We begin this tale in August: whatever your hopes, dreams and goals were when the clock struck midnight on the 1st of January 2020, none of us could have predicted the dystopian reality that it has become. You would be forgiven for thinking that we are all trapped in a Charlie Brooker show, a nightmarish concoction of Weekly Wipe and Black Mirror. While I cannot foresee when we might return to pre-COVID-19 normality, or whether we ever will for that matter, we are nothing if not adaptable creatures, and it feels as though a new normal is beginning to assert itself. Things are picking up and looking up, and it is great to be busy again with purpose and goals ahead once more. I cannot say that I will miss much of what a listless lockdown had to offer, although breakfast whiskies were an unexpected bonus.
Initially, the virtual tastings organised by the London Whisky Club were a very welcome distraction, opportunities to maintain a geeky connection to this liquid we are all so passionate about, while in the company of familiar faces and voices. I am very grateful to the club for the incredible levels of organisation involved in these events. The hours sacrificed by members decanting and packaging, and the fingertips blistered from screwing on thousands of tiny metal bottle tops were all worth it. I relished the chance to cling to some sense of normality, however different the experience, so thank you all.
My early enthusiasm has sadly waned, and I have not joined one of the virtual tastings since the fantastic Douglas Laing event in June. Despite all the incredible positives that this format has to offer, it is missing the one crucial ingredient that makes the club what it is, for me in any case, and that is human interaction. For all the entertainment from eccentric industry figures, and the ease of having a pack delivered practically to your sofa, virtual tastings are a pretty one-sided affair. It is sip and listen, and perhaps ask a question at some point if you have one. I miss the anticipation of the workday ending and rushing over to the meeting place. I miss all the conversation before, during and after the tasting. I miss the sample swapping. I miss looking forward to the next meeting. As most members will agree, the actual programmed whisky tasting itself is never really the highlight of an evening, it is the sharing of whiskies and conversation with like-minded people, who also very quickly become friends. Staring at Zoom does not quite cut it.
That was written an age ago, or what feels like an age ago now. It was the tail end of Summer, strict lockdown measures were over, and I was invited to attend a casual BBQ with a few other club members (following all the rules at the time I assure you!). We have since been through some sort of nonsensical tiering system, through another lockdown, and back into said tiering system, but this time at DEFCON 3. You can almost hear BoJo grimacing, as he regrets making us those Christmas mingling promises that he knows he should probably be cancelling, but cannot. I spoke too soon! As of today, we are back into lockdown, although it is being called Tier 4 instead. What was that on the Nando’s scale again?
I am very grateful that I have only become busier and busier (hence why it has taken me so long to get around to finishing this piece, and incidentally I am very jealous of the heady optimism I clearly had at the time), and so there has been no risk of slipping back into listless lockdown blues, although I have been missing the occasional breakfast whisky. Unfortunately, in-person club meetings are not much closer to materialising, and there is still no sign of a return to my early enthusiasm for the virtual format. Rather fittingly, however, by the time this piece comes out, we will be into a new year. With fresh hope, and vaccine rollouts gaining momentum, there must surely be light at the end of the tunnel. For now, however, I am thinking back wistfully to that fantastic barbecue and the incredible drams that were brought and shared. There were far too many to enjoy and savour in one sitting, and at the end of the evening, I was sent home with three of the ones I had not yet tasted, provided that I promise to review them.
So, let me take you back with me. Imagine yourselves with us now on a late summer evening as the dust settles, reclining, bellies full. Just a slight chill in the air. Candles are lit and flickering, the light dancing off all the bottles. Conversation and drams are flowing. Cigar? There is one going if you would like. Let me pour you another dram…
Springbank Cage 8 year old – review
Cage bottle, fresh sherry hogshead, bottled at 58% strength.
Colour: Deep copper.
On the nose: Mouthwatering. Immediate industrial funk, motor oil and flint. Dates, figs and plump raisins. Buttery fudge. Leather. Chocolate. Orange oil and a hint of spearmint. With water, funky peat and diesel engine. The orange is more prominent. The fudge is now cinder toffee and the spearmint is a more potent peppermint.
In the mouth: Thick and viscous. Juicy sherried fruits, mixed peel and caramel. Leather, cocoa powder and the cleansing tang of orange zest to prepare your palate for the next sip. The peat is a gentle background funk, with a touch of tangy umami coming through towards the end. More chocolate orange in the finish. Much peatier with water, and the citrus now has lemon and lime thrown into the mix. I think I prefer this without on the palate.
Springbank 8 year old – review
Bottled from fresh sherry casks for the 2019 Campbeltown festival, bottled at 56.8% strength.
Colour: Beef stock.
