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Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Highlights of Whisky Live! Speed Whisky Reviews

So, Whisky Live has wrapped up (the second session just finished actually), and it was a fantastic event. Having attended last year as well, I can say there was a definite improvement this time around. Whereas last year was hot and over-crowded, this year was far more comfortable (spread over the two days, rather than crammed into the one session). As always some punters got a little messy towards the end, and the food was essentially gone within the first hour, but really, if you were seriously worried about that, you seriously were there for the wrong reasons!
The range of whiskies on offer was about the same as last year, but with a few notable exceptions. Bruichladdich for example was setting up at the start but suddenly packed up and disappeared, taking their whisky with them. No idea what happened there, and was really looking forward to tasting their Port Charlotte Scottish Barley and Octomore 6.1 Scottish Barley again, but it wasn't to be. They may have been in attendance for the second session, I can't say.

There was again no representation for Ardbeg or Glenmorangie (in fact I have not seem them at any whisky event I've attended), which I find very odd, with Ardbeg's ever-increasing popularity here and everywhere, they would be a huge draw card to an event like this. On the other end of the scale it would be great to see a lesser-known Islay distillery present, such as Kilchoman or Bunnahabhain, or even Caol Ila, which is not very widely-known for it's single malt in Australia. Yet.

On the other hand there was a good cross-section of the whisky world present and accounted for, with Glenlivet (Speyside), Nikka (Japan), Talisker (Skye), Laphroaig (Islay), Amrut (India), Teeling (Ireland), Woodford Reserve (USA) and many, many more distilleries and companies well represented. A few tables also had samples of their malted barley (used to produce the whisky) out for tasting, which gave a very interesting angle when it came time to taste the end product. This stuff would make for a great snack on it's own, particularly the slightly smoky Laphroaig version.  

Laphroaig had a great selection out for tasting, with Dan Woolley the whisky lord, (officially the brand ambassador for Beam Suntory, but whisky lord sounds much better!) and team presenting their entire 'core' range including the 10 year old, Select Cask, Quarter Cask and Triple Wood bottlings, plus something very special hidden out of sight, but more on that later. If you're not sure why I'm calling Dan the whisky lord, refer to the below image:
See? I told you so. 

Talisker also had a good showing, offering their usual 10 year old and 'Storm' NAS bottlings, but also their relatively new 'Port Ruighe' NAS port-finished whisky, and a 2002 bottling of their Distiller's Edition. However both of those were disappointing, unfortunately, the Distiller's Edition in particular had absolutely nothing on the older versions I've tried. 

But, in a very deft move by Whisky Live, the star of the show was their 'Rare & Old' whisky bar. Not included in the ticket price, this little gem had a very impressive range of some very impressive whisky. Manned by Nathan from the Dram Full Whisky Club , who really knows his stuff, there was a nice range of old to very old whisky available for purchase, which also netted you an etched Copita tasting glass. The two gems I was interested in, however, were amazing. Refer to the below reviews for more details, I've left them 'til last to let the anticipation build! But here's a teaser shot (apologies for the zoomed in potato phone image). 

Without further ado, these are my highlights from the show, which I managed to get a few quick notes about: 

-Hakushu Distiller's Reserve, NAS, 43%. A blend of >18 year, <10 year, and a younger peated Hakushu. Sweet, fruity and light, like all Hakushu, but with a nice edge of soft peat. Decent. 
-Nikka Yoichi 15yo, 45%. Again, sweet and light, fruity and with a tiny, tiny bit of peat at the end. Jim Murray raved about this stuff, I don't really see it, but it's not bad. Easy drinking for sure.
-Amrut Fusion, 50%, NAS. Distilled from a mix of Indian and Scottish barley. Very good stuff, markedly different with it's own style, despite the use of some Scottish ingredients. Some very interesting spices, a little bit of peat, excellent quality with no heat despite the NAS and higher ABV. Very impressive.
-Glenlivet Nadurra, 16yo, cask strength 54.2%, non-chill filtered. Such an incredible mouth feel and texture, I cannot believe that Glenlivet have not stoped chill filtering their whisky altogether. This stuff was one of the highlights for me, really exquisite, even despite it being un-peated! Smooth and syrupy, almost thick. Not too sweet, a little spice and vanilla from the oak, nicely fruity and well balanced. 

