Themed tastings

Whiskies of the Year 2016: Becky's picks

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Whiskies of the Year 2016: Becky's picks

As you can imagine, choosing your three top whiskies of the year is not a simple task. For starters there are so many to choose from (we’ve reviewed a whopping 324 new releases on Scotchwhisky.com this year alone), but then where do you start? What is it about a particular bottling that guarantees it a spot in your esteemed chart?

Of course flavour and complexity is important, as is a lasting impression. The very best whiskies are often the most memorable, but flavour is only part of the story.

A whisky’s ability to leave an enduring imprint depends, in part, on the time and place in which it’s experienced – and the people you’re with. Often that Eureka moment is a very personal one, which is why my first whisky of the year is forever intertwined with a special memory of comfort and belonging.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s 26-year-old Bladnoch was a dram I managed to sample by chance just a few weeks ago. I say by chance, because even in the midst of the infamous, soul-destroying Southern Rail strikes, which have left me abandoned, freezing cold at stark rural stations in the middle of the night, or stranded at home in Brighton for weeks on-end, I managed a jaunt to the SMWS in London. Unless you’ve been caught up in the strikes it’s difficult to imagine the endless stream of cancellations and permanent expectation of disappointment. But there, at the SMWS, a warm welcome awaited in the guise of a roaring fireplace, SMWS ambassador John McCheyne and venue manager Sam Macdonald. Right then, in that moment, the rich, fruity unctuous SMWS Apple Calvados Fruitcake was like a warm, reassuring hug. With a whisky like that by my side I knew I’d never be afraid of a cancelled train again.

My second choice has been made more out of respect for the bottler behind it. While Compass Box has never been shy of pushing the boundaries within Scotch whisky, this year saw the release of a three-year-old blended malt as a statement on the rigidity of transparency in Scotch whisky labelling. It’s a statement dram, yes, but delicious also, and with a suitable vibrancy for what is for the most part really a 24-year-old whisky.

Lastly, a controversial one for you all. Haig Club Clubman was never intended as a dram for whisky connoisseurs, so while it may not be every malt enthusiast’s cup of tea, it is one of my whiskies of the year. Why? It’s a sweet, easy-drinking crowd pleaser, designed to mix with cola – the biggest-selling mixer in the world. Vodka’s doing it, so’s rum and American whiskey. Heck even brandy and Coke is okay. The only brown spirit not making the most of its cola mixability so far is Scotch. With Diageo’s finance and David Beckham’s face behind the brand, Haig Club Clubman is the industry’s best shot at reaching more potential whisky drinkers who will then, in turn, begin exploring the wonderful, diverse world of Scotch. I prefer it with Diet Coke, but I urge you to try it for yourself. 

Scoring Explained

Overview

  • Bladnoch 26yo (SMWS, Apple Calvados Fruitcake, 50.90)

    Bladnoch 26yo (SMWS, Apple Calvados Fruitcake, 50.90)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    60.5%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Lowland
    Flavour camp
    Rich and Round
    Nose

    This fruitcake is the kind that’s stuffed so full of raisins and sultanas, dried citrus peel and nuts it falls apart when cut. It’s been made with soft Demerara sugar, peppered with cinnamon, cloves and anise, and brimming with large, juicy pieces of dried apple. There’s a glass of calvados sitting on the side.

    Palate

    It’s punchy, as the abv would suggest, but not overwhelming. In fact, don’t add water if you can help it. There’s apple cake, with those crunchy pieces of sugar on the top you find on Mr. Kipling’s Country Slices. Water ironically brings out more spice, while we move from fruitcake into bread and butter pudding. Those ubiquitous apples stand firm.

    Finish

    Ever so slightly dry, and… cakey.

    Conclusion

    A total fruitcake bomb. 

    Right place, right time

    In your favourite comfy, moth-eaten armchair beside a roaring fireplace. Or this if you don’t have one.

    Compass Box 3 Years Old Deluxe

    Compass Box 3 Years Old Deluxe
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    49.2%
    Production type
    Blended malt whisky
    Region
    n/a
    Flavour camp
    Fruity and Spicy
    Nose

    Apples. Green apple sours from a paper bag, and sweet, fluffy Braeburns on a stick, coated in thick toffee made with salted butter. The sweetness intensifies with layers of liquorice and vanilla, but rather than being cloying it’s punctuated with bursts of black pepper, cinnamon spice and soft smoke. The fruitiness diversifies with time, particularly in the form of grilled watermelon.

    Palate

    Waxy and unctuous: a classic Clynelish trait. There’s them apples again, only this time they’ve been slow-cooked and served with a light vanilla custard and a side-helping of burnt pie crust. 

    Finish

    It’s custard all the way, carried on a wisp of smoke on a long, slightly dry finish. 

    Conclusion

    Fruity and rich and the 9% of ‘Skye malt’ goes a long way in imparting a bonfire smokiness and a touch of salt. Nicely integrated, and although just 0.4% is three years old, there’s a youthful, fruity vibrancy.

    Right place, right time

    Amidst the dying embers of a burning orchard.

    Haig Club Clubman

    Haig Club Clubman
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    40%
    Production type
    Single grain whisky
    Region
    Lowland
    Flavour camp
    Fragrant and Floral
    Nose

    Neat: Bracing at first but opens into sweet vanilla while a faint floral quality emerges. There’s a slight butteriness, almost like buttered popcorn but more in the realms of butterscotch. There’s some oak in the background that adds weight.

    With Coke: The vanilla extract in Coca-Cola overwhelms the whisky – it’s very difficult to detect, aside from a slight oakiness

    Palate

    Neat: It’s surprisingly soft and very sweet. The butteriness emerges as Werther’s Originals and vanilla cream, and while the oak imparts some light custard-drenched Madeira cake, it has a slightly drying effect toward the mid-palate. It softens further with water, while the sweet vanilla character remains.

    With Coke: The two vanilla bombs combine to create a very sweet, vanilla-heavy, easy-going drink. When mixed with Diet Coke the whisky’s butteriness shines through.

    Finish

    Neat: It’s soft and smooth but short.

    With Coke: Vanilla and sugar with a touch of tannin.

    Conclusion

    Neat: It’s a sweet, easy-drinker on its own, even diluted. It retains its sweet, vanilla character with ice.

    With Coke: I prefer it mixed with Diet Coke – though I’ve never harboured a penchant for anything sweet, but even with the full fat, it makes a pleasant, light alternative to a JD and Coke.

    Right place, right time

    Shared with friends in the kitchen of a kicking house party.

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