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Sunday, 17 March 2019

Port Charlotte MRC01 Whisky Review!

A new Port Charlotte release that is very exciting! And it's cask strength Port Charlotte, so it's already following a winning recipe...

Port Charlotte is Bruichladdich's heavily peated whisky, named after the village of Port Charlotte down the road from Bruichladdich, as a homage to the Loch Indaal Distillery that closed in 1929. Weighing in at 40 ppm on the malt, Port Charlotte sits between the distillery's unpeated Bruichladdich whisky and the super-heavily peated Octomore whiskies. But don't panic, there's still plenty of smoke to be found here. The Port Charlotte "brand" has undergone something of a refresh in the last year or so, re-launching during the 2018 Feis Ile celebrations with new expressions, a new bottle and label design, and a renewed spotlight on this often (wrongly) overlooked whisky. Since then we have seen a new permanent addition to the Port Charlotte range, the 10-year old, and a new 2011-vintage Islay Barley expression (both reviewed here) in the new packaging. Both of those great whiskies now include wine casks in their recipes / vattings, and are very reasonably priced, and although I preferred the Islay Barley expression when first introduced to them, I now have trouble picking a winner between the two. And now we have a brand new and very exciting addition to the range, a cask strength expression that has spent time in French red wine casks!

My level of anticipation is very high for this one. Even higher than it always is for each whisky that Bruichladdich release, in fact, because the seed had already been planted by a very special cask that was sitting in that cold, damp warehouse at Bruichladdich during my first pilgrimage to the Hebridean paradise of Islay. The entire experience at that warehouse tasting was phenomenal, but despite being a huge Octomore fan, on that occasion it was the Port Charlotte cask that really blew me away. It was a fully-matured Bordeaux red wine cask, at 12-years of age and 57% ABV, and it was one of the whisky highlights of that entire pilgrimage to Scotland. This whisky is a little different, and of course it's not really fair to compare it to a single cask that was specially selected for the warehouse tastings at the distillery, but (spoiler alert) it's a fantastic dram. Port Charlotte MRC01 is a 7-year old whisky that was distilled in 2010 from Scottish barley peated to 40 ppm at Bairds Maltings in Inverness, and was matured in 50% first-fill bourbon casks and 50% second-fill French wine casks for six years, before being married together and finished (or additional cask enhanced - ACEd -  in 'laddie speak) for a further year in first-fill red wine casks from the Bordeaux region of southern France. It was bottled at a strength of 59.2% ABV, and of course is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured.

Given the name (or codename) of this bottling, the astute wine buffs have probably already guessed where those finishing casks came from. Unfortunately Bruichladdich aren't allowed to say anything more than "the left bank of the Bordeaux region", which is home to over 200 producers of many different types of wine. These acronyms are going to be the standard for Port Charlotte going forward, and they've already been used to great success in bottlings like the travel-exclusive CC01 (cognac cask), and the more recent of the distillery exclusive Valinch bottlings. In this case we can reasonably deduce that those casks came from a particularly famous producer in the Paulliac appellation that can be traced back to the 18th century. These casks would certainly not have come cheap!

This is the first general release (i.e. not travel- or distillery- exclusive) high strength bottling of Port Charlotte in quite a while. At least it is if you don't consider Bruichladdich's current standard bottling strength of 50% ABV to be high enough! If memory serves the last was the extremely limited (6,000 bottles) PC10 cask strength bottling from 2011, which I don't believe ever made it to Australia, and which is not to be confused with the 'regular' bottlings of 10-year old Port Charlotte - of which there have now been three different versions. MRC01 is not yet available in Australia, but it's on the way, and at a series of recent tastings hosted by the magnificent Chloe Wood, Bruichladdich's Asia Pacific Brand Ambassador, and Mark Hickey of Australian distributor Spirits Platform, a lucky few were given the chance to pre-order a bottle or two before they arrive in April. And yes, I'm already on the list! There's no official figure on the number of bottles in this release, but sadly only a very small quantity are going to make the lengthy voyage to Australia. After a fantastic tasting in Brisbane at the end of Chloe's extremely busy tour, where the MRC01 was the stand-out whisky of an already excellent line-up, I was lucky enough to secure a little extra sample for this review. So let's get to it!

