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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Johnnie Walker Double Black Whisky Review, and Blended Scotch Whisky Explained!

This being my first review of a blended whisky, with a couple more coming soon, let's go over some details about blended scotch before we get into the review of the Johnnie Walker Double Black.

The two types of what are considered to be blends, in the whisky world, are a) blended malt scotch, a.k.a. vatted malt, and b) blended scotch. These terms and their definitions are set by the Scotch Whisky Association in Scotland. 

A blended, or vatted, malt is a blend of multiple single malt whiskies from different distilleries, such as 'Big Peat', which is very good, produced by Douglas Llaing (an independent bottler). For example, if a bottler was to sell a whisky which contained 50% Ardbeg single malt, and 50% Glenfiddich single malt, it would be considered a blended, or vatted, malt scotch. These vatted malts can be great value, and are usually of good quality. 

A blended scotch whisky, on the other hand, contains both single malt whisky, and single grain whisky. For example, a bottle of Johnnie Walker red label (yuck!) contains a set amount of malt whisky (from different sources), and the remainder is grain whisky. For obvious reasons this type is, generally, considerably cheaper than a blended malt whisky. These whiskies are generally not as complex or 'interesting' as a single malt, and are usually chill-filtered and artificially-coloured. 
For the moment, we will focus on blended scotch whisky, as this is what I'm review today, with the Johnnie Walker Double Black. Interestingly, all currently available Johnnie Walker whiskies are blended scotch, containing grain whisky. Yes, even the ridiculously over-priced and over-hyped 'blue label' contains some (cheaper) grain whisky, although the exact proportions and sources are a closely guarded secret. There was a vatted malt Johnnie Walker, the Green Label, which sadly is now discontinued. It was, and still is, the best Johnnie Walker I've tasted. It even has/had the whisky sources listed on the box! If you come across a bottle of the green label, grab it. 

The JW double black is, as you can guess, based on the standard black label, which is good value for it's price, with surprising complexity. The double black is marketed as having "a rich, intense, smokier flavour". It certainly is smokier than the black label, probably due to some extra Caol Ila and/or Talisker being added to the blend. 
Johnnie Walker 'Double Black' blended whisky, 40%, Scotland.
NAS, chill filtered, artificial colouring added. Number or source of component spirits not stated. 

(tasted neat and with a tiny drop of water)
Colour: Copper (thanks to the added caramel colouring, no doubt)

Nose: Honey and caramel, some malted cereals, something a little acidic, like under-ripe grapes. A hint of smoke, but certainly not intense. 

Texture: Thin, clean. 

Taste: Big honey sweetness, some (talisker/caol ila) smoke but it fades quickly. Reminds me of a thinner Highland Park 12yo with a bit of extra smoke. Only a tiny bit of peat detectable, sadly. Found a strange bitter 'off' note in the middle which I found a bit off-putting. 

Finish: Short, that weird bitter note is still there, and a bit of heat on the tongue (surprising for only 40%), fades to a honey sweetness. 

Score: 2 out of 5 (blend score).

Notes: I had high hopes for this one, being based on the standard black label, but it has let me down. It's not overly unpleasant, especially for the relatively low price, but it just doesn't do anything for me. The complexity of the black label has been lost, I wonder if the double uses younger stock? A little disappointing, and not worth the extra over the standard black, which I prefer to this. It would make for some interesting mixed drinks or cocktails though, with that added smoke. If you'd like to try it, I'd suggest looking for it in a bar first rather than buying a bottle. 

I don't want to seem anti-blend, there are a massive amount of blends on the market, and I'm sure at least some are quite good! For a decent (and cheap) peaty/smoky blended whisky, head for 'Black Bottle', produced by Burn Stewart, but preferably in the older style pictured below. Look for a review shortly! 
Cheers. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Bruichladdich / Port Charlotte PC7 Whisky Review!

Until recently, I have looked at Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte range as a bit of an ugly duckling, compared to similar offerings from other distilleries, and especially compared to Bruichladdich's own Octomore range.

This was based on my tastings of 'The Peat Project', and it's replacement, 'Scottish Barley', the former is one of my least favourite peated single malts, and while the latter is a huge improvement, it still did not wow me like I had hoped it would. However, after tasting the Port Charlotte 10 year old (46% version), my opinion of the 'label' began to change. Clearly the NAS bottling's are not the best of the range, so I decided to dig into my own collection and pull out something special, to settle the matter once and for all. 
The Town of Port Charlotte, Islay, Scotland.

