Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Spirit Log: Auchentoshan 15 Year Old 1999 Signatory

I embarked on a bit of an odyssey in selecting this purchase. I hope you won’t find what follows boring, but it all forms part of the narrative.
It had come to my attention that a re-stocking was long overdue, though it’s not that I’ve been drinking more of late. You see, I like to keep lots of things in stock, so when I start to approach the bottom of a bottle, I have a tendancy to move on to something more volumous. Inevitably this eventually leads to a situation where nearly all your bottles are approaching their end, and you seem to be finishing something every time you have a drink. So with pay day in the very recent past, it was time to go shopping.
Before reaching my decision I had to forego some very tempting offers at Costco – a single cask Jack Daniels, because I’m saving potential US whisky purchases for an upcoming visit to Duty Free; a Hakushu because I wasn’t in the market for it; the Lapgroaig 10 that I’ve wanted to revisit for pure time, because I have had it before and Islay isn’t on my procurement matrix for a while yet; a Lagavulin 16 for the same reason; and a Tullibardine because I wasn’t looking for a Highland malt. Because, yes, I had already determined that this time around I was looking for a vintage Lowland malt.
Just for the record, I also had to forego decent offers on various Glenmorangies and Glenfiddichs in Sainburys because, if you let yourself, you could easily end up buying these all time time as they are in every supermarket, always on offer, and there always seems to be a new expression – there was even a Midwinter Night’s Dram from Glenmorangie, which struck me as odd on the hottest day of the year at the end of May.
Anyway, when it came to drawing up a shortlist it was all Auchentoshans and Glenkinchies. I can’t say I was finding the prospect of them all that exciting, but it’s all part of the whisky education and it means I’ll’ve completed the Lowland region before too long.
So the cheapest malt to consider was Auchentoshan’s Valinch 2012 at £40.45 (at The Whisky Exchange). I didn’t want to go that cheap, though it is worth mentioning that this was selling at £60 at Master of Malt and a massive £70 at Amazon. Then you had various Glenkinchie distillery editions, dated between 1996 and 2003 and all retailing from £48.95 to £55.95 (all prices exclusive of P&P btw). I wasn’t drawn to these because, despite looking the part, they’ve all been finished in sherry casks, and I’m a bit tired of that.
What it boiled down to then, was a choice between three or four merchant bottlings of Auchentoshan – each blended from two casks. I couldn’t find any indication as to which of these bottlings might be the best to get, so I just took a decision based on economics, having compared prices across a number of suppliers.Just within, but veering towards, the outside of my price range was an 18 year old Signatory from 1997. That was just under £80. When I saw a (more or less) identical 1998 17 year old though, at just under £60, I figured that seemed like better value for money. Finally though, I made one last compromise because I found the 1999 15 year old at just under £50. That would leave a bit of cash to get some tequila too.
In terms of the Lowland region, most of my experience has been with the now defunct Bladnoch distillery. You might remember I was delighted by a ten year old, and disappointed with a cask strength 12 year old. Other than that, I have tried a single glass of the standard Auchentoshan once before. I remember not being impressed, but that’s the way it goes sometimes – it was a single glass so there’s really no way of knowing what I really thought of it.
Auchentoshan triple distils all its whisky, and this sets them apart from all other Scottish distilleries. Signatory, on the other hand, is an independent bottler supplying three types of product – 86 proof, cask strength and un-chillfiltered (this one belongs to the latter collection) – representing all of the distilling areas of Scotland. The Cask Strength ones have a particularly intriguing bottle, but this isn’t one of those. It’s a fairly standard bottle with a no fuss label and gothic lettering, and it comes in a silvery tin-cardboard hybrid tube. It is bottled at 46%.
It is very pale in colour, and very light in body. I haven’t really had anything as light bodied as this before, and while I tend to prefer my whiskies full and oily, that isn’t a mark against the Auchentoshan. It’s just different is all. The nose is a little tangy, while on the tongue it almost feels like a gentle wash of wood that’s going to float up from your tongue and evaporate.
