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Monday, 30 June 2014

Springbank 10 year old Whisky Review

Springbank distillery is not very well-known in the whisky world, but they should be! They are very passionate about what they do, and they uphold as many traditional production methods as they can. They do not chill filter (and never have!), they do not add caramel colouring, they bottle at a minimum of 46%, and they do not shy away from experiments. Campbeltown, where the distillery is located, is actually recognised as it's own whisky region, and once was home to over 30 whisky distilleries. There is now only three, and Springbank own two of those in their namesake distillery, and Glengyle Distillery (producing Kilkerran whisky).

They are also one of the few distilleries in Scotland to do everything in-house. That means they malt their own barley, while most distilleries buy their barley in from external malting operations, and the whisky does not leave the distillery grounds until it is bottled, while some distilleries send their whisky to central off-site warehouses to mature and be bottled. Great stuff Springbank!

Springbank Distillery produce three distinct 'styles' of their whisky: Hazelburn, which is triple-distilled and un-peated, Springbank, which is '2.5 times' distilled and lightly peated, and Longrow, which is double distilled and heavily peated. All three of these labels have multiple expressions as well. I'm starting with what is probably their most widely available, Springbank 10 year old.

Springbank 10 year old, 46%, Campbeltown, Scotland. 
'2.5 times distilled', primarily matured in bourbon casks, but some sherry as well. Lightly peated, non-chill filtered, and no added colouring. Excellent!

(tasted neat)
Colour: Yellow gold.

Texture: Gorgeous, not too oily or too thin, instantly obvious quality.

Nose: Very interesting, initially sweet & sour, opens slowly, giving salt and sea air, dry sherry, green apples and a slight hint of peat. Disclaimer: it's unusually cold here tonight, and while I did try and warm the whisky as much as possible, it is usually more complex, so it may still have been a little 'uncomfortable'.

Taste: The hint of peat from the nose is joined by some light smoke, before giving way to salty, dry sherry, some dry spices and brine. Some salted caramel and tart fruit adds a tiny amount of sweetness, but savoury notes are the leaders here.

Finish: Medium, drying (saliva-inducing!). Earthy peat, salt and dry sherry remain until the end, leaving with wisps of smoke and subtle wood.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Comments: Excellent quality, but perhaps not suitable for a beginner whisky drinker, the dry and sometimes sour notes may be off-putting. Personally, I find them intriguing and very enjoyable. I have tried the Longrow version (Longrow CV) from Springbank distillery, and although it's more noticeably peated, I do prefer the Springbank at this stage. I would love to give the Springbank 12yo cask strength bottling a go, I think it would be amazing. Springbank in general are producing outstanding quality whisky, with true 'craft presentation' (no colouring or chill-filtering, and bottling at 46%) and traditional production methods adding to their reputation. Keep it up please Springbank!

Being a little more low-profile than some brands, it can be more difficult to find, but can usually be found on online whisky shops such as this one, or in specialist whisky bars retailers. If you see it, give it a go! Cheers.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Talisker Distiller's Edition 1999 Whisky Review

Considered to be an 'entry level' peated whisky, Talisker is a very popular and well-known distillery, and is probably the easiest single-malt Scotch to find in a bar or pub, in Australia at least. It is also a controversial distillery, in that most of their expression's are chill filtered and have colouring added, Talisker is very approachable and easily enjoyed by the less experienced whisky drinker. But, their whisky is still enjoyable for the enthusiast, particularly the 18 year (and older if you're pockets are deep enough), '57 degrees north' (which is bottled at 57% abv), and the distiller's edition bottlings.

While it is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye (a rugged island off the west coast of Scotland, north of Islay), a fact they are rightly very proud of, their whisky is aged / matured off-site, on the Scottish mainland. They are also, perhaps unfortunately, starting to incorporate a few No Age Statement (NAS) bottlings into their line-up without corresponding price decreases, but they're hardly alone there. And as per owner Diageo's status quo, they use E150 caramel artificial colouring, and they chill filter their whiskies before bottling. Personally though, I find Talisker to be of good quality, and very consistent, although the newer bottlings are vastly different to the older.

Talisker Distiller's Edition, 45.8%, distilled 1999, bottled 2010, Isle of Skye. 
'Double matured' (finished) in Jerez (pronounced h'reth) Amoroso sherry casks, after the standard ageing process for the 10 year old bottling. Chill filtered, and caramel colouring added.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Dark bronze, almost brown (definitely artificial).

Texture: Clean and light, but with nice legs.

Nose: Initially quite closed, but still not overly complex once it's opened up. Drying sherry notes of booze-soaked raisins, juicy stone fruit, and distant mild sea spray with a hint of earthy, dry peat.

Taste: Juicy, sweet stone fruit, raisins and newly-ripe banana, drying with mild earthy peat and bitter-sweet dark chocolate. Some very distant salt with caramel, and a burst of pepper.

