Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #43

Edradour 10yo
Highland Single Malt Whisky
40% abv

Edradour was founded in 1837 and is the last of the farm distilleries that once covered the area of Perthshire through the 19th century. Families would work together sharing the land, the water wheels, and the sweet spirit that would come of the excess barley. In 1925, the distillery was bought by Willam Whiteley to supply malt for his House of Lords and King's Ransom blends.He renames the distillery Glenforres-Glenlivet. Today it is owned by Andrew Symington and Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky.

I have visited it several times because Pitlochry is so easily accessible from Edinburgh and/or Glasgow, and after a hike through the woods, past a waterfall where deer are often sighted, coming upon the distillery straddling a 'wee burn' is like stepping back in time, making it an ideal Scottish whisky distillery day trip.

The distillery is said to have done a busy trade with American customers during prohibition and there are unsubstantiated stories that the distillery was was indirectly owned by the mafia.

Of interest, to me at least, are the facts that only 3 men are responsible for making the whisky, the stills are as small as are legally allowed for commercial scale and the distillery owns and uses the last working Morton refrigerator in the industry.


Odd array of aromas that is quite big and heavy. Sherry, bags of dried fruit, and smells like the taste of stomach bile. Wood and unscented body soap. Some smokiness that could just be the oaky sherriness.

Mouth-coating sherry that tightens up like the effect tootpaste on the tongue. Golden syrup and honey, but not sweet. In fact bitter and challenging. Some smoke appears with a distinct soapiness.Finish is not too long and consists of some sherry, oak and orange peel.


This is what I gather whisky tasted like in the 19th century and in some ways exemplifies why it offended the palates of the English middle classes and therefore benefited from blending. Their new Ballechin is supposed to really taste like whisky of centuries past, but if you arent willing to drop the coin, this gives a pretty good idea of what small stills hidden on Bens and in Glens would spit out. With the help of some choice sherry casks for maturation.

Malt Mission #41
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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #42

Blair Athol 12yo
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
43% abv

Like many of Scotland's lesser known whiskies, Blair Athol has had a patchy history since its birth in 1798. It's the 7th oldest distillery still in production and the only non-premium expression available is still a part of the Flora & Fauna range(vanishing steadily). When it was first built, the distillery was named after the one of the rivers that runs through Pitlochry, Allt Dour, and fell silent only a few years later.

The stills came back to life in 1826 an renamed Blair Athol.
"The village of Blair Atholl ends with a double 'l', while the distillery prefers to keep it single"-Michael Jackson

Arthur Bell&Sons had a good sense for investment and in the recession of the 1930's, at an obviously deflated price, purchased both of Peter Mackenzie's distilleries, Dufftown and Blair Athol.The distillery closed, as it had 100 years earlier, until 1949 when Bell's became a public company.

Blair Athol is one of the very few (4?) Scottish Whisky distilleries whose water source is hard, flowing from Ben Vrackie.


Warming sherry, oak and some peppery vanilla... uuups, and a prickle when I try to dig. Just leave it a sec to breathe. Sherry still. Maybe balsamic vinegar and blackberries. Big waves of sherry and something like tigertail ice cream(creamsicle orange and licorice)

Big announcement, "SHERRY!" with a watery mouthfeel and a big explosion of golden syrup-soaked oak, oak being in the foreground. With that sherry announced. Root beer. Wood wood wood. Sherry(did i mention that?) Wood. Good bye

I know that if nothing else, this dram gave me a new go-to dreccomendation for friends asking for something sherried.
This sample was a gift from Kristin a couple of years ago for one of the days of hanukkah(or only slightly more hilarious, this) and the only other time I have had it was visiting the distillery in 2003. According to MJ, Blair Athol is a whisky that, without being huge in body, stands up well to sherry casks. I say this malt gets noticed with determination, boldly asserting, "I am sherry!" But any impression of what Blair Athol's spirit actually tastes like, is lost. Save it for Bell's. I don't care right now.

* not carried by LCBO or Manitoba Liquor Marts, USA? Help requested

Malt Mission #41
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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #41

Bell's Extra Special 8yo
Finest Old Blended Scotch Whisky
40% abv

Week 9 of this malt mission and we are going to have a southern Highlands themed week. A cold has been going around and I hope that getting back to my morning tasting routine will weaken the hold these symptoms gained over the weekend...

On the bottle, Bell's reads "Estd 1825". Although, this is not totally accurate, Bell's whisky still has a pretty respectable pedigree. In 1840, Arthur Bell started working for Thomas Sandeman
, a wine and spirit merchant in Perth, Scotland (whose business was founded in 1825). He was an early enthusiast of the concept of blending malts even before the availability of grain whisky because of its wider appeal. When someone wrote him asking why his whisky was so good he replied, "I do not usually give the mixture of my whiskies, but may mention that the best is made in Banffshire's Glenlivet district and the other is Pitlochry and Stirlingshire whiskies." Blair Atholl in Pitlochry is currently the 'home' of Bell's whisky and still at the heart of the blend.

Bell didnt believe in using his name on the blend, and Scotch Fir was the first name given the brand in 1890s. Thirty years later the blend was called Arthur Bell and Sons Pure Malt Whisky and was the first time the name "Bell" name appeared on a bottle. Sales growth in the 1970’s saw it surpass Haig and Johnnie Walker in the UK and today, is the highest selling whisky in the country.

From what I have gathered, it contains(or has contained) Blair Athol, Balblair, Caol Ila, Dufftown, Inchgower, and Linkwood.


Light and clean grain, nuttiness, soft butter and honey, heavier malts weigh in with rich raisiny smells and some smoke. Like a good blend, it smells like whisky. No doubts.

The taste comes on slow, but offers a full package: a tightly knit combination of bread, Dairy Milk, maybe some sweet turkish coffee, burnt sugar, and definitely some smoke.


