Reviews, musings and whisky adventures.
Keep on waffling!
Posted by: Nick and Ted
With bottle prices soaring and demand never higher, surely it’s time for you – yes you! – to get into the Tasmanian whisky production scene. But hold your horses for a moment son, start up costs for a distillery are astronomical: you’ll need to splash a few hundred grand on stills and equipment, enter into ridiculously expensive rental agreements on a warehouse and only then you can start thinking about the rising cost of ex-fortified wine barrels. Suddenly a spot of homebrew is looking like a far the better option – or perhaps a hobby-shift into bee-keeping.
If only there was a business out there specifically set up to help you produce your own whisky, managing the hands-on aspects while you focus on creating your own unique flavour profile…
Enter White Label, Tasmania’s first contract whisky distillery. It has been specifically set up to provide businesses and start-ups with the opportunity to get distilling without bankrupting themselves trying to manage the setup costs. While many other distilleries may offer contract distilling opportunities, White Label is the only one to specialise in it. As there will never be a ‘White Label’ whisky (Dewars have already claimed that one), there is not an on-shelf brand to build; the focus will be solely on the needs of the client.
The man at the helm is Anthony ‘Sags’ White, a former farmer from Bothwell who cut his distilling teeth at Nant Distillery when the Tasmanian industry was just getting into its stride. While he is happy to cater to his customers’ needs, he is also passionate about making a good product and figuring out each step of the process, claiming “the whole basis of my life is to try to work out why and how things happen and then improve them. I love fixing shit that breaks.”
White Label has created their own house-style of new make spirit, available to customers less interested in the technical factors in brewing and distilling, although clients will also be allowed to put their own spin on things. For example, regular customer Spirit Thief elects to use a different yeast in the fermentation process which results in a subtly different wash, a slightly different feints cut and a very different new make spirit – and both versions are delicious!
The house style is crisp and light with a dash of citrus and perfect for taking on the characters of most cask types, whereas the Spirit Thief is heavier and oilier and ideal for soaking up the flavours of the wine barrels commonly used by the brand.
While Anthony is in charge of the spirit production, he hands over to Jane and Mark Sawford for barrel sourcing from Australia’s best cooperages. They are able to offer everything from traditional ex-bourbon and sherry through to as-yet-untried wine barrels such as Grenache or Mataro. The team will work with the client to source the barrels that will best match the desired flavour profile for the final product. White Label also offers space in their bond stores where they will look after the maturing spirit.
Consultation is a very important part of the whole process general. White Label will try as much as possible to ensure that the product meets the specifications requested while ensuring that the end product will be of the best quality, which they will work through with the client. While White Label will shoulder most of the heavy lifting on the production side of things, the client will have most of the responsibility for things like barrel selection, maturation lengths, branding and marketing. To enable the best chance of success, mentorship from leading industry figures such as Casey Overeem is provided to help overcome the pitfalls and challenges in creating a successful Tasmanian whisky brand.
While Anthony isn’t prepared to compromise the high-quality of his new-make spirit by sticking peated malt or juniper berries into his stills, if there is enough interest and demand White Label is fully prepared to look at future expansion to allow projects that go down a smoky or gin-based route.
So don’t be put off, fellow whisky lovers – the ability to create a single malt whisky is no longer restricted to those who possess their own stills and distilling licence. Whether it’s a chance to start your own brand without breaking the bank or as a speciality gift for high-end businesses, White Label offers an opportunity unique in the local whisky industry. Start your whisky journey with White Label today…
Review by: Ted
Investing can be a tricky business – if it goes right then life is good, but there’s always the danger that things can go very, very pear-shaped and people get left empty-handed (and extremely pissed off). Unfortunately the Tasmanian whisky scene has witnessed the tragic side of investing in its short history, with the very public and messy collapse of a well-known distillery in 2016, that left investors bereft of their money, whisky (and cows).
Harry van der Woude was one of the lucky ones. His father Pieter had done some barrel investing when Harry was younger and when the opportunity to re-invest together came up, the younger van der Woude decided “Ah yeah, I’ll get in on that.” After hearing early rumours of trouble at the old mill, they decided to claim their spirit, ‘ambushing’ the distillery by rocking up out of the blue one day armed with the correct paperwork and a couple of empty replacement barrels to swap. Amazingly, they managed to walk out with their two barrels of partly-aged spirit, which is more than a lot of people managed when shit really went down (if the spirit ever existed in the first place in many cases).
