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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Longrow 14 Burgundy Wood Whisky Review!

Longrow. Not a label everyone's familiar with, and not an easy label to find on the shelves. It is essentially a heavily peated version of Springbank, everyone's favourite Campbeltown distillery! So how about a 14 year old, cask strength, wine finished Longrow? Yes please...

Springbank distillery produces three different whiskies under the one roof: Hazelburn, which is un-peated and triple distilled, Springbank, which is lightly peated and distilled 2.5 times, and Longrow, which is heavily peated and double distilled. The peating level is altered by varying the amount of time that the malted barley is dried/smoked over peat, as opposed to hot air, ranging from zero to over 48 hours, depending on the desired character.

While I'm yet to try any Hazelburn bottling's, both Springbank and Longrow brands are excellent single malts, and are well worth sourcing. The Longrow and Hazelburn names are actually homage to two long-dead distilleries which were also located in Campbeltown. Once home to over 30 distilleries, it's now down to just 3, Springbank, Glen Scotia and Glengyle (sold as Kilkerran) and those two have only been revived relatively recently.

Springbank's whiskies are generally very good quality, and are quite complex. This totally independently-owned distillery does not chill filter or add any colouring to their whisky, and carries out the entire production process on site. This includes floor malting and milling their locally-sourced barley, as well as full-term maturation and bottling on-site. They're a very traditional distillery as well, in that they employ wooden wash-backs, a direct-fired wash still, and everything is done by hand.

This is in fact the first Longrow I've reviewed, although I have tried quite a few different bottling's. The 'Rundlets and Kilderkins' bottling in particular was fantastic, and of course is now impossible to find. For that matter, while I personally find red-wine finished whiskies to be a bit hit & miss, the two (of four) Longrow 'Red' whiskies I've tasted, all of which are finished or even fully matured in wine casks, have been excellent.

This Burgundy Wood bottling is slightly older than the reds, at 14 years of age, and is also an older bottling, being released back in 2011. It was also a limited release at the time, with a relatively small 7800 bottles making it onto the shelves.

There are quite a few of these different wood expression bottling's around, across the three different labels, and at cask strength they all represent quite good value. While they're readily available, at least. This one is pretty tough to find these days.

This one was aged in refill (second-fill) ex-bourbon casks for 11 years, and finished in fresh (first-fill) Burgundy red wine casks (of unknown variety) for 3 years. It was then bottled at a very respectable cask strength of 56.1%, and naturally (pun intended) it was bottled without any chill filtration or added colouring. So let's see how it goes!
Longrow 14yo Burgundy Wood, 56.1%. Campbeltown, Scotland.
Springbank distillery. Matured in second-fill bourbon casks for 11 years, finished in first-fill Burgundy red wine casks for 3 years. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Dark reddish-copper.

Nose: Surprisingly sweet. Raspberry jam, juicy cherries, fresh doughy bread. Citrus rind, sweet caramel. Hints of soft earthiness, floral perfume and varnish.

Texture: Gorgeous. Thick, velvety and warm.

Taste: There's the peat! Earthy and dry peat, and a little dry, ashy smoke. Strawberry syrup, stewed stone fruit, malt biscuits, and a decent dab of (pleasant) chilli heat. 

Finish: Long and quite spicy & hot, then sweet berries and biscuit-y malt. Hints of dry smoke and earth. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Nice and enjoyable, and good quality (like all Springbank's), but not my favourite wine-finished Longrow so far. That title actually goes to the Cabernet Sauvignon version of Longrow Red. I wasn't expecting the sweetness I got from this Burgundy wood expression, but I'm also thankful the wine finish hasn't had too much influence. It's quite well balanced, actually. I was expecting a little more peat influence too, and I suspect it's been softened by the wine finishing. It's important to note that Springbank is a mainland distillery, so we shouldn't expect an Islay or island-style peat, but there's still a decent-sized mainland peaty punch to be found. Usually. 

So, another very good example of Springbank distillery's ability and diversity! They do brilliant work, and they aren't afraid to try something different using their traditional methods. If you're yet to try one of their whiskies, don't hesitate, get on it! You won't regret it. But if you do, feel free to send me what's left!


Sunday, 18 October 2015

Wemyss Velvet Fig Whisky Review!

Another 'sherry monster' this week, but one that's slightly different from the norm: it's a blended whisky!

