BLOG: Scapa Skirren -Vs- Highland Park 12

– written by Andy

This pair of Orcadian whiskies almost deserve a geographic classification in their own right, nestled beneath Kirkwall on Orkney’s main island, 40 miles north of John O’Groats. Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland and receives consistent high praise for its all round character.  Just half a mile south lies Scapa, with its two stills and network of pipelines to keep its water free of peaty influence in pursuit of their unique honeyed flavour.

IMG_4671

Orkney is not a place where much changes in a hurry. In 1801, three years after a distillery was founded at the site where a notorious smuggler once lived in the “High Park”, Orkney’s population in the census return that year was within a mere few hundred people of the population returned in 2011. However, one thing that has changed in a whisky sense is the ready and affordable availability of Highland Park and Scapa expressions, once upon a time about as rare as an Orcadian traffic jam.

In this review, I will be comparing Scapa Skirren, a NAS expression added to the range in 2015 and the famous (no Grouse pun intended…) Highland Park 12 adorned in its new “Viking Honour” packaging, in celebration of the Norse history associated with the islands.

 

Scapa Skirren – c.£40

First up, I will avoid the ongoing lament that this recent Skirren bottling is no match for Scapa 16 on account of the fact that a. it’s not trying to be and b. despite some searching on my part for the 16, I haven’t managed to find a dram of the bloody stuff yet so we’ll have to leave it there. Finished in first fill American oak casks, Scapa Skirren is also produced in one of the only two Lomond stills currently in operation, alongside Bruichladdich since 2010.

Nose: Sweet and creamy. Fruit Salad sweets and apple juice

Palate: A little slow to fire then citrus and oak join the sweeter fruit notes

Finish: Could perhaps be accused of leaving quietly before the party has really gotten going. The oak lingers though.

OVERALL: Roughly as good as you’d expect for the price range. It has character and a unique flavour.

Dram-a-long song: Brian Eno – The Big Ship

Both produce unique, sweet tones. You get the sense that this whisky, like Eno, isn’t trying to please the masses but just following its nose in pursuit of “that sound”.

Highland Park 12 Viking Honour – c.£32

It could have been curtains before bedtime for this whisky as far back as the 1860s when the distillery was briefly owned by a local Priest who contemplated halting production, filled with religious concerns over making the wrong kind of holy spirit. Luckily, new owners in 1876 stepped up production without any undue fear for their mortal souls and today Highland Park now outsells Islay big-hitter Lagavulin. I’m not particularly won over by all this Norse myth-waving stuff but the new bottle design is very nice.

Nose: Peat and heather and the wild north breeze fly up your nostrils

Palate: So well rounded. Just about every whisky attribute you can imagine in good measure. The guys at Highland Park seem to have mistaken a tasting wheel for a checklist.

Finish: While some of complexity fades off, the sweetness and spice stick around for the handshakes. A little menthol creeps in too.

OVERALL: Splendid stuff. Not a superstar, perhaps, but a solid grafter that fully deserves its reputation.

Dram-a-long song: James Brown – The Boss

The hardest working man in showbusiness for the hardest working dram in the whisky business.

Verdict: I like the Scapa, it’s a unique and tasty malt but the Highland Park edges it for complexity and flavour.  Furthermore, Highland Park’s popularity and availability often sees it sail of the shelves in supermarkets and online stores for little more than the price of a cheap blend so you can’t really go wrong with this one.

What do you think? Is the Scapa more of a scrapper than I give it credit for? Is Highland Park the best value Scotch malt out there or do you know of something better? Get in touch on Twitter and let us know. Don’t forget to download our podcasts on whatever device and platform you use and look out for some exciting new features in Series 3 – coming soon!

BLOG: A very Japanese Christmas…

Cobbled together by Stu

I was lucky enough to be treated by my lovely* wife to one of the drinks by the dram advent calendars in the run up to Christmas 2016… and even luckier that it was the Japanese version, giving me a great opportunity to try a lot of drams from an whisky producing area I was becoming more and more interested (and obsessed!) by.

