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Sunday, 29 March 2015

Laphroaig 15 Whisky Review!

When a particular whisky is discontinued, for whatever reason, there is often a rush to grab all the remaining stock before it's gone forever. Whether they be genuinely concerned enthusiasts, or speculating investors, these folks are determined to get their hands on the next 'hard to find' whisky while they can.

One of the more well-known of these discontinued whiskies, in recent years, would have to be Laphroaig 15 year old. It was discontinued around 2010 after a 30 year career, and was kind-of replaced by the (very good) 18 year old bottling. But they are rather different malts, and the 15 was very widely loved.

So the 15 became very hard to find, and therefore very expensive. Asking prices of over $400 were common, putting it out of reach of most buyers who would actually be drinking the stuff. The speculating investors were doing their best Monty Burns impressions. 
Now, in 2015, Laphroaig distillery is turning 200 years old, as is Ardbeg, having both officially opened in 1815. There is much anticipation and speculation as to how these two brilliant distilleries are going to celebrate this huge milestone, but we have one of these mysteries solved right here. Laphroaig is bringing back the 15 year old! Made in the same way as the original, where particular casks of whisky with particular qualities are hand-picked to become 15 year old Laphroaig. 

Unfortunately though, it's here for a good time, not a long time. It's only a limited release. There was an initial 'drop' of 2,500 bottles, made available to Friends of Laphroaig, earlier this year, which is, of course, long gone. All is not lost, however, as there is also a public release of around 70,000 bottles, some of which is due to hit Australian shores in June this year. A fitting celebration for the distilleries 200th anniversary, and probably a bit disappointing for those investors. Oh well!

I've been lucky enough to receive a sample of this new/old expression of Laphroaig, and am lucky enough to be the first in Australia to review it. I've not had the opportunity to taste the original version, so rather than getting bogged down in whether it's the same or not, I'm instead coming into this as a 15 year old virgin. Wait, that doesn't sound right...

Laphroaig 15yo, 2015 release, 43%. Islay, Scotland.
200th anniversary release, ex-bourbon cask. Chill filtered, albeit not too extensively, and light added caramel colourant (both assumed). 

Colour: Amber gold.

Nose: Salted butter, fresh seaweed, and grapefruit. Laphroaig signature peat is there, but softer than usual and far less medicinal. Hints of almond nuttiness, and sweet oak. 

Texture: Light, slightly oily.

Taste: Peat and rich smoke, but herbal peat rather than medicinal. Sea salt and pepper, and hints of tobacco. Something sour and slightly bitter, dried grapefruit, tamarind? Not as sweet as the nose, more dry and slightly bitter. 

Finish: Soft and light, but also quite long. Salted caramel and butter. Light peat and smoke clinging to life, and holding on for quite some time. Becomes more dry and mouth watering towards the end. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Fits quite well in between the 10 year old and 18 year old, which makes sense! Not as medicinal and confronting (to the novice) as the 10yo, which I think is the idea. Indeed it is marketed as more refined and more mellow, as was the original version, and I would say this is very accurate. It is softer and more refined, less sweet and more dry, more approachable. But still with enough delicious peat, smoke and salt to stamp it as Laphroaig. Which is just how we like it! 

The 18yo by the way is soon to be 'phased out' by 2016. The 15, on the other hand, is apparently going to become the annual Friends of Laphroaig release, instead of the current Cairdeas (Gaelic for friendship) bottlings for Feis Ile, the annual Islay festival. 

You may have picked up on the 18yo being phased out, and the 15yo being a limited release. And you may be worried about what that leaves on the shelves. Don't panic though, while these two expressions may be on their way out, there are more on the way. Laphroaig are not sitting on their hands, by any means. It's looking to be a busy year for them! 

Keep an eye out for Laphroaig 15yo in June in Australia, and keep an eye out for Beam Suntory brand ambassador, Dan Woolley, manning the Laphroaig stand at Whisky Live this year. He'll be debuting the 15yo at each show around the country. 

