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Sunday, 15 April 2018

An evening with Octomore!

I was lucky enough to tag along to the recent sneak-peek of the Octomore 8-series in Brisbane, expertly presented by Mark Hickey from Spirits Platform, Bruichladdich's Australian importers. Although most of the series was released in Europe around six months ago, they've still not landed here, but they're finally getting closer. That's often the price we peat-hungry Australians pay for living on the other side of the planet!

One major advantage to this delay was that all three general releases, being 8.1, 8.3 and 8.4 of the Masterclass Series will be available at the same time, rather than being staggered releases like they were in Europe and from the distillery itself. Octomore 8.2 is travel retail / duty free exclusive, like 6.2 & 7.2 before it. On second thoughts, that's really more of a disadvantage, financially speaking! This should help keep prices down a little too, since they're all being shipped together, but local pricing hasn't been confirmed as yet. Each of the three expressions are quite different from any previous Octomores, with both the core 8.1 and the 'virgin oak' 8.4 being eight years of age (most Octomores are 5-years old), and the 8.3 Islay Barley not only measuring in at a whopping 309 ppm on the malt, but also being part-matured (not finished or ACEd in 'laddie speak) in French red wine casks. To my knowledge, and to Bruichladdich's knowledge, that's the highest phenolic figure ever recorded. Oh yes! I have a complete review of this beguiling beastie on its own coming soon, so I'll just give a quick first impression for now, and focus more on Octomore 8.1 and 8.4 for the purposes of this write-up.

Mark took us through the history of Bruichladdich Distillery first, starting with the story behind the Harvey brothers in 1881, through to the resurrection at the hands of Mark Reynier, Duncan McGillivray and the legendary Jim McEwan. Mark also covered the philosophy behind the modern Bruichladdich, and it should be noted that it has not changed under Remy Cointreau ownership, in that they really do believe in the people, the ingredients and the terroir (sense of place / locality). They are also very progressive, constantly trying different things and breaking new ground, and going against the grain. He also explained that Bruichladdich don't use any Islay peat in their malting process, which makes sense as all malting is carried out by Bairds in Inverness. Even the Islay barley is shipped to the east coast to be malted, then shipped back to Islay for milling & mashing. Instead the peat used is sourced from the Caithness area (66%) in the north of Scotland, and the Aberdeenshire area (34%) towards the east coast of Scotland. We were actually joined by the CEO of Remy Cointreau on the night, plus their head of the Asia Pacific region and it was predominantly a trade tasting (meaning bar managers & experienced bartenders) so the pressure was really on for Mark, but he handled it excellently where most of us would've been sweating bullets!

We were actually the first to officially taste these whiskies in Australia, but I have to say "officially" there because one or two parallel importers brought in a few bottles months ago, so quite a few punters have already tasted the goods. But they of course were sold at an inflated price, whereas it sounds like the official pricing will actually be very reasonable. Which is great news!

First up of course was Octomore 8.1. As mentioned above, this release is 8-years old, with all previous '_.1' releases being 5-years old. It was distilled from Scottish barley that was peated to 167 ppm, and was fully matured in first-fill American oak ex-bourbon casks. But this is the Masterclass series of Octomore, so we get even more information than usual: we actually know which distilleries those ex-bourbon casks came from! In this case they were sourced from Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniels, Heaven Hill, Clearmont Springs and Four Roses. The barley for this bottling was all Scottish, and was peated to 167 ppm by Bairds in Inverness, after being harvested in 2007. It was bottled at 59.3% ABV, and a substantial 42,000 bottles were released.

Octomore 8.1 is a sweet, refined and surprisingly soft dram. Those further three years of maturation have certainly made a difference here, and you'd never guess it weighed in at 59.3% in strength. The nose had that wonderful Bruichladdich sour lactic note (termed 'baby vomit' by some, but us 'laddie lovers can't get enough!), plus creamy vanilla and a little oak, and subtle smoke. And there was plenty of barley character evident despite the peating level and active maturation. The palate was creamy, lightly citrus-y and soft, with the peat coming on in the finish along with light spices, plenty of wood smoke and a floral sweetness. As much as I love the young beastliness of the younger _.1 Octomores, this is a very interesting take which (at least if my memory serves me) is even softer than the recent 10-year old second release. This makes it a very easy drinking dram, I might even go so far as calling this a "session-able" Octomore!

