Whisky Gift Guide

December is here, and that means you’ll be thinking about presents. Not necessarily for me, although that would be nice. But you know someone who’d like a bottle of whisky. No, you do.

No whisky lover, none of them, want to get a novelty hip flask, okay?

So what should you get them? Bells, Teachers or Johnnie Walker? Well you could if they’re alcoholics and don’t really care what they’re drinking, so long as they’re drinking. Or they have always expressed a particular liking for cheap blends. Or you could show them that you gave it a little thought.

If you’re thinking if a bottle of whisky, but want to spend less than £20, don’t. But between £20-30 there are lots of good standard 8-12 year old bottles. What would I like to open? Glad you asked….

Up to £30

Perfect for someone who’s really helped you out this year. A teacher for example. Or maybe your osteopath, (cough). Let me point you to a 16 year old Lagavulin. Easily available, but not something you’d have chosen just because you saw it during an ad break. Usually found at £30, if you keep your eyes open it’ll often be had for £25.

£30-60

For around £35 you can pick up my favourite 12 year old: Bunnahabhain. If you’ve read this blog at all, you’ll know its merit well. I’ve seen it sold for as much as £55. If you see that, leave the shop.

If you want to spend that much: Thank you. Try finding a Bunnahabhain Ceobanach. It’ll make the lucky recipient think you’ve really done your homework. (And I’m dying to review it!)

£60-150

You want to spend more? What, is it for your new girlfriend’s dad? If you like you could try an 18yr old Highland Park at £75-90. He’s going to hate you anyway, but at least he’ll love the scotch.
Top end of this price bracket, though and you could get a 21yr old Balvenie matured in Port Wood. He’ll hate you even more, simply because now he’ll feel so mean spirited to hate you at all. We’ve all been there.

Pushing the boat out

Unless you have more money than sense, you really shouldn’t spend more than £150 on a bottle of whisky for anyone but yourself, unless you already know it’s a favourite. So you’re off the hook spending more than that.

Merry Christmas. Mine will be if people get the hint.

Mmm, I wonder what it is!

Mmm, I wonder what it is!

Sweetie Review: Refreshers Revisited

In June last year, I reviewed Refreshers. Having rediscovered them, they’ve made regular (if infrequent) appearances in my desk’s sweetie dish. They don’t last long.

But today, having not had them for a couple of weeks, I made a frightful discovery on the shelves of Mr McNobby’s shop: The little sugar temptresses have changed. The first clue is the packet. It’s no longer a paper roll around a foil wrap. It’s all paper, folded over at the ends. Boo Hiss. What’s worse – and this is the real shocker – the tube is narrower. Imperceptibly narrower, but narrower all the same. Yes, the little sweeties are slightly smaller. Massive Boo Hiss.

On closer inspection, this is because they’re now made by a company called ‘Candy Land’. Have the Americans bought out refreshers?

Will I stop buying them? Of course not, they taste exactly the same.

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Whisky Review: @HighlandPark 21 Years Old

There’s a problem with reviewing whisky. Apart from finding the time. It’s deciding what to drink, and what to review. Regular readers will know I tend to drink a few staples: Bunnahabhain (though recently less of the 12 year old, more of the Toiteach), Lagavulin and the 12 Year Old Highland Park.

But I like to break out of that, stop myself falling in a rut.

But how? The temptation is the big ticket, high price, old age single malts: the 40 year olds, the special bottlings. The problem with these is they’re priced in the many hundreds, the thousands of pounds. Which means one bottle is affordable, but what if I really like it. Like I did with the 40 Year Old Bunnahabhain? I can’t justify that sort of money on an everyday whisky. But something in the £50-150 range is usually better value than the standard, entry level (but still eminently drinkable) £25-40 range.

So the sensible way to go is up in age, from the 12 year olds to the 18/21 year olds. And where better to continue that into the new year than Highland Park, one of my permanent residents of Dad’s old Monk’s Bench?

The 21 Year Old Highland Park is right at the top of that price range, but is affordable as more than a one off buy.

