Blends of yore – Hedges + Butler 21 year 43%

Without a doubt, this blend made our evening “remarkable“! It also prompted our meeting as I had brought it back from Germany where Krishna Nakula – India’s Malt Maniac – had bought it at an auction nearly two years earlier. As he just so happened to be in Mumbai for an event, we naturally had to catch up for a dram or two! Very generously, he chose to open this particular piece of history… Lucky us!

So what did we think?

Hedges & Butler Royal Scotch Whisky 21 year (1950/60s – 1970/80s) 43%

  • Nose – Rich and robust, think German cherry liqueur or a single rum, dark fruits – particularly plums, earthy and bursting with character, buttery milk chocolate with a heavy fruit liqueur
  • Palate – It has a velvety silky smoothness, well rounded and balanced, waxy with some mineral and tobacco, luscious juicy fruits and berries, a hint of spice and wood at the back, chased by bitters
  • Finish – Long and lingering with a hint of sweet spices

Superb and simply delicious! This blend provided clear evidence that they don’t make them like they used to! Very different – incredibly complex, rich, rewarding… a big full whisky. The nose and palate are outstanding… and very memorable. Lucky, lucky us to have an opportunity to try something like this!

It is hard to find too much in the way of exact details however based on the label and auctions, it is likely from the 1960s / bottled in the 1980s. The auction price was around EUR 88 however with taxes and shipping, came to EUR 105. I thought it quite reasonable, however Krishna shared such bottles earlier were selling for significantly less. As more and more people are now discovering that these mere ‘blends’ are in fact hidden treasures from a time when the BEST malt went into a blend, the price is also rising.

Hedges & Butler (aka H&B) is a brand of blends part of the Ian McLeod group. They trace their history as a wine and spirits producer back to 1667, relocating in 1819 to Regent Street, supplying the coronation banquet of King George IV with wine, port, and champagne. Their relationship with whisky began in the 1830s with blended Scotch whiskies – gaining their 1st of several “Royal Warrants” by King George IV, followed by Queen Victoria, then eleven different Monarch’s.

Fast forward to the 1960s, H&B was acquired by The Bass Charrington Group, then from 1998 the brand name has been owned by Ian Macleod Distillers.

Today you can still find H&B with a no age statement and 12-year version.

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Remarkable Random Range of Whiskies

What does a Scottish blend from the 1950 / 60s made for a Hamburg distributor and a German malt that barely qualifies as whisky have in common? Or what does a peaty coastal single malt bottled by an Indian distillery have to do with a sophisticated complex Island dram from a much-coveted Indie bottler? And how about the price range from an affordable entry-level Island OB in GBP 20s vs another over 150?! Or sourced from an auction some 40 years after bottling vs direct from bottler within hours of going on sale, to Le Clos Dubai duty-free or available exclusively in Bangalore only… Frankly speaking, they have practically nothing in common beyond a random sweaty evening in Mumbai where they just so happened to be tasted together!

A Remarkable (Random) Range

What a remarkable – if random! – range for a brilliant evening… which was revisited another night in Mumbai with more malt experts!

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Blind tasting The Famous Grouse 40%

Nothing like tasting blind to set aside preconceived notions… particularly when it comes to well-known blends…

A version of this blend has been around since 1896 with the “Famous Grouse” name remaining consistent since 1905. Considered a top-selling whisky brand in the UK, I have to confess that I don’t recall ever having tried The Famous Grouse before.

What did we think?

Famous Grouse 40% 

  • Colour – Bright gold
  • Nose – Raisins, sherry influence, oily and heavy, overripe fruits, wet mop and phenol, island influence, bit of brine, fermented bread, light iodine, wet leaves,
  • Palate – Smooth on the palate, gentle, watery softness, honey-sweet, nice mouthfeel, reminded a bit of mead
  • Finish – Soft white pepper, long, sherry element with juicy whisky soaked raisins

Nothing hugely distinctive or complex, but there were still some nice elements. However they were a bit curious – on the one hand, there was a briney Island style and on the other hand, a more traditional sherry dram.

We speculated this may be Scottish but beyond that? We had no clue!

Turns out this was the real “googly” in the mix for the evening. The other three were deliberately Scottish ‘adjacent’ whereas just for kicks, our whisky host decided to bring into our evening something we would not have expected!

With the reveal?

It all made sense – why there was a duality of character, why it came across as Scottish but not distinctively this or that. The Famous Grouse is known to use both Highland Park and Macallan – which certainly helped explain what we found!

