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Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Sound Of Aberlour (or 'Aberlou(de)r')


Hey hey!  Both Joel and I find ourselves at an unusual point this month. Our new book, Distilled is finally out and we're really delighted with the reaction so far. It's been a hugely rewarding ride into the world of spirits and we look forward to many more years to come, writing about and enjoying great spirits in the company of great friends.  

Last week, we had a slight return to our roots back in the music business, albeit as part of a fun and engaging tasting masterclass for The Whisky Show. In fact, it was a superb opportunity to reminisce about 'the old days' of making records and generally revisit what was a fun chapter in our lives. 

Together with an old friend of ours, record producer Danton Supple, the man who produced Coldplay's X&Y album, as well as working with a host of highly successful artists from around the globe including Amy MacDonald and Natalie Imbruglia, we devised an experience for 30 passionate whisky and music fans, who were in attendance at the Whisky Show. For all three of us, there is an undeniable link between whisky and music. It has been said that whisky and rock ‘n roll are the ultimate bedfellows and that the creative energy flowing through many of the greatest and most enduring classic blues and Rock ‘n Roll songs can be attributed to the ‘spirit of the spirit’. From the raw emotion laid bare in Robert Johnson’s seminal recordings of the late 1930s, through to the hedonistic, hell-raising antics of Led Zeppelin and beyond, whisky, of some kind, seeps with abundance from virtually every pore.  

But not only is there a creative link. There are also parallels between the production of classic whiskies and the creation of classic albums and our tasting sought to highlight a number of these similarities. 


We chose the classic Speyside malt, Aberlour as a perfect example of a liquid laid bare, ideal for pairing with music. The concept was to find five unusual expressions of Aberlour, each with its very own personality to match with five similarly characterful pieces of music. Working alongside Danton,  we rattled through our combined record collections with each whisky in tow, until we felt confident that we had mirrored the individual nuances of the liquid. No easy feat, as it turned out, given that music - and tasting notes are so damned subjective. But our collective thinking was that certain styles of whisky have very distinct character traits and it was these that we hoped to highlight with each piece of music.  

Are you still with us?  - honestly, it will become clearer, we promise!

Assembling a fairly high-end stereo in the huge arched tasting rooms down in Vinopolis, the location of The Whisky Show, we laid out our plans -  and the whiskies. Had we succeeded in capturing the essence of each liquid in song form?  

First up was a real cracker: a 16 year-old single cask Aberlour matured in a wonderfully rich sherry cask, only available at the distillery and bottled at 59.1%. In fact, if you pay the distillery a visit, this is one of a pair of releases that you can bottle yourself, so a very special whisky indeed.  As a prime example of a characterful Speyside spirit filled into a clearly very active sherry cask, this whisky is powerful and brooding- rich in body and complexity. It has a mighty spiciness, which develops alongside a highly resonant fruitiness.  To us, a single cask whisky is about as near to completely immersing yourself in the spirit as possible and our idea was to pair this with a stark acoustic recording: something where you hear a song -  and the vocal - in its rawest form, with every nuance of the performance on show. After much discussion, there was only one artist who could truly take on such a mighty whisky and that was 'The Man In Black' himself, the late Johnny Cash.  

The song we chose was The Man Comes Around, taken from his beautifully recorded American IV album, released in 2002. Here, Cash's voice is arguably at its finest: As resonant and cavernous as a 300ft sinkhole, yet still in possession of a rich, spicy character. A voice that has truly lived, if you like. For us, this simple, honest recording was the perfect backdrop to the Aberlour sherry cask. We hit play and stood back.  

With our palates still tingling from such a complex whisky, our next pairing was almost the antithesis of both sherry cask maturation and the fearsome pipes of Johnny Cash. As mentioned above, there is a pair of single casks available at the Aberlour distillery and we were lucky enough to get a bottle of the sister to the brooding sherry bomb: A wonderfully light, zesty, fruity and buttery first-fill Bourbon Cask 16 Year Old Aberlour, bottled at 54.5%. Here, we wanted to try and demonstrate the contrasting lightness against the shade of the sherry release - the ethereal, soft, sweet vanilla/ tropical fruit notes of a first fill bourbon cask.  

