Glen Grant 1954 Rare Vintage

A tasting and review

It was the year Queen Elizabeth II visited my home country of Australia, the first time a reigning monarch had ever done so. It was also the year an unknown hipster by the name of Elvis recorded his first demo and the year Godzilla premiered in Tokyo. That year was 1954 and it also happens to have been the year this particular whisky was distilled by Glen Grant.

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A lot has changed in the years since this was distilled, including the way whisky is made at Glen Grant. Back in 1954 Glen Grant operated with four coal-fired stills, which you could argue would’ve produced something of a rich, heavy spirit. In 1973 two further stills were added, but this time they were gas heated. Impressed with their performance, the distillery added a further four gas-heated stills in 1977 bringing the total to ten. At some point in the future coal firing ceased altogether.

Aside from this being incredibly old whisky, the bare bones of it – the spirit – are fundamentally quite different to what is being produced at Glen Grant these days, which makes it even more a piece of liquid history in my mind. Thanks to a generous sample from the kind folk at Gordon & MacPhail, I recently had the chance to sit down, relax and a spend some quality time with liquid time capsule.

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The first thing that struck me about the nose is how active it still is. It’s slow moving, but there’s a lot in there. Old oak, cedar boxes, melon (cantaloupe) with honey drizzled on it, leather, earthy dried tea with a hint of soft smoke, tobacco, some soft stone fruit notes (fleshy blood plums, peaches, apricots) and raisins. Really quite fruity for something of this age and very well integrated, as you might expect.

On the palate it’s slightly oily but light in weight. I found it had a rum-like sweetness to it with lots of integrated soft oak spice at the front. After a few seconds lots of juicy tropical fruit salad/ oak notes emerge (like green mango, papaya, paw paw). There’s some light acidic sourness to it (grapefruit and orange marmalade) and some menthol or eucalypt notes. Toward the finish sweet rum-soaked dried fruits emerge before the finish turns drying with fragrant wood, light spice and lots of oak tannins.

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The idea of whisky that’s been deep in slumber for more than half a century is always alluring, intriguing and attractive. However from the limited selection of old whisky I’ve tasted, the reality of it is not aways so grand and I’m sure there are plenty of hyper-aged whiskies out there that are simply an over-oaked mess. This is not one of them though.

It has a gorgeous nose, almost ‘Japanese’ in the way it manages to integrate fruit, smoke and a leathery-tobacco in a sophisticated way. It took me right back to the times I sat at The Mash Tun in Tokyo, drinking some incredible Japanese whiskies at the bar.

There are just 610 bottles in existence and this expression is available now globally. What’s more, it has recently been awarded a double gold medal – the highest award – at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, as well as gold at the 2017 International Spirits Challenge. So I guess Im not the only one who thinks this whisky is pretty great? A very special thanks to Gordon & MacPhail for the sample tasted here.

A Benromach whisky quartet

Tasting four whiskies from Benromach

Like many of Scotland’s distilleries, Benromach has had an eventful history of ups and downs over the years. It was originally founded back in 1898, but over the course of the next one hundred years or so it was sold, closed and re-opened numerous times, before falling under the ownership of Diageo (known as DCL back then). It was then closed for last time in 1983.

If that year sounds familiar to seasoned whisky fans, that’s because it’s the very same year DCL closed numerous other distilleries inducing the likes of Port Ellen, Brora and St Magdalene.. and we all know what happened to them; they were lost forever. So the simple fact that Benromach managed to survive the 1983 closing-spree is something quite special in itself.

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Fast forward to 1998 and the distillery was eventually purchased by one of Scotland’s oldest independent bottlers, Gordon and MacPhail. It is they who lovingly brought things back to life at Benromach and are essentially responsible for producing the whiskies I sampled below.

Benromach Organic 43%

Organic eggs, organic yoghurt and now organic whisky! Not just a health-food fad, the Benromach Organic truly is an organic whisky. When it was originally certified, it was the first whisky to meet the rigorous standards set by by the UK Soil Association which cover the full whisky production process, from barley growing through distillation, maturation and bottling.

