Month: March 2017

Confessions of a Geriatric Whisky Newbie Part 2

Posted by: Chris AKA the Geriatric Newbie

(Part 1 appeared here as ‘Queries from a first time Waffler’)

I’ve been a seasoned whisky drinker for over three months now, so it’s time to look back on the journey so far. If ‘seasoned’ is the right word to use, rather than just ‘pickled’.

To recap: I took up whisky drinking rather late, at the age of seventy, as part of a search for a relaxing and hopefully slightly disreputable hobby to help brighten up the declining years. Somewhat unexpectedly, what began as a plan to buy just two samples and test the waters rapidly expanded into a collection of over thirty bottles. Perhaps there was a need to make up for lost time in the search for the perfect drop. Or perhaps I was corrupted by reading Whisky Waffle? Yes, that must be it – it couldn’t possibly be all my own fault. But the two biggest factors have been that the research is fascinating and, it has to be said, it can be a lot of fun having a hobby that you can drink.

I can’t claim that money was no object – some whisky enthusiasts can apparently afford truly crazy money in pursuit of their passion – but I did have enough saved up to be able to build a small collection without being restricted to only the cheapest varieties. The whiskies I’ve accumulated include some single malts and (whisper it….) some blends. The least I paid was $35 for a Ballantine’s Finest and the most expensive bottle, so far, was $114 for an Aberlour A’bunadh.

For the record, I bought blends from Ballantine’s, Chivas, Dewars, and Johnnie Walker. And Irish Whiskey from Jameson, Bushmill and Teeling. The single malts range from the Lowlands of Scotland to the Highlands and some from Speyside, plus a couple from Islay. Finally, some from Penderyn – the only distillery in Wales.  I hasten to add that they’re not all open yet. Didn’t know that I was capable of such restraint. At least, I’m fairly sure there’s one still sealed somewhere… exploring other parts of the world, naturally including Tasmania, will come later.

But where should a newbie begin? One can only hope to scratch the surface of the hundreds, if not thousands, of whiskies now on the market. So many decisions to make. Do I want to become the sort of afficionado who will only sip the finest single malts, and actively enjoy getting snooty and sniffy about blends? Or will I aim to become a party animal who will try anything provided it’s sloshed into a glass with enough cola? Despite what I initially imagined, it appears that drinking blended whisky, and also adding some kind of mixer, is by far the most popular way of enjoying it worldwide. Apparently, historically it always has been. Despite the rise in popularity of  single malts over  the past few decades, over 90% of the output of the Scottish distilleries still goes into blended whisky.

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Attempting the correct style of snooty face

Soooo…. This whisky business might be more complicated than I thought. It seems that I will not only be chugging it down neat, delightful though that is. Maybe some long whisky drinks could be just the thing for summer. I could try some tentative experiments with some of that Ballantine’s or perhaps the Johnnie Walker Black Label. That’s not a hanging offence, is it?? I might experiment with a range of mixers – in particular, soda, dry ginger, cola and coconut water. Yes, apparently coconut is very big as a whisky mixer in some parts of the world. Green tea too. Who knew? Not me, until I started doing the reading. Of course, soda, dry ginger ale and other mixers have always been popular, even in relatively traditional circles. Adding soda or ‘dry’ to the whisky was certainly the mainstream fashion among adults when I was a boy. Admittedly that was back in the middle of last century, so things may have moved on a bit….

I bought a variety of whisky books, including a couple by the splendid Charles MacLean. Also The World Atlas of Whisky and Whisky: The Manual, both by respected whisky writer Dave Broom. All are good value, and they point out that whisky has a long and venerable history as a mixer. Indeed in the early days it was almost exclusively drunk mixed with a variety of herbs, spices and other ingredients. Maybe it was too rough to get down neat? So, mixing is neither recent nor sacreligious! Good to know that. Nick and Ted may disagree though. I may even get evicted from their Tasmanian Temple of Tippling for mischievous mixing. Holding my breath now…

Of course some drinkers have always liked their Scotch neat or with a splash of water, but the big marketing push to sell single malt Scotches to the world as a solo drink apparently began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. According to Charles Maclean and Dave Broom, two factors drastically reduced the demand from the whisky blenders who had previous bought the majority of the output from the distilleries.  Firstly, a slump in the global economy and secondly the rapid rise in popularity of competing spirits such as vodka, white rum, etc. and of course wine. So the makers needed to look for an additional way of marketing their products. Building new market images for their single malts was the answer. Lucky us. Even at this early stage I’ve sampled some very nice single malts that I probably won’t be trying with cola just yet.

But which styles will make the cut? Neat Johnnie Walker Green label? Auchentoshan Three Wood? Will Lagavulin and Coke make the grade? Ballantine’s and coconut juice? Place your bets now, and stay tuned. Many thanks to Nick and Ted for the chance to waffle on.

Cheers to all.  Chris.

Fortunately, as you can see, all this dedicated whisky testing has had no noticeable effect on me at all. Just lucky I guess.

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Inver House Green Plaid

Reviewed by: Ted

Inver House Green Plaid

Earlier this year I found myself hunting around for a passable quaffing Scotch to take away on our annual summer pilgrimage to Coles Bay (for those who are not familiar, Coles Bay, on the east coast of Tassie, is the town that sits on the edge of Freycinet National Park, home to the world famous Wineglass Bay. Check it out!).

M’colleague and I would define a quaffing Scotch as a whisky at the lower end of the price scale that manages not to taste like paint strippers and that you are more than happy splash around while in company. Like on a camping trip, for example.

