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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Brora 35 yo Whisky Review!

A slightly mysterious distillery, and one I've been lusting after for quite some time. I've finally got my hands on some Brora!

While it has doesn't quite enjoy the popularity of it's cousin Port Ellen, at least in Australia, Brora distillery still has quite the cult following in the whisky world. Like Port Ellen, it closed in 1983, and a few rare & expensive bottlings have since been released by current owners Diageo as part of their annual 'special releases' range. Aside from that, the specifics of Brora's history are still the subject of contention between aficionados, so I'm going to try and avoid most of the confusion and stick to the main points. That doesn't make it a short story though, there's quite a bit of history to cover!

The distillery opened in 1819 in the town of Brora, in the Northern Highlands of Scotland, but it was actually named Clynelish. Sound familiar? The distillery currently known as Clynelish opened in the late 1960's, as the much larger replacement for the original across the road, and was needed due to the high demand from blenders at the time (there were very few single malts bottled at this point). Both were owned by Distillers Company Limited, or DCL, which then became United Distillers, which then became part of Diageo.

The original distillery was shut down in 1968, and it's replacement began operating soon after, although this is one of those points of contention. But the original Clynelish may have never been heard from again, and Brora distillery may never have existed, without a little unintentional help from our favourite Hebridean island of Islay. 

Original Clynelish/Brora in foreground, with 'new' Clynelish across the road. 
Thanks to www.scotchmaltwhisky.co.uk for the image.

There was also high demand for heavily peated whisky from the aforementioned blenders, but Islay was suffering from a drought at the time, and struggled to meet requirements. The answer was to begin producing heavily peated whisky on the Scottish mainland, where the environmental problems were not an issue. Luckily, there was an empty distillery in the Highlands that could help fill the void. The original Clynelish distillery was revived and renamed as Brora (after it's namesake town), across the road from the new Clynelish, and began producing heavily peated malt.

But within a few years the demand for it's heavily peated malt dropped, and Lagavulin, Caol Ila and Port Ellen had ramped up production. So aside from a few mysterious batches, the distillery switched to producing a lightly-peated Highland style malt in the mid-late 1970's. Then with the whisky slump in the late 70's and 80's, the distillery was finally mothballed during the dark times of 1983, after just 14 years of operations. There have been a couple of attempts to resuscitate it since, and the buildings are still in place. It doesn't look very promising, but who knows what the future holds?   

This particular Brora is from Gordon & MacPhail's 'Rare Old' series, and like the Port Ellen I reviewed recently, it was bottled at 46%, without chill filtration or added colouring. It was distilled in 1978, so it's likely to be a more lightly-peated example, even more so thanks to 35 years of maturation! It's near impossible to find outside of auction, but I purchased my sample here, and it's still showing in stock at the time of writing. So if you're interested, I suggest you move quickly!
Brora 35 yo, Gordon & MacPhail bottling, 46%. Highlands, Scotland.
Distilled 1978, bottled 2013. Batch / Lot RO/13/05. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Copper. 

Nose: Full & quite fruity initially. Sour papaya, aniseed, stewed plums. Straw / hay, gravy powder, hint of sherry behind. Old leather-bound books, bitter marmalade, grease. Both engine grease and cooking grease, in fact. Very dynamic and engaging. 

Texture: Quite thick, but not overly heavy. No heat at all.

Taste: Well balanced and complex. Meaty & savoury. Woody spices - clove, allspice, light aniseed. Struck matches, smoked & salted pork, oak. More marmalade, and a tiny hint of dry, soft peat. 

Finish: Long & balanced. Semi-sweet milk chocolate, orange peel, sweet oak again. Smoked meats, resin, salted roasted nuts. Leather, waxy fruits, dusty barley. Hint of hot ash as well.  

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Very complex, but balanced and quite challenging, nothing really jumps out as the main note here. But it's certainly savoury overall. Certainly quite different to anything else I've tried recently, as far as I can remember, but I'm diggin' it. I just wish I had more of it, so we could get to know each other better!

It's hard to know if this is indicative of a typical Brora, seeing as it was my first, and seeing as it's an independent bottling. But if it is, colour me impressed. Now to find a heavily peated example! But it'll have to be a sample, these are all too rich for my blood. But as always, an independent bottling, particularly from a closed distillery, is the most economical way to explore the rarer whiskies. And this Brora is a winner.

Cheers!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Old Ballantruan 10 yo Whisky Review!

A heavily-peated main-lander, and one you're probably not familiar with. But should you be? Let's find out.

Old Ballantruan is made by Tomintoul distillery, in Speyside. I've reviewed a peated Tomintoul previously, the aptly named 'Peaty Tang', which I did find interesting, but it fell over on a couple of points. Mainly that it was bottled at 40%, it was young and had no age statement, and it was (and still is) chill filtered. 

