SMAC: Yet More Whiskies

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And it was yet another edition of SMAC, this time near the town over the border, instead of our usual downtown locale. DC unearthed a bottle of Vat 69 from his family’s liquor cabinet. Turns out that the bottle belonged to his late grandfather, who may have bought it during World War II or shortly after. The label on the back sure is old school, I bet Guthrie Trading doesn’t exit anymore. We were surprised that it was drinkable after so many years, though in a way that Bry said “puts hair on your chest.” It’s whisky in its purest form, with a flavour profile having very slight tinge of vanilla and the rest just pure, well, whisky. It goes down singeing the throat, feeling like concentrated whisky, yet it seems to be only 40% alcohol – on the lower end of the scale for single malts. It wasn’t the best whisky to start the night with because we had to give our palates a rest from the fire before going for the rest.

Tricia had a Caol Ila 12 year (43%) that she very kindly let us open that evening. It was a lovely light drink, pale lemon yellow and gently peated. DC didn’t fancy it as he is used to more heft in his drinks. I liked its citrus nose and peaty, slightly salty flavour. A good one to start off the evening but not for long savouring.

We moved on to the Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX (46%), a private collection bottle that found its way mysteriously to DC’s liquor cabinet. Its nose was full of oranges, raisins and fruit cake, very sweet. On the tongue,  the golden brown liquor’s sweetness came out a bit more, and had an unctuous, almost oily texture. I liked the long, salty finish that had a touch of peat. A lovely dram for a quiet evening in.

Then it was time for the star of the evening, the Jura Prophecy (46%), a thoughtful gift from Delightt on her last trip back. She’s good at selecting her whiskies because it certainly held its own and was the firm favourite of the evening (there were other whiskies that night too, will review them another time). It’s a light brown brew with a spicy, savoury nose and plenty of spice that goes down very smoothly. There is a hint of cinnamon sugar, yet it doesn’t taste sweet at all. It ends with firm peat and more sea spray. A smooth, sophisticated whisky that’s turning into a new favourite.

SMAC:More New Whiskies

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It was time for yet another session of the Single Malt Appreciation Club, sometimes degenerating into So Much Alcohol Consumed. This time, we pretty much kept strictly to whiskies, there wasn’t a beer in sight. We brought along the Connemara and Ardberg Uigeadail, both of which I’d featured earlier. There was so much whiskey that night that I had to take two photos to get them all!

I started with the Aberfeldy 12 year (40%) that was very sweet and full of honey, vanilla and fruitcake on the palate.  It was fairly dark – a pale brown more than the typical honeyed orange of a young whisky. Looks like the makers added caramel colouring. It was a simple straightforward whisky, the kind people at clubs mix with green tea. Mix on, I say, this one’s too much of a baby for it to matter.

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Next on the flight was the Glenmorangie 12 year (46%) that came in an impressive looking bottle. Again, it was dark amber and again, a baby. There was plenty of sweet honey on the nose, as well as vanilla and fruitcake. The difference between this and the Aberfeldy? The Glenmorangie smells sweet but doesn’t taste sweet.

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Next up on the list of not very interesting whiskies was the Bowmore 12 year (40%). It was such a disappointment, being not much else than smoke, peat and salt. It didn’t have a great deal of body and was pretty forgettable.

I didn’t try the Aberlour A’bunadh that night, will do it another time, but I did try the Old Pulteney. It was a special edition Isabella Fortuna 499 Cask Strength (52%), brought back all the way from London by the J-thing. This was something very special indeed, it was a pale lemon-coloured liquor with a heady grassy nose and a slight whiff of honey. On the palate, there was plenty of sharp citrus and lemon, followed by mellow honey, then finished off very nicely with salty peat and smoke. There was a fleeting bit of fish right at the end, which Mfluder insisted that it was like “sucking on a fish.” If he says so! I think it was a better experience than my Ardberg Uigeadail and it’s my favourite for now.

Whiskey with an E: Two Irish Specimens

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DC’s parents brought back two bottles of Irish whiskey from a recent trip and we were excited to finally try whiskey. The friends who introduced us to whisky are fairly staunch Scotch single malt fanatics and woe betide anyone who dares to spell whisky with an E. Folks, they drink whisky and would never be caught dead with whiskey. Beware the difference!