It has slipped out of the bottle and down my throat very easily, so easily in fact that I don’t remember drinking so much of it. I must be pouring larger measures.
Anyway, it looks like I’ve only fully evaluated three merchant bottlings previously, and this one is going into 2nd place behind the Bunnahabhain 1979 and ahead of the Fettercairn 7 with Scapa 2001 bringing up the rear. As for comparisons with the single malt genre in general… I’m struggling to place it. Probably just outside the top 10 though.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

What is post-fatherhood drinking really like? Part 2

generic picture depicting the drinking of grappa
I was just reading What is Post-Fatherhood Drinking Really Like?Part 1, and I realised just how long ago I must have written that piece. I mention somewhere in there that it was still the first month of little Sylvie’s life, and I haven’t really thought about all that I wrote and all that has happened since. Little Sylvie is approaching 10 months old now, so I thought it might be worthy of a part 2. Even though I promised not to talk about kids again. I think it’ll be worthwhile though, and as it’s part 2, it’s kind of the same post anyway.
So what’s been going on? What’s the 411? What are the cool jams?
Well, I wrote back in that first post about getting into a routine, and that has proved vital. Little Sylvie now has bath and bed starting at 18.45, and is usually asleep by 19.30. Then she sleeps all the way through to somewhere between 06.00 and 07.00. Mrs Cake and I are usually knackered by 22.00, so we’re in bed soon after that and sleeping better than ever. We have so little free time, and for some reason that’s ok. Back before the little girl enriched our lives we had something like 6 or more hours of free time in the evening, and it wasn’t enough. Now we get 2 and a half hours, and it’s plenty.
I suppose the thing is, when you don’t have kids and you look at parents, you don’t see time they spend with their kids as free time. You see the kids as a burden, and it’s not like that. Time with your kids is free time. It’s something that you want to do. It’s like when my golf friends (see Golfageddon) asked me if I’d be going on their annual golf holiday next year, I couldn’t really see it and I wasn’t bothered. I was a bit gutted to have had to miss the last one at first, because there was a chance Mrs Cake might be going into labour, but now I don’t really want to spend a week away from my family.
Similarly, I’ve changed the way I go out. When I go on pub crawls now, I start early and I usually aim to be heading home around 9pm. Which is good, because I’m smashed and heading home before all the pubs get too busy and too full of nobheads. Then I can be in bed around my normal time and minimise my lie in the next morning. Even though the lie in has been sanctioned, I still don’t want to spend too much time in bed, missing hanging out with my little girl.
The point is that all these things you might see as negatives – fewer lie-ins (I say fewer because they do happen), less “free time” – are not negatives.
If Mrs Cake and I got out now, we go out in the afternoon and we take the little girl with us. Mrs Cake can’t have much to drink just yet because she is still breastfeeding, but that’s down to only four times a day (that may sound like a lot, but in the first few months it could be as many as 20 times!), and that means that if she wants to, once little Sylvie’s gone to bed, she can go a bit nuts. Currently the mother-in-law is visiting, and we’ve been taking advantage of that by heading out into Urmston after little Sylvie’s bed time for a few drinks. There’s also the option of staying over somewhere and taking little Sylvie with us, like when our friends Pablo and Veronica hired a narrow boat. We just took a small inflatable bath along and Sylvie had her bath in there. Then she slept on the bed at the front of the boat.
The beer thing I talked about is still an issue from time to time – you know, where you want to enjoy a beer, but your little one requires attention meaning you can’t always drink it while it’s still cold. These days the specific reason is that little Sylvie wants to be walked around everywhere. She reaches out for your hands and groans until you take them, help her up, and then walk her around from the front of the house to the back and back again until it’s a meal time or bath time.
