Apologies for the recent blogging hiatus here at Alt-Tipple Towers. The back end of 2012 turned out to be bit fraught for a variety of reasons and so this already delayed post was pushed back further and further. Still, its emphasis on the products of new wave world and micro whisky distillers (a topic I’m very keen on) meant I felt it was worth resuscitating despite being started last October. So here we go.
Unexpected good fortune in early October 2012 saw me in attendance at The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show at Vinopolis wine complex near London’s South Bank and what a superb day out it was.
A barely remembered entry of my name and email address into an online raffle on the Whisky Marketplace price-comparison website won me two Sunday tickets, worth a cool £99 each, to the capital’s biggest whisky event. With my whisky-loving friend Cliff in tow I headed to London Bridge and joined the queue heading in at noon.
With effectively unlimited samples available a plan of action was needed if I wasn’t to exceed my alcohol tolerance before trying everything that interested me. As ever my “alternative” head won the day and I resolved to check out as many new wave, new world and occasionally wacked out whiskies as possible, throwing in the odd big-brand dram if it was a little off the beaten track.
The selection of such spirits was more than enough to see me through the day, as it happened. And while it may seem slightly perverse going out of my way to try whiskies with often little provenance when so many top brands were also present it was a great way to experience some of the diversity of world whisky today without needing to invest huge funds in something that could potentially turn out to be disagreeable.
As it happens the standard of most of the whiskies I tried has probably helped dispel too many concerns in that area, even if some are a little rough around the edges at present. However, it remains true that many new wave whiskies are expensive relative to the products of larger, established concerns. Or maybe those products are really too cheap?
I didn’t keep detailed (or even brief) tasting notes as it just wasn’t that kind of event. But I learned a lot from the helpful marketing folk and occasionally the distillers themselves to understand where they were coming from and their plans for the future.
Before embarking on the real whisky weirdness, Cliff and I sampled the delights of pure (or as it now seems to be described, “single”) pot still Irish whiskey as a means to ease ourselves in gently, flavour wise. Despite triple-distillation and no peat, single pot stills offer a much bigger whiskey than many might expect, the addition of unmalted barley in the mash creating a much bolder, oilier style than the use of malt alone would do if prepared similarly.
This uniquely Irish style is also a bit of a favourite of mine, which meant I was very interested in trying Midleton Distillery’s latest addition to its growing family of single pot stills, Yellow Spot (46%). As with that great pot still survivor Green Spot, Yellow Spot is bottled for Mitchell & Sons wine and spirits merchant of Dublin and is named for an earlier bottling that last appeared in the 1950s. Distinguishing itself from its younger brother, Yellow Spot is a 12 year old whiskey blended from a mix of bourbon barrels, sherry butts and, more unusually, casks of Malaga fortified wine.
With its Malaga influence, Yellow Spot is certainly distinctive among the single pot still fraternity but not for me preferable to the various Redbreasts and the Powers John’s Lane that were also on offer and which I already have in my collection. Wine finishes rarely win the day for me but that’s more a personal preference than a criticism. Certainly more choice in this once moribund category has to be a good thing. One wonders if the other “Spots”, blue and red, will also make a reappearance in coming years.
After slipping in a quick slug of the Jameson 2007 Rarest Vintage Reserve, largely because I’ll never be in a financial position to buy one (c. £250-300 a bottle!), we changed continent heading to a couple of American micros, one now fairly well established at four years old, the other barely two years old.
Out of six whiskies on offer from the multi-award winning Balcones Distilling from Waco, Texas we first tried True Blue, a cask-strength corn whisky that’s the next step up from the distillery’s better known (at least on this side of the pond) Baby Blue. True Blue is uniquely made from atole, a roasted blue corn meal, which adds a great deal of depth including an odd (if strangely not unpleasant) flavour of rubber to what is often perceived as a somewhat simple style.
The other Balcones whisky tried was our first real oddity. Balcones Brimstone requires a complete re-conception of what a smoky whisky might be like, the grist being smoked with sun-baked Texas scrub oak using a “secret” process. The result is a whisky with something of the bold, slow-burning smokiness of a Schlenkerla Rauchbier Eichen beer rather than the charred flavours of good bourbon or peat reek of an Islay. Odd but actually rather likable.
Next door to Balcones stand (an upended barrel) was the even newer and smaller Corsair Distillery, a fact that maybe explains the slightly amateurish presentation of its products. Corsair divides its production between a site in Kentucky and another in Tennessee, potentially useful if you want to cover off both the Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey styles in your portfolio. However, Corsair seems not to be overly concerned by these opportunities right now if its sample wares were anything to go by.
