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Johnnie Walker Blue Label – Ghost and Rare series

Johnnie Walker continues to extend their portfolio and bring interest to the category of blended Scotch whisky with a number of new and/or limited edition releases.  The “Blue Label” brand has many incarnations and variations these days since it was first expanded with the King George V release several years ago now.

The latest Blue Label release comes with all the usual fanfare and back-story, but this one will deservedly and legitimately grab your attention.  For, whilst many rare blends tease you with vague or enigmatic tales of especially “rare” or “old” whiskies making up the blend (but never telling you what they are), Blue Label’s first “Ghost and Rare” release proudly shows its hand and tells you its secrets.  And any whisky that declares Brora as a key ingredient is going to draw the interest of whiskyphiles.

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Glenmorangie Spios

The whisky calendar is blessed these days to have annual events and annual releases that we all look forward to.  For example, Islay-philes hang out each year for the Feis Ile bottlings, and Ardbeg fans are always keenly anticipating May for Ardbeg Day and the release of the special Ardbeg limited edition that accompanies it.   For those who prefer a more typical “Highland” style of whisky, there is always huge interest in the annual release of Glenmorangie’s Private Edition bottling.  This year’s release – Private Edition No. 9 – is called “Spios”.

For the uninitiated, Glenmorangie’s Private Edition range is a special once-off and limited release that comes out each year to showcase a new variation or interpretation on the Glenmorangie flavour profile.   Through the use of different casks or wood regimes during maturation, or by using different varieties of barley (or different peating levels), the usual Glenmorangie DNA is given a tweak and a nudge to explore new and – without fail – delicious flavour territories.  Some  within Glenmorangie, including Dr Bill Lumsden himself, (Glenmorangie’s Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation, and Whisky Stocks) have hinted or suggested that the Private Edition range showcases experimentation but, to my palate, the results are consistently too successful and too good to be mere experiments.  No, this is a product line that knows what it’s doing.  And for those who are curious, in terms of volume, the Private Edition range makes up less than 1% of Glenmorangie’s total annual production, so it is genuinely a very limited product.

Glenmorangie Spios – Matured 100% in American oak, ex-rye casks.

Eight previous releases make up the Private Edition range, namely the PX Sonalta, Finealta, Artein, Ealanta, Companta, Tusail, Milsean, and Bacalta.  Experimentation is a long-term exercise in the whisky world, with the results of any tweak in production or new cask filling not being fully realised until years after the fact and after maturation plays its role.  Of course, if the results are good, then replicating the experience resets and starts the process with – again – a return period of 10-12 years.  It would be nice to think that some of these Private Edition releases might one day form part of the core range but, as Dr Bill explained during the launch of Spios, some of them simply don’t have the quantities of materials or economies of scale to make this possible.

Spios is the Scots Gaelic word for “spice”, and the whisky itself showcases spirit that has been wholly matured in American oak (quercus alba) ex-rye casks.  Many associate finishing or “extra maturation” with Glenmorangie, but it’s worth re-iterating that Spios is wholly matured in the ex-rye casks – in this case, the casks evidently held and matured the rye whisky for six years before Glenmorangie acquired them.

Rye whisky (or whiskey, as is more commonly and appropriately referenced) once held court as America’s most-loved grain spirit.   However, tastes, palates, and traditions changed over the 13 years of prohibition, and when US distillers went back into production in 1933, rye had fallen from favour and the softer, sweeter tones of bourbon ruled the roost.   Interest in rye has been building again in recent years, arguably driven by the bar scene and its trendy use in cocktails, although – it must be said – the likes of Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and others have been churning out rye in healthy quantities for a few years now.  Anyone looking to “pigeonhole” rye or de-base it down to a singular descriptor invariably reaches for the word “spice” or “spicy” at some point (particularly when comparing it to corn-based bourbon), and so it is no surprise that Glenmorangie’s rye cask release is similarly named.

Dr Bill Lumsden & Brendan McCarron made a fine double act in launching the Spios

Repeating the successful format of last year’s Bacalta, Spios was launched simultaneously around the globe this year via a virtual tasting and audience with Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden and Brendan McCarron.  Courtesy of a live hook-up, TV screens, internet cameras and microphones, Brendan & Dr Bill sat in the Whisky Creation room at Glenmorangie’s headquarters in Edinburgh, and were beamed directly to a number of gathered audiences around the globe.  The Australian launch shared a mutual session with Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, and Sydney.   After a shared address and tasting by Bill and Brendan to everyone, each city was then given an allocated slot to speak directly with the two gents, and to ask questions, which they both happily and helpfully answered.