Puzzling cuz it has good, all-round flavour from sweet to peat. The problem is that it is all wrapped up in an articifial sweetness that dulls the whole impact. I suppose this effect is what makes it quite a friendly whisky, satisfying enough, but never really DOING what it tastes like it wants to do.

* - it was a right pain in the arse to find a price for Bell's in the U.S... seemed no one carried it. Americans, does the price I quote seem accurate? Suggestions?

Malt Mission #40
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Friday, February 23, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #40

Highland Park 1976
Single Cask Single Malt Whisky

Bourbon Cask, #4508



The third Highland Park to be enjoyed in this malt mission, creating Highland Park bookends to week 8. EIGHT!!! I can't believe this is still going... and currently, I have at least two more weeks lined up, with more in the works. THANK YOU!

I have already told you about the distillery and some of the notable facts in its history. But what I think is just amazing, and puts this whole single malt craze in perspective, is to realise that in 1989, when Michael
Jackson published his first "Malt Whisky Companion" (currently in 5th edition) he had only a Gordon&Macphail 8yo(cask sample), a distillery bottling 12yo, and 24you cask sample from Cadenhead's. It wasn't until 1997 that the 18yo and the 25yo were launched and 2005 that the 30yo came into the market. Additionally, please note the pic to the right is not the exact vintage tasted, but of the same design.

I think it is important to note these facts because from
the current perspective of a whisky market that is spilling open with new releases, finishes, single cask bottlings, new independent bottlers, etc., it is easy to take it all for granted as the way things have always been. In fact, the last time things were so good for the whisky industry, a crash followed, and the time before that, led to an even bigger one. If I have time this weekend(my Unc is in town) I will write more about this fragility and the future of whisky in part 3 of my blends series.

For now, let's drink this baby, distilled in my year of birth... Happy 40th, malt mission!


Very hidden, closed nose. Will need water as trying to dig deeper with my nose leads to a pretty big prickle(53%!). I wait and it does start to open up: vanilla and cinnamon, but in an artificial scent, like cleaning agents, or scented candles. Saffron and clove infused basmati rice. Quite complex, but a struggle to pull each piece out. Time helps this beauty open up, glad I didnt add water. Finally, I get banana bread, waffles, sweet baked goods. Maple and smoke. Vinegar and salt.
Musty leather, wood, and polished brass, like an antique market.

Gorgeous mouth feel with flavours that go from grainy like rye to smoky to salty to licorice to fresh churned butter with smoked salmon... There's more, I just can't type fast enough. Great chewiness, pipe tobacco, an almost bitter edge like raw grains or good Danish rye bread (I already said that...) Weaving, always moving, quite exhilarating in the way the flavours are active and swirling to the senses. Finish alternates between smoke from doused fire on one hand and a lovely vanilla, bourbony sweetness with some burnt edge, like creme brulée. Anise at the dryest end of the finish. And that is only based on two sips! This stuff delivers.


Stellar. Tastes expensive. I couldnt keep up with all the impressions I was getting, which is fantastic. I can see one serving lasting me a long time. At the price, it would have to. Worth every penny, tho, if you have that many pennies.

Malt Mission #36
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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #39

Isle of Jura
Special Island Edition
Heavily Peated Cask Strength
7 Year Old
58.4% abv
price unknown

This is the first of two gifted sample bottles that I will be tasting to end our Island-themed week. THANK YOU, Michael(Royal Mile Whiskies).

This is a single cask Jura from the 2006 Islay Festival of Malt and Music. Jura is an incredibly beautiful island that sits just between Islay and the Mull of Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland. If you are going to ever make the whisky pilgrimage to Islay, don't miss Jura. After we visited the distillery we gained great respect for Jura as they seem to exist against all economic sense. And thank goodness for it because it is the core of the island's economy. Luckily the 25 deer per human aren't in competition for the same jobs...

Jura has many obstacles in getting its barley shipped to the island, getting its casks of whisky off the island, as well as getting its waste to its disposal point on Islay. These are added expenses that would seem to gobble up the already small profit margins that distilleries run on, but nonetheless Whyte & Mackay has kept Jura going strong. The remoteness adds to the allure. The old warehouse seems to whistle when the wind blows against its walls and the palm trees make you want to jump in the often freezing Sound of Jura. And how many islands have a pair of mountains called 'paps'?

The peated expression of Jura doesnt get out much, but was available as a 5yo from Royal Mile Whiskies in 2004. Other special editions include a 19yo that commemorates Eric Blair, called '1984'. Why? Because Eric lived on Jura when he completed a famous book of the same name. He was better known as George Orwell.


Toffeed smoke, vanilla or butterscotch tobacco, a brininess beneath that acts as a sea floor; if you try to dig beneath it you get a big nose prickle of alcohol. But there is peat and a sweet core of shortbread and almonds.

Puff the magic dragon... wooohooo! Burnt wood down by the sea, toasty and peaty, seared fish in butter and red wine. Marzipan and smoke from a blown out candle. Straighforward and well-integrated.


Solid peaty whisky. Not much more to say. Smoky whisky defined, without interference of sherry or iodine. Special in that it is not quite an south-shore Islay sort of peatiness nor a Benriach or Ardmore speyside kind of peatiness. If you want to try a peaty Jura and cant get this, look for Superstition. It is a vatting of this sort of young heavily peated malt and much older unaged Jura.

Malt Mission #36
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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #38

Talisker 10
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
45.8% abv

The distillery is still the only one on Skye and was built in 1830. It changed hands and was renovated a few times before 1915 when a consortium including John Dewar & Sons and John Walker & Sons took it over. Until 1928, Talisker triple distilled their spirit. The distillery was badly damaged by a fire in 1960 and 5 replacement stills, exact replicas, had to be made. Five is a strange number, and Talisker is one of only two distilleries (the other being Macduff/Glen Deveron) that uses two wash and three spirit stills.

