Terroir/tɛrˈwɑː (n) the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a whisky by the environment in which it is produced
Terroir is a divisive subject. How much impact can water, soil, air and climate really have on a whisky’s flavour in comparison to cask types when aging and cut points when distilling?
I was in the camp that would claim ‘negligible’. And then I went to McHenry Distillery. Now I get it. Because when we drank a specific whisky in a specific location… it all lined up. It all made sense. McHenry is a distillery like no other in Australia. In fact, the only comparison you could make… is Scotland.
The Scottish connections run deeply through the veins of McHenry Distillery. The day we visited veered wildly between cold and freezing with the occasional gust of snow. In fact, the near identical rainfall and humidity levels mean whisky maturation is more Scotland than Tasmania, even down to the cask size: there is hardly a 20 litre barrel to be found, with 200 litres or more preferred. And then there’s the man himself: founder and head distiller, William McHenry, who began seriously entertaining the idea of making whisky when a friend suggested that he had the right name for it.
William, or Bill, when Mr Lark is not in the room, made the momentous decision in 2010 while living in Sydney, to uproot his family and move their future business to a remote wilderness block half way up Mount Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula. Standing at the top looking out across the wilderness really does feel like you’ve come to the edge of the world. While these two cultural extremes may have been jarring for the family, Bill immediately felt at peace, particularly when he discovered a natural spring flowing out of the mountain.
“Having grown up in Adelaide, the driest state in the driest country on earth, when you have a water source on your property, you cherish it. It’s gold. And because the water coming off the Southern Ocean is falling through some of the cleanest air in the world, it deposits some of the best quality water you can find on the planet. And that certainly makes this place special.”
After tapping into the spring to provide the water for his whisky, he got to work turning this untamed patch of land into a distillery.
The site resembles a frontier town. A series of long, narrow buildings spreading outwards from an off-centre origin, the timber cladding all rapidly turning a distinguished silver. It is a distillery that has clearly expanded organically, a new building established here or there when the need arose. There are small cabins for guests to stay in, and bond stores starting to be dotted around the hill. And there’s plenty of room for more.
Half way up Mount Arthur is the gin-making pavilion, the Devils Lair cottage and most special of all: The Bothy. Sheltering inside the tiny room next to a roaring fire with a dram of McHenry whisky while a storm rages is one of the most authentic whisky moments Whisky Waffle have experienced. As Bill poured us a dram, we realised this is how the environment influences a whisky. Three mates, four walls, a sleepy dog and a roaring fire. This is what terroir is all about. It may not be the traditional French definition, but the impact the sense of place had on our interpretation the flavour of is undeniable.
If it feels like McHenry Distillery has been around for a while but not released much whisky, it’s because this is largely true. Bill has no interest in releasing whisky before its time and would largely like to stick to vatted age statement releases. Again, sticking to the formula laid down by the Scots.
Instead, you may know McHenry only for their gin. Bill was an early adopter of the while-we-wait method of gin creation and quickly became one of Australia’s most renowned gin makers, even becoming the official gin provider for government house with their exceptional ‘Federation Gin’.
However, fellow Wafflers take heed: 2021 will see some 10-year-old McHenry whisky come of age and, in a few years, Bill hopes to have a readily-available supply of consistently flavoured whisky unleashed upon the world.
And when you do get your hands on a bottle, you can easily pour yourself a tasty dram of McHenry whisky wherever you are in the world. But sitting in a storm-lashed bothy at the edge of the world? That is the truest experience of all. Experience that and you might finally believe in Terroir.
Diageo, for those who don’t know, is the largest spirit producer in the western world. Their whisky makers include heavy hitters such as Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Talisker and Caol Ila. However, these ‘classic malts’ only constitute part of their collection – there are a number of other distilleries whose spirit you probably would have only tasted mixed into a dram of Johnnie Walker.
Dailuaine is one such distillery, a Speyside establishment known for its heavily sherried style. While you won’t find it in many mainstream bottle shops, it is not impossible to track down an independently aged version and if you find some hidden upon a dusty shelf, then it is well worth picking up. This particular Flora & Fauna bottling is bottled at 43% after aging for 16 years in ex-oloroso barrels, a maturation that has contributed significantly to its flavour.
