scotland

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Whisky

Ardberg Distillery sits on the south coast of the Isle of Islay in picturesque Argyll and Bute in Scotland. It’s a world away, quite literally, from the International Space Station (ISS), which travels at 17,000 mph at some 250 miles above the surface of the Earth, completing an orbit every 90 minutes.

In August 2011, these two unlikely partners were brought together by an experiment to see how the absence of gravity effects turpenes – organic compounds associated with flavour in spirits and wines. Micro-gravity environments are a fascination for companies looking for novel ways of producing products. Space-matured whisky is undoubtably a novelty!

Ardberg prepared a package of 6ml of whisky distillate (unmatured whisky) and shavings from oak maturation casks. This was sent to the ISS via a Soyuz rocket launched from Khazakstan. in January 2012 the whisky and wood shavings were mixed at the same time as identical quantities of whisky and shavings were mixed together on Earth. Both whiskys were matured for 971 days, after which the intergalactic sample was brought back to Earth and sent to Ardberg for comparison with its Earth-bound sample.

In case you are wondering why Ardberg didn’t simply send a cask into space, the cost of putting a kilogram of mass into orbit is currently around £5,000. Significantly cheaper than it used to be but still very expensive! For a 200 litre american oak barrel that would likely cost in excess of £1 million.

And what were the results of the experiment? Arberg published a detailed report, and noted that although the samples were very similar, the flavour profiles were different.

One of the most interesting results is that the sample matured in space did not take on as much of the oak characteristics as the sample matured on Earth. If this is due to the lack of gravity then it may be that in the future it would be possible to more accurately determine the age of whisky by analysing the concentration of oak characteristics. Perhaps this might also help prevent whisky fraud in the the future if nothing else.

Whisky and space, two of our favourite topics!

Image by “STS132 undocking iss2” by NASA – http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/station/crew-23/hires/s132e012212.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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Dalmore: You Won’t Believe How Eye-wateringly Expensive Whisky Can Be!

Sitting on the banks of the Cromarty Firth in Alness, some 20 miles North of Inverness, stands The Dalmore distillery. It was founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson, who retired at the age of 36 having made a fortune with his uncle in Matheson & Company Ltd. They might have been running Opium from India to China… but peddling heroin was legal back then.

Alexander Matheson established the distillery as part of his £773,020 purchase of some 220,000 acres of the county of Ross – which in today’s money may have been around £2.5 billion – yes, billion.

It was run by the Sunderland family until 1859, then it was taken over by Alexander, Andrew and Charles Mackenzie. After Matheson’s death in 1886 the Mackenzies purchased it. Production was briefly interrupted in 1917 when the Royal Navy commandeered the distillery, weirdly to produce anti-ship mines. The navy left in 1920 after the distillery was badly damaged by an explosion and fire, which resulted in a court case against The Navy that was even debated in The House of Lords.

Today Dalmore is renowned around the world for producing eye-wateringly expensive whiskys. Here are three of them.

Dalmore 64 Trinitas: £120,000

After the success of the Dalmore 62 (see below) the distillery produced just three bottles of a blend of whiskys said to be amongst the oldest in the world, over 140 years old!

The first two bottles were sold in Glasgow on October 14th 2010 for £100,000.

The final bottle was sold in Harrods for £120,000 and amusingly it is still listed in the Harrod’s online shop with the comment “We’re sorry but this item has just sold out”.

Dalmore 62: £125,000

In 1943 the Dalmore Distillery in Inverness produced twelve bottles containing a mix from five casks from 1868, 1878, 1922, 1926 and 1939.

On Thursday 5th of December 2002, a bottle was purchased at McTear’s auction house in Glasgow for £25,877.50. At the time this was a world record.

Then on the 15th of April 2005, Denis Barthe the Bar Manager of the Ascot Bar at Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot Surrey, sold a bottle of this extraordinary whisky for £32,000 to an anonymous buyer. Each of the twelve bottles was uniquely labelled. This bottle was the Matheson, named after the Dalmore Estate’s owner.

Fantastically, the story goes that the buyer shared the bottle with five of his friends, probably making them the only people in the world who have ever tasted this blend… along with the bar manager. He was lucky enough to be offered a glass of it and apparently said it was the “most beautiful thing” he had ever tasted.

