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Sunday, 14 January 2018

Laphroaig Brodir Whisky Review!

So you've never heard of this Laphroaig? Well you can be forgiven, because it's not one that is often spotted in the wild in the southern hemisphere. There are actually three different versions of this whisky: Batch 1, which launched in 2012 and was released as an exclusive bottling for a Scandinavian ferry line (aptly named "The Viking Line"), Batch 2, which launched in 2014 and was 'travel exclusive' and was only sold in Europe but managed to show up in a few land-locked specialist stores, and the latest bottling which does not carry a batch number, and is also travel exclusive but has managed to show up in a few land-locked stores. The latter version is the easiest to find since it's available in most duty free stores in seemingly massive numbers, and Batch 1 is all but impossible to source outside of online whisky auctions. But Batch 2 in the middle can still be found at a few specialist stores that have imported a few bottles themselves, and it's a very enjoyable drop, although we obviously pay a premium for the experience compared to those who have easier access to it. Being travel exclusive means that it competes with the brilliant value-for-money Laphroaig PX (old review here), and the very good virgin oak-finished An Cuan Mor. Brodir is actually priced considerably higher than both of those great expressions, so it's already fighting an uphill battle on that front.

What's a "Brodir" then? Well the word is the ancient Norse translation for the word "brother", which is a nod to the ancient connections between Islay and Norway - mostly by way of the Vikings. The whisky itself is a non-age statement bottling that has been matured in ex-bourbon barrels before being finished in ex-ruby port fortified wine casks, before being bottled at 48% ABV. All three are ostensibly exactly the same in that regard, but there are reports of differing levels of port influence between the different batches. There's no mention of colouring or chill filtration on the packaging, but since the 48% ABV Laphroaigs are generally non-chill filtered let's go with that. Port casks are not a common thing for the Islay distilleries, in fact to my knowledge only Laphroaig and Kilchoman have dabbled in that arena in recent years, although I'm sure Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain also have the odd port cask lying around. Laphroaig first entered the fray in 2013 with that year's Cairdeas release also being finished in port casks, and bottled at 51.3%. That one was very popular, but unfortunately like many of the Cairdeas bottlings it never made it to Australia, at least officially.

What can we expect from a port cask-finished Laphroaig? Generally a port finish will give red fruit and spice notes, and in this case I imagine it will also have toned down Laphroaig's trademark medicinal peaty punch, and vice-versa. We don't know how long this whisky spent in those port casks, or if they were first-fill or refill casks, but we do know that they held ruby port, which is named after its colour, and means the port was young, typically being aged for 3 years or less. Interestingly though ruby port is most commonly aged in stainless steel vats rather than oak casks, so I'm guessing that those casks were 'seasoned' with ruby port specifically for Laphroaig, rather than being used by the vineyard in their normal operations and then sold on to a distillery. Which is the common practice in the whisky industry these days anyway, and in some cases the distillery is involved in every step of the process, selecting their casks and having them shipped to their vineyard of choice, and dictating the type of wine and the length of maturation. The fortified wine is then dumped out of the casks before they're shipped back to the distillery to start the new chapter in their lives. But I'm digressing here, so let's get back to the whisky!
Laphroaig Brodir Batch 002, NAS, 48%. Islay, Scotland.
Finished in ex-ruby port fortified wine casks. Batch 002 bottled in 2014, travel exclusive. Assumed non-chill filtered, unknown colouring but likely natural.

Colour: Copper with pink tinges. 

Nose: Quite fresh, with soft ashy, powdery peat, some wood embers, and sweet berry jam. Strawberry & blackberry jam, slightly creamy, with some glace cherries for good measure. Christmas-y wood spices too, nutmeg and cinnamon. A little gristy malt and salt as well. 

Texture: Light-medium weight, fresh, smoky and spicy. No heat at all. 

Taste: There's much more peat here, but it dissipates quite quickly. Less sweet than the nose suggested, and significantly more spicy. A whack of hot wood ashes, more wood spices and a little aniseed. Some warm oak as well. 

