Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Whisky Magazine's "Battle of the Blends" - Review

Back in the December '14 / January '15 issue of Whisky Magazine "the battle of the century" was about to commence as we were advised of an upcoming, 8 round, "Heavyweight Championship Bout". 

No, Whisky Magazine had not suddenly decided that a little coverage of pugilism was required to beef up their publication, but rather this was the beginning of a serious battle of two heavyweights of the whisky world.

Dave "The Rummager" Broom and Neil "Copper Dog" Ridley were being brought together to put their considerable whisky knowledge to the test and to battle each other in attempting to create the perfect blend.

Starting off with identical 20 litre, first fill, American oak casks, which would be toasted and seasoned with a high strength neutral spirit, the contestants would kick things off by seasoning the casks with whatever liquid they so desired before commencing their blend.

A few ground rules were also set out:

1 - The first fill of each cask would be 1 litre of Clynelish, from the Highland region.

2 - All regions of Scotland had to be incorporated and there was no order as to their use.

3 - Each bottle used in the blend had to be commercially available in the UK and cost under £50, apart from a wildcard bottle.

4 - At least one grain whisky was to be used with no restriction on it's origin.

5 - One wildcard was to be used.  This could be a whisky from anywhere in the world but, again, had to be commercially available in the UK and cost no more than £150.

6 - The blend was to be under 50% ABV when finally bottled.

7 - A minimum of 15 litres of blend had to be prepared.

8 - There was no restriction as to the amount of each whisky category that could be used.

9 - The blend was to be completed by 1st September 2015.

As the contest got underway the first task, as mentioned earlier, was for the contestants to season their 20 litre casks.  Dave Broom opted for a rum seasoning whilst Neil Ridley went for a homemade blend of sherries consisting of Oloroso, Manzanilla, PX and Palo Cortado.

Over the course of the next 8 / 9 months the readers followed along as Dave and Neil battled with the components of their respective blends.  There were highs and lows as each blend ebbed and flowed with balance and flavour.

In the end the blends finally came together and what had been created were two blends packed full of diverse whiskies that were sure to challenge each other and fight for dominance in any drinkers glass.

Dave's blend included whiskies from Clynelish, Teaninich, Girvan, Cameronbridge, Greenore (Cooley), Caol Ila, Aultmore, Springbank, Kilkerran (Glengyle), Ardmore and Glenkinchie.

Neil, however, went for whiskies from Clynelish, Aberlour, Dailuaine, Nikka (Miyagikyo), Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, Highland Park, Arran, Bowmore, Overeem, Hazelburn (Springbank) and Springbank itself.

With both blends completed a winner had to be found and what better way to decide on one than by getting the readers of Whisky Magazine to sample each blend and submit a vote for their favourite.

Not knowing how many samples would be available I stuck my name in to volunteer and luckily enough I was one of the many selected.

The samples arrived, courtesy of "Drinks by the Dram", and I set aside a night to really give these the serious tasting they deserved.

I'd like to point out that at the time of tasting, those of us, who had volunteered to sample the blends, had nothing but a "Blend A" and a "Blend B" in front of them.  The tasting was therefore "blind" and truly fair.

However, at the time of writing, the results have now since been published and I have also shown which contestant blended which sample.

Onto my notes:

Blend A - 42.1% ABV - Now known to have been blended by Neil Ridley

This was marginally the darker of the two blends.

Nose - Green apple leading to waxy smoke.  Becomes more sherried with some dried fruit and hints of tropical, over-ripe, pineapple.  Pine wood / pine sap which then softens out with oak vanilla, orange marmalade and a little dustiness which hides just underneath.  A little note of BBQ wood chips comes through and with time a mellow sense of oak effect appears.

Palate - Sour arrival but quite smooth.  On second tasting there's a little more of a kick from the spirit with sweet malt, lemon drops, black pepper, vanilla and more wood sap.  Juicy with apples and still get a sense of the dusty wood.  In terms of smoke, there's just a little lurking in the background.

Finish - Quite good, a little bit of length with nice, dry wood spice.  Stewed oranges and apple crumble.  Quite lip smacking.

