Don’t Mention The War!

Taste Review #130 – TBWC – Slyrs Batch 3

What is the first thing you think of when you think of the Germans?

It’s unfortunate that most people think of the Second World War, but Germany is much more than that. You can’t tar them all with the same brush because one Austrian goes mental and tries to take over Europe. I’ve just finished working with a German supervisor and on the one night we had nothing to do, it was suggested that we watch a movie. I had asked my colleague what he fancied watching, adding “I bet you don’t want to watch a war movie!” I was right. I followed it up a couple of days later by replying when asked what was happening that day “I don’t know – I was thinking of invading Poland.” Yes, the Germans aren’t known for their sense of humour, but this is a mistaken stereotype. So is the idea that Germans don’t have a word for fluffy; they just don’t use it much.

I like Germany. Nearly every German I’ve met has been very friendly and extremely hospitable. The country has many really beautiful sights and it’s unfortunate that many fixate on something that happened in the last century. It truly is worth going out and about and seeing what surprises Germany has to offer.


Less than an hour south of Munich. On the autobahn to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Makes the Cairngorms look like molehills.

You might also be amazed to find out that Germany has more distilleries than the UK. It surprised me to find out that Germany has some 29,000 distilleries. Most of these distilleries produce fruit spirits, but they surprisingly have more whisky distilleries than Scotland. There are up to 800 dealing with whisky in Germany, far surpassing the Scottish total, though according to deutschland.de, 130 of these are expressly whisky distilleries, slightly short of the Scottish number.

I’ve always been tempted to try whisky made in Germany, but haven’t been able to get a full sized bottle, as well as not wanting to risk the money on something I may not like without trying first. Thankfully Drinks By The Dram have come to the rescue and I’ve been able to get a mini of German whisky, this being from the Slyrs Distillery and bottled by That Boutique-y Whisky Company.

The Slyrs Distillery is based in Bavaria, to the south east of Munich in a town called Schliersee Neuhaus, and is owned by the Stetter family who have a connection to the Lantenhammer distillery to the north in Hausham. This is due to the marriage of Anneliese Lantenhammer and Sigfried Stetter. It was their son, Florian Stetter who founded the Slyrs distillery. He had joined the Lantenhammer distillery in 1985. The distillery made brandy, but it was during a study trip to Scotland in 1994, had noticed similarities with his home in Bavaria – Mountains, fresh spring water and clean air. He felt that it would be possible to produce a whisky in Bavaria.

Florian had bet his friends a crate of beer that he could distill a Bavarian whisky and by 1999 his dream had been realised and the first whisky had been distilled. The result was a release of 1600 bottles of whisky in 2002. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Slyrs distillery was completed and a mountain store warehouse was completed on Mount Stümpfling.

Nobody I know personally has tried a German whisky, other than people I have met online through my blog and social media interactions, so I thought it best to just go ahead and try for myself.



TBWC Slyrs Batch 3

Region – Germany Age -3 y.o Strength – 52.6% Colour – Russet (1.3) Cask Type -American Oak, Crocodile char Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Apricot jam, vanilla, fresh croissants, mandarin peel, coconut. Palate – Sweet arrival, honey, coconut, butterscotch, orchard fruit – possibly pear slightly nutty note too. Finish – Still a bit sweet but hot on departure. Honey with peppery heat, Sichuan peppers possibly. Sense a wee bit of the char coming through. Honey



Conclusions

I have to say that I have enjoyed this whisky. Despite being at what I suspect is an undiluted cask strength, it was an extremely easy drinker. It was on the fruity side with a funk to the nose, but sweetness continued throughout the dram, with various flavours coming through, with no note particularly overpowering any other.

There was a bit of heat that started in the mid palate which continued through to the finish and didn’t overpower the sweetness. All in all quite pleasant. Water subdued the heat a bit and allowed the honey to show on the finish which was of mid to long length.

This is still available at the Master of Malt Website for £74.95. I won’t be buying one right now, but would recommend if anybody was thinking of trying a German whisky, then this is one I’d recommend to try. It won’t be around forever, as only 395 bottles were produced, but I’d imagine TBWC will have more casks in waiting. If you want to dip your toe in before you commit to a whole bottle, 3cl samples are available for £6.90.

Yours In Spirits.

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

All Photos – Authors Own

‘Rye’ In The Sky Prices?

Taste Review #125 Arbikie 1794 Rye

The price of whisky. If you were to compare the amount of times people complain about the prices of bottles compared to those who praise the low prices of some well regarded value drams, you are going to find the quantity skewed to one side. Whisky it seems is getting more and more expensive and you’ll not find many aficionados praising that current trend. At the time I started to draft this blog (mid Feb), we are maybe only days away from Diageo raising some of its prices, most notably the cost of Talisker 18 year old. Available for around £75 to my mind this not a bad price for an 18 year old whisky. By end of Feb 2022 it will suddenly cost way north of £100. But is that still too expensive for a mass market whisky? And it isn’t the only Diageo brand getting this treatment, it’s also Lagavuilin 16, Oban 14 and Mortlach I’m led to believe and possibly more.

Looking elsewhere, as an appreciator of Glendronach 18 Allardice, I’ve noticed a subtle yet quite visible rise of this bottle from £75 to what is around the £100 mark and over at some retailers, so Diageo aren’t alone. So what gives? Why are prices rising? Are we seeing quality maintained as the prices rise or is that also slipping? Where is the transparency in the price change? Let me just tell you now, if you think it is going to get better, then think again.


Yours for £149.90 at an online retailer.

Recently it’s noticed that retailers (or resellers) have been guilty of jacking up prices. Just cast your mind back to Springbank Local Barley where one retailer was charging £150 a bottle yet if I am right in remembering only cost £100. Even now, Hard To Find Whiskies are charging £700 for a pop of the 2021 bottle. Some of the resellers are taking the mickey, yet it is the mugs that buy it that are to blame. If there wasn’t the demand, the price would fall. 8500 of these bottles released, so not exactly rare. The whisky itself cannot stand up to that several hundred pounds price tag , but if people will pay that, can you blame a manufacturer from getting more of a share of the perceived worth? Of course all that could be set in motion would be an increase on reseller or secondary market costs and a upwards spiral would be created which will eventually inflate prices far beyond what the actual liquid is worth.

Just to add onto the perfect storm of a prices increasing, there has been the small matter of a pandemic, increasing not only production costs but also staffing costs as there is a shortage of staff in many workforces that has interrupted production and made raw materials hard to get or expensive. People being at home and ordering lots of stuff has helped create a shortage of shipping containers, raising the cost of getting casks shipped into the UK, if not just the availability of new stock. The cherry on top comes with the short sighted decision of the UK to break away from its largest trading partner, further increasing the cost of doing business by additional red tape and the exodus of EU lorry drivers back to Europe. If you want to get your Christmas presents for 2022, you may be better off shopping on the M20 motorway in the queues of lorries.

Let’s also point to a large elephant in the room that Europe may be on the brink of war in light of recent violence conducted by Russia against the Ukraine. Much of Europe’s energy supplies come from Russia and the Ukraine. If you think your petrol prices are expensive now, just wait. And if the cost of energy goes up, so does everything else. Soon the tree huggers will be begging us to drill West of Shetland oil fields as the costs for their smashed avacado on toast and mochachocolatte hits sky high prices.

While having spoken of shooting ourselves in the foot, some whisky buyers not only vote unwisely in referendums but also don’t know what on earth they are doing in whisky auctions. I’m not going to debate the absurd money that gets thrown at flippers to obtain the new releases, but just take a look at many limited or premium bottles in some auctions reach prices well in excess of RRP. While the auctioneers are rubbing their hands with glee, so must another bunch of observers be smiling – the producers. It surely cannot be unnoticed what prices are potentially able to be sustained with a quick glance at the secondary market. If people are prepared to pay it, then it can’t be a rip off, right?


I agree. Stupidity abounds at the auction here.

I suppose that it is value that drives the majority of the average whisky geek. We want to know we are getting a proper bang for our buck and while age of whisky is not really an accurate guide for quality, I feel it is still a benchmark for what to expect. With many young whiskies now also being released at prices that rival or exceed the cost of a Glendronach 18 or even the 21 y.o, which has jumped from the £120 mark to close to £160 in some cases during a similar timeframe, are these new whisky prices just pie in the sky due to producers knowing there is a market there that will sustain it? I think it’s a dangerous strategy if it is.

Let me turn my attention to the dram in question for today – Arbikie 1794 Highland Rye. Arbikie is a farm distillery close to the North East coast of Scotland. It is located to the north of Inverkeilor in the county of Angus. It owned by brothers David, Iain and John Stirling. While I have been following Iain on Twitter for some time now, I haven’t been paying close attention to Arbikie distillery. There’s a few reasons for that, the biggest one being that I’ve not been engaged with a brand that so far only has released rye whisky as it’s brown spirit offering, but that’s possibly an error on my part.


At least it’s 70CL.

