Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Oh, for goodness''s time to stop, Caroline!

Grateful to the Shetland News for this story.
If there's to be a Shetland distillery, let someone else do it. It's feasible, as the Lewis endeavours of Marco Tayburn show. But please stop this, Caroline. It's just embarrassing. Also, I'm hoping that bottles were NOT secreted about the islands for 'maturation', as whisky, of course, never matures in the bottle, only in the cask. But you should know that...

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

'World's peatiest"/most phenolic whisky....but move fast and you can get Aberlour 10 for £14.99 at the Co-op!

Below is the press release from Bruichladdich, announcing the release of the 63.5 per cent alcohol Octomore (five years old, £79 a bottle).

I have (what remains of) a bottle of Bruichladdich"s 3D3 Norrie Campbell Tribute bottling, which is nice enough but peculiar. It's as if the phenols have been layered, like oil, on top of a thin base. The cask-strength Octomore may well be better. I have some of the Infinity and it's very good.

If, however, you're one of the folk who actually managed to get hold of a bottle, don't knock it back all at once. As if you would! Apart from the alcohol, high phenols usually mean bad hangovers. Phenol (the stuff that makes a whisky 'peaty') is a poison, and in sufficient quantities, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry can be very nasty indeed. The organisation says that effects (not from whisky,which in truth only contains tiny amounts) but from, I assume, ingesting fairly large, pure concentrations) can include:

Health Effects

* Exposure to phenol by any route can produce systemic poisoning. Phenol is corrosive and causes chemical burns at the contact site.
* Symptoms of systemic poisoning often involve an initial, transient CNS stimulation, followed rapidly by CNS depression. Coma and seizures can occur within minutes or may be delayed up to 18 hours after exposure.
* Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, methemoglobinemia, hemolytic anemia, profuse sweating, hypotension, arrhythmia, pulmonary edema, and tachycardia.

Acute Exposure

As a corrosive substance, phenol denatures proteins and generally acts as a protoplasmic poison. Phenol may also cause peripheral nerve damage (i.e., demyelination of axons). Systemic poisoning can occur after inhalation, skin contact, eye contact, or ingestion. Typically, transient CNS excitation occurs, then profound CNS depression ensues rapidly. Damage to the nervous system is the primary cause of death from phenol poisoning. However, damage to other organ systems (e.g., acid-base imbalance and acute kidney failure) may complicate the condition. Symptoms may be delayed for up to 18 hours after exposure.

Hey, now that's what I call a hangover! Pass the Lagavulin/Laphroaig/Ardbeg/Caol Ila...

Actually, I've just come across some even more interesting stuff about phenol, from the Absolute Astronomy website. To say that the substance has a bad history is putting it's quite putting me off my Islay malts. Must see if I can get some of that £14.99, not-very-peaty Aberlour...

"Bruichladdich distillery announce the release today of the world’s the most heavily peated whisky ever.

The inaugural bottling of Octomore, a single malt whisky distilled at Bruichladdich from barley peated to 131 ppm, three times more peaty than any other whisky ever produced.

Demand from 'peat-freaks' has exceeded the 6000 bottle supply. The stocks were sold out before the whisky left the distillery.

6000 bottles Bruichladdich Octomore were bottled @ 63.5% ABV, at 5 years old, RSP £79."

Monday, 15 December 2008

Talisker at the Co-op, Glenfarclas 105, Aberlour a'Bunadh and As We Get It

I've cracked open the Aberlour and the a'Bunadh in recent, festive days, and found them extremely...complementary, not to say similar. Big, sweet, sherry-sticky malts, hugely satisfying on a cold winter's night next to the Rayburn. Water on the side or a touch in the glass to bring the cask-strength dpwn to decent levels, but to be honest, both are drinkable as they come fae the neck.

I have a selection of cask-strength bottlings from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, some more satisfying than others...I think the full-on, old-fashioned Speyside Oloroso style suits that strength...even at a fairly young age. I've tasted three-year old Glenfarclas straight from the cask which was astonishingly mature.

Which reminded me of my first cask-strength experience, blind (sober) in the old St Duthac Hotel, Tain. The 'old' As We Get It, when they were allowed to put 'Macallan' on the label. More recently it's been Aberlour, but now Ian Macleod (Glengoyne proprietors) are doing AWGI Highland 8-year-old, which presumably takes it out of the Speyside appellation...Balblair? Dalmore? Dunno, haven't tried it.Difficult to find, too. The Islay AWGI is available for £33.99, unknown distillery.

