E-pistle 2007/061 – Classic Malts Cruise 2007

By Krishna Nukala, India

Dramming in the Inner Hebrides

I knew my life would not be the same again when I saw the e-mail from Anne Baekkalund, Diageo’s efficient secretary. It was an invitation to be a part of Diageo’s annual event-The Classic Malt Cruise. I had been yearning to take part in this event for a long time and when the opportunity did come, it came in style. To be part of the event as a guest of Diageo simply means that you have arrived on the whisky scene! Diageo has been conducting this event for over a decade and it has been huge success since its inception. At one time more than 200 boats participated in the event but due to logistics and efficiency issues; Diageo limited the participants to about 100 boats for the last couple of years.

The boats converge at Oban from all corners of the world, but Diageo’s special guests (about a dozen and half) are invited into three splendid vessels- the speedy Grampus, the  magnificent grand old lady Eda Frandsen and the classy French boat Chantilly. For the next 6 days it is sailing combined with fun and frolic and tasting of some of Diageo’s exclusive malts. During the week, each boat takes its own course but meets for the pre-set events at the Classic Malt Distilleries in Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Port Ellen and finally at Talisker in the Isle of Skye.

Actually, the festivities start the day before the sailing-off day at the distillery at Oban. After the initial introductions, we, the special guests were welcomed by a rotund Chinese looking gentleman who quickly whisked us away from the increasing crowd for a private tour of the distillery. “I am Kenny Gray, working in Diageo for 39 years and as Distillery Manager for last 4 years in Oban,” he introduced himself. Oban is really a small distillery and if the jetting out chimney of the distillery is not observed, nobody actually would believe that there exists a working whisky distillery. It is surrounded by shops in the front and the famous McCaig’s hill in the rear. “Oban is marketed only as a Single Malt and never really ends up in any blend that I know of,” states Kenny, beginning the distillery tour. As expected from a small distillery, it has only one mashtun and the two stills are very small, much like those at Edradour. The malted barley which comes from Roseisle is peated not more than 1-2 ppm and only distiller’s yeast is added to break the sugars from the malted barley. After the detailed tour, Kenny settles us into his office for a special tasting of Obans. We had some standard 14 yo Oban and a distiller’s version of Montilla Fino cask, after which followed the special stuff like the 20 yo and 32 yo Obans. The tastings continued further with frozen Dahlwhinnie with Chocolate mousse, Cragganmore etc. Not a bad beginning for a first time participant of Classic Malt Cruise!

Neil Pendock, a wine & spirits journalist reporting for Sunday Times from Johannesburg is my cabin mate in the Chantilly for the next six days. Dave Broom, the other Malt Maniac co-sailing with me is cabined in Grampus along with Nick Morgan, Diageo’s marketing chief. We left the shores of Oban by 10 am next day morning and our experienced skipper Graham Moss (when Graham is not sailing he is either mountaineering or predicting avalanches in Europe), soon parted away from the crowd of boats and headed south via the Firth of Lorn. Our first halt for lunch was at a remote island somewhere between Colonsay and Oransay Islands. After a couple of lagers, our rubber dinghy was launched and soon we were on an exploratory tour of the Garvellachs, where the mother of St. Columba was said to have been buried. The remains of some the earliest Christian settlers from Ireland, dating back to 500-800 AD could be found here. Towards evening we anchored at the Tarbert Bank Shallows to spend a quite evening in the boat with dinner cooked by our magnificent and ever smiling cook Topi.

We were off, the next morning towards Port Askaig and after sailing past Bunnahbhein on the starboard side, Chantilly reached the piers of Caol Ila. Eda Frandsen and Grampus were already anchored at the pier. The hosts from Caol Ila and other coordinators were waiting for us to take, first to Lagavulin and then to Port Ellen. Driving on the road to Lagavulin brought back fond memories of my first pilgrimage to Islay where I was baptized into whisky appreciation by my Guru – Mike Nicholson. Nowadays, in Mike’s place you find another master craftsman of Diageo – Graham Logie. As usual, the guests undergo the tour of Lagavulin followed by Lagavulin tastings. While the guests were having the special tour, I sneaked away from the crowd to have a close look of the historic “Malt Mill” in the premises. It was locked. For those who are not really aware of what “Malt Mill” is, here is a brief. In the year 1907, when Sir Peter Mackie (nicknamed restless Peter), the original owner of White Horse lost his agency with Laphroaig, he built a miniature Laphroaig in retaliation within Lagavulin distillery. It was operative from 1908 to 1963 producing some of the peatiest versions of Lagavulin during the period. The Lagavulins and White Horse blends produced during this period are legendary and are collectors items. According to Dave Broom, “If you happen to lay your hands on any of the White Horse versions of Lagavulin, just grab them. They are treasure.” When Graham had finished with his guests, I goaded him to open the “Malt Mill” and he was kind enough to oblige. The place was plain and simple and there were no hints of any distillery having once existed. I took some pictures of the old Mackie’s versions of Lagavulin and the famous White Horse bottles under the watchful eyes of Graham Logie!  Visiting Malt Mill was another pilgrimage for me. The visit was followed by Port Ellen maltings tour and I have to confess that I did not enjoy it. Where once existed a distillery that produced such full bodied and finest Single Malts, you see grand scale production of malted barley that feeds almost all the distilleries on the island. I still do not know why Diageo closed Port Ellen in 1983 in preference to Caol Ila. Probably, it was more a business decision.

