An afternoon with Dr Bill Lumsden

The other week Dr Bill Lumsden was in town and the generous people at Moet-Hennessey Australia treated us to an afternoon on Sydney Harbour, hanging out with Dr Bill and celebrating the launch of the new Glenmorangie Bacalta.

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If you’re not quite sure who he is exactly, he’s the Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation and Whisky Stocks for LVMH. In other words, he’s the creative genius responsible for the consistently great expressions that have been coming out of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg in recent times. He truly is a pioneer of the industry and you need only chat to him for a couple of minutes to realise how passionate and knowledgable he is about all things whisky.

If you’d like to find out more about Dr Bill, have a read of this and this.

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In case you missed it, this is the Glenmorangie Bacalta. A new Private Edition release that’s been extra-matured in former Madeira wine casks. It’s therefore entirely appropriate that we spent the afternoon on the Søren Larsen, a 68 year old Danish tall ship which has actually been to Madeira.

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There’s another nautical connection to the Bacalta as well, one I didn’t touch on in my previous post and it has to do with the history of Madeira wines. In my previous post I mentioned the way in which premium Madeira wines are stored in roof cavities in order to heat them (or bake them) in the sun. What I didn’t mention though is where this part of the production process originated.

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If we go back a few hundred years to the Age of Exploration, the Madeira Islands were a port of call for ships heading east to the Americas and the East Indies. When they docked, casks of Madeira wine would be loaded into their hulls and would be used as ballast whilst out on the high seas. The ships were obviously well and truly exposed to the elements, including the heat of the sun beating down on their hulls, thus, baking the wine. It wasn’t long before someone caught on to the fact that this has a profound effect on the liquid inside, so back on land they tried to replicate it.

These days many Madeira wines are simply heated in stainless tanks. The more premium or traditional ones though are stored high up in the bodegas/ wineries so they were exposed to the sun and heat. This was the process used to create the wines that seasoned the casks used for Bacalta.

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Speaking with Dr Bill about the Glenmorangie Bacalta he’s quite happy to tell you that this is very likely to be the last time we’ll see a Madeira wine-finished whisky from Glenmorangie. Well, under his reign, at least. The process he had to go through in order to get quality seasonsed casks was so difficult, expensive and time consuming that he can’t see it happening again. So if you’re still on the fence about this one, but you like the idea of it, don’t snooze too long.

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A short while after heading out on the Søren Larsen some seriously ominous clouds started to roll in, thunder could be heard in the distance and we witnessed a pretty epic light show. As I hung off the ship’s bow I managed to snap this shot right before the heavens opened.

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We then got wet. Very, very wet. But it was totally worth it.

As rain lashed us from every direction and as Dr Bill’s poncho flapped in the wind he proclaimed ‘I’ve never done a whisky tasting in the middle of a thunder storm before!’ Neither had I, but it was loads of fun. An afternoon I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

Glenmorangie Bacalta Review

Around this time each year, Glenmorangie release a new, limited expression. An experimental and innovative whisky of sorts, if you will. It’s the one time of year Dr Bill Lumsden gets to showcase something a little bit different. A whisky that falls outside the bounds of what people normally think of when they look to Glenmorangie’s house-style. The whiskies released under this banner are known as the Private Edition releases and they’re always a bit of fun.

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Last year I reviewed the Milsean, a Glenmorangie matured in toasted ex-wine casks that was packed with sweet-shop flavours. The year before, I had the great pleasure of attending a dinner with Dr Bill Lumsden for the launch of Glenmorangie Tusail. Beyond that, I’ve tried (or owned) every one of the Private Edition releases, so you could say that I’m a pretty big fan.

This year marks the eighth Private Edition release and in a way, Dr Bill and his team have taken us back in time to the early 2000s when Glenmorangie had a Madeira ‘wood finished’ whisky in their core range. Enter, the Glenmorangie Bacalta.

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The launch event

Here in Sydney, we’re pretty far away from the Scottish Highlands, so throwing together a tasting with Dr Bill isn’t exactly the easiest task. However, the wonderful world of technology solves that for us and the other week I had the pleasure of attending a Google-Hangout tasting. Invitees assembled in the classy surrounds of the Old Clare Hotel in Sydney and as the clock struck 9.00pm here, it had just ticked over 10.00am in the Highlands. The live feed came up, guests joined in from Mumbai and Seoul and we were greeted with the ever-jovial voices of Dr Bill Lumsden and Brendan McCarron (Head of Maturing Stocks).

What is Madeira exactly?

To better understand the magic of Glenmorange Bacalta (Scottish Gaelic for ‘Baked’), it helps to understand what Madeira wine is and how it’s produced. Thankfully, Dr Bill gave us the 101 on both and it went something a little like this.

