The Whisky Tasting Club

Whisky Tour, Spring 2010: Part 1 – Islay and Arran

You don’t expect to get a suntan on Islay but we arrive at the festival to glorious sun and stunning sunsets. I once had a great debate with a bunch of Scots about which country was really God-zone – New Zealand or Scotland. Scotland won because it has so much great whisky but it was close. When the sun’s shining like this though, even my beloved New Zealand can’t hold a candle to the western isles (despite trouncing it in the music and food categories).

I’m with the new deputy editor of Publican and a representative of Maxxium and Lime Public Relations, who work with Laphroaig and have arranged our lightening strike visit to the festival for Laphroaig day. Which is a total delight. We do the distillery tour, go to a sensory perception event which pairs Laphroaig with salmon, dark chocolate and blue cheese and best of all, attend John Campbell and Robert Hicks’ tasting class covering a range of cask strength Laphroaigs.

Actually there aren’t enough seats so I’m perched on a stool at the front, a metre above everyone else and perfectly in line to become a bizarre mix of ventriloquist dummy and the foil for Robert’s anti-English jokes. I admit I like this but I like the whisky even better. Robert tells me that in future Laphroaig releases will stay true to their peaty origins – hence the wonderful 18 year old replacing the 15 year old and the higher  strength 25 year old. But the new  cask strength 10 year old also has that stunning hickory and red liquorice thing the 18 year old has. I buy a bottle of it, plus the festival bottling.

One other thing – some of the samples have only the faintest trace of peat on the nose but masses on the palate. This is also true of the English peated whisky made by the same distiller, Iain Henderson. I intend to explore whether this is a Henderson signature and why it happens. We fly back to Glasgow very contented and nicely warmed by some quite wonderful whisky.

Tuesday – Arran. Getting to Arran from Glasgow is incredibly easy. You buy a return ticket from Glasgow Central railway station for about 20 pounds, which covers the ferry, and board a train to Ardrossan. Trains go hourly and take you in to the harbour.

It’s good to see Arran’s managing director Euan Mitchell again. This year the distillery celebrates 15 years and i can’t believe it’s five years since I was here for the 10th anniversary and performed a haka on the ferry back to the mainland. Happy days.

It’s a big year for Arran. The 12 year old, which attracted some criticism – unfairly I thought – is being replaced by  a 14 year old which will join the core range. It’s a beauty – back to the rich vanilla, citrus fruit and honey which is becoming the distillery’s trademark. There’s going to be a special bottling to mark the anniversary, too, three single cask bottlings which I would prefer to pass on just now as I’d like to taste them again away from the distillery and perhaps best of all, a peated Arran called Machrie Moor due for release in the Autumn. This is a sophisticated smoky but balanced whisky which like Norfolk’s new lightly peated whisky, is much, much more than just a peat and pepper battering ram. It seems to me that while Ardbeg and Bruichladdich seem to be all out to batter each other with higher and higher peating levels there’s something else going on – Bladnoch, Connemara, St George’s the new Bunnahabhain and now Arran are using peat like you might use a dash of tabasco – to enhance the other flavours in the malt rather than pummel them in to submission.

John Hansell publisher of The Malt Advocate, asked me to write a guest blog for him and I spent the entire journey back from Glasgow (nine hours) trying to get the tone right. I’ve dealt with the issue of the rules governing what is and isn’t whisky, and the role quality should play in the debate.

My problem with it was that I’ve tried to deal with three themes which don’t necessarily sit comfortably in the same box as each other and to make a point about quality while not offending anyone or undermining the Scotch Whisky Association – which isn’t easy at all. John hasn’t passed comment on the results but he’s published them and the response has been flattering and positive. You can  read the post here

I seem to be living on trains at the moment. I took the decision a while ago and before the volcanic ash issue, to travel by train rather than plane. I found it much easier to write by sitting on one service from Norfolk to Peterborough and then Peterborough to Scotland than all the fuss of getting to Stansted, going through security, and not being able to write while in flight.

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