As for the official notes?

  • Appearance: Full golden, clear and bright
  • Aromas: Candied fruits, buttery shortbread, citrus peel
  • Taste: Dried fruit, soft spices (cinnamon/ginger), hint of oak
  • Finish: Smooth, well balanced

Interesting to try and why I enjoy blind tastings! Here is what else we tried that evening:

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Compass Box Enlightenment 46%

It has been awhile since I’ve sat down with a Compass Box blend… more than two years! And this opportunity came completely unexpectedly.

It was an August evening in Mumbai where a few of us from our original tasting group re-united for a special evening. I’d intended to simply share what I had recently opened during that trip. However to my very pleasant surprise, one of our lovely tasting companions came with three unique bottles for us to experience – what fun!

What did we think?

Compass Box Enlightenment 46%

  • Nose – A bit shy at 1st then blooms, has blown candles, waxy, honey, tobacco leaf, green peppercorn, black vanilla pod, lemon, fragrant – lightly floral and fruity
  • Palate – Good an spicy, lots of character, powerful, waxy and oily… the spice tamed… and softened into fruitiness – now more berry than apple or citrus, underneath it more of that delicate floral almost herbal quality
  • Finish – Fruity honey

We tasted it blind and began speculating about the cask – could it be French oak 1st fill? American? And where was the spice coming from? Was it a single malt or something else? Ah.. we were definitely having more questions than answers until the reveal!

And what a reveal – you have to appreciate Compass Box commitment to transparency – pushing the boundaries of what is permitted.

I brought a couple samples back with me to Germany, forwarded on to Paris to revisit some evening – hopefully in the not to distant future.

Here is what John Glaser has to say about Enlightenment:

Inspired by the writers, philosophers and scientists of the Age of Enlightenment it sets out to encourage the industry to consider the absurdity of a system that prevents producers from telling consumers exactly what has gone into the whiskies they are drinking.

And of course the whisky itself is something rather special. A blend of fruity, fragrant Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskies, it is bursting with aromas of fresh orchard fruit, flavours of vanilla, soft spice and pear and an alluring apple peel waxiness on the finish. An uplifting, enlightening whisky with which to ponder the world of Scotch not only as it is but also as it could be.

What’s the recipe?

  • 48.2% Clynelish 1st fill American standard barrel – Bright apple, waxiness
  • 36.7% Glentauchers 1st fill American standard barrel – Fruity, herbal
  • 10.8% Balblair 1st fill American standard barrel – Perfumed, bright
  • 4.3% Mortlach rejuvenated American standard barrel – Muscular, weighty

And the official tasting notes?

Fresh, vibrant and uplifting with a mouthfeel that is moreish and mouth-watering. On the nose you will find bright apple and pear, vanilla cream and light violet; on the palate soft spice, gentle citric notes and more of that uplifting orchard fruit character.

Enlightenment is a limited edition blend bottled in April 2016 with 5,922 bottles. As for the price? Hard to say as it isn’t so readily available now.

What else did we try that evening?

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Back to blends – James Eadie’s Trade Mark ‘X’ 45.6%

For the most part, our whisky wanderings are firmly in the single malt category… with a few exceptions. This James Eadie that made an appearance in Aug 2021 was one such occurrence.

It was hunted down by a fellow whisky explorer who after we tasted shared the story of Rupert Patrick – the current owner – who found records of his great-great-grandfather’s blend, sampled some surviving bottles (turns out they were from the 1940s!) and then worked to reconstruct with a whisky expert (Norman Mathison).

What more do we know about James Eadie? For this particular “X” edition, their website shares:

In recreating Trade Mark ‘X’, only whiskies form distilleries which he personally bought from have been included in this blend – including some which have long ceased production.

As he specified, these whiskies were matured in either American oak or sherry wood.

Finally, we invited veteran Master Blender Norman Mathison to use his four decades’ worth of expertise to bring Mr. Eadie’s whisky back to life.

The result is an elegant, peaty dram, which offers a rare glimpse into the art of blending from the first Golden Age of Scotch whisky.

So that was the promise, what about our experience with the liquid?

James Eadie 2017 45.6%

  • Nose – Oh my! Initially quite sharp, lemon varnish, the fruity, cereals, bourbon sour, some yoghurt then… it started to shift dramatically to reveal hints of savoury meats, yet throughout retaining a “light” style.
  • Palate – Flavourful, fruity, silky sweet with spice at the back, lots of white peppercorns and fresh capsicum, hay, buttered toast
  • Finish – Hmm… is that cinnamon? With a dash of ginger?