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Contrary to the way some people use the term, ‘Madeira’ isn’t really a form of wine in the same sense that sherry is. Madeira is actually an autonomous archipelago of Portugal found off the west coast of Morocco. On Madeira they make fortified wines from a variety of grapes, but the richest is Malmsey wine, made from the Malvasia grape.

What makes Madeira wine unique is the way in which it’s treated during maturation. Barrels are stored in the roof cavities of the bodegas where they’re heated by the sun and essentially ‘baked’ (hence the ‘Bacalta’ name). Leaving barrels of wine in these conditions has two distinct effects. First, it drastically changes the characteristic of the wine itself, oxidising it and bringing out the tart acidic characters that define Madeira wines. Secondly, the unforgiving conditions deteriorate the casks themselves and as time goes on, they actually start to fall apart and leak due to the harsh conditions.

With those harsh conditions very few ex-wine barrels make it out alive, so finding a consistent supply of casks in terms of quality and quantity is incredible difficult. It’s this challenge that ultimately led to the demise of the original Madeira wood finish expression back in the early 2000s.

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Piecing together the Glenmorangie Bacalta

Not one to give up though, around seven or eight years ago Dr Bill embarked on a challenge to try things again. This time though it would be a bespoke project, one where he and his team would control every aspect of the process. A wine producer was found and Speyside Cooperage were engaged to construct a series of 250L hogsheads from tight grain, slow growth, air-seasoned American Oak. The casks were heavily toasted and shipped to Madeira to be filled with Malmsey wine, where they then sat and seasoned for two whole years.

After being brought back to Scotland they were filled with ten year old Glenmorangie and were set aside for what Dr Bill thought would be a three to four year extra maturation period. He and Brendan McCarron began tasting the casks around the two year mark and believed that at that point they’d already hit the sweet spot they were looking for. One where the balance was just right between the strong notes of the Madeira wine and the house character of the Glenmorangie spirit. So for those who like numbers, the Bacalta is essentially 12 years old.

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Glenmorangie Bacalta Review

So with that context in place, we tasted our way through the Glenmorangie Original 10 year old, the Glenmorangie Lasanta (extra-matured in ex-sherry casks) and finally, the hero of the evening, the new Glenmorangie Bacalta.

Nose

On the nose there’s an immediate juxtaposition of aromas, from dryness (like oak, dried tobacco leaves and cedar wood spice), to sweetness (hard toffee, baked apples, tarte tatin and pastry dough), to an acidic element (citrus skins and aged sherry vinegar). It has a complex nose that flits between sweet and savoury.

Palate

Oily, creamy and sweet on entry, but immediately backed up by spice and stone fruit. Think peaches and apricots, orange marmalade, honeycomb, hard toffee and citrus zest. There’s a nuttiness on the finish with a peppery spice. The addition of water rounds out the palate and opens up the nose nicely.

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I’ve enjoyed each of the Private Edition expressions I’ve tried to date. Some more-so than others, but this year’s release has really stepped up to the plate. The Bacalta is genuinely, genuinely good. It strikes this wonderful balance between sweetness, acidity, fruit and oak. To my nose and palate it’s expressive, comes across as maturely integrated and nothing dominates too heavily. I’ve not tasted the original Glenmorangie 15 year old Madeira wood finish, but I struggle to imagine it being any better than this.

The new, limited edition Glenmorangie Bacalta is available in global markets now.

Bladnoch Samsara Review

Tasting the first new release from Bladnoch Distillery

In 2017 the Bladnoch distillery celebrates its 200th year on the banks of the river Bladnoch, two hours south of Glasgow in the Scottish Lowlands. Bladnoch enjoyed more than 100 years of family ownership until it was temporarily closed in 1938, an event that seems to have been the beginning of a series of changes and hurdles in the following 100 years of its history. In the decades after 1938 Bladnoch Distillery changed owners numerous times, was doubled in size and was then closed again in the early 1990s when it was turned into a heritage centre.

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That wasn’t to be the distillery’s fate though and after six years of hard work it was brought to life once more in the year 2000 by the Armstrong brothers from Northern Ireland. It never quite returned to its former glory though and after years of fairly low annual production, the stills eventually stopped flowing again in 2008. Six years passed and an unfortunate irreconcilable family dispute saw the distillery eventually placed into liquidation in early 2014.

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It was a sad end to that chapter in Bladnoch’s history, but one that has since paved the way for Bladnoch’s rebirth thanks to Australian businessman, David Prior, and his team including former Master Distiller & Blender for Burns Stewart, Ian MacMillan. It’s therefore entirely fitting that Bladnoch’s first release under its new ownership is called Samsara; the cycle of death and rebirth referenced in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Bladnoch Samsara Tasting Notes

There isn’t a whole lot of information available about the contents of this bottle, but given that the last distillate produced at Bladnoch was back in 2008, the minimum age of the whisky in Samsara would have to be eight years. It’s bottled at 46.7% ABV and is non-chill filtered.

