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Sunday, 15 July 2018

Ardbeg Renaissance Whisky Review!

A rather rare Ardbeg, and only my second venture - so far - on "The Path to Peaty Maturity". Ardbeg is still one of my favourite distilleries, and it was the first major stop on my pilgrimage to Scotland last year. So this review is very exciting for this particular Ardbeg-head!

As Ardbeg fans will know, the distillery was brought back from the brink of extinction in 1997 by The Glenmorangie Company (now owned by LVMH), when it purchased the down-trodden and neglected distillery from Allied Distillers. The previous two decades had not been kind to Ardbeg, being closed or "mothballed" from 1981 to 1989, when it came under the umbrella of Allied Distillers, who also owned Laphroaig in the same period. But under their ownership Ardbeg was only producing spirit for two months of each year, operated mostly by Laphroaig staff in the quieter periods of the year, between 1989 and 1996, when the distillery was again closed.

Around a year later Glenmorangie came to the rescue, and immediately began getting the distillery back up to scratch. The buildings and equipment needed a great deal of work, and a number of changes were made before the first distillation run under the new owners took place a few months later in June of 1997, before production shut down for another 6 months soon after for further maintenance & repair work. Ardbeg's whisky had already started to gather a cult following at this point, no doubt helped by the scarcity at the time, and the distillery's revival saw the quick introduction of the much-lauded 17-year old and 1978 vintage bottling, while work commenced on a new visitor's centre and the now famous Old Kiln Cafe. That work may sound unremarkable now, but remember that this was two decades ago, and the whisky world (and Islay) was a very different place! Thanks to all of that work and subsequent efforts, there's absolutely no questioning Ardbeg's future now, in fact expansion plans were announced earlier this year, and the well-deserved cult following that the distillery now enjoys is no secret.

After production started up again in 1998 and ramped up towards the turn of the millennium, Ardbeg embarked on a special project, and a clever strategic move. That move was a series of official bottlings that commemorated their spirit coming of age, which enabled the Ardbeg fan to follow their spirit as it matured, with the final goal being the first 10-year old Ardbeg that was distilled under their ownership. The 10-year old Ardbeg expression had already been released around the year 2000, and Uigeadail followed a few years later, but they were bottled from existing stock that was produced under the previous owners. Known as "The Path To Peaty Maturity", there were four separate releases in this series, all limited releases that were distilled in 1998. All were matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, and all were bottled at their true cask strength without added colouring or chill filtration. Oh, and that old still (pictured above) that you may have seen in Ardbeg's car park was still in use when these bottlings were distilled. So these are rather special whiskies, and are basically the only way to sample progressively maturing Ardbeg in perhaps its purest form. I've been lucky enough to review some older releases of Ardbeg before, the favourites so far being the incredible Supernova bottling from 2009, and a 22-year old independent bottling of 1975 Ardbeg from Gordon & Macphail, but neither of those are representative of how Ardbeg as we now know it. So this series is very special to us Ardbeggians!

The "path" started in 2004 with the now-unobtainable "Very Young", which was a 6-year old Ardbeg. Obviously that is now the most difficult to source, and you'll need to resort to overseas auctions to find one. And you'll need a clear credit card. The second bottling was "Still Young", an 8-year old Ardbeg bottled in 2006. That one can still be found in specialist retailers, and you'll be looking at around $500 AUD. I had the pleasure of tasting it in London last year, and it was very, very good. Young, gristy (malty) Ardbeg with plenty of peat & citrus. The third bottling was "Almost There", a 9-year old Ardbeg bottled in 2007. That one is a similar story, a couple of specialist retailers still have stock, and you're looking at around $450 AUD to own one. The last bottling in the series was named  Ardbeg Renaissance (referring to the revival of the distillery), a.k.a "We've Arrived!" as per the timeline on the packaging, which as you can probably guess is 10-year old Ardbeg, bottled in 2008. It can also still be found, and you'll be looking at around the $500 AUD mark again. And it's the subject of tonight's review!

Now at this point you may be thinking "but it's just 10-year old Ardbeg, I can get that for $75!". Of course you can, but you probably can't get one that was bottled a decade ago, matured in all first-fill casks (the modern 10 year old is a mix of first-fill and re-fill casks), and most importantly you definitely can't get one that was bottled at cask strength, 55.9% ABV in this case. And for what it's worth, the original retail price from the distillery was - wait for it - a whopping 41 pounds sterling, which is around $73 AUD. For a limited edition, commemorative bottling of cask strength Ardbeg with an age statement. Times really have changed in the last 10 years! To my knowledge there has only been two other bottlings of cask strength Ardbeg 10, one of which was exclusive to Japan that was bottled in 2003 (so distilled pre-Glenmorangie), and the second was the first release (and only the first release) of a bottling named "Ardbeg Mor" that was bottled in 2007 (so likely also pre-Glenmorangie spirit), which only came in a massive 4.5-litre bottle! So this Renaissance is pretty damn special, and the anticipation is high for this particular Ardbeg fan! I was lucky enough to find an open bottle on a recent trip to Perth, and just had to bring a sample home to review. Let's do this!

