2021 In Review & Dram of the Year

While a retrospective on 2021 feels about as productive as reviewing a bin fire, it felt like a good idea to reflect on the evolution of W&C in its first full year of existence – if only for my own sake.

In person events felt a dream after so long without them
In person events felt a dream after so long without them

W&C was set up – during first lock down 2020 – as quite literally somewhere to put things I wrote down. Having always enjoyed writing, and anticipating that I might do more of it while stuck in my flat for what turned out to be the best part of a year, it felt that having a platform for it was an obvious choice (if someone actually read anything that was a bonus). Everything else was an afterthought – from the YouTube series Desert Island Drams to live events and myriad projects it has spawned. As W&C was never set up as a business, or with a particular functionality in mind, it has evolved passively and reactively as things have changed these past two years – rather than actively seeking to perform a certain function in spite of these changes.


As the world came out of lockdown (both times), things naturally transitioned from being online to in person. This included the virtual tastings and cocktail classes (often for corporate Christmas parties etc) becoming in person events and leaving behind the challenges of zoom. The most important one was moving Desert Island Drams from YouTube to live evenings. This first happened in between lockdowns in 2020, and as life opened back up again in 2021 it felt only a good idea to try it again.


W&C x Glenfiddich Desert Island Drams @ Uno Mas feat. Mark Thomson 30.06.21


Mark listens intently whilst I try to regain my train of thought
Mark listens intently whilst I try to regain my train of thought

The first event of the year was also in celebration of the first birthday of the website. Heading back to the scene of the previous Desert Island Drams – the wonderful Uno Mas on Picardy Pl in Edinburgh – this would see W&C team up with a brand for the first time. While this felt a little counter intuitive – as an evening selling a brand was never part of the design – collaborating with the inimitable Mark Thomson of Glenfiddich put any such concerns aside. This would follow the usual W&C ethos of good drams and good stories in great company and surroundings. Thomson worked the room brilliantly, telling tales and giving insights that can only be provided by someone who has worked so closely with one brand for so long. I presented some indie representations of Glenfiddich and the wider William Grants’ stable while, frankly, trying to keep up. For the nerds out there, here was the line up:


Mark:

  1. 1970s Glenfiddich Pure Malt ‘Over 8’ 70°

  2. Glenfiddich 15 Year Old Distillery Edition 51%

  3. Glenfiddich Grand Cru 23 Year Old 40%

Simon:

  1. Girvan 26 Year Old by North Star 53.5%.

  2. Burn Taobh ‘The Vatting’ 26 Year Old by Murray McDavid 44.1% (Teaspooned Balvenie, AKA Burnside)*.

  3. Wardhead 1997 (Bottled 2018 @ 21 Years) by Carn Mor 54.6% (Teaspooned Glenfiddich)*.

*A teaspooned whisky is the result of one single malt being adulterated by a tiny amount of another before sale by a distillery to an independent buyer. This means it can no longer be resold as a single malt – nor under the name of the original distillery – thus protecting the distillery brand on the off chance the buyer, quite frankly, fucks it up.

The stand out for me was the 15 Year Old Glenfiddich (though the old ‘Over 8s’ are always great), where as Mark really loved that Wardhead. This was a wonderful evening, and the first of its kind for most of us in almost a year. The real joy of being able to put on these events has been to see faces, old and new, enjoying whisky over stories and laughs during a time where company and good times have been sadly lacking.


W&C x The Pot Still Desert Island Drams @ The Gate feat Frank Murphy 27.07.21


Andy presides over Frank & I’s Desert Island Drams
Andy presides over Frank & I’s Desert Island Drams

The first two live Desert Island Drams – with Andy Gemmell (of the wonderful The Gate bar on The Gallowgate in Glasgow) in 2020 and Mark this year – both had one simple thing at their core – an argument. Ok maybe a discussion, but there was an element of good natured competition involved. Essentially I would present three drams, as would my opponent, and we would argue as to whose were better. It seemed natural then that if I were going to have a lively discussion about whisky with anyone then the next one simply had to feature the larger than life Frank Murphy of the world famous Pot Still in Glasgow – a pub in which we’d already recorded one of my favourite Desert Island Drams episodes. As I was two wins from two outings so far, it felt only fair for me to travel to Glasgow for an away fixture – though to keep it to a slightly neutral venue, Gemmell agreed to host us at The Gate. Andy would this time assume the role of compere as the two of us argued through three each of our Desert Island Drams. Again for the nerds in the room, here’s what we had:


