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Friday, 28 August 2015

Laphroaig-gasm! An epic evening with John Campbell.

It's not very often that a high-profile whisky celebrity visits Brisbane. But, largely thanks to champion brand ambassador Dan Woolley, we recently had a visit from John Campbell, manager of our beloved Laphroaig distillery, as part of his Australian tour.

I was lucky enough to attend two amazing Laphroaig tastings, hosted by John & Dan, and to interview John during his tour. And of course, I can't write about this complete & utter Laphroaig-gasm (the copyright is pending on that, by the way) without reviewing a very special Laphroaig!

This is quite a long post, but there's no filler here - it's all cream, if you ask me (and I hope you agree!). I learnt loads about Laphroaig over this time, John is basically a walking, talking Laphroaig encyclopaedia. So sit back, grab a dram of Laphroaig if you can, and settle in for the journey. 

Dan Woolley, Brand Ambassador (L), with John Campbell, Laphroaig's Distillery Manager.

John's quite a softly spoken guy, very relaxed and friendly, very genuine and modest. His love and passion for Laphroaig, and his native Islay, is palpable. Laphroaig is in his soul, and his soul is also in Laphroaig! He's been at the distillery for over 21 years, starting at the bottom, in the warehouse, and working his way up to distillery manager in 2006. It just so happens that he's the first Ileach (Islay native) to manage the distillery.

He's also the public face of Laphroaig distillery, travelling to various parts of the world for 4-5 weeks each year, hosting tastings and masterclasses, appearing in YouTube videos and at whisky shows, and occasionally being interviewed by pesky whisky bloggers.

It's really quite surreal watching someone on YouTube one week, while they're on the other side of the world, and the next you're shaking their hand, in your home town. The power of the internet, I guess. Maybe this is how teenage girls feel when they see Miley Bieber, or whoever is 'in' this month?

The Interview!

This being my first official interview for Peated Perfection, and with John being such an icon of Islay whisky, I admit I was a little nervous to begin with, hoping that my questions would be up to scratch. But John was, and is, very relaxed, and was very forthcoming and attentive. Sharing an amazing Laphroaig (pictured above) with Dan & John, may have helped as well! But don't worry, more details are coming on that, further down...

John, why did you get in to the whisky industry, and which whisky was your 'gateway' dram?

I was a lobster fisherman, and was looking for a more steady income, so I could get a mortgage and settle down. My first dram was Laphroaig 10 year old. I wasn't even sure if I liked it or not, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why it tasted the way it did, and to understand it better.

During your career, what changes have you seen at Laphroaig?

It hasn't changed, it's still much the same. We're using the same cuts, running (the stills) at the same speed. The only thing that has changed is how we fill & empty the stills, which we call the waste processes, which is much faster now. The barley variety does change, but because we flavour with the peat before drying, it takes away some of the subtle changes you might get from that.

What separates Laphroaig from the other Islay distilleries, in terms of process?

In terms of the process, our floor-maltings, our water source, using our own peat, the size of the stills, the makers mark (wheat bourbon) barrels, and only maturing on the island.

You've mentioned that you flavour the floor-malted barley with peat smoke, and then dry it in a separate step. Could you explain how this works?

We cold smoke the malt. You can hold your hand over the peat, it's blue smoke, it's not hot at all. We flavour for 17 hours, then dry using heat recycled from our still house - this energy recovery process has cut our energy consumption by a third. Most distilleries flavour & dry at the same time, it's quicker that way.

What are the main differences between the floor-malted barley, and that sourced from Port Ellen?

The creosols and guiacols in our floor malted barley, and that cold smoking. It's all using Islay peat though. Our floor malted barley is around 60ppm, and the Port Ellen is around 35-40, and we average that out.

Laphroaig is famous for dividing opinions (opinions welcome), but what are your recommendations for the novice / first timer, and for the casual drinker? And which is your personal favourite?

Select cask is good for a beginner, to get used to the flavours. It's more subtle, it's breakfast whisky. For the casual drinker, quarter cask is good for bourbon drinkers, triple wood is good for wine drinkers. But then cask strength (10yo) can be a sink or swim moment, 'I'm not sure if I like it, but tell me more'. My personal favourite is the 10 year old, it's just rock solid whisky. It's the taste of Islay in a glass.

What are your thoughts on the Non-age statement (NAS) movement?

Quarter cask was the first NAS whisky (for Laphroaig). Consumers will decide if it works or not. NAS is for mixing ages, not for (selling) young whisky. We're very open with the ages and mixes, we have no problem telling anyone all about them.

Some expressions of Laphroaig state they are non-chill filtered, and some don't. You've mentioned that only the 10yo & 15yo are chill filtered. Do you feel it affects the finished whisky?

