E-pistle #18/01 – Alsatian Adventures 2006 (Part 1)

By Johannes van den Heuvel, Holland

I’ve listed all the obscure drams (more than three dozen) I’ve tried during my latest trip to Alsace in a special report in my Liquid Log two weeks ago, but not my tasting notes for these whiskies. High time to rectify that omission – and test a new ‘fixed’ format for my tasting notes while I’m at it. With the major overhaul of the website that’s coming up I’d like to see if there’s a way to ‘standardise’ the tasting notes on Malt Maniacs a little more, which would be a requirement if we decide to start working with a database in the future. I’ll get back to the ‘format’ issue later on; this report focuses on my adventures in Alsace.

But first, for those of you not too familiar with European history and geography, a little background information about Alsace (or, in German, Elsass). Alsace is the smallest of the 26 ‘régions’ of France, located alongside the eastern border with Germany and Switzerland. Alsace or bordered by the Rhine river in the east and the Vosges mountains in the west.

The history of the region is quite fascinating, and at a few points in time parts of Holland actually belonged to the same political entity as Alsace, the infamous ‘Holy Roman Empire’. The area was part of the Germanic sphere of influence and the names of many old villages (Wintzenheim, Ingersheim, Benfeld, etc.), the architecture and the local dialect still reflect the German heritage. During the 17th century Alsace came under French sovereignty but became part of the new German Empire again after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-’71. Alsace remained German until the end of World War I, when Germany had to relisquish it under the Treaty of Versailles. Shortly after, the regional government of Alsace-Lorraine declared independence but that was a tad optimistic; France took over again a week later.

The capital and largest city of Alsace is Strasbourg, part-time seat of the European parliament. The area around the ancient city of Colmar has a special microclimate; Colmar is the driest city in France with an annual precipitation of only 550 mm. This is one of the features that makes this area ideal for growing the famous Alsatian wines – something that our fellow malt maniac Olivier Humbrecht is very good at – which conveniently brings us back to more maniacal matters. Sadly enough Olivier was in Scotland during my latest visit, but we should meet again at the MM Awards filling party in September. Besides, at the pace at which Serge was pouring me drams there would have been little time for chit-chat anyway….

We started our dramming on tuesday evening after a lovely meal with a pair of Deanstons.
This would be the first of a series of ‘head-to-head head-to-head sessions – H2H2, if you will…
Serge and I both compared two expressions from the same distillery at the same time; first for a few minutes making notes in silence, then comparing and discussing those notes and impressions and exploring the malt further. As always, the ‘grand finale’ of each H2H was the revealing of our scores – often no more than a few points apart, but occasionally radically different. Interestingly enough, we are now able to predict pretty accurately when one of us will score a whisky dramatically higher or lower than the other…

Deanston NAS (40%, OB, “100% Highland”, Bottled Late 1970’s)
Nose: Sweet. Faintest hint of dust. Some antiquity? Lovage. Lots of ‘gravitas’ in the nose. A few weak moments.
Taste: Old oranges. Orange skin. Gritty. Pretty pleasant – certainly for a Deanston which I wasn’t a fan of.
Score: 83 points – my favourite Deanston ever, beating the Deanston 25yo 1977/2003 (50.3%, Cadenhead).

Deanston 12yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 1990)
Nose: Grainier and lighter than the NAS. Hint of oil? Sweetens out. Sunflower seeds. A little sweaty.
Taste: Phew! Gritty and bitter. Herbal – in a Swiss herbal bonbons way. Resinous. Pine. Tea Tannins.
Score: 65 points – yes, this is much more along the lines of the unimpressive 1990’s Deanstons I know.

Bang! So, now the evidence so far suggests that there actually were some good Deanstons around in the 1970’s.
Official bottlings of
Deanston from the 1990’s never managed to impress me, but a recent experience with a 2005 expression of the 12yo suggests that they’ve found the way up again. Further proof that my current mission (trying to sample six expressions from each distillery to determine which distilleries I could safely ignore in the future) may turn out to be a fool’s errand. But let’s reserve the ‘evealuations’ until I’ve actually finished the project, shall we? Instead, let’s look at the notes for the other duets of the evening…

Fettercairn 13yo 1980/1994 (43%, Sign, Cask 2001-02, 750 b.)
Nose: Liquorice. Sour. Rancio. Raisin skins. Warm strawberry sauce. A tad more expressive than the 14yo?
Taste: Winey. Bubblegum. Oranges. Bitter woodiness. Roasted nuts and chocolate. A highly engaging malt.
Score: 89 points – and once again Serge served me a ‘best expression ever’! Just short of the nineties.

Fettercairn 14yo 1980/1994 (43%, Sign, Cask 2003-04, 680 b.)
Nose: Leather. Sweeter and spicier than the 13yo. meaty. Tea. Hint of antiquity, perhaps?
Taste: Not quite as extreme as the 13yo. Just a little tannic in comparison. Peppery mouth feel.
Score: 87 points – another distillery that I wasn’t all that interested in jumps into the limelight!

Glenury Royal 1964/1977 (80 Proof, Cadenhead’s Dumpy – 12yo age statement?)
Nose: Sweet fruits. Not very expressive at first, but grows more austere. Metallic. Ink. Oatmeal. Dead fish?
Taste: A strong peaty foundation – a nice surprise! Excellent mouth feel, but falls apart a bit after ten minutes.
Score: 87 points – but Serge said it reminded him of old Clynelish and scored it higher. His right to be wrong ;-)

Glenury Royal 1966/1979 (46%, Cadenhead’s ‘Dumpy’)
Nose: Starts sweet, but grows spicier quickly. Lemon drops. Rubber. Pilchards. The blue pearly liquorice all sorts.
Taste: Peaty, just like the 1964. Salty. Dry. Phenolic. Hot and dry in the finish. Slightly tannic. All in all: lovely.
Score: 88 points – chalk on more up for the veterans: a beautiful old / young malt whisky…

Strathisla 10yo (43%, Chivas OB, Italy, Bottled 1960’s)
Nose: Creamy & fruity. Refined. Lychees. Dry hay. Faintest hint of oil? Just a tad watery, perhaps.
Taste: Big sweet and fishy, That’s right – as odd as it sounds, that’s the combination of flavours I got.
Score: 80 points – but it might have earned one or two points if it hadn’t dropped off after ten minutes.

Strathisla 1967/2003 (54,3%, G&M for Barmetro 35th Anniversary, C#2063, 153 Bottles)
Nose: Rich & deeply sherried. Maggi. Oak. Hint of soap. Spicy. Light fruits drifting over a smoky foundation.
Taste: Massive fruits. Quite a potent bite. Hint of smoke, touch of bitterness. Poweful tannins. Lovely!
Score: 91 points – the nose is enormously big and expressive. And once again: a ‘best ever’ expression.

And now for the ‘grand finale’ of my first day in France: not one but two Kinclaiths.
When it comes to obscure malts, they don’t get much more obscure than Kinclaith and Ladyburn…

Kinclaith 35yo 1969/2004 (53.2%, Duncan Taylor Rarest of the Rare, C#301455, 207 Bottles)
Nose: Liquorice & aniseed. Not terribly expressive. String beans. Hint of oil. Minerals. You have to work at it.
Taste: Pleasant enough, but a little nondescript. Dry and a tad gritty. You can’t really taste the age here.
Score: 78 points – a little ‘better’ than average, but at this age (and price) I would expect something more.

Kinclaith 35yo 1969/2004 (54%, Signatory, Cask #301443, 217 Bottles)
Nose: Liquorice & aniseed again. Quite subtle. Malty. Paprika. Farmy. Sweaty. Minerals. More oil. Turnip.
Taste: Quite hot and a little gritty. Tannins. Not nearly as interesting on the palate as in the nose, I’m afraid.
Score: 81 points – a class up from the Duncan Taylor bottling, but still not particulary impressive for a 35yo.

And that was the end of the first day of my visit to Serge in Alsace.
And what an educational day it was… For example, I’ve learned that the experiences I’ve described as ‘herbal’ in my tasting notes may be very different from what some people associate with this term. When I say ‘herbal‘ I mean tastes and aroma’s in the ‘rainbow’ that includes Swiss herbal cough bonbons, and herbal bitters like ‘Beerenburger’ and ‘Unterberg’. Impressions that are in a similar section of the spectrum are pine, resin, camphor and eucalyptys at one end and aniseed and liquorice root at the other. However, when Serge writes down ‘herbal’ he means ‘herbs de provence’ like thyme, rosemary, oregano, etc.

So, I guess we’ll have to try to come up with a ‘uniform’ vocabulary as soon as possible…
And the topic is also closely related to the ‘MM tasting Tool’ and the ‘rainbows’ mentioned in earlier AaA discussions.
Several people recommended David Wishart’s book ‘Whisky Classified, so I ordered that from Amazon as research material. From what I’ve heard the methodology sounds erm… sound when you talk about a specific expression / batch / bottling, but I wonder if it could be applied to the entire output of a distillery. Surely the ‘profile’ for a peated Benriach would be different from an unpeated one – and a sherried Glendronach would also produce another spider diagram than one matured in bourbon casks…
But that’s a topic for another E-pistle – back to my trip to France.

My first day in Alsace was hardly a full day, actually – more like a ‘warming up’ for day II.
The second day would be my only full day in France this time, so when Serge woke up I was already eagerly waiting by the pool to start the dramming. Serge wisely suggested some breakfast first. This was no ordinary breakfast, however – it evolved into some sort of tasting as well. First, I got to try six different kinds of honey, including pine honey and a very interesting dark chestnut variety; sort of the ‘Islay’ among honeys. Next was a glass of Chartreuse VEP at 54%, bottled in 2001. Very nice! Somewhere inbetween Jagermeister and Pernod, but sweeter on the palate. Great balance between the herbs and the sweetness – even at 9:30 AM!

I finished breakfast with a piece of propolis ‘pure a marcher’ – a strange substance used as chewing gum.
My tiny little head wasn’t able to store all the information Serge shared with me over breakfast, so I looked it up.
Where? At
Wikipedia of course – and here are the highlights;

‘Propolis is a wax-like resinous substance collected by honeybees from tree buds or other botanical sources and used as cement and to seal cracks or open spaces in the hive. Its color varies from green to brown and reddish, depending of its botanical source. Bees will use propolis to attempt to seal any gap inside the hive that is smaller than 5 or 6 mm. (…) Bees may also use it to prevent diseases and parasites in the hive. Bees normally carry waste (dead larva, etc.) out of and away from the hive. However if, for example, a mouse chews its way into the hive for a winter nest and dies, the bees won’t be able to move it out through the hive entrance. They have instead been known to seal the carcass in propolis, effectively mummifying the mouse. Propolis is marketed by health food stores as a traditional medicine, and for its claimed beneficial effect on human health. Depending upon its precise composition it may show powerful local antibiotic and antifungal properties. The composition of propolis will vary from hive to hive, district to district, and from season to season. Normally it is dark brown colored, but it can be found in green, red, black and white colored, depending from the sources found in hive area. Bees are, after all, opportunists, and will gather what they need from available sources, and each hive will find its own individual sources. Therefore, the exact composition is never absolutely the same between any two hives, and various potential medicinal properties may be present in one hive’s propolis, and absent from another. Typical propolis has approximately 50 constituents, primarily resins and vegetable balsams (50%), waxes (30%), essential oils (10%), and pollen (5%).’

There’s loads more to tell, but you can look that up for yourself.
Why is that interesting, you ask? Well, I tasted a piece and was sort of an eye-opener; I got resin, aspirin and pine shampoo, growing more medicinal and almost ‘smoky’ over time as I kept chewing it. The interesting thing is that I can’t recall ever finding this combination of ‘herbal’ and ‘Islay’ characteristics in a malt whisky, so I never saw a connection between the ‘Islay’ rainbow (peat, smoke, brine, iodine, etc.) and the ‘herbal’ rainbow (eucalyptus, camphor, pine, resin, etc.). Could there be a ‘missing link’ and are these rainbows actually connected in the overall spectrum of smells and tastes? A topic for further research…

Now, on to the ‘skalks’ we poured ourselves after we set up our ‘laboratory’ on the terrace.
We started relatively soft and easy with two young Glenburgies…

Glenburgie 5yo (40%, OB, Bottled Late 1960’s, Italy)
Nose: Apple, hint of beer and – hey! – chartreuse… Some sweetness, growing lighter and herbal over time.
Taste: Altogether a little flat, but pleasant enough. Round, smooth centre, growing woody towards the finish.
Score: 78 points – above average, but not much more. I didn’t notice any obvious ‘old bottle effect’.

Glenburgie 10yo (40%, G&M ‘OB’, Bottled circa 2004)
Nose: Oily with a hint of antiquity (?). A weird one. Hard boiled egg white. Madeira. Sour cream. Subtle smoke.
Taste: Phew!!! Herbal and very bitter. It loses many points here. This is a malt for sniffing, not for drinking.
Score: 70 points – although I should point out that the nose alone would have put it well in the 80’s…

Balmenach 1970 (40%, G&M Connoisseur’s Choice Old Brown Label, 12yo?)
Nose: Light and quite subtle. A fairly ‘natural’ malt that doesn’t seem to choose any direction.
Taste: A dull start, followed by a decent centre. Herbal, bitter finish. Again, nothing really stands out.
Score: 75 points – all in all this is a prototypical ‘average’ malt whisky; hence the ‘average’ score.