Speaking of which, a big thanks to Dan, and Laphroaig, for this sample, taken from the first bottle in the country. It's an honour to be tasting this whisky before release, and it's sure to be a hit. Get it while you can!


Friday, 27 March 2015

Ardbeg 1975 Whisky Review (Gordon & MacPhail) !

Today being International whisky day , honouring the late whisky writer Michael Jackson, I thought I'd review a special dram. You probably will not be able to find this whisky, and it may be far above your budget (it certainly is for me), so you'll probably have to live vicariously through me for the next few minutes. Jealous?

This unicorn of a whisky was distilled 40 years ago, was matured for 22 years, and was then bottled 18 years ago, making it by far the oldest Ardbeg I've ever seen, let alone tasted. The 1974, '75 and '76 vintages are some of the most highly esteemed amongst Ardbeg fans, and includes some phenomenal bottlings, including the frankly ridiculous 'double barrel' distillery release.

I was recently (and extremely generously!) given a sample of this Gordon & MacPhail independent bottling of 1975 Ardbeg, which was bottled in 1997 as part of their 'Connoisseur's Choice' range, at 40% ABV. If you can find a bottle, you'll likely be looking at over $1000 AUD to own it. This is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime dram for me.

The only Ardbeg I've tasted which has had an age statement, independent or otherwise, is their standard 10 year old, and I don't believe and of the rest of their current range to be significantly older than that, so I really don't know what to expect with this one. We know that peated whisky loses it's peat and smoke intensity during maturation, and this malt has had 22 years to mature, so it's not going to be a massive peat bomb, but will the cask influence overpower the spirit? Will it still taste like Ardbeg?
Ardbeg 1975 22yo, 40%, Gordon & MacPhail bottling.
Distilled in 1975, bottled in 1997. G&M 'Connoisseur's Choice' range. Assumed chill filtered.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Medium gold.

Nose: Yes, even after 22 years in a cask, and being bottled 18 years ago, it's still Ardbeg. Salt, mild earthy peat, and oak. Mild coffee grounds, ripe pineapple and stone fruit, very subtle smoke, salted caramel.

Texture: Super silky and buttery, even at the low strength of 40%. Gorgeous.

Taste: Coastal peat, more coffee grounds, damp earth. Toasted and slightly bitter oak, raw sugar/coffee crystals, sweet toffee and salted butter. Delicious.

Finish: Very long, oaky and earthy. Subtly peaty but now slightly medicinal, wood-fire embers. Dies out eventually with herbs and soft sea water.

Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Notes: A suitable dram for World Whisky Day! I do wish it had been bottled at higher strength, but given the increasing rarity of these old Ardbeg's, I can understand why it wasn't. Amazing whisky, very well balanced, and certainly one I'm not likely to taste again in a long time, if ever.

A huge thanks to Mr. Dan Woolley for generously providing this sample, I owe you one! I hadn't considered even seeing an Ardbeg of this age and reputation in my lifetime, let alone getting the chance to taste it.


P.S: Coming up next - An early review of a new Laphroaig release, the first in Australia, to my knowledge. Let's just say it's aged more than 10, and less than 18 years. Excited? Me too.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Benromach Peat Smoke Whisky Review!

The Speyside region isn't renowned for heavily peaty whiskies, but that doesn't mean there aren't any to be found! This example from Benromach, aptly named 'Peat Smoke', is one of the big ones, and is reputed to be one of the best. It is distilled from barley peated to an impressive 67 ppm , a number similar to (or even higher than) that used by the Islay distilleries. Being a Speyside malt though, and being made using local barley and local peat, it is of course rather distinct from your typical Islay. 

Benromach only produce one batch of their 'Peat Smoke' whisky per year, with this latest release being distilled in 2005, and bottled in 2014. This is also their most heavily peated batch yet, at the aforementioned 67ppm, and the first to carry their spunky new packaging. As with all Benromach whisky, Peat Smoke has been matured in first-fill casks, exclusively ex-bourbon in this case. 