Port Charlotte MRC01 2010, 59.2% cask strength. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled in 2010 from Scottish barley peated to 40 ppm, matured in 50% first-fill ex-bourbon & 50% second-fill ex-French wine casks for 6 years, married & finished for 1 year in Bordeaux wine casks. Natural colour, non-chill filtered.

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Lovely. Fruity, softly spicy & smoky. Charred BBQ smoked meats, warm charcoal briquettes, a flash of salted lemon, drying kelp and warm asphalt. Dried cherries and grilled peaches, and a little brown sugar. Time brings out more spicy wood smoke (mesquite?) and hints of gristy malt in the background.

Texture: Lovely again. Medium-heavy weight, lightly oily. Remarkably mellow for 7 years of age and over 59% ABV.

Taste: Sweet fruity entry, with more cherry and peach, plus some plum and a little nectarine now. And they're all caramelised & lightly charred from the grill. Then a gorgeous wave of that thick sweet & spicy BBQ wood smoke, with a little drying wood ash. Some thick butter & brown sugar caramel underneath.

Finish: Medium-long length. That sweet & spicy wood smoke carries through, with some grilled salted lemon, and all of that grilled stone fruit again, but with the brown sugar caramel served alongside for dessert. There's a little medicinal edge coming through the smoke to finish, like a freshly unsealed but older bandage.

Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Notes: Picture a wood-fired BBQ full of charred smoked meat and caramelised stone fruit with a few squirts of lemon over the top, and let that soak in. That's where this whisky takes you. And it's absolutely fantastic! This is no massive Islay peat bomb, but the volume, complexity and balance of flavour on offer here is really remarkable. Especially considering the age and ABV. But rest assured, there's still plenty of smoke to be found in this Port Charlotte, and it's a delicious sweet and spicy wood smoke that has worked perfectly with those French wine casks. This is a great example of what Port Charlotte is all about. It stands apart from all of the other Islays, it's approachable and enticing, and it's capable of absolute magic!

It's looking like MRC01 will be quite reasonably priced as well, so if you get the chance to grab one of these, I suggest you do so immediately. This is an excellent example of what this versatile and yes, progressive, Islay distillery does. Hats off to Bruichladdich, you've nailed it again!


Sunday, 10 March 2019

Bruichladdich Rocks Whisky Review!

Yes, Bruichladdich does rock! But this is actually a long-discontinued expression that was distilled not long after the distillery's resurrection, and was available from 2007-2013. Exciting stuff!

Much has been said of Bruichladdich's rescue at the hands of Mark Reynier, Simon Coughlin and Jim McEwan (and others) back in 2001, who resuscitated the distillery after a six-year sleep. Plenty of equipment & building repairs were required following the neglect that the site had suffered at the hands of it's previous owners over that time, but there's now no doubt that it was all worth it. The distillery is unquestionably a powerhouse these days, and thanks to the recent purchase by Remy Cointreau there's no sign of that changing in the future. In fact the new owners are investing in expansion, and I get the feeling that the new backing will allow the distillery to move forward on plenty of projects that have been in the pipeline or on the sideline for a long time. Case in point is the recent announcement that Bruichladdich now has its own farm set aside for growing their own barley on Islay, meaning that once the planned floor maltings are built they'll be the second Islay distillery to grow, malt and mill their own barley, and then mash, ferment, distill, mature and bottle their spirit on-site. Very exciting times ahead!

I've only tried a couple of the un-peated Bruichladdich bottlings from this earlier era (not including the peated Port Charlotte and super-heavily peated Octomore), and they are few and far between these days. The older bottlings that are currently available such as the Black Art series were all distilled prior to the 1995 closure, and are understandably getting very expensive now. On the other hand the contemporary young Bruichladdich whiskies are of consistently excellent quality, and are essentially what the distillery is now known for. Bright, fresh, and delicious un-peated malt-forward drams with loads of character and loads of maturity for their age. The earlier young bottlings were a little different in style, and were arguably less focused on barley and - in 'laddie speak - "uber-provenance" than they currently are, and in my admittedly limited experience they were also less consistent. But the living legend Jim McEwan of course was - and still is - a master of his craft, and without his input Bruichladdich would have been very different to what it is today. So getting the chance to try any of his early work at Bruichladdich is always very special!

