Ah… time to get all reverential for a second. I suppose you could say that within each glass is held not just a liquid, but also a story and almost certainly, a memory. Yes, this sounds about the most pretentious thing a drinks writer could ever come up with, but when it comes to whisky, hopefully you'll be prepared to cut me a modicum of slack. Whisky is now a global phenomenon and each bottle contains a unique DNA, in essence, a personality that is impossible to perfectly replicate anywhere else. Although it goes without saying that practically every whisky maker around the world is indebted to Scotland in some way shape or form, the evidence is there. Whiskies that are made, for instance, in Japan are very different to those made in Tasmania or Germany, despite using similar ingredients and production techniques.
I recently wrote an article on the terroir concept in whisky making, which I must confess, I approached with a vat-load of skepticism until I started to get underneath the skin of why each whisky tastes different. My conclusion was that this mythical terroir extends not just to the location, the water and the raw materials, but also the personalities and cultures of the people making the spirit - and this is what makes world whisky such a hugely appealing subject.
So with that, I thought I would share some remarkable world whiskies with you, made by some extraordinary people in some extraordinary places. In Issue 130, I looked at seven outstanding blended whiskies and as I mentioned then, there is no order here - nor is this list exhaustive.
Overeem Sherry Cask (60% ABV)
I came across this Antipodean delight roughly three years ago. There was no ceremony about its arrival, just some nondescript sample bottles in the post, but seemingly out of nowhere came this totally unexpected Tasmanian sherry bomb of epic proportions. Despite its tender age, (roughly six years), this is complex way beyond its years; a combination of big oily new-make spirit from Tasmanian barley and cut down 100 litre sherry casks give this subtlety and texture - even at cask strength. The distillery, down in Blackmans Bay fills just two casks a week - probably less than they spill every day over in Speyside. A major marker in the sand for an island of fine whisky makers.
Nose: Rich sherry notes, mocha and creamy coffee aromas, melted butter and brandy snap biscuits. Dig deeper and there's also a faint waft of something smoky hidden in here.
Palate: The sherry notes turn all fruity and gummy, with a back drop of the milky coffee and toffee giving way to some more spicy liquorice notes.
Favourite Serve: A small dash of water brings some of the spices to the front, but don't be afraid of this Tasmanian Devil at full strength.
Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky (43% ABV)
Earlier in this issue I mentioned the emerging success of grain whiskies from around the globe - not just from Scotland. Everyone's at it these days - some crackers from Ireland, Japan and now South Africa. Bain's Cape is one man's love affair with the subtlety sweet, juicy flavour that only grain whisky can provide. The man in question is Andy Watts - distiller at the James Sedgwick distillery in Wellington and what he has produced is nothing short of beautiful. Crisp and zesty in all the right places, buttery and unctuous in all the others. Its success comes from a two stage maturation process. Three years in first fill Bourbon barrels, then rounded out for two more years in refill Bourbon casks.
Nose: Sweet cereal and cream, with lemon zest and fat vanilla pods, then a delicate light caramel note emerges.
Palate: The vanilla notes are perfectly balanced by citrus zest, rich creamy fudge and soft malted barley. So simple, yet so refined and delicate.
Favourite Serve: It may be too early for a barbecue, but take a broad white wine glass and fill it with crushed ice. Pour a generous measure of BC, add a splash of tonic and a piece of lemon zest. Perfect!
Paul John Single Cask #1444 (59.7% ABV)
I would love to preface this tasting note with a wonderful image of trying the whisky on a remote beach somewhere in Goa, but sadly, I have never visited and the actual location in question was the fairly unremarkable basement of a London restaurant. In any case, what the John Distillery is doing right now is spectacular. This single cask, alongside its more widely released brotherly expressions (called Edited and Brilliance) is a fine example of how to get everything in the right place at the right time. The fresh and fruity notes are kept nicely in check by subtle oak, and the creamy cereal flavours cement its place as arguably the most exciting world whisky to get our palates tantalised for 2016.
Nose: Freshly chopped orchard fruits, a touch of vanilla and a rich golden honey note, with a waft of light oak in the background.
Palate: Surprisingly sweet, with demerara sugar, malted milk chocolate and a handful of plump raisins.
Favourite Serve: Tumbler, large single ice cube and The Bourne Supremacy on DVD (the car chase around Goa is as intense as some of the flavours on display here!)