Amusingly the buyer may have left a tip for the waiter as the bottle was not completely finished. The last drop of whisky in the bottle was estimated to be worth £1,000.

A bottle of Dalmore 62 was sold on the 20th of September 2011 to a Chinese buyer at Singapore’s Changi airport for £125,000.

The value of the Dalmore 62 is now thought to be over £250,000.

The Patterson Collection: £987,500 – yes really!

Not exactly a whisky… but never mind. Created in 2013 and named after Richard Patterson, Master Distiller at The Dalmore, this is a collection of 12 bottles in a presentation cabinet for, well, we might as well call it a million quid.

So, for an average spend of £82,000 a bottle you get:

  • one bottle of 1926 vintage
  • one bottle of 1939 vintage
  • two bottles of 1951 vintage
  • one bottle of 1964 vintage
  • one bottle of 1966 vintage
  • one bottle of 1969 vintage
  • one bottle of 1979 vintage
  • one bottle of 1985 vintage
  • two bottles of 1995 vintage
  • one bottle of 20 – 50 year old

Amusing for me, as two thirds of the collection is older than I am.

The 1926 and 1939 vintages must be a large part of the price tag as they surely must be some of the oldest whisky available to purchase in the world.

Still though… a million quid.

And just in case you don’t believe us, here’s the product page, note, also sadly but somewhat dubiously “just sold out”.

Image is “Cromarty Firth at Dalmore, Scotland” © Copyright Andrew Tryon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Who’s for 19th Century Whiskey?

Having driven across the picturesque Ruthven Bridge in years gone by we thought it unique. It carries the B970 across the River Spey and as lattice-truss bridges go it is unusually long.

Imagine our surprise then to read about the discovery of a time capsule buried deep within the structure. The metal box was found by workers from Morgan Sindall, executing a £622,000 project to replace the super structure of the bridge, leaving the stone piers but sadly replacing it’s graceful lattice work.

Inside the box was found a newspaper dated Saturday, September 29 1894, a scroll, and a bottle of coloured liquid presumed to be whiskey. These items have been handed over to The Highland Folk Museum.

Its remarkable to think that the box must have been placed there when the bridge was being built. At that time a new century was approaching that would bring with incredible transformations in transport, medicine and communications. A bridge built to carry horse-laden carriages finally being replaced after 121 years!

But what of the whiskey? We would love to know where that came from. The nearest distillery, famous for being in the Cairngorms is that of Dalwhinnie, one of our favourite mellow tipples. Dalwhinnie was founded as the Strathspey Distillery by John Grant, George Sellar and Alexander Mackenzie. However this momentous event occurred in 1897, so clearly it wasn’t Dalwhinnie.

What is it worth? Old bottles of whiskey sell well at auction. Scotland has some fabulously old distilleries,the Bowmore Distillery for example, established in 1779 by a local merchant, John P. Simpson on isle of Islay, an island of the Inner Hebrides. A bottle of single malt 1850 Bowmore was sold at McTear’s auctioneers in Glasgow for £29,400 to an anonymous telephone bidder. So, it could potentially be worth quite a lot.

It would be wonderful to discover who placed that box there and what might be in the bottle, but we suspect we may never know.

So the next time you drive over an ancient looking road bridge, just imagine, what was crossing it soon after it was built, and what might be buried beneath it?

Image is Ruthven Bridge © Copyright Andrew Wood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Champagne

Let’s Raise A Toast To Champagne!

What do two wine producing regions in France, a victorian railway bridge and a botanical garden have in common?

It may sound like the start of a joke, but it’s not. They have all been recently awarded ‘World Heritage Status” by UNESCO.

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and is a specialised agency of the United Nations system. The organisation was created in 1946 with the aim of ‘building defences of peace in the minds of men.’

The World Heritage List was first published in 1978. The idea was to list places on Earth that were of outstanding universal value to humanity. To secure a place on the list a site must be of special cultural or physical significance. The sites listed are intended to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. The first list from 1978 contained 12 protected monuments and included the Galapagos Islands and Aachen Cathedral. At present there are over 1,000 sites listed split over 163 states.

In July 2015 the latest additions to the UNESCO list were announced and among the winners were the wine producing regions of Champagne and part of Burgundy, the Forth Bridge in Scotland and Singapore’s botanical gardens.