As you pour, the colour is rich, warm, honey like. The aroma isn’t strong, though, you have to get your face right into your glass to really get a good waft. This malt was matured in sherry seasoned oak casks, and that comes through clearer than is usual, the flavour is good, strong, has some fruit and of course some smoke. And a nice long aftertaste that lingers long after it should.

It’s that aftertaste that’s the best part, though. Although this bottle is good, and I’d happily drink it if you were paying, ultimately it’s disappointing. The aroma isn’t rich enough, the first taste doesn’t quite grab you enough, the full flavour doesn’t quite fill your mouth enough.

It’s good, but not £150 good. I just feel that it costs a little more than it should. Bring the price down to two figures and we’ll talk again.

whisky review.HighlandPark21

Or send me a bottle of your 1970. That I’d love to review!

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Whisky Review: Talisker, 10 Years Old

I think it’s fair to say that although I’m a fan of mainland whisky, I have a particular liking for island drinks. So after the oily nightmare of Jack Daniel’s when I wanted to restore my faith in oily whiskies, it was a natural choice to turn to a youthful Talisker.

A light smoke covers a fruitiness to the aroma. It’s worth spending time on the vapours before taking a sip. wait until the sweet apply scent comes through. Then take your sip. The oil is there, but unlike the brash american, this is a light oil. Rather like the difference between petrol and virgin olive oil. In fact, taste them side by side and that’s just what comes to mind.

There’s more in the Talisker, though, again unlike the one note american. There’s a few stereotypes of a whisky – as you’d expect with a young bottling. Hints of heather, seaweed and moor come through at different times in the mouth, leaving you with a warm pepper over the tongue, stopping just at the top of the throat after you swallow.

But throughout there’s the slightly slick comfort of that virgin oil, smoothing the way.

Lovely.

whisky review.talisker

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Whisky Review: @Bunnahabhain 40 Years Old

I’m entertaining the possibility that I have been wrong these many years. That there is a God, there is a heaven. And crucially, I have recently died and gone there. The big news is that God is not an Englishman after all, but a Scot from the north east coast of Islay.

This would explain the perfection within my glass.

I had high expectations for this whisky. Considering the order of magnitude improvement that the 37 year old Lagavulin showed over its (already excellent) 12 year old stablemate, and the equally impressive comparison of the 25 year old Bunnahabhain with her younger sibling, I half expected the 40 year old to be that much better again. I half expected it not be, because that level of improvement seemed impossible.

But as Muhammed Ali said:

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

But enough hyperbole. Not that this whisky could have enough. My first draft of this review simply ran out of superlatives. I had a second glass just to try and find something to criticise or suggest improvement.

My favourite thing about this beautiful drink is breathing out. The vapour in your throat fills your mouth, your nose and you experience the drink’s resurrection- a whole secondary flavour and experience. It’s entirely different to the opening aroma, and different again from the first piquancy, or the aftertaste.

whisky review.Bunnahabhain40

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Whisky Review: @Bunnahabhain Cruach-Mhòna

This was the second of the three bottles sent by the fine distillery on the north-east coast of Islay and it was completely different to the Toiteach.

It’s an interesting bottle from the outset: It isn’t available to buy in the normal way because sadly, if you want a bottle you have to get it from duty free. On the other hand you’ll be reading this after I’ve already had that opportunity. I’ll be sure to exercise the option, too.

Different it may be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not just as good. As regular readers will know, I’m a fan, no an acolyte, of Bunnahabhain. Every bottle I try is different, and every bottle is excellent.

I do have a criticism. It’s a small one, but important. It’s one that has the capacity of harming sales, and consequently the deserved appreciation of this, and other Bunnahabhain whiskies… It’s the naming policy. All the scots gaelic. Toiteach, and this one: Cruach-Mhòna. Yes, they do create an ambiance, but it’s tough to pronounce when you haven’t had your first two or three. After that, for an englishman like me, it’s nigh on impossible.

Now that’s out of the way, on with the whisky.

