Wind the clock back a decade and the City on a weekend was a desert: nowhere to eat, nowhere to drink. That now (happily) has changed and after I emerge from my Sunday lunch at New Street Grill via a cocktail at Old Bengal Bar, I can't help but feel I've stumbled upon a great secret. There are three criteria in our view for the big thumbs up when we write up a visit to a place: the quality of what they serve, the quality of the service and the atmosphere. Old Bengal Bar ticks all three boxes and while I'm sure the bar is rammed on a weekday as local knowledge of the Bishopsgate crowd comes in to play, on a weekend, tourists can easily walk by New Street without ever realising it's there; even I didn't know (properly) the offering until today.
This visit to Old Bengal Bar was mid Sunday afternoon when I thought I'd stop by for a drink after my meal next door before heading home. There's an extensive drinks menu featuring both popular and somewhat more esoteric cocktails. The charming and lovely Peter is behind the bar making your drink while Sebastian, their house DJ, lends atmosphere with music pitched perfectly for the room (and size of the room). I got chatting to both during my brief time there because Old Bengal Bar is an inherently friendly place where you feel like the staff have embraced you stopping by. You can discuss, as I did, what whisky you should have in a Whisky Sour (I chose Lagavulin 16 year old if you're wondering), or request what music you want to hear. It's a cliche to say that it felt like home, but it really did, it was that comfortable.
Sundays are difficult days, we've perpetually struggled across London for a good lunch, too many places are closed and too many places seem too run of the mill to want to spend time in. I left Old Bengal Bar happily thinking I could spend 52 Sundays a year there. If it weren't for the fact they close at 4pm on a Sunday, I might never have written this blog, for I might still be there. But sitting at home just a few hours later, because of Peter and Sebastian, I feel I've had the most magical Sunday. Not many places can achieve that, that's special. Old Bengal did. What to say? Cheers fellas.
Peter pouring my whisky sour
my whisky sour x x x
Old Bengal Bar
"the strong silent type: tall, dark and handsome, notably firm bodied, but willing to reveal a sweet side to their nature"; sadly not a description of me but rather the description given to Glenfarclas whisky by Michael Jackson in his Malt Whisky Companion. Glenfarclas - valley of the green grass - nestles in the traditional heart of Speyside with Arbelour, Dufftown and Ballindalloch being the nearest towns, and the distillery is one of a group of producers in the region that form The Malt Whisky Trail along the A95. It would also become the epicentre for the outlandish snowfall that brought even Scotland to a standstill before December had even begun. But with a Glenfarclas in our glass, a real fire blazing in the living room and picture perfect scenery outside, we were thoroughly happy.
If you have read our earlier post on Glenfarclas
you will know that Glenfarclas is one of the few remaining family owned distilleries in the Scotch whisky industry and even more than that, it has been owned and run by one family, the Grants, since 1865. Earlier in the year, here in London, we met George Grant, the sixth generation of the family and were charmed by his passion for life and whisky. When George suggested that we come and visit him at the distillery and enjoy whisky at the source, we jumped at the chance (kids in a sweetshop comes to mind). We should also say at this point that Glenfarclas is, in our view, a truly great whisky so we were super excited to visit the distillery.
Arriving mid afternoon at the distillery, there was just enough time to take the tour with the last gasps of natural light. The buildings at the distillery are for the most part the original 18th/19th century buildings, modified only to comply with the endless codes of Health and Safety legislation that that now seems the universal burden. In fact, no one knows quite how long they've been making whisky on this site as it was likely that illegal distillation was taking place before the Excise Act of 1823 ended the period of wide spread underground distilleries. What's more, a painting dated 1797 seems to show distillation already taking place on the site and who knows how long it was taking place before that.
Glenfarclas operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and later that evening, long after the sun had gone down, we saw a lorry meandering through the tight courtyards to deliver its load of malted barley to the distillery for in common with most distilleries today, malting is no longer done on site.