On the nose, the taster is immediately presented with the classic fruitcake aromas typical of its cask type. Hints of cinnamon doughnuts follow, alongside fresh fruit such as apples and melon. On the palate there are tangy orange juice flavours alongside buttery shortbread and chocolate coated raisins. The finish is long and chewy with toffee-almonds and a hint of lingering oak.
While Dailuaine may not be the most famous of Diageo’s stable, it proves that there’s a lot of exciting whiskies to try if you stray from the well-worn path. Next time it might be a Strathmill or an Inchgower, or perhaps a Blair Athol or a Mannochmore…
So, acting on a whim, I popped over to sunny Tel Aviv in Israel the other day to do a spot of whisky tasting and a distillery tour.
Actually, that’s a lie. The government won’t let us leave Australia yet and I was sitting around freezing my tits off on a wintry Tasmanian evening. But, through the magic of the internet, I was still able to go venturing off into distant exotic lands to partake in a dram and a tour of Milk & Honey Distillery (M&H), Israel’s first whisky producer.
The Spirit Safe and Alba Whisky, the local distributor for M&H, were kind enough to send us a sample pack and an invite to join the Australian (digital) launch of M&H. Zooming in from my rather messy back room, I joined a group of fellow digital denizens to land in the rather more well appointed office of Ian McKinlay, Managing Director and highly knowledgeable chap at The Spirit Safe.
Greeting us with a Scottish brogue, softened by many years spent in the Antipodes, Ian made sure we were seated comfortably and then hit the magic button to beam us half-way across the globe to the shores of the Med Sea. Landing in Jaffa, the ancient port city from which Tel Aviv grew, we were met by the beaming faces of Tal Chotiner (International Sales) and Tomer Goren (Master Distiller) at M&H.
They were probably happy because it was 30°C and humid in Tel Aviv that day (like most days there during summer). Tal previously worked in various roles for Diageo, while Tomer worked at Tomintoul and Springbank, as well as completing his Master Distiller degree two years ago. After introductions, sitting in front of a webcam in an office, the lads leapt up to take us on a tour of the facility, Tal trailing Tomer with a smartphone. Technology eh!?
We wandered through the small visitor centre/bar, taking in the striking black and yellow colour scheme of M&H, before stumbling out into a sprawling, maze-like facility that used to be home to a bakery. Tal remembered visiting it when he was young and the pervasive aroma of the baking bread – “One good smell traded for another!” quipped Ian.
We visited the backyard, where water from the municipal supply arrives and is mixed with salts, the grain mill, the locally made one-tonne mash tun and the four large washbacks (two more are already in the pipeline). The usual fermentation time is 72hrs, but this drops to about 68hrs during summer. Interestingly, at least from an Australian perspective, the distillery doesn’t operate on the weekend because it is kosher, observing the Jewish Shabbat.
Next up were the stills, a 9000L beauty of a copper wash still that the team found in a shed in Romania, but probably originated in Spain, and a custom-built 3000L copper spirit still from Germany. Apparently they thought the wash still was rather smaller based on it’s picture, but it turns out the door it was sitting next to was actually a massive barn door. The lyne arms slope down at 45° angle to produce a very oily newmake that holds up well under fast maturation. Nearby was a small 250L copper pot belly/onion head still used for gin production.
For the final part of the tour we were taken into the warehouses. #1 housed 200 or so privately owned casks, while #2 and #3 were home to a further 2000-odd production casks, looking very spiffy in M&H livery, with their black heads and yellow lettering. Most were ex-bourbon, but there were some other very curious editions that we’ll come back to shortly.
Back in the office, Tal and Tomer took us through a screen-shared presentation that delved further into the brand. The name of the distillery comes from the description of the Jewish promised land in the Bible as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3). The logo, a bull with black and yellow stripes, further references this (apparently they tried a cow first, but it just didn’t look as cool).
