Trip report: a two week Asian odyssey

I sit here in the less than luxurious surroundings of the United business lounge in Tokyo Narita airport awaiting the eleventh and last flight of the past 11 days. As always on these trips, I’m totally exhausted, but I can’t pretend I haven’t enjoyed myself (for the most part). Confirmation, if I needed it, that I really do have the best job in the world.

First stop on the trip was Guangzhou, China. It’s a town I’ve visited before and not one I like much. Bad memories of a mad dash back to the US due to a family emergency, and a culture of hard drinking have ensured it’s not on the top of my list of places to visit. The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Guangzhou is lovely though. I recommend it if you are ever passing through.

So first stop Guangzhou. Or at least that was the plan. President Vladimir Putin had other ideas though, inconveniently visiting Shanghai at the same time that I passed through. What was meant to be a 3hr connection in Shanghai ended up being 10hrs. “Weather delay” was the official explanation, but my local team were certain it was due to restricted airspace because of the Russian delegation in town. I finally arrived in Guangzhou at 3am having missed the event I was going there to host. At least I got 5hrs sleep in a real before heading back to the airport and on to my next Chinese city.

In the morning I met up with our local Chinese ambassador, Kavin. He’s a great guy and always good to see him and catch up. He’s just become a dad for the first time. Bravo!

Next stop was the city of Shantou, a short 1hr flight north from Guangzhou. My first time visiting, but as always no time to explore. The usual drill: airport, taxi, hotel, taxi, event, taxi, hotel, taxi, airport. This time the local interest came in the form of a rally driving taxi driver with a death wish. Total maniac! The event, if you are interested, was fairly standard stuff. A Chinese banquet paired with the full brand range, with yours truly trying to entertain and inform the crowd through the filter of a translator. Certainly a skill one has to learn. I’ll post some food porn pictures later if I can find them.

Day 3 saw Kavin and me on the move again, this time north again to the city of Jinan, but not before a connection in the dreaded Guangzhou airport. Traveling around Asia in the rainy season is always hit or miss. This time we made it with only a delay of 2hrs. We used the time wisely, indulging in a 1hr session on the airport massage chairs. My back can still attest to the fact that Chinese massage chairs are set at about level 100 vs western variants!

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Jinan is a little more developed than Shantou, but still decades behind the bright lights of Shanghai or even Beijing. The hotel was nice, a Sofitel, but I was disappointed that the view was totally ruined by a thick fog of pollution, the likes of which I have never seen before. Sadly (or scarily) this would become a constant theme during my time in China. It’s a problem the whole world needs to be concerned with. Visible evidence of our disgraceful disrespect of the planet we all call home.

The final stop on my China itinerary was Shanghai. A city I’ve come to really enjoy visiting, and one that my family has a long association with. My great grandfather was a senior police officer in Shanghai, in the British concession, and my dear grandmother Ruth was born and raised in Shanghai until she was 14. Growing up we used to call her “Shanghai Lil”. I can still here her chuckle. She was an amazing woman, who by her early teens had seen more of the world than I have managed. And all in the days before air travel.

My great grandfather left an unusual legacy to the people of China. It was he who introduced the first vehicle licensing and safety inspection program, in response to the many gruesome accidents cased by illegally extended motor vehicles being used as public buses. Often the modification was made by simply welding two halves of a car to either end of iron girders!

The Grand Hyatt, Shanghai affords amazing views of the entire city and it’s surroundings. Or at least it should. Unfortunately I was unable to see the buildings closest to us, due to the smog. Breathtaking in more ways than one.

Sunday in Shanghai was a day off for me, and I was delighted to catch up with a very old friend from the UK in the morning and in the afternoon, meet up with “Mr Whisky China”, Stephen Notman. We started off at the Shanghai Whisky Club before grabbing dinner at a Uyghur restaurant. After dinner I treated myself to an hour long foot massage. The perfect cure for Uyghur cuisine meat sweats!

Monday morning was onto Hong Kong, a place that feels strangely familiar, what with the legacy British road signs and driving inclination. Fun times again, with back to back tastings and Chinese banquets paired with whisky. Abalone is a favorite of mine and always done very well in Asia. The accompanying goose foot (complete with web) was not so delicious…

Thursday saw me in the air again. Cathay Pacific to Taipei, Taiwan. Many old friends here. Always great to see our local ambassadors, Murphy and Alvin.