Ardbeg Renaissance "We've Arrived", 10-year old, 55.9%. Islay, Scotland.
The first 10-year old that was distilled under Glenmorangie ownership. Distilled 1998, bottled 2008. Matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, bottled at cask strength. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Pale gold, but significantly darker than the regular 10-year old.

Nose: Ooh, nice! Loads of brine, and a little drying seaweed, and a generous serve of sweet vanilla ice cream with dark chocolate shaved over the top. Sweetened lime juice, black jelly beans (aniseed / licorice flavour), and black pepper corns. A little salt-crusted driftwood, and some old marine rigging, as in those tarry old ropes that Ardbeg are noted for. 

Texture: Lovely. Medium weight, lightly oily, smoky, sweet & warming. A slight touch of heat on the edges, but in a very pleasant way.

Taste: Sweet, floral entry, then it explodes a half-second later with a big whack of dry, spicy peat and ashy bonfire smoke. That fades relatively quickly but doesn't let go completely, and then there's more vanilla ice cream, more brine, and a decent pinch of cracked black pepper. Then some bitter oak, a little ginger, and dried woody herbs. 

Finish: Long. That spicy peat, ashy smoke and black pepper carry through, the black jelly beans come back, and there's that light bitterness again. Then the brine and vanilla ice cream return and hang around to the end, with flashes of more ginger, and a little citrus along the way.

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: As expected, it's pure, unadulterated Ardbeg, and it's beautiful! Renaissance is very much like the 10-year old, but with the volume turned up quite a bit, and the sweetness turned down quite a bit. The nose on this one is just outstanding, and it is slightly reminiscent of that '09 Supernova. But only slightly. The bitterness on the palate and finish is a little surprising, almost hinting towards a cask-strength Lagavulin actually, but it does add depth and doesn't get in the way of the rest of the show. Don't go looking for any fancy cask influence or weird & unusual flavours here, that's just not what this story is about, but every now & then it's nice to get back to basics to recalibrate and rediscover.

In fact it's been a while since I last tasted such a pure, clean expression of Ardbeg that hasn't been messed with in any way, and getting back to the "original recipe" is like reconnecting with an old friend. That classic combination of sweet, peat and brine, plus the black pepper & lime juice, is Ardbeg in its purest form. These "Path to Peaty Maturity" bottlings are mostly collector-fodder now, and I can certainly understand why, since they're effectively a permanent marker on the Ardbeg timeline, but the two that I've now tasted also make for tasty dramming. This one may not push any boundaries or attract much attention from the whisky "glitterati", but if you're an Ardbeg fan you'll want to get your hands on a dram of this one at some point, even if only to tick it off the list, or for a fleeting glimpse back to the end of the beginning for the Ardbeg that we all know & love. But it also won't disappoint when it comes around to tasting time. Now I need to track down a dram of the other two stops on the "path"...


Sunday, 8 July 2018

Signatory Vintage Bruichladdich 26 Year Old Whisky Review!

I think this might actually be my first encounter with an independent bottling of unpeated Bruichladdich. And it certainly won't hurt that it's a cask strength, 26-year old single cask...

Which actually also makes this the second-oldest Bruichladdich I've ever tasted! The oldest so far was a 28-year old ex-bourbon 'laddie, drawn straight from the cask during the warehouse tasting at the distillery last year (detailed here), which was exceptional. This independent bottling from Signatory Vintage is from a similar era, but is from a refill sherry cask and is slightly higher in strength, so it should be quite special! It's from Signatory's Cask Strength series, which are mostly single casks, and all that I've tried so far have all been very enjoyable (highlights to date are this Ledaig, and definitely this Port Ellen!). Signatory Vintage would have to be one of my favourite independent bottlers, and their official Australian importer The Whisky Company is doing a great job of bringing us quality bottlings, either from uncommon distilleries or different styles of whisky from old favourites, which is exactly what a good independent bottler does!