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Nose

The nose is immediately expressive and forthright, with a bouquet of macerated overripe stone fruit like peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots. You could almost call it jammy. There’s sweet orange liqueur, runny honey, vanilla and a top-note that akin to sour buttermilk. There’s also some dry, dusty oak in the background.

Palate

The palate is just as forthcoming. It’s rather oily and viscous upfront with effervescent juicy oranges, citrus, tinned pineapple, honey, vanilla and baking spice. Sweetness lingers for a good while before the finish turns dry, with more of a pronounced oak note.

I haven’t tasted a whole lot of Bladnoch in the past, perhaps half a dozen different – mainly single cask – expressions. But the new Samsara carries a considerably different profile to the lighter, crisp, almost grassy Bladnoch I recall. To me, Samsara is much more open, with a full bouquet from the get-go.

This is pure speculation on my behalf, but I’m thinking that there could be some ex-port or ex-wine casks in the make-up of this whisky. The overripe fruits and strong jammy notes are something that I personally associate with ex-port/ wine maturation, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s something other than ex-bourbon or ex-sherry in the mix. If you’ve ever tasted an Australian ex-port matured whisky (such as Lark), there’s a good chance you’ll find some familiar notes in the Samsara. If you happen to be reading this Ian MacMillan, please feel free to confirm or deny my suspicions!

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I couldn’t photograph and write about this whisky without mentioning the bottle and overall presentation. Whether or not the design happens to be your personal taste, there’s no denying that its appearance is completely decadent and rather stunning. From the heavy base decanter-esque bottle, to the high-polish metal stopper and gold on black branding. Picking up this bottle and pouring a dram feels like an occasion… even if in reality you’re just sitting in your tracksuit pants watching some telly. Classy!

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The Bladnoch Samara is available in Australian retail now for a recommended retail price of AU$129.99. It’s also currently joined by the 15 year old Adela ($179.99) and the limited 25 year old Talia ($499.99). Further global distribution is on the cards and the UK should start to see the trio on shelves from February.

A sincere thanks to Bladnoch for supplying the bottle pictured here.

Chivas Regal Ultis Review

A new blended malt whisky from Chivas Regal

The House of Chivas would have to be best known for their Chivas Regal line of blended whisky; blends that contain both single malt and grain whisky distilled at the various distilleries owned by parent company, Pernod Ricard. In a first for Chivas Regal though, they’ve recently gone down the path of releasing a blended malt whisky, the new Chivas Regal Ultis.

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The new expression has been designed as something of a tribute to the five master blenders who have been in charge of the House of Chivas since it was first launched back in 1909: Charles Howard, Charles Julian, Allan Baillie, Jimmy Lang and current master blender Colin Scott. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), the Ultis is comprised of five malt whiskies from Pernod Ricard’s stable mates Tormore, Allt A’Bhainne, Longmorn, Braeval and Strathisla.

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It’s carries no age statement or specific cask information, but in describing the new blended malt Colin Scott points to the flavour profiles of the five malts as “crystalline freshness of Tormore, the contrasting hint of spicy warmth from Allt A’Bhainne, balance from Longmorn, the floral style of Braeval and the fruity sweetness of Strathisla”. I’m certainly not as well-acquainted with each component malt as Colin is, but I was recently invited along to the Sydney launch of the Chivas Ultis where I had the chance to rectify that.

Held at Palmer & Co. in Sydney, guests were greeted on arrival with a cocktail (or two) before making their way around the venue to explore five different sensory stations.

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Each one was setup to showcase the component malts that have gone into the new Ultis and was designated as either a nosing station or a tasting station. Ambassadors talked us through each malt and the desired characteristics that it ultimately imparts on the new Ultis, shedding some light on why each one was selected. I didn’t take copious notes on my tasting and nosing journey, but it really is quite interesting to get the chance to try these component malts and see how the richness of something like Strathisa or Longmorn sits against something a bit more estery and volatile on the nose like Allt A’Bhainne, or the honeyed floral notes of Braeval. I mean, when was the last time you tried a Braeval?! Exactly! It was pretty special.

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As has come to be expected with these kind of premium releases, the packaging and presentation of the whisky is top notch. The bottle shape references the current Chivas bottle profile, but the thick glass base has been etched with a ‘V’ (the Roman numeral for five) and has a perfume-esque dimpled glass effect, providing a tactile feature to it. The front opening gift box features the signatures of the five master blenders referenced above, whilst the cork closure has been designed to resemble a pen-clip, featuring – you guessed it – five engraved rings, a further nod to the five malts within and the five Master Blenders.