After contemplating keeping it for themselves or selling it on as a lot, Harry and Pieter eventually decided to bottle their whisky as a limited-release special-edition run. According to Harry, one of the best aspects of the project was the chance for some quality father/son bonding time. While not being whisky experts themselves, handy friendships and family connections meant that they were able to access mentorship from some of the leading names in the local industry. Crucially, this allowed them to get expert advice about things like maturation lengths, bottling strength and flavour profiles.
The end result is the Straight Batt Single Malt, a limited run of 400 bottles created from a marriage of the two casks liberated by Harry and Pieter. After aging for six years, the 100L French oak ex-tawny and American oak ex-bourbon casks were married together then cut down to 44%. According to Harry, “We tried it at a variety of strengths and that’s just where the sweet-spot happened to be.”
Thanks to the origin of the spirit, the Straight Batt is relatively light in style. The nose is spicy and dry with light oaky notes, beeswax, aniseed, honey and ginger. The overall smell is like a soothing balm for the sting of mishandled investments. The palate is light and fairly smooth, with a slight herbal, almost minty note. The finish is relatively short, with a dry blue-metal and grape linger. The delicate body and ease of drinking would make it a good choice for helping to swallow bitter pills.
The label, designed by Hobart-born artist Alexander Barnes-Keoghan (aka Albarkeo), features a drawing of an old-style cricketer playing a cross-bat shot, instead of the straight bat(t) shot that the name suggests. According to Harry, the artwork is a bit of a visual joke and subtle dig at the main architect of the collapse (who is referenced in the name), who he feels should have played it straight with investors but instead took the wrong approach and got bowled out, taking the whole team with him.
Harry is keen to assure people that the label and the release are all about sticking it to the establishment and are not meant to denigrate those who lost their money: “I want people to see it as at least a small bit of good to come out of a dark time in Tasmanian whisky.”
“A lot of people say ‘Ah, I’d die to be in that position’ and you realise how lucky you are to be able to build something positive out of a misfortune.”
“That’d be the ideal thing for me really, if a few people who got left behind in the fallout reached out and got to at least see something out of the situation. This is solidarity for those who got burned.”
Posted by: Ted
The Tamar Region of Tasmania has always been known for its wineries, but recently the distilling industry has been making a spirited push into the area. In fact, one of the biggest wineries in Tassie has a new next-door neighbour just a stone’s throw from their cellar door.
Visitors to Tamar Ridge Winery will soon be able to wander over to meet the crew at Turner Stillhouse. The outfit was founded by Justin Turner, a Northern Californian hailing from a wine-making family, who made the trek down under after meeting his Tasmanian-born wife. Also on the team is Tassie lad and distiller Brett Coulson, who used to work for the State’s biggest brewery before jumping aboard the good ship Turner.
The site was a hive of activity when we dropped by recently for a visit, with a team of builders working hard to transform the old Gunns Ltd building into a functioning distillery. As well as the production floor with the still, fermenters and bond area, the site will also include a cellar door and bar area where visitors can sample the products and check out the action. “We just want it done by summer!” exclaimed Brett as we surveyed the organised chaos in front of us.
Taking pride of place in the space is the towering 3000l hybrid pot/column still, a synergy of stainless-steel and copper. “It’s probably one of the only American-designed and -made stills in Australia,” commented Justin proudly. The lads are hoping that they can fire it up by the end of the year and start pumping out some spirit.
As well as a ‘traditional’ Tassie single malt, Justin is keen to showcase the whisky from his own part of the world, with plans for American-style corn and grain whiskies, noting that “because of the column, the still will make a lighter spirit, which will work really well with that style of whiskey.”
Justin and Brett will use virgin oak and ex-bourbon casks sourced from America for aging, but are also hoping to make use of the plentiful supply of wine barrels from next door. “It will be cool for people to come along this road and go to the Tamar Ridge cellar door and try the wine, then walk over here and try a whisky from the same barrel the wine was aged in.”
While the whisky is still a few years off, Turner Stillhouse currently produces a couple of gins which are available for purchase. Hopefully by the end of the year visitors will be able to kick back at the bar with some cheeky drinks and take in the view over the Tamar Valley. Watch this space!
