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Thursday, 26 January 2012

Smokin'



The world of whisky and cigars is an often maligned subject. Do the two really work together? Sometimes we're inclined to think not. A visit to Fox's of St James recently proved to be a mixed bag for us - three superb cigars: Bolivar's superbly rich Belicosos Finos, a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial and a moreish Montecristo Edmundo.

We'd chosen some interesting whiskies to go with our sticks: Ardbeg Uigeadail, Highland Park 21yo and a single cask Glenfarclas, providing a meaty mix of wood and sherry influence.

But despite the wealth of wares on offer, we just couldn't get a handle on any of the pairings - they were either too weighted in favour of the cigar, the whiskies losing all their appeal, or the melange of flavour just overwhelmed the palate totally. In the end, we just wanted a milkshake and a sit down.

But not being quitters we've vowed to keep up the research into the ultimate pairing - and by jingo, we're pretty sure that courtesy of Partagas and The Dalmore, we've found an intriguing marriage, based on compliments, subtlety and spice. Surely, the recipe for any great partnership?


Mr Richard Paterson, man of refined vices galore, is no stranger to the gentle art of fine smoking. One of his best creations, The Dalmore Cigar Malt was perfectly balanced to allow even the most subtle wafts of a lightweight El Rey Del Mundo to tantalise the palate, one giving the other enough room to breathe (excuse the pun). When it was discontinued in 2007, a few people undoubtedly planned to march on Whyte & Mackay's Health & Safety Commandants (sorry, lawyers) burning stakes in clenched fist, hell bent on retribution for the whisky's untimely withdrawal.



Or perhaps a few strongly worded letters were sent. Either way, it was a huge result when the whisky was rightly reinstated earlier this month, in a slightly reformulated state. The new The Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve will be available from February bottled at 44% and priced at £70 and we were eager to test it out - with the daddy of the Partagas range, the Serie E 2.
With a full bodied blast of toasted chocolate and spiced notes, it is a formidable test for many a decent dram...

The Dalmore - Cigar Malt Reserve - 44%

Nose: Toasted orange zest, leather, earthy/mushroomy undertones and dark chocolate shavings. given a little time, a touch of vanilla (reminiscent of pipe tobacco) comes to the fore.

Palate: A rich mouth feel, with a little rubberiness, dark sherry, dark sugar- in fact, lots of dark tasting things- treacle, cocoa and toasted malt round out the darkness. Given a few minutes and the first mouthful of Partagas, the flavour is undaunted by the smoke - citrus notes and woody spice also develop, but the undercurrent of treacle, sherry and chocolate blend well with the top notes of the cigar.

Finish: the smoke clearly takes the lingering lead, but the rich fruity notes of the whisky return, alongside a pronounced malt extract note. Everything is there, but nothing pokes out too provocatively.

Overall: There is enough light and shade to this whisky to handle a big beast of a cigar. We have yet to try it against a mild smoke, but it is very pleasing when the combination of flavours on the palate doesn't pull in different directions. Here, the experience is enjoyable and complimentary.

Richard, a victory for you and two fingers to the non smoking pedants.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Let's Go Clubbing: The Balvenie Craftsman's Reserve No. 1 Whisky : The Cooper




It’s not a lot different to most peoples’ houses... if you ever come over to my abode, you’ll learn a lot about me from the objects that fill the space in which I live. Of course, there is plenty of whisky and whisky related artefacts scattered around, but that’s not all. Strewn around the house are clues to other interests and hobbies of mine; a framed ticket for the 2009 / 2010 Conference Play Off Final at Wembley between (the mighty) Oxford United and York City for example or a few books about street art, piled high on my coffee table.

However if you look closely, you can see keys to my childhood, too: A whole row of Rold Dahl books on my bookshelf. A 1980’s Subbuteo team still in full packaging on my mantelpiece, nestled up next to a well-used Rubik’s Cube... but the most telling evidence lies in a room far from these effects. For in my toilet is an almost complete set of Beano Annuals from around the late 1970’s through to the present day.