This Old Ballantruan 10 yo has righted all of those wrongs. Aside from the age statement, it's non-chill filtered, and it's bottled at 50%. So this one promises to be a big improvement over it's little brother. It's also quite well-priced, at $110 here from Nippy Sweetie Whiskies, who supplied the sample for this review. There's only a $30 difference between this one and the 'peaty tang', so I'm thinking this will be the peated Tomintoul to go for. There is also a Non-Age Statement (NAS) bottling, but that one seems to be hard to find in Australia, and I think we're happy to have the age statement! 

At this point, you may be asking why it isn't simply called Tomintoul peated. And the answer is that the distillery produce the whisky under contract, for the 'Old Ballantruan Whisky Company'. Which is why there's no mention of Tomintoul on the packaging, and no mention of Old Ballantruan on the distillery's website. Not that it matters to the whisky itself, just an interesting factoid really.

Old Ballantruan 10 yo, 50%, Speyside, Scotland.
Produced by Tomintoul distillery. Heavily-peated, non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Gold

Nose: Nice! Peaty & sweet. Peppercorns, fresh salted caramel. Slightly sour vegetal peat, a little grassy & herbal. Sweet barley, some boiled sweets, and a little spirit-y bite.  

Texture: Medium weight, a little heat. 

Taste: Peaty & ashy, vegetal peat again, and a good amount of it, but without the slight sourness from the nose. A good dab of chilli & black pepper, and a little rotting root vegetables. Which I also got in the Tomintoul 'Peaty Tang', albeit far less prominent in this one. And it's more pleasant a flavour than it sounds!

Finish: Short-medium length, warming. Chilli, a little ash, dried herbs, a little salt, and a hint of floral soap. Soft earthy, sweet peat 'til the end. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Very nice, easy drinking and nicely peated. Old Ballantruan is certainly far superior to the peaty Tomintoul, like I expected. Although it's hard to judge the latter definitely when it's bottled at 40% and chill filtered, and this one makes up for those shortcomings. There's a flash of Ledaig 10 yo in the Old Ballantruan I think, albeit without the coastal influence. And that's pretty high praise indeed. 

This 10 yo peated mainlander has changed my opinion of peated Tomintoul. I'm yet to try any of their un-peated whisky, but this one seems to really show what they can do without chill filtration, with a decent strength, and a bit of age. Unfortunately it seems to have been the idea of an external party, but the distillery should follow suit with it's official bottlings. Whoever the Old Ballantruan Whisky Company are, I say they have the right idea!  

Likewise, Nippy Sweetie Whiskies for bringing this one in (and thanks for the sample!). Well worth checking out, especially for my fellow peat lovers. Good stuff. 

Cheers!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Port Ellen 34 yo (Gordon & MacPhail) Whisky Review!

The fourth Port Ellen whisky I've been lucky enough to taste thus far. This is the oldest one so far, but it's also the lowest strength. Tally ho!

I must admit that after tasting my first Port Ellen, which was the 4th release official bottling from owners Diageo, I was left disappointed, and I formed the opinion that the whisky simply wasn't worth the dollars. 

But I've since tried two independent bottlings which redeemed the brand for me. They were a 25yo sherry cask from Signatory, reviewed here (including more information on the distillery), and an insanely rare 28yo sherry cask from The Whisky Exchange, reviewed here. Both were very impressive, and were originally priced much more reasonably than the official releases. 

This one is a little different though. It's from Gordon & MacPhail independent bottlers (who also own Benromach distillery), it's considerably older at 34 years of age, and, unfortunately, it's been reduced in strength to 46% ABV. It was distilled in 1979, four years prior to the distillery's closure, when the future probably looked a little brighter. And it was matured in a refill sherry cask, before being bottled in 2013, which also makes this the most recent bottling of Port Ellen that I've tasted so far. 

It's still available for purchase here, but you'll have to part with $1,800 AUD. Yes that's a lot of money, but it's less than half the price of the recent official bottlings. The sample I'm reviewing was purchased here, well actually my wife purchased it for me as part of a birthday present. Yes it's an expensive sample, but it's much cheaper per ml than buying a whole bottle, so it's actually not a bad deal!
Port Ellen 34 yo, Gordon & MacPhail bottling, 46%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 1979, bottled 2013, matured in a refill sherry cask. Lot / cask / batch no. RO/12/08. 

Colour: Gold

Nose: Surprisingly fresh for 34 years of age! Good chunk of vegetal peat, a little clean engine oil, sea spray. A slight hint oak & vanilla as well. Cut grass, liquorice, a little lemon oil. 

Texture: Medium weight, slightly oily.