I've tasted an older release of this bottling before, albeit at a whisky show, but I remember it as being a stand-out among the mainland offerings. I was also very impressed with Benromach's 10yo offerings, reviewed here , both the 43% and 57% versions, they were both very drinkable and of obvious quality. Will the load of extra peat, and slightly younger age, in this Peat Smoke expression change that? 
Benromach 'Peat Smoke' 2005, 46%, Forres, Speyside, Scotland.
Distilled in 2005, bottled in 2014. Peated to 67ppm phenols prior to distillation, matured in first-fill bourbon casks for 8-9 years. No added colouring, and assuming non-chill filtered, although not stated on label. 

(tasted neat)
Colour: Light gold

Nose: Sweet and fruity, subtle camp-fire smoke. Crisp green apples, white pepper, sweet malt and honey, cigar ash. Smoke is surprisingly subdued for the high ppm. 

Texture: Light and creamy. 

Taste: Much more smoke than found on the nose, but not overpowering, very pleasant. Fresh, sweet malt, and subtle vegetal peat. Some stone fruit and pepper. The smoke is sweet, chewy and fresh, slightly reminiscent of Caol Ila smoke. Very enjoyable and well balanced. 

Finish: Long & quite complex, initially fruity and sweet, then drying as the smoke comes back to the front. Fading slowly with malty biscuits laced with wood smoke. 

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Very drinkable, very interesting stuff. No surprise that, as with other Benromach single malts, the quality is very obvious. No harshness and no rushed distillation roughness, nice mouthfeel and malty character, with quite a complex finish. Lovely. 

A very interesting take on a heavily peated malt, it may be slightly younger than your average mainland whisky, but it really doesn't matter. In fact if it was older we would lose more peat influence, and nobody wants that! A very good alternative for the peat lover who doesn't enjoy the medicinal and coastal style we get from our beloved Islay.  

Having said that, I would love to see a 57% or cask strength version of Benromach Peat Smoke, to match their 10 year old offerings. I'm sure it would be a real cracker, and a real contender. They do have some other interesting whiskies on the way, including two french red wine cask-finished expressions, which should be very interesting. Keep an eye out for those!

Benromach Peat Smoke is quite widely available, all the major online retailers have it. Be conscious of the batch / vintage you're buying though, and the 2005 release can be found in both the old and new style packaging, so check the label. It's currently on special, albeit in the old packaging, at Nick's for a very good price, so get it while it's hot. 

A big thanks to Ian from Alba Whisky , Benromach's Australian distributor, for the sample!


Friday, 13 March 2015

Octomore 6.3 Whisky Review (Bruichladdich)

Bruichladdich distillery have never been afraid of experimentation. Their Octomore range has been around for some time now, and has been, and still is, a testament to their whisky mastery, and the brilliance of their head distiller, Jim McEwan.

Bottled at 5 years of age (with one exception), at high strength, and distilled from super-heavily peated malted barley, they are not for the faint-of-heart, or inexperienced-of-peat. But on the same hand, they are not as monstrous or one-sided as you might expect, given all of those high numbers and young age. They are big Islay peat monsters, but they'll only maim you slightly, rather than murder you. Will this version toe the line?

I've had the privilege of tasting (and owning) a few different Octomore releases over the last few years (4.2, 5.1, and 6.1), and they've all been very good . I've also tasted the 10 year old, but found it a little disappointing. This 6.3 release, that I can't stop looking at across the room (I swear it winked at me), this is the king of kings. To quote Bruichladdich themselves, this is the 'Octomore of Octomore'.

This particular Octomore 6.3 'Islay barley' release is very special. It was distilled exclusively from barley grown on Islay (duh), at James Brown's farm, named Octomore (once home to a small distillery), in the field named 'Lorgba'. The barley was then sent to Baird's Maltings in Inverness, where it was peated to an unbelievable 258 ppm phenols! This is the most heavily peated whisky in the world. By a huge margin. The previous ppm title holder was the 5.1 release, which was peated to 169 ppm phenols. So the 6.3 has well and truly smashed the ppm record. Will it ever be repeated? Time will tell. There has been another release since, the 7.2 version, which was distilled from barley peated to 208ppm. Still a huge number, and much higher than anything else that I know of, but it's not quite 258, is it? We know that ppm measurements aren't always a definitive indicator of what you will get in the finished product, but it's still very impressive. 