Talisker has been a big part of Johnnie Walker blends for over 80 years and the JW 'striding man' logo was on the Talisker label until the 1980s. Talisker sticks to its alcohol level of 45.8%. This is 80 proof in the Sikes hydrometer system.
Originally, distilled spirits were “proved” by dissolving gunpowder in the spirit and trying to ignite it. If it burned evenly and steadily, the spirit was "proven." By Sike's hydrometer, proven spirits were at least 57.1% alcohol by volume. The British proof system is built on this number. “Proof” spirits, or 100-proof spirits, are 57.1% alcohol by volume. Basically, to find out British proof, multiply the %abv by 1.75 and you will get a rough idea of its proof. So Talisker 45.8%abv is 80 proof, Glenfarclas 105 is 60%abv, etc.

Talisker 10yo has won the trophy for best single malt under 12 SIX times at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, more than any other malt. It also is the whisky that convinced Kristin back in 2003 that she could like whisky.


Deep, warm sweetness of baked pears and sweet potatoes. Really incredible. Some creamy sherry with a sort of sourness that is sometimes in Chinese food. Sweet and spicy like red peppers and vinegar, tabasco. A smoky element throughout that is throughly exciting, never outpowering any of the other scents, just complimenting them like smoke from a peat fire on the beach wafting downshore.

Much more smoke on the palate. It almost billows in your mouth. Wow. Multi-dimensional. Raw almonds, vanilla and dough. Woody and peppery. Long finish of smoke, dried legumes(beans and stuff), raw green peppers.


I often forget how great this whisky is. It really impressed me today. It is big and satisfying and rich and dense and very well constructed in that it sits in great balance in the mouth, without any flavours ever being out of place or too overpowering. Also, in my experience hosting tastings, it is an amazingly approachable whisky for the new whisky drinker (once you exlplain them that smoke is only an element in some whiskies and not to hold it against the spirit at large) before trying an Ardbeg or something.The only distillery on the isle of Skye and the only one that combines the kinds of flavours that it does. Great value, too, especially for the 18yo. Second helpings, please?

Malt Mission #36
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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #37

The Arran Malt
Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky
43% abv

Arran is the first distillery on the island of the same name since 1837, so although distilling is not new to the isle, it has only had a recent rebirth. Opened in 1995 and founded by Harold Currie, former Director of Chivas Brothers and House of Campbell, the distillery has, from the start, gone against the insustry trends. It was not seen as a wise move to open a new distillery in 1990s as it was a climate of CLOSING distilleries that prevailed. Arran began full production the day after my 19th birthday(legal drinking age in Ontario), so it is really as old as my drinking life, which I think is quite cool.

This is the chill-fitered version of the no-age-statement Arran Malt which has been replaced by the 10 year old. This chill-filtered unaged expression will stick around for a while yet.

More about Arran from a recent post on The Scotch Blog


Sweet flavoured cream cheese up high and malty depth with a sort of sweet/sour lemon juice smell bringing the two together. Salty like butter. Spirity alcohol is present, but not out of place or offensive. Really quite inviting.

Delicate and yet firm, again due to the alcohol presence that doesnt really harm the impressions. Maltiness prevails, good clean whisky taste. Finish turns pleasantly sweet like scent of flower with a brioche bready sweetness that lasts suprisingly long.


Very charming stuff and great evidence that young whisky is not necessarily bad. It could easily be regarded as simple and lacking in character, but I find it subtle and charming, carrying distinct flavours that are, we are learning, the house style of the make. The non-chillfiltered version benefits slightly from carrying more overt cask influence and sort of waxy, sappiness that is really pleasant. Point is that Arran is making good spirit and we all look forward to the future. I just wish they would tone it down a bit on the line of finishes.

* no longer stocked, replaced by the 10year old.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #36 (Kay's Dram)

Highland Park 12yo
Orkney Single Malt Whisky
40% abv


Week EIGHT(8) of this Malt Mission, and we are going to start things a little differently.

Our local pub, The Brownswood Park Tavern, has welcomed us like family since we moved from Edinburgh to our peaceful little corner of Hackney in September. Sadly, the beautiful publicans from Northern Ireland, Billy and Kay, have suffered a few tragedies since we have known them.

First, their 14 year old German Shepherd, appropriately named 'Whisky', passed away in October. Then a month later, Billy's mother passed away back in Ireland. Time passed and we had many great nights locked-in with Billy, Kay, and a few bottles of whisky. We were very lucky to have our guests and visitors meet them and be so welcomed by them. No visitor left without wishing they could have spent more nights at the Brownswood. We were so happy to have been able to spend New Years in our neighbourhood and countdown to midnight at the Brownswood. Yes, the champagne was probably something a Frenchman would have frowned at, but the warmth of the place was something we will never forget.

Most recently, Kay, Billy's wife* of 20 years, passed away. Her funeral is tomorrow.

On Thursday, I bumped into Billy on the street and he looked awful. Naturally. Tired and pale, unkempt, and full of sorrow. I hugged him, said very little, and walked away wishing I had said more, offered any help I could, asked him how he is keeping, etc.

At 11.50am on Sunday, with Kristin's brother Espen and his girlfriend Hanne with us, we walked past the pub and saw Billy inside. His face absolutely lit up. He quickly unlocked the doors and invited us in. We introduced our guests to Billy as we always do and in all the fragility of a mourner he was as kind and warm as ever. He asked us to join him for a drink and we couldnt refuse.

He poured us typically huge drams of Highland Park 12 and with the pain and sadness lurking beneath the surface of every happy story he told, the spirit could not have been more satisfying and each of ours could not have been more lifted.