This initially proved to be a little tricky. We were convinced that a simple, beautiful acoustic track sung by a timeless female vocalist was the way to go, but finding something uplifting and confident, yet syrupy smooth caused a few disagreements. In the end, after several reaffirming drams at Danton's studio in Shoreditch, we hit on the perfect match: Carole King and her timeless piano led classic, You've Got A Friend from the 1971 masterpiece, Tapestry. The warm, analogue notes of this recording really helped to counterpoint the unctuous notes of the whisky. So far, so good!

The third pairing was perhaps the most interesting to explore and gave Danton a chance to demonstrate just why he is one of the most in demand record producers in the world. Our task was to find a way of articulating the perfect balance of cask types found in an Aberlour 17 year old Double Cask release, bottled exclusively for the French market at 43%.  As we have previously seen, both first fill sherry and bourbon cask styles have very different flavour profiles and too much of either one can change the balance of light and shade- potentially in the wrong direction.  

It was here that Danton likened the practice of mixing a song to that of the whisky maker obtaining that perfect balance of flavours in a finished recipe and to highlight this, he bought along something you simply wouldn't get to hear every day: The multitrack recordings of one of Coldplay's biggest hits, Fix You. Using his laptop to highlight individual tracks he began with the song's simple organ part and stark vocal, building to a crescendo of instruments and emotions. Too much of one aspect (the organ and bass parts) gave the track a darker feel. Too much lead vocal and guitar, coupled with vocal harmony parts produced a mix that was sweeter and lighter, but lacked the solidity and foundations of the finished, balanced recording. In tandem, the 17 year old Aberlour hit that sweet spot of rich, darker notes, whilst building to a wonderfully balanced, sweet fruitiness. 

For the forth pairing, we wanted to really push the boat out and thanks to the almost archive-like inventory of the Whisky Exchange, we managed to locate a dusty bottle of Aberlour/Glenlivet 8 Year Old, bottled in the middle of the 1960's.  This time capsule of a whisky was unlike any modern whiskies on the palate and made us wonder about the difference of production methods back then. Today's whisky business centres on practices that deliver consistency, with a greater understanding of wood management and maturation, so you can pretty much guarantee that the bottle you open today will taste pretty similar to the one you open in a decade.  However, back in the 1960's things were a little different. Aberlour Ambassador Phil Huckle gave us some background on the distillery at the time, pointing to the idiosyncrasies that might affect the differing flavour profiles of a whisky, such as coal fired stills and less of a scientific approach to understanding the maturation process.   

For these reasons, we wanted to find a classic track made roughly around the same era, which despite the limitations of technology at the time, is arguably regarded as a groundbreaking piece of music. We didn't have to think too hard about this -  Pink Floyd's Breathe from their seminal Dark Side Of The Moon.  


With the room feeling particularly chilled out and no doubt drifting off into a dreamy whisky/progrock-induced haze, it was time to bring things back to life. Our final pairing was the most lively of all, a given, when you consider the whisky we decided to finish on. Aberlour A'Bunadh is arguably the distillery's most well known and highly regarded expression and has developed an almost cult following since it was first released in 1997. For us, this is the most extreme style of Aberlour (batch 48 is bottled at 59.7%) and our pairing needed to reflect this. In fact, it made us think of the concept of seeing your favourite band play live: You know the songs, but everything is so much more lively, loud, driven and direct. All in all, everything is turned up to 11, with everyone on stage delivering a visceral and incendiary performance. There was no disagreement as to which track would perfectly articulate this: Can't Explain from The Who's incredible 'Live At Leeds' album, rated by many music critics as the best live album of all time. The recording is brutally honest, leaving Townshend, Entwistle, Moon and Daltery no room to hide, each one at the top of their game and performing out of their skins. It's the sound of a band so accomplished, they can strip open the songs at ease and allow the listener to understand what each instrument really adds. 


Aberlour A'Bunadh has the same simplistic and powerful heart, but there are also layers of complexity amongst all the extremes. It's a whisky that transports you right back to the beginnings of the distillery with each passing sip (for those who don't know, it was a recreation of a very old bottle front he late 1800's that was found at the distillery)- much in the same way that listening to 'Live At Leeds' gives even those listening today that feeling of "I Was There'. 

