A New House for the Grouse

I’ll never forget one of my earliest whisky memories. I was around 9 or 10 years old, it was Christmas and the smell both of my mum’s mince pies and decades old wooden ornaments sat too close to the gas fire were in the air. The television was on one of the UK terrestrial channels that shows adverts, I can’t remember which. An advert started and I recognised the tune instantly. I knew what was coming having seen this advert several times over the previous weeks. A red bird would waddle across the screen from out of shot looking somewhat mischievous and one of many amusing situations would unfold – you’d never know which one was next on the advert reel. This was of course, the Famous Grouse.

Glenturret distillery, located just outside the town of Creiff was, until recently, the spiritual home of the Famous Grouse. Big brand blends need a home distillery in part to bring punters through the doors but also to give them something of a physical presence. Take fellow highland distillery Blair Athol and Bell’s as another example. Both Glenturret and the Famous Grouse were owned by Edrington, of Macallan and Highland Park fame. That was until recently, when French luxury glass empire Lalique came to the table and bought Glenturret distillery in early 2019. Edrington retained the Famous Grouse.

I feel it would be fair to say that Glenturret has never really reached its potential or had much attention as a Single Malt. This is possibly due to competition but personally what I see as previous lack of investment. I’ve had some bottles of the old 10yr old previously alongside a few fantastic independent releases, including a very well priced and well sherried release from Gordon & Macphail.

The distillery itself, however, has quite a rich and vibrant history. They are home to the Scotch whisky industry’s most successful mouser; Towser. Mice and/or rats (you will rarely have both together) find distilleries particularly comfortable and suitable places to make their home. Plenty of grain, dark corners and old buildings provide the perfect place for them to settle down. Towser, however, wasn’t a fan and she removed around 29,000 mice during her 20 year tenure. In case you haven’t clicked on the link, we’re talking about a cat, not some deranged lady with a broomstick and penchant for hunting rodents. Glenturret is also one of the few distilleries in Scotland to retain a very hands on and manual production process. A prime example being that the mashtun is turned manually by hand using a large wooden paddle!

Glenturret does have a bit of a turbulent history with various closures. This is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and the claim that it was first founded in 1775 or certainly illicit distilling was carried out nearby.

Back to Lalique. As well as producing glass reproductions of aquatic life, Lalique have dipped their toes in the whisky pool before. Previously, they have provided decanters for distilleries such as Macallan. This is usually for another range of eye-wateringly expensive ‘luxury’ releases that only a pinstriped hedge fund executive who makes £50k before brunch by taking advantage of trickle down economics can afford. Now, however, they’re in it all the way and have released their first range of what they are describing as “maiden” whiskies under new ownership.

Image courtesy of thechinashop.co.uk

Now a disclaimer here; I don’t cope well with change at the minute, there’s enough chaos in the world without switching Abernethy biscuits for digestives. With that in mind the re brand could not be more stark. Admittedly, you could argue that one of the reasons Glenturret was previously a bit forgettable was the lack of marketing and branding as well as it’s visual similarity to it’s competitors. I would say though that I did find the older bottling appearance somewhat comforting and olde worlde. Call me sentimental. The new, towering, hefty and almost art-deco style bottle, alongside a striking but somewhat basic crested label, by comparison feels a bit like plonking the Chrysler Building in the middle of a small village in the Cotswolds. Having looked at the range, comparatively the prices have also increased. Not a massive surprise in today’s market and call me cynical, but with everything put together there’s a slight whiff of gentrification.

The new range features a no age statement Triplewood release, matured in European and American Oak (£55 RRP), a 10yr Old Peat Smoke (RRP £55), a 12yr old (RRP £65) and a 15yr old (RRP circa £110). All whiskies come natural colour and non-chill filtered which is a positive step. What may not be is those prices, they’re pretty heft compared to the competition.

As the middle of the road bottle in terms of age and price, I’ll be looking at their new 12 yr old here.