Occasionally you might pass within arm’s reach of your beer and you might be able to have a sip, but most times both your hands are occupied and you’ll just have to pass by. Also occasionally the little girl might stoop to pick something up and end up sitting for a bit. That’s your chance. Sadly none of this facilitates actually enjoying your beer. It’s just a collection of stolen moments, and they aren’t like forbidden fruit, it’s more like eating a rich and expensive desert too quickly.
There’s still no such thing as a nice quite sit down while she’s awake. Mrs Cake and I can’t wait till she starts crawling and playing by herself, but that no doubt will be a whole new ball game, where we need eyes in the backs of our heads. Still, as long as we can do that while sitting down…
Have there been any mishaps? Not really. There was one time I was playing with Sylvie while drinking a glass of grappa, and she jabbed out with her hand, causing me to spill it, and a drop to land in her eye. She didn’t like that very much.
Then there was one time in the middle of a beer when I had sat her on the sofa and we were playing, and she was having a lot of fun – so much fun that I got my camera out. I forgot how much she loves cameras, and was so busy trying to get some decent film that I failed to react when she leaned towards the camera to grab it and went head first on to the floor. She does this thing when she’s really upset where she does a little cry, then she stops breathing, turns pink, while you go, “breathe… breathe…”and she builds up a massive cry that she unleashes with demonic fury. Anyway, she did that.
Not long after writing this post, little Sylvie suddenly became more self-sufficient, and will now play on her own, sometimes for as much as 40 minutes, and thus allowing her dad to sit on a comfy sofa and enjoy a beer slowly, as god intended. Happy days.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Spirit Log: Old Ballantruan

It was back to the whisky procurement matrix for the focus of this week’s post. The target: a Speyside malt with no age statement or under 10 years old. I had a bit of a search, then made a list of targets and started comparing prices.
At the lowest end of the pricing spectrum, and very tempting, was the Glen Grant Major’s Reserve. That was going for as little as £22 at one of the major supermarkets, but the handy price comparison on Bring a Bottle showed that it frequently dipped as low as £18. I thought I’d wait for that to happen before dipping my toe in that particular bucket.
The range then extended from an uninspiring Benromach 5, through an ugly but positively reviewed Cu Dhub, a Gordon and MacPhail bottling of an 8 year old Tamdhu and finished at the top of the price range with a classy looking Spey Tenne (which I always read as “spray tan”), tawny port finish.
My heart had already been won though, by this 50% ABV, unchillfiltered Old Ballantruan. It isn’t a typical Speyside in that it is peated, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for peat, and it’s rare that I’ll pass up on those extra ABVs.
I made a note on my matrix that the next Speysider (and indeed, scotch) I buy absolutely must not be peated.
Now, Old Ballantruan is from the Tomintoul distillery, and it receives pretty much universal acclaim from the users on the main UK retailers. Let’s just have a little look then, at what Tomintoul is all about.
Presenting its product as “the gentle dram” (so you can assume this whisky will whisper tenderly in your ear and penetrate you slowly with plenty of foreplay and lubrication), the Tomintoul distillery is located close to the highest village in the highlands of Scotland (groovy), in the prestigious Glenlivet estate, though it is apparently only the second highest distillery. So is the highest distillery nowhere near a village, or is there a really steep incline between Tomintoul and the highest village? I never realised Glenlivet was an estate and not merely a distillery, so I found it confusing when I read Old Ballantruan was a Tomintoul malt, but the bottle stated “Glenlivet” on it. I’m not a fan of the standard Glenlivet, but that shouldn’t matter here.
The Tomintoul website (at the time of writing) doesn’t make mention of the Old Ballantruan expression – similarly to how the Old Ballantruan bottle (and box) doesn’t mention anything about Tomintoul. What it does say is that they use the pure spring water from the Ballantruan Spring, and that Tomintoul whiskies are not peated – except the Tomintoul Peaty Tang. It looks, after digging around some of the internets, that Old Ballantruan has actually been discontinued, and the Peaty Tang is what stands in its place. I wonder whether I should focus my energies from time to time on finding discontinued expressions, since they will represent the last chances I have to try them. That’s something to think about. Of course it will also mean it is harder to buy them again if I like them.