Blend B - 43.5% ABV - Now known to have been blended by Dave Broom

Nose - Candied fruits leading to light smoked bacon.  Smoke continues with dried wood smoke.  Quite spirity and a little bit hard to get into.  Does begin to open up with a little orange and lemon.  A little dried fruit and cinnamon.  After a little longer a coastal note comes through with mineral peat.  The longer this spent in the glass the more the peat came to the fore but all the time the nose retained it's spirit feel with a little added vibrancy from more lemon.

Palate - Youthful with orchard fruits and a little chilli heat.  More orange but to be honest a little one dimensional.  As with the nose the peat eventually comes along and is a nice change of direction.  Combines with the zesty lemon to give a salty lemon note, think aftertaste of a tequila shot minus the overpowering nature of the tequila spirit.

Finish - Just ok and, in fairness, maybe a little too confused.  Still not coming together and possibly the peat has cancelled the other elements out without being enough on it's own.

Overall this was every bit the "ding-dong" contest you would come to expect from an actual heavyweight boxing bout.

Blend A started off much the better with it's openness, and accessibility, being the highlight while it's counterpart remained very much closed up and difficult to get into.  This despite Blend B showing off some nice notes of peat.

Moving onto the taste, Blend A carried through it's flavours from the nose nicely whereas Blend B, initially, went along a one dimensional route and, as I waited for each to develop in the glass, Blend A brought along mellow notes of sherry and wood sap whilst Blend B refused to budge.

It was towards the end that Blend B began it's fight back.  As Blend A showed overall balance, and tailed off with some nice dusty wood, Blend B went a totally different direction offering up delicious peat which was mineral, coastal and earthy in nature.

With the finish, Blend A remained balanced, and well rounded to the end, but it has to be said it carried this off with little excitement throughout. 

Blend B's last minute injection of peat was a nice surprise but was also to be it's ultimate downfall, as this led it's finish to feel somewhat confused.

With these final thoughts it was clear which blend had come out on top - Blend A.

Looking back now, I am drawn to the amount of grain used by Dave Broom combined with his choice of rum seasoning for his cask.  In my humble opinion this appears to be where the problem of Blend B began.  The use of 3 different grains possibly caused a lack of depth and allowed the Caol Ila element to dominate too easily.  The use of rum also seems to have been an issue as Neil Ridley's choice of sherry was noticeable throughout his blend and seemed to bind it together with depth of flavour.

Whether I am even remotely close with this evaluation, or not, is somewhat irrelevant, as either way this has been a great experience which has taught me a thing or two about blends and how different flavours can work together, and also how they can not.

I have to take my last moments to congratulate Whisky Magazine on a quality feature.  To have a running article that allows readers to follow along and ultimately take part in the finish is outstanding.  It has been an absolute joy to be part of this experience and am already looking forward to next years contest.

If Neil Ridley is to come back, to defend his crown, then he will bring with him a far greater insight into what is required to make a blend work and I can only see the quality of the blends becoming better and better.

Similarly, Whisky Magazine will also be able to see what rules worked and what other rules they could maybe add in the future to allow for a greater test of blending skill.

Until next time,



Friday, 16 October 2015

An Evening With Glendalough Distillery

It had been a while since I had been down, but last month I attended the Hudson Bar, Belfast to partake in one of their "Whiskey Club" evenings.

The reason for making the extra effort was due to the fact that this evening was being hosted by Glendalough Distillery and more specifically, one of their founders, Gary McLoughlin. 

This is a distillery that has been around for a good few years but, at the same time, one I had little experience of.

Labelling themselves as "Ireland's first craft distillery", Glendalough was formed in 2011 and are one of the many new start distilleries that have been popping up across the whole of Ireland in recent times.  The Distillery was founded by five gentlemen who, having all previously worked in the drinks industry, decided to finally take the plunge and stop working for others, to start working for themselves.

"Determined to carve their own way", the founders looked towards the medieval monastic settlements, where the craft of distillation was born, for inspiration.  Located just south of Dublin, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, is the site of one such settlement which was first established, in the sixth century, by the Irish monk St. Kevin.