Finish: Short-medium length. Lots of aniseed now, more warm oak, and the sweet berries return but in the form of a weak-ish cordial now. The ashy peat is still there, but it's behind the spices now. Especially that aniseed. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: Almost a 3.5 score, but something didn't quite gel with me in this one. It's not your typical Laphroaig, it's quite refined and almost elegant in fact, I don't think it would take added water too well. But it's very enjoyable in it's own right. The extra sweetness on the nose and the spices on the palate are added dimensions, and as predicted they do weaken the typical peat, smoke and citrus fruit found in most Laphroaigs. The nose is lovely with that berry sweetness alongside the soft peat and spice, and then it's much more spicy and considerably drier on the palate, before becoming quite light on the finish. Once that aniseed note drops off, that is. The port finish hasn't overwhelmed anything though and it's only overtly noticeable on the nose, which is not what I expected. Now I really want to try the 2013 Cairdeas, just to see how they compare!

As for how Brodir fares compared to the other 48% ABV travel exclusive Laphroaigs, I don't think it quite gets there. It doesn't have the amazing bang-for-buck and power of the PX, or the complexity of the An Cuan Mor, but it does offer a lighter, sweeter take that some might gravitate towards, even at the higher price point. Almost a summer's day Laphroaig, perhaps?


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Benromach Triple Distilled Whisky Review!

I'm not usually a big fan of triple distilled whiskies. I often find them too light, hot and solvent-y, and in many cases also lacking in character. But this one is from one of my favourite Speyside distilleries, and it has another major advantage over other triple distilled drams: it's lightly peated!

To my knowledge this is the only generally available triple-distilled whisky in the world that has a substantial (read: detectable) level of peat influence, so Benromach are breaking some new ground here! But they're no strangers to trying new things and setting new trends, so we shouldn't be surprised that it was this Gordon & MacPhail-owned Speyside distillery that decided to pave the way. More commonly found in Ireland, triple-distilled Scotch whiskies aren't a very common thing, with only a few working Scottish distilleries still using this practice. The most widely-known would be Auchentoshan in the Lowlands, followed by Springbank in Campbeltown with their unpeated Hazelburn brand.  

As you can probably guess, the term signifies that the spirit in question has been distilled three complete times. This will result in a lighter spirit in terms of flavour, aroma and texture, and it will end up at a higher alcoholic strength (coming off the stills) than it would if it was only distilled twice, since the ethanol is essentially more concentrated. Not all triple-distillation is equal either, like it does in a twice-distilled spirit the result largely depends on the size and shape of the stills, since a taller still will provide more reflux and will result in an even lighter spirit. It also results in less peat influence in the finished spirit, although that's not applicable in most cases since the vast majority of triple-distilled whisky (or whiskey - Connemara is double-distilled) is unpeated. In the case of this Benromach, the spirit was distilled once in the wash still and twice in the spirit still, since the distillery only has a single pair of stills. It's a limited release of 15,000 bottles, but I wouldn't be surprised if we do see older or otherwise different versions in the future. 

This new expression is lightly peated to around 15 ppm, as is the case with all but two Benromach expressions ('Organic' is unpeated, and 'Peat Smoke' is heavily peated, as you might guess), which gives it a big advantage, from my personal perspective at least, in comparison with other triple-distilled whiskies. Another advantage is that Benromach only use first-fill casks, which in this case were all ex-bourbon barrels, which should have helped to calm any hot or harsh spirit-y notes (if any were present in the first place). It's also bottled at a higher strength than most Benromach expressions at 50% ABV, and is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. This bottling was distilled in 2009 and bottled in 2017 at 8 years of age, and it's quite reasonably priced for an unusual and limited release, at around $100 AUD. I last tasted this whisky at the distillery itself in Speyside (during this incredible visit!), so it'll be very interesting to take a closer look at it on my home turf. The sample for this review was generously provided by Alba Whisky, the Australian importer & distributor for Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail, among others. 
Benromach Triple Distilled, 50%. Forres, Speyside, Scotland.
Distilled 2009, bottled 2018. Triple-distilled, lightly peated, matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 15,000 bottles. 