This whisky was distilled in 1990, which is the same era that most of Bruichladdich's mysterious Black Art official bottlings were distilled in, at a time when the distillery was owned by Invergordon, now part of the Whyte & Mackay liquor company after a takeover in 1993. That decade was not kind to Bruichladdich, which had been producing on a reduced basis through the 1980s and early 90s, before being closed down altogether in 1995. The distillery then sat silent for six years until it was rescued by Mark Reynier and his group of investors, along with the legendary Jim McEwan, who nursed the distillery back to health, and the distillery has been going from strength-to-strength ever since. In fact they far-surpassed anything that previous owners have accomplished, and Bruichladdich is now unquestionably one of Islay's finest. The Black Art series was very cask dominated though, and used a variety of unusual casks, whereas this is a single refill sherry cask, presumably Oloroso. So it should be quite a different experience.

Independent bottlings of Bruichladdich, along with the distillery's heavily peated Port Charlotte and Octomore brands, are becoming more common these days, reportedly due to a large amount of privately-owned casks being sold off just prior to the distillery being purchased by Remy Cointreau in 2012. But a 26-year old bottling is far from common, particularly one that was matured in a sherry cask, in this case a single 500-litre refill (meaning that it had been used for whisky maturation previously) sherry butt, cask number 172. It was distilled on the 26th of September 1990, and was bottled on the 19th of July 2017, with a yield of 508 bottles at a cask strength of 56.0% ABV. Being a Signatory Vintage Cask Strength Series bottling of course means that it is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and you've got to love those very pretty decanter-style bottles. The sample for this review came from the aforementioned Australian importer, The Whisky Company. Let's get to it!

Signatory Vintage Bruichladdich 26-year old, 56.0%. Islay, Scotland.
Single cask #172. Distilled 26/9/90, matured in a refill sherry cask, bottled 19/7/17 at cask strength. Non-chill filtered, natural colour, 502 bottles. 

Colour: Amber. 

Nose: Ooh very nice, and very interesting! Darker in style than I expected, but in a great way. Musty and nicely spicy, with toffee apples and baked pears, some juicy golden raisins, and waxy candied lemon. Dark chocolate and spicy old (but not tired) oak. A little spicy cologne, some leather, treacle, and a hint of musty dunnage warehouses.  

Texture: Excellent. Medium weight, waxy and lightly oily. A slight touch of heat, but nowhere near 56% ABV worth. 

Taste: Delicious! There's almost a Campbeltown-like "funky" musty-ness to it, but more towards dank dunnage warehouses than the Springbank farmyard note. Love it! There's more dark chocolate, more treacle, a little salt, and more spicy oak, X-mas spices. Some waxy citrus, more juicy golden raisins, and even an unexpected puff of dry wood smoke!

Finish: Long length, warming. That delicious musty note carries through, that old musty oak and dank dunnage warehouse note. Then a little spicy wood smoke, fades quickly into some dates, more golden raisins and waxed lemons. 

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Wow, extremely impressive stuff here. Very nearly a 4.5 score in fact. And quite a different whisky to what I expected! That musty note is outstanding, almost Springbank- or sherried Tobermory-like, which is right up my alley. Really love the waxy-ness as well, and that apple, pear & citrus clearly show that the cask has not dominated the show here, despite it obviously being quite active. There were quite a few surprises in this whisky that I would not normally associate with Bruichladdich, which is one of the hallmarks of a great independent bottler if you ask me, and that little puff of wood smoke was quite unexpected! 

Great work as usual by Signatory Vintage. This isn't a cheap whisky if you're just looking at the dollar figure ($380-ish AUD), but for a cask strength, 26-year old single cask it offers excellent value for money, and it's priced very, very well compared to the current official bottlings of Bruichladdich of a similar vintage. Which is yet another hallmark of a great independent bottler! Get it while it lasts folks.

Thanks to Craig from The Whisky Company for the sample of this one, it was gone all too soon!


Sunday, 1 July 2018

Glendronach 19 Year Old Single Cask Whisky Review!

They're getting extremely expensive and scarce these days, but these Glendronach single casks are generally very, very good...

Glendronach are also one of the few distilleries that regularly bottle single casks for general release, not just exclusive or private bottlings, so amid the distillery's surging popularity the recent price increases are understandable. It has seemingly gotten to the point where each yearly batch release is now being immediately snapped up, much like the Ardbeg committee releases, Bowmore Feis Ile bottlings, or any Japanese whisky with an age statement... Unfortunately the most reliable source for these single cask bottlings is secondary market whisky auctions, at highly inflated prices of course, which then attract high freight costs and local duty, tax, fees and more tax depending on where you are in the world. And that is the situation with pretty much any highly collectable whisky in the current climate.

