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Sunday, 19 November 2017

In Detail: Edradour Distillery!

The first distillery experience on the mainland during my pilgrimage to Scotland was a very special one. For quite some time Edradour was the smallest single malt distillery in Scotland, and it's still positively tiny when compared to 99% of its fellow Scots. Located in a small valley in Perthshire, around 2 hours north of Edinburgh and 10 minutes south-east of the very pretty town of Pitlochry, the distillery tours and visitor's centre are quite popular with tourists, no doubt thanks to its very scenic surroundings, the very well equipped gift shop, and the separate tasting bar that is open to touring visitors, boasting a very large range and very reasonable prices. In fact Edradour is one of the most visited whisky distilleries in Scotland, and after my visit I can certainly see why. Thanks to Edradour & Signatory's Australian importer The Whisky Company I was lucky enough to get a personal tour from distillery manager Des McHagerty, who graciously gave me a very close look at both the distillery and its equipment, and the whiskies they produce!

Edradour was founded in 1837 as a farm distillery, and after a few changes of ownership the distillery ended up in the hands of the Pernod Ricard group of companies. But in 2002 it was deemed surplus to requirements, since Pernod had acquired Chivas Brothers and their distilleries not long before. It was snapped up by Andrew Symington, who along with his brother Brian owned independent bottling company Signatory Vintage, and had been keeping a close eye on what was (and still is) one of his favourite distilleries with the hope of eventually buying it. The distillery really is postcard-level beautiful, especially on a rare sunny day, and is very much what you imagine when you think of a small-scale traditional and 'romantic' Scottish whisky distillery, so I can see why Andrew first fell in love with the place! If you're not venturing too far from Edinburgh, I highly recommend stopping in here for a tour and a dram, it was definitely one of the highlights of my time on the mainland.

Edradour's still house, home to all of the production equipment!

While no longer growing its barley on site (it's now mostly sourced from Bairds Maltings in Inverness), the original farm buildings are still home to the distillery's equipment, and the distillery remains very "old school" and as original as possible, which certainly adds to its appeal. As much of the production process as possible is done by hand, despite there only being 2-3 production staff, and you'll find a very traditional setup in that old original farm building. The distillery uses wooden washbacks, an open-topped cast iron mash tun, very small copper pot stills with worm tub condensers and a spirit purifier (as does Ardbeg), and a Morton refrigerator (heat exchanger) which is used to cool the wort before yeast is added.

Above you can see the 4200-litre wash still on the left, and the 2200-litre spirit still on the right. For a point of reference here, the Islay giant Caol Ila Distillery's three wash stills are 19,000-litres each in capacity, while each of the three spirit stills hold 12,000-litres, so these really are very, very small! These small stills with their downward-angled lyne arms, and the two worm tub condensers, give Edradour's spirit a lovely oily, chewy and sweet spirit that works very well with a range of different casks. The distillery also has its own bottling line on site, which is quite uncommon in the industry, and negates the need for both Edradour and Signatory Vintage whiskies to be shipped in tankers to industrial-scale centralised bottling facilities.

One of Edradour's wormtub condensers. It was great to finally see one of these in action!

The small scale of the distillery is largely down to spacial restrictions, with all of the production equipment located in a single building, one of the original farm buildings in fact. As such there's only two washbacks and a single pair of stills, but there is a second distillery being built on site, which is on the other side of the Edradour burn (creek) that runs through the site. This new facility will have its own pair of small stills, to the same design and size as the originals, including the worm tub condensers and spirit purifier. It will be very exciting to see what Andrew and his team do with this new capacity, and I'm sure there are big things ahead!

The new second distillery being built on site, which should come online shortly.

This additional distillery has been very carefully designed to offer the same characteristics as the current one, but on a larger scale with six new wooden washbacks and an additional larger racked warehouse. The new distillery will initially produce around 200,000 litres of new make spirit per year, which will bring Edradour up to approximately 325,000 litres per year, with the potential for further production increases in the future. That's still tiny by Scotch whisky industry standards, but is a substantial increase for this little Highland distillery. The new distillery was still being setup during my visit, and it was a real treat to see the shiny new stills and equipment sitting in place waiting for the proverbial switch to be flicked.

