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Monday, 26 January 2015

Benromach 10yo Whisky Review, both 43% and new 57%!

Benromach distillery is quite an interesting one for me, for a number of reasons. The main one, however, is that they use more peat than most Speyside distilleries. Their locally-grown malted barley is thought to be peated to around 10-15 ppm, compared to 0-5 ppm, on average, for most other 'Speysiders' (in standard bottlings).

Benromach do also produce a heavily peated version as part of their standard range, aptly named 'Peat Smoke', which is peated to around 65-70 ppm (higher than most Islay whiskies!) depending on the batch, which I'll be reviewing at a later date, once I get my hands on a bottle. 

On top of that, the distillery only uses first-fill casks for maturation, stored in traditional dunnage warehouses (lower-set buildings with dirt floors and stone walls, for better air circulation and humidity control), they employ slow fermentation and distillation, and use little-to-no technology during production. Interestingly, Benromach distillery is owned by Gordon & MacPhail, one of the largest and oldest independent bottlers in Scotch whisky. 

Benromach 10 year old is their standard bottling, matured in 80% ex-bourbon casks and 20% ex-sherry casks for 9 years, before a final year-long 'marriage' in an Oloroso sherry cask. And remember they're all first-fill casks, and that wouldn't come cheap! They recently released a 57% / 100 proof version of the 10yo, while keeping the age statement, and skipping the (already light) chill filtration altogether. Other distilleries please take note! Usually when a distillery releases a higher-strength or cask-strength version of their whisky, it is either bottled at a younger age, or it loses it's age statement altogether. Kudos to Benromach for not following that trend!

I recently received a sample of the new 57% version of the 10yo, and the standard 43% version, generously sent by Benromach's Australian distributor, Alba Whisky ('Alba' is Gaelic for 'Scotland' or 'Scottish', FYI). Aside from the chance to taste this new, even-more 'craft-oriented' expression of Benromach 10yo, it also give me the rare opportunity to taste this whisky at two different strengths, with all other factors being equal, back-to-back. Excellent! See above for the two contenders.  

Let's start with the new big boy first. 
Benromach 10yo, 57% '100 proof', Forres, Speyside, Scotland. 
Non-chill filtered, matured in 80% bourbon and 20% sherry casks for 9 years, then 1 year 'marriage' in an ex-sherry cask before bottling.  

(tasted neat)
Colour: Light copper. 

Nose: Big, fresh malt, toasted malt biscuits, spicy and a little grassy, mature sherry fruitiness, and slight herbal peat and coastal saltiness, becoming stronger as the glass empties.  

Texture: Fantastic! Thick and buttery, more-ish.

Taste: Lovely big malt and oak, savoury honey and dark toffee. Dry, fruity Oloroso sherry, and a light dab of herbal peat and light smoke. A little initial peppery-heat, but it's nothing for the strength. Very drinkable for 57%, there's no roughness here whatsoever.  

Finish: Very long, more malty biscuits, oak and spices. Toasted walnuts and almonds. 

Score: 4 out of 5. Yummy!

And now for the little brother. 
Benromach 10yo, 43%, Forres, Speyside, Scotland.
Light chill filtration, same cask maturation process as above. 

Colour: Yellow gold. 

Nose: Lighter and sweeter maltiness, green apples, under-ripe berries and tropical fruit. 

Texture: Lighter and brighter, more vibrant. 

Taste: Lightly toasted cereals, slightly earthy, thanks to that light smoke being more upfront here than in the 100 proof. Less oak and spice, more honey, and sweeter honey. Harder to find the sherry influence here, a slightly more 'summery' whisky, with no alcohol or peppery-heat to speak of. 

Finish: Obviously a shorter finish, but still with some lovely sweeter, malty cereal, then drying while that gentle smoke comes back for a last goodbye. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Results: The new 57% / 100 proof version of the 10yo definitely wins it for me. Yes, I gave both whiskies the same score, because it is a close race, and these whiskies are essentially two different styles. The 43% expression is lighter and sweeter, with more tropical fruit, while the 57% expression is darker and heavier, with more toasted malt, oak and spice. I do prefer the latter, that texture / mouth-feel is fantastic, and it steals the show for me. 