Reviewed by: Ted
While it may hold the title of best selling single malt in the world, Glenfiddich can also be pretty divisive. I think that people tend to fall into one of five broad camps:
I definitely fall into the latter category and in addition to the above, I also like to keep an eye on what’s going on outside of the core range. In recent years Glenfid have been releasing what they have dubbed their ‘Experimental Series’, which they claim to be ‘game changing’ and ‘ground breaking’ (as mentioned previously, they’re also quite good with the marketing guff).
Once you get past the superlatives, the Experimental Series is all about interesting finishes, barrel combinations and playfulness. Brain child of Master Malter Brian Kinsman, past alumni include the IPA Experiment (of which I own a bottle and really must get around to reviewing), Project XX v1&2 and Winter Storm. The most recent release, #4, is called Fire & Cane and it’s a dram that is blatantly provocative.
Why? Because it says it right there on the bottle: “Fire & Cane – the whisky that will divide you”. Glenfid claims the reason for this is the two warring flavour profiles in the spirit, which splits people into two distinct camps, much like the great blue/gold dress debate of 2015 (just so you know, it was definitely blue, so there).
Team Fire: unusually for a Glenfid, the Fire & Cane is smoky (a fact you probably guessed from the name), a vatting of peated whisky and malts aged in ex-bourbon casks. Glenfid uses Highland peat in this, giving it a softer, friendlier profile than the medicinal/elemental Island peats.
Team Cane: What do you make out of cane? Wicker chairs of course! Oh, and rum. To give the release a big, sweet and spicy kick, Mr Kinsman used a variety of rum casks sourced from across South America to finish off the spirit for three months, thus creating the coal-ramel slice that is the Fire & Cane.
Glenfiddich are so conviced that people either taste the smoke or the sweet that they actually provide two sets of tasting notes with the bottle, offering you a choice depending on which side you fall. So where do I fall?
The nose is a suprisingly complex melange of tropical fruits like pineapple, guava, feijoa, papaya and banana, as well as caramel, straw and hot metal. That Highland peat is not really present as smokiness (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not on Islay anymore”), but more of a savoury note that sits underneath the fruit. It’s kind of like a fresh fruit salsa on some smoky BBQ Caribbean jerk meat.
The peat is much more obvious on the palate, starting off as a tingly, ashy layer with pepper and cured meats before giving way to sharp and sour notes of mead, lemon, and underripe plums. The finish is bright and fairly dry, with a burnt-herb linger and a tickle of orange at the end.
Rather than falling squarely into one camp or the other and staying there like the Glenfid marketing team wants me to, I kind of feel like Harvey Dent/Two-Face flipping his coin. Sometimes I go one way and sometimes I go the other, getting smoky or sweet notes on different tries (whereas if I was Rozencrantz or Guildenstern, I’d be wondering why I kept getting the same flavour every time #obscuremoviereferences).
The Fire & Cane is a really good demonstration of how you can mess around with one of the best known whisky flavour profiles in the world to create something interesting and new. Traditionalists will probably turn their noses up, but for me, I like it. It’s zesty and fresh with a smoky twist and puts me in mind of camping at the beach in the tropics. If you can find a bottle, take a crack and see which side of the fence you fall on.
Let us know if you’re #TeamFire or #TeamCane
Reviewed by: Nick
So, you’ve tried a single malt from every Scottish distillery you can get your grubby little mitts on and are now feeling slightly deflated and wondering what to do next? Good news, the answer is at hand: you can find some independent releases and go around again!
Independent bottlings are a wonderful x-factor in the whisky world – they amuse whisky nerds and confuse whisky noobs in equal measure – from a dusty old ‘Douglas Laing’ bottle right through to some ‘That Boutique-y Whisky Company’ with a comical and yet fitting label. Additionally, they also provide an opportunity to access some of the whisky made at lesser known distilleries; in this instance: Tormore.
Tormore is a vast monolithic-looking distillery a kilometre south of the river Spey, and is known mostly for providing spirit for Chivas-related blends. It was one of the very few distilleries built in the mid-20th century and is tricky to find iterations of outside of duty free. Unless, of course, it’s been independently bottled!
My particular independent bottler is Signatory Vintage, which I know next-to-nothing about – and freely confuse its logo with a bottle of Springbank. It would certainly fail to stand out on a shelf in a bar, which is why I think I have unearthed a bit of a hidden gem.