Anyway, this super-heavily-peated malted barley was then sent back to Bruichladdich, where it was distilled in 2009 and aged in ex-bourbon barrels for 5 years, then finally bottled at a huge 64% in 2014. As with all Bruichladdich whisky, it's non-chill filtered and bottled without added colouring. Excellent.

To my knowledge, this is the first and only review of Octomore 6.3 in Australia, and I am looking at one of only eleven full bottles sold in the country, and we have one man / business to thank for that. The 6.3 was actually released late in 2014, and I was extremely excited about it, thanks to social media. But, Bruichladdich's Australian distributor, SouthTrade, were either unwilling or unable to get it. I enquired after it's availability myself three times, and while they did reply, it was not good news. **See update at bottom of page!**

Bruichladdich, to their credit, will ship to Australia direct, but through no fault of theirs the shipping costs are huge, not to mention the duty and taxes payable at customs on arrival. That unfortunately was not a viable solution.

Enter Craig from Nippy Sweetie Whiskies, the local hero who somehow managed to procure a case of this magnificent malt, and import it himself for sale. And rightly so, because within a few hours of a single facebook post (not even posted on his website), eleven bottles were spoken for (including mine), and the twelfth was being split into samples for individual sale. Nippy Sweetie Whiskies are really coming on strong, regularly adding new, rare, hard to find and ultra-desirable whiskies to their range. Great stuff.

Due to the aforementioned shipping and duty costs (higher than usual due to the high strength), this bottle did not come cheap. In fact it is the most expensive single bottle of whisky I've ever purchased, albeit not by much. But, there will never be a a lot of this whisky in Australia, and I believe it is out of production, or will be shortly. So I jumped at the chance to own a bottle. And it is a beautiful bottle...

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.3 'Islay Barley', 5yo, 64%. Islay, Scotland. 
Distilled in 2009, matured in ex-bourbon casks for 5 years. Distilled from barley grown at James Brown's Octomore farm on Islay, and peated to 258 ppm phenols.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Solid amber, glowing.

Nose: Mega-peaty of course, but it's a stunning complex peat. A sweet and slightly sour, very slightly medicinal peat. Coastal sea spray, beautiful sweet golden barley. Some rubber & soap, sour milk (in a good way though, trust me), hints of toasted nuts. Not a lot of smoke, but that peat is just amazing. If that was the only thing I got on the nose, I would be satisfied.

Texture: Mega thick, oily and creamy. Looking at the glass after a little swirl, the legs have become part of the glass. Nothing is moving at all. It's like the earth has stopped turning. The anticipation builds...

Taste: Wow. Just wow. It's a challenge to put this experience into words, but I'll try. That massive, complex peat is there, but so is the sweet malted barley, salted caramel, brine, embers and thick, warm smoke from a camp fire. So balanced and creamy, I would never guess this was 64% and only 5 years old. But good god, that incredible peat. I'm giddy.

Finish: Mega-long and mega-peaty. Sweet smoke and warm wood embers. Earthy, toasted grains, some gentle drying oak, even a little buttered toast. Lasts forever! It's been at least 15 mins since my last sip and it's still dominant, it's omnipresent, and I don't think about resisting. I must have more!

Score: 5 out of 5. Yes, really. The first one, so far.

Notes: This is incredible! I had thought of the 5.1 as the king of Octomore, but no, Bruichladdich are correct, this is it. 6.3 is the king. The peaty emperor. The Octomore of Octomore. And I love it.

Sure, it's expensive, but it's worth every cent, without question. Is this peated perfection? Well, nothing is absolutely perfect, but this is about as close as it gets. This 6.3 wants for nothing. Bruichladdich and Mr. McEwan may have a difficult task ahead trying to improve on this.