The initial tasting, led by both gents, commenced with Glenmorangie Original, which set an important context for the night, given that most of the Private Edition range whiskies “start out” as Original and are then manipulated beyond this.  This was followed by Nectar d’Or, which again stamped its credentials as surely being amongst the most luxurious of readily-available whiskies on the planet.

And then came the star of the show:  The Spios.  So what of the whisky itself?  Well, happily, the new release was being freely poured out on the night, and yours truly spent some serious time getting acquainted with it.  The whisky is bottled at 46% and is non-chillfiltered.  Whilst it’s officially a No Age Statement, Dr Bill dropped enough hints on the night to indicate the whisky was around 10 years old, give or take.  Whisky & Wisdom’s tasting notes as follows:

Nose:  There’s no mistaking this is Glenmorangie, but the rye casks add unmistakable…um…spice!  Cinnamon, clove, mint, toffee are up front, followed by hay (straw?) and stale wood shavings.

Palate:  The signature Glenmorangie fruit is here, but there’s a lush wood smoke note evident that reminded me of smoked and/or cured meats.  The cereal notes never stray too far from centre, and there’s also spicy barley and weak black tea.

Finish: Long and intensely silky and smooth!  Some wood tannins come through at the very tail.

Comments:  As a Private Edition release, this has achieved exactly what it set out to do:  It’s a twist and a variation on the standard Glenmorangie theme.    There’s no denying that rye (as a category in itself) and rye-finished or rye-casked Scotch whisky is gathering traction (note Johnnie Walker’s recent foray into this field), and the results speak for themselves:  It’s good, tasty whisky.

As a suggested food pairing, Glenrmorangie nominates trying Spios with a chilli-infused dark chocolate.

As an aside, it is a stunning and rewarding exercise to go back and forth between the Spios and the Glenmorangie Original.  The Original is 100% matured in ex-bourbon casks, whilst the Spios spent its years in ex-rye.   When tasted side by side, the vanilla in the Original becomes very pronounced, and – almost on cue – the spice and the cloves in the Spios becomes extremely evident in its own right.

Spios will be available in Australia with an RRP of $165.

 

Well done, Dr Bill and Brendan – we look forward to Private Edition No. 10 !

Cheers,
AD

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10 things every whisky lover should know before heading to Scotland

For every whisky lover, it’s the ultimate pilgrimage:   After listening jealously to other people’s travels and dreaming of making it to the promised land, you’ve FINALLY saved up for and planned your first whisky trip to Scotland.  Exciting times!

Of course, every first-timer always asks the same questions in the early stages of planning:  Where’s the best place to stay?  Which distilleries should I visit?  Should I hire a car?  Do I have time to get to Islay?  How many days should I spend in Speyside?  Is the trip up to Orkney worth it? 

Naturally, the answers to these are highly subjective and individual.  They’ll depend on your budget, the amount of time you can spare, which distilleries are your favourites, and what transport options are at your disposal.  But there are a few things to appreciate about visiting distilleries that you won’t read in the guide books or find online.  Here are ten things you ought to know before heading off to Scotland…

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Unknown Heroes

When was the last time you poured yourself a healthy dram of Braeval?  Or had a good swig of Miltonduff?  How about a Glenburgie?  Or an Allt-a-Bhainne?   An Auchroisk?  Dufftown perhaps?  Have you even heard of these distilleries, let alone seen a bottle of their whisky at your local liquor retailer?

What about Ardbeg?  Oban?  Bruichladdich?  These names are more familiar, yes?  And, chances are, you’ve had a dram of their product more than once or twice on your malt journey.

The irony here is that the first group listed above are some of the biggest distilleries in Scotland.  And the second group are amongst the smallest.   There’s a cliched conclusion here that you might have heard before:  Size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that counts!

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The stink about sulphur

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
The Usual Suspects, 1995

Substitute “whisky industry” for devil and “sulphur” for he and you’ll get a quick snapshot of what’s being discussed here.  Sulphur is one of the more confusing and least understood aspects in today’s whisky community.  Let’s cut through the taint and kill a few myths and misunderstandings…

Sulphur (as an element and in compound form) is present in whisky due to two sources.  One is natural, desirable, and is present in every malt whisky; the other is an accident, pretty much undesirable, and occurs only in some sherried whiskies.  The former is complex and actually difficult to discern; the latter is simple and sticks out like the Macallan distillery’s refurbishment budget.

