Glenturret (G&M 1999/2018)

Whisky and stills and cats, oh my!

Do you like whisky? Do you like cats? If you’re anything like me then the answer is a resounding “Yes!” to both questions. The world would be immeasurably less enjoyable place if either delicious drams or furry feline friends were— *gulp*— absent from it. I have had held both whisky and cats close to my heart for some time but these loves occupy different parts of my life. Like parallel roads, whisky and cats run through the course of my life but never meet. Indeed, it never really occurred to me that they could intersect. How could this possibly even occur? Perhaps some kind of cat café, like the kind popularised in Japan, but which served whisky instead of tea alongside cat companionship? Perhaps a Maine Coon trained by search-and-rescue teams to carry miniature drams of whisky to lost travellers, akin to the barrel-carrying St Bernard dogs that historically worked in the Swiss Alps? It all seems a bit absurd. But then I found it: a point of intersection. The mediating middle of the Venn diagram where the circle “Love of Whisky” overlaps with the circle “Love of Cats”. Glenturret Distillery.

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Cold and crisp welcome to the distillery

Glenturret Distillery is located in the Southern Highlands and can be found amidst the rolling hillsides of Perthshire. Established in 1775, like many distilleries it has suffered from some stops-and-starts in production throughout the years. Glenturret might not be an immediately recognisable name to whisky drinkers as much of what it produces goes for blending and only recently have they begun to emphasise their single malt. In Australia we don’t get very much of this single malt either. The ownership of the distillery changed hands in late 2018, just a short time before our visit, so hopefully the new owners will make the Glenturret single malt more easily accessible down under.

The distillery itself is equipped with a stainless steel mash tun which, idiosyncratically, has an open top that exposes its contents to the elements and that requires stirring by hand (rather than by machine). This open mash tun is said to be the last remaining one of its kind in Scotland, which certainly explains why I have never seen its’ like in all my other distillery tours. The distillery also has eight Douglas fir washbacks and a pair of stills with vertical condensers. The stillroom is the heart of any distillery and the highlight of a tour. As you bask in the radiant heat from these copper giants you can’t help but wonder at the seemingly magical way they convert sugary wort into clear, concentrated spirit.

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Magic of the still room

But I was broken free from their spell at Glenturret when I spied a very unusual addition to the stillroom: a small cat flap entry from the outside, complete with a tiny ramp for feline legs.

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& what a glorious little house it is!

Whilst in Scotland you are spoilt for choice when it comes to planning your travel itinerary. There is simply so many great distilleries to visit but, as a tourist, only a limited amount of time. Careful planning is key and so is making some tough choices about where you have time to visit and where you do not. But how to choose between all the available distillery options? “We’re coming for your cats” I typed into the ‘comments’ section of the Glenturret tour booking webpage. “Sounds like a threat” my husband piped up. What I was trying to convey in my message was that the long, storied association between Glenturret distillery and their cats was the tipping point for choosing this particular distillery for inclusion on our latest Scottish roadtrip. I deleted the comment but I confirmed the booking.

The cats that I was “coming for”, the cats who benefit from the catflap into the warm and cozy stillroom, are Glen and Turret. They may be unusual brand ambassadors but they certainly appear to enjoy their visitor-meeting and marketing duties, indeed they each even have a special single-cask whisky named after them.

  To see a cat at a distillery is a welcome oddity in modern times but historically there would have been a more practical purpose for their presence. Given that whisky production requires huge amounts of barley, which distilleries in times past may have needed to stockpile at certain times, unwelcome visitors of the rodent variety would have plagued their premises. And who better to catch a rodent than a cat? Whilst Glen and Turret may no longer be needed to undertake these traditional mousing duties, the history of Glenturret includes a cat recognised in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful mouser of all time. Towser, a long-haired tortoiseshell cat, lived at the distillery from 1963 to 1987 and is estimated to have despatched a prodigious 28,899 mice during her tenure. Her impressive feat is immortalised in a statue erected near the stillroom as well as the merchandise bearing her proud (and somewhat scary) visage.

towser
A true legend of her time!

