Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Campbeltown Malts Festival - Please don't read...

In 2014 my friend Steffen Bräuner told me he was going to Scotland and attending the 1st annual Campbeltown Malts Festival. The what? I asked... Considering I was going to be around for a few weeks, we decided to travel and go together.

When I started telling a few other people I was going to Campbeltown they giggled or at least smiled through the corners of their mouth and warned me the place and its people were 'different'. I started to worry and wonder what exactly I had agreed and gotten myself into?! Steffen and I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and within a few hours of being there I started sending photos and texting Graham. 

My hometown - Campbellton NB (Population 7,300)
Funny enough I was born in the town of Campbellton NB and the UK version was strangely reminiscent of my own hometown. Campbeltown UK is also small (population 4,800) but big in pride. It may be a tiny town on the Kintyre peninsula but it is a huge community and yes they are different so if you come from a large city where you are one of the faceless millions, I could see how small town Scotland could seem weird and possibly make some people feel... awkward. But for me, I felt completely at home. I guess that makes me 'different' as well which is why this year when Graham and I returned to Scotland I made sure we attended the 2nd annual Campbeltown Malts Festival. 

It's hard to believe when you arrive there that at the height of the whisky boom & mid 19th century Alfred Barnard had visited 21 distilleries and Campbeltown was the richest town per capita (1,969 living souls) in Britain. To this day the whiskies still have a reputation for their very distinctive styles. Back at the height they were highly sought after and quite popular on an international level; however, greed caused a catastrophic decline in quality which resulted in a massive consumer backlash. 

Apparently, word gets around quickly when distilleries start churning out the equivalent of what people started to describe as the smell and taste of stinking fish. By the end of 1934 only two distilleries remained: Springbank and Glen Scotia. Production for both was sporadic over the next fifty years as the whisky business saw its fair share of ups and sharp downs but in the end both still stand not only in the physical sense but also in spirits (see what I did there ;)

At one point the SWA took away this region's geographical designation. This did not sit well with the current chairperson of Springbank, Hedley G. Wright, so he bought and had the Glengyle distillery rebuilt. In 2004, three whisky distilleries were in production and the designation was reinstated. That is your history lesson, well the Lassie crib notes version anyway.

Back to 2015, shall we: I was indeed super excited to have Graham by my side and be back in Campbeltown for the Malt Festival. This little three day festival achieves five things for me:

1. Fantastic value for money. The cost of accommodations, tickets, food and gas are beyond very affordable.

2. The breadth of whiskies that you get to try at masterclasses or warehouse tours are some of the best I have had the opportunity to try in my lifetime, thus far.

3. You don't have to drive anywhere! Most of the amenities such as restaurants, B&B's, hotels, distilleries and shops are all within walking distance.

4. Three full distillery tours where, as a whisky geek, you can ask all the questions you want, take as many photos as you like AND see many parts of the operations that are often off limits in any of the larger conglomerate owned distilleries. 

5. Three words: Cadenhead's - Mark Watt. 

No bull... just Mark ;)
One of THE BEST masterclasses you could ever attend and if you are lucky enough to get a ticket to the Cadenhead's Warehouse tour, you may think you have died and gone to whisky heaven. Absolute mind blowing once in a lifetime whiskies that leave you gobsmacked! One of the few times I've been in a tasting where almost an entire room goes quiet (well except for the Danes, they are never quiet ;) 

I purchased the Rosebank 25 year old for Graham last year and Mark was sure to write on the bottle: Drink me! Drink it, we did. It was one of Graham's favorite drams to share in 2014.

So what do those five things really amount to? They equal one of the best little festivals in the UK when it comes to the full whisky distillery & festival experience. 

There is something else I didn't mention and that is the fact that Springbank has one of the most in-depth whisky schools in the UK. So popular with hard core enthusiasts that it's almost fully booked for the next 2 years. You can read about it here: 

I will often talk about the gems I find during my travels but I was really hesitant to write about this. You see... Feis Ile started out as a sleepy little whisky/music festival and has grown into a bit of a monster in the sense that the island becomes a nuthouse for 8 days: The banking machines run out of cash, it's almost impossible to get a seat at a restaurant, the lineups for anything are long AND... some of the distillery releases are expensive and bring out some pretty "greedy" characters. 

