Whisky Experience at Home with Once Upon a Whisky
An insider’s guide to our whisky experience at home with an exclusive tasting set
Welcome on board! At Once Upon A Whisky, we are passionate about sharing the stories behind the water of life, especially those that fascinated us the most.
This is why we have just launched our brand new, exclusive tasting pack.
Come with us on a fascinating whisky journey around the world and try some of our favourite whiskies while learning about their story.
But, now, let’s dive inside the box! Whether you have ordered one of our tasting packs or you are considering getting one, we want to share some of the stories behind the drams we have selected for you.
Enjoy the journey!
Nikka Days – Blended Japanese Whisky
The history of Japanese whisky is strongly intertwined with that of Nikka, which operates Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido and Miyagikyo distillery in Sendai, both of which contribute to the Nikka Days blend.
Nikka was founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuro, a chemist who travelled to Scotland to learn the art of distilling whisky in his youth. He studied organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow, where he met his future wife Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan (Japanese TV channel NHK also broadcasted a drama series based on their love story, called Massan). He gained valuable hands-on experience working for several years distilling at Hazelburn in Campbeltown, eventually returning to Japan bringing back his knowledge and igniting the whisky distilling movement.
After working with one of the other men behind Japanese whisky, Shinjiro Torii, who founded the company that we know today as Suntory, he decided to go solo when the two fell apart. He moved to Yoichi, (an area full of peat, good agricultural land and abundant water), and established what became Nikka, which is now one of the most well-known brands of Japanese whisky.
In the following decades, the reputation of Japanese whisky grew stronger and boomed in the mid-80s and the country is now one of the strongest players worldwide in whisky production.
At a production level, there are similarities to Scotch as this is where the main inspiration came from.
However, its unique cultural background and the demand for fast pace production have shaped the industry and developed a specific character.
For instance, each distillery has to rely on its production as, unlike in Scotland, Japanese companies don’t trade in stock among each other. Because of this, distilleries in Japan are a chameleonic breed, and each one is equipped to produce a wide range of styles, from grains to malt, smoky to unpeated, using a variety of fermentation and distillation techniques.
Whisky produced in Japan is known for being relatively clear and light in character (with obvious exceptions, Yoichi being among these with its smokier and oily spirit).
Nikka Days is a blended whisky (whisky made with a variety of malt and grain whiskies, from different distilleries, blended together) and features spirits distilled in Coffey stills at Miyagikyo distillery and then single malt from the same distillery and from Yoichi, as well as Coffey malt (a spirit made using malted barley but distilled in a continuous still).
A lovely easy-drinking dram that goes well neat or in a mizuwari, the traditional Japanese highball consisting of whisky and sparkling water on ice.
Teeling Small Batch – Irish Whiskey
Our second dram of the day hails from the Emerald Isle and from a distillery that is at the forefront of the renaissance that Irish whisky has seen in the last decades.
In fact, the symbol of Teeling Distillery is a Phoenix representing the rebirth of the tradition of Dublin distilling.
Should you want to know more about Irish whiskey, we recently published a special blog for St Patrick’s Day.
To paint the picture: despite a dispute with Scotland on where whisky was born, it is in Ireland that the known written records would place the pin as the cradle of whisk(e)y-making.
Scotch and Irish Whiskey have known a certain rivalry throughout the years: the Irish Spirit, generally triple distilled, was a more palatable product than the harsher single malts Scotland produced back in the day. A very important market for Irish whiskey was the USA.
However, there was a steep turn of favour in the 19th Century: Ireland suffered during and after the First World War and their War of independence, culminating in the establishment of an Irish Free State in 1922. At the same time, Scottish producers started investing in blended whisky, whose smoother character made it a much-preferred tipple around the world and the advent of Prohibition cut off one of the most important markets for Irish whisky.
The late 80s saw a resurgence of the Irish whiskey industry, starting from the opening of Cooley Distillery in 1987 (in a building formerly used to convert potatoes into industrial ethanol and produce the spirit for Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur).
And here is when Teeling, as we know it today, comes in. The family was already tied into the industry since 1782 when Walter Teeling established a distillery in the Liberties district of Dublin. His descendant, John Teeling, was the mind behind the founding of Cooley Distillery. Cooley was sold in 2011 and then two Teeling brothers, John and Stephen, operated as an Independent bottling company first and then founded the new Teeling Distillery in 2015, in the heart of Dublin (well worth a visit!).