What turned my head towards Arbikie was a minor stooshie on social media with regards another release from the distillery, the Highland Rye 2 which was a 4 year old Scottish Rye that had spent time in Armagnac casks. At £250, it certainly made me take a sharp intake of breath. Even the 1794 Highland Rye I bring to you now was £130 a bottle, with the 2021 release being a still expensive but more accessible release at £95, given that some distilleries market their inaugural releases of the same age have been half the price. Yet that isn’t the whole story in this almost unique case, as Arbikie are the first Scottish distillery to make a Rye whisky in a very, very long time. Speaking of long times, I’ve been writing quite a bit now, so let me wet my whistle.


The sample.

Arbikie 1794 Highland Rye 2020 Release

Region – Highland Age – 3 y.o Strength – 48% abv Colour – Yellow Gold (0.5) Cask Type – New Charred American Oak Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Dusty Barn, Toffee Fudge, Nutmeg, Egg Custard Tart, Fresh Oak. Palate – Earthy. Medium mouthfeel, slightly oily, nicely controlled spicy burn, pink peppercorns, cinnamon, touch of honey and more fresh wood. Cherry notes. Finish – medium length. Sweet cherry note continues but turns sour with a taste that tastes like the dregs of a pint of hoppy beer. For me this then turned soapy and citrus like, almost like I’d expect a urinal block to taste like.

Having said that, water brought the finish into more positive territory. The palate became more floral and the finish developed into something a lot less sour, sweetening to something more like cherry cola.


The dram

Conclusions

Straight away I’d like to point out a couple of very important points.

  • I do not know what urinal block tastes like. It’s a memory of primary school toilets with blocks so strong the smell went up your nose and coated your tongue. Especially more so if you are a mouth breather.
  • I am not a mouth breather
  • I am in no way suggesting this whisky is bad and is equal to drinking out of a public toilet.

With those important disclaimers in place, I can move forward. Keeping it short and sweet, while I have experienced rye whiskey before (obviously not Scotch rye as Arbikie are the first to have done this in years and years) I have to say it wasn’t for me. For me the finish was not to my taste and that’s as much as I can say. It did have some good points, like not burning my throat but ultimately not for me just yet. That shouldn’t detract from the good work done at Arbikie. Perhaps a different cask or age may make a difference and it is very important to keep an open mind. Just as I haven’t liked Jura Journey, I do like one or two other Jura. I only paid about £10 for the sample from Master Of Malt so I avoided the hit of £130 for a bottle I would not have enjoyed in its entirety.

In Arbikie’s example however, I think they may be justified in having high prices. They run a small operation where they grow their own grains, they distill, mature and bottle on site. In the future they also hope to malt their own grains as to close the circle and be a complete single location operation. Arbikie can trace all the provenance of their ingredients and having farmed the land at Ardbikie since the 1920’s they will have a better idea of the terroir their grains are planted in than most. As customers start to demand to know provenance, traceability and all sorts of other geek stats, it’s worth knowing that these things come at a cost above that which a mass produced whisky will have.

I had a short but very informative chat on Twitter with Iain Stirling from Arbikie who points out that to produce such a whisky is expensive. Growing rye in Scotland isn’t easy as it really depends on the weather, and while the weather on the east coast of Scotland can be less wet than that of the west, it can still hamper crops. Arbikie became pioneers as they had nobody to follow in growing and distilling Scottish rye, although Iain did say that 200 years ago this would have been more common.

The expenses also build when you factor in that Arbikie are growing their own heritage barley crops, and have invested in good quality casks. I got the impression that they did want to do things to the best of their ability. In my opinion they are quietly going about their business and doing something similar to a certain Irish Distiller without having to concentrate on the smoke and mirrors of pushing the terroir aspect. While it is still very much something that is important to Arbikie, there is at the moment less fuss about it. Let the whisky do the talking when it arrives.

Like some other young distilleries they also make vodka and gin on site also to generate income, this being a climate positive operation which led to the world’s first climate positive spirits. Nàdar (Scots Gaelic for nature) gin and vodka have base spirit made of peas, which does not require soil fertiliser in the same way as other crops as peas get nitrogen from the air, not the ground. So eco friendly as part of their operations. Are they tree huggers there? Well, Iain informed me they are also growing their own oak trees which take 50 years to maturity. But imagine a Scotch whisky where even the wood for the barrels is grown on site? That’s amazing to me, definitely a cut ahead of others! Iain added (and I’ll paraphrase a little bit) “we are trying to do things right in the context of being a self funded entity while also building a legacy family business.”

Chew that over. Legacy. More importantly sustainability. Trust me, my friends, sustainability will be more and more important in the coming years. We do need to address this.


Are all young drams destined to be this dear? It may be justified if it uses expensive ingredients but that’s a lot of money. However given that I didn’t like the “Dream to dram” release, I’ll pass on this.

Prices like Arbikie’s Highland Rye might not be Pie In The Sky for what you are getting once you dig deeper. They are providing what some of us whisky geeks have been crying out for – traceability, provenance, heritage grains, experimental distillates, quality casks – some of which will be built from wood grown on their land. Of course some of these things we will not see the benefit of until they release their malt whisky, which as they plan to give it a decent length of maturation before release may not be marketed until 2029. And some things we won’t see, for example as by time the wood is ready for the casks I’ll be about 100 years old. Regardless, if geeks want all these things, be prepared to pay.

If you want the low down on what Arbikie are about why not visit their site? http://www.ardbikie.com or why not subscribe to their mailing list to find out when you can visit them, as their visitor centre opens in the spring.

So what about higher whisky prices in general? This has been a brief look at them, and while opinion is that prices are higher – in some cases as business costs increase, then the prices will too. But some people think that some whiskies have been underpriced for years. Taking a look at a recent Malt article, the author puts this opinion forward but to me it is a nonsense. A business will sell at a price it can make a sensible profit on. Too high and it won’t sell. To suggest a whisky is too cheap is madness, unless the producer is not making enough of a fair margin, given the rises in expenses recently. Are the Diageo rises fair? In my opinion, not entirely. Would that MALT writer prefer to be ripped off with underpriced whisky undergoing caviller price hikes? For me it’s the seemingly arbitrary nature of these massive increases. I suppose we all have a different take on things but pricing things to manoeuvre your product into a market bracket rather than based on cost to produce seems another way of saying to consumers it’s no longer the best value.

Looking forward, my prediction is that eye watering prices across the industry are just beginning and it isn’t going to get better. Perhaps with buyers spending more carefully (if at all) could herald the start of a deflation of the whisky market rather than an actual bubble bursting. Boom times never last forever and will eventually reach saturation. I’ve already noted softening auction prices in some areas of the secondary market, which perhaps point to the current whisky craze faltering as a glass loch in cupboards builds or people can no longer afford the prices expected. Or people are moving to something else? A sharp rise in the cost of living will certainly focus minds on both sides of the consumer – producer relationship, especially for luxury goods. Or perhaps it is time to spend time trawling the auctions for the bargain bucket bids, a sure fire way of getting cheap whisky.

So, in starting to come to a conclusion, perhaps in some cases higher prices are justified. Independent distilleries are more likely to be doing what the consumer wants in the case of higher ABV, better wood, experimental distillates, environmentally friendly production, heritage barleys. It all it takes is someone to take that financial risk, as it can be expensive and risk of failure may be high. But on a personal level, I’d now rather give my cash for whisky to a bespoke or craft producer than a big corporate entity who seems to think a hefty price rise to satisfy shareholders is necessary. I accept prices have to go up, but don’t take the mickey. And when sustainable processes become more and more mainstream, both producers and consumers will be affected when it comes to prices.

For my last comment, if you feel it’s too expensive, don’t buy it. The price will soon drop or the item will be discontinued. There is always more whisky. Exciting whisky, innovative whisky experimental whisky, sustainable spirits. If we want a new wave of that, then we have to look at independent producers who will give customers what they want. Just be prepared to pay for it while remembering it’s often small businesses taking big risks that we are talking about, not charities.

I think I’ve given many things to unpackage and think about. What happens is anybody’s guess and I’m certainly no expert but just another whisky consumer with an opinion and an internet connection. Certainly don’t expect whisky prices at retail to drop much any time soon, yet be braced for higher prices across the board.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

All Photos – Authors Own

Take Heed Of A Red Flag

Taste Review #121 Penderyn Red Flag (Icons Of Wales)

As I meander through the whiskies of the world, I have to make time for the Celtic cousins of the Scots, the Welsh.

Penderyn was established in 2000 and was the first whisky distillery in Wales since the 19th century. There has been a resurgence of whisky distilling in Wales with a small handful of distilleries starting up. Aber Falls released their inaugural whisky in May 2021 to much fanfare, not only because its reported to be a good whisky but the low price of their first release. New startups take note – you don’t need to be greedy for what is only a three year old product.

The whisky I am tasting for you today is the Penderyn Red Flag from their Icons Of Wales series. It commemorates the first use of a red flag as a symbol of protest which took place over the execution of a miner during the 1831 Merthyr Rising. The miner was called Dic Penderyn (Richard Lewis) and was hung for the stabbing of a soldier during the riots.