Now we plebs drink anything whiskey, E or no E. And this is what I think of the Knappogue Castle 12 year old (40%). For a fairly young whiskey, it does really well on the complexity front. The bright yellow-orange liquor gave a first wash of sea salt over the tongue, followed by light smoke and plenty of orange peel and grass. I liked how it was hard and robust, yet had a good whiff of vanilla, with some floral honey notes. I think the hardness I perceived came from the mineral aftertaste that I love so much in white wines like chablis and muscadet. It’s great stuff considering how young it is. I wonder how the older ones fare.

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Next was the Connemara Peated Single Malt (). DC likes it a lot more than me. I’m not sure about it as I feel that while it’s got a lot of peat that I like, it’s rather unbalanced. It’s as if the whiskey was turbo-charged on peat and has little else to offer. Sadly, it doesn’t make my to-collect list.

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Whisky Night

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We had quite a few new whiskies to try out, first being the rather famous Yamazakis. These beat Scottish whiskies in blind taste tests and we were curious to taste the difference. It helped that in my last pass through Heathrow airport, I had a little sip of the Yamazaki 12 and was very taken by it.

The Yamazaki 12 (43%) is the entry level single malt from Suntory. It’s very smooth and light, with slightly fruity pineapple overtones and a lovely smokey ending. Lightened with a few drops of water, it takes on an almost sweet character. Very easy for a first-time single malt drinker.

Now the Yamazaki 18 (43%) is three times the price. I’m not sure if it’s three times as good as the 12, but it is Very Good. At first there was nothing much on the palate, but suddenly it exploded in the mouth like fireworks (the fireworks bit is according to DC). It’s smooth and buttery, tasting like dark herbal honey, except without the sweetness. It’s firmly on the favourites list.

We also got the MacDuff 27 (45%). It was from a little shop at Ion Orchard called Vom Fass that dispensed various liquors, vinegars and oils into little bottles. We started with 100ml of it for starters. This whisky took us on a different plane altogether. It was smooth like no other whisky I’ve tried, with very little bite of alcohol. It had an almost hay-like nose and a complex blend of flavours that made me keep going at the little bottle. We’ll have to get a refill to taste again.

Single Malt Appreciation Club: Highlanders and a New Islay

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It was yet another overdue meeting of the newly renamed Single Malt Appreciation Club. In addition to our mainstays of Lagavulin 16 and Laphroaig Quarter Cask, we had a Highland Park12, a Macallan Whisky Maker’s Edition and a Kilchoman. Tricia brought the Highland Park from a sojourn to Batam and the Kilchoman from whisky trip to Scotland. Hypodermically and Jam somehow found the Macallan sitting at home.

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It was up to Tricia, the resident whisky expert to line them up for tasting. Her usual impeccable taste was spot-on! The Highland Park first then the other Highland Macallan, followed by the Islay with the youngest Kilchoman first, then the restrained and elegant Lagavulin and last the brash, in-your-face Laphroaig.

I must admit upfront my bias against Highland malts. I’m not so keen on sweet and spicy without the peaty as I find it quite flat and not a great deal different from other liquors. What makes whisky special for me is the complexity that peat brings into the picture. With that, I dismissed the Highland Park 12 (40%) quickly by taking a quick whiff and sip of Tricia’s dram. As expected, it was nothing but sweet honey and fairly one-dimensional.

The Macallan (42.8%), as a Speysider, fared a bit better. I think I’ll enjoy drinking it on off nights where somehow an Islay would be too much work for me. The honey was rounded with spice and orange peel, quite the thing to put in a fruit cake and then enjoy with said cake. The tasting notes mentioned toffee but I didn’t get any, probably because I was still recovering from a bout of flu. Definitely one to try again.

The Kilchoman (pronounced “kil-ho-man”) Spring 2010 Release (46%) was a strange hybrid of honey and peaty smoke. There was something rough and unfinished about it,  I guess that indicates that it would benefit greatly from more ageing. Nonetheless, it was full of promise and I’m definitely looking forward to a later release. Just too bad it isn’t available in Singapore yet.

June in Thailand: Life with the Karen

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The next village we got to was slightly more remote. Again, we stayed in the house of the village chief where they provided bedding and cooking space. Jare and Kiat did the honours for the cooking and while waiting for dinner to be served, the village headman brought out home made rice whiskey.