What a way to finish. For those of you who would like to try and recreate the same experience at home, we've created a 'Sound Of Aberlour' Spotify playlist which you can listen to here.  

The Sound Of Aberlour

But why not try creating your own pairings? Of course, each listener and drinker has a deeply personal relationship with their music and whisky; this was ours and we're willing to bet that given half the chance, you can find your own perfect Sound Of Aberlour.  


Monday, 6 October 2014

Distilled: Our New Book, Out Today!




Writing is a wonderful thing. But, as with the apocryphal ‘tree in the woods’, if no one reads your words, have you really written anything at all?

When, in 2008 we decided to start Caskstrength.net, it was to create a journal wherein we could keep a record of all the whiskies which had been shared with us, and we were sharing with other people... little did we know of the journey that it would take us on. The blog was not designed for mass readership nor praise, but a simple account of the joys of whisky, wrapped up in some irreverent ramblings.

As we approach our 8th year of writing this blog, we are constantly humbled by the figures we see when we check our stats. To have a monthly readership which would fill every seat at Old Trafford and still leave queues outside is always mind-boggling, and makes us want to dedicate our entire time to writing posts.

However, the rigours of everyday life always get in the way and, being self-employed and full-time in the drinks business, writing our blog (which carries no advertising and therefore no income) can often slip down the priority list, in favour of actual, real work.

But writing is very much in our veins (along with a sizeable proportion of alcohol too, usually...) and about 18 months ago we decided we wanted to write a book dedicated to the wider world of distilled drinks. After working up a concept we were commission by Octopus Books to start writing, and it gave us a wonderful opportunity to explore and visit some of the world’s finest spirits producers.


As a result we are pleased to announce that today is the official publication date of our new book, ‘Distilled’, a guided tour around the wonderful world of spirits.


Broken down into chapters on gin, vodka, tequila & mezcal, rum, brandy, whisky and a host of other spirits, the book is akin to a Lonely Planet Guide: think of distilled spirits as a city, and the different styles as the suburbs. The book gives a history of each of the different suburbs, as well as an idea of the production values involved. It references some of the major brands in the overviews, but focuses on smaller, undiscovered producers. Each section comes with an interview (or two) with a ‘maverick’, someone making interesting expressions of their chosen distillate, and a ’10 To Try...’ of unusual offerings from that category. Oh, there are also a few nice cocktails in there to make as well.

Out on MitchellBeazley, the fab publisher which also releases Dave Broom’s wonderful books, you’ll get change from fifteen quid in the UK for a copy, and you can buy it:


or simply head down to your local book shop where you should find it in stock. If you’re outside the UK, you can still order it from your local webstore, and do look out for it in the shops too as different territories have different release dates.

But we couldn’t leave it there. We like to try and do things a little differently here at Caskstrength.net so in the lead up to the release of the book, we made some short videos (very short...) of the magic of making drinks. From grain magically appearing as liquid in the glass, to ‘three click cocktails’, you can check out the videos here, with an example of one (magic maturation) below:


All that remains for us to say is ‘thank you’. If no one reads these posts, we might have well not have written them. And if no one reads our book, then the tree which fell in the forest to make it, might as well have not have bothered making all that noise. We hope you enjoy reading Distilled as much as we enjoyed writing it.

Cheerio,

Joel & Neil 


Monday, 15 September 2014

Objects of Desire: The Diageo Special Releases 2014 Single Malt Scotch Whiskies



There are many things in life that I’d like to have, but simply can’t afford. I think that must be true for all of us. But in my list of ‘objects of desire’, most are items that I already own. For example, I have a watch. I’d like a nicer one. I own a car, but would bite your hand off to trade in a seven year old Volvo estate for a Bentley Continental. Quite frankly, I can still tell the time as accurately as the next man, and I get stuck in the same traffic jams as the chap in the posh car next to me.

None of this quenches the thirst for ‘want’, however. And once again the carrot of desire is being dangled in front of the Scotch drinker with the annual release of Diageo’s ‘Special Releases’.

This year, eleven different single malts have been chosen from the rare stocks of casks across Diageo’s warehouses, some from closed distilleries, others from ones very much alive and kicking. So let’s have a look at the list of releases and, as we attended a pre-release tasting of all eleven single malts on offer last week, have a look at which of these are 9 carat gold and which are simply just 9 carrots...