*The adjective is used purely in the hope of this treat being repeated later this year. Just don’t tell her I said that…

As I tried each dram I took some very quick notes which I have reproduced below. I apologise they are not the most detailed but hopefully they will give you a flavour of what the dram offers if you were interested to try more.

I have also given a score out of 10 (and ordered them highest to lowest) to give some context of how much I liked it. These scores are purely subjective and are based on nothing other than my enjoyment of the dram on that particular day. As I’m sure you know, how much you enjoy a dram can vary widely from day to day depending on a number of factors, so this may have affected my enjoyment in some cases.

I was particularly taken with the Akashi 5 year sherried single cask dram. So much so I have since bought a bottle (still unopened)! If you can get your hands on one I highly recommend it, but they are not cheap and they are pretty hard to get hold of! You have been warned.

You’ll notice there are a few of dates missing. This if for a couple of reasons:

  • I already owned a bottle of a couple of the drams, Nikka from the Barrel (roughly a 9/10 on scale below), and Nikka Pure Malt Black (probably 8/10), both of which are review in depth on the Japanese episode of our podcast which you can find here… a must for any Japanese Whisky fan!
  • I also was lucky enough to try a Hibiki Suntory 17yr (roughly 9/10 on scale below) as part of this calendar – a dram I’d been keen to try for ages. Instead of included my brief thoughts here, I have a more detailed notes on that one here, along with the Hibiki 21 yr (this would be a 10/10!) that I managed to get hold of.

 

23rd Dec – Akashi 5 year single malt (abv 50%)

  • Nose: buttered toffee, chocolate, some cinnamon, almond/pistachio, sherry
  • Palate: Rich, cherry, sherry
  • Finish: Medium, warm, sweet

So rich and enjoyable! Nose to die for.

8.5/10

10th Dec – Nikka blended

  • Nose: Apple, toffee, cinnamon
  • Palate: musty wood, warm spice, honeyed apples
  • Finish: sweet, long

Good value dram – looking at the price

8/10

11th Dec – Hakushu Distiller’s reserve 

  • Nose: sharp, citrus, honey, aniseed, melon
  • Palate: honey and apples, melon
  • Finish: subtle smoke, warming oak, long , honey

8/10

4th Dec – Togouchi Kiwami

  • Nose: rich butter, Christmas cake
  • Palate: smooth, Apple, nutty
  • Finish: cherries, sweet cinnamon, almonds, praline

Nose and Finish far superior to Palate!
8/10

9th Dec – Tagouchi 18 year

  • Nose: Honey, slight citrus, syrup
  • Palate: peat & honey, blackberries
  • Finish: smoke & wood

7.5/10

1st Dec – Nikka 12 yr blend

  • Nose: warm and musty, toffee, rich, oak, nutmeg, butter
  • Palate: oaky and rich, slight orange
  • Finish: warm and medium, bit of spice

7.5/10

17th Dec – Yamazaki 12 year

  • Nose: sweet, honey, caramel, hint of honeycomb, apple, nutty
  • Palate: floral, smooth, thick, butter, fruity sharpness
  • Finish: sweet, butter, medium

7/10

21st Dec – Yoichi single malt

  • Nose: sugary apples, werthers originals, candy floss
  • Palate: sweet peat
  • Finish: subtle earthiness

7/10

24th Dec – Taketsuru 17 year Blend

  • Nose: apricots, toffee, citrus, honey
  • Palate: thick, smooth, oak toffee and nuts
  • Finish: medium, nutty, oaky

7/10

14th Dec – Miyagikyo single malt

  • Nose: chocolate, honey, orange, flowery, blackcurrents
  • Palate: rich, thick oil, almond, black pepper, spice
  • Finish: toffee, chocolate, warming, medium

7/10

6th Dec – Nikka pure malt White

  • Nose: light, fruity, cinnamon, blackcurrant
  • Palate: oak, sharp & smokey
  • Finish: loooong smoke

6.5/10

18th Dec – Mars Maltage Cosmo

  • Nose: light, apple juice, vanilla, butter
  • Palate: sweet, light, smooth, orange
  • Finish: buttery, fruits linger, cherries