The first, known as Rasputin, broke genuinely new ground for me. And, I suspect, anyone else who tried it. Starting out as a strong imperial stout the distilled beer vapors are passed through fresh hops before aging in charred oak barrels. The end result smells more like a new wave India pale ale than it does any whisky before it, the herbal hop aroma being especially pungent. It also gives the drinker a sense that a pint might be a more appropriate measure than a shot. Not a complete success, but certainly interesting and definitely worth a try.
The second Corsair sampled was the no less tame-sounding Ryemageddon, a rye whisky that use of chocolate rye as well as malted rye to create an intense rye experience softened by an almost smothering cocoa oiliness. Not currently available in the UK, Corsair’s product are rapidly gaining a reputation for themselves for quality as much as for experimentation even if some of its products (Rasputin for instance) wouldn’t qualify as whiskies in the UK.
Speaking of quality, our next two alternative whiskies are further helping to blow apart negative expectations of non-Japanese Asian whiskies in the way that India’s Amrut has already begun to do so. The Kavalan range from the industrial scale distillery of the same name in Yuanshan, Taiwan has met with considerable approval from whisky writers and other commentators alike and it’s easy to see why. The couple of Kavalan malts I tried – the standard Kavalan Single Malt and the much more complex King Car Whisky, which uses eight types of cask - were both excellent and both avoided the obvious temptation to be simply clones of Scotch.
The other, a new Indian single malt (from a single cask) named Paul John (57%) from the John Distillery in the holiday hotspot of Goa, showed unbelievable maturity for a whisky that turned out to have only three years of cask aging at the time of bottling while looking and tasting at least in the mid teens. This lead a fellow sampler to stand almost bemused for sometime while struggling to conjure new superlatives. I had to agree.
Quite a shock for the Scotch whisky industry I’d think, which must be wondering whether exporting its own casks to tropical countries as a means to speed up maturation might now look like a viable, even necessary, option if it is to relay the playing field equally. Paul John was subsequently given a soft launch through The Whisky Exchange and is still available there.
Although it has yet to launch a product it was good to see the new London Distillery Company Ltd at the event and to chat to CEO and co-founder Darren Rook for a few minutes. The first whisky distillery in London for over one hundred years is now up and running with gin and other spirits helping fund the project until the first whisky is ready, seemingly in late 2015. While we wait, perhaps the distillery could also put out some independent bottlings of whiskies from around the Isles named for some of The Smoke’s old sports clubs: London Irish, London Scots and London Welsh. Just a thought.
Cliff and I then moved on to some rather grand old Japanese whiskies. While Japan is hardly unknown as a producer of good whisky many of its best products rarely appear on the UK market, cost a fortune and then don’t stick around long when they do. As a result I’m largely unfamiliar with them.
That’s especially true of the very old whiskies from Karuizawa Distillery on offer through The Number One Drinks Company. The whiskies’ packaging often caught the attention here as much as the content of the bottle, especially the Karuizawa Noh 1983 / 28 year old with its gorgeous label depicting the mask of traditional Noh musical drama performer Chorei Beshimi from the 17th century. Some whisky this, great age turning the heavy sherrying into an intense palate of dried red and other dark fruits along with added notes of concentrated cooked blood. Really something else but also way outside my price range at around £300 a bottle. If you can still find one.
A quick stop by my old friends Wemyss Malts (hi Karen!) was followed by a final couple of world whiskies. First was a limited edition 10 year old expression of Three Ships Single Malt Whisky from the The James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington, South Africa. A very decent if rather more conventional dram this, with a little of everything including some peat, toffee and honey notes.
Our final whiskies of the day came from Finnish micro-distillery Teerenpeli, set up, alongside a microbrewery, in the restaurant of the same name in 2002. As well as the regular eight year old Teerenpeli Single Malt we also sampled a preview of a new six year old sherried expression, Teerenpeli Distiller’s Choice Kaski. Of the two I (perhaps unsurprisingly given my preference for less sherry influence) preferred the standard version, a light but well-integrated whisky with interesting spiciness (I assume from its use of local Finnish ingredients), but it’s good to see the Lahti distiller broadening its horizons as well as getting good write ups.
It’s fascinating to watch whisky distilling taking a parallel track to beer brewing with new entrants from far and wide now adding un-heralded new dimensions to the flavour spectrum of the king of spirits. It’s also good to see a fair number of new whisky producers gaining the recognition of the establishment through events such as TWE Whisky Show. While many are still hard to find in retail, I can see that changing with outlets such as The Whisky Exchange and Royal Mile Whiskies steadily expanding their selections (although I’d live to know how many bottles they actually sell).
My thanks to Jean-Luc of Whisky Marketplace and the Whisky Connosr social network for the chance to visit this awesome event, gratis. Next year I’ll probably be prepared to cough up myself if this edition was anything to go by.