So impressed with this, I think it will be my next purchase! Hard to believe it comes from the same distillery as their other offerings, this is a must have. There's a lesson in there - ban chill filtration! I'd have to give this a 3.5 out of 5, or even a 4. I better get my hands on it to figure that out!
-Teeling 'Poitin', un-aged, Irish spirit. Something a little left-field, this isn't actually whisky, it's basically moonshine or 'new-make spirit', over 61%, distilled from a mix of barley and potatoes, and only double-distilled unlike most Irish spirits. Smelt like nail polish remover and methylated spirits, but actually tasted interesting. Obviously is very strong and a bit rough, but has a surprising sweetness and berry-like flavour. Worth a try just to satisfy your curiosity, but try and have it after the whiskies!
-Laphroaig 25 year old, 2013 release, cask strength 45.1%, a mix of Oloroso sherry cask and Bourbon cask. Something special! Not cheap, at over $550 a bottle (although good value compared to the other 25yo listed below), but the extra age has really worked. Warming and gentle, some sherry sweetness and peat, but not medicinal or even saline like the Laphroaig you'd expect. It's grown calm and refined with age, gained some extra complexity and charm. Very nice, and beautifully presented too in it's leather box.
-Port Ellen, 4th release, 56.2%, aged 25 years, bottled in 2004. Only around 5000 bottles produced, and currently selling at over $2000 AUD per bottle (usually at auction). This Islay distillery closed in the early 1980's, and Diageo (owners) release a bottle every year, increasing in price each time. The old site is now Port Ellen Maltings, which supplies peated malted barley to most of the Islay distilleries. 

As you may have guessed, this was a purchase from the 'Rare & Old' bar, and wasn't cheap at $99 a half-nip, but this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this mere mortal. Serious collector fodder, it saddens me to think that most Port Ellen whisky is purchased without the intention to open and enjoy, but rather as an investment. I will likely never see, let alone taste, another Port Ellen in my life. 

And, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed, although probably because I tasted the next whisky in my list before this. It is very good, don't get me wrong, it stands apart from 90% of peated malts out there, but it's not overly complex, and definitely doesn't deserve the insane collector/investor-aimed pricing. A little dusty, but lovely warm peat, not medicinal, a little salty but not overly so, well balanced with a long finish. Certainly no traces of other Islay distillery styles, this stands on it's own merits. 

Some other releases may be better, I will probably never know, but this one would score around a 4 out of 5 for me. Yes, that's a good score, but not at this sort of price point. No way. Diageo is really driving the Port Ellen prices up here every year, and fair enough, that's why they're in business, but does the whisky justify the pricing? I don't think so. 
-Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013, 18 year old, sherry butt matured, 51%. For those not familiar with the term, 'Feis Ile' is the Islay festival, an annual music and whisky festival on the Island, which sees most distilleries release a special bottling to commemorate the event. These can only be purchased from the distillery itself, or sometimes online if you're quick enough. Ardbeg go all out with their release, selling it all over the world for their 'Ardbeg day' celebration, but the other distilleries' releases are much harder to come by.

This makes them quite rare, in fact Lagavulin only released 3000 bottles of this 2013 version, considerably less than the 5000 bottles of the Port Ellen 4th release reviewed above, despite Lagavulin being an operating distillery. It is also considerably cheaper (at auction) than the Port Ellen as it is not as desirable among the collectors. Yet.

Now, let me start by saying that tasting this single whisky made my night at Whisky Live. My only regret was leaving it too late to have a second! Naturally it was for sale at the 'Rare & Old' bar, but was a relative bargain at $39 per half-nip, under half the price of the Port Ellen. I tasted this within the first 20 minutes of the show, which turned out to be a good idea, I wouldn't have wanted any other tastings getting in the way here.

The nose on this whisky was truly stunning. Beautiful rich sherry, that fantastic Lagavulin smoke, richer and slightly sweeter than the standard 16yo bottlings. Very well balanced, with the gorgeous salty peaty smoky notes happily married to the rich fruity sherry. I cannot find any information as to what style of sherry cask was used, it could be a mix of a few, but wow has it worked. Honestly the best nose on a peated sherry matured whisky I've ever experienced. 

In the glass there is absolutely no movement here, even once finished there were solid legs on the glass (I managed to resist sticking my finger in there), and even now two days later there's still a hint of this amazing whisky on the nose in the glass. Outstanding texture and mouth feel here.

Taste wise it is similar to the nose, beautifully balanced, rich and fruity, smoky and peaty. No detectable heat at all, even at (presumably) cask strength, absolutely exquisite quality whisky. The finish was medium length, smoky and sweet, not as long and weighty as I would have expected, but amazing nonetheless. Based on this quick tasting, in a less than ideal environment, I would give it a rough 4.5 out of 5. With more time, and a better tasting environment, I could give it my full attention, and work through the subtle complexities of this magnificent whisky. Hopefully I will get that chance one day.

So, if you've been undecided about attending whisky live in the past, hopefully you've now realised the error of your ways! With the Rare & Old bar, the event now appeals to the hardcore connoisseur and collector, as well as the punter. See you there next year!

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