Steve Crotty looks back at his personal best and worst whiskies, beers and pubs of 2011.
Steve Crotty’s 2011 Awards
In a year when Sex and The City 2 went to number 1 at both the US and UK box offices, I can’t help hoping that the Mayans were correct in their end of days assertions. This was also a year in which Cher Lloyd reached the top of the music charts, and we witnessed the birth of both Geordie Shore and Desperate Scousewives. Truly, these are apocalyptic times in which we live.
Yet in the world of whisky, business is good. Sales of whisky were up yet again despite the stagnant economy, boosted by luxury export markets in both China and Japan. Both the Penderyn and St. George’s distilleries continued their steady growth and penetration of what is an already fiercely competitive market. Bruichladdich reached the whisky milestone of releasing their first new 10 year old expression (which, based on the reports, is fantastic) and we gave a hearty welcome to Abhainn Dearg. A brand new Scottish distillery and the only one to be built on the Isle of Lewis, Abhainn Dearg now boasts the marketing privilege of being the most westerly Scottish distillery (take that Kilchoman).
With that in mind I have decided to give a brief view of what thrilled and appalled me in the whisky world, as well as some other alcohol-related topics. I realise (and hope) that this has little bearing on your own views and opinions, but I enjoyed writing it. So there. Before moving onto my awards for 2011 however, an apology is required.
You may be aware that I am the self-titled Whisky Tsar for Rum & Reviews. What you may not be aware of is that I am more than capable of making a complete tit out of myself, nowhere more so than in my review of the Bruichladdich Sherry Classic / Fusion: Fernando De Castilla. Take a second to search it out on the website. I’ll wait.
Now that you’ve read it, you may be aware I was gushing in my praise of this fine drink, and mentioned the hearty smack of peat that was present. Well, to drum up some awareness of the website, I decided to tweet the Bruichladdich distillery to inform them of the favourable review and where to find it. Imagine my surprise when they tweeted me back to inform me that in fact, BRUICHLADDICH SHERRY CLASSIC ISN’T PEATED AT ALL.
This hit me hard. Was I a merely a clueless baboon of a reviewer, pretending to know his subject matter, or had I merely mis-read it the first time? There was only one solution; to buy another bottle.
Having sampled it many times over the last few weeks, my conclusions are thus. Yes I can now clearly see there isn’t the smokiness that would suggest a peat presence. What is present is such a thunderous smack of both malt and oak that, subconsciously, I appraised it as peat. My preconceived notions were that a whisky under 10 years old surely couldn’t have such an oaky presence, and that peat must have been the answer. Indeed, when I first wrote the review I was regularly flummoxed by exactly what it was that I was getting most from the whisky.
Rather than dismiss myself as a fraud, however, I am positive this was merely a slip-up. Even the great and good are prone to the odd error (and I am neither of those things). So Bruichladdich you have my apologies for the misinformation that I peddled in my review. Sorry to you as well dear reader, for making you think the whisky was something it wasn’t. Having said all that, if you bought it on the strength of the review you won’t be disappointed; it’s still bloody marvellous. And I promise to redouble my efforts as your faithful Whisky Tsar, to make sure I do make an erroneous statement for at least the next month or so. Right, on with the awards.
Best Scottish Whisky (Single Malt) – Bruichladdich Sherry Classic / Fusion : Fernando De Castilla
This award goes to a whisky I hadn’t tried prior to 2011, and I tried some fantastic ones. Special praise goes to Dalwhinnie 15 years old for being nothing like its dreary packaging; get past that and it’s a joy.
The Sherry Classic just edged it though. Forget about the fact that there’s no peat, and wallow in its powerful array of flavours. This is a whisky that will appeal to all. Like brandy? Buy it. Like wine? Buy it. Like whisky? Buy two bottles, one to spellbind your friends with, and another to squirrel away for winter hibernation.
Best Scottish Whisky (Blend) – Bailie Nicol Jarvie 8 Years Old
I feel somewhat guilty that I have neglected blends in 2011, having been drawn to the magnetism and bright lights of the single malt world. Blends get preference in 2012! That said, I still managed to stumble onto this little gem, taking the best components from Speyside and blending with some peaty fellows from Islay, sprinkled only with the finest grain. So the spiel tells me anyway, but who am I to argue with results like this? A master class in the art of subtle balance and poise between peat and sweet, it costs approximately £18. This is insanely good value. Buy plenty at this price as stock is limited.
Best Irish Whisky & Best Grain Whisky – Greenore 8 Years Old
I tried this towards the very end of 2011, so expect a full review soon. Not only was it the best Irish whisky I tasted all year but I now finally have a whisky that can champion the merits of grain whisky to all who will listen. I am a big grain whisky fan, but my reviews have so far not backed that evidence up (in my defence one of the whiskies sampled was Snow Grouse). Greenore is the first truly great grain whisky I have come across, and can rightly be held in the same regard as any malt whisky, but to its different texture and flavour it should probably be held on an adjoining field, so the malt and grain can have a fierce stare-down. Makes an exquisite and subtler Irish coffee than a malt would too.
