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Sunday, 6 January 2019

Kilchoman Feis Ile 2014 Whisky Review!

Cask strength Kilchoman finished in a Fino sherry cask? Yes please!

Kilchoman do more than their fair share of playing around with cask maturation and finishing, most commonly in their annual releases such as the recent Port cask and Sauternes Cask Finish, and their single cask bottlings. Their Feis Ile bottlings are often more experimental, and of course are much harder to find. These one-off bottlings (for the annual Islay festival) are some of the hardest to source of all the Islay distilleries, which is largely down to the small number of bottles released and the ever-increasing popularity of this brilliant little distillery. This Feis Ile bottling from 2014 would have to be one of the most unusual cask finishes that they've released to date, where two ex-bourbon casks at around 4.5 years of age were then filled into a single Fino sherry butt (500-litre cask) for three months. A three month finishing may not sound like much, particularly in a 500-litre cask, and it isn't really. But with the quality of casks that Kilchoman are using it's bound to have had an effect. Fino sherry casks are still very seldom seen in the Scotch whisky world, particularly in heavily peated whisky, with only a few distilleries dabbling in their use. You could point at Laphroaig's 2018 Cairdeas bottling as the most high-profile Fino finish to date, but Islay's smallest distillery - and its only farm distillery - lead the way four years ago back in early 2014.

Fino, which is Spanish for "refined", is the driest style of sherry with almost zero sugar content (less than 0.5%), and it must be aged for a minimum of two years in wooden casks. The casks are only filled to around 80% to allow the natural 'flor' yeast layer to form on top of the wine, which protects it from oxygen contact and consumes most of the residual sugars and also some of the ethanol in the wine. Fino sherries are pale, dry and delicate fortified wines with a yeasty, salty, nutty flavour, and they are very fragile once bottled since that protective flor layer is filtered out prior to bottling. They also oxidise very quickly once opened. I imagine this would make using the emptied casks a little challenging since they would need to be kept extremely fresh, which is probably part of the reason that we don't see too many Fino casks used in the whisky industry. Which is also why it was seldom shipped in casks traditionally, making those casks much harder to come by in Scotland in comparison with other sherry styles. In 1981 the Spanish regulations were altered and sherry could no longer be shipped in casks, resulting in the scarcity and increased cost of 'traditional' sherry casks that we still deal with today, and also the more recent advent of sherry-seasoned casks that are destined for the whisky industry from day one.

Finding any older Feis Ile bottling is no easy task, let alone a very small-scale bottling from a small-scale but popular distillery. The sample for this review came from a generous fellow-Kilchoman fan who purchased the bottle at overseas auction, and while it wasn't exactly cheap it was definitely on the reasonable side considering its scarcity. Only 525 bottles were released at a cask strength of 58.7%, and of course there's no chill filtration or added colouring since Kilchoman never dabble in those dark arts. One interesting observation here is that they haven't labelled this bottling as a single cask, because it came from two bourbon barrels which were then combined in the single sherry butt for the short finishing. Technically that finishing in a single cask would make this a single cask bottling, and quite a few other distilleries have been known to use the term in such cases, so it's interesting that Kilchoman haven't. I'd assume that's for the sake of extra transparency, which of course is no bad thing! Being a lighter style of sherry means the sherry cask won't have had as much of an effect as an Oloroso or PX cask would, but Kilchoman's sweet, peaty & fruity young spirit should work very well the Fino cask. There's really only one way to find out...
Kilchoman Feis Ile 2014, 4 Year Old, 58.7%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled July 2009, matured for 4.5 years in two ex-bourbon casks, finished in a single Fino sherry butt for 3 months, bottled May 2014. 525 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.   

Colour: Yellow gold.

Nose: Fresh & coastal, but also sweet & creamy. Nose-tingling to start with but settles down quite quickly. Chunky, earth peat with a big pinch of salt, some warm roasted nuts and lightly-sweetened fresh cream. Some meaty fresh seaweed, and a little yeasty tang behind like a slice of crusty sour dough bread. Some lighter tropical fruit in the background.