6.5/10

2nd Dec – Hibiki Harmony

  • Nose: sweet toffee and butter. Some citrus
  • Palate: light and sweet, slight spice
  • Finish: short and woody

6.5/10

22nd Dec – Special Nikka revival limited edition

  • Nose: smooth rich toffee, caramel, some sharp citrus
  • Palate: warm, musty wood. Hints of peat, orange
  • Finish: sweeter notes, vanilla and slight smoke

6.5/10

20th Dec – Nikka Coffey Malt

  • Nose: sweet, chocolate orange, marzipan
  • Palate: dryer than the nose, citrus, paint, red wine, raisins
  • Finish: subtle and biscuity

Palate lets down an interesting nose. Was really looking forward to this but not as good as expected. Perhaps the score reflects my disappointment!
6/10

5th Dec – nikka taketsura pure malt

  • Nose- fruity, citrus, toffee, butter
  • Palate – dry, bitter, smoke
  • Finish – warm, leathery

Palate v different (and a bit of a let down) after impressive nose.
6/10

16th Dec – Togouchi premium blended

  • Nose: butter, flowery, herby
  • Palate: chocolate orange, smooth butter, corn, herbs
  • Finish: medium and sharp

6/10

15th Dec – Okayama single malt

  • Nose: apple, stewed plums, sharpness
  • Palate: marzipan, caramel, pepper, biscuits
  • Finish: red wine

6/10

3rd Dec- Akashi White Oak blended

  • Nose: apples, vanilla, sake,
  • Palate: nutty, cereals and pepper
  • Finish: short and smooth

5.5/10

12th Dec – Nikka pure malt Red

  • Nose: subtle sherry and oak, sharp fruits, slight cinnamon and butter
  • Palate: fruity, sharp
  • Finish: sweet heat

Expected more from this – suspect I may like it more one a different occasion

5/10

13th Dec – Nikka Coffey Grain

  • Nose: solvent pens, citrus, grapefruit with sugar on
  • Palate: sweet honey, toffee, grapefruit, bourbon esq
  • Finish: dry, sweet

I can see why some would like this. But just not to my taste. Quite like a bourbon though so I think bourbon drinkers would enjoy it

5/10

BLOG: Glenfiddich 18 -Vs- Tomatin 18

– Written by Andy

Like all battles, this one begins under dubious and tenuous circumstances. Glenfiddich, a Speyside heavy hitter and Tomatin, a quiet Highlander, perhaps seem to have little in common at first glance. They both, in fact, share almost exactly the same latitude in Scotland, sandwiched between the Cairngorms and the Moray Firth, although Tomatin actually lies just outside the Speyside region. Both were formally established as distilleries a few years apart in the late 19th Century although Glenfiddich’s malt production boomed in the years following American Prohibition while Tomatin saw the majority of its single malt go into blends like Antiquary and Talisman until quite recently.

To resort to a clumsy metaphor, the Glenfiddich brand could be seen as a seasoned movie star to Tomatin’s acclaimed supporting character actor. Glenfiddich whisky has in fact found its way on screen in various scenarios such as Inspector Morse, Family Guy and The Vicar of Dibley and is even a royal favourite of Prince Harry. Tomatin on the other hand, has never been one for the limelight, given the site may have been host to an illegal distillery site as early as the 15th Century.

18052965_10158570407500072_603084592_n
Ready to fight – dram to dram
By selecting 18 year old expressions from each distillery for this tasting, I’ve nominated them both in the same category and only one will be awarded victorious and have to cobble together an incoherent speech of thanks at the podium…

Glenfiddich 18 Year Old (40% ABV, c.£70)

Starting with the Glenfiddich, this 18 year old expression has been matured in bourbon and Oloroso casks.  The distillery tells me to expect consistency and character on their website, and even offers an option to personalise the bottle – presumably in case you forget who you bought it for?

Nose: Quite slow at first, then fruit and dark chocolate in abundance

Palate: Building spice gives way to sweeter fruitiness and rich, dry Sherry

Finish: A little more spice – and toffee apples!