Stats! Something every whisky nerd can’t live without (no wonder we haven’t handled the transition to NAS releases particularly well)! This bottle of Tormore sat in ex-bourbon hogsheads between 1995 and 2016, making it 20 years old and is a marriage of cask 3907 and 3908. My particular bottle is number 394 and sits at a gentle 43%. And it’s rather tasty.
The nose is oozing with sweet caramel alongside barley sugar and stewed figs. It subtly hints at oak, along citrus and melon notes. The palate is as surprising as it is delicious, full of tropical fruit characteristics. Banana stands out the most, as well as creamy vanilla and chopped nuts – it’s basically a banana split in whisky form! The finish is medium in length and gently earthy – not smoky but at least slightly cured – while vanilla custard flavours delicately linger.
This is a lovely little drop; one that perfectly accompanied the Tasmanian summer and BBQs that ensued and if it were not for an independent bottler setting aside a cask here or there, it’s not one many of us would be able to enjoy. So, if you’ve been holding back and sticking to the distillery’s own releases – well, maybe it’s time to give something independent a try.
Reviewed by: Ted
In terms of independent whisky societies, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is the tweed wearing, pipe smoking, large-moustache sporting (great?) uncle of the bunch. Thing is, he’s a pretty cool guy. He’s a seasoned raconteur with a house full of exotic artifacts from around the world and family rumour has it that he was a spy during the war. You know that a visit to Uncle SMWS is always going to be an interesting experience.
The SMWS started off as a group of mates chipping in to buy a barrel of Glenfarclas in the late 70s, before morphing into a full-blown membership society open to the public in 1983 with the purchase of their first property, the famous Vaults in Leith, Scotland.
The M.O. of the SMWS is the purchase of single casks from various distilleries in Scotland and around the world, which are then released to members when deemed ready by a tasting panel. The Society generally doesn’t reveal which distillery a particular release came from, instead using a somewhat arcane two-part numbering system on the bottles.
The first number refers to a particular distillery, while the second is the sequential barrel number from that distillery (eg. 5.12 would be distillery no. 5, barrel no. 12 purchased from there by the Society). If you manage to find out what the first number means, then you know what distillery you are drinking. Simple.
Another thing that the SMWS does is give the releases exotic names such as ‘A coal bucket of marshmallows’ or ‘An Orkney beekeeper’s dram’ along with some often rather whimsical tasting notes. Facing down a wall of green SMWS bottles (the sheer range of bottlings is dazzling) can be a daunting task, but the Society helps by adding a stripe of colour to the labels. Each particular colour relates to a certain flavour profile, such as ‘sweet, fruity & mellow’ or ‘light & delicate’, helping you narrow things down depending on your preferences.
I was checking out the range at the Grumpy Piper in Launceston the other night and entirely on a whim decided to go with a dram of ‘Waxing a hot woodsman’ . The bottle number was 1.209, which if you’ve been paying attention means that it’s from barrel 209 from Glenfarclas Distillery. According to the label it was a 7yo aged in ex-bourbon hogsheads and bottled at a zesty 64.9%, with the yellow stripe indicating it was a ‘spicey & dry’ style.
The spice was certainly front and centre on the nose, reeking of cinnamon, clove, corriander seed, spruce and resin, as well as a daub of beeswax and dark honey. Down lower was a slightly bitter herbal complex, with a few sprigs of oregano and thyme, before a fruity finish of unripe apples and pears.
If the nose claimed the cap for Team Spice, then the mouth was on the side of Team Dry. The start was hot and dry, with a sprinkle of that spice, before going bitter and metallically clean through the mid. The finish was a medley of sour, pithy citrus notes that would probably be too astringent for some people. The whole effect put me in mind of something a bit Japanese, maybe Hakshu?
Ok, so, despite what the label claims, this is not Waxing a Hot Woodsman at all. That’s a sticky, messy, painful and distinctly hair(e)raising experience. No, this comes afterwards when he’s supine and exhausted from the ordeal, his skin all smooth and raw. This is the aftershave lotion that you slap on his burning skin, a tonic to make him feel invigorated and alive and ready to handle some wood in a manly way.
The Hot Woodsman is yet another interesting insight into how single barrel, indpendent releases can mess around with the flavours you’ve become familiar with from a particular distillery. I wouldn’t say it’s to everyone’s taste, but that’s all part and parcel of a visit to Uncle SMWS’s place – there’s always something new and strange to discover.
