Sunday, 10 October 2010

WS#7: Berry Bros & Rudd

Berry Bros & Rudd is the oldest family-owned wine and spirit merchant in the world, having operated a shop in London's St James's Street since 1698 (bet the rent's gone up a little since then). Usefully, the premises includes around two acres of cellar space, enough to hold 30,000 bottles - with another 6.5m bottles (don't count 'em) stored in an out-of-town warehouse. While wine might be the money spinner, BB&R is evidently quite serious about its whisky, and as well as selling the usual array of big-name spirits, it also offers an acclaimed series of "Own Selection" bottlings too.

Whisky Squad's (very) rough guide to BB&R's bottling process:
 [1] Buy a cask from a distillery, often without having tasted its contents first.
[2] Age the whisky, tasting every few years until it is "ready" (an elusive state of near-perfection that can take decades to reach).
[3] Bottle the cask naturally (no chill filtering - just a sieve to catch the splinters).
[4] A cask-strength bottling generally provides a crop of no more than 600 bottles (making them quite special in their rarity alone).
[5] Sell for between £30 and £165 a bottle.

For Whisky Squad #7, we were joined by BB&R's spirits expert Rob Whitehead, who introduced us to a few special samples of the company's own bottlings.

Tasted blind with the help of Rob's whisky socks
BB&R Aberlour
14yo (distilled 1994, bottled 2008), 46% abv. £35.20.
An almost colourless "breakfast malt", good for beginners.
Nose: Apple, sweet fruit.
Taste: Sherbert fizz, with mint, nutty biscuits and honey; nice'n'smooth.

BB&R Bunnahabhain
12yo (distilled 1997, bottled 2009), 55.3%. £46.85.
Again, barely no colour, but plenty going on.
Nose: Peat with medicinal notes.
Taste: Briney smoke, acetone, dry with a beautifully long finish.
In a blind tasting, this tricked us all, since the usually barely-peated Bunna was so heavily peated here (part of the stuff they make for Islay's Black Bottle blend) there was little chance of any of us guessing its identity. That said, once its provenance was revealed, my next sip did suggest a distinctly Bunnahabhainish quality, in common with the 18-year-old we Squadded a few months back at WS#4. This one was well received.

BB&R Glen Mhor
26yo (distilled 1982, bottled 2009), 46%. £71.50.
From a "silent still" - a closed distillery - in the Highlands. Glen Mhor shut down in 1983 and is now, somewhat tragically, a Co-Op supermarket.
Nose: Apples (again), peach, vanilla.
Taste: A tiny measure of peat, creamy, oily mouthfeel, dry, fruity, spicy.
This lovely whisky was aged in a sherry cask. Whatever the cask imparts into the spirit, we learned, comes from the wood (a particular type of European oak, Quercus Roburin this case) - and not its previous contents. Any traces of actual sherry would have had only a minimal effect on its flavour.

BB&R Invergordon
39yo (distilled 1971, bottled 2009), 47%. £95. More here.
A single grain whisky of dark-reddish intensity, made with unmalted barley.
Nose: Cherries, cola bottles, milk chocolate, coconut.
Taste: Dry, oaky, sweet vanilla. Like a savoury, more refined bourbon.
Interestingly, since grain whisky is distilled at 95% abv, it has basically no character as a new make spirit, which means where flavour is concerned the wood is everything. This one was aged in a fresh bourbon barrel (used to hold bourbon just the once, before being emptied and shipped over from Kentucky) and was heavenly. While plenty of Squaddies were taken by the Bunna, this one was my favourite of the evening. Doing a bit of research later, I realised I've tried it before, at the Whisky Lounge in Brighton earlier this year. Alas, at £100, it's a little out of my budget - maybe I'll wait for the Boxing Day sales.

BB&R St Magdalene
26yo (distilled 1982, bottled 2008), from another silent still (this one closed in 1983, and is now an apartment complex). Triple distilled, as lowland malts are wont to be, and aged in an old, fourth-fill sherry butt (meaning this is the fourth lot of whisky it's held since its sherry days were done).
Nose: Vanilla.
Taste: Dry, wood, chalky, fizz, cucumber, grass.

Special thanks to Rob from BB&R for leading an engaging and informative session. I have a feeling we'll be dragging him back to The Gunmakers for another before too long.

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