Review: Dances With Cubs

Wolfburn Single Malt – 46%

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Those of you who read my diatribes regularly need to get a fucking life will know that I’m a bit of a tool and a tad quick to make snap judgements. This is far from ideal for a well respected blogger and regular reviewer of whisky, so it’s lucky I’m neither. New distilleries then.

They are popping up all over the place. Consumers’ thirst for Scotch whisky has reached such a level that wide-eyed, slavering business types are queuing up for the opportunity to bleed them dry. Usually I’d find the idea of drinking barely legal whisky as appealing as the cold leftovers from last week’s turd buffet but this one has a picture of a wolf on the bottle and winter is coming.

Wolfburn Distillery was originally founded in 1821 and ran for around 30 years or so before going to rack and ruin. The new distillery was built in 2012 about a quarter of a mile from the old site and started pumping out spirit in 2013. Earlier this year the spirit reached the magical 3 year mark and the distillery released two bottlings. One of the releases, today’s dram, is their standard single malt whisky, retailing for around £45. The other was their £200 inaugural special edition, crafted from the very first casks filled and, with 100 bottles being made available in the UK, a prime example of the utter wankery that surrounds the notion of exclusivity in today’s market. They all sold though; take a bow, marketing team.


Fun Facts*

  • Wolfburn is the northernmost whisky distillery on the Scottish mainland. Similarly, my house is the westernmost house on my road, if you ignore nos. 35 & 37 and that weird one on the corner that’s pretty much basically on Tuffnell Avenue if you ask me.
  • The distillery is named after a local water source and definitely not after a horrific incident that took place in Thurso Zoo in 1982.
  • My lengthy Twitter campaign linking the distillery name with an historic animal atrocity was inaccurate, regrettable and, evidently, libellous.

Wolfburn Single Malt is presented without artificial colouring, has not been chill-filtered and is bottled at 46%

Nose: Light and fresh. Very breakfasty in nature. Immediately there are wafts of cereal, biscuits and dollops of cream. Nothing especially challenging but nice enough.

Palate: Crisp. The breakfast cereal is there but it’s underscored by faint bubblegum and lime cordial with barley sugar nearing the finish. A suggestion of peat, perhaps.

Finish: Not great. Short and fairly spicy but with a hint of the maritime about it.

Thoughts: Putting my vitriol aside, this is actually quite promising. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nowhere near ready at this age and charging £45 shows a huge amount of brass neck, especially in light of Glengyle’s recent 12yo release at £35. Nevertheless, there’s quality in the glass.


Score 73

If you can snag a sample from a friend, it’s worth a try. Shows a great amount of promise and I’ll be watching the distillery with interest. I just can’t recommend a bottle at this price. 

The Arse Explores: Islay

Ahoy there, my old chums. Today we’re going on a trip. The Stumblebus has been washed, the seats have been steam-cleaned and I’ve even put one of those smelly tree things on the mirror. So climb aboard, crack open your hip-flask and keep your emergency pants close at hand. We’re off to Islay!

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The Geography

A little background, if you’ll permit me. Islay is a Hebridean island off the south-west coast of Scotland. It’s known as the Queen of the Hebrides, presumably for its Teutonic connection. You see, for most of the year, this tranquil little isle holds a population of a little over three thousand people, fourteen hundred sheep and Iain McArthur. However, for one week a year, it is invaded by roughly nine million Germans to take part in the annual World Queuing Championships. This means, for a brief period, Islay has the world’s highest density of Bavarians outside of Oktoberfest or a Royal wedding.

The History

Ask your average whisky fan to describe Islay malts in one word and they’ll probably say overpriced peaty. This is down to the methods the distilleries use to dry their malted barley. It is said that, historically, there were high costs involved in importing coal from the mainland. Consequently, producers used what they had on the island; peat, vegetation and, in the case of Laphroaig Select, value charcoal briquettes from the Bowmore Co-op. The robust flavour of the resultant whisky is highly prized, leading to a number of mainland distilleries using peat to both cash in on the current trend and disguise the horrible shit they’re trying to flog.