Finish: Relatively short, clean, still some stone fruit and pepper, drying.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Comments: Really held back by the chill filtration, in my opinion, particularly in the mouth feel and the finish. The sherry finish has overpowered the trademark Talisker sea spray and pepper, it is still there but subdued, deep in the shadows. Still interesting and rewarding in this expression, but vastly different from the standard bottlings which Talisker is known for.

Having also tried the earlier 1996 distiller's edition bottling (bottled in 2008), I do prefer the older bottling. Having also tried their 'storm' and 'dark storm' NAS bottlings, I would like to see one of those finished in a sherry cask (and preferably with an age statement!), I think it would be very interesting.

 If you are a big fan of big, fruity whiskies this is a fresh take and is well worth trying, although the earlier bottlings are getting hard to find. Have a look here for a more recent version at SM Whisky Australia. They also have a fantastic Talisker 'gift set', which includes 3 x 200ml bottles, the standard 10yo, the distiller's edition, and the excellent 18yo. Also great value at only slightly more than a 700ml bottle of the 10 year old, it'd be a good tasting / comparison experience for Talisker amateurs and enthusiasts alike. Tell them peated perfection sent you! Cheers 'til next time.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Does Age Really Matter? The Age Old Question!

Age before beauty? Or beauty before age?

The age of a whisky, specifically the amount of time a whisky spends in a cask after distilling (a.k.a maturation), has a huge effect on whisky, but does that magic number dictate the quality of the end product? No, it does not. It certainly drives the price up, and is extremely effective marketing. This is due to the general perception out there in the world, that if a whisky is old, it must be good. But this is definitely not the case, and really there is no magic number.

How does age affect a whisky?

This is a bit of a 'how long is a piece of string?' question, as alluded to above. In general terms, maturation in casks will gradually mellow the 'new-make spirit' (malt spirit fresh out of the stills which cannot be called whisky), blending and balancing the flavours, imparting flavours through both the oak wood in the cask (in the case of Scotch whisky), and also the remnants of whatever was in the cask previously, such as sherry or bourbon. So it stands to reason that more time in the cask will give more flavour to the whisky.

This is basically true, but it is not that simple. The flavours given can overpower or cancel others, for example a whisky can become overly-oaky in it's taste, particularly if the cask used was a first fill (has not previously been used to mature whisky), if it spends too much time in the cask. An over-aged / too old whisky can become fragile, it loses most of it's inherent flavours and quality, does not hold up to temperature variations, time in the glass, or water being added, as well as it could have, and becomes less complex and interesting than it may once have been. And, probably the biggest effect of a whisky being aged/matured for too long, is that it generally loses alcohol content (and whisky content in general) through evaporation, each and every year it is maturing. Although this can vary depending on local climate and specifically humidity, in some cases the alcohol content will increase!

At the other end of the scale, a whisky which has not had enough time to mature in the cask / is too young, will often be 'hot', in terms of alcohol, which will give you that trade mark 'burn' in the throat (and make you cough if you're 'inexperienced'), make your tongue go numb, and will singe your nasal hairs when you nose the glass. The flavours will be not be balanced, and the whisky will be very robust and overpowering.

It is important to note, that the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) requires a minimum of 3 years maturation in oak casks for the spirit to be called Scotch Whisky. There is no limit to how many different casks can be used, what the previous contents was, or what size the casks are, for that maturation period. There is no maximum maturation period, either.

There are many different size casks available to a whisky distillery, and many different 'previous owners' to choose from, as in what liquid the cask held previously, and a cask can (and usually is) re-used or recycled after use. All of these factors (and many more) have a huge effect on the finished product. But these are subjects for another day.

What about the peat?

One more major effect of cask maturation, on peated whisky, is that the peaty, smoky flavours diminish over time, lost to evaporation (called the 'angel's share'), wood contact and general mellowing. So, in my opinion, be wary of any peated or heavily-peated whisky which is over 18 years of age. It may still be a great whisky, but the level of peat & smoke flavour present may not be what you were hoping for.

As an example, Bruichladdich Octomore, the most heavily peated whisky in the world, is usually aged for only 5 years, allowing the whisky to mellow (slightly), while still retaining the maximum peaty, smoky kick. At the other end of the scale, they have recently released a 10 year old version, which is still bottled at cask strength, but is considerably lower in alcohol, peaty-ness and smoky-ness. It's still good, but different, and much more expensive at around twice the price.

To combat this effect of maturation, distilleries will often bottle their older whiskies at higher alcoholic strength or proof, and also to give better value to the customer, justifying the increase in price (in some cases). So all is not lost, but this is also a subject for another day.

The No Age Statement 'NAS' uprising

As the popularity of a whisky increases, so does the pressure on the distilleries to get the stuff on the shelves as fast as possible. If it isn't there, they can't sell it. So, rather than having a lot of stock sitting in their warehouses, maturing peacefully, many distillers will blend (still a single malt though, remember) some younger spirit with some older, and either state the age of the younger spirit (as required by the SWA rules), or simply leave that part out, and not tell you how old the whisky is, because they don't want this to influence your decision. This is known as a No Age Statement, or NAS, bottling.

