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The whisky world as seen by an eccentric Bavarian exile


April 2010

Previous Monthly Dram-atics: Mar. 2010 / Jan-Feb 2010 / Dec. 2009 / Nov. 2009

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Monday 12th April; The Big Grouse or "A foursome with a Famous Scottish bird?"

"The Grouse" was created in 1896 by Matthew Gloag a Scottish grocer and wine merchant from Perthshire who chose to name his whisky after this iconic bird rather than himself. In 1905, thanks to the popularity of the brand he added the word "Famous" to the name.

Today this still has the reputation of being a quality blend with a very smooth character, so last night I decided to put the bird to the test with four different expressions; Famous, Black, Snow & Scottish Oak.


Famous Grouse has a reputation for being smooth, inoffensive and very drinkable, but what about the others?

First up was indeed the "Famous" and although it lacked complexity, it did exactly what it says on the label; Smooth!

Second was the "Black" and once aain I was surprised by the smoothness and gentleness of this expression which is the peaty one of the family. Its gentle manner of caressing the palate was quite a surprise for a peaty whisky, but a very pleasant surprise indeed.

The special release "Scottish Oak" was third and I quite liked the rich and smooth flavours of this one which was also quite spicy on the palate, but at the same time as the spiciness concentrated right at the front of the palate, a strange (fruity) sweetness hit the back. If it weren't for this sweetness this would be a very good dram, but as it is, it just fails to hit the spot, or should I say it hits two contrasting spots rather than a single harmonious one.

"Snow" was last and it is recommended to serve this one from the freezer, so I decided to try it both at room temperature and then from the freezer where I had left a sample for the past week. At room temperature this offered a nose of fresh and leathery floral detergent followed by a palate of faint, spirity liquorice. Not impressed with this I hoped for more from the freezer version, even though I am no fan of whisky with ice, but this is surely different, as there's no actual ice in the whisky?

Oh dear, the nose was, well, errmm, icy something, but too weak in character to distinguish just what that 'something' could be. As for the palate; one sip was enough. In fact more than enough! I was kind and described it as "icy and most unpleasant" but if truth were known, it comes a clear second in my all-time worst whiskies and sits behind that Loch Dh-ugly which I reviewed in Dram-atics last month. Can nothing be worse than that one?

Moving quickly on to my conclusions; "Famous" remains an inocuous and smooth whisky, very drinkable and liked by many for good reasons. It also gives value for money. "Black" was a surprise. I liked it and consider it to be a serious alternative to the much more expensive JW Green Label. "Scottish Oak Finish" offered some promise with flavour, but that strange sweetness on the back of the palate rather spoiled the party for me. As for "Snow"; Winter never was my favourite season and although she is a rugged bird, she doesn't deserve this treatment. So it's a case of "Been there, done that, no need to go back for the T-shirt!"

My full tasting notes for these expressions are available by clicking on any of the 'Grouse' label pictures.


Friday 2nd April; Playing the ppm numbers game or "My peat's bigger than your peat?"

Speak of 'peat' and most peoples' thoughts will probably turn immediately to the Hebridean island of Islay and its eight working distilleries which are primarily famous for their (often highly) peated offerings. As if this weren't enough, two of those distilleries have been pushing the limits as to just how much peat they can try to cram into their bottles, or should I say whisky?

The 'peatiness' of a whisky is measured in ppm (Parts Per Million) and refers to the amount of phenols which are a result of drying the barley by peat smoke. So to blow one myth they are not, as some people think, due to using peaty water which freely flows on the island. The peat within the water is almost totally nullified by the distillation process and accounts for no more than 1ppm in the process.


To illustrate this process are pictures of Bowmore's Maltings and Laphroaig's Peat Oven



So, who has how much peat, or ppm?

Ardbeg usually has a ppm of 54-56ppm whereas in comparison Laphroaig has 35ppm, Lagavulin 25-30ppm and Bowmore an average of around 20ppm.

But that's not quite the end of the story as Ardbeg may have on average 55ppm, but this is not all transferred to the final bottled spirit, as when it reaches the bottle, after distillation and maturation, it has been reduced to less than half the original value and a meagre 23-25ppm.

What about pushing those boundaries? Well, Ardbeg and Bruichladdich seem to have been playing the ppm numbers game in recent releases; Ardbeg with the 100ppm Supernova and then Bruichladdich with the 140ppm Octomore 2_140 but just how 'peaty' are these offerings? Is the Supernova really almost twice as peaty as the standard Ardbeg 10y? Is the Octomore almost three timesas peaty as the Ardbeg 10y, or even almost half as peaty again as the Supernova?

I recently had the opportunity to taste these two bottlings and was quite surprised by my findings:

The Supernova had a great nose, initially fruity with mango and an element of juniper, but as if wrapped in freshly smoked Black Forest Ham. The palate was also richly fruity with some wood and very smooth, but initially not much smoke or peat. This did change as I added drops of water, to the point where the more I added, the peatier it became. Revealing tremendous depths to the smoky peatiness.

Final verdict: Very peaty, very drinkable, very nice

The Octomore at 140 ppm and almost half as much again as the Supernova was a totally different whisky. The nose exhibited a rather pungent version of what I call "Bruichladdich's Bilge Pump"; a mixture of stale Atlantic ocean and air with hints of engine room. This was accompanied by some fruity peat. Without water the palate was earthy fruit and far too strong in alcohol burn. Like the Ardbeg, adding water opened the palate to include more depth of fruit, peat and smoke, until it eventually included lots of rubber.

Final verdict: Quite pungent, very fruity, eventually smoky & peaty then rubbery.

So what conclusions can I draw?

Well, the Supernova definitely has much more depth of peat than the Ardbeg 10y which I am using here as my 'yardstick' for comparison. It needs and indeed benefits from the addition of water and it really does improve to reveal depths of peat that I haven't experienced before. That Ardbeg 10y would have been reduced to a watery sweetness whereas the Supernova just carried on.

The Octomore was also very intense, but did I identify this intensity as peat? Not really as that pungent trait was always at the fore and never really took off as 'peat' in the way of other peated whiskies, although the water did help somewhat.

Can I honestly say that I find either of these two whiskies almost 2x or even 3x more peaty than my yardstick Ardbeg 10y?  Is either one almost 4x or even 6x more peaty than Lagavulin 16y?

Most definitely not!

My final comments are that we are not told how many of these magic ppm numbers have actually been transferred to the bottle, but if Ardbeg 10y reduces from about 55 ppm to 23 ppm in the bottle, then I guess these are somewhere around 43 ppm and 58 ppm respectively. But does this matter? Not really as the comparisons are still valid in the bottled versions, so why aren't they so much more peaty? Well I guess the 'problem' lies with the humanoid's palate and the fact that our sense of taste is nothing like as receptive as our sense of smell and we probably have a ceiling limit when it comes to intensity of flavour, therefore detecting peatiness to a certain level, but not beyond.





























Previous major features

March 2010

Sample Mania tasting notes, The Good, the Bad & The Loch Dh-Ugly, A return to sanity, The Choice of Managers

Jan-Feb 2010

Keep taking the medicine, It's Festival time, Maker's Mark, Sleeveless in Munich

Dec. 2009

All power to the bean-counters, protecting Scotch, seasonal drams, Definitive Xmas Drams, 2009 Whisky Awards

Nov. 2009

How it all started, Bonfire night, Autumnal musings, EU Tax & Duty, What's in a (whisky) name?




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