Today St. Kevin is instantly recognisable as the figure on the front of every bottle of Glendalough Whiskey, "serving as a symbol of the independent character and ancestral reverence at the heart of Ireland's first craft distillery."......How's that for some marketing spiel??

Getting back to the night in question though, Gary McLoughlin did offer a lighter note, as to the symbol of St. Kevin, by suggesting that he was to Glendalough what Mr. Jack Daniels, himself, is to the bourbon we all know very well.

Moving onto the drinks side of things we had a nice line up to work through.  On show for the evening was the "Double Barrel" Single Grain, 7yo Single Malt, 13yo Single Malt and their brand new Autumn Gin.

Starting off with the "Double Barrel" we are told that this single grain is made from a mash bill containing 90% Corn and 10% Malted Barley.  The distilled spirit was then matured for 3 and a half years in a 1st fill ex-bourbon cask, from Wild Turkey, and then given a 6 month finish in an ex-Oloroso cask before being bottled at 42% ABV.

As far as single grains go, it's pretty good.  Very smooth with the Oloroso influence very evident and a nice peppery, savoury note.  We are also informed that this "Double Barrel" also recently won a double gold at this years "San Francisco World Spirits Competition".

At time of writing Glendalough also have a triple barrelled single grain available on the U.S. market which has had the addition of Madeira maturation.  In time it may make it's way to these shores.

It's important to note that, at the moment, Glendalough have no aged stock of their own whiskey, so each whiskey is currently sourced from Cooley in Co. Louth.  What is also important though is that it doesn't necessarily matter so much where the spirit is originally from, but how it is handled and released by those who purchase it.

Glendalough have started distilling their own whiskey and only 3 weeks prior to this event they had produced their first pot still whiskey which was casked into ex Maker's Mark barrels.

At this point I'd also like to add that I'm a firm believer that Irish single grain has the opportunity to dominate this particular area of the whiskey market.  With the likes of Kilbeggan (formerly Greenore) and Teeling Single Grain already out there, and also having recently tasting a Midleton Single Grain (although admittedly this may never be released as a single grain), I honestly believe that Irish Single Grain knocks the socks off anything coming out of Scotland, where it is mostly used as blend filler.

Moving onto the 7yo Single Malt we are treated to an array of further marketing as to why the number "7" is so important but to move things along I shall just concentrate on the liquid in the bottle.  This is a double distilled single malt that has been aged in 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels from Wild Turkey before being bottled at 46% ABV.

On first taste it is, for me, undoubtedly Cooley in origin.  An lovely bourbon smoothness is accompanied by green apple, soft banana and soft grain.  As far as awards go this also was successful in San Francisco, picking up a silver medal.

Before moving onto the 13yo we get an insight as to what to expect in the near future with explanation that Glendalough currently have 10yo whiskey maturing in 4 different casks: Port, Rum, Madeira and Cabernet Sauvignon.

As for the 13yo the story behind it's origin is pretty unique.  Whilst in a bar, in New York City, a certain Irish rugby legend, Brian O'Driscoll, spotted Glendalough's Poitin and happened to get speaking to one of the founders.  After hearing their story he loved it so much that he wanted to get involved. 

At this time Glendalough were attempting to source 12yo whiskey from Cooley but after getting "B.O.D." on board they wanted to honour this by releasing a 13yo, which as any rugby fan knows was O'Driscoll's shirt number.  This resulted in much hurried phone calls to secure the odd numbered spirit but obviously they succeeded.

What they have now is an excellent Irish whiskey.  The 13yo is packed full of fresh fruits that range from fruit salad and lemon sherbet to white wine / grappa and more banana.  The bourbon influence isn't as noticeable, upon first nosing, but with time the creaminess comes along and rounds off a pretty tasty dram.

In San Francisco this 13yo conquered all by receiving a double gold and also the honour of being crowned "Best Irish Single Malt".  I'm not sure what other single malts it was up against but this is still an amazing accolade to have.