Both of these whiskies are excellent and of unquestionable quality, nothing has been rushed, pushed through or 'close enough', and this shows in the finished product. I'm also impressed with Benromach's new packaging, the older design was a little too subtle, I think, while the new style is more distinctive.  

Both of these are definitely worth trying and buying. Ideally grab one of each, to suit your mood come drinking time! I've found Benromach 10yo 57% online at Oak Barrel in Sydney, but it's sure to be in more stores soon. If you can't find it in your local, ask them to contact Alba Whisky and order it in. The standard 43% version is more easily found, Dan Murphy's have it, but it's considerably cheaper at Nippy Sweetie, albeit in the older packaging, judging by their website. I'd also recommend keeping an eye out for Benromach 'Peat Smoke', for a heavily peated expression. 

On a side note, Ralfy Mitchell, master of YouTube whisky reviews, awarded Benromach 10yo 43% his whisky of the year for 2014, and his only major complaint was that it wasn't bottled at a higher strength. I hope he gets his hands on the new 57% version, because Benromach has definitely met that demand!


Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Caol Ila 12yo Whisky Review!

Often over-looked in favour of it's 'flashier' southern-Islay cousins, Caol Ila Distillery is actually one of the largest producers on Islay by volume. Around 90% of their production goes into blended whiskies, adding that 'hint of smoke' to the likes of Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle, among others.

There are plenty of different expressions available, with the main expressions being the 12yo, 18yo, and distiller's edition, finished in moscatel wine casks. There is also a cask strength version, which unfortunately loses it's age statement, but is an excellent whisky, and is certainly worth looking out for.

Caol Ila's standard single malt, the 12yo, is a worthy competitor in the Islay arena, with many considering it to be lighter and more approachable than the 'beasties' from Laphroaig, Lagavulin or Ardbeg, for example. Caol Ila forms an essential part of owner Diageo's whisky line, although mainly for it's use in their blends, but the distilleries' single malts are excellent whiskies in their own right.

However, there does appear to be an imbalance in pricing compared to similar whiskies, for example in Australia the 12yo sells for around $100, similar to the older and highly-reputed Lagavulin 16yo, and considerably higher than the 10yo bottlings from Talisker and Ardbeg, both of which are bottled at higher strength (45.8 and 46%, over 43%). Perhaps this is one reason for Caol Ila to be flying under the radar in many cases?
Caol Ila 12yo, 43%, Port Askaig, Islay, Scotland. 
Chill filtered, added colouring (light), matured in ex-bourbon casks.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Pale gold

Nose: Light, herbal peat, grassy, gentle-yet-assertive sweet smoke, hints of seaweed and sea salt. 

Texture: Light and fresh, very slightly oily.

Taste: Bigger sweet smoke than on the nose, still grassy, some herbal peat and barbecued meats. Easy drinking. The smokiness is lovely, delicate and warming, and nicely balanced. 

Finish: A little burst of heat, then light peat and fading smoke. A light but quite long finish.

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: It's Islay for sure, but it's a smaller sibling to the big boys. A nice half-way point between an un-peated and a medicinal / heavier peated Islay, would make a nice introduction to Islay peat. This particular bottle of the 12yo has been open for over a year, so will have lost a bit of punch, but it made a very easy-drinking daily dram. 

I'd love to see Caol Ila lose the chill filtration, that would make such a massive difference to their bottlings. At the moment, one must go for an independent bottling to find out. Having said that, the cask strength Caol Ila is a fantastic whisky, despite losing it's age statement I would happily line it up against other cask strength Islay beasties.

The Caol Ila 12yo is a decent dram, but at the price point it is sold at in Australia, when lined up against the likes of Ardbeg 10, Lagavulin 16, and Laphroaig Quarter Cask, all at a similar price (actually the Ardbeg is 15-20% cheaper), I'm not sure if I'll be replacing this one when it's empty. Nonetheless, if you're not a fan of the bigger Islay's, but would still like a bit of peat & smoke, this is a very good option. 


Sunday, 11 January 2015

Sherry Explained & Tasted!

Most of us whisky enthusiasts are familiar with the use of ex-sherry casks in the maturation of our beloved whisky, but how much do we really know about sherry itself? What exactly is it? How is it made? Isn't it that nasty rubbish your grandparents used to add to their cooking?