So for us, Highland Park 12yo will now always be Kay's Dram, a warming, gentle, complicated, interesting and satisfying spirit, one that sometimes needs to be taken to bed, and we look forward to enjoying many more with Billy... and any other spirits that may be lurking in the Brownswood.

*- they were never legally married, as they are both married to other people, but were wed by a ships captain on a ferry 20 years ago.

Malt Mission #35
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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Bullocks to Blends? (Part 2)

Last weekend we started the story of blended whisky, and I hope to get us up to current times in the next few paragraphs.

Right, like I was saying, Phylloxera came to the vines of Europe bringing the production of wine spirits to a halt. So the 1880s became a great boom period in the history of whisky and the demand for the product soared as brandy and cognac cellars of the middle classes dried up. Irish whisky saw a great increase in sales during this time and in Scotland, blenders worked frantically to meet demand. Twenty-seven(27) distilleries that still operate today(49 in total) were built between 1879 and 1899, including North British Grain distillery, Aberlour (sold to blenders by 1892), Bunnahabhain, Craigallachie (built by White Horse's Peter Mackie and whisky blender Alexader Edward), Glenfiddich in 1887 and Balvenie 5 years later by William Grant, and Ardmore by William Teacher & Sons.

The boom was followed by a bust. In 1898 Pattison's, a major blending and bonding broker, went bankrupt. The brothers Pattison, Robert and Walter, had taken advantage of investors and had built an empire of the power of credit and when they went bankrupt after a bank refused to float them, they brought down a large chunk of the whisky industry in Scotland (more here). Many distilleries were closed and the high production of the past decade left millions of casks laid down with no buyers.

In spite of this crushing collapse, the following years provided a few small victories for Scotch whisky. Malt whisky distillers needed to protect their trades and insisted that blends should have minimum single malt whisky content. In 1909 a Royal Commission decided that "Scotch Whisky embraced malt, grain, and blended whisky, no matter how little malt was incorporated in the blend." This may sound like a negative, but it ensured that whisky stayed alive through the tough times of taxation and war that lay ahead.

During the First World War, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George made
several efforts to move towards prohibition of alcohol. In 1915 he said, "We are fighting Germany, Austria--and Drink. And as far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is Drink!" He introduced the Immature Spirit Act of 1915 that would ensure that spirit had to be matured at least two years before it could be sold. This hurt Irish whisky the most as Malt whisky distilleries in Scotland already had a tradition of maturing in oak barrels. The Irish War of Independence in 1916 didnt help things either. Duty was introduced on spirits and this greatly damaged Irish whisky sales in 'English' markets (Australia, New Zealand, India, Caribbean). Add to this the loss of Irish whisky's American market to Prohibition and a recovery for Irish whisky was nearly impossible. The combination of the struggles of Irish whisky and the 'no-minimum malt' in blended whisky policy helped Scottish whisky survive even when single malt distilleires had to close during wartime.

And prohibition in America actually HELPED the whisky industry in Scotland (and Canada, for that matter. Partial prohibition in Canada in 1918 hurt whisky makers in Canada, but the opportunity that national Prohibition caused in America healed those wounds quickly.) When the Volstead Act or the National Prohibition Act was passed in 1919, the demand for liqour fuelled many criminal activities and funded many criminals (Al Capone, Bugs Moran, etc.) and Scotch whisky sales soared.

Famously, Laphroaig made it past customs because of its simple labelling and medicinal smell convincing officers
that it was in fact medicine, a "cholera mixture". Doc Wellbanks was a vetrinarian and as such, legally allowed to buy whisky to use as medicine for (happy) horses. Naturally, he became a legend, and it wasnt just horses singing his praises. Whisky like Chivas, Dewars, and Cutty Sark entered the United States through agents who set up businesses in Canada, Nassau, or the Bahamas. Many people exploited this and bootlegged some very cheap, immature spirit. Captain William McCoy who shipped Berry Brothers & Rudd's products(Cutty Sark), earned a reputation as a supplier of real Scottish, quality whisky, entering our language to affirm authenicity, as "the real McCoy". In Canada, Hiram Walker and the Sam Bromfmans(Seagrams, pictured) made fortunes as illegal shippers of whisky across the border from Windsor to Detroit.

Advertising was used to great effect by whisky blenders. The Pattisons were real innovators in this regard, and the tradition of clever marketing continued beyond their collapse. Each blend worked to find its own niche market. Teacher's had their dram shops to get customers to drink their blends and their "Experience is the great Teacher, Teacher's is the great experience" series of adverts. Vat 69 got its military association in 1905 when a writer in the War Office Times and Naval Review wrote, "Directly we sampled this whisky we said to ourselves:'This is the ideal whisky so many of our Service readers have been looking for, and hitherto in vain'[...] We have confidence in recommending it to our readers." The cultural impact of Scottish whisky was felt throughout the world, with whisky becoming a status symbol, combining images of a rugged heritage with sophisticated taste, success, and wealth. Johnnie Walker saw itself as "the first truly global brand," being sold in over 120 countries. Sport affiliation and the promotion of Scottish heritage through advertising for Scotch whisky helped whisky stay popular around the world even as Japanese and American distilling grew.

The 1950s through the 1970s represented a 'golden age' for the Scotch whisky industry. C
onsumption in traditional markets rose steadily, and new markets emerged in Japan and the European Community and Japan. Worldwide sales grew at a compound rate of 9% per annum. The world recession in 1975 kept the escalating production of scotch whisky in check, but a surplus problem loomed. What followed was a trend towards healthier living, drunk driving laws, a turn away from brown spirits, and thus a decline in whisky consumption. By 1986 around a quarter of all distilleries were closed, demolished or motbballed/ceased production.

Today, the whisky climate is hot, perhaps even too hot. Next weekend I will try to look at trends in marketing and production, the current state and future of the industry, and what it all means to the whisky drinker of today.