Best American Whisky – Stranahan’s Colorado Malt Whiskey
I was slightly spoiled for choice here, as anyone who read my bourbon special will be aware of. I devoted the summer to pursuing the fine art of bourbon-tasting (sadly not an acceptable career path, not yet at least) and came across some belters that in many ways were more incredible and innovative than what Scotland could provide. Jim Beam Yellow Label was a spicy, classless corn bruiser, and all the better for it. Blanton’s Special Reserve was the complete opposite, a delicate, fragrant bouquet of a dram. The winner, though, is a genetic freak. Distilled in Colorado of all places, from a brand new company sending their first produce over to these shores, it had no right to be anywhere near as good as it was. The fact it had such a strong oak presence despite only being aged for two years (2!), the fact that this was balanced by a white chocolate and fudge finish that Thornton’s would be proud of, and the fact that all these factors harmonized so eloquently with each other suggests they made a pact with the devil, or at the very least used witchcraft. Whatever the reason, it was superb.
Worst Whisky Tried – Snow Grouse
Best Beer Tried – Old Crafty Hen
Old Crafty is Old Speckled Hen’s bigger, bolder (and at 6.5% ABV) stronger brother. Thankfully you do not need to appreciate Old Speckled Hen to enjoy Old Crafty, as this is an altogether more intriguing bird. I tend to leave the analytical beer details to my expert colleagues, but suffice to say, I really love this (my home is rarely without at least one bottle.) It is hoppy without being too forceful to the point where it becomes tangy, something I don’t care for, and is balanced by a sweet raisin finish. A bird fit for any table.
Best Pub Visited – The Duck & Drake, Leeds
Perhaps a somewhat surprising winner, as it lacks many of the points one would associate with a fine drinking establishment. Whilst it does have a selection of cask ales on tap, the number is small due to the pub’s size. It doesn’t have an adequate smoking area (a closed off section of the street, generally), the spirits selection is minimal if I’m being generous and there is no discernible atmosphere to speak of. Indeed, I wouldn’t recommend it as a group establishment.
Yet the wooden floors and walls adorned with various breweriana create a welcoming bonhomie that I have rarely experienced anywhere else, let alone a pub. I would think nothing of going in and spending a good couple of hours with a pint in one hand and a book in the other (drinking alone is fine in moderation). Try it for yourself if you’re ever in the area, whilst I proceed to track down the Gentlemen Drinker for a full and in-depth review.
Best Damn Whisky in The World – Johnnie Walker Black Label
Blended Scotch Whisky
“Fucking hell!” These were the very first words spoken by me after my first taste of Johnnie Walker Black Label. Not out of repulsion or shock, but out of awe and joy at how a drink could be this good. Eight years later and that viewpoint hasn’t really changed, which if nothing else is a ringing endorsement of the high quality maintained on production of this nectar.
Johnnie Walker Black Label is the second cheapest in the Johnnie Walker stable, and should come with a government health warning that opening the bottle may lead to rapid consumption. Packaged in the distinctive square bottle synonymous with the JW brand (it was done to reduce shipping costs – square beats circle every time) it is one of the best-selling and recognised brands worldwide, be it single malt or blend, and was voted Best Blend (aged 5-12 years) for two years running by Jim Murray. What more do you need me to say?
I started out by intending to do a thorough review that evidenced the score below, examining in detail the subtle majesty of the dance between peat and malt, and the luxuriant quaffable smoothness of the finish. I wanted to explain how each component gets its own minute in the spotlight, before the crescendo toward the finish as they all come on to the stage for the final curtain call. I quickly realised two very crucial things.
Firstly, I am at best an average (but I hope entertaining) reviewer and I simply do not have the words or the ability to express how much I love this drink. At best, it would sound like a sickly love-letter that would raise doubts in people’s minds as to the veracity of my praise. I am also willing to accept that my love of JW Black has a certain amount of nostalgia attached to it; I spent my adolescence in the company of this drink and haven’t stopped buying it now. My house always has a bottle handy, preferably two in case of emergencies/visitors (the thought of accidentally dropping a bottle and having no back-up makes me break out in a cold sweat, and now I have to go check to make sure it’s still there. I don’t really, but you get the strength of my conviction.)
Secondly, why should I? I’ve already declared it the best whisky I have tried to date (and I’ve tried many) and it has held that title for the last eight years. Nothing I can find compares to it; the battle I am fighting is a losing one, and one that I am happy to lose. Go out and buy a bottle for yourself, and see what all the fuss is about. I figure that I will take away some of the magic by pulling it apart here, revel in its malted glory yourself. If you don’t like it (and I know many who don’t) then at £20 you haven’t even spent a considerable sum of money, and you are bound to find a friend or colleague who will like it. Failing that simply drown it with coke (it is the only time I have come across a peated whisky that balances itself impeccably with coke).
By giving JW Black Label this score I am not saying it is perfect; we all know a perfect thing is a fallacy. I am simply saying I can see no way in which it could be improved. Just go and get a bottle and see what all the fuss is about. I’m going to grab mine right now.
Overall Rating 10/10