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Sunday, 16 September 2018

Starward Bourbon Cask Whisky Review!

The first ever ex-bourbon cask bottling from Starward, the best bang-for-buck Australian single malt distillery around. Exciting stuff!

Ex-bourbon cask malts may be a dime a dozen from most whisky producers around the world, but they're far less common in Australian single malts. There are only a couple of Australian distilleries that are using ex-bourbon casks on a regular basis, largely thanks to our massive import costs, their relative scarcity, and the abundance of Australian wine and fortified wine casks. So the majority of high quality Australian single malts are matured in Australian ex-port (officially 'tawny') and ex-sherry (officially 'apera') casks, and red wine casks to a lesser extent. But ex-bourbon casks can work very well with Australian single malts, with Melbourne's Bakery Hill and Tasmania's Sullivan's Cove being the most widely-known examples.

Melbourne-based Starward, produced by New World Distillery, are best known for their accessible and (by Australian standards) affordable Wine Cask and Solera "core" expressions, with the former being matured in fresh Australian red wine casks, and the latter being matured in Apera (Australian sherry) casks in a solera system. They're both intentionally very easy-drinking and crowd-pleasing whiskies, at 41% and 43% ABV respectively, but for the more hardcore whisky fans they can be a little light. Aside from 2017's Tenth Anniversary release, the only way to get higher strength offerings from New World Distillery was the "New World Projects" range of limited and often experimental bottlings. The "Projects" releases have been around for quite some time, and actually started off with the distillery staff playing around and experimenting with different casks and different maturation techniques. But the label has been a little quiet recently.

But the distillery hasn't been slacking off - the demand has been so strong that they recently ran out of their core range whiskies for a while, and haven't recovered yet - and they've recently re-launched the Projects range, now known as Starward Whisky Projects, now in a 500ml bottle with a more presentable design. And the first Projects release since the re-launch is Starward / New World's first bourbon cask-matured whisky! It's substantially older than the core bottlings at 4.5 years of age, and it spent all of that time in first-fill ex-bourbon casks from Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey, before being bottled at 52% ABV without chill filtration or added colouring. That ABV won't be full cask strength of course, but it's a nice substantial drinking strength and it worked very well with the aforementioned Tenth Anniversary bottling. There wasn't a lot of build-up or marketing hype for this new whisky, in fact it was all done relatively quietly, but it didn't matter: the 1200 bottles released sold out on the official website within hours of release, despite only a select few having tasted it in advance. Which just goes to show the loyal following that Starward & New World has, and the level of faith that following has in the distillery crew. But then again, if you decide to try a new limited release Australian whisky before buying in the current climate, you're essentially deciding either to miss out completely or to pay an inflated price further down the track, so it often involves a slight leap of faith.

Some naysayers may be baulking at that 500ml bottle size, but let's remember that the reduction in size means there were nearly 30% more bottles to go around than there would have been otherwise, and that pricing is generally kept to a reasonable level. At least it is in Starward's case, since unfortunately there are plenty of other Australian producers that go the other way, even with 500ml bottles. Speaking of pricing, this one was priced at $109 AUD - including shipping - straight from the distillery, which is extremely reasonable for a limited-release Australian single malt at a higher strength. Some may also baulk at that 4.5-year age, and no there isn't an age statement printed on the label, but don't forget that Starward take full advantage of Melbourne's famously indecisive climate, and as a result their whiskies are far more mature than the numbers would suggest. But as always, the proof is in the pudding!

Starward Bourbon Cask, NAS, 52% ABV. Melbourne, Australia.
Matured for 4.5 years in ex-Maker's Mark & Wild Turkey bourbon casks. 1200 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Quite sweet, banana lollies, slightly dusty, some lightly sour pineapple sherbet, and a little aniseed in the background. Some green apple & melon, vanilla custard powder, a little white chocolate, and marshmallows dusted with icing sugar.

Texture: Medium weight, rich & lightly chewy. There's a little heat, but not an unpleasant amount.