Our 48% and above malts are non-chill filtered. Generally it's 46, but we like it that bit higher. It doesn't make a big difference to Laphroaig, it makes more difference with un-peated malts. We do use lower-grade filters than some distilleries, but we don't make a big deal out of it. (see here for more information)

What is the process when creating a new expression? Is it a matter of picking casks from the current stock, or starting from scratch? 

It can be both, picked from stock or planned in advance. It's not a quick process, it takes around two years to create a new Laphroaig. All the departments come up with ideas, but I generally do Cairdeas (myself). We listen to the people, and try and give them what they want.

How receptive are you / is Laphroaig to customer feedback?

Absolutely (receptive), it's hugely important. The two-way communication is what makes Laphroaig different, it's why the Friends of Laphroaig is so important. Our philosophy is still the same (as always). Peat is hot at the moment, and Laphroaig is peatier than it was 30 years ago. And it's going to get peatier.

What does the future hold for Friends of Laphroaig, and the Cairdeas bottlings? Will there be more Cairdeas on the shelves in more countries?

It (F.O.L) will get bigger, the growth rate is increasing. We have millions of square feet of land, so there's plenty of land for the plots. Cairdeas will stay on-line only, we can't keep up with the demand. We're thinking about how Cairdeas is managed, we've bought in the ballot system, and the 21yo with the 350mL bottles is a trial for Cairdeas. We're trying to get liquid in as many hands as possible.

The 2015 Cairdeas was made using only floor-malted barley, and the smaller stills. Was this planned for the bicentennial when it was distilled, and will this be done more regularly?

No, it's a one off. It was planned for the bicentennial from the start, and it's been very popular.

What do you see as the challenges for Laphroaig, and how can they be overcome?

Growth and (keeping up with) demand is the big challenge. We will overcome this through continuing consumer engagement, and keeping the values of Laphroaig. That's what has made us successful. We're just holding the torch, ready to pass it on to the next guy.

Finally John, how would you describe Laphroaig, in one sentence, to someone who's never tried it?

My tag line from opinion's welcome: "A big, peaty slap in the face. Perfect."

That is perfect! Thanks John.

And on to the Tastings!
Cobbler's 'Laphroaig wall'
John was also hosting a number of tastings around the country during his tour of Australia, but Brisbane was his first stop. He was hosting a large tasting, with food pairings, at whisky mecca Cobbler, in West End, and a smaller tasting at the Nant whisky bar, in Brisbane's CBD. I was lucky enough to attend both tastings, where we tasted basically the entire range that is currently available in Australia - Laphroaig Select cask, the venerable 10yr old, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, the limited 15yr old, and the popular 18yr old. For the Cobbler tasting, we also tasted the amazing 25yr old bottling, and one very special Laphroaig which John had bought with him from the distillery. But you'll just have to keep reading to find out about that one...

The tasting at the Nant bar was a very relaxed and casual affair, and aside from the six whiskies mentioned above, we were also treated to some phenomenal cheese boards - fresh oysters drizzled with Laphroaig, anyone? Or perhaps you'd prefer Laphroaig-cured beef jerky! Awesome stuff, and an absolute bargain at just $40 a head. Even more so when you consider who was hosting!

The tasting at Cobbler, the following day, was also relaxed and casual, but with a much bigger crowd. The event was completely sold out, and the place was absolutely packed! Dan had personally designed an amazing food-pairing menu for this one, with some incredible light finger food, prepared by Matt from Jahh Tiger. Let's have a closer look at the whisky, and the food, that we were treated to:

Not bad at all. But it got even better at the end!

- Laphroaig Select Cask, a marriage of many different casks at different ages. Paired with Laphroaig cured salami and spiced fig paste. This salami was amazing, it brought out a little more spice & peat in the malt. Select is a more subtle Laphroaig, maybe a beginner's Laphroaig. But there is still plenty of flavour, and it does make for a very good palate primer.

- 10yo, the original family recipe, and the heart of the brand. Paired with fresh oysters drizzled with more 10yo, and with Laphroaig-cured beef jerky crumbled over the top. This was absolutely mind blowing. The combination of the salty, briny oyster and dry, savoury jerky, plus a hint of Laphroaig peat and vanilla, was delicious. I don't normally go for many raw oysters personally, but I'll be fixing some of these Laphroaig-drizzled ones for myself, and soon.

- 15yo, the limited release for the bicentennial. Which as it turns out, is actually the exact same base whisky as the next one. It's just bottled at a lower strength, is chill filtered and has adding colouring, and that's because it's how the original 15yo was made. Paired with a seared Japanese scallop, with smoked honey & citrus dressing. The combination of the two bought out a slightly umami or mushroom flavour for me, plus the citrus (grapefruit) I always seem to get in the 15yo. Previously reviewed here.

