I always relish trying a whisky which I’ve heard about for ages but not been able to get my hands on.
So, during a recent whisky tasting on a cold winter’s night at the newly refurbished Caledonian hotel in Edinburgh, I was very pleased when Ben Walker – the bar manager – brought out Smokehead Extra Black 18 year old as part of the trio my other half and I were to sample that night.
I’d heard about the Smokehead bottlings and even seen them on whisky shop shelves but – being a person who likes to try whisky before committing myself to a full bottle – hadn’t decided to settle on it until I knew what was hidden in its dark interior.
The tasting we did that night also included a much lighter Tullibardine 1993 – bottled specially for The Caledonian – and the Dalmore King Alexander III. It took place in the fabulously classic Peacock Alley – a train era style dining and bar lounge, dedicated to quiet opulence and creamy beige furnishings. If you’re up in Edinburgh anytime soon, I recommend popping by (even if only for a tea) just to take in its lovely surroundings.
Ben started us out on the Tullibardine to get our palates warmed up and told us stories of how he got involved in the whisky world. Despite spending much of his childhood in Spain, he considers himself truly Scottish at heart, since his grandfather sat on the board of 30 distilleries. He later went to a boarding school near Benromach and would often escape to take in the smells of the distillery. Two years ago, he came fourth in the Glenfiddich Malt Mastermind competition and also designed a “whisky bible” for the hotel – which used to have nearly 400 whiskies on its shelves. Since the revamp that number has dropped to around 125, but Ben is evidently passionate about getting anyone and everyone into whisky, telling us he’s been known to convert non-whisky drinkers into lovers of a dram in under 15 minutes.
As we listened to his tales, we also enjoyed the Tullibardine. While I loved the tropical fruit heavy nose, it was a bit too dainty for my palate, finishing quickly and leaving little evidence of its existence. Ben said he considered it a great summertime dram and I agreed – it’s one for hotter days when you just want something gentle to enjoy with a salad or fish dish.
Next up was the Dalmore King Alexander III. I’ve tried this one before and, while I enjoyed it then, don’t remember it standing out as a favourite. On this try, I liked the thick, orange, apricot and chocolate nose, and found the orange, cigar and wood palate to be pleasing but it didn’t shout excitedly out at me. I found the finish too short and without the “oomph” I like in a whisky on a cold winter’s night. My other half liked it, however, finding the balance enjoyable – still, it was his third favourite of the night too.
And finally, we got to the one I was most interested in – Smokehead Extra Black 18. This whisky was launched in 2009 and follows up from the 2006 release of the first Smokehead. There are 6,000 bottles released annually. It comes in a black bottle with contemporary silver writing, making it stand out in comparison to the other bottles on any whisky shelf. It is bottled by Ian McLeod distillers but the origins of the whisky are not revealed. I’ve heard talk it is an Ardbeg, and others have said it might be a Caol Ila. Ben told me he has heard rumour it is actually not from Islay but from the Isle of Arran distillery.
Regardless of its origins, it is definitely one to try. On the nose, there is a huge waft of peat that is balanced out by lemon peel, passion fruit and rosemary notes. Then, in the mouth, it really explodes – it’s deliciously creamy (hinting almost at butter), with a hefty smoke that is tempered by a sticky fruit and vanilla pod sweetness that bursts mid-sip. It’s got a great, oily finish that clings to the roof of the mouth and the flavour goes on and on long after you swallow. Best of all for me, my other half – who is normally adverse to smoky whisky – really took to this one, likely because it’s not all smoke, all the time. It’s a really interesting dram and I’m ever so glad to have tried it.
Thank you to The Caledonian hotel for inviting us to sample whisky and to Ben for his expertise. For more information on the hotel and its bars, visit: www.thecaledonianedinburgh.com