Mashtun and Meow: Sheffield Beer Blog: May 2015

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Isle of Arran: Distillery Tour

Set in a stunning valley just outside the small port town of Lochranza at the north point of the wonderful island of Arran, the still pretty youthful distillery of Arran sits. Since opening in 1995, the distillery has grown in capacity steadily, to the point where this year they will be producing 650,000 litres of spirit from their two stills. Yet still, this is the 6th smallest producer of whisky in Scotland.
The tour itself, which started from beside the impressive indoor waterfall in the centre of the award winning visitor centre, opened with an introduction from our charismatic bearded host Stewart, a pre-midday dram of the Arran 14 year old, and a short informative video to give a background to Arran's colourful distilling history - smugglers and household pot stills having been absolutely rife in the past! After the introduction, we moved on to the only production building in the distillery, housing everything from the grist mill right through to the spirit safe. 

As you can imagine, the smell in the building was intoxicating. Starting with 2.5 tonnes of malted barley in the mash, with 13,000 litres of water, it's undoubtedly a busy little place - continually mashing in sometimes up to 13 times a week to keep up with demand. Imported barley is used, as we learned that the proximity to the Gulf Stream means that barley grown on the island is not suitable for whisky production, as the warm climate leaves the grain low in the sugars needed for making the required alcohols. The six wash backs vary in age, again a reflection on the amount the distillery has grown over the past twenty years. The stills looked vaguely familiar to us, and we discovered that this is because they are modelled roughly on the shape of Bowmore's stills - the master distiller, James MacTaggart, having spent the first part of his whisky career there.

Back to the tasting bar, for a nip of Arran Gold - a whisky cream liqueur made with Arran 10. Not being quite Jim's thing, Laura enjoyed a duo of these! After the standard tour was finished, we stayed behind with our bewhiskered host and a couple of other visitors to taste a few more. With three choices each, we had the opportunity to taste some of the excellent finishes that the distillery has to offer...

Amarone Cask Finish - 50% 

Colour: Sparkling ruby

Nose: A wave of sugared almonds and oodles of honey gush forward initially, with lashings of sour fruits. The dry red wine cask is certainly apparent with a distinctive grape-iness that carries delicately with unsweetened cocoa.

Palate: A level of spice that was not apparent on the nose opens up on the tongue, with cinnamon and liquorice root, stewed dark fruits such as plums and cherries follow up with a prickle of spice. The cocoa from the nose evolves into a rich dark chocolate, with a little more sweetness.

Finish: The spice remains on the tongue for a good 15 seconds accompanied with a sweetness that engulfs the mouth.

Single Cask Bourbon 1999 - 58%

Colour: Polished copper

Nose: The American oak is a big part of the nose, as you would expect - the wood sings sweetly from the glass, with vanilla and an almost toffee sweetness along for the ride.

Palate: To drink it is almost creamy in texture from 15 years in the barrel, but maintains a zesty freshness reminiscent of citrus peel. Vanilla pod luxury marries beautifully with a nutty oak characteristic.

Finish: A full, fresh mouth for a short moment, that ebbs gradually away with a sweet creaminess.

Machrie Moor (Cask Strength edition) - 58.4%

Colour: Golden barley

Nose: A sweet smoke nose initially, with tropical fruits coming later. The blend is intoxicating, like chargrilled pineapple.

Palate:  Vanilla custard becomes a large part of the taste, with more BBQ'd fruit, this time bananas by the fireside. Unmistakably peat and as it's the only peated release from the distillery, this seems to be MacTaggart's homage to his Islay heritage. The ABV certainly helps to carry great waves of peat but does so beautifully, without becoming over powering.

Finish: Much like you can still smell the smoke from a BBQ days after, the peat lingers beautifully in the mouth, but with a sweet accompaniment of dark dried fruit.

Between us we also sampled the Sauternes cask finish and a Private Cask bottling for Glasgow's Whisky Club (both of which we bought bottles of, so reviews to follow!).

Afterward we were treated to a sneak peek in the warehouses, past warehouse six, the newest and last to be built on the site, to warehouse two and three which contained some of the more famous private casks, including a cask belonging to Ewan McGregor.

Finishing off with a delicious lunch at Cask cafe, a great afternoon was definitely had by all.



Sunday, 24 May 2015

Bruichladdich Octomore 06.3 - Islay Barley

It's Feis Ile on Islay this week, and we are so near yet so far away... spending the week on the beautiful island of Arran. In honour of Bruichladdich day, however, we thought it was only right to bring something a little bit special with us. Behold! The first Octomore to be made with 100% Islay barley. Prestigious, unique, and definitely a big hitter.