But let us put the cats of Glenturret aside for a minute in order to focus in on their whisky. The whisky I am reviewing today is an independent bottling from Gordon & Macphail of a Glenturret single malt, distilled in 1999 and bottled on 22 February 2018. It is a first fill sherry hogshead with an outturn of just 265 bottles at a cask strength of 51.6%.

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Our own little resident cat

Nose: Fresh cherries, rose petals, cranberries, ripe red apple, walnut and a hint of milk chocolate

Palate: Immediate sweetness. Caramel slice, potpourri, pink grapefruit, lemon pith, a touch of oak and some quality nougat. A long finish with a viscous mouthfeel, ending in some slight aniseed notes.

An exceptional dram. One of the best I’ve tasted for a while. Restrained and complex but still approachable, at once elegant as well as a crowd-pleaser. Whilst the distillery’s cats may have lured me in their single malt is drawcard enough on its own.

17.5/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here

Oban 21 Year Old

Oban, but not as you know it

Located on the west coast of Scotland, Oban is a dainty port town built around a natural bay (indeed the word “Oban” translates to “little bay” in Scots Gaelic). Whilst Oban may be a small town it has a lot going on. The port is a hive of activity with grizzled fisherman plying their trade, local seafood restaurants serving up the days’ catch, and tourists and locals alike being ferried in and out of the far-flung Hebridean isles. The inner parts of the town are crammed with shops, pubs and hotels, whilst houses perch on the steep surrounding hills. At the top of everything is McCaig’s Tower: an unlikely and imposing granite monument, modelled after the Roman Colosseum, that overlooks the entire town below.

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At the heart of the town—just a street or so from the water, down a side-alley and opposite the neon lights of a Chinese restaurant— is Oban Distillery. It has been here since 1794, long before much of the rest of the town. Like the town itself this distillery is small, producing just 650,000 litres a year from its two stills. Nestled against the cliff-face and hemmed in by the growing town around it, the distillery’s owners once unsuccessfully tried to make more room by trying to carve directly into the rock itself. But despite Oban Distillery’s small size their ownership by the beverage giant Diageo gives them global reach- I can vouch for the fact that their whisky can be found half a world away in Australia.

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The core Oban Distillery expression is the 14 Year Old. In this whisky the distillery’s use of minimally-peated malt and practice of maturing mainly in refill American oak barrels produces a crowd-pleasing salted caramel flavour profile (with the barest whisper of smoke) that’s bottled at an easy-drinking 43% ABV. Last year, however, saw the release of a whisky which showcased a very different side to Oban. The Oban 21 Year Old came out as part of the limited-edition 2018 Diageo Special Releases range. It is matured instead in refill European oak butts and is bottled at a much higher cask strength of 57.9% ABV.

oban still

Nose: Green apple and cut grass at first, giving way to raspberry jubes, peach and honey blossom. A surprising hit of freshly ground coffee.

Palate: Orange, cinnamon spice and black pepper heat. Oak and a follow-through of the bitter coffee notes from the nose.

A warming and long finish.

oban 21

Oban whisky but certainly not as you know it! A complex dram that has a very different flavour profile from the core expression, with no salted caramel in sight. And like the town of Oban itself this whisky has a lot going on. Oban may be a small distillery in a small town—but good things do come in small packages after all.

16/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here.

Scapa Distillery Reserve Collection

A wild windswept part of the world, and a distillery exclusive

Welcome whisky drinkers, I am back after a short hiatus!

Today I’ll be reviewing a whisky from a distillery located on the rugged Orkney Islands. You may have read my previous review of whiskies from Highland Park, but this will instead be a review of their nearby Orcadian compatriots at Scapa distillery.

