Mackillop’s Choice

Whisky tastings are wonderful things. They are an efficient way to extend the number and type of whiskies you taste and they are presented by someone with knowledge of the distillery and whisky in general – so there is always something to be learnt. There is a common format: in a meeting room tables are laid out with a number of whiskies, pre-poured,  at each place, bottled water easily at hand and sometimes there are oat crackers. The representative (blender, distillery manger, ambassador, etc) stands up, gives the presentation, usually with some Powerpoint slides (mainly photos) and wee all taste the whiskies, in turn, after it has been introduced. All is good and the advantage of having all the whiskies laid out in front of is that you can go back and make direct comparisons. There is a reason this is the standard format – it works. However Nickolls & Perks don’t do it like that … and their tastings are brilliant.

They are held in the cellars of their 18th Century shop, where seats fit into a rather awkward space, amongst racks of expensive wines. No place for tables. Instead the measure are poured, one at a time, by someone walking round. It’s like it would be at home, with a gathering of friends – you empty your glass before you go onto your next. What you lose in the chance to go back to make comparisons you gain in extra conviviality, and what you lose in convenient space you gain in atmosphere. I wouldn’t want it to change – it’s a special experience.

This week the tasting was given by Lorne Mackillop who, amongst his other duties for Angus Dundee, is responsible for his own range of independent bottlings, ’Mackillop’s Choice’. The name is an accurate description of the process: he receives samples of casks available from various distilleries and selects those he likes  (20% of what is offered). Each bottle is thus a expression of his personal taste so it is good to go to a meeting where you can hear him explain what he looks for and how he goes about the job.

The first thing is he doesn’t like alcoholic heat. He explained it as the result of coming from the wine trade where the alcoholic levels are lower but it doesn’t need this excuse – if you are drinking whisky for the taste and experience, having your senses numbed is not a great idea, whatever your background. But this one simple thing lead to remarkable results: all of his whiskies we tasted were cask strength but none of them had heat. The aromas could all be clearly appreciated and the drink could be held in the mouth.

The second thing was that he wanted to present whiskies characteristic of the distilleries but also distinctive. This actually comes down to the quality of the individual casks and being aware that they all vary. To prove this he sent round the room four sample bottles of Longmorn for us to sniff. Each was distilled at the same time and stored in adjacent casks but each smelt slightly different – related, there was a commonality, but different.

Of course the whiskies are non chill filtered and uncoloured (that should go without saying) but he gave a neat demonstration of the subtle affect colouring has. He divided a measure of whisky into two glasses and in one he added a tiny bit of caramel,  the glasses were then passed round for us to smell side by side. The difference was not great but the one with caramel was definitely a bit flatter, a bit dulled. Why would you ever want that?

The tasting was of six whiskies, two from Tomintoul (their 14 year old and their peaty Old Ballantruan) and four Mackillop’s Choice (Bladnoch 1991, Aultmore 1990, Glen Garioch 1990, and Macallan 1992). When I saw the list I was particularly interested in the Bladnoch and Aultmore. The Aultmore because I had never tasted a single malt from the distillery before, the Bladnoch because I visited the distillery a couple of years ago, loved the location and the rather romantic story of two brothers  trying to revive a closed distillery and make a go of it despite being limited to a production run of 25,000 litres a year (part of the there terms of sale as initially they bought the site for development). You really wanted it to succeed, however I found the whisky a bit ho hum – fine but nothing too special. As Mackillop’s promises a selection of distinctive casks and I wanted to be shown that a Bladnoch could be very high quality.

Yes it could. It was lovely – light and sweet but not insubstantial, well structured with a long lingering finish. It was, of course, the product of the previous owners but it showed what the distillery was capable of. But as the distillery is now closed it is a reminder of what might have been.

As for the others – everyone was good or exceptional. I was pleased I tasted the Aultmore; it was similar in tone to the Bladnoch but a little bit more herbal. On the night I voted for the Glen Garioch as my favourite but thinking about it afterwards I changed my mind and thought it might be the Aultmore.

Lorne Mackillop is a man of definite opinions and so his introduction of each whisky was entertaining. I liked the way he spent time explaining why he didn’t like Lowland whiskies before introducing the excellent Bladnoch and later telling us he was not a great fan of sherried whiskies, before introducing his Macallan. He is obviously an empiricist who will allow a particular instance to trump the general theory. I like that – we must follow the evidence wherever it takes us.

The other thing I learnt was that you shouldn’t drink whisky after eating something like cheese or chocolate as the fats coat the tongue and affect your taste. That was a bit of a blow as I’m fond of the old cheese and crackers, whisky combination. I must obviously learn to be more ascetic.

All in all though it was a entertaining evening but this report is embarrassingly incomplete. It was a one man presentation. The second person did more than pour out the drinks, he contributed his knowledge of Tomintoul and the whisky trade in general and added an interesting balance. Unfortunately I was not concentrating hard enough at the beginning and missed both his name and role, which is why I have only mentioned him now.