Saturday, 5 November 2011

A flight of fancy

Choice. Everyone wants it, it is positive, it allows us to select only what we want. But what do we do when we want it all?
I love whisky. Scotch, Irish, American, even the Australian and Swedish ones tried in the last week were eye openers. The trouble is there are so many of them – The Whisky Exchange lists 1869 single malts alone. Add in the fact that each of these cost anything from £20 up to £15 000 then choice starts look decidedly tricky.
I may however have found a small weapon in this struggle.  I spent a night this week at Albannach, a whisky bar and restaurant on London’s Trafalgar Square ( I could not quite bring myself to count how many whiskies are on the menu at Albarnnach but you can be sure it is a three digit number. Choice!
So when presented with the menu I struggled, until I noticed the flights that is. I know flights are nothing new and not only done in whisky but this was the first time I had been in a position to try one that was really thought out and designed to work as a whole. There were several on offer from the ‘Whisky Tour’ and ‘Sommeliers Choice’ to the ‘Classic Malts’. In the end I went for ‘Cask Finishes’. A few short minutes later and in front of me, in an interesting antler for a platter, were a Glenmorangie Astar, Glenfiddich 21, Auchentoshan Three Wood, Bowmore Darkest 15 and a 1994 Lagavulin.
I went through my flight in the order above starting with the Glenmo. I’ll be honest, I don’t drink much Glenmorangie, not for any particular reason other than I don’t often get round to it. The Astar here is probably not going to change that significantly. Yes, it was good. The American cask finish (what was it in before being finished in American?) gave it a real Bourbon hit – all the flavours one expects – caramel, toffee and vanilla. If however I wanted a dram that tasted like bourbon I think I would go for a bourbon.
Next up was the Glenfiddich 21 Year Old which earns its place in a cask finish line up courtesy of 4 months in a bourbon cask that has served its duty holding Caribbean rum. That Caribbean influence adds some fruit to the profile in the form of figs, banana and a fudge like sweetness. The sheer length of time in the wood means that there are some of the woody tobacco notes but the Glenfiddich DNA of a grassy freshness is still there. Overall, a sublime malt and one I know to go back to.
The midpoint of my tran-Scotland flight meant heading down south to the outskirts of Glasgow for some Auchentoshan Three Wood. The three woods in question are the ubiquitous American oak followed by Olorosso casks and finally Pedro Ximenez, each giving their own influence. Unsurprisingly wood is right up there in terms of its flavours but a wood with a real nutty side to it. Wood sweetnesses like caramel and treacle with a bit of banoffee pie add to the fun. This was not the first time I have drunk the Three Wood and it is safe to say it will not be the last.
The first half of my home straight was the Bowmore 15, a malt that has spent the last 2 years in Olorosso wood. That sherry influence makes unusual things happen when it competes with the Islay peat smoke. In the end I found myself thinking about eating a bar of dark South American chocolate while sitting in a cigar lounge. Can’t argue with the joy in that.
The final stop on my journey through cask finishes was something else altogether; Lagavulin 1994 Distillers Edition. What is so impressive here is the achievement of balance and a complete contrast. To the nose the Lagavulin was, well, Lagavulin – a real big hit of peat and smoke. This is exactly what I expected to get when I took a sip but instead there was a clear sweetness, almost honey. This honey then rolled through sticky raisin and golden syrup before reaching the Islay peat hit that I had initially expected. This Islay character continued into the finish which lasted as long as any I have tried before. And there it was – real contract but somehow delivered in perfect balance. Lagavulin 1994 really was the perfect stop to end this flight, if nothing else I am not sure I would have been able to taste anything after.
So there we have it. Presented with bewildering choice the answer was simple – allow someone else to narrow it down to the point where the answer became clear. Choice really is a positive but with over 100 distilleries in Scotland producing multiple releases every year it seems that a little guidance along the way can really set you on the right flight of fancy.

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