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Sunday, 5 July 2020

Bruichladdich Australian Exclusive Single Cask Whisky Review!

The first Australian-exclusive Bruichladdich official bottling, and the first of their Micro-Provenance series to be sold here. Exciting stuff!

This one must have sneaked in through a side door during the chaos that was and still is COVID. There were no warnings, no pre-alerts, and no marketing activities prior to this special bottle of Bruichladdich landing in the country. And then suddenly it was here, and then we blinked and it was gone just as suddenly. There was no fanfare, but then it didn't need much fanfare. This nondescript looking bottle is the first-ever Australian-exclusive bottling of Bruichladdich, and the first-ever single cask Bruichladdich to be sold in Australia, and the first of the distillery's Micro-Provenance series to be officially imported into Australia. As soon as the 'laddie-faithful caught wind of this bottlings existence, its days were numbered. While the usual suspects of Melbourne & Sydney received the lion's share of bottles for retail sale, us Queenslanders had to fight over just 24 bottles, available from just two retailers - one in Brisbane and one on the Gold Coast. Needless to say they were gone very quickly, and you'll be lucky to see any left on a retail shelf in the entire country. Some of the 282 bottles that this cask yielded were held back though, most likely for events and for the on-premise  trade (bars & restaurants) who are only now beginning to revert to their full trading capacities. So with any luck, those who missed out - or are blissfully unaware - will still get the chance to try this precious liquid.

Bruichladdich's Micro-Provenance series, as you might have guessed, is about exploring (and experimenting with) variables like different barley varieties and barley sources, cask sizes and types, maturation locations, and the natural variance between individual casks. To use their full titles, these are "Micro-Provenance Cask Evolution Exploration" bottlings - which is quite a mouthful! All of these single cask bottlings are bottled at high strength - but not necessarily cask strength - and all list the barley variety that they were distilled from, the cask type they were filled into, the warehouse that they were stored in, and the exact dates of both distillation and bottling. They're usually only sold from the distillery's own website, but occasionally they're sold to specific distributors in specific markets, or specific customers, and they can occasionally be found in 200ml tasting sets in either Bruichladdich (unpeated), Port Charlotte (heavily peated) or Octomore (super-heavily peated) guise. This isn't the first Micro-Provenance Bruichladdich that I've had the pleasure of tasting - that honour goes to this exceptional Oloroso sherry cask that was bottled for Friends of Bruichladdich, followed by the 'Mp8' trio of 200ml Port Charlottes. That 'F.O.B' 15-year old Bruichladdich was fully-matured in a single sherry cask, which is a bit of a departure from the distillery's usual style - it's still the only fully Oloroso sherry-cask matured, a.k.a 'sherry bomb', official bottling of Bruichladdich that I've tasted.

This Australian-exclusive example is a little different. In some ways it's more typically Bruichladdich, being fully-matured in a wine cask, something much more commonly seen from this distillery. In this case that was a single Syrah wine cask, which is a heavier-style of French red wine that is similar to Australian Shiraz - in fact they both stem (pun intended) from the same grape variety. The finished wines tend to be different in style though, with Syrah being a lighter, less-intense style compared to the heavy tannic, peppery style of most Australian Shiraz wines. I'm not a red wine fan myself, and some red wine cask-matured (mainly Australian) whiskies don't push my buttons, but Bruichladdich seem to really know what they're doing with these casks. They have used Syrah casks a number of times in the past, with the delicious Octomore 7.2 (a mix of fully-matured ex-bourbon and ex-Syrah casks) probably being the most widely-known release. The other example that sticks in my mind is the distillery exclusive 'Valinch' hand-filled bottling that was available during my first visit to Islay back in 2017, which should make for an interesting comparison, although I can barely remember it now! This single cask Australian exclusive 'laddie was distilled on May 7, 2009 from Scottish Appaloosa barley - which is a two-row modern distiller's variety of barley. After ten years in that first-fill Syrah red wine cask, cask #1604, it was bottled on December 11, 2019 at an ABV of 62.7%, without any chill filtration or added colouring. The retail price on this one was $240 AUD, which is expensive, but not unreasonable considering that they realistically could've charged more and it would have sold out regardless. Let's do this!