The expression that we're looking at today, 'Rocks', was part of a series of three bottlings that were inspired by the distillery's surroundings. The other two in the series were 'Waves', referring to Loch Indaal over the road from the distillery and the Atlantic Ocean that feeds it, and 'Peat', which shouldn't need any further explanation! What's more interesting here is that all three of these releases were peated, and peated to different levels, and as you'd expect Waves and Rocks were only very lightly peated. Waves was finished (ACE'd, in 'laddie speak) in Madeira casks, Peat was fully-matured in bourbon casks but was a mix of Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore spirit, and Rocks was finished in French Syrah red wine casks. Rocks was the least peated of the three, and was also the last to be discontinued back in 2013. The name of this expression refers to the Rhinns of Islay, the rocky area on the western side of the island that is home to the distillery and it's water source. Rocks is an NAS vatting of 6-9 year old casks, married together and finished in those Syrah casks for around 9 months, and is bottled at 46% ABV which was then the standard bottling strength (it's now 50%). Since it's a Bruichladdich it is of course non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. There are a few murmurings on the 'net that this single malt was designed to be served on the rocks (with ice), but I can't find anything official on that anywhere, nor on the packaging, so I don't think that's the case. Either way, just neat for me thanks!

Bruichladdich Rocks, NAS, 46%. Islay, Scotland.
Very lightly peated, vatting of 6-9 year old ex-bourbon casks finished in Syrah red wine casks for around 9 months. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Fresh, fruity & peppery, not as bright, sweet or clean as more modern Bruichladdichs, but that could be down to those wine casks doing their thing. It has a little yeasty funk to it as well, not the usual 'laddie lactic note. Light wine tannins, acidic pear drops, and a mild red grape must. A nice sweet vanilla bean paste and some fresh lemon juice coming through with more time.

Texture: Medium weight, lightly astringent & drying, a touch of peppery heat on entry but pleasant.

Taste: Peppery wine tannins, a little semi-sweet honey & citrus, dry mild chilli spice, like Szechuan peppercorns. More of that yeasty funk which is different but enjoyable. Light salty tang as well, reminds me of iodised table salt.

Finish: Medium length. Those spicy dry peppercorns follow through but the fruit then takes over, a nice mix of green / under-ripe tropical fruit, those acidic pear drops and that red grape must. The salt comes through again too but with more power, like a salt lick, which turns to a drying & lightly astringent minerality as it tapers off.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Interesting stuff! An enjoyable dram that reminds me a little of the old WMD II 'yellow submarine' bottling that I first tried a while ago. It's more musty and funky than we now think of with Bruichladdich, but that wine cask finish, or ACE for Additional Cask Enhancement in 'laddie speak, is probably responsible for some of that difference. That's not a criticism by any means mind you, it's just different, which is never a bad thing!

Those wine casks have definitely had an effect, perhaps adding more complexity, but they haven't overtaken the spirit and it all works quite well together. That saltiness is very enjoyable too, in fact this is probably the saltiest Bruichladdich bottling that I've come across to date, and I like how it turns into an ozone-y minerality on the finish - definitely evoking the rocks & the Rhinns that the whisky was named after! If you're a 'laddie fan and you stumble across a bottle of this long-discontinued expression, it's definitely worth picking up for near its original price. But I wouldn't spend up big on a bottle of Rocks when the current range of young Bruichladdichs is just so damn good...


Sunday, 24 February 2019

Puni Nero Whisky Review!

An Italian whisky! This is a first for me, and something tells me it's going to be an interesting one...

Puni Distillery is the only whisky distillery in Italy, located near the Swiss border in the Italian alpine region in the far north of the country, around four hour's drive north-east of Milan. This family-owned distillery is named after the nearby Puni River, and is housed in the very modern cube-shaped building pictured above (no whitewashed stone here!), which was built in 2010 with production commencing in 2012. But there seem to be a few points of difference in the whisky itself that are a little different from the norm. Puni's whisky is made from a mix of malted barley, malted rye and malted wheat. Yes, rye and wheat can also be malted, but the addition of these two other grains (whether malted or 'green') make this a grain whisky, not a malt whisky, by the Scottish regulations. Italy is not in Scotland of course, and the European Union whisky regulations only state that whisky must be "made from malted cereal grains, with or without whole grains of other cereals" which is very vague, and there is no provision for terms like single malt, malt whisky or grain whisky in their definitions. Puni have chosen to call their product "Italian Malt Whisky", which is obviously fine by the EU definitions, and all of the grain used has been malted, so it does make sense.

