11 April 2014

Regulars will know I do enjoy bidding in auctions for old blends. I've been stockpiling a few of these with the intention of kicking off a new series of historical blend reviews. With whisky becoming ever more expensive and computerised, blends offer true value for money and an appreciation of older styles and palates. To find other entries in the series then search for 'historic blend' on Whisky Rover.

First up is this Haig blended Scotch whisky from John Haig & Co Ltd from Markinch. During these articles I should clarify the state of the bottle itself as you will find these blends in a variety of conditions. This 13.3fl oz (37.8cl) bottle is in excellent shape with only a little damage to the rear label, however it does suffer from a low fill level which is around half of its original level. This could be due to a poor seal (just a metal cap) as you see a similar problem with miniatures on a regular basis. The other possibility is poor storage. Fingers crossed that the contents have survived!
Few blends have a rich and prolonged history to match the Haig name. From humble origins on the family farm it went on to conquer the world of blends before falling under the ownership of DCL and now Diageo, where it still resides. Now a spent force in the major markets, it has slowly faded into the history books although it can be found in some minor markets outwith the UK. A sad graveyard shift for what once was a popular and important brand.  

Colour: burnt caramel

Smell: a very faint nose but what remains is a dash of sweet butterscotch, melted dark chocolate actually transforming into a light After Eight note, ending with cinnamon. Restrained, understated and mysterious. 

Taste: well this is why you have to be wary of low fill levels. Sometimes you can get away with a little reduction but if it is significant (in this case) then it can have dire consequences. A very unpleasant taste now resides in what is left of this Haig bottle and it would be unfair to go any further.    
Thankfully this example only cost a couple of pounds and I'm left with a nice old bottle. Dating blends can be surprisingly difficult as records are poor and you're left to investigate the variables. This includes the label style, seal and numbers on the bottom of the glass bottle. For the UK we can also use the type of measurement as if it is non-metric then you're already looking before the 1970's. If however the bottle features non-metric and metric then you can switch your search towards the late 70's. A bottle with just metric will be 1980 onwards.

Despite using all these variables blends can still be difficult to pin down exactly. While I know that this Haig bottle is from the late 1970's, you'll see many blends at auctions where only a suggested decade is provided. At times you'll have to do your own research or tap into your own knowledge to confirm whether the suggestion is right or wrong.

Update: since writing this last week, Diageo have unveiled their master plan for a new Haig bottling made from 100% grain, complete with celebrity endorsement. It'll be an interesting bottle to check out in due course.

Posted on Friday, April 11, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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05 April 2014

Whisky is becoming increasingly more expensive. While the industry can often quote in the UK as taxes being a major factor that won't be the case with a status quo being revealed in the most recent UK Budget. Brands are repositioning, shifting for attention and seeking those luxury niches that the blue chip distilleries want for their own.

Bargains do exist and regular readers will know that I've been reviewing many of the supermarket blends that are extremely popular with British residents who enjoy a dram but cannot afford a single malt. Recently we're seeing supermarkets offering single malts as special details at almost blend prices. Needless to say these are proving very popular and if something is marked as reduced in Tesco's (for instance), it'll fly off the shelf. There are some cracking deals, not even restricted to staple 10 or 12 year editions, as I picked up a Laphroaig 18 year for £39 recently.

We have debated on the Bladnoch forum how they can actually make any profit at some of these special prices. Perhaps this is a form of bargain-tasting tapping into the lower end of the market in terms of pricing and showing the masses that new taste experiences and bang for your buck can be unleashed for a few quid more. That in turn may transform into buying that brand when it returns to its normal price.
This takes us onto Ardmore owned by Beam Inc. With price being a huge focus many of the more unfashionable distilleries that lack huge marketing budgets or streams of professional bloggers waxing lyrically about each edition, can now compete. I picked up this Highland distillery from the Aldi chain for just under £23 and I've seen it on special elsewhere over the past year.

This Ardmore Traditional is a No Age Statement (NAS) release and I'm always annoyed by the wave of publicity that proclaims NAS is great. When you scratch beneath the surface you'll realise that NAS is far from wonderful and NAS is overpriced in some releases especially those by Diageo (Talisker) and Macallan. Funnily enough those being so positive have strong ties to the industry, as they try to move us away from age statements to a more profitable range of releases. Age is important for some consumers so provide the information and let them make an informed choice.

This Ardmore Traditional release is according to the Malt Whisky yearbook 2014 a vatting of ex-bourbon casks aged between 6-13 years. Once vatted it is put into smaller quarter casks for another year to infuse. I'm always saying distilleries should give us this information on the release itself, instead I get to read about a Scottish golden eagle.
The general blurb on the cardboard packaging tries to reinforce the traditional approach that the distillery takes including 46% and non-chill filtered. Fantastic, then it undermines this by not mentioning the use of caramel to adjust the colour. How do I know then? Well, just below the bar code is the Danish phrase 'farven justeret med karamel' or  translated into English 'the colour adjusted with caramel'. Again, more honesty and information for the consumer please.

So the Ardmore is a Highland peated whisky which wasn't a common sight until recently but more distilleries on the mainland are now experimenting with the use of peat.  This wasn't always the case as most distilleries in bygone times were influenced by peat. Our palates have changed and whiskies have become more sweeter over the decades. Ardmore was mainly used in the Teachers blend until breaking into the single malt market 7 years ago. This Traditional is the core offering and the most prominent release Ardmore offers - lets get into the bottle now.
Distillery: Ardmore
Age: NAS but a vatting of 6-13 year casks, matured for a further year in Quarter casks
Strength: 46% ABV
Additional: Non-chill filtered, the colour has been adjusted using caramel so E150

Colour: could this be caramel?

