Whisky Mag’s resident guru Dave Hughes gives us a bit of insight into a few of the more special drams to look for at Whisky Live 2011.
Bonnie Prince Charlie – or Charles Stuart to give him his correct name – was the pretender to the English throne who was routed at the famous Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Highland moors near Inverness have a distinct eerie quality to them even with the visitors centre, tourist buses and day trippers walking around. It was, Wikipedia assures me, “the last pitched battle fought on British soil”.
So what’s the point of this reference? Well, it’s a way of getting around to the other pretender to the English throne: the current King-in-waiting, Prince Charles. You see, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales officiated at the opening of the Welsh distillery of Penderyn in June 2008. (That means he got to cut a ribbon or tug a little velvet curtain open to reveal a brass plaque beneath or something. – Ed.)
Wales is certainly not the first place that comes to mind when you think whisky! But when Prince Charles did the honours, Penderyn had already been distilling whisky in Wales for eight years – and Wales had been making whisky since the 4th century, according to certain historical records. Alfred Barnard’s Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom was pub- lished in 1887 and although it mentions four English distilleries, it makes no mention of any Welsh ones. (Two of the four were located in Liverpool – where to this day you never walk alone – while London and Bristol had one each.)
Another interesting link is that American whisky pioneers, Evan Williams and Jack Daniels are reputedly of Welsh descent.
In fact, Penderyn get most of their bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace and Evan Williams. Evan Williams, the man whose name now graces the second biggest selling Bourbon after Jim Beam, was born in Wales and considered to be Kentucky’s first legal distiller. He apparently began making whiskey near Louisville in the 1780’s.
Penderyn produce a number of bottlings and by that I mean lots… too many to detail. One of the things they’re renowned for is having made a feature of Madeira and Sherry cask finishes. They did a special bottling for the Welsh Rugby Union’s 125th anniversary which occurred in 2006. It retailed for £150 – or R1 650! However, the one with the most unpronounceable name is the one I am most familiar with:
A single malt. Vanilla flavour and a sweet sensation seem to dominate then a fascinating exchange of fresh, fruity malt and some distinct oaky notes. Slight prickly sensation on the tongue which makes way for a long, fruit-filled finish. There’s an intriguing slight bittersweet character on the aftertaste. I personally find it an unusual ‒ but not unpleasant ‒ experience.
It kicks off with a distinctly aromatic, smoky nose: sweet spice, apples, pears and hints of citrus. All repeat in the mouth with some vibrant oomph from clear spirity characters. Long, warming afterglow.
Penderyn Sherry Wood:
As expected, sweet sherry notes dominate with dried fruits and brown sugar nuances. Rich and full in the mouth where lots of nuts are released, along with stewed apples and rich malt. Those gentle brown sugar flavours lead into a long, fruit-filled finish.
Not too far from Bruichladdich is a quaint little distillery that I can only describe as a “farm” distillery. Tiny in every way, it only went into production in 2005 so barely has whiskies old enough to be legal! They even grow their own barley on the Rockside farm where the distillery is located. I would imagine as unique as where the barley is grown, the malting, fermentation and distilling all take place on the one property. Some of their initial product was sold in bulk while the rest has been matured for eventual blending and bottling.
I tasted their first release which was a smoky, fruity, oaky character. Charming, if fairly rustic. The next release is beginning to show the potential that can be expected but one must remember it is all extremely youthful. It will certainly be worth looking out for to see what they will have on offer.
Great King Street Artists’ Blend:
A month or two ago I tasted the Great King Street Artist’s Blend while in the United Kingdom. It’s something rather special from the Compass Box Whisky Company and I recommended that you try it.
The Compass Box Whisky Company ‒ great name that! ‒ was started in 2000 by American-born John Glaser out of his London home. As the business grew, Glaser set up offices in the New Town of the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh. New Town was built in the late 1700s/early 1800s and King Street is the wide main thoroughfare of New Town which represented the enlightened thinking of the day. John Glaser and his team believe it is an appropriate connection to the sort of thinking they apply to their modern whisky blending. Also, the date of completion of the Great King Street was 1823, the same year the law changed in Scotland to allow Highlanders to more easily become licensed distillers.
The Georgian building depicted on the label is the building in which the Compass Box offices are housed. The blend is made up of 51% perfumed, fruity Lowland grain. The malty and more fruity characters come from 23% northern Highland malt while a further 18% of an alternative northern Highland malt gives grassy and unusual perfumed notes. Then there’s a splash ‒ just 8% ‒ of Speyside malt that contributes a meaty backing to the blend. But the artistry does not stop there: the strong vanilla comes from 62% of the whiskies having been aged in first fill American oak. A further 28% which is aged in new French oak gives toast, roasted coffee and grilled marshmallow characters. Finally, some 10% of first fill Sherry oak adds dried fruits and some winey notes to the blend.
No colouring is added and certainly no cold filtration. The other thing that makes it unusual for Scotch is that it is bottled at 43% alcohol rather than the more common 40%. The rich round and fruity characters will appeal to whisky aficionados. It will also help coax those folk who might not drink whisky at all to try it and especially might convert those folk who shun blends as being “below” them!
I personally found the blend to be very lively and vigorous with loads of rich, well rounded fruit balanced by toasty oak with good vanilla backing.
Any whisky under this label is worth a try. Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-lad-dee, just in case you were wondering whether to add a guttural throat clearing at the end or not…- Ed.) is a name that was hardly known until the year 2000 when, after many closures, the Islay distillery was brought back to life by a consortium led by Murray Mc David with good American backing.
After almost a lifetime of service at Bowmore, another Islay distillery, the inimitable Jim McEwan was coaxed out of retirement. (I remember at one of the reopening functions getting a T-shirt inscribed “The Laddie is Back”.) McEwan was fortunate to have a warehouse full of ageing whiskies which provided the building blocks for Bruichladdich. But he also set about placing his stamp on the new distillations and creating a totally new identity for the whiskies of Bruichladdich.
One of his innovations was, in 2003, to bottle on the island so becoming the first Islay distillery to do so. The very distinct bottle is easy to recognize but not so the contents
In a few short years the distillery brought out a huge array of different bottlings so it’s been somewhat difficult to follow all the expressions. McEwan, who is considered something of a poet by the islanders, told me a year or so ago that between 2003 and 2010 he had close to 200 different expressions of Bruichladdich! Some of those are as little as a cask for a special occasion or a particularly demanding customer.
Just to show that there is never a dull moment at Bruichladdich, it has now produced a gin! Known as “The Botanist” its label carries some of McEwan’s whimsical words; “for this small batch artisanal Islay gin we use nine of the classic gin botanicals including orris root, cassia bark, coriander seed, etc., and then augment these with a heady harvest of 22 wild, native island botanicals, hand-picked by our foraging team from the windswept hills, peat bogs and Atlantic shores of Islay”. Pure poetry to my ears!
Bruichladdich whiskies is best epitomised by the series Waves, Peat and Rocks. The first is a multi-vintage vatting with moderately peated characters. The next is powerfully phenolic with distinct bonfire and ocean characters. While the last has decidedly fruity characters with bourbon oak fairly prominent while rich malty flavours play out at the end. An odd ‒but attractive ‒ red wine character creeps in at the finish. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they have in store for punters at the Festival. It’s sure to be interesting.