Now it was time for the highly anticipated newly crowned champion of the ppm wars. Octomore 8.3 is back to the "normal" 5-years of age, to capture as much of that massive peat influence as possible, and it was distilled from Islay barley from James Brown's Octomore farm that was peated to an unprecedented 309 ppm. I don't think that astronomically high number will be beaten any time soon! 8.3 was matured in 56% ex-bourbon casks, and 44% French red wine casks from four different regions. This young Ileach was bottled at 61.2%, which might be down a little from the previous Islay barley Octomores (6.3 & 7.3,), but isn't exactly shy. There were 18,000 bottles of 8.3 released, and it's largely sold out in Europe, so this will be a very hot commodity when it lands in Australia. But as the kids say these days, "the hype is real". This Octomore, like all Octomores of course, does not disappoint.

The nose on this one is lovely, with plenty of smoky toffee, light grassy notes and smoked meat, and some sweeter lactic notes, and once again you wouldn't guess the strength, although our glasses had been breathing for quite a while (while covered). The palate is absolutely fantastic! I'll save the rest of my notes for the separate review that is coming soon, but I'll just leave it at this: this just might be my favourite Octomore of all-time!

And finally, the most recent and final release of the series, the partly-virgin oak matured Octomore 8.4. I loved 7.4, which was the first _.4 bottling, which had quite a complicated upbringing. This new version has a little less virgin oak maturation than its predecessor, but it's still had a complicated upbringing. 20% of this whisky was fully matured in virgin American oak casks, with the other 80% initially being matured in ex-bourbon casks, before being transferred to the French oak casks that were previously used for Octomore 7.4. Which essentially makes them refill French oak ex-Octomore casks. 8.4 was distilled from Scottish barley that was peated to 170 ppm, and aged for 8 years before being bottled at 58.7%. There were only 12,000 bottles released, and like the 8.3 I'd say this one won't last long.

Octomore 8.4 was more intense on the nose than the previous two drams, with lots of vanilla and a little coconut, light fruit and a subtle vegetal peaty note on the nose. On the palate it's very creamy and buttery, again with lots of vanilla, charred stone fruit plus a little spice and charred BBQ meats. The finish was more of the same with more BBQ meats, sweeter fruitiness and more buttery vanilla. I haven't tasted the previous 7.4 release for quite a while, but from what I recall I'd find it hard to pick a winner between the two. They're both excellent quality, like all Octomores of course, and they're also very different from each other. I guess you'd just have to have both, naturally! 8.4 was actually still maturing while I was on Islay in September last year, and I gave a few casks a reassuring pat during the warehouse tasting at the distillery. So it's pretty special to now be tasting the resulting whisky!

All said & done, my personal pick of the night was - no surprises here really - 8.3. The Islay barley Octomores really are amazing whiskies, and they're nowhere near as intimidating as the high figures and low ages may lead you to believe. But as expected all three of these whiskies are delicious, and they're all unlike any previous Octomores. Stock of all three expressions is due to land in Australia in June, and I'd say the (likely small) allocations of 8.3 & 8.4 won't last long at all. As I mentioned above pricing hasn't been confirmed yet since the ship is still on the water, but from the rumours I hear it sounds like they're going to be pretty reasonable considering the level of demand there is for this liquid, and considering what you're getting inside those slender bottles. I'll see you at the front of the line on release day!

A big thanks to Mark Hickey, Spirits Platform, Bruichladdich and Remy Cointreau for having me on the night. I can't wait to take an even closer look when the stock arrives in Australia. Although my wallet may not be as excited about it as I am...


Sunday, 8 April 2018

Gordon & MacPhail Balblair 1993 Whisky Review!

I've only had the chance to try a few examples of Balblair so far, but all have been excellent. There's a fantastic weighty, fruity and spicy quality to their malts that I'm a huge fan of. This is my first sampling of an independent bottling of Balblair, and it promises to be a real winner!