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We sat round on very empty stomachs downing shots of (thankfully not very strong) local whisky from the same chipped china cup. Even though we could only communicate through sign language, the villagers were always smiling and trying their best to ask questions about us, like which country we came from and how old we were. When we were through with dinner, the villagers did the washing up after us. In Karen culture, a visitor who washes up after himself is one who never returns. After dinner, we rolled out sleeping rolls provided by the family and dropped straight off to sleep, the incessant rain still beat on the eaves of the hut. We wondered how our damp clothes would have any chance at all of drying.

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In the morning, the rain seemed to have stopped for a while and we woke to the sounds of inquisitive children staring in at the door. They were none too discreetly trying to make enough noise to get us to wake up and pay them some attention yet not alert the adults of their innocent mischief.

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We got up, put away the bed rolls and went out to find that the whole village was awake and it seemed like the day had started long before we arose. Only the youngest and the oldest were still around. Here is the village headman’s wife and one of her many grandchildren.

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She was very happy to have her picture taken and I hope the photo got to her safely. It was so lovely to see the great love for her grandchild in her eyes. Beautiful.

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After a quick breakfast of chillied sardine with rice for me, Jare and Kiat, and toast for the farangs, we said our farewells to whoever was left in the village and headed off. There was quite a way to cover yet.

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June in Thailand: Kanchanaburi

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Kanchanaburi was my first stop out of Bangkok. It was also the first time in my trip where I was completely without a plan. Previously in The Philippines I had something of a schedule to keep to so I could make my way round the islands and meet my friends in time. Here, I only had to make my flight back in three weeks, there wasn’t a particular plan except a vague idea to stick to land activities and head north to the hill tribe area.

Kanchanaburi was the best place to be. It had such a laidback backpacker vibe and was firmly on the beaten track, as evidenced by the many cheap bars set up for smelly backpackers like me. Later that night I’d be sitting on the road downing the cheap local moonshine called sang som and going slightly upmarket with 50 baht shots of 100 Pipers whiskey (extra 20 baht for coke mixers).

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The touristy part of town was right on the infamous River Kwai, including of course the bridge. It was rather over-touristed, as expected in that part of Thailand and supposedly not even the “real” one.

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Still, the back of town was much nicer. My guest house had a lovely view of the river.

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The view was just amazing in the morning, it was so still and placid the clouds and blue sky reflected beautifully where there weren’t lotus pads and flowers. What a great place to start backpacking in Thailand.

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The Malt Vault

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Fishball was introduced to a little place in Ann Siang Hill that specialised in single malts. The Single Maltoholics congregated at the very aptly named Malt Vault. It’s a small place, cosy with soft seats round low tables and some space by a short bar; all augmented nicely by nostalgic jazz videos playing on two screens behind the bar.

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The whisky menu was staggering. It was divided into the requisite regions of Scotland: Islay, Speyside, Island, Lowland and Campbeltown, each section replete with an eyeboggling array of whiskies. Faced with the paradox of choice, we asked the owner for recommendations. To his question of what sort of whisky we liked, the responses “peaty,” “smokey,” and “Islay” all came up. We started name-dropping our favourites from Ardberg and Laphroaig to Lagavulin. Three of us girls were very taken by the recommendation of the 1979 Caol Ila, while Mfluder had the Bunnahabhain, Jeff the Ardberg 15 and DC the Laphroaig 1998.

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Our drams arrived in proper tulip-shaped glasses that I thought very pretty. We then merrily tasted each other’s whiskys, the proceedings getting merrier the more we tasted. The Laphraoig didn’t disappoint with its characteristic wood and hospital (!) nose, smooth smoke and salty finish. My favourite of the evening was my own Caol Ila. At a whopping 60%, this fella came with a sledgehammer alcoholic kick, but oh the vanilla, honey and spice start. Chased by refined smoke and finishing off with mild salt, this was definitely a keeper. After a few sips, some orange peel came through. Such a good one to savour.

Tricia, Jeff and I scored a coup. As we tasted Jeff’s Ardberg 15, Tricia thought it tasted like cheese, while Jeff thought it was more like smoked bacon. I detected vanilla. When the owner came over to give us some pointers on the tasting, he gave exactly the same words right back to us! Now all we need to do is keep drinking together!