Meanwhile, Talisker 10 is at the local Co-op for £29. No, I know what it's like. Very nice, but fierce. I'll stick with the sticky stuff for Christmas.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

To the Rodel Hotel...a strange tale of Royal Household

I tried to get to the Rodel Hotel last month when I was in the Western Isles. Alas, it was shut. this piece was written 18 months ago for the American magazine Scottish Life.

"The Rodel Hotel" wrote the poet Louis Macneice, who stayed there in 1938, "is at the end of everything."

Doubtless he was sipping a glass of Royal Household whisky as he wrote. After all, it was the only place you could get that particular dram at the time, unless you were a member of the British Royal Family. Nowadays, if you fancy a wee taste of that particular cratur? Och well, thereby hangs a tale or two.
Transport links to the Hebrides are better than ever, but the southern tip of Harris still offers a sense of tranquil remoteness. The hotel, completely refurbished in 2001, is now a comfortable, characterful and very welcoming place of escape. And yet Rodel is at the crossroads of Hebridean history, a place resonating with warfare, paganism, tragedy, religious and social upheaval; and the strange tale of a whisky brand called Royal Household.
But there's more to Rodel than a hotel and its whisky. St Clement's Church is the finest Medieval building in the Western Isles, famed not only for its Christian carvings but also for the pagan ones which are referred to rather archly by one guidebook as 'not to be viewed too closely by those of a sensitive disposition'. You can visit the 16th century tomb of Alexander 'Crotach' (Humpback) Macleod, disfigured in a battle with the Macdonalds on Skye, and in the stony silence, maybe catch the distant echo of claymores clashing.
At the nearby hotel, you will receive a warm welcome from the owners Donnie 'Rodel' MacDonald and his wife Dena. And there you can hear tales of this lovely house, built in 1751 by Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray as his personal mansion, after his purchase of the entire Harris estate for £15,000.
It has had its ups and downs, this imposing building by the pier. Lairds, from Macleod to Leverhulme, have come and gone, their plans to regenerate the island and turn it into a money-making proposition dashed against the hard Harris rock. The last great hope for industrial regeneration in Harris was a superquarry at nearby Lingerabay, which would, in many eyes, have scarred the ancient landscape irrevocably. A lengthy government inquiry stopped the development in its tracks.
You can smell the tang of whisky in many of these stories, from the anointing of the cornerstone back in 1751 as the building work commenced, to the clinking of glasses in the legendary Rodel Hotel bar as debates raged about the pros and cons of quarrying away a large lump of Harris. For 15 years, until 2001 when the refurbishment work was completed, only the bar remained open, with many a tale told even now of the characters to be found drinking there. Including the gentleman who would happily remove his glass eye and pop it into his whisky. If he liked the look of you.
But the comfort of whisky was never needed so much as in the 19th century when this part of Harris was ruthlessly cleared of crofters for the sake of intensive sheep grazing. Cottages were destroyed and many of their inhabitants forced to emigrate.
Among the landowners and their managers, though, trouble brewed. And in one legendary case, sex was at the root of it.
It was all to do with the lovely Jessie of Balranald, daughter of the North Uist factor, who had attempted to elope with her beloved Skyeman Donald MacDonald. Her father had been determined to marry her off to his new assistant factor, Patrick Cooper. Her uncle John was
factor of Harris, living in what is now the Rodel Hotel. There Jessie was kept under lock, key and the watchful eyes of her fearsome aunt. Until one night in 1890, when Donald, doubtless fuelled by some uisge beatha , arrived to remove her, by force if necessary.
There was, to use a Scots word, a stooshie. Donald ransacked the house until he found Jessie, but her Uncle John locked the pair in. Outside, would-be suitor Patrick Cooper had arrived, and was threatening to shoot all and sundry. In the end, Donald and Jessie broke out through a window and made their escape. Donald was later acquitted of burglary and kidnap in a famous court case, and the happy couple emigrated to Australia. You can see a pictorial version of their story today in a stained glass window at what is now the hotel.
And if you're very lucky, you will also see a bottle of the legendary Royal Household whisky. You will not be allowed to taste it, though.

I first heard about Royal Household from a doctor friend who practised in Harris 30 years ago.
"It is the best whisky I ever tasted" he told me. "It had a great deal more malt in it than any other blend, and it was quite extraordinarily smooth. I only got a taste because my daughter had just been born. The bottle was kept in the gantry with the label hidden, and it was only served to a select few."
My curiosity well and truly piqued, I decided to pursue Royal Household. Jim Murray's 2007 'Whisky Bible' reviews it very favourably ("a wonderfully sophisticated blend"), but gives no indication of availability. Extensive searching through whisky catalogues revealed that it is sold only in Japan, and this was confirmed by Michael Alexander at multinational drinks company Diageo, who own the rights to the name.