The shiny new stills in their protective plastic wrapping.

Edradour use a large range of cask types to mature their whisky, including a lot of uncommon wine and fortified wine casks, such as Chardonnay and Madeira, Bordeaux and Sauternes casks, and crucially the vast majority of Edradour bottlings are fully matured in those casks, rather than being "finished" or "double matured" in those casks for short periods. There are around 5000 Edradour casks stored on site, along with around 1000 Signatory Vintage casks from various distilleries, and neither entity produces any whisky for blends, it's all bottled as single malt, often even from a single cask. The majority of warehousing on site is traditional earthen-floored dunnage style, although the racked warehouses are still earthen-floored and are typically only stacked 4-5 casks high, so they're essentially a combination of both styles. Edradour do remind me of a smaller scale Bruichladdich in a lot of ways, from the totally manual and very "hands on" production, to the open-topped iron mash tun and wooden washbacks, and especially in their use of uncommon wine casks and unusual limited bottlings. They also don't add any colouring to their whiskies, and aside from the entry-level Edradour 10-year old which is bottled at 40% ABV, none of their expressions are chill filtered, which is great to see.

    One of Edradour's dunnage warehouses, also home to some Signatory casks.

There are over 25 Edradour expressions in the current range, including the heavily peated (to 50 ppm) Ballechin expressions (10-year old reviewed here) which were first distilled in 2003 and are named after a long-extinct farm distillery that was located a few miles from Edradour and was known for its peated whisky. I was lucky enough to try quite a few of these drams at the incredible tasting bar at the distillery, staffed by Alan, a very friendly and helpful gent that was very accommodating. These drams included some very rare and unusual bottlings of both Edradour and Ballechin, and I was able to take a few tasting notes and first impressions after the tour. The gift shop also offers a couple of different distillery exclusive single cask bottlings, so naturally I had to try some of those as well! 

I started off with the very nice 15-year old "Fairy Flag" sherry cask-finished expression of Edradour to get into the mood, then went for the one pictured above, a 12-year old "Straight From the Cask" (SFTC) Edradour that was fully matured in a single Chardonnay wine cask, and was bottled at cask strength without any colouring or chill filtration. Extremely rich, sweet and fruity, the Chardonnay cask had really worked well with the heavy, oily Edradour spirit, even at "only" 12 years of age. This was an absolutely fantastic drop, and I just had to stop in and buy one of these on my way past the distillery at the end of the trip!

Next up was one of the oldest Edradour expressions to date, a 21-year old that was matured in ex-bourbon barrels for almost 10 years, then transferred into Oloroso sherry casks for a further 12 years. So "Oloroso cask finish" doesn't really tell the full story! This one was also bottled at cask strength, and was also very rich and fruity, but with a darker character and a lovely musty, spicy flavour from the sherry casks that was just delicious. And having the opportunity to taste a 21-year old cask strength whisky, at the distillery it came from, is not something to be taken lightly!

Then I was treated to something pretty special and very unusual. While this is an un-peated Edradour whisky, it was matured in a cask that previously held a heavily peated Islay whisky, hence the "PTM" acronym: Peated Through Maturation. But that wasn't just any Islay whisky cask, it was a Signatory Vintage Port Ellen cask! Now that's not something you see every day! The Edradour spirit spent 14 years in that ex-Port Ellen cask before being bottled at cask strength, and it made for a delicious combination of the sweet, oily Edradour spirit with soft influences of coastal peaty-ness. And what an idea!

Then we were in to the heavily peated Ballechins, starting with this Straight From The Cask bottling that was fully matured in a single Port cask for 13 years, before being bottled at cask strength with no colouring or chill filtration. This was yet another delicious dram, with sweet strawberries balancing with a musty, earthy peat and a very nice waxy red fruit finish. These SFTC expressions are also 500 ml bottlings, which helps to keep the cost down to a very reasonable level.