Balblair Distillery is located in the Highlands, near the town of Edderton on the east coast of Scotland, around an hours' drive north of Inverness. The distillery was first established in 1790, making it one of the oldest still-operating (pun intended) whisky distilleries in Scotland, and over 50 years older than its nearest neighbour Glenmorangie. However, in 1872 the entire distillery was moved less than a kilometre to be closer to the newly established railway, for easier logistics. Balblair was mothballed (industry speak for closed) in 1911, sleeping through the great depression, prohibition in America and both world wars, and did not produce again until 1949. But it's been going strong since, and is now owned by Inver House Distillers, who are now themselves owned by Thailand-based company International Beverage Holdings.

The main contributor to that weighty texture that I mentioned above is Balblair's pair of small, squat stills with short, fat, plain necks, providing minimal reflux and relatively low copper contact, which results in a robust and characterful new make spirit that matures very well. That single pair of stills gives the distillery a relatively low annual production capacity of 1.6 million litres of spirit, the majority of which is matured on site in eight traditional dunnage warehouses. Balblair are doing things a little differently with their official bottlings, in that they don't use age statements, instead preferring to bottle by vintage, as in the year of distillation, much like Glenrothes. So technically there's no precise age statement, but there's still a rough idea of the age of each bottling printed on the packaging. This can make things a little confusing in some cases, because there are often multiple releases that were distilled in the same year, which is why there are often "Second release" bottlings from the same vintage.

The bottling I'm looking at today, by way of a private sample trade, is from Elgin-based independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail, hailing from their excellent Cask Strength series. In this case the year of distillation was 1993, and it was bottled in 2017, making this whisky 23-24 years old, and it spent that entire time in a single first-fill ex-Oloroso sherry puncheon (500-litre cask). Cask #1964 was bottled at a cask strength of 49.6% ABV, and is non-chill filtered and naturally (and beautifully) coloured. So having spent nearly a quarter of a century in a first-fill sherry cask, I think it's safe to say that we've got sherry bomb on our hands!

Gordon & MacPhail Balblair 1993, 49.6%. Edderton, Highlands, Scotland.
Distilled 1993, bottled 2017. Matured in a first-fill ex-Oloroso sherry puncheon. Cask number 1964, G&M Cask Strength series. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Polished mahogany. Gorgeous.

Nose: Also gorgeous! Very rich, sweet and alluring. Lots of rich sherry, sweet raisins, soft wood spices, and soft velvety oak. Lots of sweet ripe red apples too, with brown sugar and a little light, sweet soy sauce in the background.

Texture: Medium weight, rich & lightly spicy. And no spirit-y heat.

Taste: Definitely a sherry bomb! Rich Oloroso with sweet, fruity spirit alongside. Nicely balanced with a little spice (clove, ginger) and a good pinch of rich nutty oak. A little dark chocolate and dried blueberries, and more red apple.

Finish: Medium length, but getting quite soft quite quickly. Warm wood spices to start, then some lightly bitter oak and some dark cocoa powder. Then the red apples come out in force, with a couple of dried berries and a little tropical fruit behind.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Lovely stuff! This Balblair definitely reminds me of an Oloroso-matured Glendronach single cask in its early 20s, but with the red apples and dried berries adding a nice point of difference. The finish is a little light in comparison though, so it doesn't quite have the staying power of the Glendronachs, but then it's also notably lower in strength in comparison to most of those. There's a stronger cask influence than I've experienced in a Balblair before, but the spirit has held up very well too, so it's a nicely balanced overall package. Which of course is always Gordon & MacPhail's standard operating procedure, and they're damn good at it!

Definitely well worth hunting down if you can find a bottle, especially if you're a fan of sherry monsters that also have a little more to offer. It was a little pricey when it was (relatively) widely available, at around $320 AUD, but when compared to those Glendronach single casks at a similar age you're looking at a good 50% saving with this Balblair. A rose by any other name...


Monday, 2 April 2018

Port Charlotte PC11 & PC12 Whisky Reviews!

Two cask strength, travel exclusive, age stated and sherry finished Port Charlottes! Yes please!