The Whisky

Islay currently holds eight working distilleries. The Kildalton coast plays host to three of them, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, all known for their heavily-peated style. Head up the east coast and you’ll happen upon Caol Ila, the clinical, tech-powered leviathan that’ll satisfy all your lemon-napalm cravings. Bunnahabhain is a hop, skip and a jump away and notable only for the fact that it’s not notable for anything.

The west of the island will bring you face to face with Kilchoman, Islay’s newest distillery. The stuff it pumps out will bring a smile to your face and an ache to your wallet. Drop down to Bruichladdich for everything from inexpensive, unpeated drinkers to costly palate-fuckers with crazy finishes. Bowmore completes the picture. Islay’s oldest distillery can provide you with some real treats, if you can cut through the marketing bullshit.

The Facts

  • If you’re not sure how to pronounce Islay, go up to the biggest bloke in the pub and say ‘Islay View’. If you don’t get kissed or punched, you’re not pronouncing it correctly.
  • Failing to wave to a fellow motorist on Islay is punishable by death.
  • Theorists predict that by 2017 the world will end as a result of the Caol Ila distillery finally achieving sentience and launching draff missiles in an attempt to destroy Nick Morgan’s detractors.

The Arse Picks

Under £50: Ardbeg 10

Often touted as the best entry level Scotch whisky on the market and miles better than a lot of Ardbeg’s highly prized special releases.

£50 – £100: Kilchoman 100% Islay

More lightly peated than their excellent Machir Bay but bags of flavour and poise. A real revelation.

Over £100: Caol Ila 25

A criminally underrated distillery that will one day enslave us all. Many bemoaned the drop to 43% (me included) but this has brought a gentle elegance to the fore. A delicious whisky, perfect for evenings by the fire trying to remember life before the uprising.


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So there you have it, pals; a lightning tour of a region that has something for everyone. Now back on the bus, quickly. There’s a strange rumbling from the east.

Your old mate,

Arse

The Arse Explores: The Regions

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Ever wondered what all that information on the label of a whisky bottle means? Numbers, words, more numbers – how is the average drinker supposed to know what the hell is going on? Never fear, old son, Arse is here to save the day again.

Why are we looking at the label in the first place? Answer: We want to know if the whisky inside is any good before we buy it. Before we get down to that, it’s worth recapping on what we do know:

  • If the label says Ardbeg, it’s bound to be brilliant and worth every penny
  • Age definitely equals quality
  • The more you pay for a whisky, the happier you’ll be when you drink it
  • If you crack half a dozen bottles open in the store, Tesco will definitely press charges this time

Here’s the problem though; you already have all the Ardbegs put aside for your retirement, old whisky doesn’t exist any more and that sexual harassment defence put a massive hole in your savings. How can you be sure you’re going to like that Glen Moray Tizer Cask? You could read one of the many whisky blogs online but, let’s face it, who’s going to take advice from some random mush off the internet?

One way of assessing the general profile of a whisky is to look at the region from which it was produced. Now pay attention pals, I’m giving you pearls here.

Despite what people will tell you, there are only five officially-recognised whisky producing regions of Scotland. Those of you with two hands will have incorrectly counted six, while our amputee friends are probably trying to remove a shoe right about now; we’ll just wait a while for them to catch up…

… back with us? Jolly good. You may have counted six, but don’t worry, it’s a common mistake. Despite what online retailers may have led you to believe, ‘Island’ is not officially recognised as a region by the Scotch Whisky Association. Those of you who work for Diageo will be sitting back smugly right about now as you knew that, didn’t you? Well, ‘West Highland’ isn’t a region either, gobshites. As for Agent X, ‘Smoked Dog Turd’ isn’t a region either, so quit your Lagavulin-bashing, you prick.

The SWA lists Speyside, Highland, Islay, Lowland & Campbeltown as the five official whisky-producing regions of Scotland. “So what?”, you may ask. Well, my old chums, this is where it gets clever. Whiskies that come from the same region all share similar characteristics. Think about it, yeah? It’s why all Islay whiskies are peaty, all bourbons taste identical and all Canadian whiskies are crap.

Over the next few weeks months blog posts, we shall hold hands as we merrily skip through Scotland, exploring the locations, histories and styles of the areas that bring us our beloved booze.