This does not make it a bad whisky, or a good whisky, you simply do not know how old the contents of the bottle are. This is not a very popular thing in the whisky world, as you can't form an opinion based on the age of the product, and also cannot use that to gauge the value for money you are / are not getting, which makes it more difficult to make an informed decision, come buying time. Naturally the assumption is that if they're not telling you how old it is, some or all of it must be young. And to be fair, this is often correct!


A good example of this is Talisker (not to pick on them, most distilleries are doing this, they just came to mind first). Their standard bottling is, and has been for a long time, 10 years old. Reasonably priced and of decent quality, it is widely popular and is quite a good start into peated whisky if you haven't ventured this way before, as it is very lightly peated. They also offer (or have offered in the past) 18, 25, 30 and 40 year old bottlings, at various ABV % levels. In those cases they had a barrel sitting in their warehouse, and had to wait 18-40+ years to see a return on their investment, so to speak.

They recently released Talisker 'Storm' and 'Dark Storm', neither of which have an age statement. The Storm and Dark Storm are bottled at the same stregnth as the standard 10 year old (45.8%), and are at a similar price as well. So naturally one would assume they are a younger product than the 10yo bottling, or at least contain some younger whisky. This one fact does not make them better or worse than the 10yo, but depending on your perspective, does perhaps give you less value for money, as you are getting at least some less mature whisky for the same amount of money, at the same alcohol percentage.

So what's the golden rule, then?

Well, there isn't one, sorry! While age / maturation has a big effect on the whisky, it is only one of many, many factors which the distiller, and their customer, must take into account. That number on the label should not be the deciding factor in your purchasing decision, because there are many other factors of equal importance.

Likewise if there is no number on the label, that should not turn you away on it's own. Some of my favourite whiskies in the world do not have and never have had an age statement printed on the label (looking at you, Ardbeg Uigeadail). Likewise some old (20+ years) whiskies I have tasted do not live up to the promise of quality their age might imply. So, I say beauty before age!

If you can't try before you buy, then read reviews online, ask your friends or independent experts, and make as informed a decision as you can. Happy hunting!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Ardbeg Auriverdes Whisky Review

So, after receiving my bottle of Ardbeg Auriverdes the other day (with some extra goodies, thanks Cru Bar!), I had been undecided on whether or not I would even open it, at least in the short term. Why? Well, the first tasting was quite disappointing to be honest, and with the eventual and inevitable 'collectability' of these annual Ardbeg day releases, it could potentially be worth some money one day. But, whether I will ever actually sell it is doubtful.

But wanting to do a review and not being entirely satisfied with the last taste, I would not let this question go unanswered. Our solution was to head to Cobbler, my favourite whisky bar in West End (check out my bar review here ), and try it there. Cobbler held a tasting and event on Ardbeg day, so I knew they would have had their bottle open for at least a week, giving the whisky a good chance to open up. But would that make a significant difference and change my opinion of the Auriverdes? We'll see.

Ardbeg Auriverdes, 49.9%, No Age Statement (NAS)
Not chill-filtered, aged in bourbon casks with toasted cask lids. No mention of whether this is bottled at cask strength, I would guess it is not.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Pale gold

Texture: Quite thin, clean and light. 

Nose: Salty sea air, roasted coffee beans, hint of peat and old leather, bananas soaked in vanilla.

Taste: Salty, black coffee, vanilla pod sweetness. Considerably hot for the relatively low strength. Smoked bacon and mild, subtle, medicinal peat. Only a hint of smoke.  Not the signature Ardbeg on the palate, and not instantly recognisable as Ardbeg. I would describe it as lightly peated Ardbeg, inspired by Laphroaig. 

Finish: Still salty, slightly bitter dark chocolate and black coffee, a hint of spice. Quite a long finish though, with medicinal and sea spray notes at the end. 

Score: 2.5 out of 5. 

Comments: So yes, it has definitely improved and opened up considerably with some oxygen contact, but it is still not the big hitter I was hoping for. Would probably benefit even further from a proper decanting, as it might lose some of that heat and calm down a bit. 

I tried to taste this without comparing to the other Ardbeg bottlings, which is quite easy considering how different it is from all of those. It has been compared to the un-peated Ardbeg Blasda by other tasters, but I haven't tried the Blasda, as I see Ardbeg without peat and smoke to be like a muscle car with a tiny econo-box engine.

If you manage to judge the Auriverdes on it's own merits, it does hold its own, with an approachable palate and familiar Islay character. But I do wish it had higher levels of peat and smoke, I feel it is being held back slightly to make it more appealing to the non-Islay whisky fan. Certainly it doesn't hold a candle to 'Ardbog' (see here for that review) and the 'Ardbeg Day' releases, for me at least. It is just not risky enough, not adventurous enough. It's too mild and conservative. 

In my opinion, it is also not the best value at it's $190 price point. This is the price level the phenomenal Supernova bottlings were released at, and is 50% more expensive than the perfection-in-a-glass Uigeadail (review coming soon, don't worry!), which is much better than the Auriverdes in every single way. 

So, still a little disappointing, but far improved since the initial tasting and a decent example of a more conservative, approachable Islay whisky. Cheers!