Penderyn Red Flag

Region – Wales Age – NAS Strength – 41% Colour – Pale Straw (0.2) Cask Type – Madeira Finish Colouring – Not stated on box Chill Filtered – No. Nose – Caramel, Stewed Rhubarb, Raspberry, Orange citrus. Palate – Medium mouthfeel, obviously young whisky. Grassy, dried herbs that are long out of date, tarragon, unseasoned cashews, orange citrus, Apple Sourz. Finish -Medium. Creamy and nutty. A taste of petrol at the end.



Conclusions

I hate to say this, but in my opinion this whisky was truly awful. Not completely awful as I really appreciated the nose, but it went downhill rapidly from there. The dried grassy herbs note was not pleasant at all, as though I’d necked a jar of out of date Schwartz. I managed to finish the sample but had I bought a full bottle I suspect it would have become a very expensive drain cleaner.

The finish left me feeling as though I’d been syphoning the fuel out of a Rover Metro which for me was just the icing on the cake.

I’ve had a few people tell me that Penderyn wasn’t to their taste. I have given them the benefit of the doubt. But red flags usually signify danger and I’m wishing I had paid attention to my friends and even Clarky on Four in a Bed.

Clip from Channel 4’s Four In A Bed. Clarky gives an honest appraisal

I would have thought a fortified wine finish would have had more body, more sweetness but while this was present in the nose, it was missing in action everywhere else. I cannot recommend this particular bottle. However it has let me know that if I was to try further Penderyn, a sample first before buying will be required.

Of course I will give Penderyn another try, but not in the near future.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

All Photos – Authors Own

An Indian Winter

Taste Review #119 – Amrut Fusion

When I thought of doing a wee run of world whiskies for review and to expand ones horizons, one of the natural choices was Indian whisky. This is most appropriate at the time of writing I am currently working offshore the east coast of India, working from the port of Kakinada.

India is for me one of these countries of extremes. It can be filthy, yet colourful. It has many rich people within, yet sees the extremes of poverty when you do an excursion around the Dharavi slums, made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire. You can experience the mountains of the North, leading onto the Himalayas, or have a beach holiday in Goa, and everything between.


Cows everywhere in the streets of Kakinada – I think this one is interested in seeing a moo-vie

When I last worked in India during 2009, we used to fly from an airport called Rajahmundry, about an hours drive from the port of Kakinada in Andra Pradesh. The journey between the two towns was in a rural area giving the opportunity to see some very pastoral scenes. The city sits on the eastern bank of the sacred Godavari river, and we’d often get a night in a hotel there before flying out the next day. One of the hotels I remember sat on the riverside and we used to have our well deserved beer after 6 weeks of abstinence. Forget the ideas of Kingfisher lager – we were in India and the brands we were offered were Haywards 5000, Royal Challenge, Knockout and Maharaja. If you know the Scottish sit-com Still Game, you’ll understand when I say images of Fusilier lager came to mind!

And so it comes to pass that Indian whisky has always been in my head as an unknown quantity. Totally incorrect I will have to admit. As I am writing this, I don’t have any facts and figures to hand, but I’m sure that I remember that Indian whisky is the largest seller worldwide. You’ll need to check the Malt Whisky year book to confirm, but I’m sure Johnny Walker is the highest selling Scotch brand but only manages third place. So, if Indian whisky can sell so much, it can’t be bad, eh?

Because I didn’t want to invest in a whole bottle that I may not take to and I already have a surplus of open 70cl bottles, I chose to buy a variety of world whiskies using the Perfect Measure from The Whisky Exchange and Drinks by the Dram from Master Of Malt. The Indian sample I chose was from The Whisky Exchange and is Amrut Fusion.

Amrut Distilleries started out in 1948 after the British Colonising forces withdrew the previous year. Based in Bangalore, the current distillery was built in 1987. It came to more attention when whisky ‘expert’ Jim Murray gave their whisky a 82 out of 100 in 2005 and 2010. These were in the days when many Indian whiskies were made up of cheap imported Scottish whiskies blended with local spirit, so the bar had been raised for Indian whisky.

Maturing spirits in a hot and humid climate is totally different to doing it in Scotland. The higher temperature gives a much higher evaporation rate of around 10-12% compared to 2% in Scotland. Therefore I doubt we’ll ever see significant age statement Indian whiskies in quantity.

The whisky I chose was Amrut Fusion. This was originally launched in 2009 and it is made with 25% peated Scottish barley and 75% Indian unpeated barley. While some of the ingredients have Scottish provenance, it is very much still an Indian Whisky. So let’s see if the fusion of Scottish and Indian barley makes a taste sensation on my palate.


Amrut Fusion – a fusion of Scottish and Indian Barley

Amrut Fusion

Region – India Age – NAS Strength – 50% abv Colour – Chestnut Oloroso Sherry (1.2) Cask Type – Oak Colouring – No Chill Filtered – Not Stated Nose – Barley, wood shavings, light smoke, peaches, orange peel, runny honey, barley sugar. With water added got an ozone note of distressed electrical equipment. Palate – gentle arrival, light / medium mouth feel. Pineapple, wood, barley, chocolate (?), smoky peat. Creamy caramel. Orange rind. Finish – medium / long. Peat smoke, astringent, brine, woody taste (oak). Fades into a marmalade-esque sweetness and a bit of a spicy burn. Water takes away most of the spicy finish.


The Dram

Conclusions

Not too bad is my conclusion. I’m not a regular drinker of world whisky, so my experience of this is limited. I’d drink this again, but not sure if I’d buy a bottle. I’d say I much preferred this with a drop of water.

I don’t understand how Jim Murray can say this was the third best single malt whisky in the world in 2010, as I can think of many more that I’ve enjoyed more than this, but don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad whisky at all. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to pick some Indian whisky up on the way home…

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


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The Tale of Two Towns

Taste Review # 116 – Banff 1974 CC / Glen Deveron

When you go to a whisky distillery or read the rear of the packaging, there is usually some story or legend connected to the distillery. For this review I manage to review two Highland whiskies from the North East of Scotland. One distillery has been wiped from the face of the earth, while one continues producing almost anonymously. One has the sad epithet of perhaps being the unluckiest distillery in Scotland and the other seems to have little story at all. But in the absence of an industry created legend, there is a story which connects the two communities associated with these whiskies. These distilleries were part of two towns on either side of the mouth of the River Deveron, namely Banff and Macduff. This tale not only connects both these towns, but also the Badenoch area in which I currently live, and later involves Scots literary titan Robert Burns. It is a tale of illegitimacy, prejudice, outlaws, treachery plus a hanging. It will also include a fiddle and a well known Scots folk song.

So, if you are intrigued, pour yourself a dram, put your feet up and let me tell you a story.

For over 300 years, Macduff residents don’t tell people from Banff the time.

While there is only a river that separates the two towns, Banff and Macduff are very different places. Both fishing towns, for over three centuries there has been a now largely forgotten feud that has been part of Scottish folklore ever since. For if you are to look at the tower of the Doune Church in Macduff which houses the town clock, you will observe that there is a face to the east side, and one facing out north to sea. There can’t be one to the south due to the building construction but unusually there is no clock face on the west side for the people on the Banff side to see. The reason that Macduff people traditionally do not give people from Banff the time is all down to the hanging of Jamie Macpherson on the 16th November 1700.


Doune Church, Macduff (Stanley Howe)

The link to Badenoch area which happens to be the southernmost reaches of the Speyside whisky region comes from the illegitimate birth of James MacPherson (Jamie), the product of a tryst between one of the land owning Invereshie MacPherson clan and an attractive gypsy traveller woman. When his father died, the young Jamie returned to his mother’s travelling folk and soon became the Scottish equivalent of Robin Hood, embracing the vagrant lifestyle and robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Tales attest to his popularity and his skill with a sword and a fiddle, but he had a few powerful enemies – namely Lord Braco.

The Lord Braco was a rich landowner that had property around 5 miles east of Keith, in the region of Bracobrae. He’d have plenty of reasons to be vexed by Jamie Macpherson when his livestock or that of his tenants was robbed, as there is evidence that Macpherson was a reiver, a Scots word for Bandit. Being a traveller or a gypsy made it worse as since 1573 it was illegal to be a Gypsy (called Egiptians / Egyptians) in Scotland and when he was captured by Braco at the St Rufus fair in Keith, this was the charge to be put against him. At the fair, there was a skirmish to capture Jamie, and the legend was that a woman threw a blanket over him from an upstairs window ledge disabling his fighting ability for long enough that he could be captured.

Unfortunately for Jamie, the blanket was only the start of the treachery against him. The jury for his trial in Banff courthouse was never going to be unbiased, as the jury was full of people sympathetic to Braco. Judge Dunbar, also a friend of Braco, quickly found Macpherson guilty. For the charges of being an Egiptian and a vagabond the penalty was death and MacPherson was scheduled to be hung on the gallows tree along with three others.

The story goes that MacPherson played a lament on his fiddle before he was hung and once he was finished, he offered his fiddle to his fellow clan members. Nobody took it as it would betray them as being part of MacPherson’s band of vagabonds, so he smashed it over his knee, proclaiming nobody else shall play it.