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Fresh and clean, but also nicely rich & mellow. Crisp red apples, dried sweet berries, vanilla, light grassy malt. A little dessicated coconut over milk chocolate fudge. Slight menthol and a tiny hint of tobacco smoke. 

Texture: Medium weight, warming, but no heat. Slightly creamy, much richer than most triple-distilled drams.

Taste: Fresh and light, crisp grassy malt, vanilla and some dried fruit, slight touch of smoke behind. Slightly astringent, but also nicely balanced. Little flash of citrus too. 

Finish: Short-medium length. Sweet minty milk chocolate, slight hint of the dried coconut and sweet berries, more grassy malt and soft wood smoke. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Very enjoyable, in fact it's my favourite triple-distilled whisky from those that I've tried so far. It does have a little of that trademark triple-distilled acetone, but you'll only notice on a sip that was too big. Also bear in mind that it's bottled at a significantly higher strength than 99% of triple-distilled whiskies, and it's certainly more characterful and interesting than that 99%; at least compared to what I've tasted on the journey so far. The closest competitor would probably be Hazelburn Rundlets & Kilderkins, although they're rather different whiskies in a lot of ways. 

I do of course prefer the double-distilled drams from Benromach, with their extra weight and character, but this wasn't too much of a departure from the house style. As expected the lightly peated malt, and Benromach's richer, heavier approach have really helped. Another quality whisky from what is well on its way to becoming my favourite Speyside distillery! Thanks to Ian & Ross at Alba Whisky for the sample, much appreciated gents.


Friday, 29 December 2017

Octomore OBA Whisky Review!

Just what is an OBA, you ask? This, dear readers, is Octomore Black Art! I've saved a very special dram for this review, and since it's almost New Year's Eve there's no time like the present!

Bruichladdich fans will be familiar with the Black Art series, which have all been un-peated Bruichladdich bottlings, mostly distilled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and released at 20+ years of age. The crucial thing with Black Art is that the cask type/s and size/s are never divulged, so you never know the recipe of the whisky inside it's opaque black bottle. Most releases are widely believed to have mostly used wine casks, but nobody really knows except those that made it, and they're not telling. This concept was the brainchild of former-Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan, after someone assured him that he wouldn't sell a whisky if he didn't tell anyone what was in it. Naturally in true McEwan and Bruichladdich style he proved that person wrong, because these mysterious bottlings have a large cult following, despite being quite expensive. Although they're actually quite reasonably priced if you consider the age you're getting in the bottle, and if you consider the prices of some of the competition, but the last two releases have jumped up significantly in the price department.

Glancing at the photo below, you may notice there's no mention of 'Black Art' anywhere on the packaging. What is there instead is a very convoluted "Octomore OBA Concept OBA/C.0.1" which essentially means Octomore Black Art Concept 01. So Bruichladdich haven't quite committed to calling it Octomore Black Art for some reason, but we'll let that slide for the moment. This "concept" came about during the distillery's open day masterclass during the 2016 Feis Ile, where head distiller Adam Hannett presented a rather mysterious Octomore in the tasting line-up, which he later revealed was Octomore Black Art. Naturally this created a huge amount of interest, and a few months later Bruichladdich sent out an email offering pre-orders of Octomore OBA, due to be released a few more months later in April 2017. It was limited to 2 x 500ml bottles per person on the website, and only 3000 bottles were sold in total. It was also delayed quite significantly by the production of the smaller 500ml bottles and tins, still in the Octomore style, but to Bruichladdich's credit the pricing was really quite reasonable at 95 pounds each including the VAT. Considering the demand there was for this precious stuff they probably could have doubled or even tripled that and it still would have sold out, so they really should be commended for that.