Bruichladdich Micro-Provenance 10-year old, 62.7%. Islay, Scotland. 
Distilled 5/2009, fully matured in a single Syrah red wine cask, bottled 12/2019. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. Exclusive to Australia. 282 bottles, cask #1604.

Colour: Bronze.

Nose: Sweet, fruity & spicy. Stewed stone fruit, sweetened thick cream with a few berries thrown in, and red apples in the background. Some red grapes, mild tannins (wine rather than oak, I'd say), vanilla paste and roasted nuts - walnut and almond, maybe some hazelnut. Hints of liquorice and salted caramel fudge.
  Texture: Heavy weight, thick & rich. A little heat (it's nearly 63%, remember) but very pleasant.

Taste: Soft sweet entry that builds very quickly and turns slightly fatty, with sweet thick vanilla cream, more stewed stone fruit (plum, peach & apricot) and more roasted nuts. Spiced dark chocolate and some drying spicy oak, with a little chilli salt (jalapeno salt).

Finish: Long length. That spiced chocolate is still there but it's creamy milk chocolate now, and the roasted nuts and warming chilli salt as well, plus a hint of star anise. The stone fruity & cream again as well but the oak has dried things out a little and has boosted the spice. Poached pears with a little sea salt to round things out.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Very tasty, as expected! They've done a good job of choosing this cask I'd say, it'll suit the target audience nicely. Big flavours, overt wine cask influence, and big texture & finish. It's a fruity, flavourful whisky that is a different style of Bruichladdich to most of their current releases - although I'd love to do a side-by-side tasting between this single cask 'laddie and the MRC01 Port Charlotte - there's more wood and more punch, but with no shortage of richness. An Australian wine cask-matured whisky drinker will certainly find this to their liking, but it's softer on the wood, wine & tannins than most of those, and is definitely better balanced - which is a very good thing.

Since this single cask Bruichladdich has already sold out, it's a bit of a moot point, but any Australian 'laddie fan will want to get their hands on one of these. Just don't pay the flippers' prices if you can help it! Well done to Bruichladdich, and thanks for finally sending a single cask down under!


Sunday, 28 June 2020

Ardmore 20 Year Old Whisky Review!

Quite possibly the best Ardmore I've ever tasted, either from an official or independent bottling, and it certainly helps that it's an absolute bargain!

Ardmore is part of Beam Suntory's Scotch whisky empire, along with heavyweights like Laphroaig and Bowmore. But unlike those two brands you won't find many official bottlings of Ardmore single malt out there, mainly because most of the distillery's substantial 5.5-million litre production capacity goes into the parent company's main blended Scotch whisky brand, Teachers. Located in the Eastern Highlands around an hour's drive west of Aberdeen, Ardmore was founded in 1898. The distillery was purchased by Allied Distillers in 1976, itself sold to Beam Suntory in 2004, and the distillery has pretty much sailed under most people's radars ever since. The distillery's main claim to fame is the fact that its eight copper pot stills were direct-fired using coal, but they were converted to indirect steam-heating back in 2001, so aside from this limited release 20-year old and the even-rarer and also discontinued 25-year old, you won't find any of the spirit from those direct-fired days in the distillery's current range. Another major and less-publicised change happened in 2001, when the distillery switched from almost 100% peated (to roughly 15 ppm) spirit production to producing mostly un-peated spirit, officially known as Ardlair, and unofficially known as "Ardless". You won't find any official bottlings labelled as Ardlair, since it's strictly sold to blenders and independent bottlers, but it's also blended/vatted into some of the distillery's expressions, including the entry-level Ardmore Legacy. Which at the minimum strength of 40% ABV, plus NAS, chill filtered, artificially coloured and almost completely un-peated, isn't much of a legacy. It is priced quite well, though, at around $65 AUD.       

