And so November comes. With gusts a plenty, naked trees and already far too much rain, it feels time to properly hunker down for the winter.
In Canada, where I grew up, this would have taken a slightly more serious note. Stockpiles of wood for the stove – critical when the power would go out and it was minus 30, something that frequently occurred – would be teetering in the shed; the car would be switched over to snow tires to help combat the patches of black ice; and, the winter blankets would be dragged from their hiding places in hall cupboards, ready for the season.
At least, here in London, this change means simply getting out the raincoat, and looking forward to wearing my favourite pair of boots again. It’s far less dramatic.
For the world of whisky, this seasonal change means a look towards that most busy time of year: Christmas. I overheard someone the other day say that if there is ever a best time to buy whisky, it’s before Christmas when the big discounts hit the shelves. Most people I know who work in the industry have fully packed schedules from now until the end of the year, sampling in stores, running events and helping get their brands noticed. It’s important for an industry that gets faced with ‘dry January’ pledges and a pull back on events until Burns Night at the end of January.
I too will soon be turning my attention to Christmas. Look out for my Christmas gift guide in a couple of weeks time, when I’ll be recommending some of the best presents for this whisky lovers in your life. I’ll also bring you a round-up of what I consider to be the best value whiskies out there on the market, perfect for when you’ve got to entertain large groups of friends in the holiday season.
For now, I’ll take a look at what’s been happening this past month. My October was filled to the brim, starting out with The Whisky Exchange Show just over a month ago. Housed in a new, larger venue, the show aimed to offer attendees even more choice than ever before. I was working on The Balvenie stand, so had little time to taste whisky. Of those I did sample, two really stood out: the latest release from Japanese distillery Chichibu, Chibidaru 4 year old, and the Inchmurrin 12. The Chichibu was absolutely fantastic, and reaffirmed why I fell so in love with this young whisky when I first tried it back in 2011. Despite being 53.5%, it still had a note of delicacy: peach, honey, baked pear and creamy apples, alongside just a bit of citrus and baked German cookies. On the palate, that fruit came through fully, alongside a good dose of spice. I loved it and am determined to pick up a bottle. On the latter whisky, again it was the fruit characteristic that absolutely blew me away. I’d not really had anything from Inchmurrin before, so the dram was a great surprise. You can see my video review of it on the Scotchwhisky.com website here.
I also had the chance to catch up with the team from Balcones. Jared (head distiller) and Winston (brand ambassador) were over for the show. I’d not heard much from them since I was out at the distillery a year ago, just as a lot of proverbial crap was hitting the fan. Founder Chip Tate was leaving, and there was a huge amount of controversy as to the reasons why. I penned a piece after my visit (which you can read here) and it was nice to catch up with the guys again. The stills for the new, much expanded distillery were just about to go in and they had a couple of new things kicking about. My favourite was a wee sample of a four month old rye that they let me preview. With notes on the nose of tea, haystacks, red currants, salt and coffee, and a palate filled with honeycomb, milk chocolate and spice, it was surprisingly lovely after just a few months in oak and I’m excited to see what comes of it.
Right after the show, I was away on holiday to South Africa. My main concern was to see as many penguins as possible, and to drink a fair amount of wine (sorry! It’s true! I don’t just drink whisky!).
But I couldn’t help but keep my whisky hat on for a little bit when I got the chance to visit the James Sedgwick distillery in Wellington. The company produces Bain’s and a number of Three Ships variants (of which it is normally just the 10 year old that is available in the UK). Despite being closed to the public, Andy Watts – the distillery manager – was kind enough to set up a visit for myself and partner Herman, who also works in the whisky industry.
While Andy was not there – the company was launching its very limited edition PX Sherry cask finished 10 year old Three Ships – his colleague Jeff took us around the site. Bain’s was one of the first grain whiskies to really hit the main market, after Compass Box’s Hedonism, and both the grain whisky and malt whisky are produced on site for the brands.
While the company does still bring in some malt whisky from Scotland for its products, it is inching ever closer to being self-sufficient. My favourite of the whiskies we tried that day was the Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish, which is unfortunately not available in the UK just now. Learn more about it here. After the distillery visit, it was back to continuing in my attempt to hang out with as many penguins as possible. And really…who could blame me?
Since I’ve been back, a few new whiskies have popped onto my radar. I finally got the chance to try anCnoc 18, which has replaced my old standard favourite anCnoc 16. The 18, luckily, did not disappoint. Released at the end of last year, it’s been bottled at 46% after a maturation in Spanish oak ex-sherry casks and American oak ex-bourbon barrels. It’s rich, without being overpowering, fruity and filled with gentle spice and vanilla. I still prefer the 16, but the 18 is a good contender. I also sampled two Dalmore whiskies. It’s been a while since I’ve tried anything from the brand. And while I found the new 21 year old too heavy and toffee filled, the 30 year old was stunning: all old fruits, dusty books, great complexity. It’s £1500 price tag does mean I won’t be going anywhere near purchasing it, but it reminded me what a quality whisky Dalmore can be.
There have been numerous other releases that have popped up on my radar but that I’ve not yet had the chance to try. The Lakes Distillery (which I wrote about here) has just released a sherry cask finished version of its The One whisky, which is a blend of whiskies from around the British Isles. And Kininvie has launched its First Drops, a single cask, single malt that was laid down on the first day the wee distillery produced whisky in 1990. Lady of the Glen – an independent whisky bottler – has also released a 19 year old Miltonduff, and Glenrothes has come out with a peated whisky, The Peated Cask Reserve, something of a rarity for a normally unpeated malt.
As the month came to a close, it was with interest that I watched the unfolding of events around the Scotch Whisky Association and Compass Box. If you’ve not been tuned in, the short and sweet is that the SWA took Compass Box to task for breaking the rules about declaring what whiskies went into the make-up of their two new limited edition releases (which I wrote about in the last whisky round-up). They’ve now been banned from sharing that information but it brought to light (read about the whole background here) a main question that many viewers of the whisky world have been left with: why shouldn’t companies be able to talk about all the whiskies that go into their releases, especially key as we see more and more NAS (non-age statement) whiskies hitting the market. My friend Billy Abbott raised a good point in his latest article, however: there’s no point complaining about it unless you do something about it. So, I’ll be interested to see how this plays out. Website Scotchwhisky.com has written an open letter to the SWA on the matter, and I encourage you to read all sides to gain your own opinion of the situation.
For now, it’s back to keeping the grey days at bay. I’ll be back in a few weeks with more on what I’ve been tasting and up to, but do look out for my Christmas Gift Guide and another interview with a fantastic whisky woman before then. Slainte everyone!