OVERALL: A fine dram. Gets better with every sip and delivers more or less all the richness and complexity you’d want from a sherried Speyside.

Dram-a-long Song: Frank Sinatra – One For My Baby (And One More For The Road

– Showy, sophisticated and instantly recognisable…

Tomatin 18 Year Old (46% ABV, c.£75)

Same age statement. Same Oloroso cask finish. They even share roughly the same rich, dark golden colour. That may be where the similarities end…if you want to personalise this bottle you’ll need to buy a gift label.

Nose: A lot more present, the fruity notes are accompanied by a number of sweet spices yanked right out of Christmas and into the glass

Palate: Wow. Buttered toast, boiled sweets, honey mead, cinnamon…there’s plenty to chew on here.

Finish: The spice lingers longest, leaving me missing that initial wave of flavours

OVERALL: So much depth and kick it could score in the top corner from the half-way line. I know this distillery is one of Craig Watson‘s favourites and I can see why.

Dram-a-long Song: Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

– Complex, powerful, lets the quality do the talking…

The Verdict

It’s a well-deserved win for the Tomatin 18 Year Old. In terms of a mid-range, sherried single malt it superbly presented and balanced and actually very good value considering what you get for your money.

Do you have a favourite of these two whiskies or a dram-a-long song suggestion? Get in touch on Twitter.

BLOG: Hey, Hibiki, you’re so fine…

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”… said someone, once (it’s that kind of specificity that makes this blog so compelling… right?). And he/she had a point.

Suntory Hibiki 17 year held an air of mystique for me since I started to get into Japanese whisky. Not only is it held in very high regard by anyone “in the know”on Japanese whisky, but it also features as the whisky of choice that Bill Murray’s character promotes in one of our favourite films: Lost in Translation. For relaxing times….

billmurraygif

So having flirted with the idea of buying a bottle (it’s currently extremely hard to get hold of for less than £200 in the UK, mostly from overseas websites; It had previously been available for closer to £95 when supplies were still fairly abundant!) I gave up on the idea, and decided this might just be “one that got away”.

Little did I know my chance to try the fabled golden elixir WOULD arise soon after, as I was lucky enough to receive one of the Drinks by the Dram advent calendars in the lead up to Christmas (when else!) 2016. Included within was a dram of the Hibiki 17!

For the purposes of this blog, I also managed to get hold of some Hibiki 21 (suddenly these whiskies don’t seem quite as unattainable.. )

So what did I think of each of these sought after drams, my notes are below:

Hibiki 17

  • Nose: strong fruity honey, apricots
  • Palate: honey nut, very smooth, slight pepper coming through
  • Finish: short/medium (a bit disappointing in truth) and slightly bitter

Hibiki 21

  • Nose: similar to the 17, but more dried fruit and sweet cinnamon
  • Palate: rich and nutty, bit of Bakewell tart
  • Finish: peppery wood and cherry aftertones, long with hints of dark chocolate

So what did I think? Was it worth the build up and anticipation?

Well firstly, both are extremely nice whiskies. So smooth and easy to drink. It’s not always the case that you will prefer the older, more expensive expressions, but in this case I have to say I think the 21 year is more to my taste. The more sherried, peppery notes are right up my street.

As for the 17… we’ll maybe I expected too much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic whisky, but I was kind of expecting it to blow me away.

Would I buy a bottle? If it was still £95 this would be on my shelf tomorrow, but I do think that anything over £150 is vastly overpriced for this particular dram, there are much more exciting and complex drams out there in that price range, and you are paying for the scarcity.

Ironically, I tried this dram twice in a week having waited so long. One of the pubs in Newcastle, the red house (nestled just off the quayside near the Tyne bridge), had a bottle and I was in there on Valentine’s Day after a lovely meal with my wife. I had to buy a dram (a reasonable £12!) and it was the last dram in the bottle so the barman kindly gave me the bottle too, a thing of beauty.