Banff Town Clock Mechanism in Clan MacPherson’s Museum, Newtonmore

It is now we come to the part where the issue of the time comes. Upon the sentence being pronounced, a friend of MacPherson rode to Aberdeen to the High Court to get the sentence overturned. Prior to the hanging, Braco saw the rider coming with the pardon, so had the town clock advanced 15 minutes so the hanging could legally take place. And this is why people in Macduff traditionally never give people in Banff the time, as they remember the injustice served to Jamie MacPherson.

The remains of the fiddle were recovered and returned to the MacPherson clan at Cluny Castle, between Newtonmore and Laggan on the A86. The fiddle is now on display in the Clan Macpherson museum in Newtonmore.


The fiddle of James Macpherson in the Clan Macpherson Museum, Newtonmore

To cement the place this story has in Scots folklore, the words of the lament Macpherson played before he was hung were worked into a song by Robert Burns in 1788, known as MacPherson’s Farewell.

MacPherson’s Farewell

Farewell, ye dungeons dark and strong,
The wretch’s destinie!
McPherson’s time will not be long,
On yonder gallows-tree.

Chorus (after each verse)
Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play’d a spring,
and danc’d it round,
Below the gallows-tree.


O what is death but parting breath?
On many a bloody plain
I’ve dar’d his face, and in this place
I scorn him yet again!


Untie these bands from off my hands,
And bring me to my sword;
And there’s no a man in all scotland.
But I’ll brave him at a word.


I’ve liv’d a life of sturt and strife;
I die by treacherie:
It burns my heart I must depart,
And not avenged be.


Now farewell light, thou sunshine bright
And all beneath the sky!
May coward shame distain his name,
The wretch that dares not die!


Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play’d a spring, and danc’d it round,
Below the gallows-tree.


I remember it from the popular Scots Folk singers The Corries. This was a regular tape that was played in the family car which formed at the time what I imagined to be the forerunner to modern child abuse by music, but in what may be a case of Stockholm Syndrome, I find myself tapping my foot to this. Here’s a link to the song on YouTube – MacPhersons Rant


View of Macduff from Banff (Xavier Laffitte)

And back to whisky!

The whisky distilleries in Banff and Macduff are also very different. One has sadly fallen silent and now no longer exists whereas the other is a more modern distillery and is still in production.

The original Banff distillery was situated at Mains of Colleonard just to the south west of Banff. In 1823 the Excise Act was passed and the first distillery at Banff was established by Major James McKilligan, who lived at Mains of Colleonard, along with two others, Mr Alex McKay and Mr William Hodge. The distillery was known as the Mill of Banff distillery and in 1826 was producing 3230 gallons of spirit.

The 2nd Banff distillery from which my sample comes from was built closer to the village of Inverboyndie and had a more reliable water source from springs on Fiskaidy Farm. Also the recently built Great North Of Scotland Railway built a branch line to Banff which passed the distillery site which made it easy to get raw materials in and whisky out. James Simpson built the new distillery in 1863, but this distillery had a very unfortunate existence involving fire and explosions. The distillery had a major fire that destroyed much of the distillery in May 1877. The distillery was rebuilt by October that year, and a fire engine was then stationed at the distillery. In 1921, a portion of the distillery was sold to Miles End Distillery Company, but by 1932, DCL bought the distillery outright for £50,000 and closed it immediately.


Banff Distillery (unknown photographer)

On the 16th of August 1941, a Luftwaffe Junkers JU88 bomber operating from Sola (now called Stavanger airport) attacked the distillery, suspecting it to be a military target associated with the nearby RAF base at Boyndie, which destroyed warehouse 12. Much stock was lost and spirit flowed into the local streams which resulted in reports of very intoxicated livestock in nearby fields. RAF Banff would be an important target as Mosquito fighter bombers based there were used for the hunting down and destruction of German shipping in the North Sea and along the Norwegian coast. In 1943, 248 Squadron moved into the distillery and remained there until the end of the war.

After the war, the distillery resumed production but its relationship with catastrophe was reignited when in 1959 an explosion happened when a coppersmith was repairing one of the stills. DCL were fined £15 for safety breaches but thankfully nobody was seriously hurt.

But by 1964, the adjacent branch line stopped carrying passengers and by 1968 had also closed completely to freight, making transport costly as at the time the distillery was still coal fired. In 1963, the coal fired stills were converted from being fed by hand to a mechanical feed. In 1970, the distillery stills were converted to oil firing.


Site of Banff Distillery 2011 (Anne Burgess)

One can only guess why DCL selected Banff for closure during the 1980’s whisky glut. Being a small distillery of a single wash still and two spirit stills, possibly needing investment and higher transport costs, the distillery closed its doors in 1983. By the late 1980’s much of the site had been dismantled with only some warehouses being left. It’s kind of appropriate for such an unlucky distillery that the last of the warehouses were destroyed by fire in 1991. Pretty ironic don’t you think? The site is now derelict with limited remains of the former buildings, and is a site begging for development. Sadly this will likely be housing. So we should maybe have a moment of remembrance as we move to take a sample of Banff whisky.

Banff 1974 Connoisseurs Choice

Banff 1974, Gordon & Macphail Connoisseurs Choice

Region – Highland Age – VINTAGE Strength – 40% abv Colour – Burnished (1.1) Cask Type – Not known Colouring – No Chill Filtered – Not Stated Nose – Nutty, malty, green apple, pineapple, runny honey Palate – Medium mouthfeel, apples, honey, hazelnuts, slight woody notes with a fizz on the tongue. Finish – Not as short as I thought it would be. Honey, Ginger, Malt, hint of oak spices. After leaving in the glass for a while, there was a spirit burn on swallowing.

This whisky opened up quite a bit over the evening. It took me three hours to drink and by the end I could say that with the burn that developed, it was hard to believe that this sample had been so evaporated.

Macduff Distillery

Macduff distillery was one of a few of ‘new’ distilleries that appeared in the early 1960’s, slightly after Tormore and Glen Keith and just before the mini boom in the mid 60’s. Unlike its closest rival, it has never suffered any similar catastrophes.

Founded by brokers that included Brodie Hepburn who also had involvement with Deanston and Tullibardine, the distillery eventually came into the ownership of William Lawson, which is the whisky making arm of Martini & Rossi. The distillery eventually expanded to have 5 stills by 1990 and two years later, Martini merged with Bacardi. This resulted in the distillery becoming part of the Dewars stable in 1995.

Traditionally, the original bottlings from the Macduff distillery have been labelled as Glen Deveron or Deveron. Independently bottled spirit is normally named Macduff. The output from this distillery is normally unpeated, with a large majority of it destined either for blending or to export. It’s apparently quite popular in Italy.

Glen Deveron 12

Glen Deveron 12 1980’s distillation

I took the opportunity to put the remains of the sample into the fridge to see if there was any Scotch Mist that would appear. None did, so chill filtering is effectively confirmed.

Region – Highland Age – 12 y.o Strength – 40% abv Colour – Amber (0.7) Cask Type – Not stated, likely Bourbon Colouring – Not Stated, probably Chill Filtered – Yes Nose – Nutty, almond like marzipan, custard, pear, salty air Palate – cream crackers, apricot, unsalted potato crisps, stewed fruit, brine. Really watery mouth feel. Finish – Short and disappointing. Brine, bitter. Stewed fruit with wood spices. Slight burn.

I have no idea of the age of this bottle but it’s contents are not that attention grabbing. I’d go as far as say this whisky tastes flat.

Conclusions

This was never a taste comparison. Both were whiskies from distilleries of different eras and was a good way of killing two samples in one review. It was also a good opportunity to tell a wee story of the area both distilleries originate from. Great tales are often told while nursing a dram and I hope that I be have done these stories justice.

I doubt I’ll ever own a full sized bottle of Banff whisky. It may happen if I see one at the right price but as the years go on, the remaining spirit will be diminishing as bottles get drunk. I would be amazed if there are many more complete casks in existence so this will be more and more a unicorn whisky. It made no sense to keep my sample in its bottle only to evaporate to nothing, so the best thing to do was drink it. A dram has finally made its destiny and whisky history has been drunk. And the world’s stock of Banff has decreased by 40ml or so. Another true moment of whisky history consumed.

When it comes to the Deveron I have to say that I got a shock at how flat the dram was. Of course the purpose of the distillery is mainly to provide malt whisky for blends but the dram had no strong character. It was almost as though I’d drunk an alcohol free whisky. Despite the bottle being properly sealed and no sign of evaporation with a good fill level, there was just something missing. I suppose you can’t like everything.

Without a doubt the evaporated Banff which was originally bottled at 40% also was the far superior dram.

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

Doune Church – Stanley Howe – (Creative Commons Licence CC-BY SA 2.0)

Doune Church, Macduff – Xavier Laffitte (Creative Commons Licence CC-BY SA 2.0)

Banff Distillery– unknown photographer/ public domain

Banff Distillery Site – Anne Burgess (Creative Commons Licence CC-BY SA 2.0)

All other photos – Authors Own

ALL PHOTOS ARE SUBJECT TO COPYWRITE AND SHOULD NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION

The Luck Of The Draw?

