I like to have a theme for the collection of whiskies that I select for tastings with my drinking club, Chichester's Whisky Women. We have just had our annual booze cruise, a sedate there-and-back down the Chichester Canal with supper and 5 whiskies to taste with seasonal foods. It's always a riot and when the Captain of the good ship Richmond turned up in a kilt, I knew it was going to be a happy evening.
The theme for the canal trip is always Whisky with Water and I try to find some that are better neat and some that open up with a drop or two of water. With my selection made I was amazed at the kaleidoscope of colours and we tasted from palest to darkest, exploring whether depth of flavour was, in this instance, indicated by richness of colour?
First up, The Epicurean from Douglas Laing. As my interest is whisky and food matching I had to try this dram, a blend of Lowland whiskies from Laing's Remarkable Regional Malts collection. The packaging got a real thumbs down and I doubt whether any of the Whisky Women would have picked this off the shelf. Resinous, herbal with a slightly pungent nose and a so very pale in colour. This whisky had little appeal on the nose but I had decided to serve it with our main course of Asian fusion salmon salad, with lots of ginger, sesame and 5-spice. The whisky itself is sweet, complex and very slightly smoky, and it makes my mouth water and leaves the palette clean so indeed, it is an excellent whisky with food. With a drop or two of water it is gentler and more balanced. I think it would be too light for red meat and game dishes but for game birds, chicken and fish with cream sauces or pork it would be excellent. It wasn't the favourite of the Whisky Women but those who did like it were very keen, with one declaring it to be her preferred whisky to date.
Slightly darker in colour but still very pale is Mitchell's Blend from Campbeltown, created from whiskies from the Glengyle Distillery and other Scotch whiskies. The first age statement whisky, a 12yo, from the re-opened Glengyle in the care of the Mitchell's (of Springbank, Hazelburn and Longrow fame) will be released in August and I am greatly looking forward to that. This whisky is soft and easy, with fashionable banana notes at the beginning on the palette and a slight smoke on the nose. For a few of my Whisky Women the smoke was too much but I find it to be a seasoning in the whisky and not the dominant taste. Hints of salt linger in this easy honeyed, very slightly smoky sweet whisky. It is gentler with water - I like it better without. Not a favourite with Whisky Women but it is head and shoulders above many mainstream blends and with much more character.
I am a Compass Box fan but their whiskies are not always popular with Whisky Women - Enlightenment has changed all that! Aged and elegant - am I writing about myself or this dram? Richer in colour, deeper in complexity and flavour this whisky is fruity and rich on the nose and big and complex on the palette. Spice, vanilla and stone fruits are tinged with hints of coffee or cacao in a whisky to dwell on. There were hints of lychee and papaya, a beautiful full vanilla and almost suggestions of saffron. My initial thought was that it is more balanced and richer with a little water, but cruising the canal I liked it better without. I can see this whisky matching with rich fish like red or gold-spot mullet, bass, smoked salmon or crab, or with quail or partridge: treat foods for a treat whisky. It's a wonderful, mouth-filling dram and, despite it's £60 price tag, 24 Whisky Women said they would buy it. I think we should order a couple of cases!
Glengoyne whiskies are no strangers to my collections but this is their youngest expression to date to be included, the 10yo. Glengoyne are very interested in matching their whiskies to foods and they generally do work very well. This expression had a slightly resinous nose, a touch reminiscent of The Epicurean, making it challenging but it was sweet too. Without water the whisky was easy and light, with a vanilla fudge sweetness and hints of spice, and I found a walnut nuttiness and berry fruit notes, not quite raspberry and almost strawberry. The spicy pepper notes were 'pink' - more Szechwan pepper than piper nigrum. It was fruity and interesting, young but determined. I term it a Peter Pan of a whisky, a young treasure that does not need to age or grow up. Interestingly, I consider it a Spring and Summer whisky, and not one for colder days and nights. With water it is gentler and more balanced, as good with as it is without, depending on your mood. A great match with Asian cuisine, anything with chillies or pomegranates, and with berry fruit desserts. This whisky climbed into Bronze Medal position with Whisky Women.
Our final dram, the darkest in colour in the collection, was Black Bush from Bushmills, a great choice as 2016 is Northern Ireland's Year of Food & Drink. The distillery was founded in 1608 and is thought to be the oldest in the world. Triple distilled, in the tradition of Irish whiskies and Lowland Scotch whisky, Black Bush is smooth and easy but, in this tasting, it dispelled the idea that the richest in colour would be the richest in flavour. The nose is more complex and deeper than the taste delivered on the palette where much of the spice in the aroma translates into dried fruits, fudge and hints of coffee. It is even gentler with water, a very easy whisky to drink but for me it is better without. The fruitiness and colour come from maturation in ex-sherry barrels, but they contribute the subtlest of sherry nuances. This is an elegant, gentle, easy whisky. A good match with grain dishes like taboulleh or quinoa salads, with potatoes (great with champ), sausages and fried or lightly spiced BBQ'd chicken. A twinkle in the eye of a whisky, suggestive but subtle and 16 Whisky Women said they would be off to buy it, putting it in Silver Medal position for this collection.
With water or neat? It is always a very personal decision but my greatest mission in whisky evangelisation is to show how water can open up a whisky, but that it literally only takes a drop or two to work the magic. True whisky enlightenment comes through being able to determine through nosing whether the whisky is rich enough to deliver its full potential neat, or whether just a touch of water actually reveals more in a dram. Sometimes the abv is an indication, but not always. So, in the end, you just have to keep trying lots. Sounds good to me!