release a single-malt under both its name and that of the distillery.  Duncan Taylor, and Gordon and Macphail are two such well known examples.  Some bottlers do not associate their single malts with the distillery of origin, either on the insistence of the distillery (to prevent dilution of their brand name) where this has sway, or so as not to be committed to a specific source of supply.  In certain circles these are known as bastard malts, but I find this descriptor unfairly disparaging.  I’ve tasted some that are simply magnificent.  Some distilleries have employed practices such a teaspooning as a deterrent.  It sounds kinky but disappointingly isn’t.  The most famous practitioner is Glenmorangie, reputed to add a teaspoon of Glen Moray to spirit that they sold to blenders – under the name “Westport” – to prevent it from reappearing later as independent bottlings under the Glenmorangie name.  Curiously I’ve seen Westport labelled as a single malt, and not a blended/vatted/pure malt, so either someone is taking a chance, no-one is too bothered about the teaspoon, or the story is a myth.

Completely unrelated

Fascinating indeed.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – whisky appeals to me because of its integrity, its complexity and its variety, and independent bottlings really contribute to that variety.  They allow for a wide range of different products to be crafted from the same new make spirit.  Unfortunately availability is scarce in SA – the upper end of the market is not mature enough, and the process for bringing new liquor into the country is a contortion of epic proportions.  These add up to be a roadblock for niche products.  There’s hope however: SA is today the 5th largest export market for Scotch whisky (4th if you don’t count Singapore), and the premium segment continues to grow.  Hopefully the dynamics will change as we continue to leap forward.

Big Jack

Well, the 1st of April tomfoolery is now past…for another year anyhow. I was easily unmasked – yes, Chivas is still Regal.  E-tailer Master of Malt had better success it seems (amongst the more gullible anyhow) with a story about putting a 105yo whisky on sale at £870k.  The most expensive whisky in the world if it in fact existed would probably taste like a mouthful of sawdust.

With the silliness over on Friday it was time to get down to more serious duties. My government was turning 35 and we were hosting a G2G, so I had to gather up some decent whiskies to mark the occasion in fitting style. As it happened I had recently been given a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel by blogmeister and burgeoning media mogul Seth Rotherham, South Africa’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi (I mean that in the best possible way).  It would do nicely. I might not be able to live the holiday (yet) but I could quaff some Big Jack and pretend.

His brother from another mother

For those of you who don’t know, the typical American whiskey (and whisky in general, including single malts) is bottled from a blending of multiple casks, often of different ages. This is done to ensure flavour consistency from one bottling to the next.  More rarely, as in this case, there are expressions bottled from a single cask. Single casks – or in the American whiskey lexicon single barrels – are special whiskies, considered good enough to bottle as is. They are also vintages by definition, although Big Jack does not claim such. A single cask Scotch is usually a one-off. When another single cask is offered by a brand, it would be as a distinct offering, because it would be a different whisky; since wood is a living thing, each cask is different from another, thus having a varying impact on the whisky within. American whiskeys however appear to operate otherwise. Brands such as Jack, Blanton’s and others, offer a perpetuating single barrel variant, for which it’s not possible to accurately maintain a flavour from one bottling to the next. This is an unusual and interesting proposition – a branded product that changes from one day to the next – and indeed the Big Jack label states: “for unique flavour and character”.

Big Jack’s particular claim to fame is that the barrels are individually and specially selected – so you’re getting the much-loved Old no. 7 product (I believe aged 6 years rather than the usual 4, although in both cases there is no age claim), but the crème de la crème thereof. They’re chosen from what’s called the “Angel’s Roost”, the top of the warehouse, where these barrels are exposed to the widest temperature variations: contracting in the winter, and expanding in the summer to aggressively draw the whisky in and out of the wood, and intensify the impact of maturation.

This makes great marketing copy. However, ageing is a complex endeavour, and things may not be as straightforward.  There is a body of thought which suggests that dunnage warehouses, short buildings in which 3 layers of barrels are stacked one on top of the other, are the optimal places in which to age malt whisky. Why? Because their thick brick or stone walls insulate the whisky from temperature variations. Big Jack is a grain whiskey but nevertheless, this opinion flies in the face of the basis for its existence. I personally don’t think there’s a right and a wrong answer either way. Many elements of this science are not precise, and some of the methods which created the flavours we love today were accidents of history that have subsequently become established practice more through sheer momentum than anything else. Pure pot still Irish whiskey for instance was only created because of a lower tax on unmalted barley.  New experiments mean that conventional wisdom is being challenged and re-evaluated constantly. Take the case of Amrut Indian whisky which is aged at altitude in a hot, dry climate, resulting in 5yo whisky tasting like an 18yo.  There is more than one way to skin a cat as they say, and sometimes things need to be evaluated on their merits rather than according to a particular fixed notion.

The bottom line is that Big Jack is a damn fine whiskey. Soft smoky nose, with an intense foresty freshness…pine rather than oak (?).   It reminded me of my days as a cub-scout building forts in forests on the foothills of the Drakensberg.  Great full mouthfeel. Smooth, balanced woody taste on the palate with traces of candy like-sweetness, perhaps a bit sherbety. Long, lingering finish with similar elements to the palate. It is what it makes itself out to be – an evolved version of its little brother. Thanks Seth, and thanks Dino at Brown Forman. You have my contact details – don’t be shy to send more samples.

Big Jack suited up in a groovy bottle

Glenrothes 1975

I once met FW de Klerk, Nobel Prize winner and maker of history, the man who held the destiny of a nation in his hands and changed it for the immeasurable good.  It was an awe-inspiring moment.  I’m overstating the situation somewhat but I felt a bit of that same awe when I sat down opposite a bottle of the Glenrothes whisky 1975 vintage.  Only 3708 bottles were released, making it one of the smallest vintage runs from a distillery where already only a small fraction of production ever sees the light of day as single malt.  Very little remains – if I’m not mistaken there are less than 20 bottles available in SA.  So this is a whisky not lacking in gravitas.  If I were to meet FW again, this would be a most appropriate drink to offer him.

A quick aside: a whisky, even a single malt, is usually a “blend” of products of different ages.  This is done to maintain flavour consistency from bottling to bottling.  A whisky claiming vintage status was all distilled and put in wood in the same year – the one specified in the label – and then later also bottled at the same time (although I suppose you could get two vintages from the same year bottled on different occasions).  In theory a vintage is individually good enough to be offered as a stand-alone bottling, and would typically have a distinct flavour profile to the standard bottling.

The Glenrothes 1975 was bottled in 2006, making it a whopping 31 years old.  My flavour-specialist mate and I licked our lips as we contemplated getting stuck in.   The nose was spicy, with an accompanying but subservient sweetness, hinting at what was to come.  We detected cinnamon, cloves and ginger in the aroma.  The palate was full and rich, with evidence of Christmas cake, vanilla, toffee, nut brittle and some restrained fruit.    The spice was thinner that was suggested by the nose, and perhaps the only detractor was an overstated woodiness.  I make this last point with an important caveat – I should entirely own up to the fact that I’m a pleb with limited experience tasting 30yo+ whiskies.  The finish yielded some precision on the fruit – dried pears, stewed apple, and maybe some peach.  Closing our eyes as the whisky lingered on our palates we called up images of baked apple pie dusted with cinnamon, and après-ski drinks around a roaring fire in the Swiss Alps.  Most enjoyable!

Not a drop left

At somewhere in excess of R3k per bottle this is not an everyday whisky.  I’ll endorse the advice given by Glenrothes: “If it’s to be shared, choose carefully”.