[Sources: many human beings (within and without the whisky industry), a few websites(many great whisky nerds have graced this e-world with their knowlege before me. Slainte and thanks), and serveral books: Jim Murray's 'Classic Blended Scotch', Dave Broom's 'Handbook of Whisky', Helen Arthur's 'Whisky', John Hughes' 'Scotland's Malt Whisky Distilleries', ALL of Charlie Maclean's work, and the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2006 and 2007]

Bullocks to Blends? (Part One)

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #35

Johnnie Walker Blue Label
A Blend of our Very Rarest Whiskies

43% abv



Like it or not, Johnnie Walker Blue Label means 'the best whisky' in almost every language in the world.

The stuff is legendary by managing to create a mystique through clever(and often misleading) advertising and tight-lipped secrecy regarding the recipe. That being said, I have done my best to gather what I can about the recipe.

So, what is in Johnnie Walker Blue Label? It is said to include some very aged whiskies, including a drop of ancient Royal Lochnagar, sherried Blair Atholl, smoke from Caol Ila, and whiskies from closed distilleries including a 1923 Auctertool. About the recipe, Charlie Maclean told me, "It varies, but there will always be a tiny amount of old Cardhu (maybe only a tea-spoon), almost certainly some Mortlach and Clynelish and Caol Ila or Lagavulin.”

Kevin Erskine at the informative and often hilarious Scotch Blog has addressed some concerns around Diageo and the marketing of Blue here and here, so lets look at something else... PRICE.

Is the price justified?

What is interesting is the absolute variety in pricing across the board. I have seen Blue priced anywhere from £60 to £150
(currency translated) in varied markets. So is its value just based on market or is there an intrinsic WORTH. If it is the only way to taste, say 1923 Auchtertool, then that must be worth something. But how much? How do we tell?

Lets just say this Auchtertool existed as a bottle on the market, it would be a conervative estimate to assume that it may fetch £30,000(?) as a single rare bottle from a demolished distillery distilled over 80years ago. Now lets say that there is one millilitre of the stuff in every bottle, then that would make it quite a deal to have £400 worth of old whisky for circa £120. But what if it is mixed with shit(not that this is necessarily the case), does it retain its value?

Too dramatic? Funny you shoud say so, cuz some irony lies in the fact that a housing estate currently exists on the site of the old distillery called 'Brookside' (yes like the tv series, a UK soap, RIP 1982-2003).

Say a bottle of similarly priced whisky, Talisker 25yo (£105), Glen Moray 30yo(£130),
Glengoyne's Peter's Choice, or one of the best whiskies I have ever had, Balblair 38 year old(£140)... how do they compare, or rather, how does JW Blue compare? The quick answer is that it simply would not stand up in that company. Not at all.
(Hey, Diageo, just read profits are up. Good for you. If you want to prove me wrong re. Blue vs. Tali 25 do be in touch for my mailing address. I will gladly do that research)

And many of us rely on taste to determine the worthiness of a given food, wine, or whisky, so is that fair? Surely rarity affects cost (truffles? blue diamonds?), just think of the aaawful Loch Dhu, currently going for a STOOPID amount, or the excellent AND affordable Glenglassaugh releases, 19 and 22yo, and it becomes clear that market demand is ultimately the only way to assess that value.

Perhaps if they did give us SOME clue as to what piece(s) of history we are tasting, a more justified respect may be earned by the product. Or maybe they dont need that kind of respect, they have the steady cash flow of countless Wall Street boys, well-intentioned folk who want to get Dad 'something nice', wealthy Russians, Emirs and sheiks to keep Johnnie Walker Blue's paragon status.

As always, comments welcome and encouraged.

Enough typing, let's drink some.


This is somehow warming my top lip, not a hard edge to be found, the softest of childrens toys... for adults. It makes me have a vague sense of having to sneeze it is that stimulating, there is a physical impact. Amazing. Honeyed smoke and lamb fat, chicken soup. More smoke acting like the defining colour for every sensation: apple peel, creme brulée, raw potatoes, gin/juniper berries, oak panelling in a friend's basement.

Soft entry, but upon swallowing it explodes with a tingling alcohol sensation that evolves straight past mid palate experience to a finish, which has honey, smoke and wood. I am convinced that there is lots happening but I am numbed by the alcohol and cannot unpack it.
Am I wrong? The pros got more than I seem to be able to...
To be fair to JW Blue, and you, I have to get the opinions of others to see if I am crazy.
Johnnie Walker Blue, meet Kristin and her brother, Espen.

They both agreed the nose was big, beautiful, complex, and very inviting. On the palate, Espen says "steel taste". Kristin is convinced it is "like eating a cloud". I have cut it at this point and find soil, salt and latex, like chewing on a balloon. On the finish, Espen observes that "it stays forever". Kristin smiles, closes her eyes seductively, and only wants more. Cut, I find it much more tolerable in that it has lost its nails. But contrary to what I thought was buried behind the boozy bite, there is not a huge complex array of flavours but rather a concise package of oak, flowers, chocolate and pear or apple. Sexy, seductive, but not worth cheating on a better woman.


Kristin's line when we first had this whisky was memorable among our friends. She said, paradoxically, "You can't drink it quickly, but you wish you could drink it all night." I suppose many would like to drink it all night, I simply couldn't afford that, and for the price, I would certainly buy something else. That being said, there is a sexiness about it, it is a sensual drinking experience. It is a whisky that takes time, and benefits from time in the glass.

At a tasting I was hosting, Charlie Maclean told me to suck an ice cube before drinking it and note the silk effect of the spirit as it slides down my throat. Any spirit that benefits from numbing the tongue, even if recommended by a legend, is suspicious in my mind. Nonetheless, the currency this label has around the world as THE status symbol and THE embodiment of "the best whisky" makes it an impressive gift, just one that I would never give.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #34

Johnnie Walker Green Label
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
43% abv

Another from the famous Johnnie Walker dynasty.
The hierarchy of the Johhnie Walker family goes Red, Black, Green, Gold, Blue.
This malt mission began with Johnnie Walker Black Label and this week will see three others: Red yesterday, Green today... Which will be tasted tomorrow? oooooo....