Upon speaking with Gary McLoughlin, I quizzed him on how they intend on developing their flavour profile as they move from sourcing outside whiskey to releasing their own, and his answer was honest.  They don't intend on trying to carry the specific flavours you find in their current range through into the future. 

They understand that it would be near on impossible to replicate this and therefore, there will be a time when we should see a definitive shift from their current ages to a style that has been completely developed by Glendalough and Glendalough alone.  It isn't clear when that will be but, when it is on the horizon my advice would be to snap up the current range as they will then soon become collectors items.

To finish off the evening we are treated to a taste of their brand new seasonal Autumn gin. 

Each season Glendalough work alongside local forager Geraldine Kavanagh to handpick the very best local botanicals, berries and fruit.  They then produce their gin in small batches and keep each season's output to no more than 3,000 bottles.  As is obvious, the ever changing Irish climate ensures that each season is completely unique and will also change from year to year.

As for this particular gin some of the fine ingredients used were nettle, rosehip, rosemary, Fraughan berries, crab apple, ground ivy, ginger and bitter almond.

Now, I'm no gin expert but after tasting this I may have to start partaking a little more.  This smelt absolutely divine and I can only imagine how much fun you could have with a couple of choice mixers.  Truly delicious and one to watch out for.

To finish off this update I'd like to think about this:

As Irish whiskey moves forward it will be interesting to see what works and what doesn't.

It is no doubt exciting that there are so many new distilleries opening up but it has been well documented that it is absolutely imperative that each new distillery understands that the Irish whiskey industry isn't some craze that you jump on the back of to make a "quick buck", but something that should be treasured and respected.

Irish whiskey has been through some tough times, and throughout those times a select few carried the mantle and kept the industry going.  They were also the ones to see Irish whiskey through it's dark days whilst managing to maintain the standards and quality that are revered the world over.

This is the challenge facing new distilleries.  They have to carry on in the same light as those select few and maintain the standards themselves.  If each new distillery can achieve this then Irish whiskey has a very bright future and in the case of Glendalough I am confident that, after this evening with them, they have what it takes to carry Irish whiskey on into the future.

Good luck lads and I look forward to seeing what you have in store for us whiskey lovers in the future.

Many thanks to Gary McLoughlin, and the Hudson Bar, Belfast, for a fantastic evening and if you happen to be in Belfast and would like to find any of the Glendalough bottles then head to "The Vineyard" on the Ormeau Road, they have the full range in stock.

Until next time,



Thursday, 1 October 2015

An Evening With Midleton Master Blender Billy Leighton

Earlier this year, I attended another wonderful event hosted by the Merchant Hotel in the centre of Belfast.  This was the second in their "By The Fire" whiskey events and welcomed Midleton's master blender Billy Leighton to take us through a range of whiskeys from the Midleton portfolio.

As with the previous event, with Colum Egan, the room was set and provided the perfect setting for the evening's festivities.

Tickets had sold out well in advance and the crowd was eagerly anticipating what we might be treated to, let's face it, these nights always have a wee surprise in store.

To get us in the mood we started off with a Jameson, Ginger & Lime, a drink that Jameson have tried hard to market and in fairness I think it's starting to take hold.  When out in the town I hear more and more people asking specifically for this and even at a recent leaving dinner, in Newtownards, the drink on offer was this very concoction.

It's a drink that works and is a perfect little taster for people that want to try something different and might bring more into the whiskey world.

As Billy Leighton introduced himself the mood was relaxed, and laid back, with no strict script and questions flowing back and forward.

The main line up for the evening was as follows: Powers "John's Lane", Redbreast 12yo, Redbreast 12yo cask strength, Redbreast 15yo and Redbreast 21yo.  Not bad at all for the £25 ticket price.

As the conversation carried on Billy acknowledged the perception of him working in a lab, bringing together the wondrous flavours we know and love, but he was very honest in comparing himself more to a stock controller.

It's an aspect of the whiskey world that is often overlooked.  With such a large company, he is responsible for managing the huge stock at Midleton, the ages and cask types, to ensure that age statements and quality are maintained year on year.