Taste: Drier than the nose suggested, quite astringent as well. More of that sweet banana confectionery (Starward's trademark esters of course), some savoury crystalised (grainy) honey, white pepper, vanilla custard and a little caramelised oak.

Finish: Short-medium length. A little spirit-y initially, becoming mellow with more pineapple, green melon, aniseed and white pepper. Vanilla custard again, but more of a baked custard now, and a flash of those bananas and aniseed before fading away.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: A nice tasty dram for sure, and very much what you'd expect from a light, young, ester-y whisky matured in fresh bourbon casks. It has plenty of character though, as usual from Starward, and the nose is a particular highlight although it's very much on the sweet side of things. The overall effect isn't massively complex, but there is enough going on to keep things interesting. That touch of heat is a little distracting admittedly, but it's not harsh or rough, particularly when you consider that this is a 4.5-year old whisky bottled at 52%. Which is showing the fruits (pun intended) of Starward's labour, and the effects of the local weather conditions of course. So this Bourbon Cask expression doesn't quite have the magic of the Tenth Anniversary bottling in my book, nor the brilliant distillery-exclusive Cognac Cask, but it's nevertheless another enjoyable Starward, and like those aforementioned drams it showcases a different side to the spirit that isn't seen in the two core expressions. Which of course is what the Projects series is all about.

We also need to consider the pricing here. I don't usually account for that that in my scoring, and I haven't in this review. But where some Australian single malts have literally doubled in price over the last few years, and are still selling despite them now being beyond the reach of most drinkers and even their previously loyal fans, to have a limited release at higher strength sell for such a reasonable price is a breath of fresh air. I know the fans of some of those very expensive Aussie whiskies are going to rebut that Starward is one of the largest malt whisky producers in the country, and is the only one to attract international investment so far, which is a fair point - and is no bad thing if you ask me. I'm all for the small producers who are making quality whisky at reasonable prices, but those are becoming harder to find these days. I'd place Starward, Bakery Hill, Black Gate, Belgrove, Bellwether and the newcomer Launceston Distillery in that camp, and that's about it. They're producing great quality whisky at relatively affordable prices, rather than banking on the apparent collectibility of Australian whiskies and choosing to put their product out of reach for most of their initial supporters. And more power to them.


Sunday, 9 September 2018

New Port Charlotte 10 & Islay Barley Whisky Reviews!

I've been a big fan of Bruichladdich's heavily-peated Port Charlotte range for quite some time, since trying the excellent PC7 cask strength expression around five years ago (and I was lucky to find it!). Talk about jumping into the deep end! Since those early days I've loved all of the Port Charlottes that I've come across, some more than others of course, but the label does seem to get a little lost in the crowd in the peated Islay whisky sector. It doesn't have the immediate brand recognition of Laphroaig, Lagavulin or Ardbeg, even among the more serious peat-heads, and I'd say that one of the limiting factors is the excellent quality & success of Octomore, Bruichladdich's super-heavily peated range. Which makes Port Charlotte something of a middle child, stuck between the massively-peated Octomore and the un-peated Bruichladdich whiskies.

Of course Bruichladdich are aware of this, and not being one to sit on their laurels, they've recently taken the bull by the horns and re-launched the Port Charlotte brand. Port Charlotte was always packaged in the same bottles as the namesake Bruichladdich bottlings, carrying very similar labels & designs including those on the outer tins, which wasn't helping the 40 ppm peated Port Charlotte stand out. So they've come up with a new bottle design, including going from clear to dark green-coloured glass, which is more inline with the other Islay staples, and also making sure that the beautiful, but often pale, natural colour doesn't alienate any of the (perhaps less discerning) potential buyers out there. I do like the new design, it has something of a military feel to it in my book - maybe smoke grenades, which is appropriate -  and they're chunkier and more solid in feel as well. The labels and outer tins haven't changed, and you'll find just as much information printed on them as always. Plus the liquid inside is just as good as it's always been, which of course is the main thing!

 Out with the old (L), and in with the new (R)!