The Beano was a comic that my two brothers and I had delivered on weekly basis throughout our childhood and the yearly bumper hardback offering was a standard Christmas present from ‘Santa Claus’ pretty much from birth. It still makes an appearance each Christmas, keeping a family tradition going (and probably underpinning the publishers D.C. Thomson & Co as we do so, before it gets nailed by kids playing Angry Birds on their iPads).


Such fans we were of characters such as Billy Whizz, The Bash Street Kids and Dennis The Menace himself, that it seemed only natural to join The Dennis The Menace Fan Club (later rebranded as The Beano Fan Club). And what an honour that was. When joining, members would receive a pack containing a membership card, a letter and some badges (one adorned with the words ‘He Who Meanaces Wins’ – amazing!). Some years, you’d even get a birthday card from Dennis and Gnasher... does life get any better, when you’re ten years old?!

Sadly, in 2010 D.C. Thomson, the publishers of The Beano, closed its doors to new members. Having had, at its peak, over 1.25 million members, the club moved online to embrace new media in engaging fans of the much-loved comic.

I’m not ten years old any longer. I’m 32. Quite a difference. And, where you once found the Beano Annual by my bed, you’ll now find it by my toilet (essential reading when on the throne, it must be said) but one thing is still true: I still join fan clubs. It’s just the fan clubs I join these days are whisky-related.

There are plenty of them around: Friends of Laphroaig, Friends of the Classic Malts, The Ardbeg Committee, Highland Park Inner Circle, The Guardians of The Glenlivet, The Glenfiddich Explorers, The Springbank Society, The Bowmore Inner Core... you get the picture.

Nearly all of these ‘clubs’ are free to join and just require an email address and date of brith, but the rewards can be rich. Once signed up, you’re often sent a members pack (much like the Dennis The Menace fan club, sans a furry Gnasher badge) with anything from a short ‘thank you’ to a tasting book to a certificate of ownership on a plot of land! But the real pay off comes with the offer of exclusive bottlings, tasty editions launched only for club members, the die-hards, the fanatics.

The latest distillery to engage their membership scheme in this way is The Balvenie. Their membership programme is called Warehouse 24, named after the oldest surviving part of the distillery, now known as warehouse no. 24. (NSS)

The first ever exclusive bottling to be released to the membership from The Balvenie comes in support of one the five rare crafts which the distillery still employs, The Cooper. Such is the focus by The Balvenie on their five rare crafts, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this as a series with one release for each of the five crafts. To be fair, the title kinda gives that impression too, with it being called Craftsman’s Rreserve No.1...

So, a little about this bottling, then: 515 bottles will be produced, with 315 being made available for the UK market. Aged for 15 Years, this whisky was matured in two sherry butts and is bottled at natural strength. It will retail via The Balvenie website at £65.00 a bottle but expect to see if for more on auction sites at a later date... *yawn* Expected release date is some time in Feb.


The Balvenie – Craftsman’s Reserve No.1: The Cooper – 15 Years Old – 515 Bottles Only – Exclusive to Warehouse 24 Members - 59.4% abv

Nose: Rich Maple syrup, builders tea with sugar, honey and dark chocolate (a kin to the smell you get when snapping a Cadbury’s Crunchie in half), strong runny honey. A very appetising nose, with plenty of body. Asserts itself as a Speyside whisky but with more balls, more kick than normal from this distillery.

Palate: A ‘chewy’ dram with notes of sweet tea, dried apricots, big malt hit. It comes across as very rich with orange tones developing over time. Some notes of wood chippings after rain, heavy toffee and pulled pork. Meaty and mouthfilling. Holds a drop of water well.

Finish: Melting dark chocolate, some cloves and orange tones. Big and powerful in flavour and finish.

