My wife brought me home the remains of some Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting bottles that escaped the clutches of the Australian tasting panel (thanks Andrew!). Not quite the crumbs from the table when we are talking about some very rare single cask, cask strength whiskies from one of the great independent bottlers of the whisky world. Particularly whiskies coming from three diverse and rather uncommon distilleries. Suffice it to say, I was very excited.

The SMWS tasting panel samples hundreds of casks each year and only a select number are chosen to be bottled and imported to Australia. In this case, and subject to confirmation, I believe the three samples were ultimately bottled as the following: (Mortlach) 76.112 “Spiced Champurrado”, (Glenlossie) 46.22 “An Italian Kitchen”, and (Springbank) 27.106 “A boiler suit in ballet shoes”. The Springbank I had previously sampled at the winter SMWS tasting event in Sydney and it was my favourite dram of the night, so I was very pleased to find this showing up unbidden at my doorstep.

The first two are mature Speysiders and find expression predominantly through independent bottlings. Mortlach has long been favoured by blenders for its complexity and heartiness created by a rather unorthodox combination of stills and the use of tradition wormtubs in condensing the spirit. The owners release a regular 16 year old “Flora and Fauna” edition and the occasional rare malt, but most of the spirit finds its way into blends, and if you are lucky enough to stumble across one, chances are it will be by an independent bottler.

Glenlossie, like Mortlach, belongs to the Diageo fold and is offered as a standard 10 year old. Although built in 1876 it remains a rather unknown distillery despite being a staple in the majority of the Haig blends. This was my first taste of a Glenlossie single malt and I was not disappointed.

The last whisky, the Springbank, comes from one of the three remaining active distilleries in Campbelltown. Springbank is renowned for its firmly traditional and artisanal approach to producing whisky and, along with Kilchoman, is one of only two distilleries that perform each stage of whisky production on the same premises – from the malting of the barley to bottling the final product.

Mortlach 1986 – 27yr. (Bottled as SMWS 76.112 “Spiced Champurrado”)mortlachstills
Bottled 23/09/13
58.1% ABV
Cask 2041
10CL SMWS sample bottle

Nose: A little musty, feels almost arid. Lacquer. Dried herbs – thyme, touch of rosemary. Slightly metallic – aluminium scouring brush.
Becomes oakier with time in the glass. Honey notes emerge with water. Shandy.

Palate: Sweet and gamey. Venison in a port reduction. Honey-glazed cashews. Just a hint of some citrus in there – candied orange peel. Bergamot tea. Lavender. Grains of paradise? Complex but subtle palate. (Refill sherry cask?).
With water some of this complexity is lost, but a honeycomb sweetness surfaces and the palate becomes more rounded.

Finish: Not particularly long. A quirky dialogue between the sweeter elements and a savoury meatiness. Bay leaves and oak are left on the fade, becoming quite dry. There’s a slightly chlorinated note, but it’s not at all off-putting.

Thoughts: A fascinating drop offering rather disparate elements, some a little unusual. There isn’t a solid core to latch onto with this drop, but age has instead imparted a lot of complexity to Mortlach’s often idiosyncratic spirit. I’m not immediately sold, but am left intrigued, feeling this is a whisky that may take some time to get to know and appreciate but with reward.


Glenlossie 1992 – 20yr (Bottled as SMWS 46.22 “An Italian Kitchen”)
Bottled 16/07/13
50.7% ABV
Cask 3000966
10CL SMWS sample bottle

glenlossieNose: Very closed at first. Wet paint and waxy crayon. Really needs to breathe. Opens up with some praline. Quite malty. Old hay and hessian sacks.

Palate: Flash of a mineral note. Chamomile tea. Then wow! This is the peachiest palate I’ve ever tasted on a scotch. Rich skins of ripe yellow nectarine. Very fruity – some guava and tropical elements on top of the orchard fruits. Gentle and floral but incredibly sweet. Quite rich but refreshing. Not at all anticipated by the nose!

Finish: Medium finish with the predominant peach flavour dissipating into green tea. Only a nod to the oak, which is perhaps surprising given its age. Likely a bourbon cask, but many of these vibrant fruity notes are reminiscent of a quality sauternes maturation.