Big news for listeners of the Podcast – we’re bringing back the old episodes! We’re purchased some more upload space and a remastered back-catalogue will be appearing soon! Keep an eye out in the next few weeks and travel back to where it all begun! In the meantime, however, enjoy our latest episode which includes:
– The Waffle, where we discuss our recent experiences throughout Tasmanian Whisky Week;
– The whisky, where we taste our new bottles of Hobart Whisky and Adams Distillery Slosh Cask; and
– Smash, Session or Savour where we are forced to smash drams we’d otherwise savour
Reviewed by: Ted
Safety warning: This whisky broke my leg. Well… maybe there were a few others involved that night too, but let this serve as a lesson! Make sure that you are in a secure, seated position and under no circumstances should you decide to do an impulsive (but well intentioned) dance. Bad things can happen. Ok, are you comfortable? Right, let’s get on with the story!
Once upon a time there was a brewery called Iron House. It was named after an old droving hut and sat overlooking the Tasman Sea on the East Coast of Tasmania. The head brewer, Briggsy, was sad because he had more wash than he could make into beer. One day he had a brilliant idea: he could transmute the excess wash into gold… liquid gold! And so he set out on a quest to create his own spiritus frumenti… whisky.
Ok, that’s enough of that for now. For the rest of the Iron House backstory, check out our articles here and here. But cutting to the chase, Briggsy (occasionally known as Michael Briggs) succeeded and recently released Iron House’s first whisky. Taking inspiration from their seaside location, the Iron House team has released their product under the label ‘Tasman Whisky’. The current range consists of the holy trinity of bourbon, sherry and port casks, of which I possess the latter.
The inspiration for the storybook start to this article is the unusual and decorative Tasman packaging, which is designed to look like a book. The outside has a grey, fabric-look covering, while the edges are printed to look like pages. There’s even a page inside telling the story of the distillery, covering the insert that holds flat bottle secure. According to brand ambassador Craig ‘Spilsy’ Spilsbury, part of the Iron House ethos is using their product to tell a story, hence the choice of the book box.
All-in-all it’s a very classy item and will look good displayed on a shelf, or tucked away amongst your book collection (a feature Briggsy claims is useful if you’re smuggling it into the house under the nose of your significant other). My one complaint is that there is no latching system for the cover, which means you have to be quite careful about how you carry it, but Briggsy assures me he’s working on some solutions.
My Port Cask is part of batch P1, a marriage of two 100L casks sourced from Portugal, and is bottled at 46.8%. The spirit itself is a nice burnished bronze colour, natch of course. On the nose, P1 is sticky and fruity, like opening a bag of raisins or sultanas. Beyond that is a mix of almonds, chestnuts, dried cherries, dates, honeycomb and a malty, toasty character.
The mouth also has that malty, biscuity character as well as a dollop of frangipane, a combination that makes me think of Bakewell tart. The finish is long, sharp and fruity, with peach syrup and Turkish delight, as well as a touch of chocolate. There’s also perhaps a slight saltiness to be found, which could be attributed to the fact that Iron House is a true coastal distillery, meaning that the aging spirit can pick up elements blowing in from the neighbouring Tasman Sea.
Interestingly, those malty notes are probably a factor of the Iron House still. Because they use a hybrid system, the wash is not discharged before the new-make runs off (ie. only one run is required rather than the usual two), meaning that heavier, cooked-cereal flavours can be transported right through to the end product. Even as I’m sitting here writing this, I’m getting a residual hint of Weetbix on the back of my palate.
The Port Cask is definitely my favourite out of the current line-up and is a solid starting point for Iron House. Something else going in its favour is that while the $220 price point is pretty standard for Tasmanian fare, the bottle is 700ml, making it a much more tempting proposition. It’s well worth your time tracking down a bottle or dram of the Tasman Whisky, maybe just hold back on the victory dance when you do!
Reviewed by: Nick
What is the most important aspect of a whisky?
a) The region it hails from;
b) The age statement;
c) The prettiness of the bottle; or
d) What it actually tastes like.
While there’s a lot to like in options a) to c) (I’m a sucker for a pretty bottle!), when it comes down to it, the best thing about whisky is that you can drink it and therefore flavour is by far the most important factor.
Which is what the Adams of Adams Distillery had in mind when trying to squeeze every last tasty morsel out of cask AD0086, a French oak ex-pinot noir barrel. But before we get to option d), let us discuss a) to c).