With that all said, if you're wanting a high quality, single cask, cask strength sherry bomb that is (sometimes) affordable for the average human, these Glendronachs are basically your safest option. For example, the "exceptional single cask" bottlings from Macallan are easily 10-times the price of a similarly-aged Glendronach single cask bottling, and are much harder to get a hold of, even if you have the Wall Street-level of disposable income that is required for entry. Although as a quick digression I must admit I recently had the honour of tasting one of those single cask Macallans, and it really was exceptional. Quite possibly the best younger Macallan I've ever tasted (and the nearest overall challengers were over 50-years old), and easily in the same league as some of the best single cask Glendronachs that I've come across, although very different in character.

Not to single out (pun intended) Macallan, but for a frame of reference Glendronach Distillery is also far smaller in terms of production and physical size, with a production capacity of around 1.5-million litres a year, compared to around 9-million litres per year from the previous iteration of Macallan Distillery. The new and recently opened-for-business Macallan Distillery is said to increase that capacity to around 15-million litres per year, from a whopping thirty-six stills. Yes, 36! Which makes Macallan the largest malt whisky distillery in Scotland, easily beating previous title-holder Glenfiddich. Glendronach is also surprisingly small in physical terms for such a revered distillery (more details here from my tour last year), with a small and very low-key visitor's centre, just two pairs of stills and six relatively small warehouses on site. But I'm still digressing, so let's get back on track...

I've reviewed a couple of these single cask Glendronachs before, an excellent 11-year old PX-finished general release, and a 20-year old PX-matured UK exclusive, both of which were extremely enjoyable. This particular single cask bottling, cask number 487, is another UK exclusive that was distilled in 1993 (said to be the best vintage for these single casks) and bottled back in 2012. It's a 19-year old whisky that was fully matured in a single first-fill Oloroso sherry butt (500-litre cask), which yielded 673 bottles at a cask strength of 54.2%, without any chill filtration or added colouring nasty-ness. Being distilled prior to the distillery's closure in 1996 means this whisky was made using the direct-fired stills which were converted to steam coils circa 2004, and it also means that some of the barley came from the distillery's tiny floor maltings, which were decommissioned in 1996. That little fact also means that some of that barley was originally very lightly peated, although it won't be at all detectable after 19 years in a first-fill sherry cask. The bottle that this sample came from was kindly donated by a fellow whisky nerd who purchased it at auction, which is never a cheap exercise with shipping and the ever-vigilant Australian Customs to contend with. Let's get to it!

Glendronach 19-year old single cask, 54.2%. Highlands, Scotland.
Cask 487, UK exclusive. Distilled 1993, matured in an Oloroso sherry butt, bottled 2012 at cask strength. Non-chill filtered, natural colour, 673 bottles.

Colour: Very dark amber.

Nose: Rich and spicy. Pinch of aniseed which is surprising, and loads of creamy milk chocolate. Sweet juicy stone fruit baked in syrup - peaches in particular, and a little plum & apricot. Some warm X-mas spices, black forest cake and a little soft old leather.

Texture: Lovely. Medium weight, syrupy & fruity. A little spirit heat, but not at all unpleasant.

Taste: Loads of juicy baked stone fruit again, but sans the syrup here. More wood spice, and loads of chocolate again, but it's semi-sweet dark chocolate here. Some bitter oak comes through as well.

Finish: Medium length. That bitterness carries through and intensifies a little, and the aniseed returns, but both do fade, letting that sweet stone fruit come back through. Creamy milk chocolate comes around again as well, with a little walnut, licorice and dried herbs to finish.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Very, very tasty stuff! For a while there I was of the mind that I preferred the PX versions of these single sherry casks, but the last couple of Oloroso-matured bottlings that I've tried now have me thinking that it's even between the two styles. Obviously the PX versions do tend to be sweeter, while the Oloroso casks are more spicy and intense, but that's all part of the fun! They're all sherry bombs to varying degrees, but there's much, much more to them. Which is a big part of Glendronach's allure! I must have tried around ten of these single casks now, and there were only two that didn't quite live up to my expectations, although that's probably because of the performance of the other eight! And that's the beauty of single cask whiskies after all, they're all different! If you ask me, even with the recent price rises on these single cask releases, there's still value to be had if you can afford the buy-in.

The nose on this particular Oloroso cask is absolutely fantastic, although I must admit that aniseed note is surprising and a little strange, as is the bitterness on the finish, but both do add to the experience and keep things interesting and challenging. I can see why the 1993 vintage is so well regarded. Glendronach are still the kings of sherry-land if you ask me, and I don't see that changing any time soon. Especially once the long-awaited return of the 15-year old comes through, which is rumoured to be happening in 2019, and it rejoins its brilliant stable mates. Long live the king!