Overall: This is not a shy and retiring dram. Imagine the Doublewood but with extra age and intensity and richness and obstinance. It’s like a Balvenie that has won the lottery; it’s better than you and it knows it and it doesn’t care what you think, it’s going to wear garish designer clothing and to hell with the world. Bold and rich, more expressions like this (and at this strength) please...


No doubt there will be a bun flight on the day of release for this and if William Grant and Sons have taken a lesson from any of the other clubs that have released bottles online, just make sure your website doesn’t crash the second it goes up for sale... and if you really want to add some value to your distillery fan club, include a nice badge that says “He Who Drams Wins”.

Right, I’m off to ‘read the Beano’ as we say in my house...





Thursday, 19 January 2012

A Mid-Morning Caol Ila



Blink and all of a sudden, you're nearly at the end of the month, with a head full of plans and plenty to be getting on with. I'm right in the thick of co-writing a brand new whisky book ('Let Me Tell You About Whisky') with the mighty Gavin Smith, the samples are racking up here and it's high time we got down to the business of looking at a few crackers to put on your late January/February wish list.

Duncan Taylor have come out of the traps early with a couple of new releases from their Dimensions range and what a way to start today off - a gorgeous looking (and smelling) Caol Ila from 1983...

Duncan Taylor - Dimensions - Caol Ila - 1983 vintage - 28 years old- Cask 3625 - 54.3%

(a note must be written on just how...erm... attractive this whisky looks. Colourwise, it is a rich bright copper. Not something we're usually concerned with, but in this instance, it needs to be noted!)

Nose: Not immediately what you would expect from a Caol Ila. Sweet smoked barbecued bananas, vanilla pods, some freshly turned earth, nutmeg, butterscotch sauce and a slight emergence of medicinal/coaltar soap. The smoke is very restrained, but wafting around somewhere in the background. Very nicely balanced indeed.

Palate: A little dry off the bat, but then into classic Caol Ila territory, sweet malty biscuits, a mouthful of sappy pine smoke and coal dust. Given a dash of water and some time, the richness of this dram comes to the fore: the vanillas take a more prominent position, with some cream soda notes and a hint of candied fruit.

Finish: Lengthy fruit sherbet notes, sit alongside the coal dust and a dollop of malt extract.

Overall: What a pleasant surprise. This is certainly a Caol Ila that delivers complexity, but plenty of direct, easy to read notes up front.

Visit Duncan Taylor for more details.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Is that a Linkwood in your pocket...?



New Year resolutions: they can be both frustrating and fascinating at the same time. They can provide an opportunity for a clean slate, a fresh start, a new dawn.

Maybe you have the desire to lose weight. You’ve adjusted your diet accordingly and the fridge is full of fresh veg, salad and lean meats. After some online research, you’ve joined a local gym. Two hours in the Nike store and you’ve walked out with a pair of trainers seemingly made from a kitchen sponge for the sole with an upper consisting of less made-made material than you’d see Jody Marsh wear on a night out. And you’ve paid a ton for the pleasure of running on some ‘air’, a substance which is traditionally free.

Six months later and the shoes are being worn to do the gardening, the gym silently steals fifty quid a month from your bank account by direct debit and your waistline has grown by exactly the same percentage as inflation, an irony not lost on you when looking into a new pair of jeans which actually the fit the ‘new you’.

A friend of mine has a good rule. She doesn’t make New Year resolutions, but gives each year a title, a la Chinese New Year. For example, this year could be your 'Year Of The Fish', in which you vow to eat more seafood. Or 'Year Of The Plane', where you make it an aim to travel more. This year is going to be my ‘Year Of Discovery’.

The aim for 2012 is for me to try new flavours and experiences which previously have passed me by. This could be as simple as going around The National Portrait Gallery (somewhere I walk past on an almost daily basis but, criminally, have never been in) through to trying new foods that I have never had before (‘white pudding’, anyone?). One area that this allows for in whisky is, of course, the ongoing journey of tasting whiskies from new distilleries, be they Scottish, Irish, American, Japanese or New World.

