There are many elements which go into making a great single malt Scotch whisky (and, by definition, many more which go into making a great blended Scotch whisky). From the length of fermentation time, through to the cut point of the spirit run-off and the shape of the stills, each and every distillery has a unique journey for simple sugars to become power alcoholic spirit.
But as everyone knows, spirit doesn't become Scotch whisky until it has matured in an oak cask for at least three years in Scotland. It becomes a product of its environment and what shapes the colour, depth, complexity and balance is the experiences the spirit has over time with the oak cask it calls home.
There is no correct age for whisky. No point at which you can scientifically say that a cask has reached full maturity. It is a natural process, and that is what makes it so very special.
One company in Scotland that understands the idea that it is the wood which makes the whisky is Gordon & MacPhail. Since 1895, this small, family owned business, has been taking spirit from some of Scotland's finest single malt distilleries and maturing it in their own hand-picked casks. Spanning three different centuries, it is through their wealth of history and experience that Gordon & MacPhail have learnt how each distinct single malt spirit they acquire, with its own unique flavour profile and liquid properties, matures in different styles of casks.
Unlike traditional independent bottlers, who often purchase pre-filled casks on the open market, this knowledge enables Gordon & MacPhail to match different new-make spirits with different styles of oak casks, in order to maximise the flavour, depth and quality of the resulting mature whisky. This makes Gordon & MacPhail 'cask curators', ensuring the friendship between spirit and oak is one that yields good times, not bad.
Almost a decade ago, I found myself at the back of a gig in one of London's famous dive bars. The Barfly in Camden Town was one of the best places in the capital to see up-and-coming bands, with up to four acts a night desperately trying to build their fanbase, sell a few t-shirts and catch the eyes and ears of record company A&R men, who made the back of the venue their unofficial after hours office, popping in on a regular basis to check out acts who were tipped for the top.
I was one of those A&R guys. Working for Island Records, I was desperately looking to find the next Muse, Radiohead or Coldplay to define my career and take me on a long term professional journey. However, one evening in April 2007, I found something much better...
Standing at the back of the dark venue, surrounded by other A&Rs from a variety of record companies, yet another unsigned band were about to take to the stage. To fill the awkward silence which usually falls before anyone from actors to musicians take a stage, the chap next to me asked what my plans were for the weekend.
If it had been any other weekend, I may well not be writing this now. My answer would have involved something along the lines of exploring an art gallery in London or, should the time of year be right, shouting my football team along to yet another disappointing defeat. But not this weekend. This weekend was different as, for the first time, I was heading to the Inner Hebridean Isle of Islay on a pilgrimage to some of my beloved distilleries.
As I started to talk about my planned trip, the face of this chap lit up. He whipped a copy of Whisky Magazine from his bag and before the end of the first song, we were at the bar ordering a Laphroaig 10 Years Old, totally ignoring the bunch of lads on stage.
That chap was Neil Ridley, then a fellow A&R man, but at a rival company to the one I worked for. Far from being in competition with each other, we struck up a friendship which quickly developed into a writing partnership which has so far seen us write about booze for nearly a decade.
Initially starting in 2008 with our whisky blog caskstrength.net (first reviews: Ardbeg 1977, Serendipity and a single cask official bottling of Highland Park), we invested our holiday time travelling to Scotland to visit distilleries, eventually leaving our jobs to pursue our passion for writing full time. This year saw our joint book Distilled pick up the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards 'Best Drinks Book of the Year 2015', and there are more books in the pipeline.
All this seems a very long way from the back of a dark music venue in Camden, and to do it with someone I class not just as a colleague, but as a friend, has been a total joy, so when Neil Ridley turned 40 earlier this year, I wanted to do something special for him in celebration.
Great friendships, much like great whisky, mature over time. Sometimes they don't last very long, but are still memorable. (I have many school friends who made that period of my life very special, but who I don't see much these days). Sometimes they can last decades, if not entire lifetimes. And much like a great whisky, they happen naturally.