- 18yo, which is the same actual liquid as the 15, but without the added colouring and chill filtration, and at the higher strength of 48%. I'm a big fan of this one, and I hope it doesn't go anywhere. Paired with a cold smoked peking duck pancake, which was just wonderful in every way. I could happily eat these, and only these, forever. Well, maybe with some Laphroaig-drizzled oysters on the side! I do prefer the 18yo to the 15yo in a head-to-head comparison, but they're quite different expressions. Previously reviewed here.

- Quarter Cask, which is an (and was the first for Laphroaig) NAS whisky, but is actually a mix of 5-11 year old first-fill bourbon-matured malt, married for 2-3 days (as are all batches prior to bottling), then finished for 7 months in the quarter casks. These quarter casks are also first-fill bourbon, but are re-coopered down from standard size. This was my favourite Laphroaig for quite some time, and it turns out it's the fourth biggest-selling Islay malt, and makes up around 20% of Laphroaig's sales by volume. It was paired with a slow roasted beef short rib, which just melted in the mouth, and balanced the sweetness in the quarter cask nicely.

- Triple wood, which was my least favourite Laphroaig expression, previously reviewed here, although it has since grown on me. This one is essentially quarter cask Laphroaig, which is then finished in first-fill Oloroso sherry, European oak casks. It's quite complex, but that sherry finish softens the Laphroaig character a little too much for me. Paired with our dessert, a dark chocolate tart-let topped with spiced jam. Dark chocolate & sherry are a fantastic match, as are peat & chocolate, so this was a flavour bomb when tasted together.

- 25yo, the 2013 release. This one has sat for 18 years in first-fill bourbon barrels, then for 7 years in second-fill, Oloroso sherry, European oak, hogsheads. It's bottled at cask strength (45.1%, for this release), not to be confused with the old 40% travel exclusive version. This one is so, so good. Soft and velvety, gentle peat & oak, fruity sweetness, and some coffee grounds in that lovely, long finish.
But don't worry, there's one more to come...

And now the review!   

I didn't actually taste this one during the tasting with everyone else. Instead, I decided to be slightly presumptuous, and asked for a sample bottle-shaped doggy-bag. Why? So I can share the love with yourselves, of course! And what a way to finish off the Laphroaig-gasm.

I must admit that I had already tasted it, though. John had personally selected this incredibly rare, and almost priceless, bottle of Laphroaig, to bring with him on his tour. And I was deeply honoured when he opened it during our interview, and poured himself, Dan and I a dram of this precious nectar. To share some of this amazing whisky, which it's highly unlikely I'll ever see again, with the man who made it, was just one awesome experience. Dan summed it up very well later in the evening: What a time to be alive!

What's that I hear? Shut up and show me the whisky? OK, OK, here it is:
Laphroaig Cairdeas, 2009 release, 12 years old, 57.5% cask strength.   
The second-ever Cairdeas bottling, after the initial 2008 release. 12yo, first-fill bourbon cask, mostly matured in dunnage warehouses. Non-chill filtered, no added colouring. 5,000 bottles, released 6 years ago, and now basically all gone! John Campbell bought this with him on his tour, from the distillery on Islay. Oh yes...

Colour: Pale yellow gold. 

Nose: Stunning, and so different. Loads of lightly oiled leather, slight soapy - carbolic soap. Sweet vanilla, slightly fruity, and lovely medicinal peat. Complex and very dynamic - constantly changing. After 10 mins, herbal and more earthy, wet stone. After another 5 minutes, vanilla ice cream, near a smouldering peat fire. 

Texture: Oily and sumptuous. Velvety, and no heat whatsoever.

Taste: A big peaty punch, nice & intense, quite different to the nose. As John described it, 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' ! Ashy and flinty, some oak, and gun powder residue. With a little more time, creamy vanilla comes out, and the peat has softened slightly, now warm, earthy, and lovely. 

Finish: Long, peaty and ashy, well balanced, with a little sweetness & some liquorice behind the peat.

Score: 5 out of 5.

Notes: Just awesome. I'm trying not to be too subjective, but I love this stuff. And whisky is an emotional thing, after all! Like I said, to be able to drink this very special malt with the man who made it (John selects the Cairdeas bottling's himself, remember), is just awesome, and I'm very honoured. It helps that he's such a down-to-earth and relaxed guy, and of course that he has such a huge amount of knowledge and passion.

This one was quite different to all the other Laphroaig's, and Cairdeas' especially, that I've had so far (the 2012 'origins' and the 2014). It was the icing on top of one awesome evening. I just wish there was more of it! Just goes to show the huge difference that varied maturation can make to the same spirit. I shudder to think that at the time this drop was released, I was mostly drinking beer, and Bundaberg rum, god help me. Just think of all the brilliant whiskies I've missed out on which, like this one, are now un-obtainium.