So I explained the history of the company under the Red Label, and I am sure you can hear that tune, "one of these things is not like the other, one of these just doesnt belong..."
JW Green Label is a Blended Malt, or to be less confusing, I prefer the term VATTED malt making it NOT a 'blended whisky' like Grouse, or Teachers or JW Red. Ok, quickly...

Single Malt whiskies are 'single' cuz they are made from one particular grain(malted barley) and from one particular distillery (say, Springbank). They are made in copper pot stills.
Single Grain Whiskies are whiskies made from barley and/or maize, and/or wheat and made in big Column stills, Coffey Stills, or Continuous Stills.
Blended whiskies are made from one or more different single malts mixed together with one or more Grain whiskies.
Vatted Malt, Pure Malt or Blended Malt Whiskies are made from one or more different single malts vatted/blended together.

This whisky contains about 15 different single malts, but only four are mentioned on the package: Talisker, Linkwood, Cragganmore, Caol Ila.


Heavy, dense air about it, smells move from low to high, if you know what I mean. From a bottom of oak and humid sea air, whole peppercorns, malt, pecans, pears, to honey on top. Very impressive, confident.

Pungent and powerful, but a real ensemble, tough to pick out individual flavours. Some apple and toffee cake, some vapours of cherry wood smoke. Then things kick into bitterness. Big alcohol impression, too, that the experience doesnt recover from. Hard. May benefit from a bunch of ice. Or a shitty mood.


Gorgeous sherry sweetness on the nose, big heathery smoke and the bitterness completely goes away. Still not exactly my thing, but I think that ice makes nice. Eureka!


Loved the nose, big and exciting, lots of character. enjoyed the sort of waxy mouthfeel. But beyond that this dram lost its appeal. Spirit heat and bitterness spoil the possibility for flavour development. Perhaps it is just a moody dram and I just aint in the right mood. Will try with ice later.

When I tried with ice I realised this must be the way this dram is intended to be consumed. Probably great for a Rusty Nail.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #33

Johnnie Walker Red Label
Old Blended Scotch Whisky
40% abv

Now here is a face everyone will recognise. Just the sight of the bottle means 'whisky' to so many people, it is the ubiquitous whisky in home bars the world over. It is so recognised it has currency as a status symbol in many countries and has appeared in the recent King Kong remake, Wedding Crashers, in Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time", and more...

So what's the story?

In 1820, John Walker established his grocery in Kilmarnock. By the mid-19th century, they were selling “Walker’s Kilmarnock Blended Whiskies” on a wholesale basis. Alexander succeeded John after his death in 1857. With the change in law now allowing the blending of malt and grain whiskies under bond, he developed a flourishing business in blending whisky, registered the name “Walker’s Old Highland Whisky” in 1867. By 1886 they had sales offices from England to Australia to America and they were exporting to over seventy countries worldwide. So they bought a distillery, Cardhu, in 1893 to maintain supply for their increasingly
successful whisky. In 1906, a black label was given to the 12 yr old Extra Special Old Highland Whisky to distinguish it from the the Special Old Highland Whisky, which used a red label. “Johnnie Walker” was registered as a trademark in 1908 and a year later Tom Browne created the famous strutting monocled character, “Born 1820—Still Going Strong”.

The trademark square bottle still used today began in 1870s, and sales of Red are around 8 million cases, more than any other whisky, while Black doesn’t do too poorly with a whopping 3.5 million. (All JW does about 20million cases per year) There products are now sold in 120 countries. In order to maintain supply for its European demand in the later 70’s, they stopped all UK sales and exported every Red label. Bells and Grouse became increasingly popular and JW has never been able to make a return to dominance the UK where Bells and Grouse rule the roost.

Has grains between 4 and 6 years old and malts between 5 and 10, including (possibly) Aultmore, Benrinnes, Cardhu, Clynelish, Dailuaine, Caol Ila, Glenkinchie, Glen Ord, Inchgower, Royal Lochnagar, Talisker, and Teaninich, to name just a few... I mean, a dozen.


Prominent grain sweetness, applesauce and vanilla. Attacks up high in the nose. Thin but with a few waves of malt depth offering the toasted taste of rough oat cakes, weak burnt smell, spent matches from yesterday, and wood.

Starts well with exciting hot grains and pepper and clementine skin, but never delivers much beyond sweet barley spirit with the slightest touch of honey and peat making it discernible as 'whisky'. Finish lingers but it is not an exceptionally pleasant one.


Although there is good flavour movement in that impressions change throughout the drinking experience, the impressions just aren't that...well,
impressive. Whisky that ice wouldn't hurt. Or coke.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #32

The Famous Grouse
Finest Blended Scotch Whisky
40% abv

*Bang for Buck
Vote HERE (before Mar 6, 2009)

Just the facts, baby. Matthew Gloag established as a grocer and wine merchant in Perth in 1820. In the 1860’s, his son William moved into blending joining John Dewar and Arthur Bell in the competitive venture. In 1898 one of these Gloag blends was named The Grouse Brand and its local popularity earned it the name the Famous Grouse. In the 1970’s, after Highland Distilleries bought Gloag, the brand soared to be the biggest selling whisky in Scotland. It still is. It is the second largest brand in the UK and only started to address the global market in the 1980s where it now moves more than 2 million cases.

Have read that the component malts of Famous Grouse include (or has included) the Bunnahabhain, Glenglassaugh(closed), Glengoyne, Glenrothes, Glenturret, Highland Park, Macallan, and Tamdhu. Apparently there is still a good chunk of old Cambus(closed) as well as North British grains making up 65% of the blend.