We came back to Caol Ila by evening for the grand international tasting and I was surprised to find the national flag of India in the tasting room. Obviously Diageo did its home work very well to honour the international guests. I felt like an International celebrity for a moment. Billy Stichel whose family has been serving Caol Ila since his great grandfather’s time treated us with some of the stunning Caol Ilas during the evening. The winner of the evening was the Distillery Bottling of 2007 with 58.4% abv. We weighed anchor the next morning before the low tide had arrived, to head towards Skye, our final destination but not before halting at some of the stunning isles in the Inner Hebrides.

Our next halt was at Iona during the day where we scaled the highest peak (or hill!)  on the island, followed by visit to the  Abbey. Iona is known more for its religious lineage. St. Columba arrived from Ireland on this island in A.D 563 along with his dozen followers to spread the Lord’s Gospel to the Northern Picts in Scotland and he was successful to a great extent. One hears a great deal about him in almost all parts of Inner Hebrides. Towards evening we moored at a remote island somewhere in Treshnish Islands to taste some of the spectacular malts of Diageo brought by Maureen Robinson, the master blender of Diageo. Dramming on these tiny isles with the sun sinking into the sea and the skies ablaze with a myriad colours is a magical experience. The setting was like a surreal Van Goch’s painting. It was an evening to remember for the rest of my life!

Next morning we sailed past Fingal’s cave through a swarm of Puffins. In the 3rd Century, Finn McCool (known as Fingal to Vikings) defended the Hebridean attacks by Vikings and died in Ulster in 283 AD. The cave had been found by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 and since then visited by many famous souls like Sir Walter Scot, John Keats and many a ruling Kings and Queens of England. As you near the caves, you hear many weird sounds and it is said that the echoes emanating from the caves inspired Felix Mendelssohn to write Die Hebriden (Fingal’s Cave Opus 26). (In puts here are from Wikepedia)

We halted at the island of Muck which is known for its local fresh sea food and we bought some Lobster and Crabs for the dinner. We moored towards the evening at the island of Soay where we were greeted for the first time during the six day of sailing by the lazy Atlantic seals. Finally we reached Carbost at Loch Harport where Talisker is situated right on the edge of sea with the dramatic Cuillins range in the background. Charlie Smith who would be retiring in a week’s time after serving 40 years in the industry received us at the pier. After initial introductions, Georgette Crawford, the local brand home manager took us on the distillery tour. She was lamenting on the erratic weather situation for the last couple of years and said “We had to stop production during last two weeks due to lack of water,” I murmured to myself “Bloody Global warming”.

The distillery has one mashtun, 6 washbacks, 2 wash stills and 3 really small spirit stills. What intrigued me most were the U-shaped lyne arms of the wash stills and the open worm tubs in the rear of the still house. Dave later on clarified that “the real complexity of Talisker is brought out in the wash stills with its unique inverted U shaped lyne arms”. Later on we gathered in Charlie’s office to taste some of the stunning Taliskers – the winner being the 30 yo, 53.9%, Bottle No. 3043 special vatting that is sold only at the distillery. In the evening during the ceilidh, Charlie was officially given a farewell and he suddenly threw the keys of the distillery to the newcomer Willie MacDougal saying, “they are of no more use to me!” Willie, as many of know has worked previously at Oban and his last stint has been at Blair Athol. The dancing and singing went late into the night and the first leg of Classic Malt Cruise 2007 came to curtains. Classic Malt Cruise is a life-changing experience and if any one has the slightest opportunity to participate never let it go at any cost.


A little dramming during a Scottish sojourn…

The Pot Still (13th July 2007)

Last time I visited the Pot Still was in May 2003 when Davin and I drammed together here. I tasted my first Linkwood which turned out to be an average malt. This time too, as I had sufficient time in hand, I headed towards this historical water-hole to try something new and with obvious motto of increasing my malt mileage.