Climate plays a massive role for whisky maturation in Israel. For a country that is only 420km long and 115km wide, there are actually five distinct climate zones: Upper Galilee, Jerusalem Mountains, Mediterranean Coast, Desert and the Dead Sea, a collective described by M&H’s late mentor, Dr Jim Swan, as the ‘Climate Playground’. M&H make use of this and age barrels in various locations around the country, with interesting results.
For example, we were shown two bottles of whisky that were produced at the same time using identical spirit and barrels, but one aged in Tel Aviv on the coast and the other at the Dead Sea (which is 430m below sea level but very dry). The results were incredible, with the Dead Sea dram markedly darker than the Tel Aviv one. Even Jerusalem, which is only “45 minutes and 3000 years” away from Tel Aviv according to Tal, produces noticeably distinct results due to the difference in altitude (754m).
In terms of barrelling, the majority are ex-bourbon and STR (‘shaved, toasted and re-charred’, a technique developed by Dr Jim Swan), which develop lots of character in the first year before balancing out. Beyond this, more interesting casks such as locally produced kosher wine barrels are used, which is fitting, as according to Tomer “we have a 4000yr old wine culture, so it’s part of our DNA.”
They also have a seasoning project running in Spain with a Bodega that is able to produce kosher Pedro Ximenez and Olorosso sherry. Probably the most interesting barrels in use have previously held pomegranate wine, which according to Tomer is a signature Israeli flavour.
The whisky we were sent with our tasting pack was M&H’s ‘Classic Cask’, a 3yo aged in 75% ex-bourbon, 20% ex-red wine STR and 5% virgin oak and bottled at the magical 46% ABV. To me the nose was oily, creamy and gooey, with peach, apricot, custard, butterscotch and marshmallow, while the mouth was dry, with toasted timber and wine. It was really different to anything I could think of, which I suspect was a product of the unique Israeli terroir and climate, but I really liked it.
Speaking of the climate, the high daily temperatures and humidity and cool night develop huge amounts of action in the barrels, meaning that maturity is reached very quickly. There is a price to be paid though, as the angels’ share is around 9-11% annually (and can even be as high as 25% in areas like the Dead Sea!!!). Ideally Tal and Tomer would like to see their larger barrels reaching around 4-7 years in Tel Aviv and 4 years in other areas.
As well as the Classic Cask, the other drams in the core range will include ex-sherry, ex-wine and peated (using peated barley from the Czech Republic). Additionally, there will also be a revolving special edition range featuring interesting editions such as the ex-pomegranate casks and Israeli ex-chardonnay casks from the Jerusalem mountains.
The tour ended with a tasting of M&H’s Levantine gin, made using za’atar (a ancient native oregano), and their barrel aged gin under the cheerful gaze of Oded Weiss, M&H’s gin specialist. While Tal rustled up some G&T’s garnished with orange peel and fresh thyme, the team took some questions and reflected on the nature of their operation.
According to Tal and Tomer, in general Israeli consumption of alcohol is quite low, so M&H was founded with export in mind (which is lucky for Australia). “There aren’t really any rules in Israel around whisky production, so we decided to follow the most respected model out there, Scotland. That’s the reason we went for a whisky that was at least 3yo, as the international market would accept that more easily and allow us to build a solid reputation based on our quality.”
In Tal’s eyes, one of the major benefits of being a craft distillery, particularly in Israel, is the flexibility: “We throw ideas around as a team, like ‘wanna do a rum cask? Yeah, let’s do that!’. It’s about running ahead and thinking outside the box.” Tomer agrees: “Where we live is the culture capital of Israel and we’re able to draw influence from all over the world. Tel Aviv itself means ‘old ruins’ and ‘spring’, which I think is a reflection on how we make our whisky. It’s traditional ways with crazy new ideas.”
As Ian brought the session to a close, I reflected on the experience I had just had. I’ve been to internet tastings before, but I still think it was pretty amazing that I was able to sit here in Tassie, with everything that’s been going on in the world lately, and ‘visit’ a distillery in Tel Aviv in real time, something that I would probably never have a chance to experience otherwise (you never know though…). I suspect that live online events will become a staple in the future and allow the whisky community to connect with each other and share their passion in new and creative ways.