Let's have a closer look at sherry, taste a couple of varieties, and ponder it's effect on our beloved whisky!

OK, why should I care?
Well, you should care for a couple of reasons, mainly that a bit of sherry exploration will help you pick the sherry influence, and identify more flavours, more accurately, in your next sherry cask-matured/finished whisky. And I'm going to help you impress your friends by helping you pronounce those weird Spanish words!

Sherry is also quite an interesting drink to explore, with many different styles and varieties, and it can be quite good value for money! 

What is sherry? And how is it made?

Simply put, sherry is a fortified wine, produced in the 'sherry triangle' in Spain, most famously in Jerez (pronounced 'Heh-reth' - see map above). Sherry is made from three main grape varieties, being Palomino ('Pell-oh-Meen-oh'), Moscatel ('Mosk-a-tell') and Pedro Ximenex ('Pay-dro Heem-in-eth') grapes. 

A Fortified wine starts out as wine, and has alcoholic spirit added at some point during production. This was originally done for the purposes of preservation, as the higher alcohol content would help keep the wine stable for a longer period of time. Sherry is fortified with brandy (essentially distilled wine), added to the wine towards the end of fermentation.

50 shades of sherry!

There are quite a few different varieties of sherry produced, depending on things like the region a wine is produced in, the grape variety, and the flavour profile and style (sweet to dry, with grey areas in between).

Sherry cask with transparent lids, showing the air gap and flor layer

Which style the sherry ends up being is dependent on the winemaker's interpretation of it's flavour and texture characteristics, and also something called the 'flor' (pronounced 'floor'). This essentially is a 'cap' or layer of yeast which forms in the intentional air gap at the top of the sherry vessel. The presence and duration of the flor dictates which style of sherry the wine will become, by controlling oxidisation. The flor must be constantly replenished (if it is desired by the winemaker) by adding wine to the vessel, and only it lives under certain conditions.

The main sherry varieties are Fino ('Feen-oh'), Oloroso ('Oll-or-oh-so'), and Pedro Ximenex ('Pay-dro Heem-in-eth'), with a few more in between. The main ex-sherry casks used in whisky maturation are Oloroso and Pedro Ximenex, and some less common styles such as Amontillado ('A-mont-ee-yard-oh') and Manzanilla ('Man-zan-ee-ya'), among others.

Fino on the left, to Pedro Ximenez on the right

Here are the official styles of sherry, ranked in order of sweetness (in general terms):

Fino ('Feen-oh'): The driest sherry style, produced primarily from Palomino grapes. Bottled at a younger age and lower alcohol to the other styles, and it can only be stored for around a week with refrigeration, once opened. Not often used for whisky maturation, but one example of an ex-Fino sherry cask matured whisky is Oban distiller's edition.

Manzanilla ('Man-zan-ee-ya'): Very similar to Fino but produced in a particular area of Andalusia (in Spain). In this coastal area the flor yeast cap becomes thicker than it would have further inland, affording the wine better protection from oxygen. This results in a paler colour and fresher, lighter, even saline and chamomile flavours in the sherry. Manzanilla has a similar shelf life to Fino, lasting around a week with refrigeration, once opened. One example of an ex-Manzanilla sherry cask matured/finished whisky is Ardbeg Ardbog.

Amontillado ('Ah-mont-ee-yard-oh'): A half-way point between a Fino and an Oloroso, and produced when the flor cap either does not form adequately, or is intentionally killed off during fermentation, whether by fortification (to a certain level of alcohol) or lack of replenishment. This allows slow oxidisation, creating a darker and richer sherry than a Fino or Manzanilla. An Amontillado Lasts up to two weeks with refrigeration, once opened. Another sherry not commonly used for whisky maturation, one example of an ex-Amontillado sherry cask matured/finished whisky is Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014.

Palo Cortado ('Pale-oh-court-ah-dough'): Another half-way point between Fino and Oloroso, but closer to an Oloroso in flavour, being richer and slightly less dry than an Amontillado. Produced when the flor dies off naturally and without apparent cause. A Palo Cortado then begins ageing like an Oloroso (with higher oxygen contact). The only ex-Palo Cortado cask matured/finished whisky I know of is Glengoyne 17 year old.