It was a Friday evening and there was barely enough space even to stand. The gentlemen behind the counter were obviously impatient serving a boisterous crowd and I knew it would irk them more if I had ordered the drams from the bottles that were perched on the top of the shelves. So I asked for the bar catalogue, selected some which I thought could be in the bar man’s reach. But he came back apologetically. The gentleman declared that the stocks in the Pot Still have gone low recently and decent drams are costing more to stock nowadays.

After some conversation and influencing him with my recently made Malt Maniacs visiting card, I managed him to retrieve a Convalmore, Millburn and a Royal Brackla.

Oban Distillery (14th July 2007)

With shame I have to declare that I never tasted an Oban before. Surprisingly, even on the Maniac’s Monitor, there are not many Obans. Therefore, it was all the more special, as I had tasted my first Oban at the very source, that too along with Kenny Grey, the distillery manager. After an interesting tour of the distillery, Kenny brought me and some VIP guests to his office for Oban dramming. First interesting fact I came to know – that Oban is not used in any blends but sold only as a Single Malt. After the dramming, I took some great pictures from the top of McCaig, from where the view of distillery down and sea in front is spectacular. No wonder Oban is called the “Gateway to the Western Isles”. Here is an account of how the tasting went:

1. Oban 14yo (43%, OB, Probably distilled in 1992, Second fill bourbon cask)
Colour: Beautiful golden yellow.
Nose: Lots of caramel toffees, fruity, sea air, citrous, fruit cake.
Palate – creamy and nutty, sweet, never had such creamy malt at 43% strength. Good medium finish.
Score: 84 points.

2. Oban 14yo 1992/2006 (43%, OB, Montilla Fino Cask, Distiller’s Edition)
Colour: Dark yellow, almost sherried tinge.
Nose – mild smoke, white peppers.
Palate – Very sweet, peppers, mild tannins and sherry. Smooth, medium finish.
Score 82 points.

Now the tastings were going on with Oban with ginger, frozen Dalwhinnie with Chocolate, etc and I was fast losing interest in the stuff that was going around. I said “Come on, Kenny, why don’t you bring some special stuff like those 20 y.o and 32 y.o Obans lurking behind in the cabinet?” He had no option, brought out the bottles and poured the last remains.

3. Oban 20yo 1984/2004 (57.9%, OB)
Nose: This is what I call an elegant stuff. Fresh sea air, lots of fruits, mild smoke
Palate: salty, nutty, Christmas cake, raisins. Wonderful finish.
Score 90 points – Most enjoyable.

4. Oban 32yo 1969/2002 (55.1%, OB, 6000 Bottles)
Nose – Complex, licorice, Vitamin B syrup
Palate – Honey, toasted almonds, lots of tannins. Excellent long finish. The Winner of the evening
Score 91 points.

Caol Ila Distillery (16th July 2007)

With our National Flag behind me, I felt like a celebrity, participating in an international event. The master of ceremonies conducting the tastings was Billy Stichel whose family has been serving Caol Ila since his great grandfather’s time.

1. Caol Ila 8yo ‘Un-peated’ (59%, OB, Ex Bourbon cask)
Colour: very pale yellow, almost white wine
Nose: Hits you on the nose. Young spirit from the still, beer like & fruity
Palate: Grassy, sweet and salty, ripe guava, syrupy
Finish: hot, good wholesome feel on the palate. Excellent stuff.
Score 86 points.

2. Caol Ila 12yo (43%, OB, Distilled +/- 1994)
Colour: pale gold
Nose: typical Caol Ila smoke, vanilla, very refreshing
Palate: Very easy to drink, sweet & peaty, peppers, syrupy, more vanilla on palate
Finish: Medium, OK.
Score 83 points.

3. Caol Ila 18yo (43% OB, No other details given)
Colour : Golden yellow
Nose : very leafy, green grass, some florals too, leather satchel
Palate : Soapy, sugar syrup, green apples.
Finish: OK not much of body
Score 83 points.

4. Caol Ila NAS Distillers Edition (43%, OB, no other details given)
Colour :  amber
Nose : Fruitiest of all tried so far, mild smoke
Palate : Oily, seaweed, dry.
Finish: OK not much of body
Score 81 points.

5. Caol Ila NAS (58.4%, OB, Only available at the distillery, Bottled in 2007)
Colour:  amber
Nose: Feels like just out of still, lots of organics, leafy, coal tar
Palate: Very, very sweet. Apples, Green bananas, oily
Finish: Fantastic finish, ever lasting!
Score 91 points.

