Regular readers will know that while there is an extent to which I have to write about Christmas just now, I try to retain a cynical distance from nonsense like that. However there are a few actual spirits I’m interested in.
Last week I tried to give the lowdown on Champagne and Sparkling wines, and this week, in the second of my end-of-year buying guides, I have opted to change tack slightly and have a go at spirits. This is an even more vast and complicated field than sparkling wine, but like fizzy wine, we are more likely to buy spirits as gifts than we are other forms of drink, so while this will be far from a comprehensive guide, it should offer at least a few helpful ideas.
One brilliant thing about spirits that sets them apart from wines in the Scottish context is that we can, and frequently do, make spirits of the highest quality right here in our own country. This isn’t limited to Old Uncle Whisky; in the past decade, there has been a massive boom in the production of top class Gins and Vodkas in Scotland, and this trend looks set to continue. At the same time, whisky is bigger than ever both here and abroad, so much so that it’s getting hard to keep the damn stuff on our own shelves!
Moving further afield, fine spirits are made all over the world, including all of the above and also Rums, Brandies, Tequilas, and Absinthe (and this is to name just a few famous ones).
All spirits are defined by their production method, which relies upon the distillation of ethanol from the fermented form of a given organic product. The original products can range massively, from grain to grape, or potatoes to flowers.
All distilled spirits carries some of the flavour properties of its source product, but are distilled as a clear liquid, and are very often finished in ways that add colour or flavour after the event. So in the case of whisky, colour and flavour is added when the spirit is aged in oak casks (which have most often been previously used to age other drinks such as sherry or bourbon), and in the case of gin, flavour is added when the spirit is distilled or re-distilled in the presence of natural flavourings (the most common of which being juniper berries). Vodkas, on the on the other hand, are often extensively filtered to give the purest expression of the distillate.
Note, however, that I keep saying “most often”, “most common” and “frequently”. This is because the variation in techniques and products used in spirit making is pretty much limitless. You might be asking yourself: “How does that help me?” The answer is that spirit producers know this, so are increasingly keen to tell you the ‘story’ of their spirit on the bottle, if not the website or the accompanying booklet. For lack of a better way of putting it, they know that we know that we like a ‘talking point’ if we are buying spirits as gifts!
So, to get you started, here are a few recommended spirits, alongside some interesting talking points provided by the people that sell them!
5 – GlenDronach 15 year old (£43.50, Good Spirits Company)
Not one of the big names in malt whisky, GlenDronach has really been garnering a cult following since it closed its doors in 2000, and even more so since reopening in 2008. Expect to become a lot more familiar with the name.
Mark Connelly of The Good Spirits Company describes this as “a sherry monster”, and “liquidised Christmas cake” - and I agree; this is a wonderful example of how rich sherry aging should be done.
4 – Ledaig 10 year old (£27.75 at time of writing, normally £32.75, Oddbins)
Another up-and-comer on the whisky scene, and well worth watching out for.
Roddy Graham of Oddbins Mitchell Street in Glasgow explains: “Ledaig had a poor reputation in the past, but given that the distillery was only working on a part-time basis, with peaty whisky a fraction of output, it's easy to see why quality was low. The current owners have been spending more on casks, and have moved from 40 to 46% ABV and non chill-filtered.”
This is a smoky and savoury treat from Mull, with a good peaty punch, showing quality to match up to some of its heavily peated compatriots from Islay.
3 – Edinburgh Raspberry Gin (£16.99 for a 50cl bottle, Quel Vin)
The Spencerfield Company’s Edinburgh Gin has been racking up awards all over the place and they have now produced this - like a sloe gin, but with a local twist! Jin Griffiths of Quel Vin put me onto this, describing it as: “gorgeous and Christmassy, handmade in small batches and infused with the finest Perthshire raspberries”. This beautiful, ruby-coloured gin is perfect for mixing, but gentle and sweet enough to have neat or over ice!
2 – Balblair 1989 (£62, Oddbins)
Roddy Graham describes this as: “distilled fruit salad - that's all you need to know.” Yet another lesser known name, the Balblair malts represent incredibly good value, and the 1989 is no exception. It has a lovely, zingy, lemony nose, and a rich stone and dried fruit character, followed by a tremendously lengthy finish which is to die for. Yes, it’s the priciest item on this list, but this is worth it: top quality malt.
1 – Berry Bros & Rudd No.3 London Dry Gin (£39.79 as a gift set with branded glasses, Spirited Wines)
The ‘3’ stands for the botanicals; three fruits (juniper, orange, grapefruit) and three spices (angelica, coriander, cardamom). “Super premium stuff, I cannot emphasize how good it is” says Jane Wilson of Spirited Wines. She isn’t fibbing – this is an awesome gin, with a lovely full character alongside a really fine balance of the robust fruity flavours and the delicately spiced finish. Just awesome.
(Plus, one extra that I have never tried, but couldn’t resist telling you about!)
WILDCARD – Black Cow Vodka (£28.50, Good Spirits Company)
Mark Connelly says: “Made from milk. Yes, milk! They split the curds and whey, then ferment and distil the whey only to make this weird, yet wonderful spirit. Definitely one for those looking for something a bit different.” Pretty cool, huh?