Review: Kin, ken?

Chivas Regal 12 – 40%

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As the old adage goes, ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’. The unholy trinity of Charles Manson, David Koresh and Madonna aside, there’s an element of truth to this.

As we approach the end of January, we have reached the stage where the Stumbler family Christmas gathering is nothing more than one of a series of repressed memories, manifesting themselves as the stomach ulcer that will one day kill me.

The great aunt who insists on kissing you on the lips, despite a level of facial hair rarely seen outside a Shoreditch coffee shop or an episode of Game of Thrones. The cousin who spent her late teens/early twenties coked off her tits and banging like a old shed door in a high wind, now taking every opportunity to preach the word of God. Granddad, who for some reason uses every family gathering as an opportunity to teach the kids how to throw ninja stars despite, to my knowledge, having never owned a set in his life. It’s no wonder I drink like I do.

Yet, despite myself, I look back on these ordeals somewhat wistfully. I mean sure, I’d cross the street to avoid a one-on-one meeting with most of the Stumbler tribe but together there’s an element of harmony that comes from within the unpleasant bitterness, the resignation and the sheer fucking chaos. This brings me nicely on to Chivas Regal.

I have nothing but respect for Pernod Ricard. This is a company that has to live with the daily humiliation of owning both Tormore and Allt a’Bhainne and yet not only does it hold its own in the sub-£30 blend stakes, it has the audacity to punt out ultra premium versions that actually sell quite well. Fair play.


Fun Facts*

  • All but one of Pernod Ricard’s active malt whisky distilleries are to be found in Speyside, which is a bit fucking pointless, yeah?
  • The term ‘Royal Salute’ is actually an old Scottish euphemism for fingering, as in “A gae her the auld Royal Salute roond the back ae the Co-op”.
  • Strathisla distillery is famous for having two ‘pagodas’, which allows it to not dry twice as much malted barley as most other distilleries.

Chivas Regal 12 is massively chill-filtered, probably contains an arseload of caramel and is bottled at 40%.

Nose: Polished wood, fennel fronds and vanilla custard. Moves on to toffee with some pleasing grassiness underneath. Really quite good.

Palate: Toffee sauce, brown sugar and dried banana pieces. A moment of slightly funky, cheap sticky toffee pudding and then it falls apart with a chemical bitterness.

Finish: The Achilles heel, I’m afraid. A little warmth, a little wood, a little boring.

Thoughts: Hugely drinkable and a decent price for what it is. The nose makes a few promises that the palate can’t live up to but it does the job.


Score C

A little too much weird step-uncle and not enough fit second-cousin but, like most families, more than the sum of its parts.

 

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Review: Losing Touch

Bladnoch Adela – 46.7%

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At the risk of coming across as arrogant (what’s new?), it’s great being The Arse. Being an alter-ego certainly has its benefits, but being an alter-ego of an alter-ego is really something else.

Most online personae are at least grounded in reality through association, whereas being a step removed from all that really allows the imagination to soar. My own remote castle in the Scottish Highlands? Hah! Just built one. Fleet of fancy cars? Take a left at the giant moat and you’ll find them parked in alphabetical order. Packet of crisps? Bacon Frazzles. Pure fucking rockstar. I’m like Hannah Montana without the STDs.

You may ask, therefore, why I’m nose-deep in a glass of modern Bladnoch instead of plunging my head into a Methuselah of pre-war Glen Grant. Well, like me, Bladnoch has had its own identity crisis of late, straying from the realm of basic, almost rustic bottlings and reinventing itself as a castle-dwelling, Bentley driving, corn-based snack-eating showoff. We can, quite literally, smell our own.

In addition to being a kindred spirit (pun very much intended) I’ve a begrudging soft spot for Bladnoch, well, the Bladnoch of old, at least. I’m hoping that the recent investment will bring a consistent level of quality for generations to come. A look at the new, polished website, however, doesn’t fill me with confidence.

The Adela is the mid-price offering of Bladnoch’s 2017 releases, is matured for a minimum of 15 years in a mixture of American and Spanish oak Oloroso butts, and is presented in the kind of wanky bottle that makes me want to kick a puppy.


Fun Facts*

  • The name Adela comes from the Old High German for ‘noble’, which has absolutely fuck all to do with this whisky and is pure marketing arse-gravy.
  • Bladnoch’s owner built up a packaging firm from scratch and then sold it to a huge company for a profit. He then built up a yoghurt firm from scratch and then sold it to a huge company for a profit. He then bought Bladnoch. What? I never said anything.
  • Despite my earlier statement, no animals were harmed in the process of writing this review, apart from one grey squirrel and he was being a proper dick.

Bladnoch Adela is presented without artificial colouring, has not been chill-filtered and is bottled at 46.7%

Nose: Black cherries and Muscovado sugar, gentle black treacle and a touch of aniseed. Give it a while and the floral and grassy notes I’d associate with Lowlanders make an appearance. A little more time brings whole peppercorns, molasses and yeast extract. Hate to say it, this is really rather good.

Palate: Oh dear. Grass and cereal but thin and flat. Peppered cardboard and bitter lemon pith. Latterly cherries and assorted vine fruits but that cardboard never really goes away.

Finish: Medium in length and drying. Some floral elements. It’s pleasant enough, but the returning cardboard keeps it from truly impressing.

Thoughts: If the rest of the experience lived up to the nose, I’d be raving about this, even at £95 a bottle. As things stand though, disappointing.


Score C

Should have been a signal of intent and no amount of creative wankery is going to hide its flaws. Bladnoch, you used to be great. You can still be great. Do better.