Wemyss (pronounced 'weems') is a relative newcomer to the Australian whisky scene, but this family-owned Scottish company has a long history in fine whisky and wine. The Wemyss family also recently opened their own distillery, named Kingsbarns distillery, near their ancestral home (a castle, actually!) in the Scottish Lowlands. But they're currently better known as both an independent bottling and blending company. They've released some acclaimed, albeit hard to come by, independent single cask bottling's, and lately their blended whiskies have been gaining serious popularity.

This particular example is probably the most widely acclaimed of the lot. Like all of Wemyss' blends, is named 'velvet fig' after it's intended flavour profile. Sounds promising! As you may have guessed from the name, it's mostly sherried whisky in this one. It's a blended malt, meaning it contains only different single malts, and no grain whisky. There's no age statement to be found, but I can forgive Wemyss for that, because it's been bottled at 46%, without added colouring or chill filtration.

It was released in late 2014, and won best blended malt at the world whisky awards in 2015. There were only 6000 bottles released in the first place, and naturally it's now become quite hard to find. It was priced at around $100-110 at the time of release, which isn't cheap for a blend. I grabbed a sample here at Nippy Sweetie Whiskies, and it seems they've still got some in stock, for $10 each. That's a little more reasonable!
Wemyss 'Velvet Fig' Blended Malt, NAS, 46%, Scotland.
Blend of unknown single malts. Non-chill filtered, no added colouring. 6000 bottles released.

Colour: Bronze

Nose: Medium-dry sherry, Oloroso? But also quite nutty. A little rum like as well - raw sugar, caramelised bananas. Banana sherbet and a little cream. A little spirit-y as well. 

Texture: Nice, but a little heat there as well. 

Taste: Spicy, a little honey, and dry sherry now. A little spirit-y heat again, and not a great deal else. 

Finish: Quite short, and delicate. Young sherry and spirit-y young malt. Then it's all over. 

Score: 2.5 out of 5 (blend score). 

Notes: A bit of a let-down, really. Just a little lacking in depth and complexity, and a little young and spirit-y. A decent showing, but not in the same league as most of the sherry-heavy single malts I've tasted, at a similar price. And to accentuate that point, this blend was around the $100 AUD mark when it was readily available, which puts it at the same level as Glendronach 15, and quite a way above the 12. And there's just no contest there. 

That's not to say that Wemyss' malts and blends are not worth giving a shot, and of course these reviews are only my personal opinion. But for me, this one just didn't live up to the hype. 

A new peated expression, named Kiln Embers, which apparently contains twice the amount of peated malt of their standard peated blend, was released overseas recently, and sounds pretty good. Like the Velvet Fig expression, it's non-chill filtered, and is bottled at 46%. And that all sounds quite promising to me... 


Sunday, 11 October 2015

Glendronach 20yo Single Cask Whisky Review!

Starting a new job next week, so it's time to pull out something a little special!

In my opinion, Glendronach are producing the best quality, and best value, sherry-matured whisky available for a reasonable price. I know that's quite a big claim, but I stand by it!

Their excellent 15yo and 18yo Oloroso-matured malts, and the NAS Cask Strength bottling's, are all real 'sherry monsters', and are also excellent value for money. The distillery also regularly releases batches of single cask bottling's, matured in a range of different sherry casks, and bottled at cask strength. There are also a couple of recent bottling's matured in bourbon casks (not single casks), but I'm yet to try any of those. There's also a more heavily-peated expression in the works, which I'm really looking forward to.

This Highland distillery has had a slightly tumultuous past, having had many different owners since it opened in 1826. It was mothballed in 1996, before re-opening in 2002 under new owners, with a number of changes to their production process. They were even malting their own barley, using the traditional floor malting process, up to the closure. The malted barley was dried in-house, using a mixture of coal, and (drum roll please) a little peat, apparently to around about 10-15 ppm, which is similar to the level Benromach are currently using. It's a very subtle / barley detectable level though, especially after those sherry casks have done their thing!

Prior to the closure, Glendronach was one of the few Scotch distilleries still to employ direct-fired stills, where fires are used to heat the still from below, rather than the safer and more efficient 'indirect' steam heating that is more commonly found. Glendronach was also the last distillery in Scotland to direct-fire using coal, rather than gas. As you can imagine, direct-fired stills can be a little more unpredictable (particularly when using coal), but it's the traditional, artisanal method. There are still a few distilleries that are using direct-fired stills, such as Glenfarclas, Springbank, and Glenfiddich, while there are a few more using a combination of direct- and indirect heating.