Is gambling for whisky worthwhile?

Probably Not.

We all know the reputation of Scotsmen supposedly being tight with their money. Apparently us Aberdonians are supposedly able to take this to a much higher level. Because if I have to tell people my favourite word in the English language, it has to be the word “free”. “Gratis” will also do, but that’s an extra two letters and I’d want to be economical with those as well. Yeah, getting something for nothing, it really is attractive to us Doric speakers.


Looking down Aberdeen’s Union Street.

Aberdonians and those from the North East of Scotland really appreciate economy, probably best illustrated by the apocryphal story of a farmer from the Peterhead area wanting to place the death notice for a recently deceased family member. He learns of a special offer in the Press & Journal, the daily provincial newspaper of NE Scotland, where the first 7 words of the death notice are free. He phones the classified ads dept, and tells the lassie at the other end of the phone of his intended notice.

He wanted it to say “Sandy Reid, Peterheid, deid.”

The lady at the end of phone is puzzled by the brevity of the notice and asks if he wants to say anything else as he hasn’t even used all of his 7 free words.

After much thought he says “Aye lassie. Make it say – Sandy Reid, Peterheid, deid. Tractor for sale.”


So it goes to say if we can’t get something for nothing, we’ll definitely be looking for a bargain. While I am not able to confirm if my second favourite words are ‘sale’ or ‘discount’, you’ll get the gist. And to be fair, it’s not just the likes of me who prefers to get something for a lot less than the RRP. It’s often human nature to be interested in obtaining things without needing much effort and if you could get something hard to source, rare or expensive it becomes even more alluring, but how would you feel if your quest for easy winnings isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be.

For those who collect whisky or are interested in obtaining bottles that aren’t available in the retail market or are beyond their normal price range, there are growing numbers of opportunities to get those relatively unobtainable bottles. But these come with a catch.

I’m getting bombarded with advertising on social media for whisky raffles. Well, they aren’t raffles as raffling a prize for a non-charity profit is illegal in the UK, so they are termed as a competition. To make it legal to perform a draw, you are required to answer a skills based question prior to buying a ticket, which according to the law is supposed to be able to prevent the majority of people who attempt the question being able to enter. I’ve yet to see a question that is difficult at all, and some of them have the answer on the bottle right beside the question! A case in point was I asked a friend who had no specialist knowledge of whisky to answer some of the questions on a couple of sites and he scored 10/10. So essentially most of these sites are still running raffles.


No need for tickets for on line prize draws

To me, these competitions are possibly fun, but in my opinion they are a rip off and cause damage to the whisky community at large. Here is my reasoning.

1. The chances of winning the bottles is quite low. Ticket prices are often not that expensive but if you buy ten, then even if there are only 500 tickets for sale, your chances of winning are still quite dismal relatively speaking. That is simple statistical fact, also driven by the opinion I have that if I shell out some of my hard earned cash then I’ll be wanting a return.

2. It is my opinion that some of the people running these competitions source the rarer whiskies from auctions. This is based on some of the whiskies involved. They don’t worry about overpaying as all they have to do is adjust the price of the ticket so enough profit is generated. One example was of a site raffling a Hibiki 17. To be honest, I have no real knowledge of how they came to source this prize, but there aren’t a lot on the open market. This was a popular and now discontinued blend though and it is still sought after. Average auction prices were at the time £550. Retail price was around the same or slightly lower in some cases. The gross takings should all the tickets be sold was over £1100. See what I mean about a rip off?

A limited Glenfarclas. Ripe for exploitation

3. Another issue about sourcing these whiskies at auction is that if they continually overpay to get the desirable bottles, this could contribute to the increasing price distortion prevalent in sectors of the secondary market. What it actually does is put more whiskies out of reach of the dedicated whisky drinking enthusiast. They are little better than flippers.

One such site says that they were fed up of losing out on inaugural releases and wanted to improve peoples chances of accessing rare or desirable whiskies. This cannot be further from the truth. Let’s return to that Hibiki – at the time of the auction concerned, there was a Hibiki 17 available at retail for £440. All you had to do was walk into the Speyside Whisky Shop or go on their website and hey presto! A prestige whisky could have been yours.

Now, just think how many tickets you could have bought before you win a bottle which will probably be worth a lot less than you have ‘invested’ in these prize draw sites. I personally have to think as a comparison about how many times I’ve played the UK National Lottery scratch cards then inwardly sob when I realise how many bottles of Macallan 18 year old I could have bought with that money compared to the couple of bottles of Famous Grouse I would be able to buy with the winnings I’ve had so far. If I start reviewing 1926 Macallan, then you know I’ve eventually hit the jackpot.


Might be true, but what are the chances and the real cost?

In conclusion, easy access questions and making it appear you have a chance may make it more tempting to enter, and why not? If a little flutter is your thing, it may not concern you. In my mind however, the low odds, the fact that many sites are potentially helping to distort the secondary market further, plus putting limited releases increasingly out of the hands of those genuine enthusiasts have made me think they aren’t good for the whisky community as a whole and are best avoided.


No potential raffle prizes at Scotty’s Drams HQ. Just getting them ready for storage down south. Octomore, Ardnamurchan, Macallan, Glenmorangie and Waterford all been seen on various prize draws. You’re better off buying them financially rather than supporting the Whisky Industry Bottom Feeders.

The thrill of gambling and the potential to win big for relative little outlay is understandable but you’ll likely spend a lot more than any return, which means you will not be able to buy as much whisky.

That can’t be a good thing, can it?

Scotty

Index of articles here

Index of tastings here

Get Yourself ‘Barred’

The benefits of visiting a whisky bar

Finally. God pats me on the head and says “Good boy Scotty”. After weeks at sea and a virtual disappearance from the world of whisky, I finally land on my feet. Due to the mis-match of COVID quarantine rules for seafarers between Scotland and England, I find myself in London for 10 days while I wait out the time limit before I can return to the land of my birth.

Seeing as it has been some time since I’ve drunk any whisky, I was straight down to the hotel bar to observe the spirit offerings. Pretty poor for a whisky enthusiast, but as a bit of a peathead, it could have been a lot worse. Talisker, Ardbeg, Laphroaig 10, Lagavuilin 16, Dewars 12, Glenfiddich 12, Blue Label Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal 12 and a dribble of Macallan 18. Pretty uninspiring, so I knew I’d have to look further afield.

A whisky SOS was put out on Twitter and while I got a couple of replies and DM’s, the only meeting that came to pass was with Claire Vokins, a fellow member of the whisky twitterati and occasional blogger (www.woodforwhisky.com). It was agreed to meet at Milroys of Soho, a whisky shop / bar in Greek Street, just in time before I nipped back up the road to Scotland.


Milroys Of Soho (timeout.com)

It was good to meet Claire, and we soon got into the whisky based topics that I knew we would. But it was hard to keep my eyes off the shelves behind the bar, wondering what whisky to start with after a warm-up beer. I’m cursing the fact that I didn’t take photos now, so you’ll have to make do with some I pinched from the web. Being in a whisky bar isn’t a new experience for me and I hadn’t planned to blog about it.

The set up of the bar is quite simple. World whiskies at the far end, moving to Islay at the opposite end. The cheaper drams are at the front with the more expensive ones to the rear. Much more expensive are the top shelf whiskies.


The Bar (drinkmemag.com)

My last article touched on the concept of buying whisky that you may not drink. I’ve been collecting whisky since 2006 and I have to be honest there are some bottles in my collection I’ll never open. Partly as I did buy them with investment in mind, some because their value has risen beyond a point I’d feel comfortable opening, and some because I’ve discovered that I just like the look of the bottle but have no real desire to taste the dram over others that I want to drink more. This leads to the issue that I have bottles I will never know what they taste like.

If you are a newcomer to whisky, it is tempting to try as much as you can. While this is a laudable ideal, it can get very expensive when buying multiple bottles. It gets even more damning when you discover you don’t like the liquid within. This is why a whisky bar is an ideal solution for the enthusiast, collector and novice alike.

  • You get a bigger range to try from.
  • You aren’t committed to buying a whole bottle that you may not ever like.
  • Staff can give advice based on your taste preferences – this is a crucial difference between a whisky bar and a normal bar.
  • For the collector it can give the opportunity to try a dram in their collection without the need to open it.

The second dram. A secret Cragganmore.

These are the four positives, although there are caveats which some of my drinking companions last night found themselves falling foul of. Let me introduce you to Matt, Oliver and Harry. Oliver was a wine drinker and didn’t like whisky, so his two mates were trying to persuade him otherwise. Harry was an inquisitive newcomer to whisky and Matt – I’m not really sure where he was on a whisky journey and seemed a little squiffy, but all three were a good laugh in the end.

Matt had heard me and Claire talking about our drams, and started asking questions, so we started giving guidance. After Claire had left I continued to talk with them. Harry became more inquisitive and asked very pertinent questions over barrel types and how to taste whisky. By this point I was on a Linkwood 19 Darkness, a whisky that has been finished for three months in a PX Octave. This was a heavenly whisky, which gave me strong chocolate and coffee notes and was easily my whisky of the night, despite some pretty good contenders to choose from. However, Matt ignored my suggestion not to buy a round of Darkness for his mates and soon found out it was £21 a dram. Didn’t seem too happy about it but that was a rookie error. However he did enjoy it so all was good in the end.