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Get packing.

Your old mate,

Arse

5 Steps to Enjoying Single Malt Whisky

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that whisky is painfully trendy these days. Consumers are becoming more and more clued up when it comes to knocking back Scotland’s favourite tipple and, let’s face it, it can be quite daunting when looking to jump on the malty merry-go-round for the first time. After all, you don’t want to look like a total prat, do you? That would be awful. Thankfully, I’ve taken the time to whittle down the ins and outs into five simple steps. Never fear, old mate; let the Arse be your guide.


1. Buy Some Single Malt Whisky

Thanks to whisky’s popularity this can be done online, in a supermarket, at a petrol station – pretty much anywhere. A word of warning though; be sure to check the label for the words ‘Single Malt’ to ensure you’re getting the real deal. I once grabbed a box off the supermarket shelf during a rushed lunch break and arrived home only to find that in my haste I’d bought a three pack of energy-saving light bulbs.

 

2. Open the Bottle

Most Scotch single malt whiskies are sealed with a cork stopper topped with metal foil. Pull the foil tab off, twist the cork gently, run and get a plaster for your sliced thumb and remove the rest of the foil. You can now twist the cork free to the sound of a satisfying pop or, in the case of Signatory Vintage bottles, a sickening crunch and thirty minutes of swearing.

 

3. Choose Your Receptacle

This is a vital part of the process. Drinking from the bottle may have been fine in your Uncle Pete’s day, but he’s always been weird and the family doesn’t really talk to him that much since that incident on the Isle of Wight. Glass is almost universally favoured, although there is that one company that swears wooden tumblers are the way forward and it’s all about oak, oak, oak, which is pretty much a rip-off of BenRiach’s stance, come to think of it. Stick to glass, yeah?

 

4. Pour it Into Your Mouth

For the avoidance of doubt, this is the hole in the middle of your face, just above your chin and just below your nose. If you regularly wear skinny jeans, red braces and lumberjack shirts, there’s a pretty good chance the majority of your face is covered in matted hair. To locate your mouth, stand in front of a mirror and say the words “Their single is the worst song on the album”, then throw the whisky into the centre of the moving part.

 

5. Tell All Your Friends

Some say that this is the most important part of being a single malt drinker. Phone, text and IM all of your friends, colleagues and family. You now get to force your new-found sophistication into their grubby, plebeian faces. Remember to tell them how single malt whisky is vastly superior to the blended swill they knock back and that real whisky connoisseurs would never think of adding anything to their dram. This way, when you actually learn a few things about whisky, you can look back fondly and marvel at what an insufferable prick you were.


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Good luck to you, pal.

Your friend,

Arse

Review: Um…forgettable

Aultmore 12 Foggie Moss – 46%

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Ever get the feeling that you’re not quite normal? That you’re not singing from the same page as everyone else? That you’re, well, odd? Welcome, dear friend, welcome; you’re my kind of person. Vanilla milkshakes, ready salted crisps, my mother-in-law; all things that, presumably, other people rave about, yet the point of them has passed me by completely. You can add Aultmore to that list too.

Despite having nosed, tongued and bluffed my way through 1000+ whiskies, a quick check of the list reveals I’ve tried precisely five expressions of Aultmore, all independent bottlings. Here’s the strange thing – I can remember precisely bugger all about any of them. They’re so firmly entrenched in my blind spot, they may as well not exist. They were neither good nor bad enough to implant echoes of themselves in this booze-soaked mess I call a brain and, in my book, there’s nothing worse than that.


Fun Facts*

  • The name Aultmore comes from the Scots Gaelic for ‘Big Burn’, the former MP for Dundee and holder of the Guinness world records for ‘Most F-bombs in a recorded political speech’ and ‘Loudest piss in the House of Commons’ (jointly held with Margaret Beckett).
  • Current owners, Dewar’s, have owned Aultmore once before, in the mid 1920s. Nobody told them though and it was two years before they realised and managed to get shot of it.
  • A goose bit me on the sternum once.