So after two brilliant tastings and a good solid chat with John, I've learnt quite a bit more about this mainstay of peated whisky, as did the other tasting attendee's I imagine, and my love for this distillery has been strengthened even further. Now I just need to visit it on Islay myself!

A massive thanks to John Campbell, Dan Woolley, Nant Brisbane, Cobbler, Laphroaig, Beam Suntory, and CCA/The Exchange for making all this happen. Just to have John visit Australia at all is fantastic, but to have him stop in Brisbane, conduct two brilliant tastings, and put up with my questions, was incredible.

John was also good enough to sign my bottle of last year's Cairdeas, which was pretty special as is, but is now white-hot! Now I just need to resist opening it for a while. Or maybe I'll just get a second bottle...


Sunday, 23 August 2015

Whisky Live Brisbane (2015), and speed whisky reviews!

It's that time of year again! Time for Brisbane's biggest (and this year, Brisbane's only) whisky show / expo, Whisky Live.
Last year's event was a little bigger, with a few new brands / expressions and plenty of old favourites. Unfortunately the exhibitors were fewer this year, with some very notable absences, largely down to a clash with Sydney's 'whisky fair', hosted by the Oak Barrel, being scheduled on the same weekend. But there were still a few interesting new brands in attendance, with some very different products on offer this time - whisky filtered through coffee grounds, anyone?

The event was held at a new venue this year, the Hotel Jen, whereas previous years' shows have been hosted by the QLD Irish Club. The room itself was a little smaller, and L-shaped, so despite the smaller afternoon crowd, it was still congested at times, although bearable. I can't imagine how the room would've coped at the night-time sessions, it would have to have been quite a bit worse. I also missed the ceiling of the Irish Club's function room, which is pretty much ceiling porn. Oh well, these things happen.

There were three separate sessions this year, over two consecutive days. I chose the Saturday afternoon session (as did many other enthusiasts), figuring it would be a little quieter than the other's, and hoping some of the 'non-enthusiasts' / heavy drinkers (read: booze hounds) would wait for the night-time session.

I'm getting on my soap box for a minute, because unfortunately I figured wrong. There were still a few drunken fools stumbling around & slurring their words, by 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I guess this sort of event accentuates the differences between your average whisky/spirits enthusiast, your average sensible punter, and the binge-drinking idiot who is only there to get plastered.

Maybe I'm just being a snob, or being naive. I didn't witness any actual aggression or violence, after all, and this sort of person is, thankfully, a small minority at this sort of event. But, unlike the afore-mentioned booze hounds, I empathise with the people manning the stands at these events. They aren't there to mindlessly fill that glass you're shoving in their face, they're there to tell you about their product, share their passion, or introduce you to new things. They've been on their feet for 3-4 hours at a time, over multiple sessions, and have fielded the same questions hundreds of times, from hundreds of people. They aren't being paid in helicopter flights or gold bullion, in fact many are their company's national brand ambassador, or head distiller, or even owner. And they've travelled to the event, on a weekend mind you, to spread the word.

So I empathise when they have to deal with someone who could not care less about what they're pouring, or what they're saying, and someone who is overly drunk, and is being disrespectful, or just plain rude. But can this even be avoided? RSA or no, it's near impossible for the presenters to individually manage the alcohol consumption of hundreds of people, in a small space, and if someone is refused a pour for these reasons, they're probably going to get upset, which could make the situation worse.

Increasing the price (it's now $99 a ticket) may turn this type of person away, but will also turn the genuine enthusiast and curious punter away. Restricting the number of pours (with a voucher system etc.) may help, but everyone else will suffer as well. So maybe there isn't much that can be done about it. Don't get me wrong, everyone's going to get tipsy or even drunk, and let their hear down, which is great, but some take it too far. After all, the pours are small, and there is plenty of food and water on offer, so everyone just needs to take their time and enjoy it. Anyway, that's enough ranting, let's get back to the good stuff.

Along with a decent selection of Scotch and bourbon, and a couple of Australian (Hellyer's road and Starward) and Japanese (Hibiki / Hakushu, and Kakubin) whiskies, there were some very interesting and very different new whiskies presented this year. The two that stood out as very different, for me, were 'Dry Fly' cask strength whiskey, made from wheat, and 'Kaffekask' from Appalachian Gap distillery, which was a corn & barley whiskey distilled through coffee grounds (don't ask me how, I have no idea). The former did remind me slightly of fly spray, and the latter reminded me of generic Chinese takeaway. Not necessarily in a bad way, but perhaps not in a good way either! Closer inspection required, maybe.