George T Stagg 2008 Batch (70.9% ABV)
A veritable monster of a Bourbon, growling and snarling at you from within the glass, the full force of the 70+% ABV waiting to swat your palate like an errant fly. But suddenly, this highly sought after, tiny batch Bourbon becomes uncommonly complex, refined and fruity, the vanillas, sour cherries and dark chocolate mixing with toasted oak and Parma Violets. It can catch out mere mortals if one doesn't tread carefully, but your palate will be all the better for it afterwards. Sadly, this is almost impossible to get hold of now - and the yearly releases leave the shelves like veritable hot cakes within a matter of minutes, but if you can get even a small dram's worth in a bar - it is a remarkable experience in every way.
Nose: An intense earthiness, dark tobacco leaves, rich cherry jam, toasted vanilla and some wonderfully balanced floral notes.
Palate: Massive. After the heat subsides, the dry, dark chocolate notes, malted cereal, cherries-in-kirsch and charred blood orange notes are dialled up to 11.
Favourite Serve: A toss up here. Either neat, unfettered and palate-whacking, or as the heart of the ultimate Manhattan cocktail.
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain (44.4% ABV)
This one was a recent discovery - last month in fact! After a trip to Toronto, I came across this with a friend at the Char No.5 whisky bar at the Delta hotel. Cue much chatter about how healthy the Canadian whisky scene is and how it really deserves far more attention than it currently receives. This gem brings four distinct flavour elements together, with rye, corn, barley and wheat and the result is harmonious, sweet and revolutionary. When there's this much on offer, one flavour usually dominates, but here the sweetness is perfectly checked with peppery spice, creamy notes and some really excellent soft fruit. It is made at the old Hiram Walker facility in Windsor, which, film fact fans, doubled up as one of the locations in the original Robocop film! Whisky with definite mettle then…
Nose: Candy floss notes, perfumed tropical fruit skins, some malted bread notes and a touch of maple syrup.
Palate: Woody spice upfront, with vanilla toffee, a little orchard fruit and then barley sugar and a wisp of white pepper.
Favourite Serve: A little dash of water helps this open up, but on the rocks works a treat.
Karuizawa 1971 Single Cask 6878 (64.1% ABV)
Now we're getting into really serious stuff. In all honestly, this is probably one of those glad-to-be-there moments, that rarely come along. The location was the Whisky Exchange in London Bridge. The year 2008 and a friend brought out an open bottle of this. Wowzers. It was like nothing else I had ever tried. Earthy, mossy, the darkest notes of a sensational sherry cask and so much more. I was instantly hooked and got my wallet out - the princely sum of £110 handed over. Today, I have so many fond memories of this incredible whisky. I moved it from smaller bottle to smaller bottle as I enjoyed it with friends and moments of absolute contemplation. Finally, it was gone. Today, if you can find one, this bottle comes up at auction for staggeringly inflated prices, 30 times what it originally retailed for.
Nose: Mossy forest floor aromas, slight rancio notes, but then passion fruit, orange sherbet and wonderful dark sherry notes.
Palate: Dried figs, powerful ground coffee, more tropical fruits and layers of balanced sherry. Magnificent.
Perfect Serve: No nonsense. A large measure, nosing glass, plenty of time and no interruptions. Sublime.
Mackmyra Midvinter (46.1% ABV)
As I mentioned at the start of the article, whisky is very much a product of its location and the people who make it. Nestled deep a Swedish forest, Mackmyra is the perfect embodiment of this sentiment and whisky maker Angela D'Orazio is unquestionably that person. Mackmyra is a masterclass in aesthetic and architecture. From the towering futurist glass distillery building with beautiful views across the forest, to the insane subterranean caves where the casks are matured, everything is designed to make you think differently about whisky making. Midvinter conjures up festivity in a glass. It is matured in sherry, Bordeaux wine and then mulled wine casks. Unique in every respect and a real gem from this landmark distiller.
Nose: Cinnamon and clove notes, brown sugar and lemon zest, with an underlying red wine dryness.
Palate: The spices continue with a wonderfully sweet dark sugar note and tannic structure.
Perfect Serve: I made a supreme winter-influenced Old Fashioned with this at the heart and the spices swirled around the glass like a festive Dickens' novel.