Notebook – October 2021

A Speyside whisky from The Wine Society is among the bottles reviewed by drinks blogger Peter Ranscombe.

THERE’S a distinct “Speyside” theme to the latest in this occasional series of articles, during which I delve into my tasting notebook to share some recent discoveries.

In a move you might not expect, there’s also a “smoky” note woven into a couple of parts of the Speyside selection.

Let’s start though with another very special release from The Wine Society…

The Society’s Reserve Cask Selection Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky 1991 (£95, The Wine Society)
Following the success of last year’s maiden release from its reserve cask selection, The Wine Society is back with another whisky. Up until 1992, the wine-selling co-operative shipped sherry in barrels from Spain and bottled the fortified wine at its headquarters in Stevenage, before sending the casks north to us in Scotland to be filled with new-make spirit that would become the society’s own label single malts and blends. Going on sale this evening, this Speyside single malt is a combination of four hogsheads and two butts, back from the days when “sherry casks” really were casks that had contained sherry, and not simply seasoned with it. The result is really fruity, full of lemon and peach, with sweeter runny honey, caramel, and fudge. Even better than last year’s example.

Benriach Smoke Season Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky (£50.95, The Whisky Exchange)
Sticking with Speyside and different insight into our whisky industry’s past. Back in the days before mains gas, coal, and other exotic fuels, peat was burned to heat the husks of barley so that they’d sprout – or “malt” – and could be fermented into a beer and then distilled into a whisky. In effect, most whiskies would have taken on the peated character we now associate most closely with Islay – including what we now think of the sweet sherried Scotch of Speyside. Benriach has always kept up the tradition, with at least part of its production run each year turned over to peated whiskies. Its new “smoke season” whisky is its smokiest Scotch yet, with heavy smoke, TCP antiseptic, and roast meat joining the classic vanilla and honey on the nose. Adding a drop of water brings out more of those honey and caramel tones on the palate, along with lemon and biscuit, but it’s the roast meat that wins the race to the finish line.

The Balvenie Week of Peat 17-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (£115, Clink)
Benriach isn’t the only game in town though when it comes to smoky Speyside whiskies. Balvenie has also recently released its “week of peat” through Clink, parent company Grants’ new direct-to-consumer website, also home to stablemates Glenfiddich and Hendrick’s Gin. The result of an experiment 17 years ago by distillery manager Ian Millar, the “week of peat” offers surprisingly gentle woodsmoke on the nose, which doesn’t overpower the dark chocolate, redcurrant, and roast meat. The peat shines more on the palate, but again doesn’t interfere with the sweet honey and toffee notes. Really impressive balance here.

Glenmorangie The Lighthouse 12-year-old Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky (£197, Scotch Galore)
Glenmorangie recently opened its new experimental distillery, called The Lighthouse. Staves from casks were incorporated into the walls of the building, with the whisky that was slumbering inside being bottled and turned into this limited edition “the lighthouse” bottling. On the nose, it’s full of those classic Glenmorangie aromas, ranging from vanilla and honey through to caramel, but with a sweeter milk chocolate element and a really salty finish.

Waterford Organic Gaia 1.1 Irish Single Malt Whisky (£76.95, Royal Mile Whiskies)
Nope, that’s not a typo – it’s an Irish “whiskey” but without the “e”. Mark Reynier – famous for reviving Bruichladdich distillery on Islay – is making Irish whiskey using Scotch whisky techniques. He’s created a range of whiskies made using barleys from single farms to highlight the role that the crop plays in determining the flavour of the final spirit. More on those to follow, but – in the meantime – I just had to rave about the whisky he’s created from organic barley. It’s really expressive on the nose, with orange and caramel notes in among the grain, baby sick, and woody aromas. On the palate, it’s sweeter and lusher than the single farm whiskies, with sweet honey, golden syrup, raspberry, strawberry jam, chocolate, caramel, and vanilla. Part of that interesting selection of flavours comes from the mixture of casks in which the whisky has aged, featuring 42% first-fill American oak, 17% virgin American oak, 18% Vin Doux Naturel sweet fortified wines from the South of France, and 23% French oak.

Read more of Peter’s spirits, wine, and beer reviews on his blog, The Grape & The Grain