If you're in Oz, I strongly suggest you head over to Nippy Sweetie ASAP and order a bottle, or at least get a sample (while stocks last of course). I don't know how many bottles Craig will be able to get, but I'm going to start saving now, and I really hope there's still one left for me when the time comes. One bottle is just not enough, I must have more!

A huge thanks must go to Craig from Nippy Sweetie for having the initiative to get this baby in, outstanding stuff.

If you're not in Australia, do your utmost to find a bottle or sample of Octomore 6.3. If you're a peat head or an Octomore fan, you won't want to miss this one.

**UPDATE: I've just received word from Bruichladdich Australia (South Trade), Octomore 6.3 is coming to Australia! Great news.**

Friday, 6 March 2015

Port Ellen 25yo (Signatory) Whisky Review!

In the world of rare whisky, one distillery stands out as the 'holy grail': Port Ellen. The name is spoken in hushed tones, and the whisky is revered and worshipped by whisky enthusiasts, who may have never laid eyes on an actual bottle, let alone tasted some.

Why? Mainly because it has been closed since 1983. Yes, over 30 years ago. Which means that all the Port Ellen whisky in the world is at least 31 years old (actual age, not maturation time). This also means that once it's gone, it's gone. Every time someone enjoys a dram of Port Ellen whisky, there is one dram less of Port Ellen whisky in the world, never to be replaced. The site of the former distillery is now home to Port Ellen malting's, supplying malted barley to many different distilleries.

There are plenty of distilleries which closed down decades ago, so what makes Port Ellen so special? Well, mainly the fact that it is (generally) excellent whisky, being a very complex, peated Islay whisky. And also because Diageo (owners of the remaining stock) have been releasing a 'new' Port Ellen every year since around 2001. In line with the above points regarding age and dwindling supply, the prices (and demand) have been going more insane with every release. For example, last year's official release of Port Ellen retailed for approximately $4,200 Australian dollars.

Yes, it was 35 years old, and yes, it was bottled at cask strength (like all releases to my knowledge, to Diageo's credit). But $4200 is a massive amount of money. Enough to buy hundreds of bottles of very good single malt whisky (among many other things), or one bottle of Port Ellen 2014 release. As a point of interest, this price was almost double that of the previous release, despite both releases being bottled at the same age.

This usually means that Port Ellen whisky is the domain of collectors, or very well-to-do drinkers, while the average whisky enthusiast generally misses out. All is not lost, however, as there is an alternative to these official releases. Enter the independent bottler's! Although hard to find, and still expensive, the independent bottling's of Port Ellen are priced much more reasonably.

I have been lucky enough to receive a sample from one of these bottles in a swap (slainte Matthew!). A 25 year old Port Ellen single malt, bottled in 2007. It was matured in a sherry cask for that quarter of a century, prior to being bottled at a cask strength of 58%, by Signatory independent bottlers. Yeah, this is pretty special...
Port Ellen 25yo sherry cask, 58%, Signatory bottling.
Distilled in 1982, bottled in 2007. Cask strength, no added colouring. Limited release of 526 bottles, cask number 2844.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Amber-orange

Nose: Big fruit & sherry, oloroso, slight nutty sweetness. Some leather & salt, hints of gentle smoke. Barley sugar lollies, some slightly under-ripe tropical fruit. 

Texture: Big, oily & viscous. Very nice.

Taste: Lovely earthy peat, big sherry influence - spicy and fruity. Pleasant gentle smoke adds depth, well-done toffee with slight bitterness. 

Finish: Long, but surprisingly light. Fruit & smoke alternate. Very well balanced, drying slowly as it fades.

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Ignoring the price & scarcity, this malt is a good one. In other words, if you can find it & can afford it, go for it! After all, any Port Ellen whisky is a piece of whisky history, and it's not coming back! 

Having said that, I can't help but feel that the sherry cask has had too much of an influence over those 25 years. We know that older whiskies lose a great deal of peat influence and smoke during their slumber, and there was still a nice drop of smoke in this one, but I didn't get much of the dusty leather that Port Ellen is known for either.

