Thursday 19 July 2012

Whisky galore

I’m no whisky expert—and there are plenty of websites and blogs devoted solely to this spirit—but I do like the stuff, so I was pleased to received a copy of Ian Buxton’s new pocket-sized tome, 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die, published by Hachette Scotland a couple of weeks ago (yes, always first with the news, that’s me). Following the success of his previous 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die (2010)—and clearly realizing that the first 101 hadn’t killed off too many of his readers—Ian is back with a second collection, this time focusing more heavily, as the title suggests, on drams from less obvious nations, including Australia, Austria, France, Finland and even England.

It’s a highly approachable tome: Ian is very much against pompous connoisseur-speak and refuses to give marks or scores. His passion is clearly just to spread awareness of the wide and wonderful world of whisky and to get more people tasting. He doesn’t attempt to rank them and doesn’t encourage you to do so, merely to try them and to see what you think. (The bottom of each page has a couple of lines for your verdict.) If you’re looking for a system to save you time and just tell you which are the best whiskies in the world, you won’t find it here. The text focuses more on the stories and characters behind the products and Ian does not go overboard in his descriptions of what the whiskies taste like. In fact in some cases he hasn’t even tasted the whisky in question, usually because it is still maturing and hasn’t been released yet, but he is confident that the finished result will be worth waiting for.

Meet Hammer Head, a Czech single malt born of the desire of the state authorities in Soviet Czechoslovakia to show they could do whatever the capitalists could do. But shortly after it was made the Berlin Wall came down, staff and ownership changed and the barrels literally lay forgotten for 23 years before being recently rediscovered and released. Meet Whisky Castle, a Swiss distillery where one product is made exclusively with water from melted snow and another only with water drawn on the night of the full moon. Or the Kavalan distillery in Taiwan, where money, technology and the island’s high temperature and humidity accelerate the ageing process, producing “mature” whisky in just 3–4 years. Or the distillery in New York where they play loud rap music to their barrels at night, on the grounds that the bass frequency vibrations encourage the uptake of flavour and colour from the wood. Yes, if you thought you knew whisky, think (and more importantly drink) again.

Another thing Ian doesn’t hold with is the idea of buying whisky as an investment. As far as he is concerned whisky is meant to be drunk, and something that is bought (or, worse, produced) specifically as an investment is by definition not destined to be tasted. Very sad (and Ian clearly fears for the souls of the people who distil such editions). Whiskies can now go for silly money, but you’ll be pleased to hear that Ian takes a dim view of bottles over £100, is very critical of something over £500 and powerfully minded to ignore those costing £1,000 and over. Having said that, he does allow himself a bonus 102nd whisky, the Johnnie Walker Diamond Jubilee. At virtually 60 years old, it is the oldest Johnnie Walker ever released. It comes in a crystal decanter shaped like a huge crown-cut diamond, with a solid silver collar, and is accompanied by a pair of engraved crystal glasses and a personalized hand-bound artifact book, with everything presented in a bespoke cabinet made of wood from the Sandringham and Balmoral estates. The price? If you have to ask, darling… Apparently it’s at least £100,000, but you have to be invited to buy one of the 60 bottles produced. (Actually there was a 61st, presented to Her Majesty herself.) Some 20 bottles had already gone by March. All the profits are being donated by Diageo to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, which helps promote traditional craftsmanship. Ian doesn’t tantalise us with tasting notes, noting merely that it is “Very nice… Would I lie to you?”

My sample bottle of the Glenfarclas 1953
As it happens, Diageo aren’t the only ones who put out a jubilee dram. I was intrigued to receive a sample of the Glenfarclas 1953 single cask single malt, again the oldest spirit ever to leave the distillery. Four casks exist from that year and a panel of experts unanimously chose no. 1674—originally carrying sherry from Spain to Scotland, it was filled with Glenfarclas whisky on 20th November 1953—to be bottled, yielding just 400 70cl bottles. It was bottled at cask strength, only 47.2%, such was the “angel’s share” (evaporation over the years). One member of the panel is none other than Ian Buxton and each bottle comes with a commemorative book penned by him.

Oddly, the documentation seems to state that this dram has been bottled exclusively for an outfit called Wealth Solutions, who help rich Polish people spend their money. However, it still seems to be for sale on the Master of Malt website—one of the Panel of Four was MoM’s Ben Ellefson—for a modest £5,995 for a 70cl bottle.

And a full-size bottle—just £5,995 to you, guv
I’m not sure I have a clear idea in my mind of what a six-grand whisky should taste like, but I guess I expected the 60 years in the barrel to produce a very soft, sweetish spirit. In fact the Glenfarclas is bone dry. The nose is dry, with elements of baked apple with raisins, prunes, toffee, chocolate, halva and boot polish. It’s a big, complex, evolving smell, a strange combination of dry caramel and wood (what you might expect a sherry barrel to smell like) along with surprisingly fresh fruits—apricots, pears, figs and oranges. As if it has just been drawn from a demijohn full of bobbing pears. But there is varnished wood too, like a wooden fruit crate, or something older, a nostalgic smell of something precious stored. On the palate it is dry, “like concrete dust in your mouth”, I’ve got written here, though on second tasting I think that is a little unfair. But it does have a grappa-like grape-pip dryness, and a strong alcoholic presence. Adding a little water brings out oranges but also phenolic coal tar and shampoo smells. Time in the glass, on the other hand, emphasizes the caramel and sherry flavours. It is fascinating, but I would say that most of the interest is on the nose; on the palate its astringency means it is not an easy sip.

Mind you the Glenfarclas is a relative snip: Gordon & MacPhail have a Jubilee edition of Glen Grant, distilled on 2nd February 1952 (four days before the accession) and bottled on 2nd February this year, making it exactly 60 years old—and priced at £8,000 a bottle.

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