I was fortunate enough to be included in the Whisky Wire’s recent Tweet Tasting of the Glenturret to road test the new range which is where this sample came from. Thanks to both parties for the inclusion and as I always say on the YouTube channel: Just because a sample has been provided to me does not mean this will receive a favourable review as a result.

Glenturret 12yr Old 46% NCF – Natural Colour – RRP £65

The 12 yr old has been fully matured in European oak and shows a deep amber colour in both the glass and bottle with a slight reddish tinge in the glass.

On the nose the cask influence is apparent off the bat. I’m constantly trying to improve my cooking prowess, I cook (what I think is) tasty food but it takes longer than it should and I cause inexplicable levels of mess and chaos in the process. With this in mind I’m in the kitchen wildly flailing around between appliances and pans, we’re toasting almond flakes with spices, grilling figs, cutting stem ginger and liberally slapping marmalade on smoked roast ham while desperately pulling directly from a bottle of cream sherry.

Rice pudding arrives with grated nutmeg on the top along with a side plate of golden syrup sponge pudding.

The consistency on the palate is spot on. Not too oily and not at all too thin. The palate carries good weight to it, a satisfying heft if you will. Initially a rich sweetness followed by dark chocolate dipped in that marmalade jar we talked about earlier. Black pepper arrives with fanfare alongside espresso gelato and Maltesers before heading into a very long, oak led and warming sweet finish.

This is a lovely whisky, it is clearly a good indication of what Glenturret has been capable of. I won’t factor the price into the score because that’s not the point but that is my only gripe with this release. Competitor 12 yr olds of similar presentation usually span from £35 to £50 so this is a big step up in terms of price point at £65 but this is clearly a quality dram so I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that provides value in your world.

Score: Very Good

Fancy some tunes? The Malt Music for this dram is comes courtesy of French artist Christine and the Queens. Self produced and singing in both her native French as well as English, Chris’ music features flowing and powerful melodies alongside almost entrancing vocals. The song here is iT, the opening track from her self titled 2015 debut studio album.

Scoring Scale:

Holy Grail – Indiana Jones himself can only hope to find such a treasure.
Unbelievable – Among the best I’ve ever had. Must be tried at all costs.
Outstanding – One you should try to get hold of. Qualities in abundance.
Very Good – One to have on the shelf regularly. Provides consistent enjoyment.
Good
– I’d happily drink this. One to buy at the right price.
Solid
– No particular flaws but no wow factor either.
Fine
– There to take the edge off. Good for highballs and won’t need much thought.
Meh
– Somewhat flawed. More of a chore than a pleasure.
Oh Dear
– Consistent flaws. Gets you where you’re going at the speed you want to get there.
Please Make it Stop
– Not one to seek out. Hope for a gift receipt.

Big Trouble in Little Cider

You’d be fair in suggesting the opinion that Scotch Whisky has been, until recently, in something akin to cruise mode. A bit like approaching the end of your notice period, its ticked away steadily without much fanfare, to some extent sitting on its laurels you could argue. Experimentation has occurred but remains relatively limited, in part (not completely) due to regulations imposed by the industry body, the SWA.

At the Glen Moray distillery the Master Distiller at the time, Graham Coull (self professed winner of ‘Elgin rear of the year 1997‘) – awoke one sunny morning and thought it would be a great idea to stick some aged spirit in casks that previously held cider.

Now the SWA didn’t like that at all. So much so that as night fell, a glow appeared on the horizon that steadily grew brighter and brighter. Chanting could be heard growing steadily louder. A mob had come for Graham, pitchforks-and-all. Still in his somewhat questionable choice of shorts and novelty socks that consistently terrified the locals, he was unceremoniously thrown into the boot of a 1982 Austin Metro and smuggled on to a ferry bound for Dublin hidden in a crate of Cox apples. Unfortunately the crate was lost overboard and after spending three weeks on the choppy waters of the Irish sea and the Atlantic, it washed up on the shores of Dingle on Ireland’s west coast.