I love the fact that the Campbeltown Festival is young, special and that only a few hundred people know about it. There is no bullshit, no marketing distortion and the people that live there and attend truly make the experience worthwhile. The whisky simply becomes the backdrop and the icing on the proverbial cake. 

I want to thank Gavin McLachlan, Robert "Pop" Scally, Mairi Paterson, Ranald Watson, Grant Macpherson, Iain McAlister, Mark Watt and ALL the unnamed, behind the scenes people, who made my stay in this lovely little town most memorable for two years in a row. I will be back, guaranteed...


PS, it's all Gavin's fault that I now drink Gin. Old Raj was my first pleasant and tasty experience. 

PPS...  Now that you've read this post, tell no one! Thank you... ;)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Guest blog - Richard Culver reviews Ardbeg Perpetuum

While I refrain and somewhat 'relax' from my recent trip to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans I thought maybe in the meantime you might like to read another review of the Ardbeg Perpetuum. 

When I posted mine, I asked for others to send me their opinions. Which they did...

I received a lovely email from a friend of mine who has done guests blog posts before: Richard Culver from Hamilton Ontario. Here is his story (cue the dramatic music from Law & Order)

Begin post: I think Ardbeg got it wrong or maybe it was the people at Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy but either way you and I are going to suffer.

Like many other Ardbeg committee members I received an email a couple of months ago telling me:

Dear Committee Member

We've come a long way in the last 200 years. So this Ardbeg Day, as well as looking back into the past, we donned our jet packs and glimpsed the future of Ardbeg. And we have to say, it looks fantastic.

15,000 of you made this one not only the best, but the biggest Ardbeg Day ever, at 135 events around the world.

Japan had a time travel tunnel, the US had Shortie Circuit racing, while in Germany five cities competed against each other with games involving drones and robotic barrel racing, amongst other things.

Here on Islay, we welcomed friends old and new for futuristic food, music, and of course, drams ofArdbeg Perpetuum. Take a look at the pictures
 from around the globe and share your own at facebook.com/Ardbeg and twitter @ardbeg_com using #ArdbegDay. 

So how can we possibly top Ardbeg Day 2015? You'll just have to wait until next year to find out...

Mickey Heads, Committee Chairman

So -> 15,000 of us. 135 events around the world. What a great success that is.

Ardbeg had the pleasure of some fantastic advanced hype because one of the bloggers, that they sent a free bottle to, realized that it was worth more to him (her?) to just put the bottle up for auction. Perhaps if you have a huge sense of entitlement and feel you are underpaid and underappreciated you do those sorts of things. After all, it’s so easy to just copy and paste the distillery issued tasting notes and add some verbose script. Credibility obviously is not that person’s strong suit but, it was to the benefit of Ardbeg. Bidding went crazy. Demand for Perpetuum was at an all-time high even before it was released. What manufacturer of product doesn’t want that?
By all accounts, I should have really enjoyed Ardbeg Perpetuum. I didn’t. There, I said it and it's not because I don’t like Ardbeg. I do, a lot. I currently have open bottles of the 10, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan and Ardbog in my cabinet. All are enjoyed regularly and the first three are always replaced when empty.

It wasn’t because of the venue where I got to try Perpetuum that I didn’t enjoy it. I went with friends to The Caledonian Pub in Toronto for Ardbeg Day. It is my absolute favourite pub in Toronto. They have great food and a great selection of malts. Donna and Dave make everyone feel at home there. I go there routinely. It’s one of eight Arbeg Embassies in Canada. Studies show familiar place and people are positive factors for ensuring that you enjoy you beverage.

It wasn’t because of the Brand Ambassador. Ruaraidh is a bright shining star among ambassadors. He is able to provide that perfect blend of education, entertainment and enthusiasm to create a warm inviting atmosphere in any environment. His passion for Ardbeg is invigorating.  His dad and grand-dad have worked at Ardbeg, it's in his blood.

It wasn’t because Ardbeg had the Harr producing smoke  fog  Scottish Mist or the sample of Supernova that had been to space. These items added to the excitement.  Although someone suggested that for the cost of the Supernova display they could have supplied every committee member in Toronto with a bottle of Perpetuum. I don’t know the costs of the traveling Supernova display but it did gather quite a bit of interest among attendees and the local media.

