colin hampden white

Meeting Donn & Willie from 'The Exceptional'

Don Sutcliffe and Willie Phillips

Don Sutcliffe and Willie Phillips

 The ‘Exceptional’ blends are getting a reputation for being just that. Colin Hampden-White meets the two that make the three in the range.

There is a lot of whisky in the world: excellent malts, delicious blends and a growing number of grain whiskies. So why would anyone try and create another one, let alone three? Thankfully, two men decided they wanted to because their creations are not only very good and complement the existing whiskies on the market, but they also have a blend that in many people’s opinion is one of the best in the world.

These whiskies are known under “The Exceptional” brand. For once, the name does describe the contents in the bottle. Made by the Craft Distillers company, these whiskies are the result of a collaboration between two men from very different whisky backgrounds. Don Sutcliffe was a whisky marketing man, working on the west coast of America, and Willie Phillips was managing director of a whisky distillery for 23 years. They met both working on the Macallan brand 25 years ago when they struck up a strong friendship, which has lasted well beyond retirement. They had always wanted to work on a project together so, with access to some of the finest whiskies on the planet and with the help of Master Blender Bill Arthur, they started to develop The Exceptional brand. The three whiskies they have are all blends: a blended grain, malt and a complete blend of grain and malt.

Who’s behind The Exceptional?

Don and Willie are very different characters. When Don is excited about the whisky he creates, the descriptors are, as you might expect from someone from the USA, exuberant. Willie, on the other hand, is a little more laid back in his praise, describing the grain blend as “not bad” and The Exceptional Blend as “good”. After a few drams, however, his real thoughts on the blend come through and he describes it as “probably the best blend he has tasted”. So, in reality, a “not bad” from Willie is a “pretty bloody good” for most of us. It’s this drive for excellence that shows in the whisky. Once in full flow talking about their creations, both Don and Willie are clearly very proud of the liquid and excited about getting as many people as possible to try it.

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The blends

These blends are all small-batch bottlings simply because the whiskies they draw from are very mature and, in some cases, very rare, with some of the casks even coming from closed distilleries. All the whiskies, once blended, are left in first-fill oloroso casks to marry before bottling at 43% abv.

For batch two, the grain blend included whiskies from the Loch Lomond and North British distilleries, but also a cask of 33-year-old wheat whisky from the Carsebridge distillery, which closed in 1983. The blended malt included whiskies from Glenfarclas, Ben Nevis, Allt A’ Bhainne, Auchroisk, Glenallachie,Westport, Speyside, Macallan and three great Speyside distilleries whose names we can’t divulge. Many of these whiskies are more than 20 years old. The Exceptional Blend uses a mixture of the casks used in the blended grain and the blended malt.

A different kind of blend

These small-batches whiskies are unlike most blends. Because of the rarity of the casks and the different whiskies sourced for each blend, they are not made to be consistent year in, year out. The blends will change with each batch. If the quality of the blends can be kept and the flavours remain as good as their previous batches, then their existing reputation and already loyal followers can only grow.

The Blend has been earning a great reputation among all sectors of whisky drinkers. Whisky writers Charlie MacLean and Greg Dillon both said it was “one of the best blends I’ve tried”, distiller Lora Hemy considered it “the best blend I’ve tried in many, many years” and thought the blended malt “has elegance as well as power and depth”.  She added, having tasted the blended malt, “This is probably the best blended malt I have tried”. These glowing references to the whiskies were all given before the cost had been revealed, and it is the price point of this range of whiskies that is as impressive as the whiskies themselves. There are many very good blended whiskies on the market – the private collection by Johnnie Walker is frequently lauded and is a fabulous blend created in different styles every year; it retails for in excess of £500. There are famous blends, such as Blue Label and Royal Salute, which are nearer the £200 mark. This makes it all the more remarkable to find such high-quality and drinkable blends in The Exceptional whiskies at a little over £80.

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These whiskies bring the world of rare flavour within reach of almost all whisky drinkers. With that thought, these whiskies will, as time goes forward, sell increasingly quickly. One can only hope that Don and Willie are able to continue to source great casks so that they can keep up with the demand, or at least resist price increases beyond those of the casks they have to buy as they see the secondary market values of their whiskies increase.

Creating this small-batch blended whisky is a far cry from the past when Don and Willie were responsible for a lot more liquid and the brands were household names. If the quality of the whisky was the guide, then The Exceptional whiskies would create as much of a buzz. Let’s hope there’s enough to go around.

By Colin Hampden-White

Affordable, Brilliant Bordeaux

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When Bordeaux is mentioned in conversation about wine, the striking price may be the first thought of many, closely chased by how lovely to drink those wines will be, but not really an opportunity for everyday drinking. On the whole, people also think of red wine when they think of Bordeaux, and maybe Sauternes, and certainly this latter would be expensive.

This is far from the reality. Outside the traditionally expensive appellations there is a plethora of wines – red, white and even sparkling – that are not expensive and can be found readily in our shops and on line. The marvellous thing about these wines is that, as well as being very affordable, they represent fabulous value for money, giving great quality and are a pleasure to drink.