So I think that leaves hibiki 17 in the category of been there/done that/got the bottle. Time for a new elusive whisky to obsess over!

See you next time! Stu

BLOG: A drink at the old local

– ramblings of Andy

I grew up about 10 miles away from the oldest whisk(e)y distillery in the world – Bushmills 1608 in Northern Ireland. In an industry obsessed with pairing up the sometimes unhappy bedfellows of a whisky’s age its resulting quality, you might expect Bushmills to have all the heritage and resources to turn out some of the finest drams known to humanity. If that were true, of course, the entire craft of whisky distilling would be reduced to a protracted game of chicken to see who could hold their nerve, and their whisky casked, the longest.

I am familiar with Bushmills Original, Black Bush and Bushmills 10 from before I ever fully appreciated whisky and have grown to appreciate each of them on their varied and specific merits. In the meantime the distillery has undergone a high-profile change of ownership, witnessed a resurgent Irish whiskey industry and faced more competition in the last couple of decades than it probably saw in the prior few centuries.

I’ve enjoyed the distillery-only release 12-year single malt, as much for the personalised labels printed on site at the distillery shop marking my wedding and the birth of my son, as for its gentle spice and citrus notes. The 16-year malt is a very fine dram; much-celebrated, increasingly hard to find yet almost mourned in some quarters for not being what it once was, if they’re to be believed. I’ve even enjoyed the hot toddy presented to you in the distilllery foyer as you wait to be drawn into a tour that lingers a little too long in the industrial bottling plant before finally sitting you down for a tasting.

It was only recently that I found both the opportunity and the careless slip of the wallet required to try a measure of the top-of-the-range 21-year single malt, in the eponymous Inn at Bushmills. What is certainly true is that this is a very fine glass of whisky, if you can tear your mind away from the pound-to-millilitre ratio provided by the bar’s price list. The sweet toffee nose leads into a complex array of spicy fruit and nut flavours with a rich menthol-tinged, liquorice finish. It is in turns both violently rich and subtly decadent, like a Mafia interrogator who pauses between each flurry of gut punches to fetch you another Macaron.

What struck me most was how much the aromas and flavours were profoundly evocative of the rugged and precise coastline where I spent my childhood. I can say I’ve drank better whisky, sure, but Bushmills 21 was the closest thing to Proust’s madeleine that I’ve experienced – if we aren’t counting White Lightening cider and acute nausea. It seems that in the world’s oldest distillery, age and quality have indeed learned to live side by side very well over their two decades in bourbon, Oloroso sherry and Madeira casks.

BLOG: A taste for the inexpensive

– ramblings of Andy

One thing strikes me as we review our podcast episodes so far for this blog, is that we have to a large extent stuck to reasonably well-received and accordingly mid-priced whiskys. Other than the – as far as we can tell – absurdly good value-for-money Nikka From The Barrel, our choices have been £40-60 a bottle or thereabouts and, as a result, nothing much to dislike about them on our beginner-intermediate palettes.

Just this evening, I poured out a dram, taken from a little taster set I received at Christmas of brand-name blends, of Teacher’s Highland Cream. The nose, a little slow to wake up with a little smokiness and sweetness coming through. A malty mouthfeel accompanies my first sip, followed by a hint of peat smoke and liquorice. What’s going on here? This is £15 a bottle and I’m…chewing on a grainy, ash-tray of a finish and my question is well answered.

Still, Jim Murray awards this a more than respectable score of 90/100 in his eponymous Whisky Bible and I was almost with him until the last. Stu has been compiling our own scores for an upcoming ‘Dramier League’ feature, where to take the football metaphor to its obvious conclusion, Teacher’s seems to have blown a promising start to the season and found itself in a relegation battle by the Spring.

After tasting Nikka From The Barrel (Episode 5) for the first time on our podcast, I became a little obsessed with finding a similarly impressive, inexpensive dram from a scotch blend. The Naked Grouse (Episode 6) offered some pleasing Speysidey spice for a similar price-tag but didn’t quite make the grade. Teacher’s took me down an interesting road only to plough us both into a manure truck at the end.  The search continues!