Then we were into the first of two distillery exclusive single cask Ballechin bottlings. This expression pictured above was fully matured in a Sauternes dessert wine cask for 10 years, before being bottled at 58.5%, without any added colouring or chill filtration. Despite being a cask strength 700 ml bottling that was fully matured in an exotic wine cask, this was very reasonably priced at just 69 pounds from the distillery shop. It was a very interesting dram too, and was a lot dryer than I had expected with the sweet wine cask maturation. There was a lot of musty white grape on the nose, with the peat hidden away until you took a sip, when it showed itself as a lovely ashy smoke alongside the fruit.

The last dram of the visit was the second of the distillery exclusive Ballechins, and was my favourite of the range. This one is another 10-year old cask strength bottling, naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and also selling for a very reasonable 69 pounds from the distillery shop. The difference here is that this one was fully matured in a single Madeira wine cask, before being bottled at 59.1%. And it was absolutely delicious, and dangerously drinkable! Sweet and thick on the nose with roasted nuts and lightly burnt caramel, the palate was also gorgeous, with dark maple syrup sweetness and a little soft smoke and earthy peat behind. Unfortunately I couldn't squeeze one of these into my suitcase, so I went for the smaller Chardonnay-matured Edradour instead, but I'll be leaving some more room in my luggage on the next visit!

As you can probably tell, this was one fantastic distillery experience, and I can't thank Des, Andrew and Alan enough for their hospitality, and for all of their hard work in general! And a huge thanks must go to Craig from The Whisky Company, the Australian importer of both Edradour and Signatory Vintage, for organising such a brilliant visit to this little gem of a distillery. Craig has a great range of Edradour, Ballechin and Signatory bottlings on his website, so make sure you check them out! Naturally I also highly recommend that you check out Edradour Distillery if you're making your pilgrimage to Scotland. It's a unique experience and really gives a close-up and approachable view of the entire whisky making process that is somewhat easier to relate to than its bigger, more industrial cousins. I'm already looking forward to the next time!


Sunday, 12 November 2017

Rest & Be Thankful Octomore 2009 Whisky Review!

What's this, some unusual independent bottling of Octomore? Why yes, that's exactly what it is! Not something you see every day hey?

Taken from the shore at Inverary, but looking towards Rest & Be Thankful... you get the idea!

Rest & Be Thankful is owned by the England-based blender & independent bottler Fox Fitzgerald, and is a relatively new brand, only arriving in Australia in 2016. They have made an impact though, bringing us one of only a few independent bottlings of Bruichladdich's super-heavily peated Octomore whisky that are available in the world, and the only one so far that is officially distributed in Australia, in this case thanks to Baranow's Emporium. The slightly awkward brand name on this bottling refers to the "Rest & Be Thankful" viewing area & rest stop located near the highest point on the A83 road in western Scotland, not far from Loch Lomond, which is the road you'll take if you're driving from Glasgow (or Edinburgh) to Campbeltown or Islay. Although I only passed it on the bus, just rest assured (pun intended) that it's a very, very beautiful area.

As you can probably guess by the fact that they've been able to sell Octomore as an independent bottler, Fox Fitzgerald have a close relationship with Bruichladdich, and are bottling both Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore spirit under their Rest & Be Thankful brand. Rumour has it that they managed to purchase a large number of privately owned mature casks during the purchase of the distillery by Remy Cointreau, along with some mature casks from other distilleries not very often seen in independent bottlings, such as Macallan, Arran, Highland Park and Springbank. Most carry age statements and cask details on the label as well, and are bottled at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring. When comparing these Octomore bottlings to their official cousins, you may notice a number missing: the ppm measurement, which Bruichladdich quote on most of their Octomore expressions. But we do have a 'vintage', as in year of distillation, which in this case is 2009, so we can assume that these casks were filled around the same time as the official 6.1 (which was bottled in 2014 as a 5 year old), which weighed in at 167 ppm. Not that it really tells us a whole lot anyway, so like all Octomore we can safely assume it's going to be seriously peaty.