I have covered the basic history of the 'Port Charlotte' label here previously, so for this review I will focus on the 'PC_' cask strength bottling's, before reviewing what is still the only bottle of the 'PC_' range I have ever seen in the flesh, so to speak, the (spoiler alert!) wonderful PC7. I came across it by chance in a local bottle shop, a couple of years ago, having read about it in Jim Murray's 'Whisky Bible', piquing my curiosity. I spotted another (last) bottle of it in the same store a couple of weeks ago, and decided to open, taste and review my bottle that night. I then (another spoiler alert!) went back early the next day and bought that last bottle. 

The Port Charlotte cask strength range started with PC5, which was 5 years old, and like the rest of the range, peated to 40ppm, a level similar to standard bottlings from Lagavulin / Laphroaig / Ardbeg etc. Then came PC6, PC7 and so on, and the distillery is currently up to PC11. These are all rather rare whiskies, or at least they're not easily found outside of internet auctions. As stated above, the PC7's I have in my collection are the only bottles of the 'PC_' range I personally have ever actually seen. There were typically around 5000 bottles of each release sold, which may sound like a lot, but really is not considering the size of the market around the world, and the number of hardcore collectors out there, who quickly snap up these limited release bottles. 

The packaging on these bottles is quite interesting, as the outer tin's feature photos of selected people, either distillery staff, suppliers or other Islay locals, as Bruichladdich feel very strongly that 'whisky should be about people'. The bottling's also have Gaelic names, with the exception of PC5. The PC7 is named 'Sin An Doigh Ileach', which translates to 'It's the Islay way', referring to the relaxed attitudes of Bruichladdich's suppliers and contractors. Let's try some!


Port Charlotte 'PC7' (Bruichladdich), 61% cask strength, Islay, Scotland.
7 years old, mix of bourbon and sherry casks, 40ppm, non-chill filtered, no added colouring. 

(tasted neat and with a drop of water)
Colour: Gorgeous deep copper. Seductive!

Nose: Smokey, medicinal peat, salty and smoky, fruity sweetness, a little grassy / herbal. A bit of alcohol, but not bad for 61%! 

Texture: Clean & light, warming.

Taste: Pow! Fantastic. Big peat and smoke, slightly salty and a little medicinal (unusual for bruichladdich / port charlotte), balanced by dark caramel / molasses sweetness, and stone fruit. Water brings out extra fruit and smoke, and a little mild honey and malt. Very well balanced and beguiling.

Finish: Long and smoky, fading into malty, fruity sweetness, fading again into lovely warm, malty peat, which goes on for days...

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Excellent quality, really enjoyable and surprisingly easy drinking, even neat. Identifiable as port charlotte peat, but turned up to maximum. This bottle actually had sediment in the bottom when first opened, and you can't get less chill-filtered than that, I love it! Between this and the 10 year old I reviewed recently, my opinion of the port charlotte 'label' has changed for the better. I'm going to have to try and find some other versions of the 'PC_' cask strength range. If you do come across any of these, in a bar or at an auction, have a taste, despite the inevitable high price. It'll be worth it!

Cheers. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Jim McEwan Whisky Tasting, & Port Charlotte 10yo Whisky Review!

Bruichladdich Master Distiller, Jim McEwan, is currently touring Australia, presenting whisky tasting events around the country, and I had the privilege of attending one of the events last weekend, at the United Services Club, in Spring Hill, Brisbane.

Our MC on the night, who I believe 'borrowed' his introduction from Andrew from the Australian SMWS, put it very well: "There are three people in the whisky industry you should move heaven & earth to see: Dr. Bill Lumsden, (Distiller for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg), Richard Patterson (Whyte & Mackay, master blender), and both of them would move heaven & earth to see this man: Jim McEwan!"


Having worked in the industry for over 50 years, in multiple roles with multiple distilleries, Jim is very well qualified to explain every facet of the whisky world, and being a native of Islay (the town of Bowmore, specifically), his incredible passion both for the island, and his distillery, Bruichladdich, is truly infectious. Islay itself is, in my opinion, the whisky Mecca of the world, with eight working distilleries on a relatively small island, all producing excellent whisky, to be shipped and sold around the world.

I had previously seen Bruichladdich's people-focused marketing strategy as just that, a marketing strategy, but after listening to Jim talk about his home, his people and his distillery, with such passion and reverence, this is definitely not the case. When they say their whisky is about people, they really mean it.

As the tour is still in progress as I write this, I won't go into minute detail, but I will say that Jim is a fantastic presenter, well-grounded and passionate, honest and relate-able. He had us in stitches throughout the evening, while also touching on subjects like chill filtration , artificial colouring, the production process (including whisky and gin), and the rebirth of Bruichladdich distillery, a fascinating story in itself. Both myself, and my less-whisky-obsessed friend, found the evening very enjoyable, educational, and inspiring. Jim, despite it being his life's work, does not take whisky too seriously, and has a typically Scottish approach to the marketing aspect of the whisky world. We also had the opportunity to buy a bottle of the whiskies we tasted, and have it signed by Jim himself. I also snuck in one of the tins from my whisky collection for him to sign, wasn't going to miss that opportunity!