Adams Distillery is based in the North of Tasmania at Glen Ireh Estate in Perth, just outside Launceston. They’ve been expanding the distillery since… well, pretty much since day 1, and the first few of their releases are only just entering the market.
This whisky is in no way old – by Scottish standards at least – but the smaller casking and hotter conditions in Tasmania require an earlier release. To maximise the flavour in each bottle the Adams developed the ‘slosh-cask’ technique, which simply involves regularly rolling the barrel from one side of the bond store to the other – the idea being that the process encourages greater interaction with the wood of the cask, forcing more of the barrel influence into the spirit.
The bottle is particularly pretty as well and is sure to stand out on bars with its distinctly-shaped neck. However, the most beautiful aspect is the colour of the whisky itself: a rich brown which when held up to the light glows ruby red.
It is an appropriate colour when you consider the creation of the dram. Unlike most whisky-makers in Tasmania who stick to a fairly standard grain (usually pilsner malt), Adams has experimented with using a percentage of dark crystal malt in their mash. It could be the power of suggestion… but I can’t help but feel it imparts coffee notes throughout the dram’s flavour.
On the nose there is oodles of chocolate, vanilla and stewed fruits, alongside hints of green grapes. It’s all coated in a thick layer of toffee which continues onto the palate, and is vibrant and viscous, almost chewy. There are also notes of strawberries and chocolate orange, while the finish contains strong coffee fudge flavours. For my fellow North West Coast Tasmanians, Anvers do one that this strongly reminds me of.
This whisky is not subtle – not even a little. But that’s not the point of the dram. The Adams have put flavour first and this is the result. It couldn’t be described as easy drinking and does take some taming. But like a whisky-swilling St George, I’m happy to take on this dragon. It’s exciting and moreish and most importantly of all, something a little different for Tasmanian whisky.
Posted by: Ted
The other night I grabbed my crutches (see here for that particular whisky-fuelled drama) and hobbled down to The Chapel Cafe in Burnie for a spot of whisky tasting. While my wife was still suspicious of my ability to stay upright after a few cheeky drams, I on the other hand was confident and keen not to miss out on sampling the range of Arran whiskies being offered by Destination Cellars that night.
Destination Cellars is a family-run business based in Hobart, offering a huge range of whiskies (and other drinks) and regularly holds tasting nights showcasing various products. Todd Morrison from Destination had made the trek up to the North West, glad to leave “the monsoonal conditions in Hobart” behind. Todd revealed to the crowd of 20-odd attending the tasting that Burnie had been the site of a certain important life event for him. It was at the ‘luxurious establishment’ (his words) called the Burnie Caravan Park that a young Todd tried whisky for the very first time. In town as part of a sporting tour, the weather was poor, so a bottle of Grants was procured to liven up the night. A game of spin-the-bottle ensued and a wretched Todd didn’t touch the golden spirit for another 20 years. Luckily he’s cured now apparently.
Also along for the ride and to share his knowledge of the Arran was industry stalwart, top bloke and bona-fide Scotsman Craig Johnstone. He’d been to Burnie before, but was a little surprised at the current municipal decorations littering the streets, quipping “what’s with all the trollies everywhere?” (Answer: probably ships’ crews coming into town from the port to do their shopping and dumping the trollies afterwards). Craig mentioned that the drive up had made him again appreciate the similarities between Tassie and Scotland, although apparently “the mosquitos here are much worse than the midges back home”.
On offer that night were six drams from Arran Distillery (as well as Andrew’s excellent peated ale, definitely worth a try if you visit The Chapel). Craig whipped up a hand-drawn map to show everyone the location of the Isle of Arran, down off the South West coast, using handy references to help us home in on it, such as: “Edinburgh, here, is where all the best people are from, while Glasgow, here, is where all the idiots live” and “if the Campbeltown region is the bell-end of Scotland, then the Isle of Arran is the nut sack”.
First up was the Lochranza Reserve 43%, Arran’s basic workhorse, a NAS marriage of 1st- and 2nd-fill ex-bourbon casks. Named after the distillery’s home town on the north of the island, the Lochranza was sweet and grassy on the nose, while the mouth was buttery, with citrus, red jelly and a chewy caramel finish. Nothing really to write home about, but serviceable as a basic dram.
