I know it is autumn once pumpkins and squashes are abundant and dwindling soft fruits are replaced by apples and pears. My cooking changes and so does my taste in whisky. I start to look for drams that are a little more warming on the finish and rounded in flavour. However, living in Sussex which is fast becoming the new Champagne, I am also aware that October is a busy month in the vineyards around me as the fruit is picked, after traditional harvests are gathered in, and wine-making gets under way. There is a synergy between whisky and wine as many drams are finished in wine barrels for extra nuances in flavour, and some are aged in wine casks for the whole of their maturation. This year, to celebrate the UK's blossoming as a serious wine producing country, my Autumn Whisky Collection features whiskies finished in wine barrels - it's Whisky in the Vineyard.
The amount of whisky that remains in the bottles that I show you, either in photos or in my vlogs, is entirely dependent on whether or not my Chichester Whisky Women have done their tasting of my collection before or after I share it with you. This time they got to the whiskies first, during a glorious evening at our local Tinwood Vineyard. We tasted the three wines produced there: Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay), their fruity and weighty Brut showcasing the traditional blending of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunière, and then their delicious sparkling rose. We needed to have dinner before we started tasting our whiskies!
First out of the basket was Glen Moray's 10yo Chardonnay cask matured whisky, a dram from one of, if not the first, distillery to experiment with wine barrel finishes. This was my intro to Glen Moray and I shall certainly be seeking out more of their exceptional value whiskies. The 'flavour thought' of whisky and chardonnay set up a bit of a fracas in my mind but, on tasting, I found this to be a light but full-flavoured, fruity whisky. It's great as an aperitif or a lunchtime dram, even in the autumn. Surprisingly rich and toasted with caramel flavours, it's much more of an Old than a New World wine style and the marriage of the wood with the whisky is excellent.
Sauternes barrels seem to be quite widely used in the whisky industry and I chose two very different Sauternes finishes for this collection. The Tullibardine 225 Sauternes finish is a very elegant whisky, exceptionally pale in colour and it's one of those drinks which reveals itself to be whisky rather than wine, only when you swallow and get the flavour of the finish. From then on the whisky is more dominant. The distillery is now owned by Maison Michel Picard, owner of the wine domaine Chassagne-Montrachet and so this luxurious Sauternes finish has much to live up to. This NAS - no age statement - whisky is first aged in American oak and then put into the wine barrels which pick up the fruity notes of the whisky. I find it sweet, big and complex with hints of spice but huge caramelised pineapple notes, an exotic surprise. With or without water? You decide. I think this is an afternoon whisky - well, why not? One for pancakes and fritters, glacé fruit cake or rich chicken or turkey dishes. A Christmas whisky? This was a great favourite in this collection, and was second in the popularity poll.
A complete contrast in every way, the GlenDronach 14yo Sauternes finish was a rich chestnut in colour and a huge whisky, brilliantly crafted but in no way elegant like the Tullibardine. There were enormous and delicious sherry cask flavours, as you expect from all GlenDronachs, but the sweetness of Sauternes had blended into the whisky and created a huge whisky which will suit anyone who likes a mouth-filling dram. There's a real 'grapiness' about this which completely holds its own against the sultana and raisin notes from the sherry casks. I find it almost like liquid sticky toffee pudding with date and coffee flavours. I think this would match with everything from charcuterie to game ragouts and then winter favourite puddings like treacle tart.
Anyone who ever listened to the late, great Terry Wogan will know of Tomintoul. Yes, this distillery does bear the name of the village which is usually the first in the UK to be cut off by snow. It is owned by a company with over half a century of experience in blending and bottling but Tomintoul was their first venture into actually distilling their own whisky. I selected the Tomintoul 12yo Oloroso sherry cask finish to represent the sherry styles of fortified wine cask finishes. I find it light and spicy, beautifully balanced and warming but not too heavy. It has quite a short finish and would be great with mild curries and other chilli dishes, and also with - yes, the Speyside classic, shortbread! Pepper and spice, and a light fruitiness more about sultanas than raisins: this whisky was the Chichester Whisky Women's favourite from this collection.
Finally I sought out a contrasting whisky that was finished in port barrels and decided upon the Talisker Port Ruighe. Another NAS, I was keen to see how the smoke of a Talisker would marry with the fruitiness of port, another favourite drink of mine. Of course, you do have to like the seaweed tang of Talisker to appreciate this. It has a rich, smokey and fruity nose which repeats on the palette. The rich fruit from the port wine tames the smoke and the smoke seasons the fruit creating a surprisingly balanced whisky which would be great with blue cheeses, full-flavoured Cheddars or roast or smoked beef. With or without water? If you like this dram I think you will prefer it without.
Are wine barrel finishes magic or meddling? I don't think they are gimmicks but much depends on the skill and vision of the Master Blender for the success of the finished dram. The Dalmore King Alexander III has the influence of many woods, in the same way as an aged Aceto Balsamico, but comes with a hefty price tag. All the whiskies in this Vineyard selection are under £60, with three of them under £40. My Whisky Women definitely voted for a more traditional sherry cask finish as their favourite, but the Tullibardine, coming in a close second, was a great example of how table wine barrels can add taste nuances to whiskies in a most successful way.