Penderyn, Bunnahabhain, Machrie Moor

Lightly peated whiskies are a tricky business.

Big bold peated malts are a great style, shouldering their way across your palate with their salt and smoke and earthiness, but at times they can leave you feeling like a crockery salesman in Pamplona.

Speysiders or Highlanders would say they have a touch of peat in them (from the water), before changing the subject to honey or sherry or such like.

Lightly peated malts fall somewhere between these two stools, landing in an awkward area which not many whiskies can comfortably inhabit.

Hence the great fascination of Bunnahabhain. Good Bunna is one of life's pleasures. Bad Bunna, as Oz Clarke says of bad Burgundy, leaves you discontentedly fingering your wallet.

So where do Penderyn Peated and the new Isle of Arran Machrie Moor fall?

My first impression is that they are mood whiskies - sometimes fantastic and other times so-so. This isn't a criticism, it's true of most drams.

The Isle of Arran Machrie Moor has a quietly attractive nose, starting with toffee and then letting out a little puff of smoke, nothing ferocious. To taste it is nicely oily, with a lemony spicy sweetness and a fair bit of dry smoke - dried pine twigs rather than big bonfires. It dries out in the finish, leaving the smoke behind to remind you to take another sip (yes, it is rather moreish).

The Penderyn Peated is less intense to smell, with something like mint tea and a sort of fresh smoke - maybe smoke on a windy day. Tasting it reveals a herbaceous edge to the smoke, like throwing thyme on a barbeque, and then it gets all hot and peppery in the finish.

After these two the Bunnahabhain 12 year old seems pretty mild mannered. Sweet, malty or cerealy to begin, becoming really as sweet as a toffee penny. Tasting it, the body is much fuller than the other two, and I can't really see any smoke in there at all. Perhaps the peat is doing the Highland trick of broadening the malt, but behind the scenes, so to speak.

Both of the newcomers have been growing on me with repeated tastings. But (it's a small but), my overall impression, as has been the case with the standard release from each distillery, is that, while good, they'll be better when they are older. I'm really enjoying the standard Arran 10 just now, which has a decent breadth that younger releases lacked, and I'd love to taste a smoky version of that. So the Penderyn Peated is pretty good, 3; the Isle of Arran Machrie Moor is really rather good, 3++; and good old Bunna (tonight, at least) is comfy and reliable, 3.


A Penderyn cyber-tasting

With a view to synchronising our palates, SF and I (with expert kibitzing provided by TallAsAVan) conducted a tasting of Penderyn whiskies at a distance of four hundred miles, using Skype. This worked really well, except that I found myself rather bellowing.

I'm in two minds about what Penderyn do. They have a weird setup which seems to be the bastard offspring of a pot still and a column still. And they distill to 92% ABV. In other words, they are making something like grain spirit, and relying on the casks to impart a much higher proportion of flavour than normal. On the one hand, selecting high-quality casks to finish your spirit can produce lovely whiskies (think Compass Box), but on the other, what about terroir, typicity?

We tasted the Madeira, Sherrywood, and Peated finishes, and while they are all what I'd call restrained whiskies, I enjoyed them. There's a common theme of tangy fruit; oranges or apricots, and often with a lick of chocolate to them, as well as the same minty note I've found in the Saint George English whisky - the same mintiness you find in Glenkinchie 12 year old.

The Madeira finish is Penderyn's standard expression. No age statement, but it doesn't taste young (no new make spirit character I can see). Instead it tastes smooth, light, and fruity - definitely chocolate oranges. Good to Excellent.

The Sherrywood is the woodiest of the three. On top of the orange-to-apricot flavour, there's a generous handful of dried fruit and nuts, and a surprising, but very tasty, layer of butterscotch. Good.

The Penderyn Peated is drier than tonight's other drams. It has a nice dry smoke to it, with dry earth and a smell of sheds. It tastes of the seaside, but the sweet chocolate orange character comes through nicely. Also Good.

Tasting via Skype was good fun - much laughter - and certainly easier than tweeting, if you are trying to take notes too. I'd recommend you try it. Just don't spill anything into your keyboard...


A peck o dirt willna kill ye

I once attended a tasting presented by Bruce Jack, the endlessly innovative chief winemaker at Flagstone. The conversation came round to the subjects of hygiene, and specifically Brettanomyces. Mr Jack boldly suggested that all wine made in Burgundy is dirty. Fortunately there were no Frenchmen present, but I was reminded of that evening when I tasted this wine.

Badia di Morrona I Sodi del Paretaio Chianti
2007 is an absolutely wonderful wine, with a good deal going on. There's a great big chunk of leather in there, loads of red fruits (definitely red, not black), dry sandy loam, something biscuity, a sharp solventy edge, dry autumn leaves, five spice powder, beefsteak mushrooms, and a touch of some animal smell.

To taste it's delicious, with sweet red cherry fruit, tangy acidity, fairly smooth tannins, a slight earthy or musty note (which seemed very claret-like), a refreshing juiciness, and even a scrap or two of leather.

It's 85% sangiovese, made and matured without any oak, and I think it's just fabulous (just fab = 4-5). Strictly, it doesn't really deserve that score, since it lacks true finesse, but it's so cheap for what it does.

You do need to like Brett, mind.


Gruss Muscat d'Alsace Ottonel 2009

I had to go and look it up, and the Oxford Companion to Wine says that Muscat Ottonel is "paler in every way, a relative parvenu".

Well, in that case it's probably just as well that M. Gruss isn't growing Muscat Blanc à petits grains, since this bottle was amply aromatic enough to please us, and indeed to stand up very well to the spicy pakora we were having as a starter.

The nose was really very fresh, with white flower, lime jelly, and mealy or grainy aromas, along with a touch of something green and herbaceous, like angelica.

The palate was fresh, juicy, and just off dry. A layered, complex wine, with lots of floral loveliness coming and going to an almost oily, steely minerality.

The flowers versus minerality had the effect of making the wine seem to gently swing back and forth from dry to off-dry. I do so like it when a wine constantly changes, and this is a cracking example. Really very lovely, 4+++.