Unfortunately when the distillery re-opened, these practices ceased. From 2002 the malt was sourced from local commercial malting's, and the distillery converted to indirect-heated stills in 2005. But, if you come across a bottling which was distilled prior to these changes, which if you consider the closure period is currently anything older than 13 or so years, you're really getting the old style Glendronach. In 2008, the distillery was purchased by current owners Benriach distilling company, and the deal included 9000 casks of maturing whisky, some of which dated back as far as the early 1960's. Like the company's other distilleries, they don't chill filter or add any colouring, and most expressions are bottled at 46% or above.

The sample I'm reviewing today (thanks Matt!) is from a UK exclusive single cask bottling, which was matured for 20 years in a Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry puncheon (a squat ~500L cask). It was bottled in 2014, at a cask strength of 54.8%. This is actually my first PX-only Glendronach, so it'll be very interesting. But being cask strength 20 year old Glendronach, it's going to be good...
Glendronach Single Cask 20yo, 54.8%. Highlands, Scotland.
Cask number 2822, UK exclusive. Distilled 11/1994, bottled 11/2014. Matured in PX sherry puncheon, yielding 660 bottles. Bottled at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring.

Colour: Dark bronze, slight red tinges.

Nose: Mature PX sherry straight away - loads of juicy raisins, nice and rich but not overly sweet, dark caramel, a little spice. Some stone fruit as well. Golden syrup, hints of oak & pepper.   

Texture: Thick & syrupy, slight touch of heat.

Taste: Sweet honeyed barley, white pepper. Becomes drier & more spicy quite quickly. Rich dark fruits in syrup, and mildly bitter coffee. 

Finish: Medium length. Chilli dark chocolate, dry coffee grounds, spiced burnt caramel, malted barley.

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Very good and enjoyable, and nicely balanced. Some PX matured whisky can become overwhelmed by the cask, or can become very sweet, but this hasn't been the case here. Not quite the massive sherry monster I was expecting, either. Nonetheless, another great quality Glendronach!

But compared to Glendronach's standard 15yo, 18yo and Cask Strength (NAS) expressions, all of which can be found for around or under $150 AUD, I think these older single cask releases are a little too expensive. And you have to take the nature of the single cask beast into account, they can be a bit of a gamble after all. Some may be brilliant, some may be good, and some may only be decent. So it's important to do as much research as you possibly can before buying. 

Glendronach are making some brilliant whisky though, I haven't tasted a single one I haven't enjoyed. And they're amassing quite the hardcore fan base, for good reason. I can't wait for their peated release, either, as long as there's some sherry casks involved!


Friday, 2 October 2015

For relaxing times, make it Suntory time!

Ah, Japan. Without a doubt the favourite of the few overseas countries I've visited. Modern and innovative, yet traditional and reserved. Everything is efficient and concise, and clean and quiet (except for the pachinko bars). And humility, courtesy, and attention to detail, are omnipresent in Japanese culture. All this and more, I feel, is also expressed in Japanese whisky!

I was recently lucky enough to attend a Japanese whisky tasting at the ever-brilliant Cobbler, in Brisbane's West End. We were treated to seven whiskies from Suntory, including Yamazaki & Hakushu Distiller's Reserve's and 12yo's, and Hibiki Harmony, 12yo, and 17yo. Each whisky was also matched with a sashimi (raw seafood) food-pairing, custom-designed by our host, the walking, talking whisky library, and brand ambassador, Dan Woolley. I'll admit I'm not normally a huge fan of the usual sashimi, but these courses were delicious, and they matched very nicely with the light and clean whiskies.

Let's take a closer look at each of the whiskies and distilleries, and some of the history behind Suntory, Japan's largest spirits producer. They're also a big player by wider standards, particularly since acquiring Beam inc. in 2014, when they became the third largest spirits company in the world. Their Japanese whisky portfolio includes Yamazaki (pronounced 'yam-a-zaa-key') and Hakushu ('hack-ish-oo') single malt distilleries, Chita ('cheet-a') grain whisky distillery, and Hibiki ('hib-ee-key') blended whisky, which is a blend of the three aforementioned whiskies.