UNESCO said that the Champagne status covered “the places sparkling wine was developed using a second fermentation method in the bottle from the beginning of the 17th century until its early industrialisation in the 19th century”. Special mention was made of Hautvilliers, where legend has it that, Dom Perignon invented Champagne. For more information on why we celebrate with Champagne check out our blog post here.

In Burgundy, the vineyards on the slopes of the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune, which sit to the south of Dijon were marked out for World Heritage Status. These vineyards produce pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, which are then used to produce some of the finest red wines in the world.

UNESCO have helpfully produced an app listing all of the World Heritage Status Sites  – albeit that it needs to be updated to include the newest additions to the list. Using the app, it’s possible to tick off the Sites you’ve visited. So, that means 24 down for us, just 1,007 to go!

Image by Vassil (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Champagne From A Shipwreck Still Good After 170 Years

Sometime in the 1840s a two-masted schooner, possibly en route to St. Petersburg (nobody actually knows) sank off the coast of Föglö, an island next to Finland. It was travelling a route known to be used for Champagne deliveries to the Russian Imperial Court.

It lay there undisturbed in the calm, dark waters of the baltic for 170 years. Finally, it was found in 2003 by the Finnish Maritime Administration and explored by a group of Finnish and Swedish divers in 2010. After entering the hull through damage in the stern they found a number of items including 168 bottles of Champagne.

In 2011, a single bottle of this 200 year old Champagne sold at auction in Finland… for £26,700. Surely a bit steep for a bottle of wine thats been at the bottom of the sea for two centuries? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Old bottles of Champagne seem to have a habit of turning up.

At the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin visitor centre in Reims there is an 1893 bottle on display which was found, of all places, in a inside a sideboard in Torosay Castle, Isle of Mull, Scotland, in 2008.

The cargo recovered from the shipwreck included bottles from three of the oldest Champagne makers: Veuve Clicquot, Heidsieck and Juglar. But just how old are these bottles?

Philippe Clicquot-Muiron founded the company that would become Veuve Clicquot in 1772. In 1798, Philippe’s son, François Clicquot, married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin and died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in Frrench) the company. Under this formidable woman Veuve Clicquot became the Champagne power house it is today. Analysis of the corks from the Veuve Clicquot bottles recovered from the wreck show a logo with a comet, apparently added by Madame Clicquot in 1811. This was added to celebrate an unusually good crop, so the bottles recovered could be as old as 204 years.

Florens-Louis Heidsieck founded the Heidsieck Champagne house in 1785 in Reims. Legend has it that he presented wine to Queen Marie-Antoinette. After his death in 1828, his nephew Christian Heidsieck started a partnership with Henri-Guillaume Piper. Christian died in 1835, his widow married Henri-Guillaume Piper in 1838 marking the beginning of the Piper-Heidsieck Champagne house. The Heidseick bottles recovered bear branding from the original company name so they are likely no younger than 177 years old.

The last maker Juglar, is the most interesting in that it ceased to exist in 1829 as it was absorbed into the Champagne House Jacquesson. Juglar bottles were recovered from the wreck meaning that the Champagne is likely somewhere between 186 and 204 years old!

In case you were wondering, the oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, invented in 1531 by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne. This happened, possibly by accident initially, as bottling of the wine was carried out before the initial fermentation had ended.

Scientists from the University of Reims in Champagne-Ardenne, France have now analysed samples of the champagne and were surprised by what they found.

The bottles recovered were remarkably well preserved, 55m down in waters of 2-4 degrees C, high pressure and low levels of light. The aromas and chemical features of the Champagne were preserved and it was drinkable.

The Champagne itself was remarkably similar to modern Champagne, but much sweeter with sugar levels of 14% – more like a modern desert wine. Modern tastes have driven the sugar levels in Champagne far lower than this. The levels of CO2 were vastly lower, 80% less than a modern bottle, probably because most of it had escaped through the cork. Finally, traces of arsenic hint at the use of arsenic salts as a pesticide in use at the time.

All of which goes to explain why these bottles can fetch such a high price at auction. Perfectly drinkable 200 year old Champagne, yours for around £25,000!

Image is of the Mary Camden, a two-masted schooner, by William Pierce Stubbs (1842 – 1909) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons