E-pistle #18/05 – Spirit of Speyside Festival 2006 Report

By Bruce Crichton, UK

Another Spirit of Speyside Whisky festival has come and gone, all too quickly, and here is my account of it.
I apologise in advance for any errors in my report as I am relying on scribbled notes and a memory that is not helped by my insistence on leaving my slops bucket bone dry – a quest that I remain undefeated on, so far. All of the views expressed on the whiskies available are a reflection of my own ability to nose and taste. As such, those seeking articulate tasting notes are reading the wrong report as I am no more naturally gifted at nosing than the Sphinx. To those who were at the same events and did manage better notes than I did, well done to you.

I kicked off the long weekend with the tasting taken by Susan Webster, of Douglas Laing.
Susan presented a series of unchillfiltered whiskies from the Provenance and Old Malt Cask ranges.
The session opened with a 1995 Provenance Glen Rothes, at 46%abv. This had an acidic nose and tasted of citrus fruits and acid drop sweets. It changed little with water, except to reveal a shortbread taste on the finish. The tasting notes printed on the bottle were from Susan who assured us that they had improved after being ordered to use a thesaurus by her bosses. The remaining whiskies in the tasting were Old Malt Cask bottlings, all at 50%abv. Next came a 1991  Dalmore from a second fill hogshead. This had a bitter start and smooth middle with a taste of pear drops and water made it taste vaguely of bourbon, but otherwise, I filed it under ‘decidedly average’.

Matters improved hugely with a 1982 sherry-matured Brora. As Susan told the convoluted story behind the closed distillery and it’s neighbour, Clynelish, I found the whisky to smell of sherry and to taste of toffee and cake with a rich, and delicious, smoky finish. Even better was an amazingly complex 1982 Tactical, from the Isle of Skye, and Susan explained the legal niceties of the name on the bottle. The wonderful nose was of smoke and seaweed and the whisky tasted of smoke and pepper and yet was both chewy and fresh, at the same time. We ended with a 1992 Laphroaig, whose official bottling is renowned for it’s ‘love it or hate it’ advertising, but which has diminished in power, in recent years. The nose was lightly smoky and the flavour rich and medicinal and, in keeping with the ‘love it or hate it’ theme, the gentlemen sitting beside me could not finish theirs and so I helped out, kind soul that I am. I filed this one under ‘Result!’

Later, I returned to the museum for the Independent Bottler’s challenge, which consisted of the Speyside and Open categories. 4 independent bottlers, Douglas Laing, Duncan Taylor, Cadenhead’s and Adelphi each entered one cask strength bottling in the Speyside category and one in the ‘open’ category’. The tasting took the format where one speaker would present the case for each company while we tasted a dram. To make matters more interesting for the audience, we were assured that the dram we were sampling did not necessarily ‘belong’ to the speaker whose turn it was.

Susan Webster spoke for Douglas Laing, Mark Watt spoke for Duncan Taylor while Steve Oliver spoke for Adelphi and Mike Lord spoke for Cadenhead’s as neither company had an employee present. Each whisky available was cask strength and between 48.8 and 60.4%abv, for the Speysiders and between 50 and 59.1%abv for the Open category. For each speaker, Mike laid down ground rules which included no slagging other bottling companies and no swearing, which tested Mark’s resolve no end, and the audience were to write tasting notes for each whisky and select a favourite for each category. The best notes would win a prize and be announced at the dregs party.

After our usual early morning trip to Elgin, my friend and I headed to the Whisky Fair, being held in the Memorial Hall. The fair is a chance for the relatively small companies of the whisky industry to show off their latest offerings. At the fair, we met a host of festival regulars including Thomas and Gunnel, from Sweden, Xenia and Sascha, from Germany, Phil, Warren and Gemma, from Yorkshire, Bill and Christine, from Newcastle, and Stephen Lunn with his wife, Pat, and a friend from Sunderland, who they were leading astray.

James, from Dewar Rattray, re-introduced me to Stronachie; their bottling of a single malt from just outside Dufftown, and to a cask-strength 1993 Cragganmore which was smoky and had a shortbread finish.

Mark Watt, of Duncan Taylor, nearly floored me by showing me an opaque bottling of Glen Grant, which he said had been in a bourbon cask but then added that the cask was vatted with a 1970 Oloroso sherry Cask to produce the darkest whisky I had ever seen. I took a taste of their 38 year old blended whisky and grabbed a bottle of ‘Auld Reekie’ for an Islay fan, of my acquaintance.

Angus Dundee had Glencadam and their full Tomintoul range available, and I tasted the new Ballantruan whisky, which is unchillfiltered and bottled at 50%abv. This exciting dram was released only a few weeks before the festival and is a rare example of a heavily peated Speysider with a full-bodied, well-rounded fruity and smoky taste and this meant more punishment for my already hard-pressed wallet.

Airdrie based distillers, Inver House, were showing off their new bottlings, together with their widely available whiskies, including their 17 and 21 year old versions of Old Pulteney which were well received. My recommendation, however, is the unchillfiltered 1991 An Cnoc which is heavier and fuller to taste than the 12 year old standard bottling, itself an under-rated gem, in my view.