We don't see a lot of other Ardmore official bottlings in Australia. In fact, aside from that mediocre 'Legacy', you'll be hard-pressed to find anything at all. A few years ago we had the rather decent 'Traditional' expression (reviewed here) which was bottled at 46% and finished in ex-Laphroaig quarter casks. But that was discontinued, only to then reappear in both 40% and 46% ABV guises labelled as 'Traditional Peated' which for some reason is now travel / duty-free exclusive. But duty-free exclusive doesn't mean available in my book, so we won't count that one - particularly since almost nobody will be buying anything from an airport duty-free store anytime soon. Elsewhere in the world there's also a 12-year old Port Wood Finish, which is the only core range Ardmore to carry an age statement, and another travel-exclusive named Triple Wood, which is matured in three different sizes of American oak casks rather than the sherry cask finish that you'd expect from sister distillery Laphroaig's whisky of the same name. Why a large malt distillery with only four regular bottlings would choose to make two of those exclusive to airports and cruise ships, I can't say. But it's a shame, because there still aren't a huge number of peated mainland Scotch whiskies on the shelves, and some independent bottlings of Ardmore have shown that the distillery is capable of making very good whisky. As is the case with most of these quiet workhorse distilleries that mostly produce spirit for their owner's blends, this is where the independent bottlers come to the rescue. If you want a non-chill filtered, higher strength Ardmore, particularly with a bit of age (and age statement) to it, you'll need to turn to bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail or the SMWS. But this particular official bottling is certainly an exception to that rule!  

What we have here is actually rather exciting. This is a 20-year old official bottling of 100% peated Ardmore, bottled at a probably-cask strength 49.3% ABV, without chill filtration. Predictably, despite being released back in 2017 it was never officially imported into Australia, but it recently turned up at one Australian retailer (Nicks Wine Merchants) who do quite a lot of their own parallel importing, which means they source from overseas for their own store and bypass the official importers. That's helpful when an official importer passes on a particular whisky, as is the case here - because I think this Ardmore would completely change many whisky fan's views on the distillery. Nicks recently did a similar thing with a cask strength Glen Garioch (pronounced "Glen-geerie"), another Beam Suntory distillery that inexplicably isn't officially imported into Australia at all. Thankfully this retailer also keeps the pricing on these parallel imports at a reasonable level, and the stock doesn't tend to last very long! In this case, that reasonable price was $165 AUD, which is an absolute bargain compared to basically every other whisky of comparable age and strength. 

I first came across this whisky on my first trip to the British Isles back in 2018, where I found it on the shelves at The Whisky Exchange, for a total of 65 pounds. At the time, that was equivalent to around $110-115 AUD - for a (probably) cask strength, 20-year old official bottling of Ardmore single malt. Even untested, that is a very tempting impulse purchase, but I had tried it in a bar a few days prior so I knew it was actually an absolute steal, and I had to have one! I'm yet to open that bottle though, so when I spotted this whisky on Nicks' website, it was a light bulb moment. After a brief chat with two mates - not that they needed much convincing - we decided to split a bottle between us. And I'm very glad we did! This 100% peated 20-year old Ardmore has been fully matured in both first-fill ex-bourbon casks and refill ex-Islay whisky casks - given the distillery's ownership and past practices, that'll be ex-Laphroaig casks! And given that this single malt was distilled back in 1996, that means it was made when Ardmore's stills were still direct-fired using coal - and it's probably one of the last opportunities we'll get to taste that direct-fired spirit. Now being relatively lightly peated, and being a mainland peated malt, and being twenty years of age, we shouldn't expect an Islay or Island-style peat influence here. That's the case with Ardmore in general, and even in younger & higher strength independent bottlings I find it to be more leathery & earthy, sometimes with some dry wood smoke, rather than overtly peaty. Let's see how that's gone at twenty years of age, shall we?

Ardmore 20 Year Old, 49.3%. Highlands, Scotland.
Distilled 1996, matured in both first-fill ex-bourbon and refill ex-Islay (Laphroaig) casks. Non-chill filtered, possibly natural colour.  

Colour: Gold. Probably natural - probably.

Nose: Dusty, sweet red apple skins, old leather armchairs & creamy vanilla icing. White pepper, a little dry honey, sandalwood & clove spice. A subtle earthy peat smoke in the background, plus a little vanilla sugar.

Texture: Light-medium weight. Fruity & spicy (pepper), slightly waxy. No harsh spirit-y heat.

Taste: Waxy red apple skins, far less sweet here though, edging on dry. More creamy vanilla cake icing / frosting, ground white pepper, dry old leather & sandalwood. Something reminiscent of tarragon further in, with some dusty old charred oak & a slight spicy peat.