These are not easy whiskies to find in Australia, unfortunately. While some European general retail outlets somehow get their hands on some stock of these releases, in Australia they're confined only to the duty free (travel retail) stores. So the only way to get our hands on them (without resorting to overseas auctions) is to leave the country, or at least have a helpful family member leave the country temporarily. While they're significantly more expensive than the excellent Port Charlotte CC01 release (reviewed here) that has since been released, they are older whiskies and seemingly more scarce, and perhaps also more traditional. They're also quite possibly the last two releases in the "PC_" series of bottlings, which started with the 5-year old PC5 bottling back in 2006. That's not confirmed and is only my own assumption, but the 12-year old PC12 release was bottled back in 2014, and the aforementioned CC01, which is also cask strength and travel exclusive, was released in 2016. So I'm just joining the dots, but I could be wrong. As much as I love the cognac cask-matured newcomer, I do hope there's also a PC13, 14 or even a 15 also in the works! That said, I did spot a couple of rows of something very exciting during the 'laddie warehouse tasting while on the pilgrimage last year...

Enough said... very exciting!

Port Charlotte is of course Bruichladdich's heavily peated whisky, peated to 40 ppm, sitting comfortably between the un-peated Bruichladdich and the super-heavily peated Octomore, which to date has gone as stratospherically high as 309 ppm. While Octomores are also higher in strength and generally bottled at a younger age, don't take that to mean that Port Charlottes have a soft touch in comparison, particularly in their cask strength guises. They're still deliciously peaty whiskies, even in their teenaged years. And let's not forget that Octomore can be surprisingly refined despite its youth and the very high numbers. The name Port Charlotte refers to the village of the same name which is down the road from Bruichladdich on Islay, and was home to Loch Indaal Distillery, which closed in 1929. Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte is a homage to that long dead distillery, the product of which was said to be quite peaty and heavy in character, and the warehouses which are the last remnants of Loch Indaal Distillery are now home to some of Bruichladdich's maturing stock.

The PC11 and PC12 expressions that I'm looking at today are cask strength (59.5% and 58.7% respectively), age statement (11- and 12-years old, respectively) Port Charlottes that have both been matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished (ACEd) in ex-sherry casks. Thanks to very helpful Bruichladdich Brand Ambassador Chloe Wood I've learned that PC11 spent 9 years in those ex-bourbon casks, and was finished in Oloroso sherry casks for 2 years, with PC12 spending the same time in ex-bourbon casks and an extra year in sherry casks. So this wasn't a rushed six month finishing by any means, both of these whiskies have spent a substantial amount of time in sherry casks. These two were larger releases than the earlier bottlings in the series, with 12,000 bottles of each expression released, while the majority of the PC series consisted of only 6,000 bottles each. Speaking of the earlier releases, let's clear something up. While there was a 10-year old cask strength release in the PC series, aptly named PC10, there have also been two releases of 10-year old Port Charlotte, the first of which was bottled at 46% and the second at 50%. Some seem to also refer to these two bottlings as PC10, so it's important not to get them mixed up. The real PC10 is of course far rarer than either of those 10-year old general releases, and in fact I don't believe either it nor PC9 ever made it to Australia.

Another way to differentiate the PC series is the Gaelic names adorned on the labels & tins, which for PC11 is "Eorna Na h-Alba", which translates to "Scottish Barley", since it was made exclusively from Scottish barley. For PC12 the Gaelic name is the rather more difficult "Oileanach Furachail", which translates to something like "Attentive / Faithful Student", in reference to current head distiller Adam Hannett's long tutelage under the legendary Jim McEwan, although this whisky was bottled quite some time before Jim handed over the reigns. The PC12 can still be found in a couple of Australian duty free stores for $200 AUD, but the earlier PC11 is very scarce and would need to be found at auction or private sale. Naturally (pun intended) both of these whiskies are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, as is the Bruichladdich way, and we very rightly love them for it. This is going to be pretty special...

Port Charlotte PC11, 11-year old, 59.5%. Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland.
"Eorna Na h-Alba", translates to "Scottish Barley". Matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. Cask strength, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. 12,000 bottles, travel exclusive.

Colour: Dark copper.

Nose: Sweet, softly smoky & herbal. Rich, musty sherry, with sweet juicy raisins and grilled dark stone fruit, and lovely smoky barley. Fresh & sweet citrus juice and sea salt, and a little tar. Some treacle, and a little chocolate coated licorice.

Texture: Medium weight, oily and powerful, but no spirit-y heat or rawness. Just masses of flavour.