6. Caol Ila 25yo Natural C/S (59.4%, OB, No other details given)
Colour:  dark amber
Nose: Powerful on nose, old leather book stall, leafy, burnt leaves
Palate: Easy to drink, sweet and salty, sea weeds
Finish: Very good body, excellent finish
Score 88 points.

The tasting ended with tasting of some just distilled fresh spirits. (Very sweet and fruity)

An uninhabited island somewhere in Treshnish Isles (17th July 2007)

There are innumerable uninhabited islands in the entire Scottish west coast and one can moor at any of these if the rocks hidden below are avoided. Or you can drop anchor nearby and reach the islands in rubber dinghies. Dramming on these tiny isles with the evening sun sinking into the sea as background, the skies ablaze with myriad of colours and a play full seal appearing now and then in the quiet waters is a magical experience.

The setting was like a surreal Van Goch painting, as Maureen Robinson, Diageo’s master blender took out her special samples and placed them on the mossy rocks.

It was an evening to remember the rest of my life!

1. Rosebank 25yo 1981/2006 (61.4%, OB, 2500 Bottles)
Colour: White wine
Nose: Fresh oak wood, citrous, lemon jests, some fennel
Palate: sweet and sour, lemony, dry, syrupy
Finish: creamy and medium. Good stuff.
Score 87 points

2. Glenury Royal 36yo 1970-2007 (58.5%, OB)
Colour: straw yellow
Nose: vanilla straight out of biscuit tin, tangerines, fresh oak
Palate: honey dew, silky smooth, sherried, very elegant
Finish: Expected much more, but it disappointed me. Ok.
Score: 88 points.

3. Glenkinchie 20yo (58.7%, OB, Bourbon cask finished into a brandy cask)
Colour: Golden yellow, with a greenish tinge
Nose: Lots of grassy notes, melons, woody
Palate: sugar syrup, nutty, some oriental spices, may be ginger
Finish: Dry and long, the most enjoyable Glenkinchie I have ever tasted
Score 91

4. Talisker 12yo (45.8%, OB about 20,000 bottles for Friends of Classic malts)
First fill sherry cask
Colour: Deep amber red
Nose: very fruity, smoky sweet notes
Palate: lots of tannins, nutty, sherry, toffee, very sweet
Finish: Long and lasting
Score 88

5. Port Ellen 28yo 1979/2007 (53.4% OB)
Colour: Deep amber
Nose: Very smoky and peat, exhilarating nose, unknown fruits
Palate: lots of tannins, toasted nuts, and rum cake, full bodied
Finish: Long and lasting
Score 88

6. Lagavulin 13yo 1993 (57.5%, OB)
Colour: Deep amber
Nose: Oh! Old leather shop, mild peat and smoke, complex
Palate: chewy, butter and nuts, sweet and seaweed
Finish : Fantastic Long finish
Score 89

7. Brora 30yo (55.3%, OB, Refill American and European cask)
Colour: Dark
Nose: caramel toffee, sweet smoke and peat, horse stables
Palate: lots of tannins, butter scotch, chewy, vitamin syrup
Finish : Everlasting and impression making
Score 91

8. Lagavulin 21yo 1985/2006 (56%, OB, European cask)
Colour: Dark chocolate
Nose: very fruity, smoke & sherried, furniture polish, exhilarating
Palate: Rich and chewy, sulphur, medicinal but so easy to drink
Score 90

9. Lagavulin 12yo (56.2%, OB, American oak cask)
Colour: pale amber
Nose: fresh sea air, smoke and vanilla
Palate: lots of body, more smoke and peat, ice cream
Finish : Very long and lasting
Score 89

10. Talisker 30yo (50.3%, OB)
Colour: Deep amber
Nose: very complex, exhilarating and exotic fruits, mild smoke
Palate: Mild volcanic eruption on the palate, nectar, raisins and nuts, toffees, very, very sweat
Finish: Just like any great Talisker!
Score 92 points – truly, the winner of the evening.

Dramming at Talisker (18th July 2007)

Charlie Smith served the industry for four decades and many of the exhilarating Taliskers we enjoy today are due to his creation. I have been lucky to meet this legend at Talisker just before his retirement and consider it an honor having drammed along with him in his office. Dave Broom was sitting just opposite me.

1. Talisker New Make (70.5%, Not officially bottled)
On the nose it is very salty and smoky. Very sweet and fruity.
Actually it is not that fiery.

2. Talisker 18yo (45.8%, OB, Mixture of American & European oak casks)
Colour: Deep Amber
Nose: Peat and smoke, florals coming from behind.
Palate: creamy, sweet & sea weed, mild tannins and sulphur notes
Finish: Very long
Score 87 points.

