In search of the perfect summer whisky…
Big flavours are all the rage at the moment. The hit of chilli, lime, coriander and garlic provided by Vietnamese, Thai, Argentinian and Mexican food seems to have gazumped the gentle flavours of the Japanese cuisine that became so trendy in the 1980s. UK brewers seem to be following their American counterparts by cranking the hoppiness up to 11. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, still delivering that roundhouse of gooseberry, tropical fruit and cut grass, couldn’t be more fashionable if each one were served by Ryan Gosling wearing an immaculately tailored suit and smouldering as he pours. And the most popular names on the lips of malt whisky drinkers are those distilleries that are ratcheting up the peat level. But here at Oddbins we have a few questions…
What’s wrong with a delicious noodle broth and green tea? Why is it so hard to find a subtle pint of mild these days? Surely there’s still a place for the refinement of Sancerre? And doesn’t peat sometimes mask the delicacy and character of the original malt?
Let’s start at the logical place: the beginning. To make malt whisky you need malt. But for fermentation you need sugar and this is locked in the malt as starch, which isn’t soluble in water and is therefore pretty much useless. To get the sugar out, you have to trick the malt into germinating, so that it starts to get ready to grow and turns the starch into the more easily usable sugar. To do this you soak it, then spread it out on the floor and leave it to do its thing. The germination is then stopped by drying the malt in a kiln, and this requires fuel. Big chunks of the Scottish Highlands are treeless and remote, so the locals used peat, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a brown, soil-like material characteristic of boggy, acid ground, consisting of partly decomposed vegetable matter.” Mmm delicious. Peat burns well and there’s quite a lot of it in Scotland, but when you burn it, it expels more smoke than the cast of Mad Men, and this pervades the final whisky giving an unmistakable smoky character. It’s a fine line between the peat enhancing the whisky and it becoming the defining character.
Now don’t get us wrong, we love a peaty whisky. There’s something spectacular about an Islay malt. Those who receive our fortnightly emails may remember us waxing lyrical about one of our favourite peaty drams as follows…
“You walk out of the cold wind flecked with sea spray, through the door of the smokehouse. The smoky warmth envelopes you like a billowing duvet as shrivelling Arbroath Smokies swing pendulously. A rugged Scot with the enormous tattooed arms of a sailor is flinging clods of peat on to the fire with a shovel. A rogue lump flies off the spade and hits you firmly in the face causing you to stagger backwards into the fisherman who has just arrived with his haul. You slip on a spilled haddock and fall at the feet of the fisherman, coming to a final rest on his rubber galoshes covered in seaweed. That’s what the manly Smokehead Islay Malt Whisky tastes like and it’s good.”
So we know it might sound controversial to say this, but we sometimes find the peat a bit heavy for these summer months. On top of which, peat is also the Marmite of the whisky drinking world. So what’s the alternative? Well, they might not be quite so hip and cool right now, but there’s a plethora of less peaty and more summery malts out there. So we hit the road to find them…
First stop was Knockdhu, who produce the incredible anCnoc whisky. We think this forward thinking distillery is one of the big names to watch in the whisky world. These guys took it in their stride when people confused them with Knockando and changed the name of their whisky (how many other distilleries would do that?), when snow destroyed two of their warehouses in 2010 they just built a new one and used that as an excuse for a party, and eschewing boring calligraphy and olde worlde stylings they even let a New York artist design their labels. If anyone is going to give malt whisky a modern makeover, it is Knockdhu. Having said that, as innovative as their thinking is, the whisky-making process is hands-on and old school, as you can tell by the photo of the only computer used in making anCnoc.
In whisky circles a lot is made of the “angels’ share”, the romantic name for the malt that evaporates through the barrels as it is aged. But during our visit, Alistair Reid, the Assistant Distillery Manager, said that in the old days at Knockdhu, so much whisky was stolen by or given away to employees and locals, that he believed “the angels’ share was a fallacy.” Although they claim that those days are long gone, if you visit them, they’re so jovial we weren’t convinced that they don’t pinch a wee dram from time to time. And we wouldn’t blame them, Alastair from our Aberdeen shop described the anCnoc 12 Year Old as being as “easy going as the distillery”, the oak is gentle, there’s no overpowering peat, just complex malt, barley sugars, honeycomb, citrus, pear, apple and praline flavours. The smoothness accompanied by that twist of refreshing citrus makes this a perfect malt for watching the sun set at the end of a summer’s day. The richer anCnoc 16 Year Old, aged purely in bourbon casks, is available in our shops and will be on the web soon.