While I'm not normally a bourbon fan, I was charmed into trying one which sounded very promising: Russell's Reserve single barrel. Russell's Reserve is actually a brand subsidiary of Wild Turkey, and their (slightly cheaper) 10 year old bottling is now joined by this new expression, which has some strong appeal. The single barrel bottled at roughly cask strength at 55%, it's not chill filtered (yay!), and it sells for just $75 in Australia. Russell's Reserve only use level 4 charring on their barrels, also known as an alligator char, which may help explain why it doesn't drink like a 55% bourbon. It drinks lower than that, and with a great level of flavour and texture. In fact I'd say this, personally, is the best bourbon I've tasted, especially accounting for the price. Normally I find bourbon a bit too sweet, but not in this case, it was very enjoyable. Just try and get a 55% Scotch, NAS or not, for $75. There's no such thing. Great stuff!

One great new idea they were doing this year were what they termed 'masterclasses', but were really 10-15 minute presentations, with a particular brand or distillery, in a separate room. While it could have been organised better (they announced the masterclass over a loudspeaker, and it's first-in, first-served), I look forward to what they do with it next year. There were three of these presentations during our session, and the one I chose to attend was for Starward / New World Distillery, actually presented by the owner himself, David Vitale, pictured above.

David actually worked for Bill & Lyn at Lark distillery, in Tasmania, for three years, before starting New World Distillery in 2007, in an aircraft hanger at Essendon airport, in Melbourne. His goal was to bring Australian whisky into more common usage, rather than it being saved for special occasions. Which means, he wanted to make it more affordable, and more approachable. And also to challenge the pre-conceptions regarding young non-age statement whiskies. He's certainly done that, with his original Starward (NAS, but matured for 2.5-3 years in Australian sherry / Apera casks) selling for around $80, and the wine cask expression (matured in Shiraz casks from South Australia) only a few dollars more.

We tasted both during the 'masterclass', and they're very approachable, easy drinking whiskies, but they're still good quality, they certainly don't taste that young. But that may be thanks to Starward whiskies being made using a massive solera vat, a system more commonly found in the Sherry bodegas of Spain. It basically means the vat is never emptied, and there's a mix of older and newer whisky in each cask.

David doesn't shy away from stating they aren't a traditional distillery, they're using technology where it helps, and are also not afraid of experimentation. For example, they've actually matured whisky in ginger beer casks, and the results were great (review coming soon). They've also matured a whisky in oak, and then filtered out the colour, just to screw with people's minds, I suspect! They also don't shave or re-char any casks, so there is still a little residual content in the barrel, and you're getting the full effect of the 'previous owner'. Not re-charring barrels also means they don't get the 'taming' / filtering effect that charring usually has on the spirit, but it doesn't seem to have mattered in the slightest. This is definitely one to watch.

The stand-out whiskies for me, though, came from the old & rare bar. After it's success last year, it was bigger and better this time around. For those not aware, the old & rare bar sells old / rare / expensive drams over & above the whisky live ticket price, and you keep the glass your dram is served in. They don't come cheap, but the prices are quite reasonable compared to what you might pay in a bar, for this sort of whisky. This year, we're talking 1978 Ardbeg (original bottling), 25yo cask strength Caol Ila & Bowmore, 50 year old North British grain whisky, Macallan cask strength (very rare), and 30yo Balvenie, to name a few. I had to try a few, and I took some quick notes on two of them, for your reading pleasure!

Ardbeg 20yo, 1978, original bottling, 43%. $52 per dram.
Nose: Soft, salty, some oak and tar, caramel sweetness.
Taste: Very soft, decent texture for 43% though. Salty, soft earthy peat, coffee grounds.
Finish: Quite long, spicy and earthy, creamy vanilla.
Notes: Very soft, to the point where some suspected it was over-oxidised from a bad cork. Still pretty damn good, and I'm glad I tried it. I have had the privilege of tasting a 1975 Ardbeg before, although that was a 22yo Gordon & MacPhail independent bottling, at 40%, and it was better than this original, in this particular case anyway. But, where are you going to even see an original bottling from that era, let alone be able to taste it!

Caol Ila Feis Ile 2013, 15yo, 56.5% cask strength. $39 per dram.
Nose: Sweet, grassy and meaty. BBQ spices, heavily smoked ham, light earthy peat.
Taste: Wonderful. Sweet and peaty, meaty, slight smoke and ash. Lovely velvety texture.
Finish: Quite long, and quite soft, a little spice and dry, earthy peat.
Notes: Just awesome. The second Diageo feis ile release I've tried, and another stunner. Not quite as good as the Lagavulin I tasted at the old & rare bar last year, if my memory serves me correctly, but still brilliant. Better even than the (more expensive) 25yo Caol Ila I also purchased, but that was still good. Moral of the story, Caol Ila is awesome, Diageo Feis Ile bottling's are awesome. Ding ding, we have a winner!