Smell: peat smoke obviously but not a huge raging storm instead a smouldering residue. Roast beef, puff pastry, walnuts, liquorice, tobacco and caramac. Not a hugely expansive, rich and spellbinding nose. 

Taste: I'm almost tempted to type Pete to avoid the obvious. The taste is more pleasant and peat is the main characteristic and has a refreshing, sweet emphasis laced with honey during its journey on the palate with liquorice again and crushed coffee beans. This is just a really nice dram, not pretentious or flashy and does what it says on the tin. 

I keep mentioning information is key for the customer. While distilleries are quite happy to hide behind the NAS statement, it doesn't do everyone a favour. Here is a decent example of components that on average I'm tempted to bet are older than many other NAS releases that retail for two or three times the asking price. For £23 this is a lovely drop providing real value and a decent tasting experience. The peat smoke is gentle lacking the full frontal assault of some Islay examples and 46% adds to the harmony; I'll take 2 please.

Posted on Saturday, April 05, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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30 March 2014

Now we reach the end of our trio of membership samples from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. These act as an introduction to the society and what their single cask releases can deliver. On the whole, the standard has been impressive and for me most importantly varied. New experiences are very important and our final destination is the oldest at 29 years.

Almost 30 years in age, 59.47 is the 47th cask bottled by the SMWS from the Teaninich distillery. I'm looking forward to this as I've not had much experience with Teaninich and it is rarely seen as a single malt with most of its production going into the Johnnie Walker range. Owned by Diageo and located in Alness, it is very near the Dalmore distillery and does not court publicity like its neighbour. Teaninich is receiving huge investment from Diageo as it looks to expand marking a remarkable comeback after being mothballed in the 80's.

The only official single malt releases of Teaninich that I am aware of are from the much criticised Manager's Choice range from the 90's and the popular Flora & Fauna series. This is where independent bottlers can fill the void and offer new appreciation of unfashionable distilleries. So lets have the info on 59.47.
Distillery: Teaninich
Distilled: 1983
Bottled: 2013 (29 years)
Strength: 49.6% ABV
Additional: single cask, non-chill filtered

Colour: oak

Nose: I left this sitting for a little while and chardonnay was the initial distinctive aroma. A really fresh, zingy appearance and a misleading character as being nearly 50% it doesn't nose like it is such a strong malt. Lemon, sherbet, a slight malt vinegar edge and going off track here Victoria sponge. Yes, a creaminess combined with a sweet jam influence and the baked sponge. Overall readers, this is an intriguing example.  

Taste: The nose was misleading as this does benefit from a touch of water to open up the characteristics. Opening with a blast of yeast, no more toasted bread actually, this leads onto banana, honey, gooseberries and mint. A real melody of flavours and in the background there is a faint touch of smoke which is a surprise.

Remarkably I'm not hugely taken with this Teaninich and it is my least favourite of the SMWS trio. Far from being a mundane whisky, I'm sure this will find a welcome home with many whisky members. I'm just not a huge fan of gooseberries truth be told and the Caol Ila really set the benchmark. For 29 years of age I was expecting something truly special and this unique and enjoyable (for some) fella comes up a little short. 

Posted on Sunday, March 30, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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23 March 2014

Here is the second of my recent Scotch Malt Whisky Society membership package offerings. We're moving up the ages now, specifically to Islay and Caol Ila, with this 22 year old bottling with the code 53.193.

Caol Ila like Mortlach (which is currently making the headlines for all the wrong reasons with Diageo's recent luxury repositioning), is held in high esteem by whisky fans and is an important distillery. The distillery itself isn't much to visit, having been rebuilt but at least you are guaranteed a spectacular view from the still room. The spirit is mostly shipped off to mature elsewhere so Caol Ila is born in Islay but sleeps on the mainland.

I'd take the option of an ugly duckling distillery that produces a great whisky over the reverse and that's what you receive with Caol Ila. There's plenty of it out there as well. Diageo offers a range of releases and if you're struggling to locate one of those, rest assured it is one of the most widely supported distilleries by independent bottlers.
Enough, lets get the bottle details out of the way before the tasting itself:

Distillery: Caol Ila (53)
Age: 22 years
Strength: 49.9%
Additional: single cask, non-chill filtered

Colour: chardonnay

Nose: a huge peat blast waking the senses and letting you know this is Caol Ila. The salty coastal air is apparent, seaweed, brine, mint, damp wood are dominant. Yet a sweetness resides behind this initial skirmish that isn't as devastating as it sounds, I'm thinking melon alcopop of all things and cream from an aerosol can.

Taste: the nose had set the expectations that this was going to a huge peat monster, far from it in fact. The peat is there but at 22 years its an old lad taking a breather in the rocking chair whilst having a smoke doused in pepper. With water some lemon comes through, assisted by a touch of sourness that I can only describe as grapefruit before a prolonged sea salt finish. Unmistakeably Caol Ila.     

Very enjoyable and perfectly drinkable without water. Age has delivered a sense of refinement and sophistication to this Caol Ila. The young feisty peat has mellowed and allowed other characteristics to come through and steal the show.  

Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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21 March 2014

Finally a Glencadam appears on Whisky Rover. This actual sample is from one of the Jolly Topper raffles which translates as a lucky dip. Given some of the samples I've received recently the journeys have been fun but the tastes at times lacking. Here's hoping that this unfashionable distillery delivers.