The first of this year’s palate-expanders is Linkwood, a dram I am not familiar with at all. Owned by Diageo, Linkwood gets a brief outing (as do all 28 Diageo malts) as a 12 Years Old Flora & Fauna bottling (around £40 here) and then a smattering of unusual releases such as a slot in the Managers’ Choice releases with a 1996 offering, some Rare Malts bottlings and some nifty little 50cl offering in 2008 finished in rum, red wine and port casks. All very interesting, but it seems the easiest way to track down some Linkwood is through independent bottlers, and where else should one turn than to the SMWS:


39.82 (Linkwood) – Suede Shoes Walking Through Clover – 13 Years Old – 60.0%

Nose: A sweet nose which gives wisps of hot buttered crumpets, pancakes dusted with sugar and lemon juice, honey and heather. With water, the heather becomes much more pronounced, as do white flowers and a touch of Champaign.

Palate: Delicate with plenty of floral notes, copper and vanilla custard, however it is a little too ‘hot’ without water. With water: The sweetness is balanced out with a pleasant salty undertone. Vanilla cream filled buns dusted with cinnamon and enhanced copper tones shine through.

Finish: Copper tones and more heather and honey without water. With water: the salt comes to the fore in the finish, disappearing in to lemon cheesecake with a tart, sweet lemon sauce.

Overall: A very nice dram which demands more than a drop of water to open it up. Not quite enough to muscle its way in to my top ten distilleries yet, but certainly worth the introduction. Maybe we’ll go on a few more ‘dates’ and see if we really click. Either way, I think I’ve made a new friend with whom I look forward to spending more time.


A good start to the whisky end of my 'Year Of Discovery'. The question is, how brave will I be when it comes to food, roller-coasters and clothes... eek.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Having A Bal.



Just before Christmas, both Joel and I had an interesting trip up to the Highlands to visit the Balblair Distillery. A stones throw away from the Glenmorangie distillery Balblair have been hard at work developing their series of vintage bottlings including the majestic 1978, 1989 and recently the 2000.


But this trip also marked the opening of the distillery's very first 'visitors centre' - tastefully developing some of the older warehouse space into a precise time line charting the distillery's history, as well as providing Balblair with the first onsite bottling - a distillery-only single cask, which visitors can bottle themselves using a rather handsome (if slightly temperamental) new filling system.



Balblair is undoubtedly one of the prettier distilleries, noted for its simple rustic charm, as opposed to throwing the kitchen sink at re-designing and repainting everything in sight, which so often happens when a new visitors centre is built. One aspect that really caught our attention was the distillery's close proximity to a rail line (which would have been one of the primary transport sources for distributing their whisky at some point in the past). Open one of the doors to the back of the still house and you can pretty much step out onto the line, which gave us an idea for a game of 'whisky chicken', until we realised that the line is actually still in operation, so we got scared and quickly took this picture... Whisky On The Tracks....


So to the whiskies themselves. The 2000 vintage gets us off to a cracking start- light and zesty, with a sugary cereal/sponge cake note, the palate gave some flavoursome tinned fruit notes and a hint of bourbon character. The 1989 followed suit accordingly in the complexity department, with some lovely cherry, vanilla, honey and banana notes, melding into richer sponge cake notes (spot he recurring theme here)

Our highlight was the distillery-only single cask. If you're planning a Highland adventure, don't just head straight for Tain - you'll miss out on getting a dram of this little beauty.


Balblair - Distillery Only bottling - Cask 2990 - distilled 1992 - 60.9%

Nose: Guess what... sponge cake hits the nose first with an almighty splat! this is deftly followed by some chopped almonds, marzipan, a slight waxiness, lemon Bon Bons and tonic water. It is refreshing, yet rich in equal measure. It needs a dash of water to help it reveal its inner most secrets though.