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Tasting notes

It wasn’t the most conducive environment to nerd-out and write down tasting notes (plus I was having far too much fun), but the following was my initial impression.

Nose: I found the nose to be quite balanced , rich and deep with notes of toffee, hard caramels, pears, dark chocolate and spice. Given a bit more time, spicy crystallised ginger, a hint of liquorice, star anise, baked apples and oak.

Palate: Surprisingly spicy at first, but it gives way to quite a rich, deep mouthfeel – notes that I picked up when tasting both the Longmorn and Strathisla earlier in the afternoon. The spice subsides, delivering a nice creamy wave of caramel, tea cake, dough, orchard fruits and orange zest, finishing quite tart and oaky. A dram I’d love to try again and spend a lot more time with next time our paths cross.

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The event also saw the launch of Chivas’ new ‘Win the Right Way’ campaign featuring none other than Captain America himself – Chris Evans – who has recently taken on the role of Asia Pacific Ambassador to demonstrate the power and impact of working together to achieve success.

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The new Chivas Regal Ultis is available in Australia now at most premium stockists (as well duty free) at a recommended retail price of AU$200 for the 700ml version. As always, a sincere thanks goes out to Pernod Ricard Australia for the generous invitation to come along and try this new tasty drop!

Check out Facebook.com/whiskyledger for more photo from the event and feel free to give us a ‘Like’ whilst you’re there!

Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades Review

The second release in the Master’s Keep range

Wild Turkey Master Distiller Eddie Russell has just notched up a not-insignificant 35 years in the family business. To celebrate the momentous occasion he’s put together a rather special release, recently unveiling the Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades, just in time for Christmas! If the presentation of this one looks familiar, that’s because it’s the second limited release in Wild Turkey’s Master’s Keep series, the follow-up to last year’s 17 year old.

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Don’t think of it as merely a follow-up to the the 17 year old Master’s Keep though, as this is an entirely different beast. Whilst this one does’t carry a specific age statement like last year’s, the ‘Decades’ reference is a nod to the fact that it’s comprised of quality bourbons aged for between 10 to 20 years, some of the oldest to be bottled by Wild Turkey to date.

The barrels that have gone into this release were all matured in Wild Turkey’s McBrayer Rickhouse. We’re told that “unlike other wooden rickhouses on the distillery’s property, the McBrayer Rickhouse is located at a lower elevation on the property where the temperature does not fluctuate as much, allowing for a higher proof and deep, bold flavour”. I’m no authority on the subject, but after tasting this bottle I’ll take them at their word on that claim – the Master’s Keep Decades is one rich, tasty bourbon, but more on that soon.

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I know when it comes to whiskey that it’s really all about the taste, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t give two hoots about the packaging and presentation of my whiskey. And on that note, the presentation of this one is really on the money in my opinion. From the front-opening gift box, to the thick, weighed bottle base, raised-embossed turkey motif and that copper and wood stopper. It’s probably one of the best looking bourbon bottles I’ve seen. So, we’ve established that this thing looks good, but how does it actually taste?

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Tasting notes

Nose: Straight of the bat with notes of caramel, hard toffee, dark dried fruits, peanut husks, sawmills, flaky dry pastries and baking spice. The nose is quite deep and complex, opening up and changing with airtime, but overall I’d characterise it as rich and dry.

Palate: Immediately this is oily and viscous on the palate, with a nice chew to it. Creamy honey-sweet notes role across the tongue before I got big notes of peanut brittle and caramel. A few seconds later, dried dark fruit and hints of fresh minty-rye spice that turn almost cooling-menthol in character. The finish on the palate stays sweet but turns leathery and drying with old oak coming through. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Wild Turkey quite like this before. It’s rich and complex and is the kind of bourbon I’d be happy to spend quite some time with.

Overall verdict? For me, the higher proof (52% abv) on this is a very welcome addition. It helps carry the rich, bold flavours of this well-aged bourbon and in conjunction with this being non-chill filtered it gives it a wonderfully chewy, oily mouthfeel. A few drops of water open it up slightly quicker than having it to air and whilst I personally don’t add ice to my whiskey, I imagine this would cope pretty well if you decided to add a rock or two. A really enjoyable release in my opinion and very different to last year’s Master’s Keep.

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With the silly season just around the corner the new Master’s Keep Decades would no doubt make a great Christmas gift for the bourbon-fan in your family, especially given how darn good it looks and tastes. Oh yeah, and a 10 – 20 year old bourbon, that’s actually accessible, for AU$200? I can’t think of anyone else who’s doing that this Christmas! A pretty unique offering.

A special thanks goes out to Wild Turkey Australia for providing the bottle pictured (and enjoyed) here and for letting me write up my own thoughts and opinions.