Oloroso ('Oll-or-oh-so'): The most popular style of sherry, it's dark coloured, with rich fruity and nutty flavours, but remains quite dry. Due to it being aged by oxidisation, and being matured for considerable lengths of time, Oloroso sherry remains stable for quite some time, lasting up to 8 weeks with refrigeration, after opening. The most common cask used for whisky maturation, with a couple of prime examples being Glendronach (review coming soon!) and Glenfarclas, both of which are wholly matured in ex-Oloroso sherry casks.

Pedro Ximenex ('Pay-dro heem-in-eth'), aka PX: The sweetest 'natural' sherry, here the grapes are sun-dried (aka 'raisin-ified') to concentrate the flavours and sweetness. Fruity (mainly raisin) and sweet (molasses or syrup) in taste, very dark in colour and viscous in texture, PX sherry makes for a fantastic dessert wine. Older (30+ years) PX sherries become less sweet and more complex as age increases. A couple of examples of ex-PX sherry cask finished whiskies (and excellent whiskies in their own right) are Lagavulin distiller's edition (review coming soon!), and Laphroaig PX cask.

Moscatel ('Mosk-a-tell'): Similar in style to PX sherry, Moscatel is another dessert wine, made from Moscatel grapes, dried to concentrate the flavours and sugars, resulting in more stone fruit and caramel flavours, and a lighter colour. One example of an ex-Moscatel cask finished whisky is Caol Ila distiller's edition.

Cream sherry ('You-can-work-that-one-out!'): Basically a very sweet blended dessert wine, usually Oloroso sherry sweetened with Pedro Ximinez sherry, or even syrup. There are a number of other names used, but all fall under the cream sherry banner, usually because they contain a blend of different sherry varieties. Harvey's Bristol Cream is a good example, being one of the more famous, and top selling, sherries in the world. Cream sherry casks are not used for whisky maturation, at least to my knowledge.

So let's taste some sherry!

I've chosen three styles of sherry for a quick tasting, all from the same genuine Spanish producer, Barbadillo, to keep some consistency. It's important to note also that only wine produced in Spain can be named Sherry, in the same way that sparkling wine produced outside of France cannot be named Champagne. The stamp pictured below is the mark found on the label of genuine Spanish sherry.

I've also added some notes on food matching with the three sherries I tasted, enjoyed with tapas / snack / finger foods.

There are plenty of other sherry brands out there, I went for Barbadillo because it was easily accessible, had a good range, and was reasonably priced. I've chosen a Manzanilla, an Oloroso, and a Pedro Ximenez, all of which are good value, being around AUD $10 each for the Manzanilla and PX in 375mL, and around AUD $17 for the Oloroso in 700mL. No doubt they're even cheaper in the US or EU.

Barbadillo Manzanilla: Pale in colour and very dry, even salty. Fruity and clean, but I'll be honest and say this was too close to a regular dry wine for my tastes. Manzanilla is very close to a Fino, so I imagine a Fino would be similar in flavour. It didn't really float my boat, so to speak. Matches well with nuts and olives.

Barbadillo Oloroso: Lovely reddish-brown colour, viscous and rich in texture. Dry, but lovely raisin and stone fruit flavours, far more complex than the Manzanilla. Definitely recognisable after tasting an Oloroso-finished whisky. Works very well with cheddar and blue cheeses, pate, and cured meats.

Barbadillo Pedro Ximenez: Very dark brown colour, richer and thicker in texture, luscious. Sweet, but not overwhelming, a natural, light, fruity sweetness. Raisin and sultana notes, with some christmas cake and spice. Works well with strong cheddar or blue cheese, and fruit mince pies, or any savoury pastry I imagine. My pick of the bunch, especially as a dessert wine.

So, should I bother trying sherry? 

I think so! This was an interesting exercise, and certainly helped with picking the sherry influence in an ex-sherry cask matured or finished whisky. The flavours of the Oloroso and PX sherries in particular work very well with whisky, adding a great depth of flavour, and the colour isn't bad either, especially when it's left 'au naturel'!