We wont go into full details of the production process but refer readers who are interested in learning more to www.whisky-distilleries.info which gives an excellent description of how whisky is made. All around the distillery the sweet smell of the whisky process was in the air though for those who work there, they are long since oblivious to it; we loved it, it's like a whisky meadow. It became a full on powerhouse when we thrust our head into a working mash tun and George also suggested that sticking your head into the wash back and inhaling deeply was also an excellent hangover cure; we'll take his word for it as we didn't try this remedy for ourselves. We did though get to try a glass of the 'wash' from the wash backs which was fun, tasting like a strong blonde beer, something from Belgium perhaps, for up till now, the process of making whisky and beer is pretty similar. It's the distillation room where it goes next and 15 years in a barrel that will change things.
In the excellent visitor centre, there are many more nods to the history of Glenfarclas, not least the portraits on the wall of the first four generations of Grants who ran the distillery before George and his father John (the current Chairman). What's most impressive though is the range of whiskies they bottle enabled by the continuity of the production facility over so many generations. There's a 10 year old for easy drinking and then the graduations are 12, 15, 21, 25, 30 and a 40 year old. There's also a 105 Cask Strength that is in fact 60% alcohol. Also on display is the special 40 year old Millenium Edition that Vincent Gasnier describes as 'legendary because of its exquisite quality'.
The Millenium edition is a very special bottle at a very special (read expensive) price, that being the price of perfection. However, you can get quite close to perfection at somewhat cheaper prices within the range and we very much enjoyed the 15 year old as well as being lucky enough to drink quite a lot of the 40 year old.
We enjoyed the 15 year old before dinner each night in front of the fire and it works well with or without a splash of water. Nearly all of the Glenfarclas range has sherry note on the nose and palate as the whisky has spent most of its life in first use sherried casks. Glenfarclas is also not especially peaty and smoky (usually described as hints of) so if you find the Islay malts too much but still like a robust flavoursome whisky, Glenfarclas might be a good choice. We like this whisky in Winter too as it does have some rich notes that is one of the few nice things about cold December days: burnt orange on the nose giving way to zesty Christmas cake. And while it has yet to strike 4pm, to ensure this blog post is correct, I've poured a dram of the 15 year old to taste as I write, and have noted the finish at a whopping 15 seconds. Loved too by those cheeky chappies at the Master of Malt
, they have it for sale at £35.95 which is a great price for a whisky of such complexity. What also put a smile on my face is that the alcohol content of the 15yo is a somewhat unusual 46% because 'my grandfather preferred it at this strength'. You wont hear that at Diageo.
The 40 year old is a dram for when you're feeling flush or just want to get as close to the best of whisky as you can. A deep dark amber whisky, there is background peat on the nose and again, walnuts and raisins. Medium sweet to taste, George notes burnt brown sugar while others note toffee with a touch of spice as well as dates and figs. Another super long finish though sadly, I don't have a glass in front of me right now to time it. The new Glenfarclas 40 year old has been awarded a stunning 95/100 by the Malt Advocate magazine.
Okay, I guess we need to talk price here. Master of Malt sell it at £289 a bottle which seems like a lot until you compare it with other 40 year olds with a distillery name on: Tomatin 40 year old is perhaps the next cheapest at £429, Highland Park 40yo is £764 and Dalmore is £1,339. In that sense it's a relative bargain. The packaging on the 40 has been kept deliberately low key to keep costs down, you don't drink the fancy packaging after all. George is a whisky man and a whisky evangelical and knows that 40 year old whiskies are already budget busters for many. Nevertheless, offering a 40 year old at this price, he hopes that he's put a great whisky slightly closer to the grasp of the serious whisky drinker on a budget.
And finally, we have to mention the weather. Sitting here in London on the last day of November, many of you like me will be looking out of the window at snow right now. In November, in London! It's little surprise therefore that we caught snow in Speyside the week before but having got there under a blue sky on the Tuesday, it was only on when we woke up on the Wednesday to a snowy landscape that the fun started. Certainly not sports car weather, even George's 4x4 had its moments and we saw lorries stuck on hills and some pour souls with their cars in ditches and lamposts by the side of the road.