We tasted this blind and initially thought it may have quite a high alcohol strength… however as it settled in the glass though perhaps not after all as it went from punchy sharp to quite light.

We didn’t initially think of adding water but thought, why not?

What a discovery! It became quite lively with a lovely peat revealed. While it made the body lighter, it gave more character and style. Well worth trying that way.

With the reveal we were all surprised – while we couldn’t guess the distillery we didn’t catch on to it being a blend either. Interesting. Our whisky “host” shared the cost – which I later looked up as being EUR 45.

I kept aside two small samples – one to take back and keep in Nurnberg and another to forward on to Paris. In a few months some additional impressions may join our original thoughts. I’m looking forward as this definitely was one I’d like to revisit!

What else did we try that evening?

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Vita Dulcis 15 – Japan’s Kaikyo

Last year, Germany’s spirits importer Schlumberger brought two whiskies from Akashi-Tai’s Kaikyo Distillery – including this “Hatozaki Whisky,” named after a lighthouse nearby that dates back to 1657.

Naturally curious, I was happy to see it part of my Vita Dulcis 2020 Advent Calendar.

Japan – Kaikyo Distillery Hatozaki Blended Whisky 40%

  • Colour – So pale, it almost looks like water
  • Nose – It started off with soft brie or camembert, citrus spice… as it opened up, it became fruitier – particularly white nectarines and the cereals became more prominent
  • Palate – Apple juice that morphed into apple sauce with a bit of cinnamon and cheese, bit of honey
  • Finish – Light

I kept thinking of a platter full of different kinds of cheese, apples, figs, a scattering of nuts… it also reminded me of Akashi’s Red, perhaps even more so the White Oak.

What more do we know?

Based on the ABV, it seems clear the ‘Finest Japanese’ expression (not small batch) Hatozaki made its way to Germany.

From this interview with the owner Kimio Yonezawa, it is a blend of malt and grain, whiskies distilled in Japan and outside. In terms of casks, they use sherry, bourbon and Mizunara oak…. even XO plum Umeshu!

As for official tasting notes, here is what I could find:

Hatozaki Finest Japanese Whisky is a premium blend of whiskies, aged up to 12 years in barrel with a minimum malt whisky content of 40%. Light in style with a rich backbone of malt whisky character. Cereal notes and a light sweetness allow for the whisky to be used in both highball and straight pours.

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Vita Dulcis 13 – Canada’s J.P. Wiser’s 18 year 40%

A nice surprise in my international Advent Calendar was a chance to ‘virtually’ take a trip to Canada shortly before Xmas!

As I had some catching up to do, I speed tasted a few sips of four drams… one after the other… with this one the last. Good thing as it was a clear departure and one that needed time to settle into…

Here is what I found!

Canada – JP Wiser’s 18 year Blended Whisky 40%

  • Nose – Initial hit was acidic, almost varnish or glue, but then it immediately mellowed, became sweeter, light tart fruits like a crisp apple, pine sol… and after the 1st sip reminded me of dried sour plums
  • Palate – Smooth, rounded…. tamarind… dried sour plum – a bit tart, a bit salty, a bit sweet and overall tangy
  • Finish – Long finish… which continued with the dried sour plum theme

Sometimes you come across a whisky that has a single predominant quality. Or at least once you catch that dimension, all senses become fixated on it. In the case of this J.P. Wiser’s 18 year, for me it was dried sour plums – Li hing mui (旅行梅) – specifically the red ones. This quality activated my taste buds with its combination of sour, salt and sweet. It also struck me that it might make an interesting addition to a cocktail.

While Canadian, this one reminded me of Asia. During my tasting, I was on a video chat with a friend in Canada and she immediately knew exactly what I meant.  She shared one of their favourite summer drinks is lemonade over ice with sour plums – the best part is how the sour plums help cut the sweet, add another element and then after soaking up the lemonade are delicious to eat.

Bottom line…. the more I sipped, the more I enjoyed this one… It was distinctive, interesting and a good shift in character after some less than stellar whiskies.

Distillery official tasting notes? I couldn’t really find… this is all they have to say:

Aged to perfection over 18 long years and blended with exacting care to deliver a premium whisky with the smoothest of finishes. This multiple award-winning spirit is something you’ll want to have on hand to serve and enjoy on special occasions.