For many years Glencadam was overlooked and a major contributor to blends, being overlooked as a single malt. Closed in 2000, the new owners reopened the distillery in 2003 and this release will have been distilled and maturated under the previous ownership. Angus Dundee Distillers have set about raising the profile of Glencadam as a single malt with a new line up of age varieties and finishes available today. 
As always the details:

Distillery: Glencadam
Age: 15 years
Strength: 40%
Price: £44
Additional: see below as this entry has been replaced

Colour: weathered hay.

Nose: a very delicate, shy nose. I'm going to let this air slightly with the glass topper off and try again. Diluted orange, toasted oats, a touch of honey, apricots and a whiff of strawberry. A very reserved example, lets move on.

Taste: a very soft whisky that lacks character. Cut grass, a real sense of oak and a little honeycomb.

Glencadam relaunched the 15 year old at 46% in 2009 so this sample is from an outdated release. Originally released in 2005 this 15 year old was the first official single malt example in many years with its production going into blends. I must say on the basis of this 40% bottling I wouldn't buy a full sized bottle, so the 46% current edition can only benefit from the higher strength and character. Now that would be an interesting comparison.

Posted on Friday, March 21, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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18 March 2014

Regulars will know I finally gave in and joined the Scotch Malt Whisky Society recently after years of deliberation. As part of your initial membership you receive a package containing that includes amongst other things a trio of whiskies. Now we're going to tackle each of these in order of age, over the next 3 weeks, starting with a 10 year old.

I suppose given this is my first taste review from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), I should first explain their distinctive numbering system. Independent bottlers generally want to proclaim the distillery on their label often overstepping the unwritten rule that the distillery name should not be more prominent than the bottling company. Cadenhead's have a nice symmetry that is fair to both sides, as we don't want anyone thinking they are buying an official bottling. Some bottlers place greater emphasis on the distillery and in this age of fashionable whisky you can appreciate such a simple marketing trick is very effective.
The SMWS utilises a numbering system with each distillery given a specific number. So 35.97 tells us that this is distillery 35 is from Glen Moray. The 97 means that this is the 97th cask they have bottled from the distillery itself. For a full list of the distilleries then please click here. I quite like this method as it focuses your attention on the colour of the whisky and the decorative description that adorns each bottle rather than it being an Ardbeg or a more unknown distillery.

The SMWS have a tasting panel that comes up with these lavish descriptions. I'm going to try and avoid reading these in detail and will only return to the official notes after I've done the piece, which should prove an interesting comparison. Environment and the glass plays a huge part in the characteristics of any whisky. The SMWS releases are cask strength so water also comes into the equation.

Distillery: Glen Moray (35)
Distilled: 2003
Bottled: 2013
Strength: 58.7%
Additional: Non-chill filtered
Colour: a rich amber

Nose: malt vinegar, cinnamon, boozy raisins, marzipan all of which don't come as a surprise given the strong suggestive colour of this dram. Then what does startle is a faint creamy note along with an after eight mint flourish. 

Taste: this isn't a shy dram; macerated oranges are first up, a real taste of leather followed by only what I can describe as Lucozade from my youth. There is a real youthful vitality to 35.97. that will only improve with age. In its current form this is a full on force that lacks complexity on the palate. Still very enjoyable and a wake up call for anyone opening up the membership pack.

Posted on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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16 March 2014

A glorious spring day prompted an overdue visit to the north east of Fife and Eden Brewery St Andrews. I’ve written about this local artisan company last year after stumbling across their own unique brand of beer at Stockbridge market in Edinburgh. Since then they’ve gone from strength to strength, winning awards and making inroads with local stockists, hotels and pubs.
Yes, normally beer isn’t my thing and I had outgrown it decades ago, tired of the typical tasteless over inflated components that only seemed to exist to flush through your system as quickly as possible. I’m sure some think the same of whisky and the effects of computerised scotch compared to a bygone era and sometimes I do agree with such a sentiment. Eden Brewery pretty much do everything by hand and while they have core ranges that are possible and pitched at the masses; it’s the special cask finishes that are really of interest to the palate.
Set just outside St Andrews, the brewery calls home a former paper mill that closed in 2008 with the loss of over 600 local jobs. Going back beyond the mill itself, the site played host to a distillery in the early days of the Haig family empire. For a brief spell the distillery turned to brewing, before paper manufacture took over the site. St Andrews itself was host to a sizeable number of breweries before the majority died a rapid death during the 1800’s.
The site is now owned by the famous St Andrews University and Eden has invaded a small section. As the demand for their beers continues to grow, this year will see an expansion of the small but perfectly formed brewing area and production quadrupled.  Our Saturday tour was fully booked out and while the site is small, an hour is certainly needed to experience everything. Based on my experience making an advance booking is recommended.
The very informative presentation and tour guide took us through the various stages of brewing and the hands on production, bottling, labelling and marketing that the team perform. In many ways this took me back to Bruichladdich before the take over and their attitude, passion and desire to experiment is infectious. I recall one year Bruichladdich released 42 editions of their whisky and keeping up with Eden is very much the same. Influenced by the core ingredients, their availability, cask purchases and events, the team are free to create and experiment without the long maturation of whisky. For instance their current Six Nations rugby bottle was conceived and released within a couple of weeks.
The tour is extremely generous with a welcoming half pint before you are taken to the tasting room for the presentation and tour, only to return for 6 samples of their current releases. This gives you an insight into the more commercially pitched releases and the popular IPA before the lovely sweet rum cask finish confirms how influential a cask can be.
Whisky is my main interest and the team take advantage of cask availability to experiment and push those beer boundaries.  If you take the tour then you’ll notice a few casks lying around the place and I’m sure there are a few in the warehouse area as well. For instance I left with around 15 bottles but the majority of these were whisky influenced such as:
  • Islay oak aged 98 days, ABV 7.0%, release of 1704 bottles**
  • Highland oak 94 days, ABV 7.0%, release of 1826 bottles.
  • Edradour Olorosso finish aged 83 days in a 1st fill sherry butt, ABV 7.2%, release of 1373 bottles.
  • Edradour Claret finish aged 50 days in a Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux, ABV 6.9%, release of 798 bottles.
Some cynics might even remark that at last someone has found a use for something from Edradour distillery. I’ve been so impressed by the beers and tour that I have joined their beer club which means another tour as VIP experience along with a selection of gifts. I’ll look forward to returning to Eden at a later date and seeing how the changes unfold and if they make that move into distilling.