Frank:

  1. Royal Salute 21 Year Old 40%

  2. Auchentoshan Distillery Exclusive 11 year old Bordeaux Cask CS (Precise ABV … Forgotten)

  3. Lagg Distillery New Make Spirit 63.5 %

Simon:

  1. Glen Scotia ‘Strawberry Ganache’ 1991 21 Year Old by Wemyss Malts 46%

  2. Clos Martin 1989 Folle Blanche Armagnac 40%

  3. Glen Moray Distillery Exclusive 2003 16 Year Old Chardonnay Cask 58.9%

This was the first such event I’d done where the two of us didn’t have prior knowledge of each others whiskies. We were both trying them blind for the first time – along with the guests. This made it a lot of fun, as both of us reached for the weird and wonderful – the Auchentoshan being a surprise to even those for whom it is likely their closest distillery (or top three as we were in the East End of Glasgow) and the Armagnac, hopefully, created some converts. The standout for the night, however, was the Glen Moray Chardonnay Cask. I had picked this up on a trip to the distillery, and when I asked Iain Allan, the Distillery Manager, about it he said ‘you need to take it into a dark room and spend some time with it to get your head around it, it’s very weird’. This sounded like my kind of dram, but what was amazing at the tasting was how it won almost the whole room over. I knew it was delicious to me, but I though its weirdness would split a crowd. Goes to show, as the late great Chuck Berry said, you never can tell. It would also be remiss of me if I didn’t inform you, dear reader, that I retained my unbeaten recored after this evening as well.


Whisky and Cynicism in Secret @ The Lost Close 06.10.21


The team that made it all happed (L-R) Myself, Sam Christie (Video), James Armandy (The Lost Close Manager and Photos), Conor O’keeffe (Bar), Sarah George (Host).
The team that made it all happed (L-R) Myself, Sam Christie (Video), James Armandy (The Lost Close Manager and Photos), Conor O’keeffe (Bar), Sarah George (Host).

I had one last event in store for W&C in 2021, and it was arguably the most ambitious yet. I had discovered (well someone else had actually discovered it, but I chanced upon its existence) a space in Edinburgh that was almost unknown. It was recently unearthed underneath what is now a hostel (previously a prison among other things) in the Old Town, and parts of it had been bricked up for centuries (absolutely peak Edinburgh). It seemed an ideal place for a tasting, but how to get the most out of it? I – with the help of James Armandary, who curates the space – decided on a tasting that wasn’t a tasting as such, more of an evening drinking good whisky for those who would appreciate it. Behind a make shift bar we placed a collection of vintage spirits (to be drunk as highballs, neat or however the guest chose throughout the evening). Along the way a selection of whiskies would then be delivered to the guests, and a short time after they would be revealed. This would allow guests to not only mingle and discuss the whisky as they so chose, but most most importantly to enjoy this fantastic space. You can get an idea for what it felt like here:





And, one last time for my nerds in the back, here are the drams we had:


The Back Bar:



  • 1960s: Drambuie.

  • 1970s: J&B Rare, Haig Gold Label, Ballantine’s Finest, ‘Ross Foods’ Blend (what the fuck is that? No one knows), Gordon’s Gin.

  • 1980s: Ballantine’s Finest, Bell’s, White Horse, Johnnie Walker Black Label.

  • 1990s: White Horse, Black Bottle, Ballantine’s Finest.

The Tasting:

  1. Braeval 1998 (Bottled 2016) ‘Connoisseur’s Choice’ Gordon & MacPhail 46%.

  2. Woven ‘Experience N. 2’ Blend 45.2%.

  3. Compass Box ‘Magic Cask’ 46% Blended Malt (92% from The Imperial Distillery aged in a first fill bourbon barrel, 8% from a ‘Single Malt made near the town of Aberlour’ aged in a First Fill Oloroso Sherry Butt).