Linkwood Darkness. Coffee and chocolate in abundance

This is where you have to be careful in a whisky bar. Without wanting to seem snobbish, there is no point going instantly for the expensive drams as a novice. You’ll maybe know that the whisky is good and you like it, but you’ll have few points of reference to know why it is good and how it ranks compared to other whiskies. For instance, I knew the Linkwood Darkness was good once I tasted it, but I can get almost as good an experience from drams that were a lot cheaper. We all know you can get decent drams under £40 a bottle, but knowledge takes time to acquire and requires you have many experiences to build up that mental data bank.

Once you are a more experienced hand and you know what you like, it becomes easier to discern what styles you like tasting and knowing what you would like to taste next. This is why a well stocked whisky bar is a cornucopia of delights for whisky geeks like me – the proverbial kid in a candy shop.

One thing to point out that in a bar like Milroys where you run a tab and pay before you leave, you have to keep an eye on the spending if you have little experience. For me, I never once asked the price of any drams I bought; I picked the drams I wanted to taste based on what I knew about the distilleries and being allowed to smell the bottle contents before I came to a decision. Specialist whisky bars often give tiny samples to allow you to try before you buy, which is another bonus. I had no idea of what I spent, and apart from the Linkwood I had no idea of what each dram cost until I got my bill. 5 drams and a beer came to £76. Bargain, especially considering the quality whisky I felt I had consumed as well as the company and ambience I had over the course of the evening.


Can you ever have a bad Glentauchers? Despite its young age, this one was fantastic with a strong natural runny honey note fresh from the hive

Another good point for the inexperienced whisky bar novice is to plan your drams. Try and stick to lower abv drinks to start with. Also, if you are planning to drink a heavily peated whisky, then try to have that towards the end of your night, or have a suitable palate cleanser to hand. The higher abv’s will possibly desensitise your taste buds and impair your enjoyment of something more delicate afterwards. Plus you are at a danger of getting intoxicated quicker. Consider a high abv whisky as a finisher whisky before you head home.

My final tip for whisky bar newbies is to be cautious in picking a dram that only has one or two drams left in it. Whisky bars will not gas their bottles to arrest oxidation and evaporation. The plus side is that stock in a specialist whisky bar will not be sitting long, so the effect should be minimal. However if buying a more expensive dram and it has a small amount in it, consider asking how long since that bottle has been opened. Under 6 months and everything should be good. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Some whisky shelves have lighting facing the bottles that generate heat and will have an effect on the rate of oxidation and evaporation. Having said that, I’ve had bottles open 5 years and they tasted fine, but I’d bet they aren’t at the stated abv on the bottle. Being cautious can ensure you are actually getting what you paid for.

The bottle of Macallan 18 in the hotel that I mentioned earlier got finished during my stay in London. I bet the consumer didn’t get as good an experience as they would have had from the first pour. Let the lesson sink in as that would not have been a cheap dram.

For the record, the whiskies I tried were (in order):

  1. Fable Whisky Benrinnes 12 y.o / Chapter 4 (57.5% abv)
  2. Gordon & Macphails Single Malt Whisky – Speyside 21 y.o (40% abv). Turns out it was a Cragganmore.
  3. Whisky Barron Glentauchers 6 y.o (62.5% abv)
  4. Darkness Linkwood 19 (48.5% abv)
  5. Bruichladdich Port Charlotte OLC 1 (55.1% abv)

If you are wondering if I took notes on any of the whisky, then the answer is no. Whisky is meant to be enjoyed, not constantly analysed. I get much from more tasting in good company. Indeed, once Claire, Harry, Matt and Oliver had all left, I fell into conversation with Jason, one of the bar tenders at Milroys who was enjoying a day off drink. If you think that all we spoke about was whisky you’d be mistaken. It turns out we have a shared enjoyment of photography. Another geek moment.

There’s more to whisky than a simple alcoholic drink… if you haven’t experienced a specialist whisky bar, then you need to.


Thanks to everybody mentioned in this article. I had a great night and look forward to be able to return. Also thanks to the two on duty bar tenders who I didn’t catch the names of – one was on her first day I believe. Your service was exemplary.

Matt, thank you for your generosity of offering to buy me a drink. I only refused because I could have really taken the piss accidentally as I wasn’t asking the price of drams and didn’t want to take advantage. Maybe next time buddy.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

All Photos – Authors Own unless otherwise credited.

A hidden Islay.

Taste Review #113 – Finlaggan Old Reserve

Hiding in plain sight. Thats often what I think when I essentially ransack my study or bedroom looking for something that is sitting innocently on a shelf in full view when I am doing my mental calculations as to where I last saw it. Before I left for my last offshore trip I couldn’t find my head torch. I always have a dirty one for work, yet also carry a clean one if I am going to be staying in a hotel or have one in my cabin. Should there be a fire, you never know when you will need help. After wasting a day and a half looking for it and realising that I could have left it in a hotel in Borneo, I was only able to start to end the mental anguish by ordering a new one. And 6 hours after ordering, I found the old one tangled up in the lanyards of my memory sticks. I shook my head, as I tipped that bag out twice. It’s never easy being me sometimes.

The dram that I am going to review just now is the similar, although I haven’t had to waste a whole day looking for it. Sitting on the shelves of whisky retailers and even sitting on the shelves of my local Tesco Extra from time to time, Finlaggan was another of those whiskies I kept clear of because I did not know what distillery it was from and I’ve plenty of other drams to keep going on with. I remember seeing it on the shelves of the Whisky Shop Duffown, plus in their 5cl range, but I decided against it. “I’ll stick to what I know of” I kept saying to myself.

It was a trip into Inverness to a kilt makers of all places that also had a range of tourist souvenirs that prompted me to look in by. It was actually a recommendation of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill across the road, which incidentally also have a good range of miniatures. I know what I said about going into the touristy places in my Loch Lomond review, but it was in the EWM that I found a 16 year old Glentauchers G&M miniature for £7. You just need to be careful but bargains can be had.

Finlaggan is an anonymous Islay Single Malt which is released by the Vintage Malt Whisky Company, formed by Brian Crook in 1992. Brian was a former director from Morrison Bowmore Distillers. Finlaggan was one of its launch brands, which were updated in 2014. Currently the core range is Finlaggan Old Reserve at 40%, Eilean Mor at 46% and a cask strength one at 58%.


Finlaggan Castle and Chapel

As the whisky distillery is anonymous, the brand is named after Finlaggan Castle, which sits on an island in Loch Finlaggan, Islay. There isn’t really a lot to write about it, so I’ll just proceed with the tasting.

Finlaggan Old Reserve

Finlaggan Old Reserve

Region -Islay Age – NAS Strength -40% ABV Colour – Old Gold (0.6) Cask Type – Not known Colouring – Yes Chill Filtered – Yes Nose – Peat, hard cheddar, iodine, toasted wholemeal bread, citrus. Palate – Light mouthfeel, brine, lemon, peat, nutmeg. Finish – medium short. Peat, brine, sweet. Strong wood spices going down the throat, but a small splash of water brings it into control. Drying in the end


The Dram

Conclusions

I don’t like judging things on first tastes, but my first taste of this to be honest was not positive. Not too bad a nose, a calm palate with spice building and the insanity breaks out once swallowed. Hot spices and a weak peat, the sweetness turning to dryness. It became more balanced with a splash of water.

I like peaty whisky, so it’s not that I don’t like peat. In my opinion this is a young Caol Ila. I’ll base that thought on that it is the closest distillery to Loch Finlaggan and it is probably the distillery most likely to have the capacity to keep up with demand for the independent sales. It doesn’t taste anywhere near as nice as other Caol Ila’s I’ve had and that’s being kind. I hate to admit this, but I couldn’t finish it and sadly had to dispose of it down the sink. You can’t like everything unfortunately.

It may be cheap, but I’ll be leaving this one on the shelf though in my opinion it’s best left in a dungeon, never to escape. I’ll be continuing to hunt for something more tasty. However if I see a mini of one of the other drams, I’d love to try for a second go, but this dram was definitely not for me.

*** There will be a following article about this review in the very near future. Be sure to catch it ***

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

Finlaggan Castle – Heikki Immonen (CC BY-SA 3.0)

All Other Photos – Authors Own

Taking The High Road?

Taste Review #111 – Loch Lomond 18

This review was originally posted on 1st June 2021. Unfortunately for me, it turns out some of my sources of information were incorrect. After contact from Loch Lomond’s Master Blender, Michael Henry, I decided that to preserve the integrity of my blog and not spread further misinformation that it was better to remove the review and produce a re-write. And to be honest, I think it’s a better read.