It seems that when I go to Taiwan they always want me to talk exclusively about our Islay malt. This time was no different, with back to back smoky dinners followed by a spectacular Saturday event to celebrate the “Day”.

I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it! Over 1000 people turned up to pay tribute to “the smokiest one”. I ended up on stage, dancing with two Taiwanese internet celebrities, before playing a game of “Peatbog football” against them. Wild!

As I write this, in the United lounge at Tokyo Narita airport, I can reflect on another successful trip. Great to see old friends and to make some new along the way.

Mostly though, I just want to get home to my wonderful wife and daughter. Two weeks away from them feels like an age.

A toast to being home soon. Oh, wait, the whisky selection in the lounge really sucks. Guess it’s going to have to be a glass of wine then!

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Keep on dramming in the New World…

First blog in nearly 3 years. I will strive to do better moving forward! So whats up? Well, Im on the final count down to a big trip out east; Three city China tour followed by Hong Kong and finally Taiwan in time for some Ardbeg Day celebrations. Lots to blog about in the next few weeks.

So quick question: Since I will be passing through many international airports, (EWR-PVG-CAN-SWA-CAN-TNA-SHA-PVG-HKG-TPE-NRT-EWR) what whisky or whiskey should I purchase from Duty Free and where?

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The Perfect Dram (for that extra special day)

There are a few times in everyone’s lives that really punctuate the personal history of each individual. Life is measured by these auspicious moments. Pre and post that first day of school at age 5; pre and post that first kiss, that first day at University, graduation day, that first job, wedding day, first home, the list goes on!

Probably the most memorable day in the lives of many many adults is the day their first child is born. Time and again I’ve been told by friends and family that “its the biggest change in your life – something you can’t even imagine until you experience it”.

So here I sit, nervously tapping this blog out on my blackberry, in the waiting room of the local OBGYN clinic – my wife already one week past her due date, our daughter in no apparent hurry to make her debut into this world.

In amongst all the excitement and nerves, a good friend asked me what whisky I was going to drink to celebrate the eventual arrival of our daughter.

There are literally hundreds of choices of “special” whisky out there so how to make a choice? Well for me, staring at my whisky collection trying to decide, the choices became too much and I went for a malt which is both special and a regular part of my drinking repertoire:

Glenmorangie 18year old.

Special enough for the occasion, but reliably delicious enough not to disappoint when the moment comes for celebration. It may not be the oldest malt out there, but it happens to be damn fine whisky. So thats my choice.

Now all that remains is to wait. Oh, and hope the nurses don’t notice me swigging from the bottle!

What would your choice be?

Music to drink this to: U2 – Beautiful Day

Download it here: Beautiful Day - All That You Can't Leave Behind

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SMWS Cask 53.136 (Distilled at Caol Ila Distillery) – reviewed

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has a place very dear in my heart. Its where I first learnt to appreciate fine Single Malt Scotch whiskies. It served as whisky highschool and university for me, and its where my love for all things whisky blossomed.

For those unaware of the SMWS, you really really need to click this link www.smws.com and join immediately. It is unimaginable to me that any serious whisky fan could seriously consider not being a member.

The Vaults in Leith, the original and best home of the SMWS are sacred ground in whisky circles. The place is mentioned in the same hushed tones by those who have yet to visit as by those seasoned 7 days a week loyal members who are as much of a fixture at the bar as the leather armchairs and the hand drawn cartoons that adorn the vaulted ceilings.

So to the tasting: 17 years in a refill hogshead have certainly treated this malt well. The power of the 55% abv cask strength kick does not over power the subtle smoke aromas of this fine specimen.

On the nose: Dry tree moss burning in the distance. Linseed window putty from a freshly glazed window and the cigar smoke wafting through it.

To taste: Tar-stuck beach pebbles and McVities digestive biscuits. Later, aromas pleasantly reminicent of germoline on newly asphalt-grazed knees mixed with the inevitable playground tears.

With water: Floral and comforting, like a warm wool sweater laced with perfume. Menthol notes combine to give an impression of mothballs and perfumed paper used to line clothes drawers. 

Another great SMWS bottling. Although not entirely typical of the usual style from this distillery (missing a little of the sweet, bacony style one expects), this bottling has a facinating style and complexity all of its own.