For further 'reading', try tasting an ex-bourbon cask matured whisky alongside an Oloroso sherry (I chose Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo), and a heavily-peated ex-bourbon cask matured whisky alongside a PX sherry (I chose Laphroaig Quarter Cask). They may not be a perfect match, but it's fun to try, and an excuse to drink more whisky! Speaking of which, here are my top 10 (so far) 'sherry monster' ex-sherry matured whiskies, to keep an eye out for:

My top 10 sherry cask matured / finished whiskies!

Glendronach 15yo 'revival' (100% Oloroso matured, review coming soon)
Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso (100% Oloroso matured, duty free exclusive, but a cask strength version is coming, and so is my review!)
Glenfarclas 15yo (100% Oloroso matured)
Aberlour A'Bunadh (100% Oloroso matured)

Ardbeg Uigeadail (Mix of ex-bourbon & undisclosed ex-sherry-not to be missed! Review coming soon)
Laphroaig PX (PX finished, duty free exclusive for the moment) see review
Lagavulin Distiller's Edition (PX finished, review coming soon)
Ardbeg Ardbog (Manzanilla finished) see review
Talisker Distiller's Edition ('Amoroso' sweetened Oloroso finished) see review
Caol Ila Distiller's Edition (Moscatel finished)

So next time you're looking for something different, or want to expand your horizons, whisky or otherwise, take a look at sherry. Just please don't use it for cooking.


Monday, 5 January 2015

Highland Park Dark Origins Whisky Review!

Not to start off on a negative note, but I am not the biggest Highland Park fan. I usually find their whiskies too sweet and light, lacking in peat and punch, usually chill filtered, and usually bottled at only 40 or 43%. Admittedly I've not tried their 25 year old (and older) or NAS (Non-Age Statement) bottlings, of which there are quite a few.

The Highland Park distillery is an interesting one, being located in the Orkney Islands (not in the Highlands, regardless of the name), it is the Northern-most distillery in Scotland. They use local peat, apparently to a level of around 20ppm, which is rather different from most other sources, and they malt their own barley using the traditional floor-malting method. Top marks there.

With the above in mind, I was looking forward to trying this 'Dark Origins' bottling. They seem to have taken a much more craft-friendly approach with this recent addition, being bottled at 46.3%, being non-chill filtered, and apparently being without added colouring. The only not-so-good move, in my book, was to add this one to the growing Non-Age Statement (NAS) sector. It may be relatively young, but that's nothing to be ashamed of!

The Dark Origins bottling, according to the distillery, has been matured in double the amount of sherry casks in comparison to their standard 12yo. Not very revealing is it? Nevertheless, this is the main reason for the name, with the sherry casks giving a darker colour and deeper flavour. Let's have a closer look...

Highland Park Dark Origins, NAS, 46.8%, Orkney Islands, Scotland.
Non-chill filtered, no added colouring, matured in 'double the usual amount of' ex-sherry casks.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Medium bronze.

Nose: Nice dry & rich sherry, quite salty, I'm guessing first fill dry Oloroso sherry casks, or perhaps Amontillado. Toasted and spiced dried fruits. Not getting any real peat or smoke on the nose though.  

Texture: Dry and viscous, thanks for not chill filtering!

Taste: Dry & peaty, more heathery/herbaceous peat, not medicinal, and some dark chocolate. Less salty than on the nose, but much more yummy peat, also less sherry presence than on the nose, but it's there, lovely and dry. No alcohol heat to speak of, a good indicator of good quality, and good maturation.  

Finish: Short-to-medium length, mouth-watering and dry, spicy and peaty, then some dark chocolate bitterness, and light smoke at the end. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Certainly my favourite Highland Park from those I've tried. Much better than even the more expensive 18yo. It seems to be priced above the 15yo and slightly below the 18, which is about right in my book. The NAS (Non-Age Statement) shadow lurks overhead, meaning you can't quite be sure if it's a fair price or not, but this is becoming unavoidable in the world of whisky. 

Nevertheless, Highland Park Dark Origins passes with ease, and has bumped this distillery up in my head. Unfortunately it's becoming harder to find in Australia, but is still on shelves around the world, and is well worth trying.

How about a more heavily-peated bottling HP? Perhaps with a similar maturation treatment to this one. Pretty please...

P.S On further reading after the review, HP's own website states they use dry Oloroso sherry casks. Win!