The new Port Charlotte bottles actually debuted in June this year at Feis Ile (the Islay festival) with two distillery-exclusive expressions, and a couple of the hand-filled Valinch / Cask Exploration bottlings since, but these two new expressions are the first of the general releases to feature the new design. The two new general releases that I'm looking at today are Port Charlotte 10-year old, which is now a permanent expression (unlike the last two versions and the cask strength PC10), and Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2011 vintage. I was lucky enough to attend the recent Brisbane trade launch of these two new whiskies, which was hosted by Chloe Wood, Bruichladdich's amazing brand ambassador for the Asia Pacific region (based in Singapore), along with Mark Hickey & Casey Gray from Spirits Platform, Bruichladdich's importer & distributor for Australia. Chloe's knowledge of every facet of the distillery was fantastic, and being an Ileach (Islay native) and having worked at Bruichladdich herself, it was all first-hand. It was also great to see this sort of event happen in Brisbane, when we'd normally be passed over in favour of the bright lights of Sydney and/or Melbourne. I was also lucky / sneaky enough to get a couple of samples of both of these new Port Charlottes to review in detail, so let's get to it!

We'll start with the 10-year old, a new permanent Port Charlotte edition at that age. The delicious original Port Charlotte 10-year old (reviewed here) was first released in early 2012 under the reign of the legendary Jim McEwan, and was a 60/40 split of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, bottled at 46%. So not to be confused with the far rarer and more limited PC10, which was bottled at cask strength as the sixth release in the "PC_" series. Both of those were landmark bottlings, since they marked the "coming of age" of the Port Charlotte spirit that was first distilled in May 2001, soon after the distillery's revival. That original 10-year old was intended to be a permanent expression at the time of release, but the stock & production couldn't keep up, and it was discontinued. It was followed by the "second edition" Port Charlotte 10-year old in late 2016, which saw the bottling strength increase to 50% ABV at the same time as the standard strength of the Bruichladdich line-up. That one had an interesting cask profile, being matured in first-fill ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, Spanish and French red wine casks, and it was a limited run of 18,000 bottles, released alongside the Bruichladdich & Octomore 10-year old second editions.

Which brings us to the new permanent addition, simply named Port Charlotte 10. This one is actually replacing the current entry-level Port Charlotte whisky, the NAS (multi-vintage in Bruichladdich speak) Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, and it's slated to arrive in Australia in late October / early November this year, at an RRP of around $115-120 AUD. It's still made from 100% Scottish barley, and has been matured in 65% first-fill ex-bourbon casks, 10% second-fill ex-bourbon casks, and 25% second hill un-named French red wine casks, before being bottled at 50% ABV, without any added colouring or chill filtration. Which is a pretty good resume for an entry-level expression! Tasting time...

Port Charlotte 10 (year old), 50% ABV. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled from Scottish barley peated to 40 ppm, matured in 65% first-fill ex-bourbon, 10% second-fill ex-bourbon, and 25% second-fill French wine casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Fresh & bright, very Bruichladdich in ts overall style, with a lovely soft, dry, crumbly peat, light brine, some banana cream and a touch of pineapple. Lovely toasted oak and a little mint, citrus rind, a couple of dried strawberries and some pastry dough.

Texture: Lovely. Creamy and soft, medium weight, and no heat at all.

Taste: The lovely crumbly and soft peat again, with that pastry dough and fresh citrus around the edges. A nice touch of sea salt and a little butterscotch. Creamy vanilla and coconut, and a little mashed banana, with a flash of dry wood smoke behind.

Finish: Medium length. Toasted coconut and creamy vanilla, with a light briny undercurrent. The dry peat returns plus a little ash, and a lovely creamy smoky citrus like a burnt lemon meringue.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Very nice stuff! So soft and balanced, even at 50% ABV. Bright and inviting on the nose, and so creamy on the palate, with no off-notes whatsoever. Very easy drinking as well with no heat or harshness. It's not a big peaty bruiser like some other 10-year old Islays, this is a very approachable and comforting dram with loads of character. It's hard to fathom that this is now the entry-level Port Charlotte! Excellent value for money as well. Sign me up now.