More photographs are available on the Facebook page right here.

**the Islay Oak is a thick and smoky beer with huge depth to savour. 

Posted on Sunday, March 16, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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12 March 2014

Several distilleries are now offering visitors the opportunity to bottle their own from a specific cask. Not only is there a sense of theatre from the proceedings and a unique experience, but these casks offer you the rare chance to sample a whisky from the distillery that is cask strength and without any interference.

Many visitors are content with a tour or a small sample of the whisky to remember their trip which is great, but I always prefer something a little more substantial. Pouring your own is enjoyable and sometimes nerve-racking with a busload of tourists gazing as you go through the process. Some distilleries such as Glenfiddich have a machine to assist you in the process, whereas Deanston rely on the traditional tap and keep it simple. 
I'm going to try and experience these bottles as and when I can only my travels during 2014. First up is Deanston, a distillery I've visited on numerous occasions and one that I believe is heading in the right direction. Overlooked by many, this peaceful producer is starting to create some marvellous whiskies and establish its own identity. They offer a couple of distillery exclusives including the marvellous Spanish Oak and the 2013 Festival Edition, as I already own these I wanted to complete the hat-trick.  

This is the distillery only Oloroso sherry cask finish release which comes in at a mighty 58.9% and is a modest 10 years of age, so I'm not expecting this to be a huge beast. Rather, a modest introduction and one I'm looking forward to seeing how I've never tried a Deanston sherry release before.
Distillery: Deanston
Age: 10 years
Strength: 58.9%
Cask: Oloroso sherry finish
Additional: non-chill filtered
Price: £70 from Deanston distillery (£5 off if you have taken a tour)
Colour: candied orange
Nose: Honeycomb, dark chocolate, orange peel, furniture polish, a touch of dying embers and sticky toffee pudding.
Taste: More intense orange, tobacco, ginger, cardamom and pepper. This whisky does benefit from a few drops of water to suit your palate to open up the spices.
For a sherry cask finish, the butt has already had a huge influence on the spirit, more than I expected. Deanston is normally associated with light, sweet drams and not such a finish as this. I've tried sherry cask finishes before that have added a little but not much beyond brief notes and the colour. 
With this example you're experiencing traditional sherry notes in more depth than other finishes, in tandem with the approachable sensibility I associate with the distillery today. The lightness of Deanston means that this isn't an overpowering sherry monster, nor does it possess that oozing thick coating quality on the tongue that such drams can offer. Very enjoyable, and at the time of writing unique to the distillery, filling a gap in their current range. Yes, you are paying for the privilege and the experience but that is the essence of any bottle your own option and the attraction.

Posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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11 March 2014

We've reached the end of our regional tour of Marks and Spencer's 12 year malts. Kicking off with the Highland edition, followed by Islay, we're now in the heartland of Scottish whisky which can only mean Speyside.

I had reasonable hopes for this given the huge range of whiskies available from the region, surely picking something out that was reasonable wouldn't be too much of an ask. After all, Speyside offers a wonderful variety of malts with distinctive characteristics that support many of the major blends in the marketplace. 
Time for the actual tasting of this Speyside offering:

Colour: gold bullion

Nose: a very shy nose, lacking huge depth and characteristics.  Citrus is dominant with pineapples, peaches and lemon. Speyside in its nature but compare this to the Craigellachie Berlin edition I tasted recently and it is night and day. 

Taste: An initial burst of sunshine and then the clouds appear and you're left with a tiny lingering finish of satsuma. In the mouth there is a woody note

No need to add water to this single malt which comes across as very fragile. Of the trio this is the most disappointing and for a 12 year Speyside I was expecting more character in the glass. Served at 40% this has been watered down with detrimental consequences and that's a real shame for any whisky. 

Posted on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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09 March 2014

This is a unique celebration bottling authorised by Cadenhead's for the anniversary of their Berlin shop. To mark a decade of existence they allowed the Berlin manager to pick out a cask from their extensive inventory. Specifically for the German market, a few bottles were ushered to other Cadenhead branches to participate in the occasion.

The UK as a whole received just 18 bottles and these unsurprisingly have since sold out, with a recent Jolly Topper tasting allowing attendees to experience this dram. While we can deliberate why a 14 year old whisky for a decade anniversary seems a little skewed, we can confirm exactly why this unfashionable Speyside distillery was selected; Craigellachie-Glenlivet is the favourite distillery of the Berlin store manager.
If you don't have the opportunity to visit Speyside, then flick through a copy of the Malt Whisky Year Book and consider how many of these names you rarely see or hear. Craigellachie-Glenlivet is such an unfashionable distillery, mainly engaged in blends, its single malts are bottled occasionally by independent bottlers. To date the only official bottling is a 14 year old that has been available since 2004 so its safe to suggest that this one is well under the radar.