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The nose smells quite bright, fresh and young with green notes of cut grass, underripe banana, orchard fruits and fresh oak. There’s also some light vanilla, honey and dry malty cereal in the background.

A nice medium creamy weight to the palate with flavours reminiscent of honeyed oats, porridge sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and some toffee. Much sweeter on the palate than the nose would suggest, fading to a medium length finish loaded with a good whack of young toasty oak spice and coffee grounds (many of these notes coming from the virgin oak maturation, I suspect).

Benromach 15 year old 43%

Not long after Benromach released the highly anticipated 10 year old 100 degrees proof (tasted here), a slightly more mature and demure sibling was announced, the Benromach 15 year old. As I raise the glass to my nose for the first time – fresh from tasting the spritely Benromach Organic – I find myself in a whole different world.

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The nose is rich and deep; slow-moving if you will. There’s a heady old-world combination of sherry, malt, wood and funk. Stewed apples, dusty bookcases, leather chesterfields, butterscotch and orange skin. There’s also a peated vegetal note in the background with the faintest trace of dry earthy smoke. Really quite complex and plenty here to keep you entertained for a long while.

Another nice medium creamy weight to the palate, this time softer in its delivery with lots of sweet stewed fruits, runny honey, poached figs and vegetal earthy peat. There’s a decent amount of oak on the finish, which runs for quite some time. It tastes stately and has a definite old-world charm that you really don’t come across too often; especially not in any other modern 15 year old whisky I’ve encountered.

Benromach Sassicaia 2007 45%

The next expression starts life as ex-bourbon cask matured Benromach before being finished for a little over two years in former Sassicaia wine casks. Sassy-what now!? Sass-ih-kay-ah. A single-estate Cabernet Sauvignon wine from Bolgheri, in Tuscany, Italy. It’s an estate that is so critically acclaimed it was even granted its very own DOC (controlled designation, similar to the appellation system used in France).

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On the nose it’s almost somewhere in between the Organic and the 15 year old, but with a big berry-whack to it. It’s got that youthful fresh, bright note with an undertone of tart red currants, berries, oak, jam and some earthy smoke.

Slightly thinner on the palate than the 15 year old with bright punchy fruits, menthol, earthy spice, crystallised ginger, citrus pith and cracked pepper. There’s a definite berry sweetness in there from the wine casks with a lot of earthy oak, spice and smoke char on the finish.

Benromach Peat Smoke 2006 46%

When I see the word ‘peat’ I know I immediately think of those big smoky, briny whiskies from Islay, but although this is peated, I’m expecting it to be a little different as we’re dealing with Highland peat here, decayed vegetation that has a very different composition – and flavour – to that found on the rugged west-coast of Scotland. Peated to a hefty 67 parts per million (PPM), these small-batch peated releases are full-term matured in first fill ex-bourbon barrels.

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On the nose it’s immediately crisp, dry and ashy with some lemon zest, cracked pepper, green apple skins, light floral honey, and some light oak. A fresh, crisp light campfire smoke lingers in the background somewhere.

Nice and oily on the palate with the crisp, dry theme from the nose continuing. Stewed apples, a touch of honey, star anise, tobacco leaf, macerated strawberries, lemon, earthy tea and dry smoke on the finish.

The Benromach range

Whisky drinkers can be a funny bunch sometimes. It seems like everyone talks about the whisky they can no longer find, the whisky that’s too expensive these days or the whisky that’s lost its age statement or become homogenised. In my mind, here we almost have the complete opposite of the whisky described above. We have a whisky that’s widely available and affordable, a core range that proudly carries age statements (or vintages) and a whisky with loads of individual spirit character, especially in the 10 and 15 year old expressions. Yet even with all of that up its sleeve, Benromach still seems to fly under the radar for so many. Wake up people!