Thoughts: A real disconnect between the nose and the palate. The former very closed and austere, but the palate a deluge of fresh, invigorating flavours. For an introduction to this distillery, one couldn’t be more impressed! [By the time I had sampled this and realised it was bottled and brought in by SMWS, it was long sold out. Disappointing, but in this case it did save me $293]


Springbank 2000 – 13yr (Bottled as SMWS 27.106 “A boiler suit in ballet shoes”)
Bottled 22/01/14springbankbarrel
49.8% ABV
Cask 164
10CL SMWS sample bottle

Nose: Peat and whiff of smoke – dry and minerally. Sweet, light sherry. Limes. (If I were to give this a quirky SMWS name of my own it would be: Key-lime pie in a woodfired oven). Golden raisons. Oily; inky. Golden syrup and cinnamon.

Taste: Immediate peat – zingy and clean. Very pastry/cake-like… Cinnamon cake or German carrot cake. Gingersnap biscuits. Chewy toffee. Mouthfeel is rich, full, and syrupy.

Finish: Long, layered and sweet. Still very mouth-coating. Plenty of wood, becoming nutty.

Thoughts: A quick look at the ABV will tell you this was a very active cask given its modest age and this is evident in the ample richness of this whisky. There is certainly no need for water, in fact it drowns easily. This whisky is just a great example of Springbank at its best, even at a fairly modest age. 



It’s approaching two years since I last posted…. more on that soon. As I attempt to remount my blogging horse, I thought I’d ease myself into the saddle with some recent Scotch tasting notes.

macallan house

Today a couple of independent bottlings I just polished off from two very different distilleries.

The first, a Macallan, comes from one of the heavyweights of the Scotch whisky world (as of 2009, it was the second largest-selling single malt producer by volume, behind Glenlivet and ahead of Glenfiddich). Macallan is renowned for its traditionally* rich, sherried house flavour, and for its regular release of rare and older bottlings that often fetch astronomical prices. The bottle in review here is far removed from Macallan’s roots and should not be seen as indicative ofMacallan’s typically excellent releases (particularly in the sherried variety!). The Macallan 12 year old was in fact the first single malt that made me fall in love with sherry-matured whiskies and remains a special drop for me, despite its increasingly stupid price.

 Blair Athol Distillery

The second, a Blair Athol, while one of the oldest running distilleries in Scotland(built in 1798), is a rather invisible distillery in the Perthshire region of the Highlands, and likely unknown to most scotch drinkers outside of the most enthusiastic. This is not at all surprising as the vast majority of Blair Athol’s spirit goes directly into blends –particularly Bells, of which it forms the backbone. The owners dorelease a standard 12 year old “Flora and Fauna” edition but thisis typically only carried by boutique stores and specialty whiskymerchants. Outside of this, you may find occasional single cask releases by a variety of independent bottlers, as we have here, and at varying levels of quality.

On to the notes:

Macallan 15 years(Hart Brothers)

Distilled: December1992

Bottled: June 2008

46% ABV

macallan 15hb

Nose: Very muted.Overripe banana. Vanilla ice cream. Balsa wood. Hay, rolled oats, andpencil shavings.

Palate: Banana in continuity with the aroma. Glutinous rice and a touch of cinnamon.Dry bourbon notes. Flat cola and barley sugars.

Finish: Dry and a little starchy. A lingering vanilla sweetness and rather woody.

Thoughts: I suspect this was drawn from a refill bourbon barrel – a very tired one and it shows. From the nose to the finish on the tongue, the experience must be fought for. Look, while it’s not a bad whisky per se, it is definitely an uninspiring drop. The bottle never really grabbed me so I spread it out over quite some time and I will confess that ultimately it did grow on me a touch. Perhaps that is an understated complexity and the challenge of apprehending it. Still, I’d summarise it as a diffident whisky and not a Macallan to be proud of. (Keeping in mind that this was not an official Macallan release!).


BlairAthol 12 years (The Old Malt Cask/Douglas Laing Co.)

Distilled:November 1995

Bottled:October 2008


1 of 760 bottles

Sherry Butt DL Ref. 4686

blair athol 12dl3Nose:Orange marmalade. Treacle. Honeycomb. The sherry influence is clear.Dried dates and grapeskins. Peanut husks. Continues to really open up into a very rich andcomplex nose with time in the glass. Light ginger ale or spritzer?

Palate:Sweet, malty, and quite spicy. Brilliant balance! Lively. Light fruitcake (and really very cakey or bready… think panettone). A lovelyinterplay between spice and wood notes. Plums. Cassia bark and a hintof star anise.

The mouthfeel is full and a touch oily. There is some heat coming from the higher ABV and it will take some water although it is delightful as it stands.

Finish:Butterscotch. A long, luscious fade. Woody andspicy… a touch bitter/sweet.