Review: Hiding in Plain Sight

Dalwhinnie 25yo 1987 – 52.1%

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God, I love Dalwhinnie. It’s not the cheapest whisky out there, nor is it the flashiest. It doesn’t come draped in jewel-encrusted, oak boxes and it doesn’t come soiled by marketing flannel. It’s not even massively high quality, if I’m honest. It just sits there on the A9 and gets on with the business of making solid whisky and looking after visitors. Consistency; that’s the key, old chums, consistency. What? Winter’s Gold? Never fucking heard of it. Shut up.

If you’ve ever made the wonderful journey up to Inverness, there’s a good chance you’ve been past the Dalwhinnie distillery. Surrounded by flora-rich Highland terrain and colder than a witch’s tit, there are few sights that bring more of a glow to this icy, shrivelled walnut I call a heart.

Like a good number of Diageo distilleries, Dalwhinnie produces very little in the way of regular official bottlings. You’ll get their 15 year old (found everywhere), the oloroso-finished Distillers Edition (found mostly online) and, apparently, Winter’s Gold (found mostly in bins).

Every so often, the professional piss-takers at Diageo will throw out an older version as part of their yearly Special Releases to appeal to a small number of hardcore fans, although you’ll need to be willing to part with a fair chunk of your hard-earned to get your hands on a bottle. That cunning combination of limited demand and questionable pricing is why, more than five years after release, you can easily get your hands on a bottle of today’s dram.


Fun Facts*

  • Despite its rugged surroundings, Dalwhinnie’s proximity to a major trunk road means you’re far less likely to be sexually harassed by a farmer.
  • Despite its rugged surroundings, Dalwhinnie’s proximity to a major trunk road means you’re far more likely to be murdered by a truck driver.
  • Winter’s Gold was a vicious rumour started by a panicked brand ambassador in an attempt to make Mortlach appear less shit.

Nose: Big old whiff of heather honey, followed by malted milk biscuits, marzipan and a hint of allspice. Beeswax and a hint of snuffed candles as it opens up.

Palate: That wax from the nose is more evident, but the heather honey is the dominant force here. A decent amount of oak, flashes of cinnamon, some more honey and a good dose of roasted chestnuts.

Finish: Gentle but prolonged. Honeyed with spiced rice pudding and more of that gentle oak.

Thoughts: A real dark horse, but not for everyone. Hardcore Dalwhinnie fans (all eight of us) will really love this.


score BThe best Dalwhinnie I’ve ever tried. As much as it pains me, it’s got to lose a bit of ground because of the high price and niche appeal, but this is within touching distance of greatness.

Review: With Your Glass Or In It

Springbank 10 – 46%

Springbank 10

*Lifts dust sheet*

*Says a prayer and fires up PC*

*Taps microphone*

Mother of God, this still works.

How’s it going, old chums? Been a while, eh? What have you been up to? Did that rash ever clear up? Champion.

Fair play, it has been well over a year since I put finger to keyboard with any level of intent. I’d like to be able to sit here and say that it’s been the result of some life-altering event or cataclysmic psychological meltdown, but the truth is I just got bored.

It is surprising, therefore, that I find myself suffused with newfound enthusiasm, nosing glass in hand, ready once more to foist my baseless scribblings upon you. Poor bugger.

Surprising because, in point of fact, I am no less frustrated with the world of whisky, no less saddened by the transparent fawning of bought-off reviewers and no less vitriolic at the sight of the latest ‘must-have’ turning up at auction within a month of release. Yet, lo! Here I am. Call it Christmas spirit, call it nostalgia – whatever you put it down to, you’ll have more of an idea than me. Anyhoo, the whisky. Springbank, yeah? Why not?

I have to admit, I was a late bloomer when it comes to Campbeltown. While the other, bigger, more developed drinkers were strutting around the whisky showers, proudly showing off their Longrows, I was huddled in the far corner, towel around my waist, covering my Littlemill. I found Campbeltown whisky to be challenging, unsettling and quite Spartan in nature. A little perseverance, however, eventually opened the door to some wonderful experiences, although I’d be lying if I said it was all plain sailing.

Even now I find I have to build up to drams from ‘The Wee Toon’ and can honestly say I find whisky under the Springbank label the most challenging of all. Despite this, I maintain that Campbeltown is consistently putting out some of the best whisky in Scotland today and is well worth a look (and a visit).


Fun Facts*

  • Springbank bottlings are the Springbank distillery’s medium-peated offering, apart from when they throw Longrow in there just to fuck with you.
  • Getting to Springbank is relatively easy without a car; one plane, three coaches, a series of arm-wrestles and a staring contest just outside the town limits.
  • Campbeltown is the westernmost town on the island of Great Britain. Mallaig tried to challenge this claim in 1985 but the whole delegation withdrew after two Campbeltonians rocked up in a dinghy and whipped the piss out of them.

Springbank 10 is presented without artificial colouring, has not been chill-filtered and is bottled at 46%.

Nose: In a word, fresh. Pine oil, lemon rind, earthy peat (as opposed to oily), flint. It’s all very stripped back and hard. A bit of time to develop gives subtle buttery notes and some vanilla custard to round off the austerity.

Palate: Lemon, salt, peat, rainwater, white pepper. Sounds horrific to some people but it works very well, if a little challenging. Gentle oak and a subtle, creamy sweetness follow before things get too strict.

Finish: Long, stern and slightly bitter – like a snake deputy headteacher passed over for promotion. As you make your way through the glass, the finish gets spicier.

Thoughts: Good mouthfeel, well constructed, layered – there’s real quality here. It’s not too hard on the wallet either ; you can currently get this for around £40, putting it into Ardbeg 10 territory, as far as entry-level bottlings go.


score BThis is the whisky equivalent of taking a cold shower with wire wool; does the job wonderfully but it’ll take a fair bit of getting used to for some. Glen Scotia may offer an easier introduction to the region, but this really is the way to go, in my opinion.

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 C

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