After lunch, we headed off to Benriach distillery, by bus. Chivas brothers owned Benriach, until 2004, when it was sold off and is now independently owned. Our host was to be Master Distiller, Allan McConnochie. Benriach opened in 1898, closed in 1899 and resumed production in 1964. Allan was an expert guide, keeping the party interested with lots of technical and historical information about the distillery and it’s production of up to three million litres per year, about three quarters of that of it’s more illustrious neighbour, Longmorn, still owned by Chivas. We were shown round the dunnage warehouse where Benriach fell is better for maturation than a racking warehouse and their whisky is matured in casks formerly used for port, claret, burgundy, rum, bourbon, Madeira and Pedro Jimenez sherry. We then had the chance to nose some new-make spirit from both peated and unpeated malt and some vintage casks dating from the mid 60’s to the early 90’s. The tour was rounded off, in fine style, with a taste of 10 year old ‘Curiositas’ at 46%abv which was delicious, thick, peaty and fruity and was Mike Tyson to the Chivas bottling’s Julian Clary, in terms of it’s flavour. Allan also gave us a sample of 21 year old, ‘Authenticus’, again heavily peated and bottled at 46%abv. A slight addition of water opened up an impressively complex dram and gave the feeling of peat dancing across the tongue.

We congratulated Allan on a fine tour and headed off down to Glen Moray distillery, in Elgin.
Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable host for the afternoon was Graham who informed us that the distillery opened in 1897 and that Gallow Hill was nearby. The last hanging, on that hill, was in 1690 and  the next would be in about 1 hour if any of us didn’t like the whisky! Graham told us the malt used was 2-3 ppm of phenol as opposed to 50 ppm in Glen Moray’s sister distillery Ardbeg. Again, our host was excellent and knowledgeable, leading us swiftly round. We had a chance to taste some sweet wort, from the process, and to nose some yeast, which smelled of stewed fruit.

Glen Moray is relatively small and produces two million litres per year, about half that of it’s sister distillery, Glenmorangie. Most of the spirit is matured in ex-bourbon casks and the Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc wine finishes, of recent years, had been abandoned as it was felt that it was a lot of work and did not change the whisky sufficiently to be worth the effort.

We then headed to the visitor’s centre, which was refurbished in 2004 and Distillery manager Graham Coull took over and gave us the choice of the ‘classic’, 12 year old and 16 year old version to start with. I tried the 12 year old, which was pleasant, slightly winey and undemanding, as Graham told us that Glen Moray had risen to being the third best selling in Britain and second biggest in Scotland. We then had a 1992 Manager’s dram at 59.6%abv, matured in a sherry cask as Graham told us that Glen Moray was a good spirit which did not become overly ‘woody’ with age. He offered, in evidence, a 30 year old bottling which was both delicate and floral and gave an overall feeling that we were tasting a great springtime dram. We thanked the two Grahams for a great afternoon and then headed back to Dufftown.

That night, we headed to Scott’s restaurant where Ricky Christie, formerly of the North of Scotland Distilling Company hosted the Gala dinner, and whiskies were provided by Euan Shand of Duncan Taylor. Alan and Susie, the restaurant owners laid on a sumptuous feast as Ricky, in his own inimitable style, turned the air blue with hilarious tales of crooked Russian policemen, toy cars and his father’s head, trips to India, flatulence on aeroplanes, old firm football games and alligators.

Each course was accompanied by a dram and Ricky improvised tasting notes as he had not tried any of them before that night. Of particular interest were a 1982 Bowmore, at 57.5%abv, which needed very little water to smooth it down and gave the same ‘dancing peat’ sensation that I had experienced earlier and a 1992 Caol Ila which was light, smooth and crisp.

Euan Shand brought the night to a close with an entertaining history of Duncan Taylor and Company as we washed our meals down with 38 year old blended whisky. Euan told us it was a vatting of some mid-1960’s casks, some of which had fallen below legal bottling strength and offered a reasonably priced chance to taste whisky of advanced age.

On Sunday afternoon, Mike Lord treated us to his whisky and salmon talk and taste. The idea was that we taste the whisky then the salmon and then the whisky again and see if they complimented each other. He also suggested nosing the salmon and managed to keep impressively calm as a clown in the audience shouted, “mine smells of fish!”

First, we has a Spey smoked salmon, apparently recommended to go with a light Speyside whisky, so Mike gave us Glen Grant 10 year old. This combination opened up a salty finish in both the dram and the fish and the two made for a good combination. Next, we had Spey cured salmon and Glenfarclas 105. I added a drop of water and found that the whisky was sweet and tasted of fudge and sherried trifle. The salmon was an excellent choice and the two were delicious together. The third pairing was a 1991 Distillers edition of Talisker, at 45.8%abv, finished in Amoroso sherry, and a peat smoked salmon. The whisky was smoky, peaty, peppery and richly sherried. Yet again, these two were a great match. The session ended with a peat cured salmon and Ian Macleod’s ‘Smokehead’ at 43%abv. This dram is an independent bottling of a popular Islay malt, widely available at 10 years old and 46%abv and renowned for it’s smoky taste. The consensus, amongst the audience, was that this combination was not as successful as the previous three, with the whisky and salmon cancelling each other out a little. The talk ended, to a round of applause for Mike and his innovative idea and he made the recipes for the salmon available to all those who were interested.