Loved it. The ‘duty free only’ status has given me a bonus reason to go abroad. It’s firm, unforgiving. Peatier than you’d expect from the distillery, but the peat is, as with the Toiteach, very subtle. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the drink is rather more audacious. Even with the peat, the aroma is crisp, fresh. It’s not unlike stepping outside and smelling the woodsmoke from the chimney on a chill winter morning. It’s comforting like that.

The comfort doesn’t stop there. It warms you through as you drink, the light peat is accompanied in a variety of taste over the mouth during, and after, the drink. There’s a saltiness and something else. The tasting notes on the Bunnahabhain website (as always, read afterwards) say it’s seaweed. I didn’t identify it as that, but as I couldn’t identify it as anything else, I’ll go along with that.

This was another outstanding whisky. I’m going to have to force myself to drink whiskies from other distilleries. Bunnahabhain are producing such a range, and all good.

But…

I did drink it with the anticipation of another. The third of the three bottles Bunnahabhain sent: A 40 year old that I was saving for my birthday. And perhaps the anticipation of that took away a little from the purity of the experience.

whisky review.Bunnahabhain Cruach-Mhona

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Whisky Review: Jack Daniel’s Old No7 – @JackDaniels_US

Go on, admit it, you never thought you’d see me review a drink that wasn’t scottish. Or that spelled ‘Whisky’ with an ‘E’.

Yes, this is Jack Daniel’s Old No7 Tennessee Whiskey. A drink beloved of those who want to pollute it with coke.

Why am I reviewing it? Surely I didn’t willingly sully the Monk’s Bench with an american brand? No, of course not, but I got some for Christmas. Clearly my sister hates me.  What a truly passive aggressive way to show it. Buy me a bottle of whisky – Hurrah, spell it with an ‘e’ and make it American, not even Irish – Boo, hiss.

But it’d be rude not to try it. So I did. For the first time in 25 years since a long forgotten girlfriend insisted. Two things strike me. First, that there’s a reason people do their best to disguise it with coke. Second, there’s a reason I’ve not drunk any in 25 years (or thought about the girlfriend).

It has an oily smell, tempered with a very sweet, pine edge. Not unlike all purpose kitchen cleaner. The flavour has no subtlety. It is exactly what it is, assaulting your mouth, unchanging, un-nuanced.

There’s obviously a place for Jack Daniel’s. It sells in enviously high volumes. And it certainly isn’t the worst american whiskey. But nor is it the best, just one of the most prominent and consistent.

I’ve been trying to find a way of shoehorning in the obvious pun about something not meaning Jack. But my creativity escapes me. Hey ho.

whisky review.Jack Daniels

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Whisky Review: @Bunnahabhain Toiteach

This is the first of three very special whisky reviews. I very cheekily suggested to the distillery that they send me a free bottle after I blogged my review of the 25 year old. I wasn’t really expecting anything from them. They know I’m a loyal and committed disciple, so they don’t have to butter me up with freebies!

But they sent me three 20cl sample bottles. Three. And two of them have been a real treat. I’m saving the third for 31st of December, and I have high expectations.

I didn’t read about Bunnahabhain Toiteach until after I tasted it. I didn’t want any preconceptions. So I was surprised by the peaty aroma. It’s not something you expect from a Bunnahabhain malt. But there it was. Subtle, but still there. It doesn’t assault you, but it floods your nose, and even your mouth. I took in quite a few breaths, just to be sure I’d got it right, and each one renewed the aroma. Subtle, but full.

The colour is subtle, too. A very light gold, almost champagne colour which catches the light beautifully in our Thomas Webb Normandy crystal glasses (yes, we took out the best glassware for this).

On the first taste, the clean and fresh colour is reflected in the drink: there is no immediate flavour on the front of the tongue. But as it flows to the back, and the aroma fills the mouth and the back of the nose so you end up tasting the whisky over your whole mouth. It leaves the sharp sting of peppery taste on the front of the tongue and warms the throat beautifully with smoky peat.

