DIARY: Stuffing ourselves with excellent food at an annual feast.
TASTE TESTING: Johnny Walker Double Black and four single malts from Speyside: Mortlach, McClelland’s, Benromach and Ardmore.
We’ve stuffed ourselves with roast turkey basted in butter, two savoury stuffings, herbed potatoes roasted in duck fat and Doug Webb’s excellent FTT* rainbow carrots, Brussels sprouts and beets from his Sutton farm. The feast was a week too late for the great Canadian Thanksgiving, but we gave thanks anyway. After the table was cleared and before the onslaught of pumpkin pie, a tray of special whisky nosing glasses and a tiny glass pitcher of filtered water were brought out.
Diane has bought me these glasses, billed as the “official” whisky glass, two at Manchester duty-free and when they worked out well, another two at a great kitchen shop at Yonge and Bloor, a few doors south of the Cookbook Store, all now swallowed by condo development. The Glencairn Glass has the shape of the traditional nosing glasses used by whisky masters in Scotland, with the added convenience of a solid base. The design was rewarded with the Queen’s Award for Innovation. I’m sure a few have found their way to Balmoral for Her Majesty’s enjoyment.
The tapering mouth of the glass is actually better suited to drinking single malt than the traditional nosing glass and the wide bowl allows one to swirl the whisky around in an expert manner and make all sorts of pronouncements about the flavours one can find. Personally, I’m hopeless at this. Sometimes the whiskies promise heather, leather, all sorts of fruits and flowers, chocolate and more, but I’m usually stuck after finding one grace note, if any, and then only the most obvious ones, such as smoky, peaty or sweet. Each to their own. I can enjoy them just as much without all the fuss.
Guests have brought three fine whiskies to taste and I produce two bottles still unopened from my last visit to duty free. Captain Clive is an old sailing buddy with a good taste for whisky (see my blog A TALE OF THREE JOHNNIES). Commodore Dave writes of his extensive cruising experiences under that name and brought along a special 21-year old. Mrs. Commodore came too and joined the “nosing,” taking notes as well. Amanda contributed a bottle as a present, but did not join us, so eventually there were four round the table and four in the kitchen. Both parties seemed equally pleased with their duties.
We start with a good snifter full of Johnny Walker Double Black. I’ve reviewed this fine blended whisky before, perhaps a favourite in the whole Johnny Walker line, but it’s a good one to start with and cleanse our palates for the single malts to come. Last time I reviewed it with Captain Clive we decided it was very smoky, smooth, the charred oak flavour coming through as well as a spicy aftertaste. This time our group thought it had a very peaty nose with caramel grace notes. Out of 5 it averaged a score of 4.25. Not bad to start with.
Next we begin a journey through Speyside. Our completely random choices are four of the more than four dozen single malts produced in this north eastern region of Scotland.
We start with Mortlach, from a distillery owned by Gordon and MacPhail. The 21-year-old whisky was purchased by Commodore Dave on his recent cruise around Britain at Loch Fyne in Inverary. As a single malt it’s rare because most of the distillery’s output goes into blends. The experts suggest it has caramel and soft fruits on the nose. We thought it very smooth, less peaty with floral and honey notes. The score averaged 4.9. Getting better.
Then we moved on to McClelland’s Speyside. This brand was first launched by the company in 1986 with Highland, Lowland and Islay versions. This Speyside iteration was launched in 1999. The four are among the top sellers in the US. The experts look for mint, pine and chocolate. We found it light on the nose, mild, with a resin finish. Score: 3.
Next we tasted Benromach. Gordon and MacPhail bought the distillery, founded in 1898 and closed in 1983, and saved it from destruction. They built new stills and the distillery was officially re-opened by Prince Charles in 1999. This 10-year-old was judged very peaty, a very harsh raw spirit. Score: 2.
Finally a wee dram of Ardmore. This single malt owes its existence to Teacher’s Highland Cream, where it was long part of the blend, and was sold through Teacher’s Dram Shops. Ardmore is noted for being the smokiest single malt on Speyside. We found it lightly peaty, somewhat smoky, with caramel notes and like the previous tasting, judged too harsh. Score: 3.
At the end our panel was divided, but I decided to try some of these single malts with ice and found them much more tolerable. In fact, at the risk of being called a Sassenach, I much prefer whisky on the rocks and that’s how I drink all of them, from simple blends to the oldest single malts. As the ice melts, it softens the roughest spirit and cools the fiercest temperature. After our tasting, we had recovered enough to enjoy traditional pumpkin pie, and our guests safely rolled out into taxis and a pleasant autumn night. The surviving bottles either went home with their owners or into the Scotch Bucket for another day and another round.
*FTT = Farm-to-the-table, an acronym for fruits and veggies which have come directly from the farm where they were grown, less than 100 km away from your table, to your plate, with all their flavour and texture intact, free from the ills of being picked before ripe, long distance transportation, refrigeration and preservatives.
This article was originally published on November 7, 2013.