Taste profile: Autumn florals, green apple, fresh pine, caramel, spice, oak 

Funny thing is… as I sat down to write up my notes, I discovered the Bombay Malt & Cigar lads and I had tried this whisky a few years ago during a special Canadian focused evening. When I read my old tasting notes, I could see the similarities but after fixating on sour plums, it was like a broken record… all I could ‘hear’ (taste/smell) was that!

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Dunkerton Drams – Nikka Days 40%

We wanted to mix things up our second evening, so our selection reflected a wee jaunt around the world from Japan to England to Australia to Scotland.

We decided to kick things off in the far east with a dram from Nikka. What do we know about Nikka Days? Just that it is a blend of Miyagikyo and Yoichi with grain… and not much more.

Nikka Days 40%

  • Nose – Honey, pickled seaweed in a Bento box, tobacco leaf, subtly fruity floral, sour dough, pastry, bit of apple and pear, apple pie then hint of citrus
  • Palate – Straight forward, light spice with a bit of smoke, warming… back to apple pie
  • Finish – Minimal

A clear appetizer dram… a nice way to get thing started with a curl of smoke to add a little something more. No complexity or nuance, just a relatively light bright beginning… a way to whet the appetite.

While not listed on the Nikka website, TWE share the producer tasting notes….

  • Nose: Apples, pears and strawberry liquorice. Perfumed notes of daiginjo sake and white melon. Grainy flavours develop, with freshly crushed barley and malting floor sweetness floating out of the glass. White chocolate and a sprinkling of lemon zest sit at the back.
  • Palate: Creamy and soft, with grapes and apples on top of toffee and candied lemon. Delicate white chocolate notes are joined by darker liquorice hints and a tiny touch of barrel char smokiness. Right at the back is a bowl of apples, freshly peeled and sliced.
  • Finish: Lemon zest and buttery biscuits. Barley sugar sweetness to leave grain and spice.

Delicate and fragrant at first, with more weight hiding behind. A great all-rounder with enough complexity to sip and enough oomph to shine in a mixed drink.

Reading the notes long after we sampled, I could certainly see some alignment with what we found. However complexity and oomph? Not so much…. But overall a nice starter!

Just to give a feel for pricing, I checked it out on Master of Malt – at the time of writing, it is  available for GBP 39. That’s exceedingly affordable these days for quite a drinkable blend!

What else did we try in our 2nd Dunkerton evening?

And other Nikka experiences? There’s been a few…

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Taiwan’s Yushan Blended Malt 40%

Yushan is the new brand for Taiwan’s Nantou Distillery whiskies – currently available with three expressions – an ex-bourbon, ex-sherry and this blended malt.

I will admit I’ve tried none from Nantou before now… and frankly bought it on a whim!

Yushan Blended Malt 40%

  • Colour – Light gold
  • Nose – Apples and pears, then gosh! That pineapple is sooo pronounced! A nice tangy sharpness, a dash of sweet spices, honey and hay
  • Palate – A touch of spice, light and a bit citrusy, followed by a malty
  • Finish – Light spice chased by a bitter close

It isn’t a spectacular dram however it isn’t bad either. Something uncomplicated to enjoy on a summers evening.

Here are tasting notes from the chaps over at Master of Malts have this to say:

  • Nose: Sultana, pineapple chunks, thyme honey and some spicy nutmeg.
  • Palate: Creamy vanilla and tangy orange, joined by rounded malt and buttery biscuit.
  • Finish: Coffee bean, orange again and a slightly floral hint lingering right at the end.

I picked this one up from Master of Malt for €37.36 when they were still able to ship to Germany.

Til date, all other brushes with whisky from Taiwan was exclusively with Kavalan:

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Shackleton 40%

Stories of antarctic explorations capture the imagination with the tale of Shackleton whisky are well known.

“I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown.” – Ernest Shackleton

Our whisky tasting  groups have explored different versions of this whisky reconstruction with:

Along the way I had picked up this version where it quietly sat in my whisky cabinet, biding its time til it surfaced as part of a birthday celebration.

Shackleton 40%

  • Nose – Sweet apple cinnamon pie, toffee, vanilla
  • Palate – Easy drinking, fruity, sweet with malty cereals, dried fruits, hint of tart citrus
  • Finish – Carries on from the palate

I will admit these are more fleeting impressions than proper notes as it was a sociable occasion. However sometimes an enjoyable blend like this is “spot on” and appreciated by our crowd. By the end of the evening, there wasn’t a single drop remaining – voting through consuming is always a good sign!

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