Thoughts:This bottle is areal cracker. It is in character with the distillery’s official Flora & Fauna release,
but is significantly augmented by the higher ABV and lack of chill-filtration. Richness,complexity, and balance in a glass.

Score: 89

The next review up within a few days, will be of some stellar recent Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottlings.

*Up until 2004 when Macallanintroduced the Fine Oak series, its whisky was matured solely inOlorosso sherry casks fromJerez, Spain. This turn hasbeen met with very mixed reviews, and more than a little heavycriticism in some quarters. Giventhe release of older age statement whiskies in the Fine Oak series itwould seem Macallan has actuallybeen aging quitea lot of their whisky in exBourbon barrels since at least the 1970s.

As The Project kicks off this week and I start to work my way through the books on the list and share some critical thoughts in a public forum, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a responsible reader and critic. In a media landscape of sensationalist soundbites, popularist pandering and political doublespeak, it’s all to easy to think in parochial ways and to grandstand. The notion that we should honour speakers, writers, or political figures with an attentive or even loving ear seems increasingly foreign. In some cases spectacularly foreign – the current US presidential debates and their attendant reportage a case in point. 

What then might it look like to read and critique in a responsible way? I thought I’d share some thoughts and principles for what they’re worth, scattered and provisional as they are. Given the nature of The Project I have in mind here the reading of novels, but these principles, I suspect, can be expanded to other genres and forms of reading, mutatis-mutandis (I’ve always wanted to use that term!).

1. A responsible critic is a generous reader.

Meg writes of a talk she attended by young-adult writer John Green last month. Speaking at the National Book Festival in D.C., Green said there are two primary gifts his readers give him. The first, tongue in cheek,is financial support. The second he called the gift of generous reading, which he described as the virtue of approaching his books with an open mind and generous spirit. A responsible reader resists the temptation to decide ahead of time the worth of the book and particularly one’s view of it.

2. A responsible critic is first servant of the text and only then judge.

A good critic must first wear the hat of a reader before adopting the mantle of critic, using here the terminology of critic and theorist George Steiner in his essay, ” ‘Critic’/’Reader’ “. This sounds self-evident, but it’s amazing to me how often critics fail to participate as a true reader before casting judgement on a text. (A recent example that comes to mind is the criticism of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans, where I suspect many vocal critics haven’t failed to even look past the blurb before assaulting it)

Steiner makes the following distinctions between the reader and the critic: The critic aims to create distance between herself and the text in order to become both “judge and master” of the text, standing against the text in an adversarial, competitive, and parasitic relationship (he is not using this in a pejorative, but rather a descriptive sense… he is of course a critic himself!). The reader, however, submits to the text in dynamic passivity, eschewing as much distance as possible between himself and the text, entering into it as he is himself entered by the text. The reader is read by the text just as the text is read by him.

Any critic can assume judgement over a text, but a virtuous critic first chooses to experience and engage the text as reader.

3. A responsible critic attempts to become the model reader assumed by the text

What I have in mind here is simply that a virtuous reader plays first and foremost by the rules the text he is reading assumes. That is to say, while most texts (and particularly the literary novel that we have in view) support manifold interpretations,  anything simply does not go. Or as Umberto Eco has it, “between the unattainable intention of the author and the arguable intention of the reader there is the transparent intention of the text which disproves an untenable interpretation.” The Model Reader, according to Eco, is the one who can actualise the meaning of all that the textual strategy intends to say (on this account Eco’s Model Reader corresponds more or less to Wolgang Iser’s Implied Reader). This starts to enter into the fascinating but rather murky and complex waters of semiotics and Reader-Response theory, which I won’t belabour right now. For a brilliant and humourous essay that examines these issues in light of the reception of his own fictional novel, check out Eco’s “The Author and his Interpreters” here.

4. A responsible critic understands the author before criticising

Years ago when I first read Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis, one paragraph near launched itself from the page to possess my consciousness: “A student is not bound to reproduce slavishly the interpretations of others, but you are bound to assess critically what you read. Before you can say, “I disagree,” you must be able to say, “I understand.”” He followed this by one of the most simple but least modelled imperatives I have encountered in the real world of disagreement: “It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author’s positions in terms that he or she would find acceptable.”

Fee has in his purview here secondary literature of a propositional nature, but the general ethos carries well over to the role of literary critic.

5. A responsible critic is a humble critic

The critic, like the author, is all too human, and really ought to stand before the text with a knowledge of his own limitations and short-comings. Yep, I need remember this one.