"As far as I know, it's a straightforward blend, sold only in Japan,'"said Michael. "it's not supplied to the Royal Family." The magic of the tale was fading. I spoke to friends in Haris, who seemed curiously reluctant to tell me what they knew. "I have heard" said one, cautiously, "various stories. You had better speak to Donnie himself."
And so I found myself listening to the lilting tones of Donnie Rodel, as he described the joy of the hotel's revitalisation and its success since reopening fully in 2001. So, what about Royal Household, Donnie? What is the truth? Was a passing Royal princess rescued from the foaming deep by one of your ancestors? Perhaps Edward and Mrs Simpson stored a secret cache of spirits at Rodel for some of their early assignations? Alas not.
Said Donnie: "My grandfather, Jock MacCallum, owned the Neptune or Club Bar as it was known in Stornoway, and in the 1930s he bought the Rodel Hotel. He made some arrangement with what was then James Buchanan Ltd, who made Royal Household, for the Royal Family at the time, and somehow he became the only retail stockist, first in Stornoway, then at Rodel." The dram's status, however, was assured when the the last order arrived, some time in the 1950s.
"It became impossible to get any more. Since then, we've guarded what we have carefully, and now there are only a few bottles from the 1950s left." Could I have a dram, then, were I passing? "No. I would open a bottle for a member of the Royal Family, though. Princess Anne was in Rodel a few years ago, on a yacht, and if she'd come into the hotel, I'd definitely have opened a bottle."
But what made Royal Household so special? Was it the finest whisky ever to grace the Rodel Hotel's gantry? Donnie is not so sure.
"My mother absolutely hated it. She would drink any whisky other than Royal Household. it had a much greater proportion of malt than other whiskies, mainly from the Glentauchers distillery in Speyside, and some liked it. But some did not."
Now at the Rodel Hotel public bar local folk drink "Russian whisky", mostly "Vodka, I mean." And Donnie shakes his head. "For the connoisseurs, it would be Black Bottle and Famous Grouse."
So until any wandering member of the Windsor Clan asks for a wee nip of the whisky that once graced the shelves at Buckingham Palace, the last few bottles of Royal Household remain firmly corked Let me recommend, however, a glass of Black Bottle or indeed Grouse, should you ever find yourself in Rodel. You can the assembled ghosts of Jessie of Balranald, the furious Patrick Cooper, still drowning his sorrows in ther corner, Louis Macneice, and even 'Crotach' Macleod, limping in from yet another battle. But you're just imagining Edward and Mrs Simpson chatting conspiratorially in a corner. That's just a story...

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Whisky Galore and...quite a lot of Drambuie

Interesting to see that a bottle of whisky, uncontaminated and unopened, from the SS Politician (original for the SS Cabinet Minister in the book and movie Whisky Galore) fetched only £2200 at auction. Can't help but agree with Tam, the student (STUDENT!) who bought it: grossly undervalued and a great investment

Meanwhile, I'm VERY impressed with the service provided by The Whisky Exchange - two days after ordering, my Stockholm gin, four miniatures of old recipe Drambuie, three bottles of Lochranza Founder's Reserve, and a bottle each of Aberlour a'Bunadh and Glenfarclas 105, all arrived safely and beautifully packed. By post, which for service to Shetland, beats any courier.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Powers Gold Label

This used to be my favourite blended whisky, and certainly my favourite from Ireland. For some reason, having decided to consume a wee dram of Gold Label this weekend, I found it completely unpalatable. Sweet, thin and cloying. Weird.

Anyway. That's the bottle finished! There wasn't much left, it should be said.

I was at Bushmills in Northern Ireland last month, which is a really pleasant visitor experience, though half the distillery was closed to guests and it is a fairly large scale industrial plant, behind the lovely frontage. Great restaurant (all home made food) and bar, though. I really enjoyed the various Bushmills on offer, particularly the two malts I tasted - the 10-year-old and the 16. Maybe that put me off Powers. Or it may have been the single-cask Scotch Malt Whisky Society Longmorn I had just beforehand. which was a bit like peach schnapps, only more pungently paraffinish.

I remember having a Powers in the Temple Bar, Dublin, accompanied by an aged poet bellowing rhymes in my ear...but this talk of Irish whisky reminds me of The Great Jimmy McNulty from the Wire:

Gimme a Jameson's on the rocks. Bartender: Bushmill's alright? McNulty: Bushmills? That's Protestant whisky!...