“What did early Protestant reformers ever do for me?” is a question I’m hardly ever asked.
However, should it come up my answer would be, “loads.” Without the revolutionary spirit and burning zeal of a few bearded old blokes, the world would be bereft of so many wonderous things: the printing press, cuckoo clocks, milk chocolate, and divorce, to name but a few. A tragedy, I think we can all agree.
We would also be without arguably the best December-related thing: Advent Calendars. Invented by 19th-century German Protestant types, piously marking December days in chalk on wooden blocks, the humble Advent Calendar is now a firm part of festive furniture, as December as Dickens or decorating a tree.
From the simple marking of December days in chalk to the elaborate marketing of December days by chocolate brands, it’s fair to say that the rituals and traditions of Advent have shifted somewhat over time. Is there a single artefact that better represents the evolution of Western priorities and organising principles over the past 200 years? Almost certainly, but an Advent Calendar would make a passable stand-in if needed.
But enough of that. Leave any gripes about the vacuousness of late capitalism at the calendar door. This isn’t a lament on the state of the modern Western world. I’d take chocolate over chalk every day of the December week.
But, what could top an Advent Calendar loaded with chocolate? One that gets you loaded on whisky. That’s what. Luckily – courtesy of fine folks at Master of Malt – I have just the thing. Move over Mars, The World Whisky Advent Calendar 2023 is the December upgrade every self-respecting whisky-lover needs in their life.
Rather than drink and attempt to review all 24 of the 30ml drams – which was initially the plan – I decided to select two significant December dates to focus on instead. In homage to the plucky German Protestants who gave the world the Advent Calendar, I have selected two dates indelibly marked by historical events made possible by the inventions of other early Protestant disrupters; namely Henry VIII and the OG, Martin Luther.
No divorce please, we’re British
On the 11th of December 1936, Edward VIII abdicated the throne of the United Kingdom. Whilst his numbersake forebear Henry had done some solid early groundwork on the divorce front, the stuffy old monarchy wasn’t ready for Teddy to make twice-divorced Wallis Simpson his queen. Whilst not exactly the outcome Henry envisaged for his descendants, it worked out quite well for Britain – as Edward turned out to be somewhat of a Nazi collaborator – and it also gives me a calendar window to open and a whisky to drink.
The whisky behind window 11: Samuel Gulliver & Co. England’s No. 6
This is the beauty of the Advent Calendar. It’s a whisky and a distillery I’m not familiar with and would not otherwise have tried. Distilled at The English Distillery – and bottled exclusively by Samuel Gulliver & Co. – England’s No.6 is the official whisky of England Rugby, which is impressively timely.
Made with Concerto two-row barley grown in Norfolk, this unpeated whisky has spent 6 years in ex-rum casks. The name is a nod to both its age and the famous (apparently) players to have worn the number 6 on their jerseys. I would imagine driven largely by the former, with a bit of reverse-engineered marketing tying it all together.
I have mixed views on what you might call experimental casks. The whiff of marketing gimmickry means I don’t tend to go in for them that often. However, given that I very much enjoyed the Rioja-finished Ledaig Sinclair Series release and the Bas Armagnac-finished Craigellache 13, this arbitrary opinion should be taken with a massive pinch of salt. I’m nothing if not a hypocrite. Time to find out if my ill-conceived snobbery is to be dealt another blow.
Samuel Gulliver & Co. England’s No. 6 – Review
46% ABV. £69 from Master of Malt .
Colour: White wine.
On the nose: A freshly baked pineapple sponge cake with toasted almonds on top. The almond notes grow in stature and there’s a pronounced wave of marzipan paste. The topical fruit notes become more sugary – like boiled sweets – and fresh pine honey rises from the bottom to the top. Solid stuff.
In the mouth: The pineapple persists and is joined by coconut and salted caramel. It’s thick and creamy, clinging to the mouth like sticky toffee sauce. The marzipan/almond flavours are still there, fino sherry-esque, lurking in the background and there’s a very well-balanced salt and pepper finish.
A solid whisky I would happily drink more of. The pronounced fruit and nut characteristics are perfectly balanced and the Cambeltown-esque saltiness adds an interesting layer of complexity. It turns out that I’m also a fan of rum cask maturation.
Hot off the press
Whilst Martin Luther didn’t invent the printing press, he did use Gutenburg’s gift to the world to great effect. The proto-Protestant reformer, Luther’s “95 Theses” – published in 1517 – was a sliding doors moment in the life of the Advent Calendar, amongst other things. Buoyed by the success of his opening gambit, he followed up with a translation of the New Testament into German, which sold 5,000 copies in just two weeks, making him the world’s first best-selling author.
Fast forward to 1843. It’s the 19th of December and Charles Dickens’ classic work, A Christmas Carol, has just gone to print. By the 24th of December, the first edition of 6,000 copies will have sold out. The crown of “world’s best-selling author” sits atop Charlie’s head and there’s a rival Christmas story in town. “God bless us, every one!”
The whisky behind window 19: Starward Nova
Another whisky fully matured in non-traditional casks, the Starward Nova spends its life in ex-red wine barrels; Aussie shiraz, cabernets and pinot noirs to be exact. As mentioned, I really liked the Ledaig finished in red wine casks so, in theory, I will love this.
Interesting to note that Starward leave their barrels wet with wine as they fill them. The resulting whisky is clearly wine-tinged and looks delicious as a result.
Starward Nova – Review
41% ABV. £44.95 at Master of Malt
Colour: Reddish brown.
On the nose: A bit shy to start. Varnish and stewed fruits mixed with cloves start to emerge after a bit of swilling. Things liven up with a bit of time in the glass; dark berries, brandy butter, caramel and Ovaltine jostle for position without overpowering each other.
In the mouth: A slightly unexpected turn towards walnuts and toffee apples. It tastes a bit like burnt crumble topping, with a hint of cinnamon mixed in with the cooked fruits beneath, but It’s all over too quickly and feels a bit weak and underpowered. A shame, as it smells great on the nose and there are clearly some interesting flavours to be found in here somewhere.
By no means bad, but pretty average. I’d be interested to try a longer-aged expression bottled at a higher ABV.
So there we have it. Two whiskies I haven’t tried before and wouldn’t have otherwise gone for. I’m looking forward to December to find out what else is hiding behind these little windows of joy each morning.
Lead image author’s own; bottle photos courtesy of Master of Malt, which also provided the Advent Calendar (noted here in the spirit of full transparency).