A 60th birthday party in London was the excuse to pop over the water for the weekend.
The balmy weather – which Storm Ophelia had pushed up from the South – allowed us to have our Sunday lunch alfresco. Our chosen venue was the recently refurbished Great Northern Railway Tavern in Hornsey.
A few of us recalled one of our last visits to this grand venue – a 30th birthday party – and wondered where all the years went.
Along with the expected Fullers offerings – the Great Northern is now a Fullers pub – there is a varied range of fine craft beers too. What tempted me however was the Compass Box Peat Monster whisky which was situated on the back row of the small yet varied spirits display.
The bottle label itself is a very attractive piece of work & the rich clear peaty aromas emanating from my glass certainly pointed to an equally attractive whisky inside.
Compass Box is the well respected blending & bottling whisky making company of John Glaser who sources the best malt & grain whiskies from around Scotland – ages them in barrels – also carefully selected – and expertly blends them together to produce a range of fine tasting whiskies highlighting the art of the blender.
The Peat Monster is certainly an angel of a whisky.
The familiar peat nose is crisp and clear – but not overpowering.
The taste is suitably smooth and silky. The peat pulls you in & opens up into some beautiful spice notes.
The long & gentle finish wafts all the perfectly balanced notes around in your palate before they fade away.
Bottled at 46% with no chill filtering & no added colour – Peat Monster certainly raises the bar for how good a blended malt can be.
Cask strength whiskies have a certain appeal – that full blown mouthfeel & explosion of taste – but should come with a bit of a warning that perhaps plays the old Electric Six classic ‘Danger! High Voltage’ as you pop the cork!
At 61.2% this Oloroso matured monster of a single malt certainly packs a punch.
It’s one of those whiskies that hit the back of my throat & numbed my tongue with the high alcoholic strength before subduing to deliver some of it’s rich dry sherry notes.
With water I found it a rather muted sherry bomb of a dram which lacked the shine of the collective high praise this bottle attracts.
When I can enjoy other cask strength offerings neat which deliver their rich flavours without the burn –
It holds a certain draw for the both of us ever since we stumbled upon the event whilst up visiting friends & family.
Nestled as it is in the picturesque & historic fishing village of Pittenweem in the East Neuk Of Fife about an hours drive from Edinburgh – which is visible on a good day across the Firth Of Forth from the harbour walls.
Strolling through the numerous venues my eye was drawn by all the whiskey & beer connections within the varied art on display. Scotland after all is the world’s top whisky producing nation as well as having some fine beers.
A new venue for the festival opened this year just a short drive up the road from the village in a place called Ovenstone. Formerly a tractor showroom, the space is now the home to Ovenstone 109 Brewery – the East Neuk’s newest craft brewery!
For the duration of the festival there was a rich diversity of art on display – paintings, jewelry, sculpture & for my delight – craft beer. Well isn’t brewing an art?
I got chatting to Nick – the man behind the brewery – and the video above – and sampled his dark IPA beer. Now I have to admit IPA isn’t my style – but it was crisp, fresh & hoppy & went down well. It was so fresh it hadn’t even been bottled or canned such was the rush to get it out for the festival. I certainly look forward to developments in the years to come.
Back in Pittenweem itself we made our way to the harbour area & the always amusing and entertainingly attractive ceramic designs of Craig Mitchell. One of his pieces caught my eye.
I’ve seen some micro distilleries in my time – but this one perched on the back of a scooter definitely takes it to a different level.
Just don’t drink & drive kids. It’s not big & it’s not clever – ceramic man might fall to pieces!
A little further along the shore Susan McGill had a stunning larger than life modern interpretation of the popular Oor Wullie cartoon character.
I just had to go in for a closer look!
Some of the intricate design work seemed familiar – then it dawned on me – that lovely bottle of dark, malty & heavy Scotch Ale I had the other night from the St Andrews Brewing Co?
Not only does Susan do the artwork for the brewery’s lovely range of beers – she has also collaborated with independent whisky bottlers D R Scotch Whisky to release Ae Fond Kiss. A whisky celebrating the writings of Scotland’s favourite national poet – Rabbie Burns.
And if you were in the market for some glasses to drink that whisky with – glass blower Elin Isaksson just happened to have a pair of hand blown chunky whisky glasses for the job. As well as her own whisky pairing to boot!
I didn’t indulge on this occasion – but all this art was making me thirsty. So we repaired to the nearby West End Bar for a display of the art of distillation!
Bowmore 12 won out in this contest.
I was expecting a peatier punch from this Islay single malt. What I got was a smooth, lightly smoky, sweetly sherried approachable dram. More of a kiss from Bowmore!