Taste: Rich & smoky. Much more smoky here in fact, a nice dry & spicy smoke, especially on exhale. More fruit & citrus, more semi-dark chocolate and a little aniseed. More dry & savoury overall than the nose, plus a lovely salty coastal peaty-ness that is refined, but not shy by any means.

Finish: Long, sweet & smoky. Plenty of dark chocolate and more sherry fruity-ness, plus a slight nutty-ness behind the licorice. With more time, that lovely coastal peat and a little spicy oak come out to play.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Lovely dram! Very well balanced, with nothing overwhelming anything else, but cask(s), spirit and peat all working together, and the overall result being deliciously refined and luxurious. It's still a smoky dram of course, but there's also much more to it. I love that the barley is still detectable on the nose as well, it's definitely a 'laddie!

Port Charlotte PC12, 12-year old, 58.7%. Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland.
"Oileanach Furachail", translates roughly to "Attentive / Faithful Student". Matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in ex-sherry casks. Cask strength, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. 12,000 bottles, travel exclusive.

Colour: Dark copper again, but a shade or two lighter (not as noticeable as in the photos).

Nose: Lighter and sweeter, with nice musty grapes, nutty sweetness and juicy over-ripe peaches, dried oranges and a couple of dried berries. The peat is there, but it's lighter, softer and a little dusty here. Some gristy malt, and dried oranges.

Texture: Medium weight, no heat again. Softer and juicier, but still fresh and characterful.

Taste: Sweet and juicy, lots of lighter fruits in syrup, some powdery, dusty and spicy peat. A mix of tropical and lighter stone fruit in fact, and a pinch of cinnamon. Slightly weighty dark caramel, with a hint of aniseed.

Finish: Medium length, lighter and sweeter again. Fruit syrup with the same juicy tropical- and lighter stone fruit, more of that powdery soft peat, another pinch of cinnamon, finishing with sweet fruit & wood spice.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Surprisingly different to the 11-year old, that extra year in sherry has certainly made itself known, it's softened everything up, and made the overall package much juicier and fruitier. This is a more refined and gentle dram, perhaps with a little less complexity than the younger sibling, and certainly less peat and smoke. That's not a criticism of course, it's just a different take.

Before we get into the overall notes, I have to mention a little something which was potentially disastrous for this review. This was not the first bottle of PC12 that I have opened recently. In fact the first was a very, very different whisky. It was full of sulphur! Not the full-on egg-y undrinkable sulphur that I've only experienced a couple of times, but nevertheless an unpleasant very rubbery, rotten vegetable sulphur that very nearly completely ruined both the nose and palate. It was from a batch bottled in July 2015, and it was so different (for the worse) to the PC12 I had previously sampled that I actually returned it to the retailer, who were helpful enough to swap it for another bottle from a different batch. Bad batches & bottles do happen, although this is certainly the most obvious difference that I've encountered to date, going far beyond the usual realm of "not quite as good". From the research that I've done, it seems to only be a very small minority of PC12 buyers that have encountered this (including Serge from whiskyfun), perhaps it was even only the one batch that was affected, but I can't be sure on that. Had I been stuck with the sulphured bottle, I would not and could not have reviewed it, since it would not be a fair representation of the vast majority of bottlings, and it would not have scored well either. What I can be sure on is that this replacement bottle is vastly superior, a completely different whisky in fact, and is certainly back up to the usual delicious 'laddie standards.

So, overall these are two surprisingly different whiskies. The PC11 takes the win in my book, but both are delicious drams. The 11-year old is stronger, more assertive and significantly peatier, while the 12-year old is softer, sweeter and fruitier, and more integrated. Both are certainly are lovely characterful and more refined takes on Port Charlotte compared to the younger bottlings we're all more familiar with. The difference in peat influence is interesting too, PC11 is lovely and smoky and coastal, while the 12 is much softer and more powdery and dusty, almost reminiscent of a Bowmore-style peat influence.

It's fantastic to see Port Charlotte entering its teenaged years, while the younger bottlings are still out there doing their thing. I'm a huge fan of the brand, while it seems to sometimes be overshadowed by Bruichladdich and even more so Octomore, these are not whiskies to overlook! I'm sure we'll be seeing more older expressions in the coming years, and I can't wait. I'm sure I'll be lining up (or trying to recruit a whisky mule for travel retail) to get my hands on a PC15 in the future.