Now, when you get peated malts it’s nice to find out about phenol content. Phenols are measured in parts per million and particularly renowned peaty whiskies like Ardbeg are known to have a content of around 55ppm – which doesn’t seem very much, but if you’re familiar with Ardbeg, you’ll know that packs quite a punch. Bruichladdich’s Octomore range regularly exceeds 160ppm, sometimes more than 200, but they also exceed £140 for spirit aged only a few years, so you’d have to be particularly adventurous (or lucky (or extravagant)) to find out what that’s like.
All this leads me to saying that the phenol content of Old Ballantruan is unclear. One source suggested 55ppm, so matching Ardbeg, but another claimed it is only 30ppm. As ever, you just can’t trust the internet.
So how’s it looking? As far as presentation is concerned you get a dull but sturdy tube depicting some gents digging up a bit of peat and a dark bottle that matches the design of the tube. The neck is fairly long and rounds out at the shoulders before tapering slightly to a sturdy bottom.
According to Royal Mile Whiskies.com, the finish contains “cold haggis, bitumen [and a] touch of thick cardboard”.
While from from whisky-discovery.blogspot.com, we have; “The smell of a big damp warehouse or cricket store at the end of winter...”
My initial impressions are favourable. Definite peaty sweetness on the nose, and some toffee on the palate. None of those other things present for me though. You only have to say “damp cricket store” to me, and I can smell it, so it definitely isn’t in this whisky. As for haggis, I doubt it is even possible for whisky to taste of that, and it just smacks of someone trying to reference something patently Scottish. Just give it up.
Some other tastings
I’ve been enjoying the Old Ballantruan so much neat that I found it hard to finally take the step toward adding a drop of water. Considering it’s an impressive 50%, there isn’t any burn to speak of. In fact, the only hint of the high strength is a very slight bitterness on the finish. Nevertheless, one day I did add water, and when I say it was only a drop, it really was only a drop. The immediate effect was wonderful; highlighting the sweet tones. As that paricular tasting progressed, for some reason the stunted taste of bottled spring water became more apparent. This wasn’t a problem on succeeding occasions though, and I took to adding a tiny drop of water every time I had a glass. It had grown to be very enjoyable, and probably the best spirit I had available at that point.
I was going to try it in a three-way tasting with Kilchoman Sanaig and an Ardbeg miniature, but for some reason my booze collection seemed to be in constant danger of disappearing, so I decided to be more frugal and just enjoy each on their own terms.
I finished the Kilchoman, enjoying its distinct earthiness for its own sake, and then decided I would do a direct Ballantruan-Ardbeg comparison one Friday night anyway.
In terms of colour, Ardbeg is much paler, while on the nose I made notes that the Old Ballantruan was “custardy” with a pleasant hint of ginger and the Ardbeg “sweet and peachy” (how I like my women – though I probably wouldn’t mind if they were custardy, too – or indeed ginger, for that matter).
I added water to the Old Ballantruan, to help bring out some of its sweetness, but I didn’t do the same to the Ardbeg, since I only had a miniature and I wouldn’t dare to disrespect it in this way – not that I’m disrespecting the Ballantruan, it’s just that the Old Ballantruan is 50% alcohol, while Ardbeg is only 46%. I don’t think you should ever add water to your whisky if it’s 46% or less. But that’s just me.
Anyways, on the tongue, Ardbeg is earthy, appley, and shows traces of Indian spices when held. It remains one of my favourites. In spite of this, I can’t find much to separate these two malts. They are both excellent, and excellent value. Ardbeg of course continues to be available, so the Old Ballantruan might be worth a punt while you can still get a hold of it.