The notion of responsible reading, particularly as I’ve sketched above in terms of virtue, is conspicuously and unapologetically a moral conception. With Vanhoozer I think that a virtuous reader is one with “a disposition of the mind and heart that arises from the motivation of understanding, for cognitive contact with the meaning of the text.” Recent thinking in virtue ethics, particularly through the work of Zagzebski, indicate the inextricable connection between intellectual virtues and moral virtues. As such, reading develops our intellectual virtues and, circularly, our intellectual virtues develop us as readers.

These five principles may be subsumed under the rubric of A Hermeneutic of Love. Scot McKnight, commenting on Alan Jacob’s book A Theology of Reading writes,


“genuine interpretation of another’s writing is an act of love or it is an act of abuse. Either we treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart and that we can trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a duplicitous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power.”


I find this provocative, challenging, and critical. Ultimately, the way we choose to read and critique a text says more about our own character than it necessarily does about the author or the text itself. To read lovingly, as to love in general, is a challenge. As Katherine Porter wrote so eloquently, “Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it. Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked”.  Or with St Francis, “grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood, as to understand, to be loved, as to love.”


John Updike is a brilliant contemporary American novelists as well as respected critic (I’m incredibly excited to get to his Rabbit Angrstrom Tetrology on the list, even though it means reading 4 books instead of the usual 1 a week). Over at Book of words is a reprint of Updike’s Rules of Reviewing Books, which is an excellent starting point for the would be reviewer:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never…try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.


My Two Rowans

Rowan is one of those names distinguished by its vague familiarity. It rolls easily enough off the tongue and rings a muted bell… which is to say you probably don’t have a close friend or sibling called Rowan, but maybe you think some distant cousin, or perhaps it was a cousin of a friend who may have had that name… or at least a name that might be quite similar.

It is unusual enough of a name, at least here in Australia, that Miranda and I are regularly asked why we chose it for our daughter. Particularly if the curious subject is aware that Rowan is a male name and wonders if perchance we were not aware of that, or were unfamilar with the femine form Rowena.

So, for the curious: We named Rowan after one of my favourite people – the theologian Rowan Williams, who is also the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dr. Williams has, of course, as many faults as the next man – and they have at time been scrutinised and magnified ex officio. But at his best he has modelled many qualities that I can only aspire to:

A breadth of scholarship and incisive thinking,
artistic and aesthetic sensibility,
a rich and examined life of faith,
concern for social justice, human rights and equality,
ecumenical and inter-faith outlook,
a distinctly critical eye to power structures,
and a genuine warmth and nobility of character.

He’s also a fine poet and quite an expert on Dostoevsky (my favourite author).

For the win, he looks like a wizard.

With the exception of the wizard part, and his impressive but rather angry, vertiginous eyebrows, I can only wish such virtues for the child we have brought into the world.

I leave you with two of his poems, both beautiful and challenging. Given the detestable shooting of Malala Yousafzai this week, the first poem seems particularly poignant.

Arabic Class in the Refugee Camp

One by one, the marks join up:
easing their way through the broken soil,
the green strands bend, twine,
dip and curl and cast off little drops
of rain. Nine months ago,
the soil broke up, shouting,
crushing its fist on houses, lives,
crops and futures, opening its wordless mouth
to say no. And the green strands
stubbornly grow back. The broken bits
of a lost harvest still let
the precious wires push through
to bind the pain, to join with knots and curls
the small hurt worlds of each
small life, to say another no: no,
you ar not abandoned. The rope of words
is handed on, let down from a sky
broken by God’s voice, curling and wrapping
each small life into the lines of grace,
the new world of the text that maps
our losses and our longings, so
that we can read humanity again
in one another’s eyes, and hear
that the broken soil is not all, after all,
as the signs join up.




One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

I said, Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust I shall make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

For ever, I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth

To the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.


The First Five

Here friends are the first five books of The Project:

  1. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
  2. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  3. The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
  4. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  5. The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Several of you have mentioned a desire to read along with some or many of the books and I’m quite excited to hear from you as I review! The company will be nice.

The plan is to pick 5 books at a time with some diversity of date of publication and style/content in mind. I will then announce them a couple of weeks ahead of time to give any of you who want to join me a chance to get hold of a text. Then, quite simply, one book read a week and one review posted.

But in this first installment I’ll be immediately breaking with that plan as I just finished the fifth book last week. So in this instance I will spread the five reviews over the next two to three weeks. I plan to have a fairly standard model of review but will from time to time engage with ideas and interpretation of particular novels that really grab me in separate posts.

I’ll announce the second group of five books in the next day or two. If you want me to read or review anything in a particular order, let me know 🙂

Let the games begin!