If you haven’t been to the Pittenweem Arts Festival before – do visit.
1 – Caribou, a four legged animal prone to herding during annual migrations across it’s North American range. Mainly eats lichens.
2 – Caribou, a recently opened bar in the Wood Quay area of Galway that stocks an amazing array of craft beers, gins & whiskeys.
Pick your poison.
a) Craft Beer as in Commotion Lotion.
A delightfully fruity easy summer drinking lager from the Wexford based Yellow Belly Beer in collaboration with pop punksters King Kong Company.
b) Whisky as in Scapa Skiren.
A sweet, smooth honey laden single malt from the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland.
Throw in a hard working yet friendly & informative bar crew.
Fill with an eclectic mix of;
i – Herds of bearded hipsters gathering – like the aforementioned Caribou – to graze on the amber nectar of craft beers along with their tattooed love birds.
ii – Whiskey geeks discussing the merits of non-chilled filtration & the de-merits of added caramel whilst sniffing, nosing & actually getting round to drinking the expressions before them!
iii – Music fans chilling out to the funky tunes played on the sound system contrasting the perfectly professional yet perfunctory performance of Radiohead at Glastonbury with the wild youthful exuberance of Otherkin at Slane.
Finish with a solid wooden bar filled with craft beer taps, comfortable tables, chairs & the odd sofa to relax in, board games to play with & a lovely floral display outside.
I choose Caribou – the bar.
I choose to sample both poisons – and more from an excellent range.
I choose to go back after my first visit on the ‘Hit The North‘ whiskey distillery tour.
I choose to be that whiskey geek accompanied by the music maestro enjoying the best Caribou has to offer.
I went looking for the much publicised Ben Bracken trio of single malts recently released by Lidl – but inadvertently walked into Aldi instead!
What confronted me were not only 3 single malts – Islay, Highland & Speyside – but also a 12 Year Old Speyside as well as 2 double casks – one sherry finish & the other bourbon – all below £20.
As I’m a fan of bolder flavours I went straight for the Islay Single Malt to sample.
For the price – I wasn’t disappointed.
The nose was a pleasing mixture of Islay peat & muted caramelised vanilla notes.
For this category & price point, my assumed position is that caramel is added. You only need to look at some of the promotional photos of the different malts showing identical shades of golden brown for confirmation.
The taste was a bit of a non event. Soft, sweet, slightly watery & muted no doubt by that caramel – but after swirling it around in the mouth for a while, a rich peaty smoke surfaced into a pleasingly warming burn on swallowing which proceeded to develop a lovely long afterglow.
A very inoffensive easy sipping entry level malt whisky at an affordable price with just enough character to make it interesting.
I’m not sure which markets it will surface in the pan-european Aldi store area – but it will certainly fly off the shelves. It makes a decent everyday single malt for the drinks cabinet.
For good measure I compared it to another store brand offering. This time from the Co-operative Group.
The 8 Year Old Pure Malt is a blend of,
‘carefully selected choice malt whiskies from the Highlands Islands and Lowlands of Scotland.’
so says the label.
The same label doesn’t say caramel is added – but it has that same cloying mouthfeel which dulls any freshness or sharpness in the flavours on tasting. There was a little smoke – but not enough to rise above the morass of caramel & vanilla smoothness.
A rather muted dram in comparison to the smoky punch of Islay peat.
I happened to be in Scotland over the Bank Holiday weekend & used the opportunity to visit a whisky distillery.
Kingsbarns Distillery is the dream of local lad Douglas Clement who was frequently asked during his golfing caddie days if there was a local whisky distillery to visit.
At the time Fife – despite being the spiritual home of golf as represented by the St Andrew’s Links Course – as well as the spiritual home of Scotch whisky – well, at least the earliest written record as represented by the ‘8 bolls of malt‘ ordered in 1494 from nearby Lindores Abbey – had no whisky distilleries.
Well at least no sexy & sleek single malt distilleries.
Because in Cameronbridge Distillery – which happens to be the largest in Europe – I would argue Fife has the spiritual home of blended whisky.
Originally founded in 1824 as the Haig Distillery, it used the newfangled invention called the continuous still – as designed by Stein & later improved upon by Irishman Coffey – to produce gazillions of gallons of grain whisky. This heralded in the rise of blended whisky which underpins & fuels the wealth of the whisky industry today.
Cameronbridge still produces gazillions of gallons of grain whisky to this day, but like most giant grain distilleries with their industrial style of production, it is out of bounds for whisky tourists.
Kingsbarns Distillery is definitely not out of bounds.
It’s whole premise in fact could be interpreted as a visitors attraction that happens to produce whisky.
It’s early days for that whisky yet however.