Next up, Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2011! Being a "vintage" release this is obviously a limited bottling, and is the second Port Charlotte release that was distilled from Islay barley. The previous iteration, the fantastic 2008 vintage, was packaged in a white outer tin, was distilled from Oxbridge and Optic barley that was grown on six different farms on Islay, and was matured in ex-bourbon casks for around seven years prior to bottling at 50% ABV. This new release is packaged in a light grey outer tin (I believe the Valinch bottlings now get the white tins), and was distilled from Oxbridge and Publican barley that was grown on three different farms on Islay, but the cask profile is quite different on this one. It was matured for around seven years in 25% first-fill ex-bourbon casks, and 75% second-fill wine casks, of the Syrah and Merlot varieties. Those are both relatively heavy red wines, but being second-fill casks, and being a young whisky, we shouldn't expect a massive wine influence in this one. Islay Barley 2011 has already landed in Australia, and is being distributed as we speak, with an RRP of around $115 AUD. Islay-grown barley now makes up a third of Bruchladdich's annual barley requirements, which is great to see!

Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2011, NAS, 50%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled from Islay barley peated to 40 ppm, matured in 75% first-fill ex-bourbon casks & 25% second-fill ex-red wine casks, around 6 years old. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Richer and heavier, but still bright and inviting. Oily putty, like a dark gritty gap-filler, some sweet citrus (lemon) and warm sandy beaches. A nice light minerality, like wet stone or damp clay, and a nice creamy white chocolate.

Texture: Oh yes. Medium-heavy weight, rich and lightly oily. No heat at all.

Taste: Rich and peaty, a nice dry peat with some wood ash mixed in. Sweet citrus again, a touch of mixed berry jam, fresh tar, some white pepper, and more of the damp clay and that oily putty.

Finish: Medium length. Peaches & cream, sweet citrus again, more damp earthy clay and a nice dry peatyness that surges & fades. Some salty driftwood and ashy wood smoke, and a lovely golden barley pokes through!

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Love this dram. Again it's very drinkable for what is a very young whisky, especially at 50% ABV, and I doubt that you'd guess it to be just six-ish years old. It's definitely more peat-forward and perhaps less complex, and it's also less expressive on the nose than the 10 year old, but if you like your peat you'll dig (pun intended) this one. It's definitely very different to the last Port Charlotte Islay Barley as well, which is no doubt down to those second-fill wine casks. It's still quite a light, clean and easy-drinking malt for what is a 40 ppm (on the barley) whisky at six years of age and 50%. Which of course is the beauty of Bruichladdich!

Overall notes: Well, both of these Port Charlottes were just added to my "buy" list. Both are of excellent quality, they're full of character with plenty of interesting new notes to discover, but the 'laddie DNA is still present in both of these whiskies. If I had to pick an outright winner it would obviously be the Islay Barley, but you can't go wrong with either of these really. The 10 is softer and more rounded, as you'd expect, and the nose is definitely more expressive on that one, but the palate and finish on the younger Ileach are just delicious. Both will offer excellent value for money as well, particularly when you consider the higher strengths, natural presentations and the provenance, in 'laddie speak, that they offer. I love pretty much everything that Bruichladdich do these days, and that doesn't seem likely to change in the future.

Along with the re-launch and these two new Port Charlottes, there's also a new and very exciting travel-exclusive Marsala cask expression coming, dubbed MC01 (Marsala Cask 01), which will replace the excellent CC01 Cognac cask bottling, and a very limited Mouton-Rothschild wine cask finished expression, dubbed MRC01 (Mouton-Rotschild Cask 01). It just so happens that the Port Charlotte cask that was offered at the distillery's warehouse experience that I attended last year was matured in a Mouthon-Rothschild cask, and it was absolutely fantastic, in fact it even overshadowed the 11-year old Octomore that followed it! So I have high hopes for MRC01 as well. I think we can expect even bigger things from Port Charlotte in future, and I'm looking forward to tasting those things!