Im scoring SMWS 53.136…. 89 pts

Music to drink this to: Where’s me jumper, by The Sultans of Ping

Download it here: Where's Me Jumper - Sultans of Ping F.C.

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The age old art of faking it…

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Is she faking it?

Recently several news items have caught my eye.

Firstly the story last week about a huge explosion in the UK, thought to be the result of a counterfeit vodka distilling operation gone horribly wrong (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-14188297).

Then today a story about an entire fake Apple store in China (http://behindthewall.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/07/20/7116890-entire-fake-apple-shop-found-in-china).

Under 20? Ask your Dad what this is!

It appears that counterfeiters have never had it so good. Gone are the days of my childhood when the only fake goods I ever came across were poor quality music tape rip-offs of 80’s albums sold openly on street markets across europe.

In these tough economic times, its easy to relegate the issue to the back pages – after all, fakers (outside or inside of the bedroom) arent really hurting anyone but the rich multi-national companies (or their CEOs) that we all love to hate – right?

Well ask yourself this. Would you be happy to sit back and watch a knock off DVD?

Maybe your answer is yes.

Ok fine… so what if that film you are watching is an in-flight movie on board a plane fitted with counterfeit parts?(http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_31/b4044056.htm). Not such a relaxing movie anymore right?

Fake Malaysian "Scotch"?

Now how about that chilled glass of whisky on the rocks you are sipping on at 35,000 ft? (http://www.filmicity.net/showthread.php?t=24794).

Reaching for the sick bag yet?

Maybe popping a pill for your nerves will help?(http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/10/60minutes/main20040693.shtml)

So the next time you think about buying that fake handbag / NFL t shirt / Rolex Watch – think twice. It may be “harmless” fake bags one day but its a short ride to the sort of counterfeiting that ruins lives and often ends them.

 
 

The worst experience you may have from buying a fake iphone is short product life and dropped calls. But try

 

justifying your purchase to the family and friends of a Scots-woman who died in 2003 from drinking fake vodka(http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/scotland/Woman-dies-after-drinking-bootleg.2413109.jp) or to the many Ecuadorians more recently (http://english.ruvr.ru/2011/07/19/53402156.html).

Airplane! Spot the fake

And as for the worrying problem of fake airplane parts, surely they’ve never actually caused a crash – right? Wrong – ponder this next time you fly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partnair_Flight_394

Tomorrow: a new whisky review (guarenteed 100% genuine and fake free!)

Music to drink to: Radiohead – Fake plastic trees

Download it here: Fake Plastic Trees (Live) [CD 2] - EP - Radiohead

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High West Whiskey Rendezvous – reviewed

The boys at High West have balls. Firstly they chose to base themselves out of Park City…. Utah. Yes Utah – a state hardly renowned for its alcohol tolerance – in fact on a list of places NOT to start a business dealing in “Hard Liquor”, Utah probably ranks in second place, just behind Saudi Arabia. Kudos to these brave pioneers of the west!

Team High West also deserve kudos for sticking with their game plan – one that has raised a few eyebrows over the years but shouldnt have. Since their foundation, High West has been successfully bottling and marketing fine American whiskey blended from cask stocks selected by them, but distilled by others. Not that this practise is really that unusual – most if not all of the world’s greatest blended scotch brands would not exist if it were not for their wide range of component whiskies – often originating at distilleries who’s rival parent companies spend most of their time in a bloody battle of case volumes and market share that would impress even the most battle hardened veteran. Again kudos to Team HW.

Not somewhere we recommend building your microdistillery

Far too many “craft” distillers have diluted their offering by distilling vodkas and gins or rushed their whiskey to market in micro-casks in an effort to shorten maturation times but which are in reality too small to give complexity. Whilst the quest for cash flow is understandable – (if you know of a banker patient enough to wait for 5 years before asking for a first loan re-payment please do let me know – seriously) – the resulting product almost always has me running for the spit bucket.

So again, kudos to High West for bringing us well blended, delicious American whiskies that taste even better knowing that every bottle you buy is helping them with the ultimate dream of a fully functioning, Utah based distillery producing top class spirit which is allowed to mature for the time it needs – unhurried by the pen pushers in pinstripe. If you care about good whisky you should, like me, be toasting to their future success with a bottle of High West Rendezvous.