Balmenach 12yo (43%, Flora & Fauna, Bottled Late 1990’s)
Nose: Clearly sherried, but not overpowering. Some sulphur. Faint spices and organics. Radish. Antiquity.
Taste: A little uneven. Fruity with some tannins. Grows very woody and bitter in the finish. Too bad.
Score: 79 points – a very nice malt on the nose but the bitter, woody finish pulls it from the 80’s.

Glen Albyn 10yo (43%, OB, Bottled 1960’s)
Nose: Roses. Extremely subtle – might as well have been a blend. The faintest hint of peat?
Taste: Smooth and drinkable, with faint peat on the palate too. Dry, bitter finish. A downbeat ending…
Score: 64 points – but Serge, who has a far better nose seemed to pick up much more to love here

Glen Albyn 1973/1998 (40%, G&M Connoisseur’s Choice)
Nose: Light and slightly fruity. Vase water. Sublimally interesting. Mellows out. Subtle, but it grew on me.
Taste: Pine in the start. Woody and just a tad bitter. A good drinking whisky but too MOTR for my tastes.
Score: 73 points – just below average, like many other Connoisseur’s Choice bottlings of the period.

Around this time a wild idea popped up in my mind….
Serge and I popped into Frederique’s herb garden now and then for reference purposes – it’s really great that you can do a H2H tasting with a glass in one hand and a plant in the other to find out if there was indeed ‘mint’ in the malt. For a long time I’ve had the plan to convert an old horse stable in our neck of the woods into a dramming room, and now I’m starting to think I should try to design some sort of ‘nosing garden’ as well. There are many interesting tastes and smells to be found in the woods; honeysuckle, juniper, blueberries, wild strawberries, all sorts of and mushrooms and nuts, the (rotting) wood and leaves of trees, etc.
Another point on my ‘to do list of life’… But let’s get back to the Alsatian dramming now…

Glenallachie 12yo 1992/2004 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Cask #453)
Nose: Appears quite young. A little grainy. Not too expressive – slightly farmy. Herbal and quite clean…
Taste: A touch of bitterness. Fairly flat and unimaginative. Decent enough but it still loses some points here.
Score: 70 points – no obvious flaws but no highlights either. But then again I’ve grown spoilt over the years…

Glenallachie 1981/2004 (55.9%, Scotch Single Malt Circle, Cask #600)
Nose: Ah! A subtle richness. Nicely balanced sherry with a hint of coffee. Sweetens out with water.
Taste: Potent enough, with just the right amount of tannins for me. Salty. Flattens out after adding water.
Score: 82 points – the nose shows lots of development; it grows farmier with time. Best malt of the day so far…

Glencraig 19yo 1981/2001 (59,5%, Cadenhead Authentic Collection, 276 Bottles)
Nose: Polished. Oak? ‘Boerenjongens’ (raisins in brandy). Subtle at the surface. Chloride. Nougat. Chestnut honey.
Taste: Sweet & solid. What a great mouth feel at cask strength… Just a tad gritty in the finish – no real ‘flaw’.
Score: 84 points – if I remember correctly Serge told me this is the only sherried Glencraig ever released. Great!

Glencraig 30yo 1974/2004 (40.2%, Rarest of the Rare, Cask #2928, 229 Bottles)
Nose: Molasses. A chemical sweetness. Lemon scented detergent. Changes quickly. Hints of chloride and pine.
Taste: Chartreuse in the start; 2nd time I found that marker. Quite flat and gritty apart from that, I would say.
Score: 79 points – although a hint of ‘After Eight’ chocolate provoked a warm glow of melancholy in my stomach.

Glenugie 20yo 1966/1987 (46%, Cadenhead dumpy bottle, Distilled 12/’66, Bottled 04/’87)
Nose: Grainy; a ‘natural’ malt. Some subtle farmy notes. Nice but not terribly expressive. Nutty. Faint organics.
Taste: Light and quite MOTR. Very slightly oily. It’s juuuust satisfying enough for me to make it into the 80’s…
Score: 80 points – which makes it recommendable. Some other maniacs might recommend it more agressively.

Glenugie 1966/1986 (55%, Samaroli, 75 cl, 480 Bottles)
Nose: Nondescript at first. Emerging coffee notes. Nothing else I could pick up. Very faint farmy notes?
Taste: Gritty at cask strength – and altogether fairly MOTR. No notable change after adding water
Score: 75 points – but I should point out that once again some other maniacs would score it higher…

Pffft…. Lunchtime…
And even though I’m only halfway through my notes for this trip to Alsace, I have to wrap up this E-pistle.
I have other pressing matters to attend to (like editing the five next E-pistles you’ll find on this page).
You’ll find the second part of this E-pistle later on in this issue of Malt Maniacs.