Teeling draws both from the tradition of Irish distilling (with expressions such as their Single Pot Still ones) and at the same time launched itself into experimenting with new flavours, casks and techniques.
The Small Batch Irish whiskey is made with a blend of malt and grain whiskeys, initially aged in ex-Bourbon barrels. It’s then finished in Central American Rum casks to give it a tropical, sweet note.
Syndicate 58/6 – Blended Scotch Whisky
We mentioned earlier how the whisky industry in Scotland soared after investing in blended whiskies, something that became possible after the invention of the continuous still in the 1830s, which allowed for more efficient production of spirit and, by using different grains, delivered a smooth whisky base to which colour and the taste was added by a palette of single malts that will contribute to the flavours.
A very interesting role in the success of whisky is held by independent bottlers like Douglas Laing, the company that developed Syndicate 58/6.
Are effectively third parties who buy the whisky and casks directly from the distilleries. They might find special casks that they want to release, they might try different finishes and maturations, and they might blend some of the whiskies they get together. They allow us to try flavour profiles that are very different from the ones distilleries have to stick to for consistency.
Douglas Laing & Co was established in 1948 by Fred Douglas Laing and is nowadays run by his grandson and granddaughter, Fred Laing and Cara Laing. Stewart Laing, another brother, went on to found his own company, Hunter Laing & Co.
The company is well known for its Remarkable Regional Malts brand, a selection of blended malt whiskies which aim to showcase the spirit of each one of the whisky regions, among which feature The Epicurean, Scallywag, and, as we will taste later, Big Peat.
The story of Syndicate 58/6 is very fascinating, and its latest recipe has the signature of the celebrated master blender Richard Paterson.
In 1958, a rare blend of Scotch malt and grain whiskies was found in 10 casks in a warehouse in Port of Leith, which was owned by William Muir Bond 9 Ltd. The blend had been distilled in 1954 and made into a recipe that dated back to the 1800s. The directors at William Muir Bond 9 Ltd and a close group of friends (6 in total, hence the name of the whisky) waited until 1966 when the whisky clocked its 12th year and was bottled. Containing 18 different single malts and 4 grains – maturation went through by using the Solera system, the last year spent time in Oloroso Sherry cask as a finish. A true delicacy!
Insight: The Solera System
Sherry is a fortified wine whose casks are very popularly used for maturing whisky. Depending on the type of sherry used, this will impact the flavour of the whisky adding spicy and sweet, fruity notes, or more nutty and dry hints.
But, back to the solera system: this is the warehousing system used for sherry casks. These are arranged in different tiers (criaderas), with the wine of the same age contained at each level. The youngest wine from the latest harvest will be placed on top, and the oldest one (called solera), ready to be bottled, is placed at the bottom. When part of the wine is taken from the solera, it is replaced with wine from the upper level, which is the second oldest – and this part of wine will be replaced by the younger wine and so on, making it effectively a blend of different wines of different ages. This process allows the winemaker to obtain a consistent product at each batch.
(The website sherrynotes.com offers a really good and in-depth description of the Solera system, should you wish to learn more).
So, we finally got to the peaty side of our tasting pack!
Before we hit it with our first smoky delicacies, let us spend a few words on what peat is and how it works in whisky.
What is Peat?
Peat, or turf, is created by decomposing wetland vegetation such as roots, moss and heather in a constantly waterlogged environment. The scarcity of oxygen underwater leads to partial, slow decomposition of the organic matter, while the upper layers create pressure on the base. This layer of “dead plants” builds up in layers and is eventually broken down by microbes. In the summer months, the peat is usually “cut” – extracted and let dry so that it can be turned into combustible – and this is how it entered the whisky-making process.
Peat and Whisky
Dried peat is used in the malting process, which means it will interact with the barley used to make the whisky and it is at this early stage that it will contribute to the flavour of a whisky.
Peat is added to the kiln by maltsters and distillers: used as a fuel to create hot air, its fumes dry the barley while giving the grains a smoky flavour. The flavour compounds associated with this particular element, called phenols, will be used to measure ‘how smoky’ the whisky is. If you see PPM related to a whisky, it will mean ‘Parts per Million’ and it refers to the phenols present in the barley. Distilleries such as Ardbeg and Bruichladdich typically use barley with a fairly high PPM (50 and more) whereas the malt for Ledaig, which we will discover next, is usually peated up to 30 to 40 ppm.