Yes, the Feis Ile won, big time. Another brilliant cask strength Caol Ila. I wish Diageo would take a page from Ardbeg & Laphroaig's book, and make these releases more widely available. But then, that might ruin the magic. Maybe, Mr. or Ms. Diageo, you could just send me a bottle every year, and it can be our little secret! Another old & rare of note was Macallan cask strength. I didn't buy one myself, but was generously given a sip from another drammer's glass, and holy hell was it good. A real sherry monster, and quite different to Macallan's current range, but also impossible to find, especially at a reasonable price. Sad face.

So, all in all it was another good event, and hopefully next year's will be even bigger & even better. I'd like to see a bit more involvement from Diageo's Scotch brands, and (as always) some sort of presence from Ardbeg & Glenmorangie (LVMH) is like a faint dream I've almost given up on. But you never know, perhaps next year if there isn't a calendar clash with another show, we'll get more presenters making the trip. On a personal note, it was great to catch up with some fellow whisky nerds, share a dram and a laugh and some knowledge, and just talk about whisky for a few hours. It's a great way to spend an afternoon.


Sunday, 16 August 2015

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Pt 2: Nant Distillery!

From a cracking Tasmanian independent bottler in part 1, to a cracking Tasmanian distillery in part 2!

Nant distillery is situated on the beautiful and historic estate, of the same name, in Bothwell, around an hour North of Hobart. We were shown around this picturesque distillery by the head distiller, James, on a beautiful snowy day. In fact the road conditions almost prevented them from opening, but thankfully the weather cleared later in the day. It certainly made for some amazing photo opportunities!

The estate was actually built by convicts in the 1820's, and the original buildings have been preserved where possible, and restored where not, at the low cost of around 5 million dollars. The site was originally a grain mill on a massive property, and the current estate owners have restored the original water-powered mill (partly pictured below) back to working order, for use by the distillery. In fact the distillery uses the same pristine water source, fed by the river Clyde, in the production of their whisky, as they do to power the mill. The word 'Nant' is actually Welsh for 'stream', hence the name of the estate, which was given by the original Welsh settlers in the area.

Speaking of the estate, the distillery also produces around one third of it's barley requirements itself, on the grounds. There are future plans to increase that yield, along with on-site floor malting, plus installing two more sets of stills, and building an extra bond store. This will result in the distillery being almost entirely self-sufficient, and will enable them to increase production capacity dramatically. At the moment, they cannot keep up with demand, even in their home state. These changes will also bring about the possibility of using local peat to dry their barley, which is very exciting. 

This distillery is, by design, a very traditional one. Aside from the aforementioned historic mill and natural water source, Nant also had the only traditional wooden wash-back (fermentation vat) I saw during my 'adventure'. The rest were all stainless steel, which has a longer life, and is easier to clean. 

This desire to be traditional also shows in their product range. While many young whisky distilleries resort to producing un-aged spirits, such as gin or vodka, to ease financial strain while their whisky matures, Nant took a different approach. They offer an investment / buy-back program, where private investors essentially buy casks of whisky, which are stored on-site, and the distillery buys the casks back after 3-4 years, plus a return of 10% interest per year. This interesting idea has proven very successful, bringing millions of dollars into the distillery, and allowing them to focus solely on whisky. They have since also opened the popular Nant whisky bars in Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart.  

The still room is housed in another original convict-built building, located between the mill room, and the excellent 'atrium' restaurant & bar. The lovely smell of a working malt distillery wafts through the door while you're having lunch, which means you can't resist ordering a dram or two! The stills themselves were custom-built for the distillery, with the wash still (foreground in the above photo) featuring a wide, squat neck for extra barley/malty character, and the spirit still (background in the above photo) featuring an 'onion' or 'boil ball' in the neck (pictured below), for more reflux during distillation, slowing the process, and giving a lighter character to the spirit. After nosing some of their new make spirit, I can say it definitely works.

Nant use a wide variety of casks to mature their whisky in their bond store (pictured above), ranging from Australian sherry (Apera), to Australian Port, to Pinot-Noir wine. The casks are mostly re-coopered down to a size of 100L, for faster maturation and greater wood / spirit interaction, and are selected for bottling after 3-4 years, without age statements, for obvious reasons. Aside from the recently-introduced 'Old Mill' and 'Homestead' (exclusive to Dan Murphy's) expressions, which are a mix of different casks, all Nant bottling's are actually single-cask releases, which have not been blended or 'vatted' with other casks. There have been some limited 63% bottling's in the past, but most releases are now bottled at 43%, after being cut back with that same local water. 

My review is based on a nip from a bar in Hobart, so my notes are a little shorter than usual. Unfortunately I couldn't find a small bottle in time to review properly, so this'll have to do.

Nant 'Sherry Wood', NAS, 43%, Tasmania, Australia.
Single cask, aged 3-4 years in American Oak 100L ex-Australian Sherry casks. No added colouring, but I can't find any official word on chill filtration, so I can't be sure. Tasted at a bar in Hobart. 