Nope... None of those were the reasons that I wasn’t impressed by the Perpetuum. After you get past the marketing campaign of any spirit it is “what is in the glass” that counts. For me the Perpetuum did not display that Big Bold Perfect Mix of Peat and Sweet.

I was invited back to The Caledonian two weeks later for a tasting of some cask samples with Hamish Torrie from Scotland. Hamish brought along cask strength samples which showed me that Ardbeg is capable of producing that Perfect Mix of Peat & Sweet we love. But Perpetuum isn’t “all that” to me. And judging by a number of bloggers reviews it isn’t “all that” to them either. Maybe the blogger that put his advance bottle up for auction instead of honestly reviewing it knew it wasn’t “all that” to him as well. Who knows?

What really concerns me about Perpetuum is the recent blog post by Thomas at WhiskySaga. He reviewed the two Perpetuums  http://www.whiskysaga.com/ardbeg-perpetuum-vs-ardbeg-perpetuum/  I had to read it twice.

Normally we see 6000 to 7000 bottles in a special release. In this case there are 12,000 bottles of the Ardbeg Perpetuum 200th Anniversary Distillery Release and 72,000 (yes that’s right, seventy two thousand) bottles of  Ardbeg Perpetuum 200th Anniversary Special Release. Whiskybase confirms those numbers. If I did the numbers correctly that is 4 (four) percent of their annual production. I couldn’t find any comparable sized distillery that put 4 percent of their annual production into a special release. As a comparator GlenFiddich’s Snow Phoenix was a run of 60,000 bottles. But it was only 0.4 percent of their annual production. I doubt that Snow Phoenix made a dent in Glenfiddich’s aging stocks. I wish that I could say the same for Ardbeg. I can’t help but worry that by putting that much of your stock into a special release, we will miss out on what could have been some future goodness. 

And like I said, then you and I as well as all the others suffer.

Richard (@rmculver on twitter)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Glen Breton 14 - Lucky number 7 perhaps?

In 2010 I went to visit the Glenora Distillery in Nova Scotia Canada. It was the first distillery in all of North America to make a single malt and, at the time they had recently won their 7 year battle with the Scotch Whisky Association for the use of the word "Glen". It was truly a case of David/Goliath so I was really excited to be going.

That Saturday we received a full tour of the distillery including the warehouse and a tasting in the boardroom. Things started to go off the rails pretty quickly I'm afraid. The tour guide starting talking about the fact that the local maple trees and apple orchard aromas wafted through the air at the distillery, therefore imparting the flavors into the stream that was used to make the whiskies... Errrrr -> What exactly does a maple tree taste like???  

In the warehouse, it only got worse as they pulled samples from a cask of 12 year old and passed Glencairns around. I nosed it greedily and thought wow this is quite a light and delicate whisky, then I tasted it. My immediate reaction was absolutely awful. I wanted to spit it out. I looked around at the other participants but nobody else seemed to be in full panic mode like I was AND to make matters worse; they looked like they were really enjoying the dram. "Maybe I got a soapy glass, I tried to reassure myself". I swallowed, it gave me goosebumps in the worse way possible. I quietly went to the tour guide and said: "I think I may have gotten a dirty glass, could I have another please". He obliged and I went through the process of nosing/tasting the second sample. 

NO DICE. Still dreadful... It was a hot lemon soapy mess. I continued with the tour but bowed out of the led tasting and left that weekend feeling quite disappointed. The following summer I was in Halifax and at a farmer's market where Glenora had a booth. They were pouring a few different samples including something new they were calling Battle of the Glen 15 year old limited edition. I walked over, tried them both and yet again: Lemony soap. I always have an open mind, I constantly strive to try everything. In the last 5 years I've tried their 10 black label, 10 blue label, Battle of the Glen and Ice 10 = None of which have been pleasant whisky experiences.

I have walked away six times convinced I do not like Glen Breton whiskies, however; I am a Canadian whisky enthusiast so I do own one or two bottles as part of my collection and I always offer it to people around the world who do want to try them as I've come to realize that just because I don't like certain whiskies it doesn't mean others won't. In this case, Glen Breton has a pretty loyal following in the United States as well as other countries around the world. 

Two weeks ago my friend Mike Gill came to stay with us and brought a bottle of Glen Breton 14 year old. It was a really busy weekend so we didn't get to open it. The following week I noticed that a few bloggers were tweeting about having been to the unveiling of the Glen Breton 25 year old in Toronto and were making comments on twitter about the 14. Now I knew I had to pop it open to try it. Could this be disastrous Glen Breton whisky #7 or was the streak finally going to be broken?

