That’s the Spirit

Posted by on Mar 30, 2014

Yesterday morning, my flatmate and I were eating breakfast while watching Top Gear. During an advert break I happened to look down at one of the many whisky books that I had strewn across the coffee table in preparation for that afternoon’s tasting; prompting me to ask: ‘Chris, name the first whisky that pops into your head!’

‘Bunnahabhain!’ he replied with gusto.

His answer was unsurprising. I had bought a bottle of their 12 year expression blind and absolutely loved it. Consequentially, when I brought him and some other friends along to a whisky festival a few months later I told them that they had to taste this whisky and it managed to impress all of them. Since then, whatever whisky gathering we hold there is always some expression of Bunnahabhain. For while Jonny likes Benromach, while Steve typically has a Glenlivet on the shelf, while Chris warms up with a Coal Ila, and while I’m partial to Highland Park — the shared discovery and appreciation of the Bunnahabhain makes it ‘our’ whisky.

Even so, I was pleased to hear the magic word, for it confirmed that one of the six whiskies I had lined up for the tasting was considered to be worthy by someone other than me. The other five had to wait until four o’clock to face judgement…

1) J.W. Dant ‘Special Reserve’: As in all of my whisk(e)y tastings, I started with a Bourbon on this occasion. It’s a good base to start from, given the fact that most Scotches are aged in ex-Bourbon casks, but the first whiskey is also the only one where I have the room’s unswerving attention so I am able to meet any existing Scotch whisky prejudice head-on. I was pleasantly surprised this time around, however, as when I announced that I would be starting with J.W. Dant the ‘phaws’ of disappointment were not forthcoming and a few people told me that they do generally enjoy Bourbon. It proved to be a good warmup, with the sweet, oily corn notes matching distinct vanilla qualities and rolling off of your tongue with a light and dry finish.

2) Provenance Tamdhu 10 yo Autumn: Moving into Scotland we started with the little-known and only recently-reopened Tamdhu distillery. It turned out to be a powerful one to take on, with hotter, unrestrained high alcohols hitting the nose, provoking more than a few ‘Reminds me of Tequila’ comments. With a bit of water, however, the dram calmed down a bit and more of the citrus characters came through, reminding me of lemon sherbert and Refreshers sweets.

3) Provenance Glencadam 8 yo Spring: The two year age difference between the Tamdhu and this Highland Malt surprised many participants, as Glencadam was deemed to be much smoother, richer and complex than Tamdhu, with a bright hit of orange citrus that is then taken over by earth and cedarwood. This allowed me to wax eloquent about the maturation procedures and their contributions to the whiskies. Everyone was suitably impressed and engaged, of course, but longing looks into empty whisky glasses clued me in that it was time to move on.

4) Provenance Linkwood 15 yo Autumn: Putting another Speyside into the lineup branched away from previous tasting practices, but it again provided an interesting comparison. Despite its geographical definition, the majority opinion was that it was much more akin to the Glencadam as it exhibited fruitier, rounder aromas as well as burnt caramel and chocolate flavours. The finish was slightly smokey but nothing to what was to come next…

5) Provenance Bunnahabhain ‘Young and Feisty’ Winter: More and more distilleries and blenders are producing whiskies without age statements. Some consumers are skeptical that this is just a means to make money on special releases and/or inferior quality whisky, but any distiller or blender will tell you that each barrel ages in its own time, and it can actually be very frustrating and restrictive when a perfect 7 yo cask cannot be used because it’s too young for the company’s standard 10 or 12 yo malt. The fact that Provenance whiskies are all single cask is a testament to the fact that young whiskies can be amazing in and of themselves, and Bunnahabhain did not disappoint, with fiery alcohol and standard Islay peat giving way to a very smooth medicinal note on the finish.

6) Suntory Hibiki 17 yo: With four Scotches in the bag, it was my challenge to break down some more prejudices by presenting a Japanese whisky that wasn’t even single malt. Hibiki 17 is a blend of the products of three distilleries: Hakushu, Yamazaki, and Chita (with Chita being a grain whisky). It proved to be a contender, with dried fruits contributing to a port-like aroma complemented by notes of acetone and apples. The palate was nothing if not smooth and soft with a lingering buttered toast finish.

Despite my clever attempts to bookend the tasting with two foreign whiskies, neither proved to be the crowd favourite. Both were acknowledged to be very good, however, and the J.W. Dant triumphed as the best value whisk(e)y of the lineup. The Linkwood ended up reigning Supreme Ruler of the six.

As for Bunnahabhain? It came in as a close second — not bad for a ‘Young and Feisty’ contender pitted against mature 15 and 17 year old opponents. But however much my own biases came into play before, during, and after the tasting, the most remarkable thing is that six pours of amber liquid can engender such discussion and dispute — or such fraternity and sorority.