3. Talisker 25yo (56.9%, OB, Bottled 2006)
Colour: Deep amber
Nose: very complex, smoke is way down, some oak wood and Christmas cake
Palate: Explosive, warm and after some time turning into sweet syrup,
Finish: Just like any great Talisker!
Score 90 points.

4. Talisker 30yo (53.9%, OB, Bottled in 2007, for sale at the distillery only)
Colour: Deep amber, almost brownish
Nose: Briny, complex, sea air, sweet notes lurking from behind
Palate: Very warm, sweet and salts, raisins, dried nuts, chewy
Finish : That satisfying feeling! VOW
Score 93 points for Bottle No. 3043.

The Whisky Exchange (21st July 2007)

It is has been one of my long standing wishes to meet this gentleman of the whisky industry. I made it a special point to meet him at his exchange before my return to India. Finding his store at Park Royal in London was a Herculean task but it was worth all the effort. Sukhinder has a great “nose” finding interesting whiskies and he himself does not know what rare stocks he is in possession. His warehouse is not that difficult to break into and it may not be a bad idea if some maniac helps me to loot his exhilarating stuff some day!

1. Balblair 40yo (47.7%, TSMS, Anniversary selection, matured in Hogsheads, 215 bottles)
Colour: Exhilarating dark brown
Nose: Luxuriant wood, raisins, dried sweet fruits
Palate: Nectar, velvet smooth, Christmas cake, rich on palate
Finish: Very very long. Extremely satisfying
Score 93

2. Clynelish 34yo 1972/2007 (50.5%, TSMS, cask no. 20156/24651, dist 13.12.72, bottled 14.03.2007)
Colour: medium brown
Nose: salty, smoke and mild peat,
Palate: sweet, leather book, malty and salted butter
Finish: Very long. Very Good
Score 89

4. Bowmore 16 yo, Dist 4.10.90 Bottled 14.03.2007. 58.5%, cask No 1333, 283 bottles, The Single Malts of Scotland
Colour: deep amber
Nose: Most important- It does not have that perfumes, nice smoke and peat
Palate: Very salty and sweet, full bodied, coal tar, sea weed and medicinal
Finish: Creamy long lasting
Score 91

5. Caol Ila 16 yo, dist 11.01.1991/bottled 14.03.2007, 57.9%, Hogsheads, 298 bottles, The Single Malts of Scotland
Colour: bright amber
Nose: Typical Caol Ila on nose. Medicinal
Palate: Fruits and nuts, vanilla, creamy
Finish: Very long finish
Score 90

6. Springbank 13 yo, dist 26.11.1993/bottled 16.03.2007, 58.7%, refill sherry, 563 bottles, The Single Malts of Scotland
Colour: dark brown,
Nose: varnish, turpentines, exotic fruits, mild smoke
Palate: Exotic fruits, vitamin syrup, raisins, toasted nuts; one can drink loads of this
Finish: Excellent long finish
Score 92

7. Longmorn-Glenlivet 1971/1999 (58.6%, Scotts selection, Sherry wood)
Colour : Such luxuriant colour!
Nose: Sultanas, exotic fruits, exhilarating stuff, very rich
Palate: You can drink this instead of sherry! After dinner malt, Honey,
Rich cake with lots of nuts and rum
Finish: A Class apart
Score: 94

8. Springbank 1997/2007 (55.2%, OB, batch no.1)
Colour: dark
Nose: interesting nose, waxy, nutty.
Palate: Very smooth, and salty, dried fruits, milky
Finish: Long long finish, very enjoyable
Score 89

9. Lochside Single Blend, 42yo 1964/2006 (47.7%, Scotts Selection)
Colour: rich brown
Nose: Lots of wood, varnish, luxuriant nose
Palate: Sweet syrup, creamy and lots of fruits, malty.
Finish: Very silky and long
Score: 92. Never tasted a better blend in my life.

Before leaving for lunch, Sukhinder asked me my year of birth and when I said 1955, he went inside and brought this bottle.

10. Talisker 38yo, dist between 12-28/5/1955, bottled in 1993 (53.6%, G&M, casks 1310,1311,1257)
Colour: Luxuriant dark red
Nose: Complex, old leather shop, mixture of dried fruits and nuts, lots of sherry
Palate: Rich sherry, toasted almonds, Oriental spices, even though the level in the bottle was very low, it has not taken air.
No sign of degradation. Absolute stunner.
Score 94.

A perfect ending to a most exhilarating tour of Scotland.