A big thanks to Mark & Casey from Spirits Platform and Chloe Wood from Bruichladdich for having me at the very informative launch event, and of course for the samples, and an extra thanks to the people at Bruichladdich for continuing to bring us excellent quality whisky. We all love you for it. 


Sunday, 26 August 2018

Two Port Charlotte Valinch (Cask Exploration) Whisky Reviews!

What's a Port Charlotte Valinch, you might ask? They're hand-filled Port Charlottes, filled straight from the cask in Bruichladdich's shop at the distillery! Aside from the inevitable online auctions and private secondary market, the only way to get your hands on one of these whiskies is to get yourself to the distillery shop on Islay. Having done so myself, believe me when I say it's definitely worth the trip!

All but one of the island's distilleries (I'm looking at you, Ardbeg!) offer either a distillery exclusive or hand-filled bottling (plus Feis Ile bottlings if your timing - and luck - are spot on), with even giant Caol Ila now offering hand-filled 200ml bottles for purchase in their shop, in addition to their distillery exclusive bottling that was released in 2017. Laphroaig offer hand-filled 250ml bottles as part of their two top-tier distillery tours, the "Distiller's Wares Tour" and the "Water to Whisky Experience", where you taste three whiskies straight from the cask in their warehouse, and then choose your favourite to bottle and take home. Lagavulin have a distillery exclusive bottling and often exclusive Feis Ile or Jazz Festival bottlings, and Bunnahabhain usually offer both hand-filled and distillery exclusive bottlings, often taken from unusual cask types. Kilchoman usually have a high-level distillery shop exclusive single cask bottling, while Bowmore offers distillery exclusive hand-filled bottles, again if your timing is right, although you don't actually bottle those yourself. And I should add that most of these exclusive bottlings are quite reasonably priced.

But there aren't many that can match Bruichladdich's Valinch offerings, where there are usually two casks to choose from, an un-peated Bruichladdich and a heavily-peated Port Charlotte (40 ppm). Or you could also get both, of course! A valinch by the way is a long tube-shaped siphon used to draw liquid from casks through the bung hole. These single cask bottlings are sold in 500ml bottles, usually for around 70-75 pounds, and are filled straight from the tapped casks in the distillery shop. There's no need to do a distillery tour to purchase, although I do recommend both that and the fantastic warehouse experience if you're making the journey. Adding to the allure is the fact that these Valinch casks are often unusual, most commonly being a wide variety of red wine casks (in typical Bruichladdich style), but also dessert wine, white wine, virgin oak, and of course sherry and bourbon casks have been released. The Bruichladdich releases are titled 'The Laddie Valinch', and are often named for distillery staff members, while the Port Charlotte releases are titled "Cask Exploration", and often have a Gaelic name. Obviously these whiskies are always bottled at cask strength, and are never chill filtered or artificially coloured, and the quality level is usually very high.

The two that I'm looking at today are Port Charlotte Cask Exploration 07, which was released in mid-2016, and Port Charlotte Cask Exploration 12, which was released in early 2017. Cask Exploration 07 is a 9-year old Port Charlotte that was fully-matured in a Rivesaltes red wine cask, cask number 1653, which yielded 393 bottles at a huge ABV of 64.7%. Rivesaltes is a style of sweet fortified wine, usually red, produced in the south-west of France, and it's often left outdoors in glass containers to stabilise before being filled into casks. Cask Exploration 12 is a 9-year old Port Charlotte that was fully-matured in a Barolo wine cask, cask number 1739, which yielded 436 bottles at 59.9% ABV. Barolo is a red wine from northern Italy, made from Nebbiolo grapes, and is often quite heavy and tannic wine. Port Charlotte often gets overlooked by some whisky fans, with either the un-peated Bruichladdich or the super-heavily-peated Octomore getting most of the attention. But Port Charlotte is a little bit of a sleeper, nicely smoky & sweet, which should work well with these first-fill red wine casks! The samples I'm reviewing came from a fellow whisky nerd, who sourced both bottles from a popular UK auction site. Let's get to it...