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, rich & full flavoured. Creamy, peaty and syrupy. A little heat but pleasant.

Taste: Sweet creamy entry, then tropical fruit syrup, milk chocolate and a blast of chunky, earthy peat with a big pinch of hot chilli salt following afterwards. A slight floral sweetness and some fresh bitter lemon around the edges.

Finish: Long, and quite bold. Thick acrid smoke, more chilli salt, some more zesty bitter lemon and melted milk chocolate. More roasted nuts, mostly almond with a few cashews and chalky walnuts thrown in. Smoked chilli salt, brine and some drying bitter oak to finish.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Delicious! It's not shy, and there is a slight roughness to it, but that only adds to its character. A really excellent texture / mouth feel to this one, it's very rich and syrupy despite that peat and chilli spice. In fact it's one of the weightier Kilchomans that I've tasted, and it carries plenty of flavour along with it. Very much like tropical fruit syrup with some heavily smoked chilli salt mixed through. Those nutty and yeasty notes would be down to the Fino cask, and it's given Kilchoman's usual salty tang a good boost as well, while dampening the usual fruity-ness a touch. Kilchoman really excel at making young peaty whiskies that drink well beyond their years. And more power to them!

This is a fresh and zesty young whisky that won't take any prisoners, but in the company of cask strength Islay fans it won't have any trouble making friends either. I think we need to see more heavily peated whisky that has spent some time in lighter & dryer sherry casks, because it really seems to work brilliantly. Look at Ardbeg Ardbog (partly matured in Manzanilla casks), Laphroaig Cairdeas Fino, Ledaig Amontillado, and now this Feis Ile Kilchoman (if you can find it) for some truly excellent examples.


Sunday, 30 December 2018

Lagavulin Jazz Festival 2017 Whisky Review!

Something special for the last review of 2018. As I mentioned once or twice in Part 2 of my pilgrimage write-up from 2017, I just happened to be lucky enough to be on Islay during the annual Islay Jazz Festival, and Lagavulin just happen to release a commemorative whisky each year to celebrate the occasion! What a happy coincidence...

Known as Jazz Festival bottlings, they are usually different ages and/or different cask types to the norm, generally personally selected by Islay legend Ian McArthur himself. The last few year's releases have been no age statement bottlings, but they're always bottled at cask strength without any added colouring or chill filtration, so I can certainly make do without that other number on the label. Like many limited edition bottlings these days they aren't packaged in a box, but in Lagavulin's case they do come in a nice cloth or heavy paper bag with a bit of artwork on the front, which I think is a nice touch. They can only be purchased from the distillery, until they surface on secondary auction sites at least, and the more recent releases have been limited to either 3000 or 6000 individually numbered bottles. All of which makes them very collectible and widely lusted after, and very hard to come by on the other side of the world.

The 2016 bottling was also still available from the distillery shop during my visit, and it was a mix of first-fill ex-bourbon casks and re-fill American oak casks (presumably also ex-bourbon), bottled at a cask strength of 54.5%. While a tasty whisky (duh, it's a Lagavulin!) I felt it was a little tame compared to the Feis Ile and Distillery Exclusive bottlings, possibly because of those first-fill casks, so I held off and waited to see what the 2017 version would have to offer when it was released a few days later. And I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be an extremely delicious mix of re-fill American oak hogsheads (250-litre casks) and re-fill European oak butts (500-litre casks) bottled at a hefty 57.6% ABV. So it could be refill ex-bourbon and refill ex-sherry casks (of various styles), or it could be all refill sherry casks, we don't really know, but the resulting whisky is fantastic. It sold from the distillery shop for 99 pounds including the VAT, which is really quite reasonable. For the readers in Europe, that's roughly what the annual Lagavulin 12-year old limited release sells for in Australia (when it's officially imported). While these are limited bottlings, being exclusive to the distillery shop means that those 3000 or 6000 bottles tend to last for a reasonable amount of time, which is brilliant for visitors who have made the pilgrimage, so you do actually have a chance of still finding one of these bottles a fair while after the festival has come & gone.