If there’s a silver lining to come out of COVID-19, it’s that what’s keeping us apart might just bring us together across the world like never before. And these days, that can only be a good thing, right?
You can purchase Milk & Honey Distillery’s products in Australia from The Spirit Safe
It’s my Dad’s birthday today. I suppose this day tends to make me a bit introspective because he died in 2013. Since then I’ve been finding my way through life in certain aspects without the guiding hand of a father, a fact that I regret more as I grow older and one that I didn’t appreciate enough as a callow youth. History and literature warn us of this condition of course, but I suppose it’s hard to understand at the time… and by then it’s too late.
The reason I first started this musing, over breakfast, as you do, was that I was trying to decide what dram would be best to toast to his health tonight (ironic as that is). I’ve mentioned this before, but for some reason I always associate him with Dalwhinnie 15 (whisky-wise at any rate). It’s a bit of a mystery why really, as it’s not like he was a great aficionado of Scotland’s highest distillery.
If anything, I should remember him by the 1L bottles of Johnnie Walker Red he used to keep in the pantry and swore by as a cold remedy. But the whisky snob in me has become jaded against the walking man in the red jacket I think, so while the memory is fond, the desire to imbibe from that particular cup is lacking.
I suppose, getting down to it, I think the real reason I entwine my father and the Dalwhinnie is purely a selfish one – I bought him the bottle. So, is it really a reflection of him, or of me? My own tastes overriding his in my memory?
To mount a defence against myself, the sentiment comes from a place of love. I bought him the bottle when m’colleague and I were first beginning our whisky journey, back before Whisky Waffle was even a thing. Back when we were in a Cold War arms race to impress each other with ever more interesting bottles.
During my teenage years and as a young adult, I had always struggled to talk with my father. I mean in the deep, honest and open sense, sharing the deeper parts of myself with him. We were quite different people, and it didn’t help that I was wrapped up in the arrogance of youth and he tended towards quietude and reserve.
I suspect that with the Dalwhinnie 15, my hope was that here was something that we could enjoy together. I know that I wanted to share my newfound interest with him and to talk with him about it, even though he probably found me slightly pretentious (still am?). The quality of the 15 would have been a good social leveller though. We did enjoy the occasional dram when I was around too, but whether it opened us up I’m not as sure.
I know from friends and the world at large that young men (hopefully) tend to develop a deeper, more equal and respectful relationship with their fathers as they grow older. I’m generally pretty sanguine about his death in itself, but I do regret that he is gone. With maturity and hindsight, I wonder what our relationship, perhaps even friendship (which is a nice thought), would be now. Alas, so many unanswered questions, so many things left unsaid.
I still have that bottle of Dalwhinnie sitting on my shelf. Of course I reclaimed it after the fact, it would be bad manners not to! It’s down to the dregs now, but for some reason I haven’t been able to finish it.
Part of me has just been avoiding writing a review about it. But perhaps, subconsciously, it’s because the bottle is wrapped up with other memories? Would another bottle make it easier to put pen to paper and record the facts as I see, smell and taste them? Perhaps.
Keeping that bottle alive in such a diminished state has been doing it no favours either. After at least five years rattling around the bottom, exposure to time and the elements will have irrevocably changed the nature of the spirit by a thousand tiny cuts… Huh, that’s quite a good metaphor for incurable cancer actually.
I am quietly an advocate for the right to die with dignity, to bring about closure while enough shreds of a person’s humanity remain. Or even just to be able to make choices about how and where you would like to die, assisted or not, if that luxury is able to be afforded to you. My heart broke enough with the gifts of time and the acceptance of Death’s ultimatum, so I cannot begin to fathom the world-shattering pain that suddenness would bring, although I have trodden the broken glass of its edges.
So, I think that the time has come to bring an end to my bottle. Another one can always be bought and the same memory attached to that mnemonic vessel time and again (as long as Diageo doesn’t decide to drop the 15). It is unfair to the ideals that I originally bought it, to share with my father, and the effort that went into creating the liquid itself, to allow it to moulder away on my shelf. Whisky is, of course, for drinking.