I sat down at my kitchen table staring at the box. Anxiety crept up my spine and directly into my brain. Wait a minute... Was I the issue? Am I destined to be known as the crazy whisky lady who tastes lemon soap in her Canadian Single Malt? Worse... would I be compared to Jim Murray and cause scandal in the Canadian Whisky World? I chuckled... nah nobody gives a sweet flying duck about what this Canuck would have to say...  ;)

I popped open the box, the bottle seal and poured myself a generous sample of the 14 year old and then... I stared at the glass. The whisky intimidated me and I lost the staring contest. I left it sitting there and went outside to do some weeding. Thirty minutes later I came in and of course it was still there waiting, calling out to me: "I could be the one", it whispered... I rolled up my sleeves and sat down in front of the glass. 

Nose: Very floral, vanilla followed by mint and eventually lemon scented nail polish remover (I cringed... oh no!?) 

Palate: and there it is... soap but this time it's more lavender not lemon. I spit it out into the kitchen sink. I looked at the whisky left in my glass and swore out loud to nobody. My mouth tasted like I had kissed my grandmother's neck after she put on her 'Avon' perfume... 

I stared hard at the bottle, like it was its fault I was striking out again!? I glanced down at the glass which of course was in cahoots with the whisky. I slowly poured the whisky into the sink. That's only the 3rd time in my thirty years of whisky imbibing that I have ever done that. Glen Breton 7, Johanne 0. I started to justify: "Maybe it's because I let it sit too long in the glass? I should have added a few drops of water? Some ice? Some ginger ale? Some gin? I drank two big glasses of water, not yet surrendered to the notion that this whisky and I would never get along damn it!!! One full hour later I poured another dram and repeated the process:

Nose: Took me awhile but eventually I got floral, fresh cut green grass,mint again and maybe a bit of vanilla but it was really faint. It was more delicate this time (assuming because it was fresh out of the bottle and not aired)

Palate: I cringed as I took another mouthful: Ack!! It filled every crevice with a flavoured gum from my childhood: And back to the sink... ready to spit but in defiance, I made myself swallow (no gutter jokes please). I sputtered, shook and coughed like a child given Buckley's syrup! I put the glass back on the kitchen table and gave it a wide berth of about six feet. Seriously!? What is wrong here....

About 15 minutes later Graham came through the door for lunch. I thrust the glass in his hand. Hmmm, not bad he says. I am stunned??! "You don't taste soap!!??", I almost stutter with what feels like tears starting in my eyes. "Nope, it's floral but no soap". A few days later I give the whisky blind to a friend almost in defiance at this point as I have convinced myself HE will taste soap. His review: "Meh, it's ok but not stellar". STILL NO SOAP.   

So there you have it. I know there are people out there somewhere who get these same flavour profiles as I do but apparently there are twice as many that simply don't. Bad for me, very good for Glenora. I really wish I liked their whiskies. I have to be proud of the fact that they make a Canadian Single Malt. I know for a fact two pubs in Saint John can't keep it on the shelves when the cruise ships arrive, the distillery is shipping the stuff by container load to China and there is a demand for and will be released into the European market very soon?! 

Now the other thing I didn't talk about is the price tag. I have always struggled with how much Glenora charges for their products. Now, you will recall that I highly recommended Stillwaters Stalk & Barrel Single Malt at $100/bottle. Why - Because I like it, it taste good AND it's important to support them now in their infancy so that they survive as a distillery down the line: 

Why won't I pay $100 for Glen Breton 14? Well, it should be obvious "we" don't get along. And... as I was stating, for me as well as a few other people who I asked to try it blind: It's simply mediocre in nature. I have said for sometime now that I personally feel Glenora is doing something wrong somewhere. It's like they are making whisky with less than stellar tools and/or process which means for me personally: At best, it's a $50 whisky being sold for $100. 

There you have it, I have been defeated by a Canadian Single Malt and I concede... Seven rounds, score is still 7-0 and Johanne is down and out. Oh and by the way #whiskyfabric if anyone wants to try the Glen Breton 10 blue label, the 10 Ice or the 14, please let me know I have plenty to share...   ;)