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Sweet syrup, rock-melon / cantaloupe. Slightly nutty, light fruity sherry, slight spice, fresh malted barley. 

Texture: Good for the low strength, slightly oily, easy drinking. 

Taste: Drier than the nose, and a little more spice. Fruity sherry, and juicy malted barley.

Finish: Short. A dab of chilli heat, some dry oak, drying barley. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. Dram reviewed at a bar. 

Notes: These guys are doing great work. It's a shame I couldn't spend some more time with this dram, but I did taste it a few times during the 'adventure'. It's a solid whisky, as were the 'bourbon wood' and 'old mill' expressions we also tasted at the distillery. They all have a great texture for just 43%, and a nice juicy barley character thanks to those special stills, and quality local ingredients. The fact that the distillery is in a beautiful and historic location, and is committed to being as traditional and authentic as possible in their processes and equipment, is also a big help. 

If you're headed to Tasmania, don't go home without taking the drive to Nant, and going on a tour. Don't forget the camera! I'd recommend having a meal in their restaurant, which has brilliant views, and great local fresh food. I'd also recommend grabbing a bottle of their whisky BBQ sauce, which is very good!

I would love to try one of Nant's 63% bottling's, just to see the difference between the two strength's, but they're very rare, and extremely expensive. That's mostly thanks to some Scottish guy, who once wrote a book or something, and never seems to remove his panama hat...

Unfortunately even the 43% standard versions are still quite expensive, and are only sold in 500mL bottles, but then they are single cask bottling's, which are always more costly, and they are all in very short supply. Once the distillery has completed the aforementioned plans, dramatically increasing their production capacity, we should see a standard / entry-level / core expression become available, which should bring the prices down a bit, and make Nant's whisky more widely available. And of course, I can't wait for their peated expression...


Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Pt 1: Heartwood Malt Whisky!

Yes, Tasmanian Whisky. A separate entity to Australian whisky, both geographically, and by reputation. Tasmanian Whisky is world renowned, with many distilleries winning big awards, and consistently gaining traction on the world stage. I can't deny that this building momentum, and my curiosity, helped to decide the destination for this year's holiday. OK, the cheap flights and amazing scenery may have helped as well. But the whisky was the main thing!

The state of Tasmania is a relatively small island off the South-Eastern coast of Australia, and is home to just over 500,000 people. It's also very scenic and very beautiful, both naturally and architecturally, and has a different cultural personality to it's bigger siblings on the mainland. The island itself has a very rich history, but rest assured, this is still a whisky blog: the island is currently home to six active malt whisky distilleries (and one rye distillery), and there are more on the way!

Tasmanian whisky, in the modern, and legal, sense, was born in 1992, after extensive political work and much cutting of red-tape, spearheaded by the grandfather of  'Tassie' whisky, Mr. Bill Lark. He realised that Tasmania's climate and conditions were ideal for making whisky, and set out to prove it. His was actually the first distillery licensed to make whisky on the island for over 150 years, after the island's governor outlawed distilling in the 1830's. These days though, the future of Tasmanian whisky is looking very bright. 

While I couldn't visit all of the Tasmanian whisky distilleries on the trip, for fear of mutiny by my travelling companions, I did manage four of them, plus one independent bottler. I'll be giving a basic profile of each company, and reviewing one of their whiskies, in each part of what I've just decided to call my 'Tasmanian whisky adventure'. 

So why an independent bottler, you may ask? Well, because I don't believe in saving the best 'til last! I can comfortably say these guy's are producing the best Australian / Tasmanian whiskies I've tasted to date, and they're right up there by world standards. So, for part 1 of my Tasmanian adventure, let's take a look at Heartwood Malt Whisky

On a cold wintry Tuesday morning, my wife & I were lucky enough to meet Heartwood's proprietor, Mr. Tim Duckett, pictured above, at his office in Hobart, to taste some of his fantastic whisky. Tim has been involved in the Tasmanian whisky scene from the beginning, and began collecting casks in 1999, primarily from Lark distillery, and from Tasmania distillery (Sullivan's Cove), with the first Heartwood bottling being released in 2012. 

These days he has access to whisky from six different distilleries, and has over 7,000 litres of whisky maturing in his bond store, including some of the oldest maturing whisky in the state, and probably the entire country (>15yrs old). His methods are a little different to the norm, but that's exactly how he likes it. Heartwood try to have every bottling released be totally different to the last, a feat which many independent bottlers can't manage, or can't be bothered with. 

Tim doesn't believe in closely analysing a whisky in a darkened room, rather he believes a whisky is to be enjoyed with good company, and is all about the experience you have with that whisky. He's all about making good whisky, and is making whisky that he likes, without trying to please everyone else, or make mountains of money. Luckily though, he does seem to have excellent taste! 