When you consider that Midleton has something like 45 warehouses on site, each containing millions of litres of spirit, you get an idea of the scale of the task that faces him.

He continued by highlighting how his task is very different from scotch blenders who would have a larger range to play with.  As all Midleton blends are produced on site it's very much in his hands to maintain the stanards throughout all the styles.

To really hit this home he described that, because the much revered Redbreast 21yo has some 28yo whiskey contained within it, he has to have the next 28 years worth of 21yo already maturing.  As part of his role he also has to forecast for 10 years, so now the overall forecast is 38 years, and as a sherry cask takes 5 years to make, and season, this is now increased to 43 years.....this has to be done for all brands and their relevant expressions!!

As if this wasn't enough he also would divide forecasts into optimistic, pessimistic and realistic as the market changes.  Unbelievable really, when you think about it.

As we sipped the 12yo we were  informed that it roughly contains 12 - 14yo whiskeys.

He touched on global brand reach by stating that they are starting to do well in Russia and South Africa, have been doing well in the USA for about 10-12 years and are quiet in China, at the moment, due to other brands.

As we moved onto the 15yo we were treated to more inside information.  He highlighted the make up of the whiskey by stating the key character is sherry matured with a mix of first fill & second fill casks and also stated there is some 19yo contained within.

He also informed us that this was first made, back in 2005, as a "one off" for La Maison du Whisky in Paris, France. 

Four years later marketing came along asking him to re-create this expression for general release.  As this was initially a one off, the components were not readily available, to make the same flavour profile, but it was re-created as best possible from an original bottle held at Midleton. 

Only now, is the 15yo, more or less, at the same level as it was for that '05 special release.

We finished with the 21yo, which I absolutely adore, and if the tasting had finished there then I would have went home very happy but......here came the surprises.

Five, yes FIVE, more samples that had been taken straight from the casks at Midleton.

They were as follows:

1 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1994 and matured in a first fill port cask
(Used in Jameson Rarest Vintage)
2 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1998 and matured in a first fill sherry cask
3 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1997 and matured in a first fill bourbon cask
4 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1996 and matured in an American virgin oak cask
(Small amount used in Jameson Gold)
5 - Grain whiskey distilled in 1990 and matured in a second fill bourbon cask

I could not believe my luck!!

He took us through each and the flavours were out of this world from, the almost meaty, port matured Pot Still to the exceptional single grain, which is quite simply the finest single grain I have ever tasted.

I quizzed him specifically on the single grain, and why there has never been a Midleton single grain released, and it seems that marketing just aren't that interested in getting it out there. 

I think they're mad in the head as this would put anything else on the market to shame.  I suppose it may be needed for more important blends but I'm sure if they got together they could get some maturing right now, even for some sort of a special release like the Mano a Lamh.

To finish off the evening we were treated to something truly special.  A chance, albeit slightly rushed, to see Billy Leighton at work.  It was at this moment he collected up one of each of the sample bottles and went round each table asking how much to use and, with that, he set about creating what I shall call the "By The Fire Blend".  

As we suggested measures he adjusted them accordingly to balance the flavours and we were then treated to a taste of this once in a lifetime blend. 

Amazing, just simply amazing.

As Billy brought the evening to an end he left us to enjoy what was left of the samples and my oh my did they disappear quickly.  Maybe even back to some people's houses....I'm saying nothing.

All in all an absolutely awesome evening and a great chance, yet again, to hear from the people who truly are at the heart of Irish whiskey.  It's not the bosses of Pernod Ricard, or previously Diageo, who fund our much love distilleries, but the people actually working there, day in day out, creating something special for everyone to enjoy.

With people like Billy Leighton at the heart of Irish whiskey, especially with the passion he has, I know we're in very safe hands as Irish whiskey continues to grow.

As for the "By The Fire" event, I know they were having a break over the summer months but I believe they are planning to start up again soon with a possible visit from Tullamore on the cards.

Lastly I would just like to thank the Merchant Hotel, and Billy Leighton, for a memorable evening and I look forward to more of the same.

Until next time,