Contrary to Bruichladdich's usual MO, we don't know much about what's in this bottling. There's no ppm level stated like there is in all other Octomore releases, because it's a mix of different vintages and hence different production batches, and there's no age, vintage or cask type stated either, because it's a Black Art. But Bruichladdich have taken a page out of Compass Box's book with a few of their recent NAS bottlings as part of their transparency campaign, so one could enter a code into the distillery's website and get a little more information in return. Basically OBA is a vatting of ten casks of six different types, with the youngest being distilled in 2008, and the oldest being distilled in 2002, not long after the first Octomore batches were produced. So this means that some of the younger contents is 9 years old, which is already old for an Octomore (beaten by only the two 10 year old releases), and the oldest is 14-15 years old. The only other way to taste Octomore of a similar age is to head to Islay for a warehouse tasting at the distillery! Given that it's significantly older than most Octomore bottlings, we shouldn't expect the big peaty punch that the 5 year old bottlings provide, but there's still going to be some smoke in here.

We do know that all of the barley used for this release came from the Scottish mainland, which makes sense seeing as all of those casks involved easily pre-date the first Islay Barley Octomore (6.3, reviewed here). We don't know the cask types or cask sizes used, but after tasting this delicious dram I highly doubt that many of those ten casks were your typical ex-bourbon barrel. And just check out that colour! Speaking of which, I'm sure many were expecting OBA to be presented in an opaque black bottle, but since most Octomores are presented that way, I'm glad they went the other way with the frosted glass and the bright orange tube. It really stands out! Being a Bruichladdich it's all natural colour and is non-chill filtered, and it was bottled at cask strength (59.7%). Which is actually unusual for an Octomore, they're usually slightly reduced before bottling. As with all Black Art releases though, the proof is in the pudding! Let's get to it...

Bruichladdich OBA Concept 01 (Octomore Black Art). NAS, 59.7%. Islay, Scotland.
Vatting of 10 casks of 6 different types. Youngest distilled in 2008, oldest distilled in 2002, all from Scottish mainland barley. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 3000 x 500ml bottles.

Colour: Dark polished bronze. Gorgeous.

Nose: Bloody fantastic! Rich & fruity, dense & sweet. Smoky apricot jam, golden syrup, dusty cigar leaves, a little brine and marzipan (sweet almond paste). Very sweet berries with a little cream, warm buttery pastry, with a beguiling earthy peat underneath. Some gorgeous old oak and a little fizzy cola with more time.

Texture: Heavy weight, thick & oily. Jam-packed with flavour! No heat at all, just excellent.

Taste: Boom! Flavour explosion! So much going on at once. Heavy, oily almost acrid smoke hits first, then masses of sweet stone fruit, thick buttery caramel, some berry compote and fresh salt. Lovely big, fresh earthy peat, a little soft old leather.

Finish: Very long. More delicious fresh earthy peat, cigar smoke, bitter tannins and a little rubber bringing the sweetness down, with more of that smoky apricot jam. Then some more berries but they're much less sweet now. Soft old leather again, some charred salty smoked meat, and burnt stewed stone fruit.

Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Notes: Wow, what a whisky! Very nearly gave this one a 5 out of 5. So absolutely packed with flavour and character, with masses of fruit and surprising sweetness alongside some wonderful salt, peat and smoke. But it's not your typical Octomore by any means, and I'd say that was the idea, so if you go in looking for the 'normal' 5-year old Octomore experience you may be disappointed. But lose those preconceptions and you'll be blown away by the sheer volume of flavours that are on offer. The nose on this Black Art (let's just call a spade a spade) is amazing, almost transcendent, and the palate is almost an out-of-body experience. The peat and smoke are still there, but they're more refined and more mature in the OBA. They're less dominant and confrontational than they are in most younger Octomores, instead they're more supportive and more in harmony with the rest of the experience. And what an experience it is!

Seriously amazing stuff here. OBA is already commanding a high price on the auction circuit, especially considering it's a 500ml bottle, but honestly if you're a Bruichladdich and/or Octomore fan then you've just got to taste this at least once. Just make it happen. The original asking price from the distillery was an absolute bargain, and Bruichladdich really should be commended for that. So if you were lucky enough to score one (or two), you should be counting your blessings and thanking the 'Laddie for their generosity. I know I am.

Will we see a properly-declared Octomore Black Art in the future? Or a Port Charlotte Black Art? Time will tell, but here's hoping! Come on Adam, you know you want to...

All the best for the new year folks, see you in 2018!