Finish: Short-medium length. More white pepper, dusty charred oak and old leather. Then red apple skins again, plus some dried lemon and vanilla paste - almost marzipan. Some smoked paprika & hint of whole peaches, dusted with that white pepper, to finish.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: It's not going to set the world on fire with any crazy tasting notes, but it's a delicious fruity & dusty / leathery dram that is certainly the best Ardmore official bottling that I've tasted. That leathery note is how I find that Ardmore's peat influence shows itself, I'd even pin it as their calling card, while the drying dusty-ness and white pepper are very nice additions, probably brought on by the extra age. That pepper nosing & tasting note by the way is not to be confused with alcohol heat - sometimes referred to as 'prickle'. There's not much overt peatiness to be found here, and what is there is soft, subtle & spicy. Can't say that I find much influence from the Islay casks either, they were probably a little tired, but that't no bad thing - the balance here works nicely and any overt Islay-ness probably would've stolen the show.

What is certainly easy to find here though is the value for money. This whisky is an absolute bargain for the ABV, age statement and flavour that is on offer. It's most likely sold out everywhere now, but if you do come across it - for a reasonable price - don't be afraid to grab it immediately. It'll also do nicely if you're yet to try an Ardmore, since it would have to be one of their best efforts!


Sunday, 21 June 2020

Octomore 10.4 Whisky Review!

The fourth & final instalment in my Octomore 10 review mini-series. Click here for Part 1, here for Part 2, and here for Part 3! The sample for this review was provided by Mark Hickey from Spirits Platform, the Australian distributors for Bruichladdich.

This is the youngest Octomore ever bottled, and the first to be fully-matured in 100% virgin oak. Very interesting, and very exciting!

While 10.4 is the third Octomore to be labelled / named as a Virgin Oak expression under the _.4 designation, it's actually the first to be fully-matured in virgin oak casks. As brilliant as the original 7.4 (reviewed here) was, followed by the slightly-tamer & less extreme 8.4 (briefly reviewed here), this new release promises to take the concept to a new & simpler level, with its young age of just three years, spent entirely in heavily-toasted (not charred) virgin French oak. That of course is the minimum age permitted for Scotch whisky, and as a matter of fact this is the first Octomore to be bottled at less than five years of age. For the record, 7.4 was a 7-year old Octomore, and while 25% of that vatting was fully-matured in virgin French oak, the remaining 75% took a leaf out of Amrut's book with sandwich/intermediate maturation rather than a basic finish / double-maturation, spending its first three years in ex-bourbon casks, then two years in virgin French oak casks, before going back to ex-bourbon casks for another two years. 8.4 on the other hand was an 8-year old Octomore where 20% was fully matured in virgin oak casks, but made from American Oak this time, with the remaining 80% being initially matured in ex-bourbon casks and then moved to the European oak casks that had been used for 7.4, making them second-fill virgin oak that had already been used once for Octomore maturation. See, I told you 10.4 was a simpler dram!

This 3-year old whisky promises to be quite divisive and quite different, even for an Octomore, with four main factors, that almost seem to contradict each other, making it difficult to know what to expect. On one hand is the minimum 3-years of maturation, promising a young & spirit-driven whisky, particularly at the high strength of 63.5% ABV. On the flip-side is a relatively low ppm figure for that super-heavily peated malted barley, measured at just 88 ppm - the second-lowest of any Octomore to date, only beaten by the first release Octomore 10-year old - which while still a relatively high number promises a softer smoke and peat level compared to some of the legendary 'peat monsters' such as 6.3 and 8.3. Then out of left-field we have the virgin oak maturation, promising a high level of cask / wood influence, and possibly taming that peat level even further. And then, getting geeky here, we have the fact that those casks were made from French oak, which would normally offer a spicy, tannic and very assertive wood influence. But here they've been heavily toasted, which is going to tame that wood influence, but having a different effect to the higher temperature and more intense charring procedure that is more commonly used when dealing with virgin oak - particularly in the bourbon industry, of course. See, I told you this was going to be an interesting whisky!