Next stop was Balblair, the Highlands’ oldest distillery. We fell in love with it immediately when Distillery Manager John MacDonald bounded out in his tweed jacket and warmly greeted the postie, who had arrived at the same time as us, by name and then told us that it was a wine merchant who had turned the fortunes of this distillery around after the war. Maybe that’s why they opt for vintages on their labels rather than the traditional age statements. Carrying on the whisky-making lesson, the next step is to mill the malt into coarse flour called “grist”. Balblair believe that the importance of this process should not be underestimated, so John checks it daily to make sure the grist is perfect. Hot water is added, which dissolves the sugar, creating a sugary liquid that is unappetisingly called “wort”. The wort is moved into a big vessel called a washback and yeast is added. This starts to ferment, producing what is in essence a beer, called “wash”. Sometimes this can be like an ale, sometimes it can be quite malty, but at Balblair, as Ross from our Mitchell Street shop in Glasgow pointed out, it smells like a fruity weissbier. And this gives you an idea of what to expect when you try their single malt.
In a nutshell Balblair whiskies hit a fruitiness that no other distillery comes close to. There is no peat in them and very few sherry casks are used, making them clean and balanced. The refreshing Balblair 2001 (a 10 Year Old) is an aperitif malt, offering up toffee apple, custard creams, pear, pineapple, orange, lemon and vanilla. There isn’t much of this vintage left, so don’t miss out, the 2002 will be arriving soon. The Balblair 1997, available in our shops, has just won a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge 2013. The heavier Balblair 1989 (a 23 Year Old) is rich with caramel, vanilla cream, nutty spices, banana, apple and lemon. Yours truly, fancied trying this with a crème caramel on a summer’s evening, but the guys at Balblair were unfortunately not forthcoming with the pudding or the sunshine, as the drizzle set in over Tain.
Finally, we headed to the most northerly distillery on the mainland: Old Pulteney. We may not have been quite as exciting as the Russian millionaires who visited the day before or the killer whales who swam through the bay in search of seals that morning, but Malcolm Waring, the Distillery Manager, still made us feel like part of the family. The barrels in Wick used to be filled with herring, but now the majority of barrels here contain award winning single malt (apparently a German chap tried ageing a whisky in a herring barrel, but we think he was told politely that he could keep the results for himself). Old Pulteney’s malt has maintained a maritime feel, even if Wick has not. Malcolm tells us that they are “making hay at the moment”, the fact that their 21 Year Old just won Jim Murray’s World Whisky of the Year 2012 must have helped. Old Pulteney is referred to as the “Manzanilla of the North”, due to its salty twang and is aged mainly in bourbon casks from Jack Daniels, Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark, for three reasons. The first is that bourbon casks are cheaper than sherry casks, the second is that they don’t impart as much flavours, which keeps the purity of the malt, and finally because bourbon casks add sweetness that balances the saltiness of Old Pulteney perfectly. Only two people own single casks of Old Pulteney, one is Prince Charles and if you can tell us who the other one is we might offer you a prize.
The Old Pulteney 12 Year Old has lashings of salt, lemon, sweet coconut and banana pith. The Old Pulteney 17 Year Old has a little Oloroso sherry influence adding richness and cooked fruit into the mix. One third of the Old Pulteney 21 Year Old is aged in Fino sherry casks and the complexity of it cannot be explained, you just have to try it to find out why this was voted the best whisky in the world. While sitting on a wall in the sunshine eating fish and chips with a dram of Old Pulteney trying to decide which was the perfect summer malt, Scott, from our Queensferry Street shop in Edinburgh, started telling us that he’d just seen a seagull (or a scurry as they call them in Wick), that was as big as a Westie. At that point we decided it might be time to come home.
In conclusion, peat is awesome, but during the summer months, such as they are, we much prefer these gentle but refreshing malts aged in bourbon casks. (TO)
This post was written while drinking: Semeli Feast White. OK, we know it sounds sacrilegious, but after all that whisky, we just fancied a glass of wine. This new wine of ours has proven almost as popular in Scotland as whisky, receiving praise from Tom Bruce-Gardyne in The Herald, Rose Murray Brown in Scotland on Sunday and Tom Cannavan who made it his wine of the week on his Wine Pages website. But it isn’t just north of the border, Tim Atkin also made it his wine of the week. High praise for an £8.50 Greek white: crunchy, floral, spicy and more importantly it’s undeniably summery. Wish that heat wave would hurry up.