DISTILLERY
AGE AT BOTTLING
YEAR DISTILLED
UK RRP
% ABV ON BOTTLING
VOLUME RELEASED (BOTTLES)
THE SINGLETON OF GLENDULLAN 
38
1975
£750
59.8%
3,756
CAOL ILA UNPEATED
15
1998
£75
60.39%
10,668
CAOL ILA
30
1983
£425
55.1%
7,638
CLYNELISH
SELECT RESERVE
1999* (apparently youngest whisky in vatting)
£500
54.9%
2,964
CRAGGANMORE 
25
1988
£299
51.4%
3,372
LAGAVULIN
12
2002
£80
54.4%
31,428
PORT ELLEN
35
1978
£2,200
56.5%
2,964
ROSEBANK
21
1992
£300
55.3%
4,530
BENRINNES
21
1992
£240
56.9%
2,892
BRORA
35
1978
£1,200
48.6%
2,964
STRATHMILL
25
1988
£275
52.4%
2,700


Quite a line up, when you sit back and look at exactly what has been chosen to go into glass this year. Turning up at the tasting was a mind-boggling affair, faced with 11 cask strength single malts is always a challenge, no matter how used to flights of that nature you are. But kicking off with a quick nose of the range, there were certainly some stars emerging from the pack.

The first one to call out, is the Cragganmore. At 25 years old, this carried an unusually buttery and sweet nose, with red apple, orchard fruits and popcorn. The palate was sweet with a big marmalade hit and the vanilla (from the new ends attached to the casks, perhaps?) gave it a vibrant finish for such an old whisky.

For those of you that love a heavy malt, the Benrinnes 21 year old was all Bovril and steak pies (not far off the one I had the night before) and delivering venison in a chocolate sauce on the palate. Very odd. Not for me, but I can see fans of this heavier style of whisky really going bonkers for it.

Of the rarest selection of closed distilleries, there was a return to Rosebank, with another 21 year old release, a step back in age from the 25 year old of a few years ago. This gave everything you want from a triple distilled Lowlander, matured in refill American oak casks: a palate of upside cake, vanilla marshmallow and candied orange peel showed well on the night, punching hard for such a light spirit.

There was the traditional Brora... a distillery over which an extreme fuss is always made, but personally, I just don’t know why. Like Morrissey and The Smith for me: I can see why people love ‘em, but I just don’t get it (oh, don’t let Morrissey anywhere near that Benrinnes by the way- too much beef in it for even him!) Yes, Brora is closed and yes, there have been some amazing releases from certain years in the 1970s, but overall, I’ve always felt my money (for my taste) could be better spent. This year’s Brora release will no doubt delight those Broraphiles, and I marked it down as one of my top drams of the night, but my two headline acts for the evening were...

...the latest Port Ellen release (of course) and the fantastic Caol Ila 30 Year Old. Let’s start with the PE. Oh, my it is good. We are finally seeing some increased use of European oak casks here, giving a wider flavour range than we have seen in the past. This is moving away from the peated grapefruit we know and love so well, to actually nodding in the direction of its ‘still alive sister’ Lagavulin, up the road. The nose was bacon bits, the palate giving almost light rum tones and mossy peat. Fantasy stuff, really.

But cracking on from the north of the same island is an amazing offering from Caol Ila. A 30 year old matured in refill American oak casks, the stock from 1983 is incredibly light with peat, toffee and peaches. One of the best for taking water, as well opening up to reveal that wonderful Caol Ila coal dust and bigger toffee notes. Simply wonderful.

The big question as always is over price and this year the big hitting single malts come with big hitting price tags (over £2k for the Port Ellen, for example) but they do have some for under £100, and you can pick up both the Caol Ila unpeated and the Lagavulin 12 for a combined cost of less than a flight to Scotland in the week of the referendum. I vote yes for staying at home with bottle of each.
As much as these are shiny desirable jewels,  with some absolute corkers in there, I just can’t afford the two I really loved. Never mind, my watch still works and it tells me it’s time for a whisky: someone pass the Johnnie Walker Black label. Bloody good stuff, you know. And less than £30 a bottle. What’s not to like about that?