The house we stayed in on site was the old tax man's house - up until the mid 70s, Customs and Excise would have an assessor permanently stationed at all distilleries and the distillery was required to provide a roof over his head. Glenfarclas were clearly quite nice to their Customs assessor and it was a beautiful house in local stone with a comfortable sitting room and a real fire that we kept alight whenever we were home. The whole area was so beautiful covered in snow that we barely minded having to abandon the car and return to Edinburgh by train (where the weather was just fine); it would take another five days for snow to close Edinburgh airport.
Scotland is wonderful place, George and everyone at Glenfarclas were just superb and Glenfarclas is one of the very best Scotch whiskies out there. If you're up in Speyside, Glenfarclas is a must, and if you've not tried it before, we're sure you'll love it if you're a whisky fan. If you're not up in Speyside anytime soon, maybe swing by the Master of Malt
website and order a bottle or two for Christmas which in turn will lead to a very merry Christmas indeed. Return to homepage
On a slow day in a London publishing house this must have seemed like a good idea, get one of Scotland’s most famous novelists to visit each of the distilleries in Scotland and write it up as a book. As Banks himself points out in the book, the prospect of getting paid a handsome sum of money to go drinking Scotch across the length of the country is an attractive one and so Ian Banks’ first nonfiction book was born (though it has taken me a few years to finally get around to reading it). The idea that a master wordsmith and Scotch lover goes in search of ‘the perfect dram’ is an attractive one if he can pull it off; sadly, he can’t.
He starts with a fair degree of enthusiasm with the Islay malts such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin but something soon becomes very apparent. Writing a book about 100 odd distilieries and keeping it interesting is going to be pretty difficult since i) books of whisky tasting notes are already widely available and make for poor cover to cover reading, ii) the visitor centres/tours of distilleries are pretty generic and iii) whisky itself, while wide ranging in flavour is pretty damn similar in the production process. It would be too much to say that if you’ve seen one distillery you’ve seen them all but once you’re past ten, you can probably stand down.
Accordingly the book veers away from what you think you’re going to be reading – a book on whisky – and becomes a somewhat self indulgent collection of anecdotes of Ian Banks drinking with his mates. We’re introduced to ‘Dave’ and ‘Jim’ and Ian Banks in turn becomes ‘Banksie’ as we are inducted into the group. The trouble is, most tales of things you do with your mates when drunk are funny only to you and your mates and putting it down in even half decent prose for a wider audience is not enough to salvage it unless you’re a drunk with the wit of Dudley Moore’s Arthur.
About half way through the book we get this piece of dialogue;
‘This could be your best book ever, Banksie,’ Dave says.
‘Na,’ I tell him. ‘It could just be rubbish.’
Dave pauses for a moment. ‘Yeah, but it could be your best book ever, Banksie.’
The dialogue ends there, Banksie doesn’t answer because he’s already said what he’s probably come to realise. I wondered why he should have included this piece in the book in the first place but it too is a joke. The joke though is never on him because he’s the one getting paid to write the book and the one getting paid to drink.
What’s sad is that where he could have filled the pages with the stories of the distilleries and the people and the traditions, in this book, Banksie is at the centre of every story but he’s not a comic writer and the stories fall flat. There’s the time when Banksie said ‘lake’ instead of ‘Loch’ and Jim threatened to tell everyone that Banksie had ‘been down South for too long’. We learn too of the time at a hotel where Jim, having ordered a bottle of wine and some glasses from room service, drops them causing a general commotion. Banksie tells us that ‘all of this sounds hilarious from the bathroom; I start laughing quietly to myself and I’m still giggling when the night porter arrives with the brush and pan and replacement glass.’ Yeah, I broke a glass last night too, it was crazy.
