Just when we here in the UK thought winter was nearing its end as a mild wave of temperate climes tantalizingly soared our way, the freezing temperatures returned and our dreams of an early spring were shattered.
Which is why I always believe it is good to be friends with whisky – for what better thing to warm one through than this beautiful spirit?
The particular night I have in mind of late was hand-bitingly cold, and this whisky lover was thoroughly chilled to the bones when she arrived at the south end of St James’s Street for a whisky tasting at Berry Bros & Rudd.
Luckily, there were many other red-nosed folks about (caused, I’m sure, from the cold and not over-indulgence in spirit) all of whom were keen to get in from Mother Nature’s wrath and get into the whisky.
We were there to try the latest release of The Blue Hanger blended Scotch and some other single cask releases, which are created and/or chosen by spirits buyer and master of cask selection Doug McIvor.
Now, to give you some history (if you’ve not heard of the long-standing wine and spirits merchant) Berry Bros & Rudd was founded in 1698 and started in the tea, coffee and spice trade. At the age of 315 years old, it also has the oldest original shop front in London, having been at Number 3 St James’s Street for all these years.
The company eventually evolved into wine and then spirits, and created the world-famous Cutty Sark blended whisky brand in 1923 to cater to those desiring a lighter style of whisky. It also released other whisky blends, one of which was The Blue Hanger, which Doug said he discovered when going through the company’s archives.
Apparently the story goes there was a man nicknamed ‘The Blue Hanger’ who was renowned for his dapper dress sense and who would often frequent Berry Bros in the late 18th century. That man was actually William Hanger, the 3rd Baron Coleraine, who was not only snazzy with his outerwear but a British politician to boot.
The company created a whisky named after him in 1934, after receiving requests from the British diplomatic services for a dram to please their palates. Various releases of it were sold for around 50 years, before it disappeared from the company’s stock list in the 1980s.
When Doug discovered this, he decided to create a new blend in Hanger’s memory using only the best casks in Berrys’ stocks. In order to do so, he took samples from 400 old casks, did a rudimentary tasting of each and scored every one out of five points – anything with less than three went back to the warehouse.
“We kept about 90 casks. Most had gone woody as hell, which proves it’s all about maturity and not about age,” he said, during the tasting.
His first release – which hit shelves in 2003 – was of a blend of Glen Grant and The Glenlivet. Doug chose those because: “The Glenlivet has a buttery, wavy mouth-feel and the Glen Grant is more jagged so they work together and amplify each other.”
There have since been five more releases, two of which won best blended Scotch in the world at the World Whisky Awards in 2008 and 2012. The seventh edition is currently in production.
We attendees were lucky enough to try the 2nd, 4th and 6th releases, along with the initial incarnation of batch number 7. All have been bottled at 45.6%, which was the strength they went to bottle at in the 1930s. Doug said he also tries to keep a bit of sherry cask influence in each edition, to honour the original style.
So what did I think of them?
We started with the second release, which was bottled in August 2004 and made of a blend of Glen Grant and The Glenlivet (to be specific, four hogsheads of The Glenlivet ’74, one butt of The Glenlivet ’74 and two hogsheads of Glen Grant ’74). On the nose I found this was perfumey and floral, with violet, cream, marmalade and butter notes. On the palate, it was filled with creamy orange, milk chocolate, vanilla and brown sugar melting in butter. There was a slightly spicy, nutmeg-influenced finish. Very nice, indeed.
Next up was the fourth release, a mix of Mortlach and Glen Elgin from the early ’90s and some of The Glenlivet and Glen Grant from the 1970s. On the nose, it was much fresher than the second release, with notes of apple caramels, hay, sprightly citrus, butter, struck matches and daffodils. But on the palate it was quite different: there was an orchard fruit sweetness with a backbone of sherry and sulphur, and a slightly eggy finish. I loved the nose on this one but not the taste, even though it was the recipient of the Best Blended Scotch in the World in 2008.
My favourite of the night, however, was the sixth release, which was comprised of a mix of a The Glenrothes ’98 sherry butt, a Bunnahabhain ’90 sherry butt, and a Bowmore ’03 and Bowmore ’87 hogshead. It won the Best Blended Scotch in the World in 2012. The nose was very pleasant, with a slight caramel and almost red wine note, and a teeny amount of woody smoke. It was fresh and not dominated by sherry, remaining beautifully balanced. In the mouth this was chewy, with a full mouth-feel that was very earthy (like freshly churned dirt in a field after a rain), with warming, gingery notes, accented by biscuits and cardboard boxes. It was sublime.
Excitingly, the first sample of the seventh release is looking rather good too, although Doug gave no indication as to whether he’d stick with the styles he’s already imparted in his tests. At the moment, he’s using a The Glenrothes sherry butt from ’98, a Bruichladdich hogshead from ’91, a Glen Keith hogshead from ’93 and a Clynelish hogshead from ’97. On the nose, it was rich and buttery, with lemon peel and spring like floral notes and a hint of malt. In the mouth, it was delicate with peach, rose petal and light honey elements. I look forward to seeing what Doug will do with this.
If you’re keen to try any of these, the sixth release is still available – at a cost of £71.50. But I wouldn’t wait long as stocks are limited. And, if you’ve not been yet, I definitely recommend stopping by Berrys’. Its long-standing history in London should be cherished and a visit will, no doubt, be of interest to many whisky lovers.