We’ve all been bought a dram by a friend in the pub, who looks at you and expectantly says, ‘What’s that then?’ You take a sniff, look up at the gantry for clues and your mind starts racing with the possibilities. If you're like me and work in the whisky industry, the stakes are higher as you're supposed to be an ‘expert’, though few dare to use that word about themselves.
Alongside our consumer competition, we ran a staff challenge with all colleagues allowed to make a guess at the distillery and age of the mystery dram. Many of our staff have decades of professional experience, who make it part of their working day to pass their noses over a glass or two of malt. But how many got it right? It was pleasing to see that the most popular staff choice was indeed the correct distillery. 6 out of 22 entrants got the distillery correct and 1 nailed both distillery and age; Caol Ila 10 Year Old.
When Jonny McMillan and I planned this fun competition, the first job was to pick an appropriate distillery from Berry Brothers & Rudd’s extensive stock. Jonny’s initial suggestion was an absurdly obtuse sample of Aultmore, which was mysteriously peaty and unlike any I had tried from this already fairly niche distillery. I'm still not sure why he wanted to annoy every single one of our customers by setting a virtually impossible challenge. No, it needed to be something recognisable, as blind tasting is already difficult enough!
Of the Islay whiskies, Caol Ila isthe most frequently bottled by independents in recent times; I knew our staff and more well-watered customers will have tried plenty of examples as a reference. ‘Too easy!’ said Jonny. I didn’t think so, knowing that our staff may draw on their knowledge of recent releases from the St James bottler. Once they had identified it as a peaty dram, I knew minds would be drawn to more commonly seen distilleries under this label like Ardmore (2 guesses), Bunnahabain (4 guesses), and Ledaig (two guesses).
This is the first Caol Ila bottled in the UK by Berry Brothers for a good few years. This may have tricked a few experienced tasters who have come to associate certain indies with certain malts, as they access seams of stock and bottle them off. The age was, perhaps, a bit more straightforward. The big clue to this being price; we were hardly going to be selling a 30-year-old Islay malt at £50. Leaving aside 3 outlier guesses, the rest of our staff were within 3 years of the correct age.
Our customers also fared well, with 25% correctly guessing Caol Ila but just one person also getting the age correct as 10 years old.
Congratulations to James Hope, who wins this wonderful prize of a trip to St James with cocktails, whisky, and dinner along with Arthur and Jonny (why not bring him an unpeated Laphroaig and see if he guesses that)? Mr Hope also wrote these delightful tasting notes, which will grace the fully labelled bottle when the rest of the cask is released in the Autumn:
Nose: Coastal rock pools filled with the smoke from a beach barbecue. Lemon drizzle cake laced with vanilla extract. Rum and raisin fudge.
Palate: Oily diesel smoke, coating the whole mouth. Freshly caught salty lobster, cooked on an open fire. Ashy banana and pear in the finish, with a lingering mild dark chocolate bitterness.
We have a little remaining stock of the Mystery Malt, now less mysterious, available to buy here.