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Johnnie Walker 18yo – The old is new

If you’ve read enough pieces, opinions, wisdom – and certainly reviews – on Whisky & Wisdom, you’ll have noticed a subconscious, underlying nostalgic tone occasionally.   When you’ve been enjoying whisky for over twenty years and observed the very significant changes and growth that has occurred in the industry in that time (even in just the last ten years), it’s hard to look at and comment on current whisky affairs without inadvertently glancing backwards to how things once were.

Such observances even pervade one’s thinking when it comes to Johnnie Walker.   Once upon a time, the Johnnie Walker stable was a pretty simple and well-defined house.   Just four simple colours:  Red, Black, Gold, and Blue.   (Yes, there was the occasional sighting of something different (e.g. Swing), and let’s not forget the rumours of the elusive Grey Label that did the rounds back in the mid-2000’s.)

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Glenmorangie 1990 Grand Vintage Malt

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the core-range of many distilleries consisted of a ubiquitous 12yo, followed by an 18yo and a 25yo.  The really daring distilleries would then inject something colourful into the portfolio, such as a vintage release or something with an exotic name.

Glenmorangie is a remarkable distillery for many reasons, but one of its most impressive aspects is its huge and diverse core range.   The humble (yet sensational) Original continues to underpin the line up, but the flavour profile and offerings rapidly then diversify with the likes of the Extra Matured range (Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, and Nectar d’Or), followed by the older age statements – namely the 18yo and 25yo.   The latter two – in particular – were notable for being exceptionally rich and luxurious.

But in today’s whisky world, nothing is constant for too long and there was a touch of sadness when we heard that the Glenmorangie 25yo was effectively being discontinued.  However, any sadness you experience will instantly evaporate once you taste its replacement:  The Glenmorangie 1990 Grand Vintage Malt.

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The Scotch Malt Whisky Society presents….Exotic Cargo

Members or watchers of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society may recently have heard about one of the Society’s latest projects:  The release of a blended malt.  No, not a blend….a blended malt.   (And if that subtle distinction in terminology still confuses you, you are welcome to write to the Scotch Whisky Association and let them know your thoughts on the matter.  Good luck.)

If there’s one thing you can’t accuse the Society of doing in recent times, it’s standing still.   Clubs, societies, bottlers, and brands need to continually evolve and change with the times, and the Society has been particularly pro-active in expanding its list of bottlings and the benefits that membership bestows on its members.

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Highland Park – the Vikings are coming.

Anyone who’s bring drinking whisky for a few years now will no doubt have noticed “change”.   Brands have changed their packaging and labels.   Distilleries have changed their core-range or introduced new expressions into their line-up.   Prices have changed.  Distillery Managers and Brand Ambassadors have changed.   According to some, whisky itself has changed!

Another key area that has changed (and will continually evolve and change) is whisky’s marketing.  In particular, each whisky brand’s image can change. And few brands can match the change in persona that has overcome Highland Park.

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Ardbeg An Oa

With so many different special releases of Ardbeg that catch everyone’s attention each year (i.e. the annual Ardbeg Day releases such as Kelpie, Dark Cove, Perpetuum, Auriverdes, etc, or the limited release of the 21yo), it’s easily to forget that Ardbeg’s actual core range consists of just three bottlings:  Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, and the 10yo.

Of course, a decade or two ago, a distillery with multiple expressions in its portfolio usually showcased its core range via a diverse spread of different age statements, for example, a 12yo, an 18yo, and, say, a 25yo.  However, as is widely reported and acknowledged these days (see here), distilleries today are increasingly turning to No Age Statement releases to manage their stocks and inventory.   (Talisker is a classic example – arguably one that has gone too far – with core range NAS releases such as Skye, Storm, Dark Storm, Neist Point, Port Ruighe, and 57o North)Given Ardbeg’s chequered history, with such small and sporadic production between 1983 and 1997, it’s no surprise that Ardbeg must also make a virtue of NAS releases.  Fortunately, as anyone who’s tasted them can attest to, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan are two very good whiskies.  But what if you’re a huge Ardbeg fan and you still yearn for something more?  Relief is now at hand…

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