The tasting:

High West Rendezvous Batch No. 27, Bottle No. 915 46% abv

A blend of 6yr old young rye whiskey (95% rye) and 16yr old aged rye whiskey (80% rye) which combine artfully to produce a powerful rye punch – but in a velvet glove. The rye content here is VERY high by anyone’s standards and one would think that this would lead to a one dimensional, bully of a whiskey. Fear not! This rendezvous is more “at the bar with a smiling John Wayne” than “face to face with guns drawn Clint Eastwood”…

The nose: in your face spicy – a cinammon heat, hot leather saddles, dry floral notes like cut wild flowers that have baked in the sun. Finishing cooler with wintergreen herbal notes.

Spicy, sensual and proudly old fashioned

To taste: Wow! Rye at its powerful best! Fennel and honey notes combine to create a curious sensation reminicent of my grandfather Leonard’s cologne and the strangely moutwatering fresh but rich scent of a newly glistening bar of Pears transparent soap. Creme brulee sweetness follows, but balanced by a woody dryness that serves to make the mouth water even more.

To finish: Warming, honey-spiced bitter orange. Marmalade on toast with an old west mule kick!

Im scoring High West Rendezvous 95pts. A rye by which all others should be measured.

Music to drink this to: U2 – Bullet the Blue Sky

Download the Album here: The Joshua Tree (Deluxe Edition) [Remastered] - U2

Posted in Rye Whiskey, The Wild West, Utah, Whisky Reviews | 1 Comment

Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey – reviewed

A warm summer evening, steak on the grill and sun setting through the trees. What better way to relax, clear the mind of the ordinary, hum-drum concerns of the day? A perfect time to enjoy a fine cask aged spirit.

The spirit in question this evening is Connemara, an unusual Irish whiskey, not just because it is a single malt but because it is twice distilled (unlike most Irish which is triple distilled) and most unusually it is a peated malt whisky.

Usually the preserve of those hairy, wool sweater wearing Islay scotch single malts, I was therefore interested to see how the Irish approach the whole “peat” thing.

The whiskey marketing men’s message that “Irish whisky is smoother, lighter and more drinkable because we triple distil and never use peat – unlike those brutish Scots over the water” (poetic licence yes I know) has always been something that I have tended to  mistrust. My thoughts: how come a nation that is literaly built on peat – half the nation seem to burn it in their fireplaces regularly – seem so averse to using peat when distilling whiskey? The history books tell of a time long ago when Irish whiskey would have almost certainly have been at least as smokey as anything coming from Scotland.

Click here to feel like a real Scot

So to the tasting:

On the nose: an interesting combination of floral peat smoke which has at the same time a delicacy  – almost feminine floral touch, along with a more masculine side – coal dust and tar. Very pleasing to any true “peat freak”!

On first taste my concerns that the mouthfeel would be underwelming due to the low (40% abv) strength and therefore certain chill filtration were at least partially laid to rest. All things considered, the mouthfeel here is still surprisingly rich and mouth coating. One can only dream how wonderful and uncious this dram would be at 43% or (and now Im really dreaming!) at 46%abv an above.

32 ...On Style... Part 1... style icons Style Sofia Coppola Olivia MIA Kate Moss Jane Birkin Girl smoking cigarette Charlotte Gainsbourg

Menthol-case

There is certainly something special here though. Something uniqely Irish in the detailed character of the peat smoke character. I cant quite define it – something powerful but at the same time fresh, crisp and mentholated. Reminicent of the fragrant Gauloises Menthol breath of random french girls on my first teenage trip to Paris.

The finish: thankfully more satisfying than that first trip to Paris! For starters Connemara doesnt expect you to pay the entire bill and then disppear with her criminally insane boyfriend who, it turns out, was working away in the kitchen of the little restaurant you’ve been dining at all evening. Connemara is more of a class act than that. Bitter sweet hints of vanilla reveal themselves as the herbal menthol peay smoke subside.

A truly memorable Irish whiskey – the very best of the crop  – Im scoring Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey 93pts.

I suspect I would award this whiskey 96pts if it stopped being so French, and “went all the way” at 46%abv. C’est la vie ;-)

Music to drink this to: Joe le Taxi by Vanessa Paradis. Classic ’80’s French pop. Can’t you just taste the Gauloises?

Download the single here: Joe le taxi - Best of Vanessa Paradis

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