The SWA rounded up an angry mob from the Apple Society of Speyside (ASS)

Now banished from Scotland and quickly eating through his emergency supply of Nairn’s oatcakes, Graham stumbled across the Dingle distillery where he talked his way in to the building by pretending he was reading the electricity meter. He’s now the master distiller at Dingle and has been putting his own stamp on the place since day one. He is however still searching for that elusive and coveted Dingle rear of the year win.

The whisky in question here isn’t Dingle although I will be reviewing some at some point, this is a 2007 Glen Moray distilled during Graham’s tenure and bottled by Berry Bros and Rudd. This is an Amazon exclusive and while I’m not the biggest fan of supporting the current rise of billionaire’s wealth in the middle of a pandemic, I like Glen Moray, I like BB&R and this was on offer at £36 a few months ago so my principles temporarily took a back seat.

Distilled in 2007 and matured in ex bourbon casks before being bottled in 2019, this single malt is natural colour and non-chill filtered.

Glen Moray 2007 (Cask 5805) Bott 2019 46% NCF – Natural Colour – RRP £53

A nice rich gold in the bottle and glass highlighting some good quality American oak maturation.

On the nose we have some really lovely baking notes. Fresh cut stem ginger, lemon shortbread, vanilla and golden syrup. Very engaging, very multilayered too with each flavour standing proud. There’s also something akin to fresh nectarine and a standout for me was a chunk of lemon sherbet in there towards the back.

The palate, carries a good oily texture. Crisp tart green apple, lemon curd and orange blossom water (oh how very Waitrose). In comes a welcome and warming hit of spice. Now I’m choosing my next words carefully but genuinely there’s a dry, matured cider like element here. The sherbet from the nose presents itself again as it tingles right on the tip of the tongue throughout the long, sweet and warming finish.

Overall a really lovely drop and so glad I picked this up. Glen Moray has been very overlooked outside of the Elgin Classics range and indie bottlings such as this really highlight what you may have been missing. This for me is Glen Moray in it’s purest form whilst under Graham’s watchful eye and can only assume this is first fill bourbon which was Graham’s preference at the time. Bourbon cask maturation alongside Glen Moray’s light and fruity spirit is a match made in heaven. Also a big shout out to the guys at BB&R for the cask selection here, you’ve played a blinder.

Available from Amazon Here

Score: Very Good (on the cusp of Outstanding)

Fancy some tunes? The Malt Music for this dram is comes courtesy of the legends that are the Stone Roses, a Mancuian institution. There’s no intro needed to the band or the song so sit back, pour a dram, and let the music do the talking.

Scoring Scale:

Holy Grail – Indiana Jones himself can only hope to find such a treasure.
Unbelievable – Among the best I’ve ever had. Must be tried at all costs.
Outstanding – One you should try to get hold of. Qualities in abundance.
Very Good – One to have on the shelf regularly. Provides consistent enjoyment.
Good
– I’d happily drink this. One to buy at the right price.
Solid
– No particular flaws but no wow factor either.
Fine
– There to take the edge off. Good for highballs and won’t need much thought.
Meh
– Somewhat flawed. More of a chore than a pleasure.
Oh Dear
– Consistent flaws. Gets you where you’re going at the speed you want to get there.
Please Make it Stop
– Not one to seek out. Hope for a gift receipt.

That Tamdhu Attitude

For those of you that know me, you’ll likely realise very quickly I’m not one of those can-do people, Tamdhu on the other hand..

Tamdhu isn’t a distillery I’ve actively sought out previously. I can count on three fingers the number of their expressions that I’ve had over the last 12 years. That’s not a direct reflection on the distillery or their parent, Ian MacLeod – I’ve just spent my money elsewhere historically. Usually when it comes to my sherry fix Glendronach being a prime example.