  4. Bunnahabhain 1988 (Bottled 2018) ‘Antique Pomander’ by Wemyss Malts 46%.

  5. Glenburgie 22 Year Old by Single Malts of Scotland 54.5%.

  6. Springbank 1995 (Bottled 2019) Single Port Cask ‘Old & Rare’ By Hunter Laing 52.2%.




It’s hard to pick stand out drams from such a phenomenal line up. The Springbank is obviously eye catching – and was delicious – but the almost-Imperial Compass Box ‘Magic Cask’ is truly phenomenal, a close contender for dram of the year (more on that below). The Drambuie from the 60s also gets a shout out as an unexpected crowd favourite.


Dram of the Year 2021 (Top 5):


This time of year this question gets asked of all whisky enthusiasts a lot. We discuss it with each other, a lot of articles get published, and throughout the month of December especially many awards ceremonies are dedicated to awarding such honours and others. I felt it would be a missed opportunity not to include mine in a round up of the year.



Honourable Mentions (in no particular order):



Glen Scotia 10 Year Old Festival Bottling 2021 Bordeaux Finish 56.1%


I love Glen Scotia, and they have gone from strength to strength these last few years. This year alone, far more insightful folk than I have already awarded them countless accolades, including distillery of the year. This red wine finish released to mark the Campbeltown Festival (that never happened) in 2021 sums the distillery style up quite well. It’s messy, with a lot going on, but in a good way. Somehow what feels like a lot of separate elements manage to all get along very well. It also shows off the distillery’s versatility – it seems it can shine through almost any cask influence.


Deanston 2013 Organic Fino Finish bottled 2020 (Union Exclusive) 54.8%.


This was brought along by a good friend to a gathering of whisky lovers a month or so back. While I found it impressive at the time, I was lucky enough to grab a sample to take home and on the second pass it proved to be as exceptional as I’d first expected. Hyper complex for its age, with depth and heft you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a fino finish.


Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Cask Strength 2021 55.1%.


While the Deanston makes this list because of it’s slightly surprising nature, the Bunna is essentially here because it’s exactly what you’d expect. The standard 12 year old bottling is a perennial favourite in the whisky world, and it’s oft lamented that it could be amazing at cask strength. Turns out it is – just the great taste of Bunnahabhain dialled up to eleven with rich sherry influence and coastal notes. Eminently drinkable.


Glen Moray Distillery Exclusive 2003 16 Year Old Chardonnay Cask 58.9%.


As covered above, this is a massive dram. Sixteen years in a chardonnay cask has done weird and wonderful things to it, and it’s one of the most complex and intriguing whiskies I’ve ever tried. Within all of this it still somehow manages to be what I call ‘happiness whisky’; there is something superbly enjoyable and ‘morish’ through the middle of it that puts a smile on your face and keeps you coming back – like sweets when you were a kid. Also gets bonus points as I acquired it on a trip to Speyside that was a great going away for a good friend and part of my whisky drinking cohort. Whisky is about the stories as much as the liquid.


Dram of the Year 2021:


Glenburgie 22 Year Old by Single Malts of Scotland 54.5%.


2021 has been a lot of things to a lot of people, but it is definitely the year in which I became a proper Glenburgie fan boy. Already knowing that I loved Ballantine’s from the past (of which ‘Burgie is a large component), it wasn’t a huge surprise to discover a quality in this single malt that I absolutely adore. While I’ve probably drunk more expressions of Glenburgie than any other distillery this year (now that I actively seek it out), this particular bottling is mind blowing. It was presented at the last W&C event of the year and was definitely a crowd favourite; I thought it was dram of the night despite being in seriously esteemed company. However, when I tried it latterly on my own at home and spent some time with it the thought that crossed my mind was ‘whisky doesn’t normally taste like this’. Without gushing too much and descending into awful hyperbole, all I can do is assure you that this is, without any adulteration, very, very good single malt whisky.

So that was the year that was. I look forward to seeing how W&C continues to evolve and take shape over the coming months and years, responding to the ever changing demands and nature of the drinks world. While the writing has taken a back seat this year as my day to day got busier, I intend to remedy that in 2021 as, like all of us, I continue to strive for balance between work and passions. As ever thanks to all who shared in this small corner of the internet, came along to the events, featured in the content and presented along side me this year. Remember: a good dram in good company can cure a lot of ills – so this festive season I hope you manage to (safely) enjoy as many of both as possible.


Si


Whisky & Cynicism