The rest of the day was quite restful, as we gathered our strength for Monday that started with whiskies from David Stirk’s Creative Whisky Company and Mike Lord and Georgie Crawford of the Whisky Shop took the talk, in David’s absence. We began with a 1995 Tormore, at 50.1%abv, which was creamy and sweet and honeyed and this was followed by a 1993 Glenlivet, at 50.3%abv, finished in Burgundy wood. This one was spicy and winey to nose and taste, with a sweetish finish. We moved on to a 1993 Linkwood, at 56%abv, which was rubbery on the nose and sweetened considerably on water addition. It tasted of toffee and spice.

Next was a 10 year old Longmorn, claret finished and 51.5% abv, which had Georgie demonstrating her nosing expertise but which I thought was a duffer. Perhaps because this whisky needed more age or because Longmorn no more needs a claret finish than a tree needs to be fitted with a handbrake, this whisky did not work with it’s smoky taste and burnt sugar finish. A 1994 Clynelish, at 53.3%abv, had a long and dry finish and opened up, with water, to reveal a smoky and toffee middle. A 10 year old Caol Ila, at 58.3%, rounded off the session and, unsurprisingly, had smoke and peat on both the nose and taste with a vanilla and salty finish.

Making a welcome return, ‘Bad boy’ Mark Watt presented us with a selection of unchillfiltered bottlings from Duncan Taylor, in his talk and taste. A 1990 Glentauchers, at 46%abv, was a good opener and was pleasant and smooth, tasting mostly of vanilla. This was followed by a 37 year old Caperdonich, at 40.3%abv, yet another distillery which is now closed. This vatting of casks gave the whisky a slight taste of both bourbon and sherry.

Mark’s next choice was a 17 year old Glen Garioch, which had been fully matured in a cognac cask and bottled at 54.6%. This was wonderfully complex, tasting lightly sweet, smoky, fruity and gave, on the finish, the sensation of whisky dancing on the tongue. Another treat came with a 1975 Mosstowie, at 49.4%abv, distilled at Miltonduff distillery with Lomond stills. These stills were in operation between 1964 and 1981 and this dram was sweet to start and the finish was bitter but by no means, unpleasant. Water revealed syrup on the nose. We ended with the 1970 Glen Grant, at 51.7%abv, that Mark had showed me at the whisky fair. This whisky easily the biggest sherry taste I had ever experienced and the sherry had not so much overpowered the whisky as it had decimated it. It also had the same effect on my palate. It wasn’t to my taste but is surely absolute nirvana to those who love sherry monsters.

In the final tasting session of the festival, the whisky museum was full for the whisky and chocolate tasting taken by Swedish connoisseur and festival regular Paul Martensson.  Paul chose a series of well known official bottlings for his talk, apart from opening with a 1996 Provenance Braeval, which had proved popular at an earlier festival. The other whiskies were Balvenie 10, Tomintoul 16, Linkwood 12 and Mortlach 16. The dark chocolates, in order, were Java, Honduras, Trinidad, Venezuela and Madagascar and Paul demonstrated his thorough knowledge of chocolate throughout the talk by stressing the importance of the beans and cocoa used in each recipe. My favourite combination was the Madagascar and Mortlach, which combined to give a tangy flavour of orange and citrus. Congratulations to Paul for this excellent idea.

The festival closed in style, as always, with the dregs party, in the Whisky Shop.
Mike revealed that the Speyside whiskies in the independent bottler’s challenge were Cadenhead’s Cragganmore 16 year old, Adelphi Inchgower 24 year old, Douglas Laing’s Macduff 35 year old and Duncan Taylor’s Strathisla. In this category, Macduff beat the Strathisla into second place. The non-Speyside whiskies were Duncan Taylor’s 36 year old Macduff (!), Cadenhead’s vatted Lowland, Douglas Laing’s 22 year old Port Ellen and Adelphi’s 13 year old Lagavulin which was first ahead of the Port Ellen. Mike also read out the contradictory tasting notes from the competition entrants and managed to keep a straight face while doing so.

A prize draw was held and Whisky Magazine’s Martine Nouet drew the winner.
Whisky Game creator, Canada’s Chris Brousseau arrived with his Scottish wife, Eileen, and demonstrated his fluent Finnish to me as we picked off stragglers from a vertical tasting of Benrinnes held at a previous festival. This dregs party was a well-behaved affair and no prodigious feats of strength were required as everyone went home at a civilised hour.

Finally, I’d like to thank all of those involved in organising and running the festival and, in particular, Mike Lord, Steve Oliver, Georgie Crawford, Mike Hendry, John Shields and Allan and Susie at Tannochbrae. I hope to see everyone again in September 2006.