This particular bottling I'm looking at today was fully matured, not finished, in a single ex-red wine cask from the Pauillac region of Bordeaux, France. So we don't know the grape variety or the vineyard responsible for that red wine cask, and there are half a dozen famous wineries in the area, but that's OK, since that's also how Bruichladdich often operates with their official bottlings. That single ex-red wine cask yielded a total of 300 bottles, at a cask strength of 66.9%, and an age of approximately 6 years & 3 months. These Rest & Be Thankful bottlings are not exactly cheap, with the Octomore releases retailing at around $500 AUD in Australia, which is around double that of the more expensive official bottlings such as 7.2 & 7.3. But then they are older than those official Octomores, they are higher in strength, and of course there are far fewer bottles available. The sample for this review came from the Australian importer for Rest & Be Thankful (among others), Melbourne-based Baranow's Emporium. Let's get to it!

Rest & Be Thankful Octomore 2009, NAS, 66.9%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 11/2009, bottled 2/2016. Matured in a single ex-red wine cask from Pauillac, Bordeaux, France. Cask number 2009004312, 300 bottles. Cask strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour.  

Colour: Deep gold.

Nose: Fresh, meaty and quite citrus-y. Lemon rind, bitter oranges, meaty & salty fresh natural oysters on a plate of rock salt. Yes really! Sweet red fruits come out with time, and does a little damp oak, some wood spice incense, and a soft hint of crumbly, earthy / muddy peat.  

Texture: Heavy weight, thick & meaty texture. Some heat as well, but it's 66.9% remember!

Taste: There's the peat finally, but it's really subdued for an Octomore. Meaty & spicy, like Moroccan-style spiced grilled red meat. Then becomes sweet with red berries and thick dark toffee. Then a little of that citrus and incense spice from the nose.  

Finish: Medium length. Hot & spicy initially, and drying. The wood spice incense note is very dominant for much of the time, when it tapers off the citrus and a little smoke comes out, and that spiced meat note again with a little salt. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: This was a tough one to call. It's really quite hot, but not in a completely unpleasant way. And at 66.9% that comes with the territory really. Yes I could have added water, but I don't usually do that for any other reviews until after I've scored the dram at hand, so it wouldn't be fair. I love the nose on this Rest & Be Thankful, and the palate was nice too, but the finish didn't quite float my boat personally. I'm not a big fan of dominant spice notes in a whisky (Ardbeg Kelpie, for example), so that incense note didn't really gel with my palate. But the nose does help to make up for that, and this is definitely one of those drams that you could sit with for a long time without even taking a sip. 

It's all too tempting to compare this with the official bottlings from Bruichladdich, and let's be frank, they are much cheaper than this one is. Let's also remember though that they are often reduced, albeit only slightly, from the natural cask strength, while this one is really packing a punch. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing in this case is hard to say, but the distillery obviously has a reason for reducing the strength of their official bottlings of Octomore or they wouldn't do it. This Rest & Be Thankful bottling is also a year older than most of the official releases, although still a young and fresh whisky, so that would make a difference as well. 

I know I'm harping on about the price a little, and an independent bottling of Octomore is not such a commonly seen thing, so we don't have a lot of other examples to refer to, but there's no denying that this is a seriously expensive whisky. Despite it's limited and single cask nature, $500 AUD (and upwards) is quite a number for a 6-year old whisky. One could easily buy two bottles of the official bottlings for that, even two of the delicious 7.3 Islay Barley at the moment. But this is a single cask bottling, and it's a different take on the make, with far less peat and more spice, so it doesn't really replicate any of the official line-up. For me though, it's a little hard to get past that spice, and that price. 


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Laphroaig 30 Year Old Whisky Review!

Now that's not something you hear (or read) every day! A 30-year old Laphroaig? Yes please! This is the first of a few special reviews that will honour the favourite distilleries from my pilgrimage to Scotland, and what better to start with than my beloved Laphroaig!