Port Charlotte Cask Exploration 12, 9-years old, 59.9%. Islay, Scotland.
Distillery exclusive hand-filled. Distilled 9/2007, released 2017. Matured in a single first-fill Barolo Italian wine cask, cask number 1739, yielded 436 500ml bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Quite shy, even after breathing time & warming. Nicely dirty & funky though, with dried sour red & citrus fruits, some 'laddie lactic funk but in a more dirty & drier way than usual. A little floral & heather-y sweetness, and some dry earthy peat in the background.

Texture: Medium weight, quite dry and peppery, a little heat but not a huge amount for a 9-year old whisky at nearly 60% ABV.

Taste: More peat here, quite dry as well with that peppery spice. Still not a lot of peat though, more of a dry earthy-ness. Certainly not at the level of smoke that I've found in other cask strength Port Charlottes. Some thick stewed fruits and that dirty funky-ness in the background.

Finish: Medium length, a little hot and peppery again. A little cologne and stewed fruit, and it is tannic, but they're more wood tannins than wine tannins to my palate.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Not a big heat for me to be honest, the funky-ness and fruit are a nice touch but that dry peppery spice is too dominant and doesn't play nicely with others. I did add a little water after the tasting notes, just to see what happened, and as you'd expect it dialled down the pepper and dialled up the sweetness, bringing it more towards the lactic sweetness that Bruichladdich is famous for.

Port Charlotte Cask Exploration 07, 9-years old, 64.7%. Islay, Scotland.
Distillery exclusive hand-filled. Distilled 8/2006, released 2016. Matured in a single first-fill Rivesaltes French wine cask, cask number 1653, yielded 393 500ml bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Full amber. Much darker.

Nose: Much richer & fuller. Loads of dark chocolate and shredded coconut, toasted oak and some lanolin (sheep's wool grease used in skin creams) which is very interesting! Some sweet & musty dessert wine, can't quite put my finger on it so I assume it's the Rivesaltes showing itself. There's a little peat smoke as well, but only a trace.

Texture: Rich & funky. medium weight, far less hot than the Barolo cask despite the added 5% ABV.

Taste: More chocolate! Fruit & nut semi-dark chocolate, and a little more of that lanolin and shredded coconut, and the toasted oak. Some dried fruit, and a touch of dry earthy peat.

Finish: Medium length. A little spice initially, then that sweet, syrupy & musty dessert wine, more lanolin, dried stone fruit and a flash of earthy peat.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Very nice! Totally different to the Barolo cask, as it should be of course, but it's much richer, and more mature in my humble opinion. Really enjoyable, and I'm loving that lanolin note that I don't remember finding before to this degree. It's a big whisky of course but it's not hot or aggressive with the alcohol being well hidden, and the flavours carry through very well. Great stuff.

Overall Notes: Two extremely different whiskies! Both a surprisingly light on the peat and smoke, in fact they're very different animals compared to the other cask strength Port Charlottes that I've tried at a similar age. But that's the beauty of single cask whiskies of course, no two are the same, as nature intended. There's no denying how special these drams are, being hand-filled single cask Port Charlottes that have come from that cosy haven of a shop / visitor's centre at the distillery, there's no more where they came from. And being matured in usual cask types just adds to that allure, which is often the case with these valinch bottlings from Bruichladdich.

Obviously the Barolo cask and I didn't quite hit it off, and the Rivesaltes cask absolutely smashed it despite the not-insignificant jump in strength. I suspect that given these two in a blind tasting I would've guessed the latter to be older than the former, which isn't the case, I'm assuming it was just a more active cask. Nonetheless, knowing where these whiskies came from takes me right back to that grey, rainy "dreich" day on the shore of Loch Indaal, when the rain started as I arrived and stopped as I departed, and I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. I can't wait to get back there again in a couple of month's time!