Toiteach, I’m told, means ‘Smoky’ in scots Gaelic. The tasting notes say it has a sweet sherry influence. My takeaway thoughts weren’t about sweetness, sherry or smoke. The thing that stood out for me was how full flavoured the Toiteach was, without coming close to being overpowering. As well as drinking this yourself, my tasting partner Dimple enthusiastically tells me this would be the perfect gift for a woman who enjoys the flavour of whisky, but might find it a little too much.

I tasted it a second time a week later (mostly because I’d saved some). The second time around, there had been half a bottle of air for the whisky to interact with, and I found both the aroma and the taste to be stronger in peat. I’ve not known a drink to change in quite that way over such a short period before. I feel like I’ve had two for the price of one. Or in fact the price of none!

It’s been a long time since I tasted a whisky for the first time and knew it was going to be a permanent fixture in my Monk’s Bench. Thank you, @Bunnahabhain, if you could perhaps send more…?

I haven’t before now, but partly as a thank you to Bunnahabhain, and partly because I do think this is a bottle every whisky drinker should have, I’m going to add a link to the distillery shop. I’m not an affiliate, I won’t make any commission. It’s just good.

whisky review.Bunnahabhain Toiteach

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Whisky Review: Lagavulin 37 Years Old

This was my great extravagance of the week. It was between this and a 34 year old Port Ellen.

A 37 year old Lagavulin. The 12 year old is always so reliable, that when I decided what to splash out on, this was an obvious choice. That said, it was an insane amount of money to spend on a bottle of whisky, and although it’s very, very good I wouldn’t buy a second even if I had the disposable income! I don’t suppose there are any left, anyway. The great sadness is that most people who buy one of the 1800 bottles probably won’t ever open it. What’s the point of that? If you’re going to buy a bottle – whether it’s a regular off the shelf or a special bottling, drink it (slowly, maybe – but drink it), or let someone else buy it who’s going to enjoy it as a drink, not an ornament.

I opened it. It didn’t disappoint.

37 years old is the oldest bottling Lagavulin have ever done. The distillery isn’t usually given to aged bottlings, perhaps they found an old barrel at the back. Lucky for us.

That said, it wasn’t cheap. It’s not an everyday bottle (unless you’re in a very different financial league to me!). Now I’ve bought it, it’s not so much better than the ‘everyday’ whiskies to be able to justify drinking it, apart from on special occasions. So it’s a bottle destined to be in my Monk’s Bench for years, giving up a glass or two a year.

But the idea of enjoying this for the next half decade suits me just fine. I hope it’ll have equally good (and obscenely expensive) company by then.

Ultimately, though, as good as this is I could have had ten bottles of the 25 year old Bunnahabhain for the same money. And – if I were buying again that’s what I’d have done. Sorry, Dad.

whisky review.Lagavulin37

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Whisky Review: @HighlandPark

I was surprised when I planned my whisky week blogs that I haven’t reviewed Highland Park before. It’s a regular resident of the Monk’s Bench, and except for a short period in the last few years, I’m never without a bottle.

There’s a good reason for this: It’s the first favourite of mine that I discovered for myself, rather than something I was introduced to by Dad. In fact, after I introduced him to it, he, too, was never without a bottle.

It’s the only one of my permanent top scotches that isn’t an Islay whisky. It’s still an island single malt, though, coming from Orkney.

Again, as is a theme with my favourites, it’s very easy to drink. You get a real sense of the heather, the peat, and (helped along by the colour) the honey. The smokiness has the edge taken off by a sweetness that the mainland malts just don’t seem to be able to emulate. It is simply delicious.

My bottle isn’t the shape of the one in the picture, and that’s one of the things I like about this scotch. The neck is wider than most bottles. It used to be wider still, but in narrowing it, the distillery have kept the very satisfying baritone glugging sound it makes as it pours. The bottle sits well in the hand as you pour, so all told this becomes a wonderfully complete experience: tactile, the sound, the aroma and the taste. Why would anyone ever want to be without it?

This or the Bunnahabhain is what you buy me for a happy christmas.

whisky review.highland park

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