Whisky has been produced in Japan since the mid-19th century, when western culture was starting to become more popular. However, it was not wildly successful until the 1930's, with the arrival of a Japanese whisky that was tailored to Japanese tastes. Suntory released Kakubin, meaning 'square bottle', in 1937, and it has been Japan's biggest selling whisky for over 70 years. It was also recently launched in Australia, and although it's usually promoted as a mixer or cocktail whisky, it's also perfectly fine neat, especially when you consider the low pricing ($40-50)

Yamazaki is certainly the most widely known and available of the Japanese single malts, especially outside of Japan. The distillery was built near Osaka in 1923, by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii, with the help of Masataka Taketsuru, who had learnt the art and science of whisky making at Glasgow university (he also worked at Hazelburn distillery in Campbelltown), and would later start rival whisky brand Nikka. Suntory was made famous by the movie Lost in Translation, which as it turns out was funded entirely by Suntory, and was released to coincide with the launch of Yamazaki in the USA.

The distillery features 12 stills, of different shapes and sizes, and uses 5 different types of cask to mature their malt, including Mizunara Japanese oak, which is very rare and expensive. In fact Suntory as a company are only permitted to cut down 10 Mizunara trees per year, to be made into casks. The different whiskies from each still and cask are then blended / married together to create Yamazaki single malt. We tasted two expressions on the night, the NAS Distiller's Reserve, and the 12yo. I believe both are chill filtered, as is the case with most Japanese whiskies.

Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve, NAS, 43%. A blend / marriage of all the different styles produced by the distillery, including some matured in Japanese oak. Complex and fruity on the nose, with plum and peach, wood spice, toasted coconut and caramel. Quite spicy on the palate, with a hint of sherry and caramel sweetness, while the finish was quite light and drying, with some light oak at the end. The Distiller's Reserve was paired with fresh salmon sashimi, with a light ponzu-style dressing.

Yamazaki 12yo, 43%. Brighter and fruitier than the distiller's reserve on the nose, with more tropical fruit, some citrus and wood spice. Nicely balanced and soft on the palate, with sweet syrup, baking spices, dark caramel and citrus peel. Drier and spicier on the finish, some baked apple and vanilla. Paired with king-fish sashimi, which was excellent, and matched brilliantly. This was in fact the first Japanese whisky I tasted, at an Izakaya (casual bar/restaurant) in Kyoto, a few years ago. Getting harder to find now, though.

Our next stop on the Japanese whisky train was Hakushu distillery, which is my personal favourite. Located high in the Japanese southern alps, two hours west of Tokyo, Hakushu was built 50 years after Yamazaki, and at the time was the largest distillery in the world. The distillery houses a whopping 36 stills of varying shapes and sizes, although only 12 are currently in operation.

Hakushu distillery produces a very different style of malt to Yamazaki, largely thanks to the different climate, altitude, and surroundings. The distillery also does not use any Mizunara oak for maturation, instead using mainly ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. They also use a slightly larger (although still small) amount of peated barley in their mash bill, and have even released heavily peated expressions in the past. I've tasted one of those, and it was excellent! But, like many Japanese malts these days (thanks Jim Murray!), it's also very rare, and, if you can find it at all, expensive. We tasted the two main Hakushu expressions on the night, mirroring the Yamazaki offerings.

Hakushu Distiller's Reserve, NAS, 43%. A blend / marriage of all styles and cask types produced by the distillery. Nose: lighter, fresher and brighter than the Yamazaki. Sweet and light, more tropical fruit - baked pineapple, green banana, fresh pear. Light and sweet on the palate as well, with honeyed green fruits, and a little light spice. The finish is quite soft and delicate, and slightly herbal. Paired with prawn sashimi, which I'll admit didn't sound appealing to me, but luckily it was blasted with a blow-torch, and was pretty tasty.   

Hakushu 12yo, 43%. Richer than the distiller's reserve, fresh green apples, slightly nutty, even a little subtle and soft smoke. Clean and fresh on the palate, tropical fruit, nutty again, and some soft spices. Soft and sweet on the finish, with very subtle smoke. Paired with freshwater scallop sashimi, which was absolutely mind-blowing. Definitely the best food pairing of the night for me, and the 12yo tied for my pick of the whiskies.