Only opened in November 2014 with the first barrel of new make being filled & registered in March 2015 – it can only legally be called whisky in March 2018.
In the meantime there is a lovely delightful Spirit Drink to sample as part of the very informative & enjoyable tour.
Bottled at 63.5% this fresh, bright & clear raw whisky certainly exploded in my mouth with the high alcohol content. Yet it retained some subtle soft sweet barley notes which hinted at good things to come. Adding a drop of water only diluted the overall experience and I preferred the raw energy of the full strength offering.
All the barley used is grown locally with the water being sourced in an aquifer deep underground below the sandstone rock underneath the distillery itself.
Wemyss Malts – a long established & respected family of independent whisky bottlers & blenders also hailing from Fife – or should that be fae Fife? – are also behind the distillery. An eclectic array of their blended malts and single cask expressions are on display in the visitors entrance area.
Talking about Fay Fife – here she is singing her classic hit Top Of The Pops!
As part of the tour I sampled the Kiln Embers blended malt at 46%. A pretty little sweet smoke of a whisky.
I also bought a couple of age statement Peat Chimney miniatures – airport restriction friendly – for later enjoyment back in Ireland.
The Kingsbarns Single Malt however – when it is fully matured – will be a softer, fruity & floral bourbon cask aged single malt. Fife after all has no peat banks but is awash with lush fields of barley & fecund banks of wild flowers & shrubs which attract a rich bio-diversity of wildlife.
Even while sitting outside the well presented cafe – enjoying some locally sourced & produced fare – I was gently serenaded by Skylarks singing high in the sky above me accompanied by Pheasants rooting around in the hedgerows below.
As a visitors attraction Kingsbarns excels.
The long drive into the historic & carefully restored building from the main A917 road well serviced by the St Andrews to Leven 95 bus route. Views of the verdant countryside with the blue sea glimmering closeby. Friendly attentive uniformed staff both in the well appointed cafe & distillery. A highly informative tour that encompassed the history, geology, sights, sounds & smells of both Fife – as well as the process of whisky making itself.
I even surprised myself by correctly identifying a few of the interactive ‘aromatic world’ samples!
If this whisky was branded with an own label supermarket store logo at an attractive price I’d have been happy.
The nose was suitably soft – a slight hint of smoke being the only noticeable element.
The taste had that cloying caramel feel – common among entry level expressions – but was relatively inoffensive & pleasant.
Whilst the finish gave a soft warming kick that lasted a decent amount of time.
Overall – no real surprises here – a perfectly ordinary everyday whisky.
But this is no own label.
It’s attractively packaged & presented with the wonderfully adventurous back story of Shackleton & his Antarctic exploits. The tale of how his bunch of hardy men brought Mackinlay’s Old Highland Malt with them to fortify their spirits against the freezing temperatures & biting gales. About how some of the bottles were left behind in the abandoned hut for over 100 years in the permafrost only to be rediscovered, re-engineered & recreated by the brand owners Whyte & Mackay today in this current bottling.
All fabulous stuff.
It’s just a pity the actual whisky inside the bottle doesn’t quite match up to the heroic struggles those early explorers faced on the ice-fields.
An earlier recreation of those bottles certainly had character & robustness that made you feel by drinking it you were somehow part of Shackleton’s crew. Bottled at 47.5% the 2nd edition was presented in an elaborate package including maps & photographs of the 1907 expedition and even a retro designed bottle to match the original. Now that was a whisky to sink your teeth into.
This current 40% rendition is sadly lacking.
It’s no better – or worse – than an own label brand & I was expecting something – well – more.
My only consolation is that a donation from every bottle sold goes towards the Antarctic Heritage Trust to preserve Shackleton’s Hut & encourage further exploration and adventure.
For those that would like to know more about Irish born Ernest Shackleton & his adventures, I’d recommend the Athy Heritage Centre – Museum. Located only a few miles from Shackleton’s birthplace in Kilkea House, Kildare, the museum houses the only permanent exhibition to Shackleton & shows many original artefacts, photos, cine & even an empty bottle of the recreated whisky found at the 1907 hut in the Antarctic.
Writing a blog about the future of Irish Whiskey with a headline photo of a trio of Scottish Single Malts released by the supermarket chain Lidl may seem a little askew – but it highlights an issue pertinent to the current Irish Whiskey industry.
Imagine I’m a supermarket chain of similar standing.
I want some Irish Whiskey.
Perhaps a single pot still, a single malt & a single grain to show off what Ireland has to offer.
I have the branding ready to go.
I have the bottling plant primed.
I have the customers.
Can Irish Whiskey deliver – like yesterday – to capitalise on the Scottish release?