Lets move onto the contents within but first the release details:

Distillery: Craigellachie-Glenlivet
Distilled: 2000
Bottled: February 2014 (14 years)
Strength: 55.1%
Price: £48
Additional: Bottled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cadenhead Berlin shop
Edition: 234 bottles, only 18 released in the UK
Colour: Golden sunshine

Nose: What a lovely nose that reeks of Speyside and sweetness. Birds Eye Custard, almonds, pineapple, pears, a little orange peel and a little touch of vanilla from the bourbon cask.

Taste: I suppose in fairness the actual tasting is a disappointment after the vibrant nose but that's not to detract from what is an enjoyable romp. More sweetness with honey, millionares shortbread, then we're back in fruit orchard with apples and pears before the sugar rush finish.

A lovely fun, summer-focused dram. Being on the fringes of Spring this transports me to the summer; I'd love to be sitting outside sampling this on a gloriously warm, relaxing afternoon. There was a sugar overdosed fruit drink that was meant to give you a taste of sunshine but this Craigellachie dram does the job with ease. While you can add water, I don't think it is really necessary and the balance of the whisky is delightful. 

Posted on Sunday, March 09, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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07 March 2014

We're at the midway point in the Marks & Spencer regional single malt range and setting ashore on Islay. I was reasonably pleased with our starting point of the Highland whisky release last week which was almost Speyside in its characteristics.

This is another instalment in the endless supermarket whiskies I'm continuing to seek out and experience. For others just type in 'supermarket' into the search function and they should appear. I've toured several of the main UK outlets including Morrisons, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. Needless to say I have quite a few more to visit and I expect more surprises await. Meanwhile, lets move onto this Islay edition.  
Distillery: unknown Islay
Strength: 40% ABV
Age: 12 year
Price: 70cl £29.99

Colour: 9 carat gold

Nose: this does smell like Islay and maybe Bunnahabhain if I was to pluck a possibility out however that's just speculation. Not a smoky bruiser but more of a gentle slap on the nose. An oily peaty residue that transports you to the region. Orange peel, apple cider, pine nuts in the background but the nose achieves what is says on the label; Islay and isn't hugely complex.

Taste: A smokiness from the last embers of a nearly extinguished wood fire is the first hit followed by a touch of brine and sea salt. The finish arrives with a touch a cream and that nice glow from having visited Islay.

I'm not hugely taken with this offering. A true taste of Islay is offered by the Asda Extra Special regional release rather than this postcard example which is around the same price point. It is Islay light and only a hint of what this wonderful place can truly offer. I suppose for those daring to venture into this region this malt might be a support act before the main event and hints at what you should expect but never fully delivers.

Posted on Friday, March 07, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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03 March 2014

Here we have another instalment in my relentless supermarket series where I tackle the blends and single malts exclusive to certain retailers. I've been focusing on Marks & Spencer's recently, starting with their regional single malts, which are Highland, Islay and Speyside. However M&S also offer a bargain basement blended Scotch (pictured above) that sits alongside a 5 year blended Scotch known as Kenmore.

They also stock exclusive editions from distilleries with the current example being a St George's release at £35, while previously it was a malt from Deanston. This takes us to the Kenmore which is blended and bottled by Burn Stewart distillers. While the malts that make up this blend are not stated, it is straightforward enough to limit the scope mainly to those 3 distilleries that the Burn Stewart owns, namely Deanston, Bunnahabhain and Tobermory, excluding the grain component. The group has a history of successful blends with Scottish Leader and the Black Bottle being the current examples. Fingers crossed that we're on solid ground then.
Distillery: blend so a composite
Strength: 40% ABV
Price: 20cl £5.99, other sizes available

I'll quote the blurb so we can consider the aim of this blend; 'full, smooth and lightly peated, Kenmore is a unique aged blend which achieves the highest standard expected of the best whiskies of Scotland.'

Colour: A rich additive caramel

Nose: This does remind me of the new direction the Black Bottle has taken although not as sweet on the nose. A touch of smoke, raisin, pine and caramelised sugar so a pleasant and inoffensive aroma  

Taste: A little peat in the background, actually a nicely balanced blend here upon reflection. A touch of sweetness from the stewed fruits, a beef stock feel and a nip of spice mainly from black pepper, cinnamon and star anise rounded off by a watery grain fuelled finish.
At this price point you don't expect a huge character in the glass and this isn't a dramatic experience. Even with such muted expectations I found this to be better than some of the other blends I've experienced from Waitrose and Morrisons at this level. It achieves just enough on the palate and I jokingly suggested this was the Black Bottle-lite equivalent. A few notches down on the sweetness factor, but still a thumbs up from me taking into perspective the pricing and rival offerings; I'd buy another bottle.

Posted on Monday, March 03, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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01 March 2014

The Cold War is long consigned to the history books yet as a teenager I can recall aspects growing up. Having visited the Czech Republic since, I would never have thought that in 1989 the Pradlo Distillery turned their attention to whisky. This new venture was way ahead of many European nations. This nationalised distillery was already known for high quality pot-stilled spirits behind the iron curtain and had set its sights on whisky.

Sourcing a traditional cast iron hammer mill for product gave this bottling its name. Sadly it isn't based upon the blistering American band from around this period on the Amp Rep record label that would have been really cool. However using 100% local Czech barley and water from the Bhoemia area followed by Czech oak casks is certainly cool; making this a true reflection of its country of origin.