Our last stop for the evening was Hibiki, a blended Japanese whisky consisting of Yamazaki and Hakushu malt whisky, and Chita grain whisky. Interestingly, Hibiki is often finished in casks which have been seasoned with Umeshu (Japanese ume / plum liqueur), including some made from Mizunara. Hibiki translates to Harmony, which is what the blenders are looking for when they create an expression. While some may turn their noses up at blended whiskies, note that these are nothing like your typical Johnnie. Hibiki whiskies reflect the typical Japanese dedication to quality.

Hibiki whiskies are also well known for their bottle designs, which are really more like decanters. Each has 24 facets, representing the 24 seasons of the old Japanese lunar calendar, and a cork stopper (plastic screw caps are more commonly used by Suntory). And in the case of the 17, 21 and 30 year old bottling's, the labels are made from 'washi', a traditional Japanese paper. So these are very nicely presented whiskies.

This was actually my first time tasting the Hibiki 'Harmony', which is the latest release. I had tasted the 12yo and 17yo previously, although the latter was tasted not long after a dram of Heartwood, and that's quite a hard act to follow!

Hibiki Harmony, NAS, 43%. Rich and syrupy on the nose, with red and stone fruits, and a little spice. Meatier and warmer mouth-feel than the single malts, but still well balanced and clean. Plums in syrup on the palate, some wood spice and treacle. Soft finish with some more spice. Paired with yellow-fin tuna sashimi, which was a bit of a stretch for me, but did work nicely with the whisky.

Hibiki 12yo, 43%. More focused and concentrated on the nose, still fruity and lightly spiced. Impressive texture for the low strength. Sweet molasses / golden syrup on the palate, with some darker stone fruit. Soft on the finish again, with more darker fruits in syrup. This one was paired with sea urchin sashimi, wrapped in nori (dried seaweed sheets) with some sushi rice.

Hibiki 17yo, 43%. Sweeter and richer on the nose, lighter fruits now. Still with the same rich, weighty texture, despite the low strength. Balanced and quite complex on the palate, with more molasses, lighter stone fruit, some wood spice, and a hint of sherry. Longer and more complex on the finish as well, still quite rich and fruity. This one was paired with our dessert course, which was matcha (green tea) sponge with sweet red bean paste and matcha mousse. The 17yo tied with the Hakushu 12 for my pick of the evening's whiskies. Very nice.

The Hibiki 17 isn't particularly cheap, at around $180 AUD, but let's keep in mind that that's less than Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which is also inferior, in my opinion, and is bottled without an age statement and at a lower strength. Remember that age statements must reflect the minimum age of the whisky/whiskies in the bottle, so there will also be older stock in there. Plus with all of the Hibiki's, you're also getting a free decanter, once you've completed the horrible task of drinking the whisky!

So, while all of these Japanese whiskies were very enjoyable and are certainly great quality, the Hakushu 12yo and Hibiki 17yo were my personal picks of the night. And that scallop we were served with the Hakushu was absolutely incredible! It was a real flavour explosion, and a real credit to our chef and his team.

If you are yet to try a Japanese whisky, I highly recommend it. They're quite different to Scotch, I think. They're generally quite light and fresh, and most are quite well balanced. Both the Hakushu and Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve bottling's are quite well priced, and would make for an ideal introductory Japanese malt.

There are plenty of options for the more experienced enthusiast as well, including some heavily peated and some super-expensive bottling's. For an example, Cobbler has a bottle of very rare 25 year old Yamazaki behind the bar, which is priced at over $300, per nip! And if you can find a bottle for sale at auction, which is unlikely, you can expect to part with at least $5,000. Which is enough to buy four bottles of the recently released 32 year old Laphroaig. So it's really quite a rare thing!

Dan also shared plenty of his knowledge with us during the tasting, and I must admit my own knowledge of the history of Japanese whisky was a little lacking, at least prior to this event! As I mentioned earlier he also did a fantastic job designing our food pairings. Each course of sashimi was light and refreshing, with plenty of different textures and flavours to experience and explore along with the whisky. Next time you're enjoying some sashimi (or anything else, for that matter) at a Japanese restaurant, I suggest ordering a Japanese whisky with it, for something a little different. And for relaxing times, make it Suntory time...

A big thanks to Dan Woolley, Cobbler, and Beam Suntory / CCA for putting on another brilliant tasting, and for having me along. See you at the next one!