The majority of the EU whisky definitions do match those of the Scotch Whisky Association, including the minimum 3 year age and 40% ABV bottling strength, the maximum 94.8% ABV distillation strength and 700-litre cask size, and E150a caramel colouring being the only permitted additive. But those casks are only required to be "wooden", oak is not specified like it is in Scotland and the United States. Many countries around the world have ambiguities like this - and often more - in their definitions and regulations, including Australia & Japan. But many of the quality international producers do choose to follow the Scotch whisky regulations, and it'd be nice to get everyone on a more even playing field, wouldn't it? There's no questioning the massive effect that the use of different grains make to a whisky, with spirits predominantly distilled from rye, wheat, corn and barley being markedly different from one another. I must admit the use of different wood types for whisky maturation would be an interesting thing to explore, and a few "new world" distilleries have started doing just that. But there are already hundreds of different oak species out there, so there's already plenty of room for more exploration and experimentation in that area than seems to be happening at the moment.

Back to the subject at hand. Two of those three different malted grains, the rye and wheat, are sourced locally from northern Italy, while the barley is apparently imported from nearby Austria. The local South Tyrol region was actually part of Austria prior to World War II, to the point where the majority of the population have Austrian names and speak a mix of Italian and Austrian. Aside from the grains used production at Puni is otherwise traditional, being mashed on-site, using wooden washbacks for fermentation and being double distilled in Scottish-built copper pot stills that were built & installed by Forsyths in Speyside. Puni use a number of different cask types for maturation, from virgin oak and ex-bourbon to Marsala and Pinot wine, to PX sherry and refill ex-Islay whisky casks, and some of those casks are actually matured underground in re-purposed WWII-era bunkers. The distillery also benefits from the wide variances in the local climate, from warm temperatures in the mid-twenties in summer to below freezing in winter, which helps give the maturating casks a hurry-up.

The Puni expression we're looking at today is Nero (Italian for "black"), which refers to this whisky being matured in casks that previously held Pinot Nero red wine, which is the Italian term for Pinot Noir, sourced from local wineries. This expression did win the World Whiskies Award for best Italian single malt in 2017, but let's remember that there is only one Italian whisky distillery, and by the most widely-accepted definition of the term this isn't exactly single malt, so let's not get too caught up in that. This sort of situation does highlight the frivolity of some of these international whisky awards, particularly when they're very effective marketing exercises for the entrants and subsequently the awards themselves. Puni Nero is an age-stated (which should be commended) 3-year old whisky bottled at 43% ABV, and is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. This is the 2016 bottling which is still readily available in Australia for around $140 AUD, with only 3000 bottles released. Let's give it a go...

Puni Nero, 3-years old, 43%. Glorenza, Italy. 
Distilled from malted barley, malted rye & malted wheat. Matured in local ex-Pinot Nero (Italian Pinot Noir) casks. 2016 release, 3,000 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Light & fruity, quite wine (grape) forward to start with. Musty, gamy red grapes, a little mint, some dry herbal honey and light toasted oak. Touch of coconut around the edges. Spicy grain and dark chocolate with more breathing time.

Texture: Light-medium weight, but lightly flavoured. Slight touch of heat on the back end.

Taste: Spicy, quite rye forward here. Toasted grain and a little yeasty rye bread. More gamy and musty red grapes, but much lighter here than it was on the nose. A little powdery dark chocolate as well.

Finish: Short & light. Flashes of coconut and chocolate again, but the rye spices are still the main player. Fades quite quickly with a little musty grape and a touch of prickly heat on the tongue.

Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Notes: A pleasant drop, night and light and fruity, with a refreshing spice to it. And that's coming from someone who doesn't exactly love grain whisky in most cases. I wonder what proportion of each grain were used in this one? This Puni would make for a good summer's day dram I'd say, and it'll be to the liking of fans of spicy red wines as well. It's a little unfamiliar to the malt drinker, but that's not a criticism. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

Overall it's a good showing from a young and very "new world" distillery, and it's well worth a shot when you're looking for something a little lighter and a little refreshing.