Monday, 6 May 2013

Three evenings at SMWS London

I don't often get the opportunity to spend an evening in the SMWS's London headquarters but a recent Trade Show held at Earls Court had me commuting down from Bedfordshire for three consecutive days. (I was originally scheduled for just two days manning our stand at the RailTex exhibition but my MD pulled out of his final shift and called me in at the last minute).

It so happens that 19 Greville Street, the London home of the SMWS, lies on the Bedford to London main line just a stones throw from Farringdon, and so my mission was to ensure I went home from Earls Court via Farringdon underground. If they had been open early for breakfast I would have made sure I was there for that too!

On my journey home after the first day of the show I could only stop for a couple of drams as I had foolishly left my car at the station and would have to drive home later. I carefully read the current out-turn and found an interesting bottling from Jura's only distillery, so first on the menu was 31.26

Whisky Discovery #410

SWMS 31.26 'BBQ Smoke by a Rolling Sea' 24 Year Old (53.6% abv)
Highland Island Single Cask Single Malt Whisky
I'd not come across a club bottling from the Isle of Jura before and was really looking forward to this recent release. Distilled on 27th September 1988 this was matured for 24 years in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, resulting in just 262 bottles at 53.6% abv)

It certainly didn't disappoint with some smoky aniseed and plenty of brine on the nose, along with the sweet scent of butterscotch popcorn. The peat smoke was much more forward on the palate, with a sweet and spicy BBQ sauce and earthy notes.

Knowing that I could only have one more dram I asked Phoebe (@whiskybars) for a recommendation and this recent bottling from the Ardbeg distillery was selected.

Whisky Discovery #411

SWMS 33.125 'Salted Caramel Lollipop' 7 Year Old (64.4% abv)
Islay Single Cask Single Malt Whisky
I love a peaty Islay whisky and this complemented the Jura perfectly. So this young Ardbeg was distilled on the 9th May 2005 and matured for just seven years in a first fill barrel yielding just 250 bottles at an impressive 64.4% abv.

It was delicious and just what I was expecting; lots of smoky peat, with notes of tobacco and leather on the nose. It started off a little medicinal to begin with on the palate but settled down to be more sooty. with some sweet smoke and a little brine.

With my fix for peat satisfied I made my way back to Farringdon Station, jumping on the first train heading towards Bedford only to find that the train I had jumped on was going to go right past my station without stopping. My wife and her friends had done just this only the week before, and I remembered laughing at them asking why they never read the information board beforehand, and here's me doing exactly the same thing. Unlike them I heard the train announcements on the journey (they would have been far too busy talking) and so made plans to hop off at Luton to wait for the next train that would stop for at my station.

Day 2 For my second day of playing commuter I'd organised being dropped off at the station in the morning so I would be able to have a couple of extra drams after the show. 

My show partner for day two was our Production Manager, Peter. I've worked with Peter for 15 years and we've had a few beers over that time, but never a whisky. Peter lives along the same main line into London, so it was fairly easy to convince him that we should stop off for a drink or two on the way home from the show. I had told him about the SMWS lounge and he was keen to find out more. With Peter not being a whisky drinker we started with a beer, settling for a 'Bitter and Twisted'  from the Harviestoun Brewery while I explained how the SMWS started and as we started reading our way through the menu, the numbering system and how the wonderfully inventive names are created along with the sometimes contradictory tasting notes printed on the labels.

Since 'converting' to whisky I have been very keen to preach what I have learnt so far and to demonstrate the vast range of smells and tastes that can be found in the different expressions.  Our first dram was chosen for us, and with the help of Sam (@DramforSam) we tried to convey some of the wonders that always amaze me in some fine whisky.

Whisky Discovery #412

SMWS 59.43 ''Caramel Swirl Ice Cream' 29 Year Old (56.4% abv)
Highland Single Cask Single Malt Whisky
We started of with one of the special 30th Anniversary bottlings and a 29 year old from the Teaninich Distillery. I'd not heard of this distillery before and had to look it up in Malt Yearbook to find our more! The majority of this whisky produced at Teaninich is used in the Johnnie Walker blends and it is all matured off site.

So this anniversary dram was distilled on the 8th November 1983 and matured for 29 years in a refill hogshead yielding 252 bottles at 56.4% abv

This started with sweet fruity notes, especially pineapple, and there was plenty of vanilla caramel too. It was quite dry on the palate, black tea like, yet still quite sweet and creamy, a great start to our evening!

For our next dram I thought we should try something young and lively, light and fragrant and Sam chose this Mortlach for us. I tend to think of Mortlach as a sherried whisky, usually with an element of 'struck match' to it but this was not the case with this single cask offering:

Whisky Discovery #413

SMWS 76.95 'Tropical Fruit Salad' (58.2% abv)
Speyside Single Cask Single Malt Whisky
A ten year old distilled in 2001 matured in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead yielding 307 bottles at 58.2% abv. Tropical fruit is what it said on the label, and tropical fruit is what we got!