These wines don’t always stick to the well-known blends of the left and right banks. Malbec and Carménère can more frequently be found and in white wines, we may see Sauvignon Gris as well as the traditional Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Unlike many of the classed growth wines, that need a good few years to mature before the tannins calm down or the flavours come through a wall of acidity, these more affordable wines are ready to drink from their release and will last well, if stored properly.

Here are a few of my recent favourites white wines; they would be perfect all year around, not just for summer drinking:

Calvet Crémant 2014, Bordeaux £12.49 Ocado

 Sparkling doesn’t have to be Champagne, Prosecco or, dare I say it, English. There are many sparkling wines made all over France in the form of Crémant, including Bordeaux. This one from Calvet is light and bright with lots of orchard fruits with touches of honey and lemon zest. Perfect not only for summer but as an all-round sparkling wine at under thirteen pounds.

Châteaux de Cérons Blanc, Graves 2015 £18.95 Lea and Sandeman

 This is the most expensive of the whites I have tried recently, but still represents fabulous value and is still much less expensive than the classed growth white wines. With aromas of honey and honeysuckle, white flowers mixed with fresh pears and a touch of apricot, this is a wine to have with food. It is mostly Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc but has 10% Sauvignon Gris which adds to the complexity and brings the other two varieties into balance.

Châteaux Sainte-Marie 2017 Entre-deux-Mers £10.95 Great Western Wine

 This wine is very pale in colour, and very clean on the palate. Its subtle aromas include pears and apricot. There is a small amount (8%) of Muscadet included in the blend with the remainder being 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 22% Semillon. It has refreshing flavours and mouth feel without the acidity being too high in any way. A great value white Bordeaux that will mix with most foods.

Châteaux Le Coin 2015 £10.99 Laithwaites

 An unusual white for Bordeaux compromised of 100% Sauvignon Gris. It is full bodied and certainly a wine that matches well with most foods. I tried it with a rich smoked salmon and it worked beautifully, but I would imagine it would also go really well with a roast chicken. The texture is creamy in the mouth and very satisfying. The flavours are expansive and include lots of lemon as well as lychee, pears and touches of honey. An absolute bargain of which I’ll be drinking more in the future.

There are also some fabulous value red wines. Here are a few that will satisfy a regular red Bordeaux drinker, but not destroy their wallet. All have good density and concentration of fruit with balanced acidity and a juicy mouth feel.

For utmost value versus flavour, I would choose these reds:

Definition Medoc Claret from Majestic at £11.99.

This wine has a rich aroma and balanced palate. A little more rustic than some of the others, but I think that stylistic quality gives the wine plenty of interest, and certainly doesn’t let you down on flavour.

Three others I recently thought were particularly good value were these:

Château Blaignan 2012 £10.88 at Marks and Spencer

Château de Colombe Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2016 £13.99 from Laithwaites

Château Lauriol 2014 Francs Côtes de Bordeaux £13.95 Lea and Sandeman.

­By Colin Hampden-White

 

What is organic Whisky?

Did you know that whisky can be organic? Meet the distillery leading the way: Deanston. Colin Hampden-White, tells all…

In recent times, a few distilleries have been making whisky with organic barley. Benromach have an expression from 2010 which they bottled this year. Laphroaig bottled one for the Highgrove estate and Bruichladdie have an organic whisky from 2009. There is even a distillery which has only just opened which is 100% organic, the Ncn’ean distillery. There is however, a distillery which has been thinking about and producing organic whisky for longer than all of these: Deanston. Deanston has a 15-year-old organic whisky, which means they started making organic whisky as long ago as 2003 when whisky was only just starting to grow in popularity in the way it is today.

How Do You Make Organic Whisky?

To make organic whisky, the barley or course must be organic, which is more expensive. The casks also must be organic. They need to be scraped and charred deep enough so that the spirit doesn’t come into contact with any non-organic material, so the easiest way to make sure of this is to use ‘virgin oak’ casks. Deanston finish their organic spirit in virgin oak casks, which gives is a lovely, extra sweetness.

Virgin oak casks are made from American oak which have not previously held any other liquid before the new make spirit is placed in them. Lastly, and by far the most difficult part of the process, is the cleansing of the distillery itself. To be certified as an organic whisky, the spirit can not be created in the stills if a non-organic run of spirit has been passed through them. The easiest way to manage this is to make organic spirit directly after the distillery has been cleaned during its maintenance period, usually over Christmas. However, Deanston still do sometimes make organic whisky at other times of year, which impacts on the main production. I asked Dr Kirsty McCallum, Deanston’s master blender, why they make organic whisky, she told me there are two reasons:

Deanston Makes Organic Whisky For Two Reasons

The first reason was that the distillery was founded in 1967 by entrepreneurs who decided that creating organic whisky continued on the entrepreneurial spirit. The second reason however, is because it tastes good, with a slightly different character to their other whiskies; more floral and delicate.

Ideally, Deanston would like to have their organic barley grown in the local area giving the whisky an even stronger sense of place. One thing is for certain though, if they manage to create such a whisky, it is going to be delicious.

RRP £95.50 Find it here.