The big whisky discovery of the past few weeks has been not only that the Swiss actually distill whisky, but that it’s not bad. They changed the laws in 1999 permitting spirits distilled from grain, so allowing for a legal minimum of eight years maturation in the barrel, these whiskies are coming of age now. The one I sample at Kunsthalle in Basel is called Säntis Malt/Swiss Highlander/Appenzeller Single Malt and is, according to the label, matured in old oak beer casks. Nowhere does it call itself a whisky, however, their Appenzell Säntis Malt Dreifaltigkeit has been nominated “European Whisky of the Year 2010” by leading expert Jim Murray. We would call the Swiss “highlands” the Alps, and they claim extra purity from using pure alpine water.
I’m amazed they can get away with calling it Highlander, especially after the Canadian single malt Glen Breton Rare was ordered to cease and desist using the Glen nomenclature. Actually, the Scottish Whisky Association, who fought the copyright case right up through the Supreme Court of Canada, eventually lost in June 2009, so perhaps their grasp is slipping.
Before heading out on our recent European trip, when I knew I would be buying some fine single malts in duty-free, I had a little Scotch nosing of my own to check out a couple of new purchases. My former colleague Jim, with whom I have shared a fair number of pleasant Scotch drinking experiences, mostly our favourite Johnnie Walker Black , has been invited along to sample these new blends. Jim is a fine public speaker, executive rock band leader and all round good guy. During my time as an event producer, it’s been my pleasure to work with him on numerous big occasions. I’m not sure where the tradition started, but at one early morning event there happened to be a bottle of Johnnie Black lying around in the green room backstage. Jim and I thought we would have a wee dram, a heart-starter if you will, before the proceedings got under way. He was even more loquacious than usual, and I like to think my contribution to the show was above standard. That was about 15 years ago, and we kept the wee dram thing going. So who better to help unravel the mysteries of my two new additions? After a leisurely dinner Diane and Jim’s wife Deb retire to the living room and we get down to business.
We first tune our taste buds with a nosing of Johnnie Walker Double Black. As I’ve written before, this is Johnnie Black only more so. It’s a blend of Caol Ila and Lagavulin (from Islay), Talisker (from the Isle of Skye), Glendullan and Mortlach (from Speyside), a few more besides, topped up with grain whisky from Cameron Brig.
We note it has a big nose, it’s smooth and smoky and has a lighter finish.
Next we open a new bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve. This is a rebranding of the old Gold 18-year-old without an age statement. It’s a blend of more than 15 single malts, aged between 15 and 18 years. It’s lighter on the nose, sweet with honey notes and a big finish.
Finally, we try Johnnie Walker Explorers’ Club Collection – The Spice Road. This is the first of three Explorers’ Club blends to be released and then only in duty free stores. We both agree that this is an excellent Scotch for those just getting into appreciating whiskies. It’s zesty on the nose, mild and smooth.
We reward our efforts with a visit to the Scotch bucket for a fine single malt. I thought I had illustrated the bucket before, but have apparently only described it. This is where all the opened bottles live, and no new ones are opened until there’s a gap to be filled. Primitive inventory control, but effective.
Very recently, at the duty-free shop at Manchester airport, I’m offered a taste of Johnnie Walker Platinum Label. This is a blend of 18-year-old whiskies and only recently available. It’s classic Johnnie Walker on the nose, very fruity on the palate. I’m trying this around breakfast time before boarding my flight, so I might be biased, but I really like it. I’d like to buy a bottle, but even in duty-free it’s expensive. I settle for two single malts, one unknown to me – Benromach, a Speyside 10-year-old – and one I’d only been introduced to a few days before – Ardmore, a Highland whisky, mainly used in blending Teacher’s.
In England, I’ve met up with Stephen and Ben, who’ve both expressed interest in appreciating Scotch more fully. Ben has quite a collection and he offers to bring over a selection for us to taste. I offer to crack open a virgin bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. We tidy up the little cottage and set out trays of nibbles, delicious offerings from Marks and Spencer’s food halls, one shop we really miss in Canada.
Our tour of Scotland starts, as before, with a small nosing of Johnnie Walker Double Black, which we agree is smoky, smooth and mellow with a good finish. Then we sample three of Ben’s collection of single malts:
– Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia Selection named for the iconic Scottish singer and composer, who hails from Caledonia naturally. This is a 12-year-old from Scotland’s smallest distillery, Edradour, in Pitlochry, where only three men produce a mere 12 casks of whisky a week, so it’s hard to find. We find it smooth, with floral and oaky taste notes, a creamy texture and perhaps a hint of smokiness.
– Ardmore Traditional Cask has no age statement, but is offered at 46 percent, stronger than most whiskies. We sip it undiluted and then again with a drop of water to release the flavours. The distillery claims it is the only one that still uses the smoke from natural highland peat to dry the barley, and the peatiness clearly comes through. At full strength we experience the explosion of rich flavours, and after a touch of water is added find the fruit notes. We enjoy this very much and I determine to add it to my Scotch Bucket, hence my purchase above.
– Bowmore Legend also has no age statement. It’s from the oldest distillery on the island of Islay (pronounced eye-la) where the single malts are renowned for their peaty smokiness. This is very smooth, we get a hint of saltiness from the sea air and a slight peaty taste.
It’s a fine tasting trio of single malts and we toast Ben for his contribution. We are in grand form when we crack open the Johnnie Walker Blue Label in its silk lined box and get down to some serious enjoyment of Scotch whisky. Not too late, Stephen and Ben head out for a nightcap at The Parish Oven our friendly local pub at the end of the lane, very close to Stephen’s house and where Ben’s ride home awaits.
PS: Also at Manchester Airport duty-free, I purchase two perfect little whisky glasses, called the Glencairn Glass. I’ve yet to try them out, but I’m impressed that this glass won the Queen’s Award for Innovation in 2006. Any glass that makes Scotch taste better is to be treasured. They’re available online.