Political events then took focus and the Berlin wall fell, ending decades of separation and prompting other countries within the Soviet block to seek their own independence. You can forgive those in Plzen for becoming distracted and forgetting what lay in the distillery cellars. Decades passed until the distillery was taken over by Stock Spirits who were surprised by the contents after an inventory check.
It is a fabulous and unique story that for 20 years these casks maturated in a constant climate while outside huge changes were taking place across the landscape. This malt has been described to me as 'the most Scottish of European whiskies' by someone very experienced with whisky. Given that Scotland only provided the inspiration and nothing else, such a statement if confirmed would be remarkable.

Pradlo must have distilled quite a bit 20 years ago as you can still pick this up quite easily at retail. Nationalised industries never really took much notice of supply and demand or basic economics compared to their Western counterparts. For that we can be thankful and the retail price is very attractive, but lets move onto the most important aspect. 

Distillery: Pradlo
Distilled: 1989
Bottled 2009 (20 years)
Strength: 40.7%
Additional: 100% Czech barley, Czech oak casks
Price: Expect to pay around £35 and while initially was seen as a Travel Exclusive in airports you can find it available via online retailers.
Colour: a light tan

Nose: A musty note, perhaps those ancient cellars did leave their mark? Not a huge nose initially, some encouragement and time required bringing back memories of a previous Macallan review. A touch of calamine lotion if anything... Nosing the glass shortly after a tasting provides a surprising amount of sweetness with sugar coated nuts and juicy raisins. 

Taste: Well, not a huge, expansive malt despite the age. Initially some black pepper and only with a slight drop of water is required to usher out the ground almonds and shortbread before the Czech oak gives a woody finish.

You could sit this whisky down in a Scottish tasting session and no one would pick it out as being wrongly included. Hammer Head is a good quality single malt that you cannot help but fall in love with due to the storyline. The actual taste being so easily relocated is detrimental, as I was expecting a bold full-bodied malt perhaps with some mistakes from the first time distillers. That's not the case as it is well rounded and fluid if a little bland.

A higher alcohol strength would have been beneficial to provide more oomph. For such an aged malt, I was expecting more character. Yet lets put this into context with a great price, unique story to tell and a steady dram on offer, it is a fun, if restrained experience. 

Posted on Saturday, March 01, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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28 February 2014

I'm not sure for how long I've been debating joining the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, but it is at least a couple of years. To be frank I've heard varying reports; some from long time ex-members who complain about the increasing cost of buying a bottle and annual membership. I take all this feedback onboard noting that we all have a fondness for the good old days, especially if we were actually there at the time.

Increasing whisky prices is unfortunately the era we currently occupy and is not just restricted to the SMWS in fairness. The initial outlay is £122 for which you receive the above pack and opportunity to visit various locations and enjoy the additional benefits of being a member. A couple of the critics I know were not in the vicinity of a branch so this would have limited the extra benefits they could receive and the apparent value. I'm fortunate that the Queen Street site is only a few minutes away from my place of work. In theory at least, I should be able to really appreciate these features more than some others.

Now this is the third whisky club that I'm a member of to date. The first was the Whisky Shop W Club offering that has never really been maximised to its full potential. The 10% discount is nice enough but when the retailer offers 'tourist prices', I have rarely taken advantage of this or the initial 20% feature. Recently the member magazines have dried up as have the competitions and website content. If the Whisky Shop really got behind this members club then they could do a whole lot more than I'm experiencing currently.
The second club is the Cadenhead's offering which is more successful and pitched towards fans of whisky who find themselves visiting branches on a regular basis. It is a no-frills enterprise compared to the W Club with members receiving advance notice of releases with tasting notes. Each time you purchase a whisky your members card is stamped and as you complete each set with 6 stamps, you're entitled to a bottle of the members only release later that year.

While you don't actually know what is being bottled the debut offering was a decent aged Glen Keith example. And if you're in the habit of purchasing regularly at Cadenhead's then it makes sense - they have enough worthwhile releases to justify 6 stamps per year!

Included in the SMWS pack are 3 whiskies of varying ages in dinky 10cl bottles. They are on the small side, but I'm all for recycling and these sizes will come in handy. I'll review the 3 examples before I start to take advantage of the monthly club releases members have access to and throughout the year expect updates on how the experience is unfolding.

Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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25 February 2014

I'm not one for delving into statistics page and information for this blog, but clearly without much research, some of the most popular pages are those regarding supermarket own label releases. My reasoning is that for many these offer an affordable price point for a single malt whisky without paying over the odds for content, official distillery status and all that wasteful packaging.

Another factor will be that many supermarkets don't seek out publicity or reviews so that big name blogs who have cosy relationships and samples won't put their money where their mouth is. For the last year I've been touring around the supermarkets picking off releases one by one. There have been some real lows such as the Waitrose blend and delights like the Asda Extra Special Islay. I view this as an ongoing project that will never end. Most supermarkets refresh their range every couple of years, so if I haven't gotten around to that Tesco bottle you've been eyeing up, fear not as eventually I'll get there. My wallet does unfortunately know some bounds and I can only make a certain amount of whisky sauce.
We've now arrived at Marks & Spencer who always have a trio of regional single malts for sale alongside official exclusives; previously it was Deanston but now they are offering a St George's bottle. This is the first of three reviews covering their unnamed 12 year regional single malts which are split into the traditional Highland, Islay and Speyside regions. Why no lowland? A missed opportunity given the quality of Bladnoch and that remarkable Auchentoshan I tasted as part of the Cadenhead's February releases; more on that later.