What’s more is that even for a major and popular distillery like Talisker, there is less than a page and a half dedicated to the place, and that’s a lot more space than most get. With many getting no air time at all, with 100 distilleries, there can be no more than 70 of the 360 pages of this book actually dedicated to the subject matter. There are commentaries on the Gulf war, most of Scotland’s roads (he doesn’t like the A9 but the B974 is brilliant apparently) and extensive descriptions of his Freelander, BMW M5 and other cars.
I have no doubt that Dave and Jim will love this book, and if you’re a huge Iain Banks fan and want to know what it’s like hanging out with Banksie for a few weeks, this probably comes a close second to the real thing. Personally, I’d rather get car reviews from Top Gear and comedy from Ricky Gervais. As for picking up anything about the whisky industry, if you’re interested enough to even consider reading a 360 page book on whisky then you're probably already pretty clued up on the basics and this book will not deliver much more. I put the book down when two thirds of the way through calling time on this particular road trip for I think I’ll sip my bedtime dram alone tonight having had all I can take of Dave’s, Jim’s and Banksie’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ antics. If only they were that funny.
What do Cragganmore, Lagavulin and Talisker have in common? And what do Aberlour, Glenlivet and Scapa similarly have in common? Well, the first three are all owned by United Distillers (Diageo) who also own a further 23 distillers as well as brands like Guiness, Smirnoff and Tanqueray. The second set of triplets are all owned by Pernod Ricard who also stable Absolut Vodka, Havana Club and Beefeater Gin as well as over ten other Scotch whisky distilleries.
Now, I'm a big fan of Talisker as readers of the blog know, and the investment made by these companies in the distilleries to be fair has been substantial and given us some great whisky. Furthermore, I'm certainly not anti-capitalism or anti-globalisation. Nevertheless, Diageo's turnover in 2009 was £9.3bn and its operating profit was £2.6bn. None of this do I have a problem with but one must appreciate that, for the most part, the world of Scotch whisky does not conform to the romanticised view that we might have of a local distillery passed down from generation to generation producing fine Scotch in the family tradition, rather, the whisky industry is the world of the multinational and so is on a par with big oil, banks and pharmaceuticals operating for the profit motive with the distilleries run by employees who no doubt report to a regional chief who reports to the global head who reports to the Board etc. Consequently, Diageo's marketing spend is a whopping £1.3 billion and accordingly its voice is heard.
For those though who crave a unique voice and a distillery that has been passed from generation to generation and for those who would cleave to their heart a family that have no doubt passed up countless open cheque book offers for the distillery so that they could carry on a tradition started 145 years previously there is one and really only one name: Glenfarclas.
Glenfarclas has been in the Grant family since 1865 and this week we were lucky enough to visit the Coburg bar at the Connaught to taste whisky across the Glenfarclas range with George Grant, 'Brand Ambassador' and son of the current Chairman John Grant.
It would be too much to provide tasting notes across everything we took in during the day but as the saying goes, the list was long and distinguished. Tastings included the 10 year, the 105 proof, 15 year, 21 year, 25 year, 40 year, the Family Cask 1979 and the Family Cask 1962. Not bad for breakfast.
On the whole, Glenfarclas is simply lovely and will appeal to those who want depth to their whisky. First use sherry casks are predominantly used and the sherry flavours come through on both the nose and palate. Across the range too there's real warmth, with citrus orange, caramel and liquorice all varying in intensity with age. There's an intensity too of amber colour and the most amazing finish on the 15 year old (and above) that stays and stays and stays allowing you to savour the taste long after you swallow, perhaps the longest finish I can remember experiencing in any single malt. Furthermore, Glenfarclas is for the most part cask strength non chill filtered and 'non finished'; in other words, an honest whisky. Whisky Magazine named Glenfarclas '2006 Distiller of the Year' for 'being consistently good and staying true to its core values'.
Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion notes Glenfarclas as 'outstanding malts, and in an unusually wide variety of ages - experienced tasters usually place the Glenfarclas malts in the top three or four from this most distinguished district (Speyside)'. We agree.