Ian MacLeod own two whisky distilleries in the form of Tamdhu and Glengonyne, the latter of which I have visited. They’re also in the process of resurrecting Rosebank distillery as we speak which is something to keep an eye on and hopefully means I’ll finally be able to afford some. Their portfolio is pretty broad overall considering the small number of distilleries on the books, you have a multitude of blended whisky brands such as Sheep Dip and Six Isles, as well as Smokehead Islay single malt from an unnamed distillery.

Ian MacLeod took ownership of Tamdhu in 2011 following it being mothballed by previous owners Edrington, with the former then putting a lot of time and love in bringing Tamdhu back to life.

Tamdhu is traditionally seen as something of an overlooked malt. Until their art-deco style re-brand back in 2013 (lovely bottles by the way), they were easy to miss in all honesty. This isn’t aided by a small product range with a 10yr old (edit: now discontinued), 12yr old and 15yr old alongside the occasional smattering of cask strength and distillery exclusive releases which in all honesty make my wallet wrinkle up and die on seeing the cost of the latter.

Founded in 1897, this Speyside distillery has it’s own quaint railway station, albeit unused. The whisky itself is a key component in the Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark blends which in a way goes further to explain the historically limited availability in Single Malt form. There is an emphasis on the use of sherry cask maturation at Tamdhu with the vast majority of production transferred into Oloroso sherry casks from Spain.

Tamdhu 12 yr old Single Malt 43% NCF – Natural Colour – RRP £45

The 12 yr old comes in at a modest 43%, is non-chill filtered and natural colour. Just from looking at the whisky both in the glass and the bottle, this won’t strike you as a sherry bomb in appearance with a relatively light amber hue. Refill ahoy!

On the nose I’m initially greeted with a whopping amount of intense brown sugar, then comes baked apples, sultana and hot sticky toffee pudding with vanilla custard. There’s a touch of milky hot chocolate and towards the back a smattering of crepes catching in the pan.

The palate, like the nose, remains sweet in profile. This time I’d say it feels more attuned and at one with itself. Salted caramel back with warming spice. This then puts me back in a cottage in Eskdale in the Lake District about 10 years ago in front of the fire eating Jamaica ginger cake. We then go back a few meals from dessert to breakfast in the form of honey on buttered toast, well done toast I’d add. In comes a touch of white pepper before the spices return to see out a warming and sweet finish.

The mouthfeel is good but I wouldn’t say as oily as other drams I’ve had in this style, 46% instead of 43% might have helped in this regard.

Overall an enjoyable dram, for me it took a few weeks in the bottle to open up but considering I picked this up for £32.99, certainly not one to complain about. This is on the lighter side of sherry maturation with what I feel is a complimentary lighter spirit in the category. I’ve happily sipped this over the last few days in between snow storms and heavy rain tapping at the double glazing. I’d add this was a noticeable step up from the 10yr Old that I’ve had a bottle of previously. I’ve also heard good things about the 15yr old but topping out at circa £70 this may be one to find on offer.

Score: Good

Fancy some tunes? The Malt Music for this dram is comes courtesy of North Downs, an English trio who blur the lines of electronica, funk and indie. This particular track – Nightlife Blues, showcases exactly that with almost ethereal vocals and a toe tapping bridge and chorus.

Scoring Scale:

Holy Grail – Indiana Jones himself can only hope to find such a treasure.
Unbelievable – Among the best I’ve ever had. Must be tried at all costs.
Outstanding – One you should try to get hold of. Qualities in abundance.
Very Good – One to have on the shelf regularly. Provides consistent enjoyment.
Good
– I’d happily drink this. One to buy at the right price.
Solid
– No particular flaws but no wow factor either.
Fine
– There to take the edge off. Good for highballs and won’t need much thought.
Meh
– Somewhat flawed. More of a chore than a pleasure.
Oh Dear
– Consistent flaws. Gets you where you’re going at the speed you want to get there.
Please Make it Stop
– Not one to seek out. Hope for a gift receipt.