Aside from whiskys, Malt Vault also does exclusive Scottish beers. James and his girlfriend had Belhaven Scottish Ale, which according to Tricia is probably the smoothest, creamiest ale she’s ever tried. When Fishball finally turned up, he asked for his bottle of  Bruadar whisky liqueur. It was honey and sloe berries spiked with whisky and at first sniff was something like a body wash from The Body Shop! It was straightforward (the expected honey and berry nose and sweet taste) and very easy on the palate. Not a bad way to end the evening.

Malt Vault
Basement No. 12 Ann Siang Road
Tel: 9026 3466
mr.malt@maltvault.com.sg

March in Laos: Up the Mekong

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Siamesecat and I took a trip up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves, famous for its retired Buddha statues. We took one of these wooden boats and put-putted slowly up the river.

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On the muddy banks grew the occasional pair of majestic banyans, roots entwined in a charming embrace.

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We passed by typical idyllic scenes of daily life, here appearing to be quite authentic and not a show for the tourists.

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Ours was the true blue experience as we pulled up alongside a petrol shop-boat to top up the fuel tank.

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We stopped at a flight of cement stairs leading up to a little village that specialised in local whisky.

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Glutinous rice whisky (lao lao) of all sorts of interesting flavours was laid out for sale.

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There was the usual scorpion one for virility…

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… and snake too for the same. There was also the less common centipede which was so big we wondered how it got stuffed into the bottle.

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They gave out samples of the regular version. We tried out shots of the mild stuff that was quite pleasing as it was sweet and light, then progressed on to the full strength (40%) stuff that was smooth but not quite worth lugging around the country, especially considering the makeshift distillery it was made in.

We were somewhat taken aback when the villagers proudly showed us their distillery shack. This setup is it: three barrels, a wood stove and a bunch of earthenware jars. We soon moved swiftly on.

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Spirits of another sort awaited us at the Pak Ou Caves where old Buddha statues were deconsecrated and put out to pasture. It was behind an amazing cliff face, looking rather like it came out from a movie set.

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Inside were Buddha images in various stages of age and wear. Some didn’t look quite that old and others, well, had seen far better times.

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There really were hundred and hundreds of these images. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a count.

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There were statues in every nook and corner of the cave, all of them crowding even to the edges of the rock shelves. I think that was the most Buddha images I’ve ever seen in one place. Crazy stuff.

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The Start of a Long Relationship with Whisky

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I can’t get enough of whisky. It’s great that I have a bunch of friends who generously share, making it that much easier to choose my first bottle.

At another tasting session, my friends put me to the test of a much-disliked Balvenie 12 year (43%) from Speyside. I blurted out that the first whiff from the bottle reminded me of fruitcake, surprising my friends. Gingerly taking a sip, I found that I couldn’t even inhale without getting a lungful of alcohol. My eyes started smarting from the fumes. In the mouth, it gave a not unexpected sharp blast of alcohol, followed by some rough malt and mild vanilla. It felt flat and closed to me. I joined the club of Those Who Dislike Balvenie.

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Next, we had to polish off a mini bottle of Benromach Traditional (40%), also from Speyside. In the glass, it was a very pale straw, going down smoothly. Slightly salty on the palate, it rounded off with the mildest trace of smoke. I suspect it’s a little too unassertive and subtle for my palate at the moment.

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After those two were despatched, we moved on to the stars of the evening, the Ardbergs from Islay. The Ardberg 10 year (46%) was such a pale straw it looked like white wine in the glass. However, the strong whiff of peat will soon disabuse you of any misguidance. It’s not particularly complex, ending off with salty malt on the tongue.

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I think the rest of the whiskies must’ve blanched with embarrassment when they knew they were up against the Ardberg Uigeadail (54.2%). Getting past the alcoholic fumes, the amber-brown brew had a gentle floral nose tempered with light vanilla. It didn’t need any water at all, starting off with sweet caramel then developing to mild smoke and peat. The finish was the longest I’ve had: plenty of salt and peat.

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This is my favourite so far, beating the Laphraoig of the other evening. It’s definitely going to be the first bottle of my collection.