fire

Glenfiddich Experimental Series #04: Fire & Cane 43%

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:

  1. People who don’t know any better and for whom single malt = Glenfiddich (this is what they get if they want to be posh and step up from the Johnnie Walker). Products of William Grant & Sons’ decades of advertising or ‘Mad Men’ fans, they will definitely ask for it served on the rocks.
  2. Fence sitters who don’t really care one way or the other. Would probably drink with coke if you let them (Philistines).
  3. Mad haters who loathe Glenfid because it’s ‘big whisky’ and ‘such a cliche’. Probably wears a moustache and likes single origin American ryes that you’ve never heard of or underground independent release.
  4. Tourists, because when in Scotland, the UK… (“Waidammit, hey honey, is Scotland in the Ewe-naa’ded Kingdom?” “Ah honestly don’t know Earl, is that the same as Enga-land?” Scots: “Not for long if we can help it!” #brexit #bullshit #freedom!)
  5. People who genuinely like Glenfiddich and recognise that while they might be a cliche, they actually make some pretty decent drams. Are probably fans of the 18yo, have eyed off an Age of Discovery in duty free and will half-heartedly defend the 12yo against the haters.

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

‘Big Peat’ or ‘The Perks of Random Conversation at the Bar’

Reviewed by: Ted

Big Peat

This story begins, as so many great stories do: m’colleague and I were at the bar. Admittedly not an unusual state of affairs. On this particular night we were chatting to our barman mate, and a friend of his that he’d just introduced us to. For the purposes of this story, let’s call him Doug. Doug was feeling in a rather celebratory mood as he’d just scored himself a job working as a pharmacist in sunny (and I mean that in the most ball-of-thermonuclear-fire sense of the word) Alice Springs, which is pretty much smack bang in the centre of Australia. Quite a change from little old Burnie on the NW Coast of Tasmania, which can occasionally be sunny if it really makes the effort.

After the usual necessary social preamble was out of the way, the conversation happily turned to that most mysterious, complicated and variable of subjects… women! No, wait, I meant whisky! Doug, as it turned out, was quite the connoisseur (and not just of whisky. On a side note he very charitably bought us a glass of Cognac from the highest extremity of the top shelf, an interesting experience to say the least). We all shared a common passion for peated whiskies, particularly those from what is arguably the spiritual home of the smoky dram: Islay.

These days people mostly talk about Islay in terms of its single malts, but historically the island’s distilleries injected popular blends with some much needed character (and they still do!). However, there is a theory that history works in cycles, and what was once old becomes new again (which probably explains the questionable return of scrunchies and chokers). Interestingly enough, what was getting Doug excited that evening wasn’t the single malts from one of the hallowed Islay distilleries, but a blend. An all-Islay blend. “It’s fantastic! You should track it down”. Fateful words readers, because a few cheeky drams relaxing the mind and the heady world of internet shopping instantly at ones fingertips is a dangerous combination. Let’s just say that I didn’t take much convincing, and moments later I was the proud owner of a bottle of this curious beastie.

Cut to a few weeks later and m’colleague and I were staring with anticipation at a large post box that we had dubbed ‘The Bunker’. With no little ceremony (mostly involving the humming of the tune from the start of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) we cracked open the box, and were greeted by one of the coolest bits of tube artwork this side of Eilean Mhic Coinnich. Meet the Big Peat, an all-Islay blend purporting to contain ‘a shovelful’ of single malts from the distilleries of Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore, and Port Ellen. The aforementioned artwork is a brilliant graphic-style picture of a hirsute gentleman standing in front of what I can only assume is the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse on a beautiful island day (which is to say that the sky is the colour of tea, and our man has his face squinched up against the wind, which is trying its best to blow his hair away).

Chuckling with glee we popped the top and unsheathed our prize from its scabbard. Gasps of surprise met the sight before us (don’t worry, we hadn’t been ripped off and sent a bottle of JW Red instead). You see, normally we would picture the drams of Islay as being dark and brooding in hue, but the Big Peat was filled with bright spirit the colour of pale golden straw. Some people just like to mess with your mind. Of course, there was only one sensible recourse to meet the conundrum before us, and it wasn’t hiding under the table. Bust out the glasses and crack that sucker open good sir!

A generous splash of whisky later and we were ready to begin uncovering the secrets of the Big Peat. There was no denying that it lived up to its name. The smoke was there as soon as we poured it into the glasses, infused with plenty of dark chocolate, malt, rich earth and those medicinal notes that Ileach whisky is famous for. We were in no doubt about the heritage of the spirit sitting before us, whatever the colour. A closer snort revealed thick sweet notes and perhaps a bit of overripe fruit, like a squashy banana. We eyed each other off; curious, but not too bad a start.

Slurp! Hot, woody, ashy smoke poured into our mouths and then… not much else. Sure, there was a light, sweet after-taste, but it was gone in a flash, and all that was left was spicy, medicinal smoke coiling around the tongue. It was like being on the edge of a bush fire; plenty of smoke getting all up in your face, but no blazing heat to go with it. Hmmm…

We could see what Douglas Laing & Co, the makers, were trying to get at; surely crafting a vatted blend out of the great single malts of Islay should be as awesome a combo as haggis with tatties and neeps! Yet somehow they’d got a wee bit over excited with the whole BIG PEAT malarkey and forgotten that it isn’t just the smoke that makes an Islay dram exceptional, it’s the bricks and mortar and the shape of the fireplace too. The way that sweetness melts into savoury, medicinal tang challenges the tastebuds, dark flavours are shot through with light, seaside elements help wash everything across the palate, and then finally the smoke that sits over them all. It’s a complex ecosystem that requires careful balance to work well.

Sitting back we mused upon the Big Peat. By no means did we think that it was a bad dram, far from it, just that somehow it deserved to be better. Perhaps the mix wasn’t quite right, maybe a dash of Bruichladdich or Bunnahabhain could have rounded out the flavours working underneath the smoke. Who knows? What we did know though, was that the Big Peat had challenged us, and that a random discussion in a bar can lead to interesting and unexpected places. So go on, strike up that conversation, you might just find something new.

★★★