No, this one is for me, as my porridge grows cold in the microwave and a small voice in my head quietly screams that I need to get to work (luckily the commute is just to the back room, as I’m working from home during COVID-19). But overriding all else is Dad’s voice, growing fainter every year, which has derailed me on this day to come unbidden into my mind and drip bittersweet words onto the page.
Or maybe it’s just me, alone at the kitchen table.
You know in sci-fi/superhero movies and comics how a certain event happens and suddenly strange things start to occur elsewhere? Like, a glowing, green meteorite crashes into Sydney and not long after a group of lads in rural New South Wales start to evolve in response? Maybe they even join forces as a team, with cool names (cos you gotta have cool names) and start to explore their powers? And of course, they have to have a rad lair to set up shop in.
The stuff of fiction? Maybe. But it was easy to draw comparisons with these elements when we caught up with Dean Druce from Corowa Distillery about the release of ‘The Corowa Characters’ single malt wine cask –
Whisky Waffle: G’day Drucey, we recently got our hands on the Characters and it’s a cracker. On the side of the bottle are four caricatures sporting interesting names: The Boss, The Dreaded Distiller, The Fuzz and Muscles. Your website says the release ‘celebrates the people behind the whisky made here by us in Corowa’, but doesn’t really say who these guys are. Can you tell us a bit more about the lads hanging out on the side of the bottle?
Dean Druce: I’m the Managing Director, therefore I’m ‘The Boss’. [I’m also] the ‘ideas man’ as my favourite line is “I’ve been thinking……..”, at which point everyone starts to cringe.
Beau Schilg is the ‘Dreaded Distiller’ due to his hairstyle. The ‘perfectionist’ relates to how seriously he takes his craft of producing good spirit.
Tyler Spencer is our brewer. ‘The Fuzz’ likes his own jokes and comes up with lots of one-liners hence the ‘resident funnyman’.
Paul Miegel is our production manager. ‘Muscles’, like all good nicknames, came from a case of mistaken identity. It’s also his social media persona from hosting a 60sec episode each month on Facebook & YouTube titled ‘A minute with Muscles’. He has thousands of followers, thus the title of ‘social media influencer’.
WW: Sounds like a solid crew. So were you all in it from the start/known each other for ages, or did people gradually come on board over time?
DD: When my father, Neil, bought the former Corowa Flour Mill for $1 from the local Council in 2010 [Ed. definitely a story to be explored at another time], I moved to Corowa to manage the business. I enjoyed playing AFL, so joining the local Corowa/Rutherglen FC seemed a good way to meet people and become part of the community. That’s where I met Beau.
As renovations continued, I asked around the club if anyone was interested in making whisky [and] Beau put his hand up. When we started distilling in 2016, the ‘Dreaded Distiller’ was born. [He was] one of the youngest distillers in the country at the time.
Tyler is the son of a local football hero and a good player in his own right. He was looking for a career change and we were looking for a brewer so he joined the team.
‘Muscles’ was one of the original investors when we started the distillery and with a background in pharmacy. Once we had whisky for sale, he became the production manager.
WW: What’s the vibe like at the distillery?
DD: With the majority of our workforce under 30yo, there is a natural energy that radiates from younger people. The four guys all get along well and there is always good banter around the distillery. Being such a young distillery, there is lots of excitement about the future.
WW: What’s living and distilling in a small country town like Corowa like?
DD: Initially the town was really excited… then frustrated as they discovered how long it took until there was product [ready]. The benefit of a small town is that everyone knows us and recommends us to their friends and visitors as a place worth checking out.
All our whiskies have a local connection and we couldn’t think of anything more local than the guys that put it together. It’s as much about putting Corowa on the map as it is about the whisky itself.
WW: What’s important to you as a team?
DD: We are deadly serious about making a great product, but by the same token, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We like to do things a little bit differently, be a bit cheeky about the snobbishness of the industry, but respectful of its history.