I was not able to comprehensively analyse the whiskies we tasted, so again I won't go into minute detail, but the six whiskies we tasted on the night (and one gin!) were as follows:

-The Botanist gin, produced by Bruichladdich, was served with tonic on arrival, although we did not find this out until the presentation had begun. I have tried this before, neat, and it is the only gin I will drink (and only neat, or with soda). A very successful product, and Jim was very honest about it, explaining that it was done purely as a source of income, as it can be bottled and sold straight after distillation, rather than having to wait years for a whisky to mature, before seeing any return. In true McEwan / Bruichladdich style though, it is unique, and of fantastic quality. I recommend you try it if you haven't already, even if, like myself, you're not a fan of gin.

-Bruichladdich 'Laddie Classic', NAS, 46%. Explained by Jim to be bottled at around 7 years of age. Very light, honey sweet and tropical fruits, unpeated, but very easy-drinking, and great value for money.

-Bruichladdich 'Islay Barley', 2006, 50%. Again explained to be around 7 years of age, and distilled only from barley which was grown on Islay. More weight and complexity, an excellent mouth-feel, and with more cereal and fruit notes. Again, very easy drinking and enjoyable.

-Bruichladdich Black Art 3, 1989, 48.7% cask strength, which I have reviewed previously here . I was hoping to taste the fourth release of the Black Art range, but the third is still a very good whisky.

-Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, NAS, 46%, 40ppm. Used for the 'highland toast' at the end of the evening (while standing on top of the chairs and tables!), so no time for details, but nicely peaty with some cereal notes and nice texture. This replaced their 'The Peat Project' NAS bottling, which I was not particularly impressed with, reviewed here , and this is a massive improvement.

-Port Charlotte 10yo, 46%, 40ppm. Lovely complexity, warming and peaty, with some sherry sweetness and depth. Jim explained this 10yo bottling to be around 60% bourbon cask, and 40% oloroso sherry cask. Hadn't tried this one before, and was impressed, so had to buy one. See the review below! .

-Octomore 6.1, 5 years old, 'scottish barley', 57%, 167ppm. I'm still amazed by the complexity and balance of these very heavily peated Octomore bottlings, and this one was no exception. It is of course a very powerful spirit (especially when consumed in two gulps, and held in the mouth to feel the power, thanks to Jim's encouragement!), and there are some similar cereal flavours in both it and the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley. This Octomore was my other purchase on the night, to be reviewed at a later date.

So, if you ever have the opportunity to meet Jim, or attend one of his tasting events, definitely do it, don't hesitate! There are still some tickets available for the current tour in Australia, and I believe he is visiting Japan and Korea on this tour as well. To borrow Andrew's line again, you should move heaven & earth to attend! Thanks to Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich, and Southtrade for putting this tour together, we need more of these events in Australia, please keep 'em coming!

Now, let's review some whisky!
Port Charlotte 10yo, Bruichladdich distillery, 46%, Islay, Scotland.
10 years old, 60% ex-bourbon cask, 40% ex-oloroso sherry cask, 40ppm. Non-chill filtered, no added colouring.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Light bronze

Texture: Oily yet clean, Rich let light. Lovely.

Nose: Salty, a little smoke, sweet cereals, sweet sherry and raisins, smoked malted barley. Well balanced.

Taste: Salty sea air, over lovely warming peat. Not medicinal peat, slightly herbaceous. Sweet smoke, cereals and raisin / sherry sweetness. Easily identified as Bruichladdich, with the sweet malt and slightly salted cereals standing out. Delicious.

Finish: Very long finish despite being 46%. Lovely warming peat, smoky malt and cereals. Very, very long.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Excellent mouth-feel and texture, fantastic long finish. Love the sherry influences. Having tried the 'peat project' and 'scottish barley' offerings, I do prefer my port charlotte with a little sherry cask. Good value for money too, and so light, relaxed and easy drinking. I sometimes find it challenging to find a decent trace of the malted barley in heavily peated whisky, but this is not the case here.

Certainly holds it's own amongst Laphroaig quarter cask and triple wood, probably it's closest competition in my book. Would also make a good introduction into heavily peated whisky for the uninitiated. It was a bit hard to open a bottle signed by the master distiller himself, but it was worth it!

This expression is not as easily found as the NAS 'scottish barley', but it is worth searching for, with the extra warmth, complexity and balance. There is also a cask-strength version, released as part of Bruichladdich's 'PC_' range, known simply as PC10. Would absolutely love to get my hands on some of that stuff! But it is very hard to find, and very expensive as well. Maybe one day...

Cheers!