Independent Bottlers Episode 1

I decided to talk a bit about independent bottlers as they are a source of whisky that I have been mining for years.

There are so many out there and more have appeared on the scene in the last 5 years or so and are providing great value for money when compared to a lot of official distillery bottlings currently on the market.

In this first episode I look at North Star Spirits and Whiskybroker.

Andy

From Willow to Wellington

The Protea, also known as sugarbush due to the sweet nectar contained within it, is a beautiful family of plants although certainly not something you’d find in the largely damp and often chilly climate of Northern England. Not outside of a well glazed botanical garden at least.

The Protea is native to South Africa, as well as other parts of the southern hemisphere, but is generally better known as being South Africa’s national flower. They’re surprisingly resilient too with them being able to survive regularly occurring bush fires. This brings me on to cricket, naturally. This word may fill the hearts of those reading either with dread or, like mine, with joy with it being one of my other hobbies outside of whisky. I mention this as Proteas is also the nickname for the South African cricket team which is quite appropriate.

That’s because the whisky in question not only hails from South Africa, is not only adorned with Protea on the box, but in fact was also produced by a former professional cricketer.

The James Sedgwick distillery sits on the banks of the Berg River in the town of Wellington at the foot of the Groenberg Mountain and the Bain’s Kloof pass around 40 miles North East of Cape Town. The distillery is named after a former East India Company captain who was in his time one of the pioneers of the alcohol and tobacco industries, with the site first established in 1886. Owned by South African drinks giant Distell, who also own famous whisky names such as Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory – James Sedgwick has been a relatively unknown force in the whisky world outside of South Africa. The distillery is the only commercial whisky distillery on the entire continent of Africa. Whisky as an industry has only been going for just over 40 years in the country.

This brings me on to Andy Watts, who is someone that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet virtually but not yet in person in part due to current circumstances. Born in Yorkshire (no-one is perfect) Andy was a professional cricketer with Derbyshire (again I’ll let it slide) back in the early 80’s, and after a successful few seasons with the team (his batting and bowling averages actually have numbers next to them whereas mine just has ‘below’ preceding the word average), Andy decided to see what warmer climes had to offer and temporarily decamped to South Africa to play and coach cricket. After falling in love with the county, he moved there permanently. Whilst there he worked at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, a precursor to Distell group. After a time, he was offered the position of spirit blender. The company previously had ties with Morrison Bowmore and this was where Andy was able to work in Scotland for a while to ply his trade under huge names such as Jim McEwan and Brian Morrison to name but a few.

After returning to South Africa which historically is more well known for its wines and brandies, Andy set about bringing the James Sedgwick distillery up to spec and speed. The distillery was previously set up for brandy manufacture, with whisky mainly produced at Robertson & Buxton (R & B) distillery in Stellenbosch, a region famous for its wine. After being appointed as manager in 1991, nine years later Distell group came in to being in 2000. In 2009 two new stills were installed, manufactured by Forsyth’s and modeled on the stills in Bowmore distillery where Andy had spent some time under the watchful eye of whisky legend Jim McEwan. In 2016 Andy was promoted to ‘Global Head of Whisky Intrinsic Excellence’, now there’s a mouth-full.

Going back to the distillery itself James Sedgwick is set up to produce both malt and grain spirit which is a rarity. Temperatures here can hit upwards of 40c (104 Fahrenheit for our American friends) so with that in mind the Angel’s Share is much higher than that in Scotland. We’re talking around 5% compared to Scotland’s average of circa 2%. This may not sound like a lot but when you’re looking at a warehouse full of barrels, 5% of your spirit is a lot to lose on your bottom line! This kind of climate can sometimes have a positive influence on the maturing spirit by giving it the opportunity it to gain a more mature character in a shorter amount of time. The warehouses here are racked rather than dunnage meaning that potentially a larger quantity of whisky can be stored although heat distribution won’t be as regular unless casks are moved around the warehouse.