Scapa was established in 1885 and is located just outside Kirkwall, a quick 5-10 minutes drive from Highland Park. The distillery is perched high up on the cliffs that surround the picturesque Scapa Flow and the distillery itself is a great vantage point for viewing the tumultuous swirl of waves through the bay. Apparently, this area was a very important naval base in both World Wars due to its strategic location. Many sunken wrecks of various warships now litter the surrounding seabed, hidden from view to all but the intrepid diver.

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Like many Scottish distilleries, Scapa has had its high and low points. Production ceased during World War II and the distillery was even mothballed at one stage (1994-2004). Refurbishments have since been carried out and the distillery and visitors centre were warm and welcoming during my visit to the Orkney Islands in mid-2017.

Currently Scapa produces ~1 million litres per year. A particularly interesting aspect of this process is their idiosyncratic use of a Lomond still as one of their two stills. Lomond stills look very different to the usual kind of still – they consist of a pot topped with a neck fitted with several plates, each of which can be turned on or off in order to imitate the effects of a still with a very short neck, a long neck or anything in between. These changes to the still shape consequently change the flavour profile of the spirit that the still produces. Lomond stills have now largely vanished from whisky production and only a handful remain in use in Scotland. Bruichladdich, for example, now uses their Lomond still to produce their “Botanist” gin. However, Scapa continues to use theirs for whisky and this is a rare treat indeed.

Scapa does not have a particularly large core range nor does it have much market presence in my home country of Australia. In recent years Scapa’s flagship bottling was a 16 Year Old but this has been discontinued and replaced by the NAS bottlings Skiren and Glansa. However, from time to time you can find a Scapa limited edition, often thematically linked to the naval history of the Scapa Flow area, or an independent bottling from brands like Gordon & McPhail or Douglas Laing. The particular bottle I am reviewing today is a distillery exclusive, so unless you fancy making the trek to Orkney you might need to cross you fingers that your go-to local or internet distributor gets some stock in.

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The Distillery Reserve Collection is a 12 Year Old bottled at cask strength – 58.5%. It was distilled 10 June 2003 and bottled 29 July 2015.  The high ABV is a welcome feature of this whisky.

Nose: Tropical fruits – pineapples and peaches. Bubblegum; really saccharine sweet. Definite hints of banana and toffee.

Palate: Crisp fresh pears. Vanilla. Light caramel. Cereal kind of notes – Weetbix with a generous spoonful of sugar and a splash of milk. Under-ripe almonds.

Finish: Although its not a short finish it is a little one-dimensional. More sweet caramel notes and some pleasing warmth.

Scapa dram

Conclusion: This is a nice whisky, quite straightforward and easy-drinking. The nose is very sweet and so is the palate but the palate gains some additional depth from its freshe fruit notes.

14/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here

Hakushu Distillery

A long way from Scotland… and Australia!

On my recent trip to Japan I spent a week in Kobuchizawa, a regional town located about 2 hours by train from Tokyo. As luck would have it this town is incredibly close to the Hakushu whisky distillery in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture. How could I not stop in for a visit?

My first full day in town was a glorious spring morning and the perfect time to go. On weekends a regular shuttlebus runs from the Kobuchizawa train station to Hakushu. In true Japanese fashion the shuttlebus ran exactly to time, with the second hand clicking over the minute mark on my watch at the same time as we pulled away from the kerb. The shuttlebus then began to wind its way through the vibrant and densely forested foothills of Mount Kaikomagatake (about 700 metres above sea level). This area is part of the ‘Southern Japanese Alps’ and the spot was specifically chosen for Hakushu distillery because of the mild climate and pristine water sources nearby.

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The tree-lined path to Hakushu

After about 15 minutes we arrived at distillery itself, nestled deep within the forest. There were two tours on offer and I opted for the longer of the two, the “Story of Hakushu” tour and tasting. Given that the distillery is located in Japan it is no surprise that the tours are conducted in Japanese. Audio guides in other languages are available and I found the English guide to be fairly informative but basic. I did wish that I knew a bit more Japanese so that I could have asked the tour guide some questions.