WW: Compared to a lot of Aussie whiskies, especially on the smaller scale, the Characters is insanely good value. It’s definitely Corowa in style, but much softer and more forgiving than something like the Bosque Verde (Whisky Waffle whisky of the year 2019), so we think that it will appeal to a broader audience. What made you decide to release this as a sub $100AUD whisky rather than in that $150-$200AUD sort of bracket?
DD: The Australian whisky market is maturing (in taste!) at a rapid rate. When [Sydney outfit] Archie Rose released their beautifully presented Rye whisky at $120, they changed the expectation of the market. We decided that if we wanted to remain “in the game”, as well as giving our profile a significant boost, we needed to establish a product true to ourselves at a price that both we, and the consumer could afford.
WW: Do you think that having a whisky at that more accessible price point will encourage people to try something different and get away from the Scotch?
DD: A significant percentage of visitors to our distillery are not regular whisky drinkers at all, but rather tourists looking for something different. Our heritage-listed building, chocolate sales, cafe and distillery provide a unique experience. By providing an approachable, value product we are able to introduce non-whisky drinkers to the industry, and the Australian style, thus growing the Australian market.
WW: In terms of the whisky itself, where are the wine barrels sourced from, and what type?
DD: The barrels are predominantly from the Barossa, with some from Rutherglen. Most have housed Shiraz wine, but we are experimenting with Pinot Noir, Durif and some white wine varieties.
WW: Were you looking for particular characters [Ed. ha ha] when you created this expression? Were you even consciously looking, or did it just turn up like that and you thought ‘yep, that’s a goer’?
DD: If you are going to produce a value product, barrel cost is a significant factor. Wine casks proved to be the best value at the time (remembering we are only a young distillery) and wineries often use both French and American oak. By chance, we also happened to procure some Hungarian Oak wine casks around the same time.
When tasting the barrels, we got some sweet fruit, and spice from the Shiraz together with slightly different characteristics from the [various] oaks. We experimented with different ratios and decided on one that gave a nice balance between the vanilla flavour from American oak with the “cigar box” characteristic of French oak and the [unusual] characteristic of Hungarian Oak.
WW: Nice, we also get earthy, boozy dried fruits and timber on the nose with a juicy, tannic mouth feel. It’d be a good summer drinker for sure. What’s up next then?
DD: Our smokey whisky, using smoked barley imported from Scotland, is due for release in mid 2020 and is showing great promise.
If you’re traveling near Corowa make sure you stop in and have a chat with Drucey and the team. Check out their range of whiskies online here.
Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity
This episode contains:
– The Waffle, where we talk about tasting notes: helpful, or simply bollocks?
– The Whisky, where we enthuse about a peaty Kilchoman matured in red wine casks;
– From the Spirit Sack, where we try and figure out just how many distilleries there are in Tasmania; and
– Smash, Session or Savour, where three 12 year old sherry bombs face off
December is upon us, which means that for Australians, summer is here. Long days, beautiful weather and BBQ’s with the fam… Although in reality, the whole of the mainland seems to be on fire at the moment, while down here in Tassie we’re still shivering miserably (and snow is forecast for next week!).
For Whisky Waffle, December means a couple of things. For one, we have to start racking our whisky-addled memories for some outstanding drams that we’ve tried over the past year to go into the upcoming Waffle Awards. The other thing is – it’s about bloody time we held another whisky event!
It’s been a little while since we’ve done one of our live gigs, in no small part due to some idiot breaking his leg! Anyway, we’re back on our full compliment of feet again and ready to get legless with the crew.
This time around our theme is Summer Drams and we have a cracking line-up of summertime whisky to share with you. Featuring six whiskies, including some curios from the motherland and a few home-grown heroes, as well as festive nibbles and our usual hi-jinks, the evening is set to be a (Christmas) cracker.
Big thanks as always to the crew at The Chapel for hosting (aka putting up with) us, and to Ariel, our artist, for the excellent poster art.
WHEN: Sunday 15th Dec @ 5:30pm
WHERE: The Chapel, Burnie
WHAT: Six whiskies + festive nibbles
RSVP: www.trybooking.com/BHCOI, or tickets at the venue
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:
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.
Fence sitters who don’t really care one way or the other. Would probably drink with coke if you let them (Philistines).
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.