Well, to be fair, this smells like whisky. Grain is upfront in this one with butter, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. If I dig there is some spice, cumin seed? There is a nice sherried undertone and some white pepper and the smell of the cold dryness of a freezer. Jim Murray has described this as light nose, and I cannot accept that... it is weighty, low down, if you know what I mean, bass heavy with the cheesy saxophone of grains up top.

Nice mouthfeel with pleasant sweetness. Barley and green bananas. Creamy with dried fruits. A great balance of the firm graininess against great speyside characteristics with a whisper of pepper or peat. A good, solid drink.


Bumped into an old gentleman in the spirits section of our local Sainsbury.While we were waiting for staff to come open the locked cabinets for us we got to chatting. He told me that he only drinks Grouse. "I'm done with Teachers, and I've gone off Bell's, I just drink Grouse. The wife, too!" That is all I have to say. This guy may have more to say...

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Malt Mission 2007 #31

Teachers Highland CreamTeacher's Highland Cream
Blended Scotch Whisky
40% abv

Holy crap, it is week SEVEN of this malt mission and it looks like we have found ways to keep it going for at least a few weeks more. THANKS FOR READING!!!

William Teacher (1811-1876) worked in Mrs. McDonald's small grocer's shop in Anderston, Scotland, and married her daughter, Agnes, in 1834. In 1930, Mrs. McDonald obtained a license to sell alcohol and William and Agnes worked to expand the business with a chain of wine and spirits shops across Glasgow. Their son, Alexander began to open public houses known as "dram shops" as early as 1861. These were places where customers could drink whisky. Teacher's dram shops maintained strict rules forbidding smoking, buying rounds, and anyone "under the influence" could expect to be ejected from the premises by one of the burly Highlanders Teacher liked to employ as barmen. The main attraction of the dram shops was their reputation for providing customers with high quality whisky as many pubs had reputations for bulking up their spirits and watering down their ales. There were eventually a chain of these shops that remained in operation for about 100 years (1860s-1960s).

Teacher's entered the whisky wholesale and blending business and Teacher's Highland Cream(launched in 1884) became a leading Scotch whisky brand. In 1898-1899 Teacher's built the Ardmore Distillery in Aberdeenshire and bought Glendronach in 1960. This purchase coincided with the closure of the Glasgow dram shops. They were the first to use the now standard bottle closer that did away with the need for a corkscrew(1913). Teachers sells about a half a million cases domestically and 1 million cases for export.

There is 45% malt content (55% grain) in every bottle of Teachers. That is quite high for a standard blend. Ardmore and Glendronach are the core, Tormore and Scapa are also said to be used, and North British is the grain. When I walk into a pub and see Teacher's on optic it always gives me a feeling of relief, means I dont have to spend 5squid or 10 bucks on Glenfiddich or Dalwhinnie; I can spend half that for double the satisfaction.


Soft sweetness, slightly astringent grain is present immediately. But smoke and tobacco, a toffee and fruity maltiness sit firmly as well.

Whoa, toffee and barley. Good texture, milky, almost. And I love the way the flavour impact seems to start at the tip of your tongue, waft over the middle with firm density, and then poke around elsewhere a
t will. The sweet grain whisky is balanced head-to-head with a peatiness that creates a bittersweet chewiness in the middle. Again, it activates all parts of your mouth and throat with flavours, texture, and heat. The finish fades gently with some smoke(still) and shortbread but leaves the taste of a used wet wood cutting-board.


I love the type of smokiness present here, it isnt Islay peaty, it is a very different type of smoke, less salty and earthy, more wet and woody. And it sits in proportion to the wider picture perfectly. Great balance in this whisky. Okay, it isnt fantastic stuff that will win awards in blind tastings against Balvenie 1966, Talisker 30, and Ardbeg whatever, but it is very good value and very delicious. Would go well beside a pint of hop-heavy beer, IPA or the like. Great warm-up dram, great first time tipple, great ubiquitous bottle-on-the-shelf.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Bullocks to Blends? (Part 1)

Some people have noted that we have a lot of blends on our shelf. Well, thanks for reading, and you are right. Many have asked "why all the blends?", "Who cares about them?" Well, I do. And maybe you should. They taste good, have left an often hilarious trail of adverts over the years, and are cheap. If that's not enough, the history of blended scotch whisky is really the history of the whisky industry as a whole. So, I am going to take the time and do my best to tell that story. Over the next few weekends I will cover history, current status and trends, and ultimately, the future.

Many of us take the current climate of whisky industry for granted. Single Malt Scotch Whisky is a worldwide phenomenon today, but it has not always been that way. Blended whisky, which makes up 90% of total worldwide Scotch whisky sales, has helped make the 'single malt revival' possible. And while blends sales are about 25% less today than they were in 1980, it is the history of blended whisky that tells the story of whisky’s international popularity, of why more than 10 bottles of Scottish whisky are sold every second.

So, why do blends sell better than singles?
We all have this idea that blends are ‘blands’, made on the cheap
with cheap ingredients for cheap tastes. This is not (necessarily) the case. The pure ambition of blending is to create whisky that is more than the sum of its parts producing a distinct, dense and satisfying dram suited to many different moods and tastes. This is why blending is often called an art, why every blending family or house or whatever has a 'style', and why every blender has their own analogy or metaphor to describe their product, their craft, and their art.
Colin Scott of Chivas Brothers says that making their blend "is like building a house; with malts as the bricks, grains as the mortar and Strathisla as the foundation. Chivas Regal is one shape of house, 18-year-old is grander and Oldest is a castle!" Robert Hicks of Ballantine's and Teacher's blends subscribes to the more musical analogies (clichés circulate that single malts are soloists and blends are the orchestra), saying "You can play as many tunes with grains as you can with the malts." Turnbull Hutton who has had his hand in all of the biggest of Diageo's current blends(Johnnie Walker, J&B, Bell's) echoes this sentiment, saying that in blending, "there's a lot of tunes you can play." And John Ramsay of Edrington(Famous Grouse) is quoted in 2000: "It's like putting together a good soccer team. you need a strong central core, then you can tack the stars around that." He goes on to say that, "a blend is a bit like a pasta with sauce. The grain is the pasta, edible, but bland, and the malts are the sauce, a bit strong on their own, but together, they're a great combination." This last one resonates with me. Like Kristin says when I ask her what she wants for dinner, "I can always eat spaghetti bolognese."