(A very light, smoky hint can be imparted also by using casks which previously held smoky whisky, but it will be less powerful and easy to control than using peated barley).
Fun Fact: The Icelandic distillery Eimverk has been using sheep dung to create one of its flagship bottlings, Floki.
Ledaig Rioja Cask Finish
Ledaig (meaning ‘safe haven‘ in Gaelic, and pronounced “Letch-ick”) is the name given to peated whisky from the distillery of Tobermory, which is the only distillery on the Isle of Mull.
This beautiful island on the West Coast of Scotland is a paradise for wildlife and outdoors lovers alike. Of course, whisky enthusiasts will find something to cheer for.
Located in the main village of the island, from which it takes the name, Tobermory Distillery is part of this colourful landscape of a northern fishing settlement. Born in 1790, the distillery produces both peated and unpeated whisky (under the name of Tobermory), which is used in blends such as Black Bottle and Scottish Leader.
In its history, Tobermory has known several, long silent periods, one of which lasted between 1837 and 1878 and again for four decades after 1930. At different times in history, the distillery was owned by unusual joint ventures, an English company which aimed to turn part of it into holiday accommodation and used part of the premises to store cheese. Burn Stewart, now under the umbrella of South African Distell, acquired the company in 1993 and has since pushed it.
Ledaig Rioja Cask brings in all the oily, maritime qualities of a flagship Ledaig and blends them with the sweet and spicy notes brought by the Rioja wine finish. It is the first expression of the Sinclair Series by the distillery, which celebrates Tobermory’s founder, John Sinclair.
The story behind the whisky is that of a Spanish galleon which sank off the harbour of Tobermory over four centuries ago, which was said to hold a secret and rich treasure, now buried in the depths of the village’s shoreline.
Matured in bourbon casks and finished in Spanish Rioja wine casks, the whisky well balances the flavours of seaweed, grapes and berries, and a peppery smokiness.
More about Rioja Wine
The wine grown in the province of La Rioja is the oldest one to obtain a Designation of Origin in the country, in 1925. Located in North Central Spain, it is mostly known for its red wine production which is mostly based around Tempranillo grapes. The region’s wine production benefits from hot summers and cold winters with quite high rainfall. The wines tend to be big in flavour and high in tannins.
A blended malt (a whisky made by mixing different single malts, but no grain whisky) produced by the same independent bottler behind the Syndicate 58/6, Douglas Laing, Big Peat encapsulates the spirit of the whisky Island by excellence: Islay.
In fact, on an island of just over 600 km², there are nowadays nine operative distilleries, with plans for new ones to come and at least one coming back to life.
Big Peat contains single malts from distilleries which are quite different in flavour profile and character: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila and Port Ellen. Hailing from different points on the Island, their blend offers a really interesting and diverse flavour profile with a dominant and powerful smoky profile.
The whisky is one of the Remarkable Regional Malts range, a series of blended malts aiming to showcase the characteristics of the six whisky regions. If Big Peat represents Islay, Timorous Beastie showcases the Highlands, Scallywag stands in for Speyside, The Epicurean is made with Lowland Malts, Rock Island with malts from the Islands and The Gauldrons is the Campbeltown expression.
One thing that stands out across the range and particularly in this bottling is the label, which does bring a more modern look to a whisky bottle. The bearded Mascotte, called Ileach (someone who lives on Islay) features across all the bottlings of the brand.
An unusual fact is the presence of Port Ellen malt in the blend: the distillery was closed in 1983 and in the past years stock of this whisky has become very rare. So, this is an interesting addition and a way to have an idea of this part of distilling history in a more affordable context.
The name is a good hint – this dram is very big on peat, made mainly with what would seem relatively younger whiskies to enhance the smoky compounds (which, contrary to what some may think, fade with time in the maturation process). There is an element of sea breeze and brine, something that makes you think of tasting oysters on the beach, next to a bonfire.
Where to buy a Whisky Tasting Set?
You can dive into one of our whisky tasting experiences by purchasing our exclusive tasting pack here.
We hope you enjoyed the journey with us!