A little while back, as part of ‘The Last Great Malts of Scotland’ collection, Dewar’s released a bunch of OB single malts from such memorable distilleries as Craigellachie (nope), Royal Brackla (me neither) and Glen Deveron (think I went to school with his brother). Also released were three aged expressions of Aultmore – the 12, the 21 and the 25. All bottled at 46%, all unchill-filtered and all presented with natural colour.

The subject of today’s ramble is the entry level bottling, the 12yo. I can’t say I have particularly high hopes.


Nose: A sweetie. A riot of sugar-soaked orchard fruits – think caramel apple betty with a liberal dose of poached pear. Barley sugar and travel sweets follow but clear to reveal warm hay, breakfast biscuits and a gentle maltiness.

Palate: Great, medium-weight mouthfeel. Icing sugar dusted fruit jellies. Sweet and malty with some glimpses of grass and a light savoury note; I hesitate to use the word meaty but there’s a slight salted game element to the whole thing. Takes on a more vegetal slant nearing the finish.

Finish: Coats the mouth beautifully, allowing the finish to linger. Not especially spicy or woody but there’s a solid earthy note that reminds me of the Benromach 10 100 Proof, if not quite as vegetal.

Thoughts:  Good balance of sweet and savoury, although weighted in favour of the former. Can’t fault it for body – the benefits of a natural presentation, perhaps. I’ve seen this priced online anywhere between £35 and £55, excluding delivery, although you probably won’t want to stray too far north of 40.


score 83Sure, it won’t make you go weak at the knees but it’s a sizeable step up from the majority of entry-level Speyside bottlings and punches well above its weight. Affordable, available and, most importantly, just the right side of memorable.

Review: Old Faithful

Johnnie Walker Green Label – 43%

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Johnnie Walker’s a bit crap really, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, it’s mass-produced, highly-engineered, artificially-coloured bar fodder at one end and overpriced mass-produced, highly-engineered, artificially-coloured collection fodder at the other. Am I not just the coolest for thinking so?

In all honesty, I quite like the Johnnie Walker brand. Ok, the contemporary red and black label versions taste like arse, especially compared to their 70s/80s/90s counterparts, I’ll give you that. Yes, some of their higher-end stuff will abuse your wallet and you could argue that you’re paying for form over function. Still, I find myself being quite fond of the little stroller.

Like a lot of people, Johnnie Walker was my introduction into the world of whisky. The Green Label was the first dram I could ever properly stomach. Sure, it took me an hour to finish a tumbler and every sip burned my throat, but I persevered and grew to like it, even if I did find it very challenging. I quickly graduated to the 18yo Gold Label and loved it; this was before I’d even heard of Clynelish. The Blue Label followed and I remember thinking I was the bees knees for drinking it.

Skip forward a few years and I wouldn’t touch the stuff. I’d firmly jumped aboard the anti-Diageo bandwagon and if whisky wasn’t single-cask and unchillfiltered, it was mouthwash. A few years more and I stopped being such a cock and began to see the point of Johnnie Walker – you know what you’re getting with it. Sure, it’s not the best whisky out there and the quality has dropped massively of late but it’s drinkable and it’s everywhere.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when I heard that the previously discontinued 15yo Green Label was to be reintroduced to the UK market. Here was a chance to meet my old hero, albeit with a more battle-hardened palate.


Fun Facts*

  • Despite being geared around a ‘feature malt’, each Johnnie Walker blend is made from whatever Diageo find lurking in their warehouses. As a result, the Red Label has over the years contained Cardhu, Blair Athol, Irn-Bru, the nearside wing mirror of a 1978 Austin Princess and Iain McArthur.
  • The earth’s rotation about its axis is slowing by 1.7 milliseconds per century. Physicists theorise this is a direct result of Alexander Walker spinning in his grave.
  • Diageo owns so many warehouses that if you combined the amount of storage space, you could house 312 Titanics, 74 Great Pyramids or one Mortlach Brand Ambassador’s ego.

The Green Label is somewhat different to the standard range, as it contains no grain whisky. The key components are represented by four malts; Talisker, Caol Ila, Linkwood and Cragganmore, although there may well be more filler malts in the background. It is also bottled at a higher strength, weighing in at 43%.