Heartwood doesn't take itself too seriously, but they are hell-bent on getting top quality and big flavour (dinosaur big!) from their malts. Tim aims for what he's calling a 'Brontosaurus' flavour profile, with a thin neck, building to a massive body, followed by a long, thinning tail. He also aims to use mostly Australian or Tasmanian casks to get these flavours, mostly using Australian ex-port, ex-sherry and ex-wine casks, so you're getting a very Australian product in these bottles.

If a whisky isn't at the level Tim wants it to be, it can expect to be beaten and yelled at, and even held back, until it shapes up. In the past, Tim has held back a bottling, despite the entire release being pre-sold, because he wasn't entirely happy with it! In fact a recently released Heartwood, named 'The Revelation' (a tribute to Bill & Lyn Lark), was destined to be the first 10yo age-stated bottling of Lark whisky, but it wasn't up to Tim's standards, so rather than bottle and sell it anyway, he added some 7yo peated Lark whisky to the mix, to get it to the level he wanted. I can personally attest that this change of heart (get it?) created a truly excellent whisky, and in fact I couldn't go home without a bottle! The final product is also decanted or 'married' before bottling, and can even be left in the sun (!) to get rid of the volatile and undesirable compounds, before bottling.

Testament to their tongue-in-cheek, 'devil may care' outlook (that's one for the Heartwood fans), are the names of Heartwood's whiskies, and the labels he sticks on his bottles. Expect to see things like '50%-ish', 'could have been a 14 year old' and 'can't catch fish-make whisky', on bottling's named 'release the beast', 'velvet hammer', and 'vat out of hell'. In fact, that last one was the first vatting (a blend of different single malts) of Tasmanian malt whiskies, and was released just as the Scotch Whisky Association had banned the use of the term 'vatted malt' in Scotch, and was subsequently shipped to Scotland, labelled as just that! 

Tim's whiskies are all bottled at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring, and are some of the strongest you can buy. The highest strength bottling so far, named 'Devil in the detail', was bottled at a whopping 73.5%. But with all Heartwood bottling's, there are no rough edges, no harshness or excessive alcohol heat (reinforced by the fact that we were able to drink it at 10am on a Tuesday morning!), they're just big, bold, boisterous whiskies with loads of flavour, and surprising complexity. Enough talk though, let's drink some whisky!
Heartwood 'Convict Resurrection', 14yo, 72%. Tasmania, Australia.
Distilled in 3/2000 at Tasmania Distillery (Sullivan's Cove), aged 14 years in American Oak ex-Australian Port casks, bottled 12/2014. Cask number HH0239, 450 bottles (500ml). Un-peated.

Colour: Copper

Nose: Rich, sweet raisins soaked in booze. Meaty spices, rich molasses / thick toffee. A little oak, slight orange oil? Furniture polish, beef stock / gravy mix. 

Texture: Big & bold, rich, slightly oily.

Taste: Intense, massive body & massive flavour. Raisins in heavy syrup, some tree sap, thick caramel. Warm spices, some oak and a little leather. Yummy. 

Finish: Very long, fruity and warming. Fruity light port, becoming drier. 

Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Notes: So good. Or all good, as Tim would say. One of my all-time favourite un-peated whiskies, in fact. Such a huge body and such massive flavours, but it's still approachable and drinkable, even at that massive natural strength. The Tasmanian / Sullivan's Cove DNA is still there, but it's been turned up to 11 or 12, and it's taken on it's own character. I do wish it came in 700ml bottles though, mainly so I'd have more of it left!

Speaking of which, even in the smaller bottles (which we're going to be seeing more of in the future), I think these Heartwood's are just about the best value Australian whisky you can buy. They're not exactly cheap (think $220-260), but you're getting considerably older malt than most for those dollars, and without the faster maturation in smaller casks, and at a much higher strength. As Heartwood's branded t-shirts accurately & proudly state, you're getting 'more bam per dram' with these guys.

Tim & his team are doing brilliant work, and long may it continue. There are many new bottling's in the pipeline, the next one of which should be very interesting, because it's 100% peated whisky, and that's 100% Tasmanian peat. I don't think this has ever been done before, and I think it's going to be a cracker. Tasmanian peat is of a lighter, sweeter, more floral style than some may expect, but it'll still be very interesting. I can't wait to try it, so hopefully I'll get my hands on a bottle before they're all gone! There's also a release coming in the future, which will again be all-peated whisky, but matured in Australian muscat (sweet wine) casks, to be aptly named 'The smoking gun'! Can't wait for that one, either.

I'd highly recommend trying these if you're into big, flavoursome whiskies, or you're after something a little different, and for 'more pleasure per measure'! There are a few bottles of the current range still around, and there are more releases on the way, so keep an eye on Heartwood's own site, and also at Nippy Sweetie Whiskies, who also has 30ml sample bottles available. Get 'em while you can...