Before we got stuck in too much, Craig led us through some whisky drinking basics with his five step assessment. First up we eyeballed the glass and took note of the colour, which “nine times out of ten means bugger all, but holding the glass up to the light really makes you look professional!” Next we sleazily checked out the legs running down the side of the glass, which apparently “some people reckon they can use to tell the maker, cask type, age and what the distiller had for breakfast. If you meet someone like that, don’t get in a car with them because they’re definitely pissed.” The remaining steps, nosing, tasting and the finish, were completed studiously and without incident by the crowd.
Next up were two wine cask finishes, the Amarone 50% and the Côte-Rôtie 50%. Both are part of the Arran ‘Cask Finishes’ range, with the Lochranza used as a base before being finished in various wine casks (others include Sassicaia and Sauternes) to create limited edition releases. While both are red wines, the Amarone and the Côte-Rôtie imparted very different flavours on the spirit. The Amarone was dry and earthy on the nose, with a hint of grapes and damp moss, while the Côte-Rôtie was sticky and jammy, with quince paste and arrowroot. On the mouth, the Amarone was fruity, almost like Starburst chews and had a finish reminiscent of Cognac, while the Côte-Rôtie was very sharp, with almond paste, maraschino cherries and a salt water finish. Craig noted that Arran goes for wide, shallow flavour in its spirit, then uses the finishes to create depth.
The fourth dram on offer was something a bit special, the limited edition Master of Distilling II: The Man With the Golden Glass 51.8% (the releases are themed – last time was Hitchcock apparently). Created by Master Distiller James McTaggart (who Craig knows and apparently likes ‘shit beer, great whisky and fine wines’) to celebrate his 12th anniversary with Arran, the 12yo whisky is finished using rare Palo Cortado sherry casks. Craig was quite enthused about the unusual finish, noting “this isn’t a thermonuclear sherry bomb missile, but it is one of the weirdest sherry cask whiskies I’ve ever had.”
The flavour was indeed interesting, with hazelnuts, damp leaf litter, ginger snap biscuits, chocolate brownie, oiled metal and raisins on the nose. The mouth was biscuity with salted caramel, sultanas, and liveliness that ran right across the palate. The sherry finish was very distinct, with Craig commenting that it was “the most honest sherry-influenced whisky I’ve ever had”. It’s something that’s definitely worth a try if you come across it.
After we had finished dissecting the Master of Distilling II, we were ordered by Todd to “get your pipes and smoking jackets, because we’re going to slip into some peaty whiskies”. Machrie Moor, a peat bog on the western side of the island, gives its name to Arran’s range of peated whiskies. Todd admitted that he wasn’t always the biggest fan of peaty whiskies: “There’s warnings in nature – colours, smells and flavours that say ‘stay away!’. That was peated whisky to me.” These days he’s a convert and was keen to get stuck in.
The two Machrie Moor expressions on offer were essentially the same, but one was bottled at 46% while the other was a cask strength at 56.2% (to appeal to the French market apparently). According to Craig, back in the day most of the distilleries on Arran were illicit and made heavily peated whiskies as peat was the only fuel source, but now the style is the exception.
The smoke in the 46% was soft on the nose with a medicinal/rubbery texture and a hint of metal and smoked fish. In comparison, the cask strength was oily and resinous, with an intense aroma of freshly sawn timber, almost like Huon pine, followed by vanilla milkshake, home-made marshmallow and sea stones. On the mouth, the 46% was sweet and light, with raspberries on the fore and a curl of smoke on the finish, while the cask strength was hot and bright, with smoky bacon and smouldering green coastal vegetation. Both were very moreish, and the delicate 46% would make a great whisky to start a peat novice on.
At the end of the night the hosts took a vote to see what everyone’s favourites were, with Todd drily commenting that “this is going to be a somewhat North Korean voting system. The end result doesn’t actually matter, but we’re going to make you do it anyway”. Despite voter confusion and some potential rigging, every dram got some love, but the runaway winner was the Master of the Distilling II, with the cask strength Machrie Moor the runner up.
The night was a great success, particularly because I managed to get home again without breaking my other leg. Thanks to the enthusiasm shown by the local whisky fans, Destination Cellars will be back at the Chapel again on September 21 with a new range of whiskies, potentially lining up a selection of sherry bombs. Big thanks as always to Andrew at The Chapel Cafe for supporting whisky events in Burnie, to Destination Cellars for inviting me along as their guest, and of course to Todd and Craig for being damn fine hosts.
See you all next time!