On the subject of Grain whisky, the distillery’s own Grain whisky; Bain’s which I reviewed here won Grain whisky of the year in 2013 and 2018 and this is in part when the world started to take more notice of South African whisky. This utilised 100% South African yellow maize in the mashbill which highlights the pride in local ingredients. Personally I always have a bottle of Bain’s in the house given it works so well in highballs.

There is a group of whisky anoraks who have been trying to raise the profile of the distillery for a few years now. A small but dedicated corner of Twitter that have been chirping away for years. Here in the UK Bain’s was until now the only widely available product from the distillery with many calling out for the release of Three Ships which spans both single malt and blended whisky in the portfolio. To that end our calls were finally answered with the announcement and subsequent release of Three Ships 12yr old Master Distiller’s Private Collection which landed in the UK and other European markets just prior to Christmas 2020. The last time I’d tried Three Ships was the 10yr old way back in 2013.

A peated single malt bottled at what I’d describe as Distell strength of 46.3%, non-chill filtered, natural colour and matured in American oak casks.

Three Ships 12yr Old South African Single Malt Whisky – 46.3% – NCF – Natural Colour- RRP £45

On the nose there’s initially powdered strawberry bon-bons. We then switch it up with an old and worn leather jacket with possibly a touch of cumin in the background too. There’s also something here that reminds me of the smell of a brand new book, I miss bookshops. In comes ginger and golden syrup all the while with a soft, herbal and almost perfumed smoke in the background. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Scotland anymore!

The palate kicks in with that smoke influence immediately but there’s intense liquorice at the same time. Almost as if you’re chewing on charred liquorice root rather than the traditional out-and-out peat smoke. There’s more ginger but now alongside this there is vanilla and a lot of lovely warming spice at the back. As it heads in to the finish this spice becomes smoky and hot, but not in a bad way at all because to me this screams habanero chili which I love. Things start to become sweeter as things progress with blossom honey and milk chocolate.

The mouthfeel is faultless and the finish itself is long and thoroughly enjoyable, riding the wave of that habanero note and supported by tshat honey sweetness in the background.

In summary this is a fantastic debut and shows that the efforts over the last few decades have come thoroughly to fruition and is a credit to Andy and the team. There is depth of flavour, balance, complexity as well as strong presentation.

Andy is one of the nicest people you’ll meet in the industry and has done a stellar job in promoting South Africa and it’s whisky across the globe which makes this even more rewarding. Especially when factoring in the struggles that the South African alcohol industry is going through due to the COVID pandemic with several bans on alcohol sales with another in place as I write this article.

Anyway, without stretching the boundary any further today, I won’t be adding any further spin in case I slip up. I was hardly stumped with things to say about this whisky but it really does have me bowled over.. (OK I’m done with the cricket puns).

Score: Outstanding

Fancy some tunes? The Malt Music for this dram is somewhat fitting. Doncaster in Yorkshire, England isn’t what you might call tropical. Here however is where artist Skinny Pelembe was raised after being born in Johannesburg, South Africa. With a signature sound of warm and flowing guitar alongside almost hypnotic harmonies and sitting above satisfying dub drum beats, all the while retaining core African influences. One of my favorites is this; “the Seven Year Curse” which for me is a fantastic showing for this up-and-coming artist.

Scoring Scale:

Holy Grail – Indiana Jones himself can only hope to find such a treasure.
Unbelievable – Among the best I’ve ever had. Must be tried at all costs.
Outstanding – One you should try to get hold of. Qualities in abundance.
Very Good – One to have on the shelf regularly. Provides consistent enjoyment.
Good
– I’d happily drink this. One to buy at the right price.
Solid
– No particular flaws but no wow factor either.
Fine
– There to take the edge off. Good for highballs and won’t need much thought.
Meh
– Somewhat flawed. More of a chore than a pleasure.
Oh Dear
– Consistent flaws. Gets you where you’re going at the speed you want to get there.
Please Make it Stop
– Not one to seek out. Hope for a gift receipt.