Single malt whisky is very rich, strong, holds distinct and often powerful characteristics, and the taste of it is rather different from one distillery to the next, and can even be from year to year. In recent years, growing numbers of people have become fascinated with exploring the variety of separate and individual flavours single malts provide for these very reasons. But it is also for these reasons that the selling of whisky was very limited for a long time. 150 years ago, people outside Scotland were not really interested in these strong, distinctive, and varying tastes. Irish whisky was the thing, and Scots took, and still do take, great pride in the 'strength' of their spirit; "It's not for everyone, thank the Lord." The main reason why Irish whisky is seen as 'smoother' is due to ingredients and chemistry: Unlike single malt Scottish whisky, most Irish whisky is not made from barley alone, and Scottish single malt whisky is always made in copper pot stills with the wash being distilled twice(usually). Irish whisky is (again, usually) distilled three times, and that produces a 'lighter' spirit that is higher in alcohol, and the higher the alcohol, the fewer the congeners, and congeners give us flavours.

In the 1820s a new form of still was invented by Robert Stein(John Haig’s cousin), a continuous still, which produced spirit in a continuous stream as long as wine, beer or some such mildly alcoholic wash was fed into it. A Dublin Excise officer, Aeneas Coffey, attended a demonstration of the new still, took the idea and developed it further, and it was Coffey's version of the continuous still that eventually caught on around the spirit producing world. It was first put into commercial production at John Haig’s Cameron Bridge distillery in Fife. The distillation method produced grain whisky using some malted barley but mainly maize and wheat, creating a different, less intense spirit than the malt whisky produced in copper pot stills. This invention was first exploited by Andrew Usher & Co who, in 1853, blended malt and grain whisky together for the first time to produce a lighter flavoured whisky - extending the appeal of Scotch Whisky to a wider market.

Many blends started in the shops of family grocers. Others began at the hands of enterprising wine merchants. Glass bottles were taxed and therefore expensive, so merchants were not branding by the mid 19th century. Instead, customers would use their own bottles or receptacles or even buy their own small casks or whisky jars called pigs, and fill them up with what the grocer had in stock. In this era, consistency and quality control was in the hands of the retailers and there were many reports of bulking up goods with flour, with bone dust or dried mashed potatoes, tea with dried tree leaves, and whisky with sherry, glycerine or green teas.

The Spirit Act of 1860 made it possible to produce large volumes of blended whisky in bonded warehouese, ie. without having to pay duty. Many spirits merchants and grocers began to specialise in producing blends with the aim of having a very broad appeal, drinks which had a lighter character than malt whisky, but were more substantial than grain whisky.

Creating a flavoursome drink out of grain whisky yielded many economic advantages, none of which were missed by the many merchants who took up blending. Since they were now able to achieve greater consistency of flavour by mixing these products, it also became desirable long term to brand their creations and promote them.
Members of certain blending families, like Alexander Walker and Tommy Dewar, promoted their businesses by travelling extensively and securing contracts for their products in England and abroad.

Whisky was slowly taking the place of Brandy and Cognac in the snifters of the middle and upper classes in England and abroad, but it still had a reputation of being a rough drink, hot and fiery, for savage higlanders and was therefore not easily seen as something suitable for clubs and salons of the south. This is where the branding and marketing genius behind the early blenders came into play addressing the two big obstacles of acceptability and respectability.

It was an open air drink, fine when fishing on the river or hunting grouse, but not proper enough for the evening affairs of elite Londoners.

This is why it was important for names like Walker's, Dewar’s, Teacher’s, etc. to earn a currency of respect because over time this branding would guarantee accountability on consistency of each bottle which is what the desired market demanded.

Between the late 1870s and the turn of the century a handful of innovative and vigorous Scots promoted their new blended whiskies, first in London and then around the world to great success.

They were assisted by a number of factors. First was the appeal of the product, I mean, whisky tastes goooood. Second was the growing fashion for all things Scottish, led by Queen Vicloria herself. Third, well established rail and sea routes which made transportation far easier than it was previously. Fourth was by the existence of the British Empire, the biggest free market in the world. Fifth, and most significantly was a bug, Vastetrix, which devastated the vineyards of France between the mid-1860s and the late 1880s.

By 1865, phylloxera had spread to vines in Provence. Over the next 20 years, it inhabited and decimated nearly 70% of the vineyards of Europe. Many methods were attempted to eradicate phylloxera: flooding, where possible, and injecting the soil with carbon bisulfide, had some success in checking the louse, but were costly and the pests came back as soon as the treatments stopped.

Production of Cognac virtually ceased. Brandy became almost unavailable. And brandy (with soda) was the drink of the English middle classes.
Blended whisky (and soda) was there to replace it.

[Sources: many human beings (within and without the whisky industry), a few websites(many great whisky nerds have graced this e-world with their knowlege before me. Slainte and thanks), and serveral books: Jim Murray's 'Classic Blended Scotch', Dave Broom's 'Handbook of Whisky', Helen Arthur's 'Whisky', John Hughes' 'Scotland's Malt Whisky Distilleries', ALL of Charlie Maclean's work, and the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2006 and 2007]

more soon...

Bullocks to Blends? (Part Two)

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