With this in mind, and knowing that Neil had, for a good number of years now, been purchasing and laying down bottles of whisky from 1975 to celebrate his big day, I wanted to find him a bottle of whisky that would reflect our unique friendship, and so earlier this year I found myself driving to Elgin to visit the warehouses of Gordon & MacPhail, who have some of the oldest stocks of whisky in Scotland.
Arriving early one morning at their sample room in Speyside there is a mind boggling liquid library of hundreds of small bottles containing examples of a variety of casks under their ownership. I'm greeted by Stuart Urquhart, one of the fourth generation of the Urquhart family to work at Gordon & MacPhail, carefully guarding five specially chosen samples.
Stuart was there to guide me through five samples, all drawn from casks filled in 1975, with the specific intention of selecting one cask to have an individual bottle drawn as a gift for Ridley's 40th birthday.
Just from the look of the dark samples, with one exception, the line up was brooding and intense. Being all Speyside distillates, we started with the lightest first, a Longmorn matured in a refill hogshead. Quite delicious in its own right but it didn't seem quite what I was after and Stuart assured me that he would leave this to mature a little longer. "I'll look at pulling a sample of this again in about a decade," he noted. Take note, this was already a 40 Years Old whisky.
Moving on to our sherry monsters, we slowly sampled a meaty Mortlach followed by an oaky Glenlivet. After much deliberation, I narrowed down the choice to a Glenlossie which boasted one of the best noses of any whisky I've had the pleasure to try, and a very well balanced, complex and balanced Linkwood.
Having made my choice, we went on a cask hunt to locate the one oak vessel which had held my selected whisky since 1975. Hidden away in the top of one of their boutique warehouse was cask 5035, a first fill sherry butt filled with Linkwood. As it descended from the gods, it was clear that this cask was a stunner, a well coopered 500 litre sherry butt, the liquid inside the colour of rich mahogany, this would prove the perfect gift for a still-maturing friendship.
With one bottle drawn, the cask was put back in place to keep the liquid developing. Gordon & MacPhail told me that every cask has a fate, but little did this cask know it was to provide a unique, one-of-a-kind gift to a great friend.
Like a good single malt, there are many elements that go into creating a great friendship. It is a product of its environment, it is shaped by experience. So next time you are celebrating a special occasion with an old friend, raise a glass of single malt Scotch whisky in honour of an ever-maturing friendship, a natural process and what makes any friendship so very special.
Happy Birthday, Neil!
1975 Cask 7437, 48.1% ABV
(Refill, re-made hogshead)
Nose: Honey, heather and copper, with hints of Parma Violets.
Palate: Runny honey, vanilla and rosewater.
Finish: Warm cinnamon butter.
Overall: See you in a decade!
1975 Cask 8833, 56.5% ABV
(1st fill sherry hogshead)
Nose: Intense wood spices with a hint of liquorice allsorts.
Palate: Oaky dryness, rich nutmeg and allspice.
Finish: More liquorice and dry oak.
Overall: A forest walk in early autumn.
1975 Cask 4215, 57.4% ABV
(Refill sherry butt)
Nose: Heavily polished antique furniture, pulled pork.
Palate: More BBQ notes, rich cherry jam.
Finish: Cracked black pepper and sweet chilli jam.
Overall: A beast, but not quite tamed yet.
1975 Cask 2907, 49.3% ABV
(1st fill sherry hogshead)
Nose: One of the best I've ever had. Summer fruits, well aged sweet balsamic reduction and black forest gâteau.
Palate: Oak spices, black cherry and parma ham.
Finish: Strawberry laces wrapped around oak.
Overall: A stunner.
1975 Cask 5035, 55.1% ABV
(1st fill sherry butt)
Nose: Big summer fruit notes, candied orange dipped in dark chocolate, old leather arm chairs.
Palate: The perfect balance of oak and sweet red berry fruits, creamy vanilla and coconut milk.
Finish: Spices, chilli and oak are balanced with strawberries and cream.
Overall: Perfectly balanced and caught at just the right time.