Palate: Sweet malty cereal, vanilla, some light cinnamon /spice notes and a mouth coating, creamy chocolate/Horlicks note. Given time, some vaguely tropical fruit notes develop (mango and passion fruit) but they are restrained and just sit perfectly in the background.

Finish: The fruity notes (green apple and those aforementioned tropical notes) linger on the palate, alongside the malt notes.

Overall: Highly drinkable stuff, with a little bit of real distillery character to it. This bottling is well worth looking at, should you be paying a hugely worthwhile visit to Balblair.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Bloomin' Nice Juice: BNJ Blended Whisky


[From www.caskstrength.net]

And so it begins... 2012 is upon us and it is traditionally the time of year when we look to banish the excesses of the festive season and to tighten our belts in more ways than one.

We’ve all done it, if not this year then in previous years; spent too much money and consumed too much beer / wine / whisky / meat / cheese*

*delete as appropriate

So what is one to do in January? Well, rein in the spending- yes. But rein in the drinking...? Come on! Seriously, though the first month of the year does provide a good opportunity to detox, at least in part, with lots of green tea and milk thistle and a reduction in intake of booze. But if this kind of belt tightening is not for you, yet you’re looking to save a few pennies having splashed out on that really excellent bottle as your Christmas gift to yourself, then you might want to try something a little cheaper. Our pick to kick off the year with, is the Bailie Nicol Jarvie blended Scotch whisky.

Not a whisky we talk about a lot on here, BNJ as it is known, was a hugely popular blended whisky for large parts of the 20th Century but its popularity has waned in recent decades, despite still being highly regarded among Scotch experts (the always loveable Charles Maclean ranked it in his top10 whiskies for 2011 recently in the Independent).

Named after a character in ‘Rob Roy’, the seminal book by Walter Scott, BNJ is owned by the Glenmorangie company and is made using a high proportion of malt whisky (apparently around 60%) from just eight distilleries, including some Glenmorangie. This is mixed with grain whisky from the Girvan distillery, blended and bottled to be sold to yours truly for just £18-ish. Deal? Done!


Bailie Nicol Jarvie – Blended Scotch Whisky – 40% abv (£18.99)

Nose: Sweet honey and vanilla tones are underpinned with a whisp of smoke. Some candyfloss develops along with freshly cut pine and menthol. Banana foam penny sweets come through at the last.

Palate: Initial hit of lemon meringue pie, this palate is soft and sweet. Vanilla ice cream comes through, backed by over ripe banana and just a hint of coal dust right at the back of the palate. Very nice for such an inexpensive blend.

Finish: More foam banana sweets, some lemon zest and the lemon meringue pie. Short and slightly warming.

Overall: A very drinkable blended whisky, very well put together and exceedingly good value for money at around £18 a bottle.


Take that finances! I might just stick on this bottle for the month of January and give both my liver and my bank balance time to recover. As for my belt tightening, I’m off down the gym. Not to use the equipment, but to sit in the Jacuzzi you understand...





Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year!


So here we are, at the end of one year and the start of another. And what a year it has been. Just about everything that could have happened in 2011 has happened; a real mixed bag of a year that has just about justified the existence of numerous 24-hour news channels...

...and with all that extra reading and viewing vying for your attention, this seems an opportune moment to say a huge ‘thank you’ to all of you who read the blog. The are many ways to read our ramblings; a simple visit to the web site, an RSS feed, sign up through the email shot (so you get a fresh post in your inbox at 8pm GMT whenever we’ve written a post) and now on your shiny new Amazon Kindle e-Reader. This year has seen another bumper year for our readership via Caskstrength.net but it hasn’t stopped there.

2011 has seen us hit the physical world of print media with supplements about whisky in London paper City AM as well as Mint (The Wall Street Journal India) where Joel has a monthly column. We’ve written recommendation pieces for the Evening Standard and the Metro, had regular pieces in Whisky Magazine, Scotland Magazine and Imbibe and Neil has been published in a couple of books:The Malt Whisky Yearbook and Cutty Sark: The Making Of A Brand.