Like I mentioned back in Part 2 of my pilgrimage, my visits to Lagavulin (there were three, in the end) were easily one of the highlights of the entire trip. Despite it being a relatively large corporate-owned distillery, you'd never guess it when you're actually there. The excellent visitor's centre, the very warm, friendly & helpful staff, and the very reasonably priced tastings and exclusive bottlings all add up to one amazing experience. But without doubt one of the best experiences was attending a warehouse tasting with Ian McArthur, who as I mentioned above personally selected the casks that make up this 2017 Jazz Festival bottling. Tasting this one transports me straight back to the distillery on that cold and wet Saturday morning, which is the sign of a great whisky and a good purchase. I was also lucky enough to have Ian sign a bottle for me! Which meant that I had to pick up a second bottle that was just begging to be opened as soon as I was home, and it's now dearly departed. So let's get to it!

Lagavulin Jazz Festival 2017, NAS, 57.6%. Islay, Scotland.
Mix of refill American oak hogsheads (presumably ex-bourbon) and refill European oak ex-sherry butts. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. Distillery exclusive. 6000 bottles. 

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Lovely. Lots of tar, oily, dirty & sweet diesel, and caked sea salt. Some charred driftwood, drying kelp, ground black pepper and lightly bitter licorice. Sweet dried raspberry and fresh lemon juice, a vegetal and earthy peat and some sweet herbal / leafy smoke. Some sweet & creamy vanilla comes out with more time.

Texture: Heavy weight, very oily and full-flavoured. Plenty of peat and pepper, and a very slight heat that is very pleasant. 

Taste: Massively oily, loads of dank earthy peat and cracked black pepper, and a buttery sweetness. Pepper-crusted smoked bacon, more dirty diesel & charred oak, more kelp and a light medicinal balm note that could be lanolin ointment.

Finish: Long. Black pepper & dank, oily, earthy peat again. Then softens with a nice salted root vegetable note like salted potato chips / crisps. Flashes of creamy vanilla, sweet banana, dried raspberry and more lemon juice. Salt-laden peat and that balm / ointment note carry on for quite some time.

Score: 4.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Fantastic. So dirty and peaty, with so much tar, pepper and buttery sweetness. An excellent Lagavulin with loads of character and complexity for what I would think is a reasonably young whisky. It has most of the classic Lagavulin notes that are found in the 12-year old, but with extra pepper, more sweetness and even more peat. Plus that refreshing sweet dried raspberry note and the typical Lagavulin lemon & brine. It was released at a similar price to what we Australians pay for the 12-year old, and it's a no-brainer for that sort of money. In my opinion it's significantly better than the 2017 Feis Ile bottling was, despite the latter always getting more attention than the Jazz Festival release that follows it. This one is right up my alley, and I do wish I'd bought an extra bottle. Or an extra case...

Having tried the 2018 bottling on this year's pilgrimage I do prefer this one. The '18 is sweeter and lighter, probably due to the addition of some first-fill casks and apparently also some older stock going into the mix, although it was still offered at the same price point. This 2017 Jazz Festival would have to be one of my favourite Lagavulin official bottlings from what I've tasted to date. I think we need to start a petition against Ian McArthur being allowed to retire in a couple of years' time, we can't afford to lose him. Truly delicious, and highly recommended!

Cheers, and here's to a great new year!

Monday, 24 December 2018

Kilchoman Feis Ile 2016 Whisky Review!

As soon as you step outside of Ardbeg's releases, and to a lesser extent also Laphroaig's, Feis Ile bottlings are not easy to come by. This is in fact my first Feis Ile Kilchoman, so this one is very exciting!