What's more, George himself was charming and is an ambassador for life as much as an ambassador for the brand and we enjoyed his whisky and his company in equal measure. With George possessing an infectious passion for the product, the distillery is certainly in good hands for decades to come ensuring continuity of ownership and spirit for the rest of our lifetimes at least.
We noted earlier the 'Family Cask' which is something unique to Glenfarclas and underlines its own family ownership. The Family Casks represent a family of single cask expressions from every year from 1952 to 1994 highlighting the continuity of private ownership at Glenfarclasas as well as their ability to bottle the rarest and most sought after of complex malts. Only two bars in the world possess the full span of Family Casks (52-94) though the Coburg Bar at the Connaught with 9 different Family Casks together with the 15yr, 25yr and 40yr range will become the third widest holder of the collection.
Glenfarclas doesn't have a billion pound marketing budget, instead it has George and for our money, he's the best advert for the best that a family owned distillery can produce and that, trust me, is very good indeed. In fact, don't trust me, go buy some yourself and see; available at the likes of Berry Bros and The Whisky Exchange at Vinopolis (and of course the Coburg Bar), thecriticalcouple are now 'officially' friends of Glenfarclas and we'll be making sure we always have a bottle gracing our bar at home.
Visit Glenfarclas at www.glenfarclas.co.uk/en/
The thrifty price tag of the entry level 10 year old Aberlour had seen me neglect the brand as a serious Scotch until one day in 2009, while driving through the Speyside in a DB9, I decided to stop by the distillery for the tour. With the tour around three hours in length, I was admittedly perplexed as to why it should take three times as long as the mooch around Talisker
that I had enjoyed earlier in the year though was somewhat reassured that almost half of the tour time would be spent drinking the products. I duly handed over the car keys to my travelling companion and set in to drink his share also.
Our convivial guide Dennis joked his way through the tour (telling us that the angel's share that evaporates from the casks and rises to heaven comes down again to earth in the rain thereby delighting the gardeners as the grass grows half cut) and then led us to the all important tasting shed.
Six glasses faced us including including the a'bunadh (Gaelic for 'original' after the 19th century 'recipe' was found in a time capsule and faithfully reproduced), a sherry cask finish and a bourbon cask finish. All three were cask strength, non chill filtered and the latter two, single cask expressions. Sadly, the latter two can only be bought at the distillery itself.
weighs in at a collosal 59.6% abv and is described by the distillery as mixed spices, praline and spiced orange, harmonising with rich, deep notes of Oloroso sherry on the nose and a taste of orange, black cherries, dried fruit and ginger, spiked with dark bitter chocolate and enriched with sherry and oak.
But it was the 14 year old Boubon Cask finish that blew me away with an even heftier 63.3% abv, a chocolate mocha nose and smooth taste and finish. The opportunity to 'bottle your own' from the tapped barrel on the side was irresistable (despite the fact I'd now have to check my luggage in for the flight back to London City) and those who visit the distillery can inspect the registry that bottle No 193 from cask 4427 was indeed hand bottled by yours truly.
At home less than a year later, I'm treasuring the final measures of this now near empty bottle that seems just too special to drink dry; I'm thinking of going back to Aberlour to retake the tour just so I can get a refill!
For the most part though, the a'bundah does the trick and shouldn't be under-estimated, tasting in my view how a proper Scotch is supposed to taste. Who really needs chill filtering? The 10 year old is an easy drink and now a constant companion in the home but still rates an impressive 83 points in Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion placing it in the 'distinctive and exceptional' camp (my fave 'ordinary' Scotch, a 10 year old Talisker rates 90 points in comparison). What's more though, and as alluded to earlier, 10yr old Aberlour is one of the best value Scotches on the market, especially as it's subject to offers at the likes of Majestic and Waitrose on a regular basis. But if you can get hold of the bourbon cask finish...
Visit Aberlour in Speyside or at http://www.aberlour.com/welcome.asp