After a bit of poking around I came across the Inver House Green Plaid Scotch whisky. On the face of it, the Inver House certainly looks like it fits into the sub-$40 (AUD) category (I think mine was about $35). Take four parts green tartan, add a crest, a couple of sprigs of Scotch thistle and a blurb about how Clan Donald is totally the bestiest evaaaa!!!, and there you have it.

But dig a little deeper and suddenly the Inver House starts to look a bit more interesting under the hood (apologies to my mother for this turn of phrase, but ‘under the bonnet’ just doesn’t seem to work as well somehow). Turns out Inver House Distillers Pty Ltd have quite a choice little stable of distilleries in their portfolio, namely – Pulteney, Balblair, Knockdhu, Speyburn and Balmenach.

Discovering that little nugget of information begs one the question: could this el-cheapo blend actually be a nugget of shining liquid gold??? Well… no. But it’s not too bad either.

As one might expect based on its (potential) components, the Inver House is fresh and bright, with a lick of grain, pear, apricot, grass and hazelnuts. Could that be a faint whiff of coastal air from Pulteney I detect… or just the result of my fervid imagination? It’s a tad rough, yeah, but not disastrously so.

The mouth is bright and pithy, with a generous hit of Lisbon lemons, butterscotch and wood polish. The finish makes your mouth pucker a bit like you’ve just taken a bite out of the aforementioned citrus fruits and then licked a metal spoon.

Look, the Inver House isn’t going to win any awards, regardless of its theoretical hidden pedigree. It’s kind of like when someone claims to be an Nth degree relation to the royal family. Cool, but there’s a lot of stronger contenders to get through before they get anywhere near the throne.

But for what it is, the Inver House is actually pretty good. You can happily drink it straight if that’s your groove, or if your mates want to mix it with coke then you’re not going to have to get your disapproving whisky-wanker face on. If you want a budget dram that you can share liberally with friends and have a good night of it, the Inver House has you covered.

★★

Troubling revelations emerge about embattled Tasmanian distiller Nant

Posted by: Ted

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Things just got a little bit crazy in the Tasmanian distilling scene, with a new twist emerging in the furore surrounding embattled distillery Nant. Once a force to be reckoned with in the nascent Tassie whisky industry, the bottom appeared to fall out of the boat last year when Nant founder Keith Batt filed for bankruptcy and the distillery was taken on by Australian Whisky Holdings. At that time AWH promised that it would conduct a full audit and investigation of Nant’s finances and stock.

Now according to a bombshell article released today by national broadcaster ABC News, it is alleged that the audit has revealed that over 700 barrels purchased by investors were never actually filled. As part of its start up business model, Nant ran a barrel buy-back scheme where investors could purchase a number of barrels, with guaranteed yearly return of around 9%. After a period of around four years when the whisky had matured, Nant would buy back the barrels for bottling and sale. Happy days, drams all round.

However, in the period leading up to the crash there were worrying rumours going around about investors having trouble accessing the barrels that they had purchased or selling them back to the distillery. Once Nant passed into the hands of AWH, many investors were left unsure whether they would get anything back at all.

Now according to the ABC News article, while AWH have said that while many people will still get paid out, the owners of the non-existent barrels will have to take up the issue with Nant.

The tale gets ever twistier too, as apparently a large number of barrels have already been decanted and sold without the knowledge and remuneration of investors. Troublingly, many were also found to have their owner names and numbers sanded off. Weirdly, a significant number of barrels were found to be filled with new-make at an ABV of only 45%, well below the usual cask strength.

Where to from here remains to be seen, but hopefully investors left in the lurch will be able to find some sort of resolution to their plight. While this event may cause some concern for onlookers, they should rest assured that the Tasmanian whisky community as a whole is resilient and continues to be committed to crafting the highest quality, locally produced spirits.

The only question that remains at this time is whether to crack that unopened bottle of Nant still hiding on the shelf.

Sprinkbank Gaja Barolo Cask

Reviewed by: Nick

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This unique little gem from Campbeltown’s Sprinkbank Distillery is a fascinating drop in that every time I sample it, it tastes different! No, I don’t think it is rapidly changing in the bottle, oxidising or degrading. I think it just messes with your head.

Let me just provide a bit of context. The Gaja Barolo Cask is part of the limited edition ‘Wood Expressions’ series which, as well as making me snigger immaturely, sounds rather interesting. The bottle in question takes the Springbank spirit and ages it for four years in refill ex-bourbon casks before being transferred into ‘fresh Gaja Barolo casks’ where it remains for a further five years in Campbeltown’s seaside atmosphere.

For the uninitiated (like me before I did my research), Gaja is an Italian wine producer and Barolo is a light red grape. Both aspects make this a very specific maturation for the whisky and one unlikely to be replicated any time soon.

Completing a list of tasting notes for this bottle is a tricky task due to the aforementioned chameleon nature of the dram. If I have just had a light Speyside number then I notice a whole heap of peat on the nose. If I’ve just had a highland dram then I discover raspberries and cream. The palate is sometimes spicy – it is bottled at 54.7% – but other times goes down smoothly and evenly. Occasionally I notice the oily maritime notes although often I find flavours of lemons and oranges. The finish usually lingers, with a wisp of smoke or hint of chocolate.

The bottom line is, no matter the flavours I get out of it, I’ve always enjoyed this dram. Sure, I haven’t been able to put my finger on its true nature, but that just adds to the fun. It is a mystery of a dram. I’ve still got a third of a bottle left – feel free to stop by and help me solve it.

***

(Although sometimes ****)