Following on from the excellent 32-year old limited release that hit the shelves in 2015, this 30-year old bottling was released in 2016. Both were bottled at natural cask strength without added colouring or chill filtration, and were presented in very pretty white wooden boxes and clear bottles. While the 32 was fully matured in Oloroso sherry casks and sold out very quickly considering the investment required, this one was fully matured in ex-bourbon casks, and seems to be mostly sold out. It was also more expensive than it's older predecessor, around $500 AUD more expensive in fact, but then it is also significantly higher in strength at 53.5% compared to 46.6% in the sherry cask bottling, and it was released a year sooner. There has since been a 27-year old bottling released earlier in 2017, and that one was down to 41.7% (still bottled at cask strength), but it is almost half the price of the 30 year old we're looking at here. I wonder what they're going to come up with next year!

This 30-year old bottling was distilled in October 1985 (wow!) and bottled in May 2016, and was "double matured" in all ex-bourbon barrels, both refill and first fill. Given the age of this whisky I'm assuming it was mostly matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, and then finished or double matured in first fill ex-bourbon casks, but it could have been the other way around. Although it doesn't say so on the packaging, I think we can safely assume that it is naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and the texture of this beautiful stuff reinforces that assumption for me. I love the packaging too, a nice simple clear bottle and white label, and that wooden box is very pretty. They could have easily put this whisky in some ridiculous and over-compensating packaging and tripled the price, but there's no crystal decanters and fancy hand-crafted lacquered boxes here, just an understated label and box, and a relatively reasonable price considering what you're getting. Great stuff!

Older Laphroaigs tend to be quite refined, sweet and gentle. But the aforementioned 32-year old was surprisingly peaty considering its age and the sherry casks that were involved, since both age and assertive casks tend to reduce peating levels, so this one will be very interesting, particularly with the significantly higher strength. I wasn't even one year old when this whisky was distilled, so let's see if it's aged better than I have!
Laphroaig 30-year old, 53.5%, 2016 bottling. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 10/1985, bottled 5/2016. "Double matured" in both first-fill and refill ex-bourbon casks. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Deep gold. 

Nose: Super soft and gentle, no sign of any alcohol at all. Sweet, juicy oranges & apples, dusty light honey and toasted oak. Some salted licorice, and marzipan (sweetened almond paste)! Dried herbs - sage, a little rosemary, and sweet dried flowers. Surprisingly fresh and bright for the age, this is already a winner!

Texture: Very nice. Medium weight, and well balanced. No sign of any heat at all.

Taste: Sweet and light on entry, builds slowly to a lovely dry, ashy peat that quickly fades again leaving salted licorice and fruit. Dried fruit now though, apples & oranges again. More of those dried herbs too, and an almost grape soft drink / soda-like sweetness. 

Finish: Long, and comes & goes in waves. Typical Laphroaig grapefruit here, but it's less sweet and less intense here, more of a dried grapefruit. Lots of dried tropical fruit in fact, papaya too. A little cigarette ash, strong aniseed, wood spices and powdered ginger. Then cinnamon sugar on a flaky sweet pastry, and a little warm oak.   

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: A delicious whisky of course, as can be expected from Laphroaig! It's certainly far less peaty and more subtle & refined than I remember the 32 year old being, but there's still a lot going on here, and there are still traces of that Laphroaig DNA that we all love. I really like the flavours that are on offer here, it's like a gentleman Laphroaig in a three-piece suit. Very refined and gentle, softly spoken but also very expressive and confident. Very, very impressive, as always. And yes, I'd have to say it's aged better than I have...

Like I've said in the past about the 25-year old and 32-year old, if you're a Laphroaig fan and you have the disposable income necessary to buy in to one of these much older expressions, you can't go wrong. If I was in the market myself for a whisky of this age, Laphroaig would absolutely be my first port of call. And what an honour to be able to taste these drams!   

Speaking of which, a big thanks to Beam Suntory & The Exchange's Australian national brand ambassador, the legendary Dan Woolley, for the sample. Lots of love mate!