On the nose: Unquestionably the same industrial funk, almost rubbery, in fact, yes definitely a bit rubbery, taking me back to school with graphite pencils and Stabilo rubbers. A little more obvious peat in this one. Well singed Christmas pudding. BBQ sauce wafts in and out. Sticky toffee pudding with plenty of extra toffee sauce. Bitter orange coming through with a heady Christmas spice mix. Water conjures up an exotic spice market, with some more savoury spices like cumin, actual beef stock now, and the inside of an empty cigar box.
In the mouth: Possibly even more luxurious a mouthfeel. Cinder toffee and loads of flambéed dried fruits. A burst of peat and bitter orange peel with the pith. Caramel sauce, Werther’s originals and pencil shavings. Deep heavy oak in the finish with some returning funk, a bit rhum agricole-like now. With water more orange, but also fizzy lemon sherbet and fizzy cherry cola bottles. Spent campfire in the finish.
Cadenhead’s Ord 11 year old – review
Casked in 2008, transferred into a fresh oloroso hogshead in November 2018, and bottled in August 2020 at 54.1% strength.
On the nose: It’s YUUUUGE! Great nose, great great sherry nose, probably maybe definitely one of the greatest sherried noses we’ve had. I am unsure why Trump has emerged here (he is finally walking the gangplank soon!), but this is an utterly ridiculous, completely over the top caricature of a sherried whisky. If America did whisky, wink wink (no offence intended), this would probably be the result. It has thick sticky date syrup, pan de higo (pressed fig cake), floral honey, gooey caramel, cherry cough syrup, Ribena. Vanilla and black cherry pipe tobacco. Then I am huffing wood varnish in an earthy damp larder. Right in the back, there is a classic Sunday roast gravy; redcurrant jelly, red wine and meat juice reduction. Juniper berries, pine needles and beeswax provide additional delights. Just a touch of five spice, clove and sandalwood in the background to round things off. Muted and much less going on with water, a little cigar box in the background.
In the mouth: This is as mad on the palate as on the nose. Fat, oh so fat. All manner of wood varnishes and waxes. Raisins soaked in dark rum and then burnt to a crisp. Homemade and slightly bitter thick-cut orange marmalade. That last bit of crystallised dark Manuka honey in the jar. Plump Medjool dates and pan de higo. Earthy herbs like thyme and tarragon. Char siu pork, yes, please! The finish has beeswax and pine resin, with sandalwood and oaky drying tannins. Red wine gravy. Cask char and a faint whiff of smoke. It just keeps going, on and on and on. Completely bonkers. Magical. Do NOT add water, the whole thing crumbles, like Trump’s legal challenges.
I love Springbank. Who doesn’t? It is the mark of a great distillery when the less successful releases are still far and away beyond the average we see elsewhere. Their core ‘entry’ bottles are also anything but; the 15yr won a recent blind tasting hands down amongst some stiff competition, and it was my first ever taste of the 15 in fact. The end result is either great, or fantastic. These two releases clearly fall into the latter camp. For added geeky points I enjoyed the fact that they are both the same age, sherry casks, very similar ABVs, and the only real difference is that one is a single cask and the other a vatting. There is not much to separate them, the open day bottle perhaps louder and brasher, the cage bottle slightly more subtle and refined, requiring a touch more patience to tease out its secrets. On the flip side, water seemed to add to the open day bottle, while the cage bottle lost a little something, a zesty moreish umami that was quite hard to pin down in words. One of each please, depending on my mood!
The Ord, where to begin with the ridiculous Ord? As I mentioned also in my contribution to the end of year review, if there is anything that 2020 has defined for me in whisky terms, it is my preferences when it comes to sherried whiskies. The mega Adelphi line up in May was the pivotal moment. Sherried whiskies have taken on a whole new meaning these days. Whereas previously, something like an Aberlour A’Bunadh might have been the go-to dried fruit extravaganza of a sherry bomb, it pales in comparison to some of the current releases. I am not the only one to have mused on these pages whether colour and sales are really the driving forces behind the current breed of sherried whiskies. Fast forward to August, and I remember seeing this released, and thinking to myself that it was one to avoid, looking beyond over sherried, an aggressive sherry finish in fact, and what in the world was that hiding? How wrong I was! This sample blew me away. Sometimes a whisky just clicks, and this is one of those whiskies.
Hands down my dram of the year, delivering flavour after flavour, with a sublime texture to boot. I am in the unfortunate position of being both extremely grateful and deeply frustrated at having had the opportunity to taste it, as I cannot hope to own one (the secondary prices are as ridiculous as the whisky itself), and yet without tasting it I might have continued to believe in the sherry fallacy that I had created for myself. That is part of the fun in whisky, a potential surprise awaits around every corner. A lesson well learnt; I think. As my luck would have it, a fellow club member kindly offered to sample swap their remaining bottle contents with me, so I now have about 200ml more of pure, unadulterated liquid madness to chortle into, whilst remembering that late August evening, spent with friends, an oasis in the most bizarre year of my lifetime.
Photographs courtesy of @poshscotch.