There are no hints on the packaging about the source or who has been involved in 'expertly' selecting these malts. This range comes in a variety of sizes and I'm tasting from the 5cl triple pack (in a sturdy tin container I'll be using for transportation), a dinky 20cl before moving up to a larger 70cl.
Distillery: Unknown
Age: 12 years
Strength: 40%

Colour: well worn pine
Nose: Citrus is the first note with peaches and pineapple then we're dropping down into apples almost cider-like quality; a refreshing summer orchard stroll. A really fatty, oily note coming through that I'd describe as puff pastry before some lovely fudge. A well rounded nose that comes across as a gentle highland lass.
Taste: Well, bursting with more citrus with lemons and limes before a touch of ash/tobacco finishes off the experience.

A lovely nose that the actual taste or finish cannot match. Still, for a supermarket release I'd quite happily have this on my everyday drinking shelf. Average fare but not great or memorable, or should I say not terrible?

Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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23 February 2014

This is very much a leap into the unknown with the final Thai whisky that I purchased as part of an auction job lot. The trend has been upwards, so hopefully by chance, I've left the best till last.

On paper this might be the shortest Taste review on Whisky Rover as I don't really have much to say about the bottle, distillery or background. Maybe one day we'll be able to identify this bottle but what I can say with certainty is that after the review is done I'll be passing the remaining whisky to a local tasting group. That way a few others will be able to experience an unusual/rare whisky that might broaden the horizons a little. The only English on this example is the United Products Company logo on the cap and that's your lot.
Colour: In the bottle this seemed to have a red-ish apple tint, but in the glass it is more freshly cut hay assisted with the addition of colouring.

Nose: The overriding emphasis is bananas, very much like the Singharaj Special blend but this expands a little more offering a touch of lime cordial, pineapple and to finish an oily note that I can only describe as melted butter. Overall this offers the best nose of the 3 Thai whiskies.

Taste: Well, this is one unique experience. The initial hit is black pepper, followed by spicy notes that unfold before the mashed bananas dominate the palate resulting in a swift finish. Again very limited and from what I hear about Thai whiskies and spirits in general, the use is more of a spirit mixer with the end result to reach a certain physical state as quickly as possible.

Out of the trio this is the most reasonable whisky on the palate and nose. The others were ruined by unusual notes and unpleasant characteristics. By no means an average whisky, this is drinkable but only just.

Posted on Sunday, February 23, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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19 February 2014

Fashion by nature invades every nook and cranny, it clearly is the case that whisky isn't immune to the trends and spotlights of the fashionistas. Some releases sell out instantly on the basis of the distillery, branding or marketing while other, arguably better whiskies, remain on the shelves gathering dust. The key to finding good whiskies in my experience is word of mouth, research and avoiding the high profile blogs.

It would be fair to say that Tobermory is a very unfashionable distillery hence why this release from Cadenhead's is still available. This is despite being bottled in April 2012, nearly 2 years ago in an edition of just 246 bottles maybe that'll change after I've written about it? A recent run through of the current bottles available at Cadenhead's Edinburgh settled on this example, which was recommended and that's good enough reason for me to make the purchase. So lets put the spotlight elsewhere and onto Tobermory for a change.
Tobermory distillery is on the island of Mull. It is a distillery I've yet to visit but slowly I am making my way around all of the Scottish islands; last year it was Orkney, this year it will be Arran, so 2015 might bring Mull or Lewis. Owned by the South African Distell Group, it is hoped the new owners will provide some overdue investment into Tobermory, Deanston and in particular Bunnahabhain. Often overlooked, this trio are well worth checking out if you haven't done so already and can offer real value for money.

When peated malt is produced at Tobermory in excess of 30ppm it is known as Ledaig, so you'll often see such bottles standing alongside one another. Releases from Tobermory can be fairly mundane and then there are others that really defy logic. The distillery is one of the great chameleons of Scottish whisky that will have you guessing what's in store until you've opened the bottle. Another example of this is the Fettercairn distillery and I may have a review of that coming soon!  
Distillery: Tobermory
Distilled: 1996
Bottled: April 2012 (almost 16 years)
Strength: 53.7%
Price: £51.90
Edition of: 246 bottles
Additional: matured in an oak cask, not chill-filtered, no colouring added

Colour: next to no colour despite the age of this dram, a very light beige.

Nose: more peat than I'd normally associate with Tobermory with this label, highland heather, fresh pine, mint and almond. This is a really fresh nose.

Taste: Frankly bizarre, as if this was a sherry cask I'd be saying sulphur or burnt matches yet that's not the case here. However that is the initial thrust onto the palate followed by peat, or a peat bog set alight, which brings on a surprising sweetness especially after adding water hence more vanilla and dark chocolate followed by tobacco. 

I could swear as I drink this malt, I'm taken back to my grandfather's old Davy mining lamp with its distinctive aroma, coating the senses and taste buds of those who sat alongside it. This Tobermory has a real character of its own, perhaps a little too raw for some palates, I've grown to really admire its distinctive qualities. I wonder if they have any bottles left? This one is almost finished.

Posted on Wednesday, February 19, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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18 February 2014

Time for the 2nd of the trio of Thai whiskies I've been experiencing. This one offers little English on the bottle so my information might not be entirely accurate but the nose on this one is more interesting than the Golden Cat V.O. Royal Thai Whisky, so a promising start.

What do we know? Well, this is from the United Products company and specifically the Pramualpol distillery in Thailand. I believe this bottle is known as Singharaj special old premium blended whisky bottled at 40% ABV. So it is another of the premium Thai whiskies which from what I understand are bottled at this strength or higher. Normal run of the mill Thai whiskies come in at 37% ABV.

It is a strange feeling, opening a foreign bottle with very little information evident on the contents and stepping into the unknown. Lets pour one now...
The man running alongside the lion is a distinctive icon. In fact this is evident on the 3rd Thai bottle that I'll be reviewing soon to complete this Thai trio.