I'm mainly comparing this one to the only other Port Ellen I've tasted (and seen, for that matter), which was the 4th release from Diageo, tasted at a whisky festival. It was ex-bourbon cask, so is obviously going to be different, but it was the same age and nearly the same strength. I wasn't blown away by that one, especially considering the price, but this independent bottling is much better value for money. I find myself wishing for a Port Ellen with a mix of sherry and bourbon cask maturation, maybe even a cask finishing? But that's not likely to happen. Nobody can afford to experiment with this stuff, financially or morally. 

A huge thanks to Matt for the sample, a tasting of any Port Ellen is not something to be taken lightly, and not something that is likely to happen again. 


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Benriach Heredotus Fumosus 12yo Whisky Review!

Benriach distillery is yet another scotch producer which seems to fly under the radar of many whisky enthusiasts. It is not easy to find, at least in Australia, but is well worth the effort. This is actually my first tasting of a Benriach whisky, by way of a sample sourced from SM Whisky.

The distillery is located in the famous Speyside region, but it is among the few distilleries in the region which produce a range of peated whiskies as part of their regular line-up, along with un-peated bottlings. They are also one of the few 'Speysiders' which malt their own barley, using traditional floor-maltings. Their parent company, Benriach Distillery Company, also owns Glendronach (my favourite un-peated 'sherry bomb' whisky) and Glenglassaugh distilleries, all located in Speyside.

Benriach produce a very wide range of whisky, ranging from 37+ year old un-peated single cask bottlings, to peated whisky finished in exotic casks, such as ex-rum or ex-madeira casks. Benriach's peated range can generally, but not always, be spotted by their use of latin names, such as 'Curiositas' and 'Authenticus', among others.

In this case the whisky carries the latin name 'Heredotus Fumosus', which translates to 'Smoky Sherry' in English. The sherry in this case refers to a cask finishing / secondary maturation in Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry butts. The whisky carries an age statement of 12 years, although the term of both the initial maturation and cask finishing is not made clear. It is also non-chill filtered, bottled at 46% and without adding colouring. Great stuff!
Benriach 'Heredotus Fumosus' 12yo, 46%, Speyside, Scotland.
Finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, non-chill filtered, no adding colouring. Limited release of approx. 3500 bottles. 

(tasted neat)
Colour: Dark gold, slightly bronze.

Nose: Quite malty and biscuity for a heavily-peated whisky. A nice coastal peat with a hint of salinity, only a little smoke. Juicy red fruits, strawberry & plum, maybe a hint of cherries. 

Texture: Oily & warm, very nice. 

Taste: Much smokier than on the nose, but not overbearing, delicious! Quite dry with a tiny hint of ash. The red fruits are still there from the nose, but are beaten down slightly by the peat smoke. 

Finish: Dry & mouth-watering, juicy red fruits now beating the smoke down. Nice long finish. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: A very good whisky, although there's not a huge level of complexity present. The PX finish has certainly added some depth, the spirit itself is good quality, and that smoke is delicious! I don't know if I would pick this as a Speyside whisky in a blind-tasting, I suspect I would look towards the Islands first, but that isn't a bad thing. 

I'll admit I was drawn to this sample in order to compare it to Laphroaig PX, my current favourite from Laphroaig. They are both heavily-peated, similar in alcoholic strength, and are both finished in PX sherry casks. The PX however is an NAS bottling, while the Benriach is stated as 12 years old, and obviously the spirits themselves are quite different in style to begin with. 

I did prefer the Laphroaig by a considerable margin, but it wasn't a total annihilation (anyone remember that old PC game?). I certainly wouldn't turn the Benriach 'Heredotus Fumosus' away on a cold night. Unfortunately it was a limited release from the distillery, but assuming you can find a bottle without the inevitable 'rarity-tax' added on, it's certainly worth getting a hold of. 

I look forward to trying more of Benriach's range too, it's going well so far!