The tour started with a video presentation on the history of both Hakushu distillery and its parent company, Suntory. Shinjiro Torii opened a store in 1899 to sell imported wines. In 1921 this business became the Kotubokiya Company, which two years later built Yamazaki distillery, Japan’s first whisky distillery. In 1963 the Kotubokiya Company changed its name to the (more familiar) Suntory Limited. Given the demand for Yamazaki whisky Suntory decided that they needed an additional distillery and thus Hakushu was built in 1973. In 1981 Hakushu was the largest distillery in the world! Master Blender Keizo Saji, the son of the company’s founder Shinjiro Torri, wanted the whisky from Hakushu to be distinctly different from that of Yamazaki. One of these key differences is the local Hokuta water sources, which pass through granite rock and are therefore apparently incredibly light and pure.

After the video the tour continued with a visit to the mash tun and wooden washbacks. We stopped outside the stillroom (sadly cordoned off behind a glass barrier) where we saw the six different shapes/styles/sizes of still Hakushu uses for the first distillation and the six different shapes/styles/sizes of still they use for the second distillation. These variations in still size apparently produce great variation in the resulting spirits and thus give the Master Blender lots of options to work with when determining the profile of a Hakushu whisky. You can see the different necks in the photos below.

We then hopped on a bus that took us to the warehouse. The audio system on the bus played a recorded message that warned passengers that the warehouse smelled very strongly and to remain on the bus if they were concerned! The idea that someone could dislike the heavenly warehouse aroma of oak, earth and whisky is wholly inconceivable to me- personally, I love it. The warehouse itself was massive with row after row of casks on metal shelves stretching far away into the darkness.

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The massive warehouse

When we returned from the warehouse the tasting part of the tour began. This started with tastes of each of the component whiskies of Hakushu: white oak cask, lightly-peated, heavily-peated (certainly not by Islay standards), and the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve. Next we learned all about the mixed-drink “Morikarou Highball” (see my post on Japanese Highballs here). The tour then ended in a very fitting Japanese manner with everyone bowing to each other.

There was also lots to do at Hakushu beyond just the tour. There was an onsite restaurant where I had a delicious lunch, complete with a couple more Highballs. I picked up some small gifts and chocolates at the gift store but the distillery exclusive bottling I was hoping to purchase was unfortunately out-of-stock. Not to worry, however, as the highlight of my visit to Hakushu distillery was yet to come…

If you were to do one thing whilst visiting the Hakushu distillery it should be spending some time at the distillery’s whisky bar. If the vast range of unique and rare whiskies on offer is not exciting enough then the very affordable tasting prices should seal the deal. Tastings also come in 15ml pours so you can sensibly work your way through a fair number of them. I tried the Hakushu newmake (58%), which they call ‘new malt distillate’, and was surprised by the fruity notes (particularly apricot) that were much more prevalent than in the barley-forward newmake I have had at Scottish distilleries. I then tried a 12 Year Old single-barrel Yamazaki matured in a Mizunara oak cask before finishing up with the Hakushu 25 Year Old. I had high expectations for this particular whisky given its recent gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge 2017 and the eye-watering prices it goes for in the Australian market. It certainly delivered. I got plum notes on the nose, with a little smokiness and light caramel/vanilla. Brioche and caramel stood out on the palate, alongside sage and a long, smoky pine needle finish. Truly a beautiful and delicate whisky, made all the better by my newfound appreciation of the distillery in which it was made and the scenic splendour of its forested surrounds.

If you are a whisky fan then Hakushu distillery is certainly worth a detour or day trip from Tokyo. The pristine natural environment is a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Japanese city life, and Hakushu’s whisky is as beautiful as its location.

Now back to scotch, my first whisky love. New review up soon!