After two quite light fruity numbers I wanted Peter to experience a sherry cask and asked Sam to find a suitable number. An eleven year old from the Glen Moray distillery was poured

Whisky Discovery #414

SMWS 35.86 'A Sumptuous Breakfast Dram' 11 Year Old (59.3% abv)
Speyside Lossie Single Cask Single Malt Whisky
A fabulous contrast to the first two drams which was immediately noticed by my guest. This Glen Moray was distilled on 17th May 2001 and matured in a First-fill ex-sherry butt yielding 629 bottles at 59.3% abv

With a fabulous rich nose of toast and rich marmalade, polished wood and dates. Wonderfully rich on the palate with a heavy fruit cake, perhaps just the hint of struck match? Peter's first thoughts when nosing this whisky was that it reminded him of the gas used in the dentists when he was a child, and I told him that there were no right or wrong answers, it's all perception from your own experiences.

With a tick in the box for a sherry cask malt, I though I would try to explain the difference between a single malt and a single grain. Sam recommended his current favourite and poured us our next dram

Whisky Discovery #415

SMWS G4.2 'Attractive spirit in a cloak of oak' 28 Year Old (55.4% abv)
Single Cask Single Grain Whisky
A single cask grain whisky from the Cameronbridge Distillery, distilled on the 6th April 1984 and matured in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead for twenty eight years, yielding just 218 bottles at 55.4% abv

I explained to Peter the differences between grain whisky and single malts, and that the majority of whisky made is grain, and used for blended whisky. I told him what I had recently learnt following our Glory of the Grain tweet tasting a few weeks back, and that a good single grain whisky is all about the wood it's been matured in.

There was plenty of wood notes in this one, it reminded me of the wood shop we had at the yard, where we would season some of the best cuts of wood naturally. There were also notes of tobacco and sweetness of a rich honey. Quite bourbon-esque on the palate, sweet with a hint of liquorice.

I was keen to show Peter some peated whisky next and so we moved our tasting journey across to Islay. Sam picked this next one as it was a good balance between the peated spirit and a sherry cask

Whisky Discovery #416

SMWS 3.193 'Baby Faced Arsonist' 14 Year Old (57.7% abv)
Islay Single Cask Single Malt Whisky
So this Bowmore was distilled on the 25th September 1997 and matured in a refill sherry but for 14 years, yielding 601 bottles at 57.7% abv

A lovely sweet scented smoke came across on the nose, but there was a definite maritime note underlying with a salty seaweed type note. On the palate the maritime note was foremost to me with smoked mackerel with honey and mustard. I loved this and thought it was a great introduction to the peated spirit

With time ticking on, and now knowing that I had to make a return journey the following morning (my notice came via a text message during our adventure) I went back to Sam for our last dram for the evening. I wanted something a little more medicinal.

Whisky Discovery #417

SMWS 53.176 'Pain is so close to Pleasure' 20 Year Old (56.6% abv)
Islay Single Cask Single Malt Whisky
What a fabulous name for this twenty year old Caol Ila. It was a single cask Caol Ila that started me off on my whisky journey, so a fitting end to the evening? Distilled on the 17th January 1992, this was matured in a refill hogshead for twenty eight years yielding 285 bottles at 56.6% abv

Great Islay nose with heavily peated notes, although by no means as heavy as a Laphroaig or Port Charlotte (I'll try that with Peter next time). Wood smoke and barbecued mackerel complete with burnt skin, a touch of menthol too. It's peaty on the palate and quite different to the previous Bowmore. 

A perfect end to our evening which had me savouring this for the first part of the journey home. So what was our favourite? Peter really liked the sherried Glen Moray, 35.86 which I must admit was a damn fine dram (I went back the following evening with every intention of revisiting it alongside 35.85, but there was none of the earlier release left). For me The Caol Ila was my favourite of the evening, but it was a close call between the six excellent drams chosen.

Day 3 My re-arranged third day at the trade show was spent with our Sales Manager Philip, the man who first introduced me to whisky and so I was planning on taking him to 19 Greville Street after the show. Unfortunately he already had other commitments and so I returned alone.

It was a glorious afternoon in London so I started with a cold beer - I needed it! I sat down to review the menu while contemplating whether I should make an evening of it or return home in time to make the Balblair Tweet Tasting scheduled for later on in the evening. I had come prepared, bringing both whisky samples and glasses with me so I could take part wherever I ended up at eight o'clock. I decided (quite sensibly) that I should make my way home for it and settled for just one dram before catching the six o'clock train home.

Running through the menu I was intrigued by the description of this:

Whisky Discovery #418

SMWS 85.23 'Burnt granary toast with bramble jelly' 12 Year Old (59.4% abv)
Speyside Lossie Single Cask Single Malt Whisky
I later found out that this was from the Glen Elgin distillery, another new one to me and one you don't see around ordinarily. This distillery too is owned by Diageo and usually found in blended whisky only.

Distilled in September 1999 and matured for 12 years in an ex-sherry butt, yielding 367 bottles at 59.4% this has the typical sherry influence note of struck matches. I quite like the light sulpher notes when it's like this. There's also that yeasty note when making a granary loaf. It's sweet on the palate though as the label note says quite aggressive, though I'm not sure if that was because of the high abv. A drop of water gives that burnt toast note and the jammy note compliments the toast!

So in three evenings of dropping into the SMWS London home I had made nine new whisky discoveries, but to be fair I could find a new whisky discovery every evening for a long time in this place! I'd also introduced a friend to the pleasure of a quality single malt who has already asked when will we be going back again.

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