Colour: Silken amber

Nose: Although peated to 268ppm (wowza) the nose on this is initially remarkably restrained on the smoke. It's undoubtedly prominent, but beautifully balanced by a sweetness akin to proper Scottish tablet ice cream on a buttery, digestive biscuit base, with a grating of dark chocolate atop. Sweet, spicy, and ever so alluring - you can still smell the malt floor that this was born on.

Palate: So THAT'S where all those sneaky little phenols are. The 64% ABV is apparent without overpowering the dram, still allowing a multitude of beautifully balanced flavours to pour forth. There's dark and citrus fruits (a light sparkle of cloudy lemonade, with a maraschino cherry garnish), oodles of gloriously fresh tobacco, and a good dollop of vanilla clotted cream. Finally, the malt comes through at the end with a cinnamon and toffee edge.

Finish: Warms you up right down to the soles of your feet. The peat lingers, but gently mellows as time progresses to leave behind a moreishly sweet glow. Cosy from your bonnet to your slippers.



Tuesday, 5 May 2015

El Cartel, Edinburgh

Somewhat hidden down the little alley of Thistle Street, Edinburgh, walking into El Cartel was like wandering into a Day of the Dead themed treasure trove. Recently re-opened after being closed due to fire in January, it's clear that the team are back with a bang... despite it's fairly small size, the restaurant was absolutely buzzing with a vibrant, festival-esque atmosphere.

We (Laura, and little sister Amy in this instance) sat down and perused the drinks menu... a whole booklet dedicated almost entirely to tequila, with a couple of pages for mezcal. We eventually settled on the frozen kiwi margaritas, and they were a real treat - fresh, just the right level of tartness, delicious and very unique.

The menu was reassuringly short and it was clear straight away that this is a place which takes pride on serving top quality stuff. The format was a little like ordering tapas - we were encouraged to choose a couple of small dishes to share along with some tacos, with the promise that we could just keep on calling for more until we were replete.

We went for the bombers - molten cheese middles, super creamy and full of spice, with a crunchy outer - served in a really tasty sauce which I think may have been something akin to chipotle mayo. We could both have eaten a truckload of the drunken beans, made with tequila, and the mini quesadillas stuffed with chorizo, sweet potato and more of that yummy soft cheese were piquant and full of flavour. Everything got a little bit smothered in El Cartel's signature hot sauce, too.

On to the tacos! Each order comprised two tacos, so we ordered two different kinds and shared. Amy's choice of steak was tender and perfectly griddled, a good hit of spice balanced with a generous slice of avocado.

Laura selected the duck tacos (quack-os?) which were gloriously flavourful and unlike anything I've ever tried before. Shredded duck was topped with salsa and pineapple before being scattered with sunflower seeds which added a good little crunch.

This is food which doesn't shy away. A wonderful meal all round, and to top it off, our bill came in an adorable little sugar skull. Arriba!


Monday, 4 May 2015

Whisky Review: SMWS 3.243

Dark, smouldering flamenco gypsy

Feis Ile is undoubtedly one of the key events in any whisky lover's calendar, with thousands converging from around the world on the beautiful island of Islay to celebrate all things whisky. For the first time this year, the folks at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, already renowned for their unique bottlings of a huge variety of Islay drams, are plunging into the festival atmosphere with their very own Feis Ile release. Bottling 3.243, 'Dark, smouldering flamenco gypsy' is a 17 year old peated Bowmore, aged in refill ex-sherry butts and bottled at 57.1%.

On the nose, the sherry cask is hugely prominent. Sweetness abounds, with festive dried fruits - raisins and figs - and just a hint of fresh raspberries. There's some gentle smokiness which doesn't overpower, just enough to give a real meatiness to the aroma. Reminiscent of a summer's BBQ, at that point of the day where the sun is just falling below the horizon, and the embers are all dying down.

The palate has a blast of spice, and a more intense meaty nature, but always balanced by that sumptuous sweetness - like dipping a chillied chorizo in a sherbet fountain. The combination of 'meat and sweet' is wonderful... tempted chuck a few chunks of smoked sausage in our Christmas cake this year with the aim of recreating it. As we continue to sip, a dark chocolate note starts to come through, with pink peppercorns that tingle on the lips.

The finish leaves behinds lashings of sea salt, with that unmistakeably Islay coastal brininess and a peaty nature which lingers on long after the last sip has been swallowed. Glorious.

The SMWS Tasting Panel recommended drinking this whisky 'between dances at a Spanish barbeque party' - whilst we didn't quite have the music available for our own flamenco masterclass, we couldn't resist spending Bank Holiday Monday cracking out the BBQ. Our salsa verde lamb shoulder was a great accompaniment to this hearty dram - especially the somewhat more chargrilled pieces!

'Dark, smouldering flamenco gypsy' will be available for members and non-members alike to get their hands on at the SMWS Feis Ile Open Day, 22nd May 2015, at Islay House. Well worth a visit if you're lucky enough to be attending the festival.



Thanks to SMWS for the sample!