It was often relayed to me by my parents that nothing in life comes easy. However, in this case they were most certainly wrong. This has been one of the easiest review titles that I have ever created. Since I have decided to review this whisky, every time I think of it the song ‘Loch Lomond’ has come into my head. As a Scotsman of a certain era, it is a right of passage to sing the Runrig version at the end of a wedding or just at some point in the proceedings. Some clubs I’ve been in also play it at the end of the night. We can’t forget either the twee Scottish soap opera that was filmed in Luss, on the shores of Loch Lomond. Lunchtimes were usually the time to see Take The High Road, which later moved to an evening slot.

The programme was drama based, and as in every drama, there is usually some sort of mystery. Often there is a character that isn’t who they seem. This is the case with Loch Lomond distillery. The first part of the mystery is that Loch Lomond is the preferred whisky of Captain Haddock, the best friend of Tin Tin, an investigative reporter created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé. Often these characters get into adventures trying to solve various mysteries. Tin Tin was created around 1929, which pre-dates Loch Lomond distillery by some 35 years. This brings us on to our mystery now – Loch Lomond Distillery was founded in 1964. So why do the bottles carry the year 1814?


A Tv advert from a Tin Tin comic

This is a mystery that we may need Tin Tin to solve, as when I looked up Loch Lomond on the internet and in various publications, it seems that there was a variety of information out there and not all of it correct, which contributed to me getting a bit waylaid in my search for facts. What was worrying was that some of the sources were normally creditable and supported by well known people in the whisky industry. It is time for the truth to be told about Loch Lomond distillery.

To kick off my investigations, when you look at any full-sized bottle of Loch Lomond whisky – it gives the year of 1814. Why is this the case when the distillery was opened in 1965? Well, it turns out the initial Loch Lomond distillery was opened in 1814, further up Loch Lomond in the village of Tarbert. There are no records to when the distillery closed, so the link is only the name. However, it was the owners of Littlemill Distillery who opened the Loch Lomond distillery and that whisky heritage goes back to 1772 with the founding of Littlemill. The owner of Littlemill, Duncan Thomas and an American company called Barton Brands formed a partnership to build Loch Lomond in 1964. By 1984 the distillery was closed before it was eventually being taken over by Alexander Bulloch / Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouses. In 2014 it was taken over by Loch Lomond Group, In 2019, the Loch Lomond Group was sold to Hillhouse Capital.

Loch Lomond is a shapeshifter of a distillery, with three different types of stills, making it possible to distill both grain and malt whiskies. This has led to a lot of confusion, as many websites claim that the distillery has Lomond stills. This is not true. Master Blender Michael Henry explains “Lomond Stills were never used at Loch Lomond. They were only ever used at Hiram & Walker distlleries.” The first Lomond still was developed at Innerleven distillery. As the distillery was close to Loch Lomond, they took on the loch’s name. The development of this style of still was some 9 years before the creation of the Loch Lomond distillery in Alexandria. Lomond stills were only ever used in Inverleven, Glenburgie, Miltonduff and Scapa. Only one is currently in use as a wash still at Scapa, with one more being used at Bruichladdich to create the Botanist Gin.


Loch Lomond Straight Neck Stills

The straight necked stills were first used at Littlemill in the 1950s by Duncan Thomas, so were also used in Loch Lomond. There are some significant differences between the straight neck still and the Lomond still; size being the most obvious one. A Lomond still is short and fat, whereas the straight neck stills are taller and thinner. The next important difference is that the rectifier plates inside a Lomond still are moveable, to control the reflux within the still, which will make big differences in the spirit. The plates inside the straight necked stills are fixed.

There are definite advantages to using a straight neck still with the rectifier plates and still head cooling. A straight neck still is more efficient and can produce whisky up to 90% when using the still head cooling. Taking a cut between 90% and 80% which will give a strength at 85% at the spirit receiver. If still head cooling is not on, then a much wider cut is taken from between 90% and 55% giving a spirit at 65% at the receiver. By having the flexibility of the straight necked stills, coupled with clear wort, long fermentations and specific yeast varieties ensure that Loch Lomond are able to capture the fruity nature of the spirit. And that is something that Loch Lomond are aiming for – to capture the fruity essence into their whisky in a definitive distillery character.

The distillery also has continuous stills for producing grain whisky and the more traditional pot stills. In total they have one set of swan necked stills, three sets of straight necked stills and 3 continuous stills, each with 2 columns. The smaller of the sets is used for malted barley wash, and the larger continuous stills are used for wheat wash.

Why so many stills? It was the intention of the previous owners to be able to be self sufficient in whisky when making blends. Loch Lomond has over the years made many brands such as Inchmoan, Inchfad, Croftenga, Inchmurrin, Craiglodge, Old Rhosdhu, Glen Douglas, and Glen Garry. While many of these brands have fallen by the wayside, it has been instrumental in creating perhaps a false impression of the distillery and has made it harder to discuss distillery character. Whisky enthusiasts were confused and most other whisky drinkers didn’t get it at all, asking where the Inchmurrin distillery was.


Swan neck still at Loch Lomond

I asked Michael why he thought it so hard to discuss distillery character, with Loch Lomond in mind. I got quite a comprehensive answer. “While single malt has been establishing itself against blends, distillers have mostly talked about wood and flavour, as it is easier to explain why a whisky takes on a sherry character if it has been matured in a sherry cask. It is a lot harder to discuss why a whisky has a fruitier character because a different yeast was used for a longer fermentation time with a different shape of pot still.” And I have to agree. As a whisky geek who has a limited understanding of chemistry, I am starting to study more about fermentation and the chemical processes that convert sugary water into whisky. None of it is dinner table style conversation, but it is much easier to skim over the whisky tastes by discussing casks. There is definitely a romantic story that can be built on that rather than discussing esters, phenols, yeasts and how long the fermentation takes.

It’s not to say that wood does not play a part in the formation of Loch Lomond whiskies. Michael told me that Loch Lomond buy 10,000 bourbon casks a year, all of which see the attention of their on site cooperage for inspection, repair and re-charr / de-charr of casks. The distillery has a 2 or three fill policy per char. A cask may see two de-charr / re-charr before that cask is scrapped. Their American wood policy is important to them, to give them a honey / caramel sweetness to compliment the fruity new make.

One other thing that Loch Lomond have started to do is experiment with yeast strains. I could write more about it here, but the Malt Review site had their own interview with Michael in which he goes into much more detail about this subject, and to save space and any plagiarism, you can link to the article here.

With all this information being shared, I asked Michael why he thought that there was so much misinformation about the distillery. The answer was pretty conclusive, and that was that the previous owners simply did not engage with the public. Essentially they had a high volume / low margin production policy. Nearly all their stock went into bulk blends, and there was no marketing as there was no brand to market. With little engagement and no background to any releases, people have made their best guesses. This easily perpetuates and I found quite a few reputable sites and vLogs with incorrect information.

There are no visitor facilities at Loch Lomond distillery, which makes it harder for the distillery to get its message out. The majority of the spirit produced at Loch Lomond is matured on site, which can amount to 300,000 casks. This makes it quite a hazardous site in terms of fire and explosion control, which is subject to tight regulation. In my interpretation of the distillery, it was never set up to be a site for visitors, and is essentially an industrial site. To take groups of people around would necessitate stopping operations, which is less than ideal. “This can create some suspicion as people think we have something to hide, when it is down to safety reasons that we have not been able to work out to an acceptable level,” says Michael.


Charring a Bourbon Cask. These are used for honey and caramel influences

As we come to the end of my investigations into Loch Lomond distillery, I feel that all my doubts about the distillery have been cleared up. There is a lot of work to do for Michael, who has said that the main role of his presence on Twitter is to engage with people so he can end the confusion over the various aspects of the Loch Lomond Distillery caused in part by the legacy of the former owners.

The range has been trimmed, which will make it easier for those drinking Loch Lomond to see the distillery character. The latest offerings has seen the Islands Collection brought into the Loch Lomond range. Inchmoan being the peaty offering of the two and using spirit from the straight neck still as well as the swan neck stills. The Inchmurrin is more lighter and floral, using spirit only from the straight neck stills.

The current range is:-

  • Core Range All 46% Non-chill filtered, colouring; Loch Lomond 12, Loch Lomond Inchmurrin 12, Loch Lomond Inchmoan 12, Loch Lomond 14, Loch Lomond 18, Loch Lomond 21, Loch Lomond 30. All
  • Supermarket range 40% Chill Filtered, Colouring; – Loch Lomond Classic NAS, Loch Lomond Original NAS, Loch Lomond 10.
  • Single Grain. 46% Non-chill filtered, natural colour; Unpeated NAS, Peated NAS. Both single grains are 100% malted barley.

I’ve not tasted Loch Lomond before, because I was one of those confused by the distillery and I never really gave it a chance. But when I was browsing through the miniatures of the Aviemore Gift Company, I saw the 18 year old sitting there, and I could hear the voices in my head telling me to take it off the shelf and buy it. I only wished I had a bit of situational awareness, as here I was in a gift shop in a tourist area away to buy whisky. £10.55 for a 5cl bottle… I really should have known better. Don’t worry, by telling this story and making this error means you don’t have to. But it’s an 18 year old from a distillery that plenty of people rate despite misconceptions, so it can’t all be bad, can it?