In a few months time I’m hoping to visit Benromach for myself, so watch this space. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring you some interesting tidbits on my return.

A special thanks to Ian and the team at Alba Whisky (the Australian importer of Benromach) for providing the samples tasted here.

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.

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.

Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish

Tasting & Review

I think it’s fair to say that Johnnie Walker are best known for their mainstay blended whiskies, the kind you’re likely to find on pretty much every back-bar across the globe. They’re not one to put their feet up and stop experimenting though. Their quest to continue focusing on developing and understanding alternative flavour profiles has led them to the launch of the new sub-range known as the Blender’s Batch series.

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Johnnie Walker’s master blender, Dr Jim Beveridge, tells us that “At any one time, there are hundreds of experiments into flavour being carried out by our blenders which involve making adjustments to atmospheric conditions, the types of wood and grain used, cask finishes and other elements of whisky-making in the pursuit of exceptional new flavours.”

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The first release in the series is the Johnnie Walker 
Blenders’ Batch Red Rye Finish, which is the result of experiments that have been conducted into the influence of bourbon and rye whiskey flavours, on Scotch. For the non Bourbon and Rye drinkers in the room, American whiskeys can often be characterised by their particularly sweet nature, something that comes from their use of alternate grains like corn and wheat and also from the fact that they’re matured in heavily charred, virgin American oak barrels. Rye whiskey (where the grainbill is predominantly rye) often carries notes of fresh mint, spearmint or dill and has a general spicy character that sets it apart from a low-rye whiskey. So even before tasting this new expression, I suppose I had those notes in mind when I spotted that it had a ‘rye finish’
 
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Tasting notes

On the nose I got some sweet vanilla grain notes, runny caramel sauce and a hint of soft spice. Digging deeper, a touch of fresh pineapple, grilled peaches and maybe the faintest suggestion of mint. If I had to characterise the nose, I’d probably refer to it as round and creamy.
 
It’s fairly thin on the palate (to be expected given the low ABV), but it carries that creamy sweet grain profile nicely. A touch of spice (baking/ mixed spice), vanilla and some orchard fruits present themselves in what is a fairly balanced delivery.

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What’s in the bottle

As for what’s in the bottle? I’m not entirely sure to be honest! But we’re told it contains a decent amount of malt whisky from Cardhu (the backbone of most Johnnie Walker expressions), along with grain whisky distilled at the now-closed Port Dundas distillery. For those of you playing at home, Port Dundas closed in 2010 so the grain component would have to be at least 5 – 6 years old. The remaining malt and grain components could come from any number of Diageo’s other distilleries, but any guess on my part would be purely that. The components were all matured in first-fill American Oak casks, before being finished for up to six months in ex-rye whiskey casks.

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You’ve probably already guessed it from the photos, but I was recently invited along to the Australian launch held at the brand new Bouche on Bridge Street, Sydney. Sean Baxter, a man who’s equally enamoured with the idea of developing magical flavour profiles – as Jim Beveridge and his team – treated us to an evening of decadent food and cocktail pairings with some help from the Bouchon on Bridge team.

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Sean made no secret of the fact that the Red Rye Finish can be used as a perfect mixing whisky and we got to see this first hand in a series of pretty smashing cocktails, such as the;

Rye-talian: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Cascara Campari, blood orange and potato maple
Rye and Dry: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Capi ginger ale and basil
New Yorker: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, lemon and grenadine
Red Rye Manhattan: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Dolin rouge, bitters
Whisky cocktails can be hit and miss in my opinion and rarely do I have a ‘wow moment’ when drinking them, but these were all executed to perfection in my opinion. Big props to Sean and Matt Linklater (pictured above) for brining us these seriously tasty treats.

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The new Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish is already available in good bars and has started to hit shelves at a retail price of around AU$50 a bottle. For more cocktail inspiration using the Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish, check out this link.
As always, a sincere thanks goes out to the team from Diageo and Leo Burnett for the generous invite to an enjoyably decadent evening.