One quick note on the strength of this Octomore. You'll probably recognise the figure of 63.5% as the common filling strength for Scottish new make spirit that is being filled into casks, generally reduced (watered down) from the natural strength that resulted straight from the still. That designated filling strength is down to a couple of factors, but the main one is accounting purposes - it's easier to calculate duties & taxes, and easier to swap casks & sell spirit to other companies and other distilleries, when one spirit is the same strength as the other. But like only a few Scottish distilleries Bruichladdich choose not to do this, instead filling their casks at the natural distillation strength which obviously varies based on quite a few factors. This is why many cask strength bottlings of Bruichladdich come in at a higher ABV than similar bottlings from other distilleries, and also means that like the majority of Octomores, 10.4's bottling strength of 63.5% will not be the full / natural cask strength. But something tells me there won't be any lack of punch or lack of flavour here!

So what we have here is a 3-year old Octomore, distilled in 2016 from malted barley sourced from the Scottish mainland and peated to 88 ppm (using mainland peat, remember), fully-matured in heavily-toasted virgin French oak casks, before being bottled at 63.5% with no chill filtration or added colouring. 12,000 bottles were released of this one, and there's still a bit around in Australia - although unfortunately the pricing doesn't deviate from its older stable-mates. But virgin oak is an expensive exercise for a distiller, and crazy bottlings like this aren't easy to get across the line, nor are they seen on the shelves everyday - so it's going to sell regardless, and most Bruichladdich & Octomore geeks won't be able to resist, much like myself. Speaking of which, I can't wait any longer - time to taste what could well be the craziest Octomore bottling to date!

Octomore 10.4, 3-years old, 63.5%. Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland.
Distilled in 2016 from Scottish barley peated to 88 ppm, matured full-term in heavily-toasted virgin oak casks made from French oak. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 12,000 bottles.

Colour: Very dark amber. The power of virgin oak!

Nose: Whoa, this is a big, powerful dram. Hides it's strength and youth quite well on the nose, though. But it's a crazy one! Aged balsamic vinegar (good quality), burnt treacle, currants, and spicy but also syrupy oak. Some dank earthy peat and a little sea salt. Fruity BBQ sauce, dried strawberries dusted with sugar, and dusty old leather.

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, big, syrupy and full-flavoured. A little aggressive heat, but not harsh or unpleasant.

Taste: Syrupy & soft entry, then a massive explosion of sweet & spicy oak, more aged balsamic vinegar, dark & salty soy sauce, a little tar and a fleeting flash of thick smoke. Then a big hit of fresh chilli-heat, like fresh chipotles (smoked red jalapeno), followed by more fruity BBQ sauce - think peach, apricot & strawberry in a thick, sweet & spicy sauce. Still a crazy one, then!

Finish: Long length. The chipotle chilli spice is still there, alongside the dank muddy peat and some salted treacle, plus the balsamic and fruity BBQ sauce. Then there's something reminiscent of a dark rum that I can't quite put my finger on, like a funky & estery tang. That's followed by some flat cola, tobacco & fruit leather (dehydrated fruit roll-ups).

Score: 3.5 out of 5. A tough one to score!

Notes: Well it's certainly not the brutish peat & smoke monster that you'd expect from a 3-year old Octomore. There's a little peat, salt & tar to it, but otherwise it's quite a different beast, and is quite unique. Actually, no, that's putting it too lightly. It's absolutely crazy! A madhouse dram, this 10.4. An extra-crazy version of an already crazy whisky. There's something almost meaty about it too, almost savoury, plus the big oak-forward style that won't be too alien to a drinker of Australian whisky, but will certainly rub some Scotch whisky die-hards the wrong way. There's also a sugary sweetness, which I'm thinking must the spirit fighting back, and the whole shebang could easily pass for a significantly older whisky - aside from that high ABV aggression, anyway.

If you thought 10.2 was pushing the boundaries of what Octomore is, then 10.4 would like to have a word with you. It's taking that boundary-pushing and envelope-stretching to a whole other level. It's fascinating, and almost mind-bending, and it certainly won't be everyone's cup of Octomore. Personally I'm looking at it like I did the 10.2 - don't directly compare 10.4 to other Octomores, just judge it on its own merits, and realise that it doesn't fit the mould. You've got to embrace the crazy ones!

So that's it for the Octomore 10 review mini-series! Thanks again to Mark Hickey from Spirits Platform for the samples of 10.1, 10.3 and 10.4, and to my own bottle of 10.2 for making the sacrifice. And thanks to you all for reading! I hope you've enjoyed the reviews as much as I've enjoyed tasting these delicious whiskies - and I suggest you get around to trying them yourselves!