Let us find out.


Loch Lomond 18

Loch Lomond 18

Region – Highland Age – 18 years old Strength – 46% ABV Colour – Russet (1.3) Cask Type – American Oak – Bourbon Colouring – Yes Chill Filtered – No Nose – Strawberry Jam, Apple jolly ranchers, marzipan / almond, raisin, peat, hard toffee. Palate -Rich, like that hard toffee I am thinking of in the nose, very gentle on the palate, no real burn, light wood spices, slight apple, date sponge, hint of chocolate and smoke. Finish – medium. Woody spices really take off when drunk neat. ginger, white pepper, nutmeg, a woody metallic taste, Granny Smith apple bitterness, finished off with blackcurrant at the end. Leaves a slight sourness in the mouth and a very slight hint of sulphur.

With water, the spices in the palate wake up for an instant white pepper delivery, but the overall spice heat is tempered and brought into more balance in the finish. I found it much more drinkable.


The dram

Conclusions

When Michael first contacted me, his initial message said that he felt that my misconceptions about the brand had probably affected my ability to connect with the whisky. Now I have been able to understand more about the whisky, I have to agree with him. There will always be tendency to veer off to the negative when there is something you aren’t sure of. Being an Aberdonian, negativity is something that can perhaps too easy to attain. However, I still feel that this hasn’t affected my actual tasting notes, as if the truth be known, I was wanting to be proved wrong about some of the naysayers about this distillery. And having paid as much as I have for the sample, I was wanting value for money. Thats also a very Aberdonian trait.

The nose was appealing, and the finish had its good points, but it just didn’t totally float my boat. The palate was rich, but I felt it lacked something, almost a calm before a storm. The finish while taken neat was way out of balance for me. A sudden hit from the wood spices and a metallic presence made me think I had sucked a piece of oak with a nail buried in it. If I was to look into why this was the case, I can perhaps only explain it away by suggesting there may have been some interplay between the cap and the spirit? Will make sure I go for a corked bottle next time.

I have only altered my tasting notes slightly in response to the contact with Michael; not to change my opinion, but to alter facts. The distillery uses only ex bourbon casks in the core range, so I have had to remove the part about a possible sherry influence. Also, Michael explained that while the 18 year old is non chill filtered, they do add colouring due to the lighter colour produced by the bourbon casks. I know some people get bent out of shape about this, but I’m not going to. While I prefer a natural presentation, I’m not worried about a bit of colour, as it is flavour that matters. As long as I can’t taste the colouring, its good. I’m learning to not drink whisky with my eyes. Besides, most of the core range is under £40, the 18 year old is under £80, so it is not as though I am paying premium prices for a non-natural presentation. I would say this represents good value.


Captain Haddock didn’t realise he’d been given a sample straight from the receiver. A bit powerful at 85%!

With water, this whisky was perfectly competent, and the spices reined in. As you can see, I did experience some fruity notes from the whisky – predominately apple ones for me. It’s been some time since I’ve had an apple Jolly Rancher! While I did not take to this release this time, now I know more I’d be happy to try another whisky from their range. From the descriptions, the Inchmurrin is likely to be the candidate, but that will be some time in the future. I think that taking the time to investigate Loch Lomond whiskies by yourself could be very worth while.

**

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Michael for the help he has given to ensure an accurate article has been written. In disclosure, no incentive or samples have been given or expected and the content solely reflects a partial but accurate overview of what is being achieved at Loch Lomond, as well as an honest whisky review.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Scotty’s Drams encourages responsible drinking. To find out the facts about drink, and where to find help if you need it visit Drinkaware.co.uk by clicking on the link.

Photo Credits

Tin Tin Cartoons – Tintin Whisky Fandom

Whisky Photos – Authors Own

Distillery Photos – Loch Lomond Distillery

Hello Tam.

Taste Review #112 – Tamdhu 15

Times are hard, and I have to economise. After the potentially financially crippling Old vs New Series, the cost of which will be revealed in another article, I can no longer afford a decent article title. So this is it. If your name is Tam or Thomas, I’m not specifically saying hello to you, although you are welcome to join me, but just shortening the name of our next dram – Tamdhu.

Tamdhu sits in the parish of Knockando, not too far away from the Knockando distillery, and right beside the railway station for the parish. The Speyside line was instrumental in the genesis of many Speyside distilleries, such as Dailuaine, Imperial, Knockando, Tamdhu, Cragganmore and Balmenach, not to mention other distilleries within easy reach. Dr Beeching did the area a disservice by cutting this and the Boat Of Garten to Forres line, as it means I have to sit behind so many lorries on the A95 carrying casks, malt, yeast and waste products.

The original Knockando station was known as Dalbeallie, named after a farm in the area, was built after the distillery was constructed in 1899, long after the 1863 opening of the line. This name has enjoyed a resurgence as a special edition in commemoration of the railway in the Tamdhu story. The name changed to Knockando in May 1905, to avoid confusion with Dalbeattie Railway Station in Dumfries And Galloway. A similar problem existed further south in Strathspey when Abernethy Railway Station was renamed Nethybridge. Imagine landing up in the Highlands when you expected to be in north Fife!

The Knockando station goods yard was where the distillery used to take in its sherry casks. I’ve heard unconfirmed stories that they used to be unloaded in ships in Lossiemouth harbour, then taken on the railway to Elgin, then down to Knockando via Craigellachie railway station. Sadly the station closed in October 1965. The station and it’s signal box have survived, thanks to the distillery renovating them, and it is hoped that they will form the basis of a visitors centre in the future. Whisky and railway geeks unite!


Knockando Station – the distillery is off to the left of the photographer. (Julian Paren)

The distillery has been owned for the majority of its life by Highland Distillers, later to become Edrington. They already had a sherry monster distillery in the form of Macallan, and I wonder if that was the reason that little known Tamdhu was chosen to be mothballed. Thankfully it wasn’t mothballed for long with Ian Macleod Distillers purchasing it in 2011, opening it again in 2012. The first release was the 10 year old with a more Victorian look to the bottle, now synonymous with the distillery.

Much is made of its former owners’ dedication to quality, but Tamdhu has just the same passion for their wooden casks. Using imported American Oak or native European Oak from Galicia in North Western Spain, their wood is dried then filled with Oloroso Sherry from the Vasyma Bodega in Jerez. The casks sit for 6 years, slowly absorbing the sherry into the wood fibres, ready to play its part in the maturation of whisky. And it isn’t just the cheap sherry that goes on to be used to make sherry vinegar – this far exceeds the 2 year minimum maturation that cheaper sherries may experience.


Tamdhu 15

The dram I am going to try for this review was released as a 15 year old in 2019 as a limited annual release, with about 24000 bottles being produced. I have had this dram before, but I wasn’t in a place I could take notes to review. That’s a casual way of saying I was in the right physical place (a bar) not in the bodily correct place (on the way to being tipsy.) I do remember enjoying it, so I have purchased a nip so I can sample again to relay my experiences.

Tamdhu 15

Region – Speyside Age – 15 yrs old Strength – 46% ABV Colour – Burnished (1.1) Cask Type – Oloroso Sherry (American + European Oak) Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Classic Sherry aroma, but not too powerful, balanced. Raisins, sherry, red apple peel, mint choc chip ice cream Palate – Raisins, honey, then the wood spices hit with pepper and ginger. A light alcohol tingle, drying, dark chocolate. Finish – medium. chocolate orange, biscuity, slightly bitter but not in an unpleasant way.



Conclusions

Tamdhu is always the sherried whisky I mention first if people are wanting a recommendation of a sherried whisky that isn’t Macallan, followed quickly by Glenfarclas and GlenDronach. I’ve never really had a bad dram from these distilleries, with the exception of an experience I had with a Glenfarclas 15 mini. I really do wonder why Edrington gave up this distillery when they were just on the cusp of a whisky boom. Perhaps they wanted more money to finance the Tellytubby land distillery they’ve made up in Craigellachie. Yes, I know that the building is impressive, but while the Macallan does make good whisky, they aren’t the only ones. Others do to, and they make it cheaper.

With the investment in good casks showing at Tamdhu, I really rate this distillery, even though on the global stage it is still a bit of a sleeper. Definitely one to watch and I cannot wait to see what will be replacing the 15 year old. With GlenDronach possibly edging towards the start of Chill Filtration on the 15 year old, if this does come to pass, I will certainly be looking at changing where I spend my money. If they do turn the old railway station into a visitors centre, I cannot wait to visit the distillery.

Tamdhu can be found in a 10 year old expression, which has been discontinued with the 12 year old replacing it. There are other limited editions as well as regular Batch releases of cask strength spirit.

The 15 year old costs around £82 in specialist whisky shops, and I’d say for that price, the quality you are getting from your dram is well worth it.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Scotty’s Drams encourages responsible drinking. To find out the facts about drink, and where to find help if you need it visit Drinkaware.co.uk by clicking on the link.

Photo Credits

All Other Photos – Authors Own

Tamdhu Station, looking for a role – Julian Paren (CC BY-SA 2.0)