Colour: a very light straw
Nose: Immediate hit of bananas and little else suggesting the presence of a young grain in the blend. Some caramelised sugar but a very limited and transparent aroma
Taste: Really odd this one with a sour note before an immediate vanishing act and then absolutely nothing! I'd say this is young grain almost completely if not a huge percentage.

Another towering Thai disappointment. The journey continues for an average dram with the final and most mysterious bottle up next. 

Posted on Tuesday, February 18, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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16 February 2014

Living in Scotland does have its plus points at times even amidst a downpour. While it may lack the sunshine of California or that French chic, come the weekend there is always an option to visit a distillery for the day. Deanston is one of the nearest to home and offers a winning combination of fresh food and inventive whisky. So much so that this is my 4th visit, with many more to come no doubt especially if there is a 2014 festival later this year. 
I've written about a visit Deanston previously so the only difference with this specific tour comes with the tasting at the end. Therefore I'm not going to go through the tour itself in any great detail; you can read my previous summary here. It remains the cleanest distillery I have yet to visit and is unique in many ways partially due to the original purpose of the site. I always travel armed with a camera and the distillery is very open minded to photographs, as long you as turn off the flash. This means a new set of photographs from this specific visit are available via the Facebook Page or right here. I never actually use a flash on my X10, I find some photographers are very lazy relying on flashes when adjustments to the camera settings will compensate for any light issues.

Deanston is a popular destination for locals due to the excellent food it serves and for tourists wanting to experience a distillery without travelling too far. Yes, Glenkinchie in East Lothian is nearer to Edinburgh but the tour is straight out of the Diageo manual and therefore dull, like the whisky itself. Deanston is ideal for combining a lunch or a snack before or after taking a tour thanks to a thriving cafe. The whisky is incorporated into the food when possible. I did enjoy the haggis, neeps and tatties although my own whisky sauce is more luxurious and time consuming I expect to create. You can see a photograph of the haggis in the above link, a little more coarse than the version I love from Dingwall, but rewarding nevertheless.
Deanston offers several tours to visitors and I'm slowly working my way through each of them. A new arrival for 2014 is the whisky and chocolate tour that is currently being run for feedback and sold online via a deal site. Marrying food with whisky is a growing trend and receiving more coverage nowadays. For too long it has been the home turf of wine, with beer trying to muscle in on the act lately. When my better half purchased a couple of vouchers as a last minute surprise well I couldn't refuse another tour. 
The only suggestion of food I've had with a prior tour was at Oban when we were given a piece of ginger to taste the whisky with.  I'm not a huge fan of the standard Oban bottling yet the combination did work very well. The Tullibardine distillery does offer a chocolate tour as well which is popular and often available on deal websites.
Deanston does focus on the skill of those who focus on a specific craft and sell wares from local producers in the shop. The distillery store is according to my better half, the best example she's visited whilst accompanying me across all these distilleries. It doesn't limit itself to just whisky from Deanston or its parent group (Bunnahabhain, Tobermory), and over the years I've walked out with a wide variety of gifts and items for the house.
This emphasis on supporting local businesses continues into what comes out of the kitchen on a daily basis. With this ethic it isn't a surprise that Deanston has teamed up with the Highland Chocolatier situated near Aberfeldy in Perthshire, to provide pristine examples of the marriage between whisky and chocolate.
I can often be cynical but you cannot criticise until you've actually experienced it for yourself. So after an enjoyable tour around Deanston, once again we found ourselves in the Tasting Room to try out this potentially new engagement.
The 2 malts served up on this tour are the staple Deanston 12 year old and the excellent distillery exclusive and limited, Spanish Oak release, which I've reviewed here. When I first tasted this particular bottle in 2012, I immediately felt that this sweet dram would be an ideal end to a meal, so I'm not surprised to see it used in this setting. With just 787 bottles available for the Spanish Oak (at £90), it offers takers of this tour a lovely example of an aged whisky with true use of casks rather than these fashionable brief finishes. The tour guide is also charming enough to offer a taste of another dram, which here was the well received virgin oak no age statement release.
The shop offers several exclusives along with a bottle your own from a sherry cask. The 2013 Festival Edition was also available and while I own a bottle it has yet to be opened. Taking a tour means you receive a £5 discount on a bottle from the shop and I am still eyeing up the 37 year old, although £800 would mean it would equal the most I've spent on a bottle. Records are there to be broken or at least equalled; come to think of it that £5 would put an end to such an sentiment!
The chocolates themselves are excellent and I've tried some of the best Scottish examples over the years. It never fails to surprise when you're on a remote island or in the northern extremes of Sutherland and you'll stumble across a local chocolatier who can hold their own against the very upmarket Paris boutiques. Combined with Deanston examples, the chocolates work extremely well and reinforce the luxurious feel of both products.
This isn't a tour option I'd take on a regular basis however from discussing observations from the small group overall, it was clear that this combination of food and whisky opens imaginations. Other members of the tour weren't whisky drinkers (with the exception of one) and normally wouldn't enjoy or appreciate a dram. This new combination with chocolate meant they finished off everything and most importantly, enjoyed the experience. Hopefully this new found appreciation will translate into exploring whisky which is half the fun.
The whisky & chocolate tour is a success and offers a more digestible option if you are new to whisky and enjoy the finer things in life.  As I said to one of the group after tasting the Spanish Oak; there's no going back to the cheap stuff after you've had a fine dram! 

Posted on Sunday, February 16, 2014 by Whisky Rover

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