Feis Ile (pronounced "faysh eela") is the Islay festival of music & malt, which occurs around May/June each year. All of the Islay distilleries have their own 'open day' during the festival, which usually involves copious amounts of whisky, music, food, and large crowds of people. But the highlight of the festival for most whisky enthusiasts are the special bottlings that each distillery releases specifically for the festival. Aside from the aforementioned Ardbeg and Laphroaig releases, these bottlings can only be purchased from the relevant distillery shop during the festival, and/or until sold out. Well, until you visit the usual auction websites a few days later and come across the masses of bottle flippers that inhabit those dark corners, but that's another story. While the Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Lagavulin releases usually get a lot of collector attention and subsequently fly off the shelves very quickly, the other distilleries' efforts tend to be a little less... ostentatious.

Being the young upstart on Islay by more than 100 years (at least until Ardnahoe start distilling), Kilchoman tend to do things differently. Production began in late 2005, and their oldest whisky to date is 12-years old with most considerably younger than that, but their commitment to quality and very careful production has produced some outstanding whiskies at much younger ages. Aside from growing their own barley for use in their 100% Islay bottlings, which they also floor malt at the distillery, everything else is also done on-site, including maturation and bottling. The distillery's core range is quite diverse these days, with the entry-level Machir Bay and Sanaig bottlings, plus the annual Loch Gorm, "vintage" release and 100% Islay bottling. They also produce a large amount of single cask releases for private buyers, bottle shops, bars and importers, as well as their own distillery exclusive bottlings which tend to be exceptional. Kilchoman's Feis Ile bottlings are not always single casks, but are very small releases (usually 2-3 cask's worth), and they are always bottled at cask strength.

The 2016 Feis Ile release that we're looking at today is an 8-year old single Oloroso sherry butt (500-litre cask). It was distilled in December 2007, before being bottled in May 2016 just in time for the festival, with a yield of 634 bottles. Since bottling is carried out on-site, there's no need for Kilchoman to worry about the massive lead times at centralised bottling plants that most distilleries need to account for. If I'm not mistaken, at the time of release this 2016 Feis Ile was the oldest sherry-matured official release (not a private bottling) to date, and it was also the oldest Feis Ile bottling to date, only beaten by the 2018 Feis Ile 11-year old bottling. Cask strength in this case was 56.6%, and being a Kilchoman it is of course non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. Obviously it's not an easy whisky to find, and you'll need to look to the overseas auctions, which is where this bottle's owner found his. And I'm lucky enough to have a sample to review!

Kilchoman Feis Ile 2016, 56.6%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 12/2007, matured in a single Oloroso sherry butt, bottled 5/2016. Cask number 429/2007, 634 bottles, only available from the distillery. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Very nice. Fresh & bright to start with, but also rich & quite deep. There's a lovely salty, medicinal tang to it like fresh sea salt & drying kelp with a touch of iodine, and a deep butter toffee sweetness. Some dank spicy oak and stewed stone fruit, dark cocoa powder and fresh black pepper.

Texture: Medium weight, rich and very warming. Lightly peaty and quite spicy. A little spirit-y heat as well.

Taste: Rich dark toffee and burnt stewed stone fruit, then damp earthy peat and black pepper, followed by sea salt and more stone fruit. A nice puff of oily wood smoke, and a good pinch of chilli flakes.

Finish: Medium length. More black pepper and charred chilli flakes, and a nice dirty engine oil note with some drying kelp and spicy oak alongside. Flashes of dark rum-soaked raisins, vegetal peat and burnt toffee behind.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Very nice stuff. It's a darker, danker, spicier dram than I'd usually expect from Kilchoman, even in a sherry cask, but there's still plenty of character & plenty of flavour to be found here. It is quite spicy though, not in a harsh alcohol way but more spicy oak, chilli and pepper, and there isn't a huge amount of peat to it either. But that's not a bad thing, there's still plenty to enjoy in this whisky. Just don't go into this expecting a higher strength version of Loch Gorm, it's quite different in style. Which is the beauty of single cask whiskies after all, and is also what Feis Ile bottlings should aim for if you ask me. If you somehow manage to stumble across a bottle of this one, it's well worth a buy or at least a try.

Another very tasty young whisky from Kilchoman, that is a different take on their usual style. Is there anything they can't do? Well, no, of course there isn't!

Cheers & merry Xmas / happy holidays!