Totting up the total readership of the media we’ve written for this year, across print and digital, it exceeds over a million people, so hopefully we’re helping to push the popularity of the product we love, whisky in all forms, to a wider public.

It was also a year that saw our first bottling, the Cask Strength And Carry On Isle of Arran which sold out in less than 3 days (a massive thank you to all who bought it. We hope you’ve enjoyed drinking it!) and hosting of numerous tasting with groups as diverse as Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire, with whom we organised a strictly limited edition Highland Park bottling, through to the Japanese ambassador in the Palace of Westminster.

Overall, however we hope to have stayed focused on bringing you irreverent and entertaining writing with a focus on whisky, culture and, above all, fun. 2012 will see us venture into bigger territory still- expect a host of new whisky related projects, more books and a brand new website, launching soon!

What better way to celebrate the end of such a busy year than with a dram... and what a special bottle we have here indeed. We received this bottle as a very special gift, with the aim of it to be opened at a very specific time... and we think we have just the occasion. The Family Ridley is about to grow in ranks, with a new baby on the way for 2012. And so, let’s raise a glass to Neil and his ‘working parts’ as we crack open this little beauty:

The Glenlivet – Single Cask Edition – ‘Atlantic’ - 40 Years Old – Cask No 5318 – bottled 16/12/2005 – 41.6% abv

Nose: Wonderfully rich tones of freshly cut figs, maraschino cherries, dandelion and burdoch soft drink, marmite on hot buttered wholemeal toast, very old brown leather jacket.

Palate: thinner than one would expect from a whisky of this maturation level. The initial hit is of raisins soaked in rum, dark chocolate truffles and black forest gateaux. Slight hints of powered liquorice, cinnamon balls and some lightly steamed green veg on the back palate. Very well balanced and rounded. Not too chewy, like some old whiskies can be, this is a little too easy to drink for something of this age!

Finish: This is where the old fashioned sweet shop takes over with mint humbugs, more cinnamon balls and cherry drops, developing back in the black forest gateaux.

Overall: Of course, a huge treat. The chaps over at The Glenlivet don’t need to be bottling single casks if they’re not top-notch and here is a classic example of an excellently aged Speyside. Teetering at 41.6% (43% would have really given this baby a punch), you’d wonder if this was like watching George Best play for Fulham; but no, this is Best in his Man Utd prime... as he said himself I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.


So, where does this amazing start to 2012 leave us? With our annual (“erm, I think this is the first time we’ve done these” – Neil) predictions for 2012...

Oops...my ball's a bit dusty...


Prediction One: More Single Grain whiskies to hit the market, from established bottlers. Seems that there is a definite thirst for these lightly flavoured gems- in a sensible price bracket too.


Prediction Two: Several companies will vie for the title of the 'Official' 2012 Olympic Whisky. Whether or not Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Whyte & Mackay or Edrington have approached Usain Bolt yet for his seal of approval is unknown. Personally, we'd like to see the slogan 'Whisky- Powering Us To Glory' written on the side of Team GB's bus, but they'll probably end up with a sodding Barclaycard advert.

Prediction Three: The rise in popularity of investment whiskies will see more limited releases, single casks and rare bottlings hit the market. Lord knows where it will end up, but with the popularity in the spirit can only be a good thing, so long as it doesn't impact the pricing of our cherished bottles for convivial consumption.

Prediction Four: A charity wrestling match will take place between feuding whisky writers, with the proceeds from this undoubtedly popular public spectacle going to the Whisky In aid of Narcoleptic Kids or W.I.N.K for short. Let's be thankful the charity weren't 'Against' sleepy kids...

Here's to a great 2012 folks - looking forward to sharing some incredible drams with you all.

Joel & Neil