Nose: Quite good, actually. Plenty of toffee and pecans to kick off with maple syrup not far behind. A fair amount of smoke following and a buttery haze coming off the glass. A drop of water sharpens the smoke a little, brings forth some orchard fruits and gentle peat makes an appearance.

Palate: Soft arrival but builds and builds until it buzzes the senses, bringing icing sugar, toffee and caramel. Sweet peat brings up the rear with butterscotch and a rising chilli-flake heat. Apple strudel nearing the finish and café crème.

Finish: Smoky and warm with soap and waxed wood. Medium in length but a little on the soft side apart from the dying embers of the chilli flakes. A little salt and then a godawful artificial sweetener note. Where the hell did that come from? The more you drink, the more it grows. Mother of God, why?

Thoughts:  This reminded me why I liked it the first time around. A little more challenging than the standard JW range, it has everything going for it apart from the end of the finish.


score 75Good, but flawed. Like a beautiful, romantic meal with the person of your dreams, only to have them fart loudly over the coffee and mints. Shame.

Review: Speyside Ashes

BenRiach Septendecim 17yo – 46%

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“Arse, you were a bit mean about Glenglassaugh on your last review. Was that really necessary?”

“You’re my wife. Why the hell are you calling me Ar…yeah, fair point.”

I’ll admit, I do harbour a bit of prejudice towards Glenglassaugh, and not just because it’s so bloody difficult to spell. It gave me the first whisky I ever actively disliked and its subsequent foray into the world of young, peated malt hit me square on my cynical bell with a big metal hammer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hardcore Islayphile; there are Speyside distilleries that do peat very well, which leads me nicely onto today’s dram.

BenRiach, according to their website, started producing peated whisky in 1972, to satisfy a need for a certain amount of it for blended whisky. In fact, BenRiach was geared towards blends until the mid-nineties when it finally released a 10yo single malt in very small quantities. Criminally underused by subsequent owners, it was given a new lease of life a decade later when purchased by the BenRiach Distillery Co. Praise followed, awards came later, yadda yadda yadda – it’s a veritable phoenix.

These days, the distillery pumps out some great unpeated whiskies, some great, slightly quirky, peated whiskies and some (frankly baffling) super-aged finished whiskies. The peated bottlings can be readily identified from sporting the kind of name that you’d hear being chanted in the background of an Enigma album.


Fun Facts*

  • BenRiach gets its water from the nearby Burnside Spring – so named after Billy Walker’s favourite character from ITV’s “The Bill”.
  • The BenRiach Distillery Co. also owns Glendronach and Glenglassaugh. This is in keeping with the SWA’s “Two great, one average” purchasing rule. (Not to be confused with the previous, pre-1983 “One average, two shite” rule – see Whyte & Mackay)
  • No-one really knows how many bottlings make up the BenRiach core range. In 2013, James Hughes from Falkirk attempted to find out by trying them all over the course of a week, but sadly succumbed to liver failure on the Tuesday morning.

The 17yo Septendecim (Latin for ‘Punch him on the nose’) is a peated offering that has somehow swerved the finishes that pepper the range, instead spending its full maturation time in ex-bourbon casks. It is reassuringly light in colour, suggesting the absence of E150a and is presented without chill-filtration.


(Tasted blind)

Nose: Peat and citrus, citrus and peat. Bit more peat, a bit more citrus. It’s all a bit one-dimensional to begin wi…ah! Here we go! Waves of floral notes follow with a sweet, heady cherry bakewell aroma. Patience is the key here. This nose is quite lovely.

Palate: Citrus up first, unsurprisingly. Beautiful grapefruit notes, mixed in with the peat and then some smoke. It lacks the thick sweetness that the nose finally delivers but it does start to get a little more fruity nearing the finish.

Finish: Lingering smoke, with some fleeting woody notes. Cherries at the death and a pleasing waxy flash.

Thoughts: This is quite a nice drop. It’s not hugely balanced, neither is it especially complex but it does the basics very well. It’s more Ardmore than Ardbeg, so don’t expect the Devil’s soul in a glass but I like it. Solid.


Score 78Naturally presented, under fifty quid, tasty. ’nuff said.