Taste: Quite a bit of peat, again surprising for 34 yo. Dry crumbly peat, dry acrid smoke & ash behind. Slightly dry overall actually. Chilli, clean engine oil.

Finish: Medium length. Dry peat & smoke, chilli, smoked fish, a little dried herbs. Creamy peat to finish the show.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Interesting, and definitely enjoyable. Quite spirit-driven I think rather than cask-driven, and surprisingly peat-heavy for the age as well. Probably some lazy casks involved! Either way, an interesting whisky. A little one-dimensional on the palate perhaps, but still very good. Makes you wonder what Port Ellen would be pumping out if they were still going today. Although of that was the case, I doubt you would be able to buy whisky this old.

It's not the best Port Ellen I've tasted though, that award belongs here, so far. Perhaps if it was bottled at cask strength it'd be a different story, although that could have made it totally peat-dominant. But it's still superior to the 4th release original bottling I tasted a couple of years ago. Or at least, superior to my memory of it.

Is it worth $1800 AUD? In my opinion, no whisky is. But hypothetically, if (and that's a big if) I was willing & able & crazy enough to spend up on a bottle of an official release of Port Ellen, this G&M bottling would definitely be a 'budget' alternative worth considering. As would all independent bottlings from this long-dead distillery, if you ask me.

Cheers!

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Stronachie 18 yo Whisky Review!

Never heard of Stronachie? Don't worry about it, the distillery hasn't existed for over 80 years, and there are only a few bottles of it's whisky left in existence. No, I'm not reviewing one of those, (this is just a tribute!) But here's what the bottle would look like if I was that lucky:


Modern 'Stronachie' whisky is actually what I would call a tribute, or re-creation, in that it's an independent bottling of a still-operating distillery, but it's been selected for it's similarity to the original Stronachie whisky, which was compared to samples from different distilleries.

Refreshingly, there's no mystery surrounding the source distillery of 'Stronachie' - it's Benrinnes single malt, apparently chosen because it closely emulated the original Stronachie whisky. The independent bottler in this case is A.D. Rattray, who were the Scottish distributors for the original Highland distillery until it's closure in 1928, after just under 40 years of operation.

Benrinnes is a new distillery for me, there have only been a few original bottlings from the current owners Diageo. with the majority of production going into blends. There have been a few independent bottlings as well, but aside from this Stronachie range, they're few & far between.

Benrinnes whisky is 'partially triple distilled', similar to Mortlach and Springbank whiskies. But they have since stopped this practice, so the Benrinnes we see in the future may be quite different. And also like Mortlach, Benrinnes use traditional worm tubs to cool the alcohol vapour coming off their stills. Warning: whisky nerd content ahead!

Thanks to scotchwhisky.com for the image

Worm tubs are basically large coiled copper tubes sitting in tubs which contain cold water. As the alcohol vapour runs through the tubes, it cools and condenses back into a liquid. More modern (and much more common) condenser designs use multiple smaller pipes running inside a large water jacket, giving more overall copper contact. Basically with more copper contact, more heavy compounds are removed from the spirit through reactions with the copper.

So distilleries still using worm tubs often retain more heavy compounds in the spirit, in some cases giving a unique meaty or sulphuric quality to the finished whisky, which Mortlach distillery in particular is renowned for. However, since the casks used for this Stronachie re-creation are carefully selected to emulate the Stronachie whisky, we may not find the typical Benrinnes 'house style' in this particular whisky.

Stronachie is produced in small batches and bottled at either 10, 12 (which doesn't seem to be available in Australia) or 18 years of age. Unfortunately I can't find any official word on chill filtration or added colouring, and the fact that the 10 yo is bottled at 43% makes me suspect it would be chill filtered. But the 18 yo I'm looking at tonight is bottled at a decent 46%, and is very reasonably priced for an 18 yo single malt, at only $125 from Nippy Sweetie Whiskies, who generously supplied the sample for this review.
'Stronachie' 18 yo, 46%, Banffshire (Highlands), Scotland.
Benrinnes single malt, selected for it's similarity to Stronachie distillery (closed in 1928). Unknown cask types, or whether it's been chill filtered or artificially coloured.

Colour: Pale gold

Nose: Sweet & malty. Honeyed barley, wet grass, dried apricots, sour lemon & green apple. A little nippy as well. Quite young & fresh on the nose actually, not sure I'd have guessed it was an 18 yo at this point.

Texture: Light-medium, juicy. Not as bite-y as the nose suggested.

Taste: More honeyed malt, but not as sweet as on the nose. Fruit syrup, drying grass, dried chilli. A little earthy & herbal as well. 

Finish: Short, dried herbs, pepper, malted barley.

Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Notes: A decent whisky, but not really my cup of tea. Quite light and sweet in character, although with a decent mouth-feel. The finish in particular, or rather the lack of a finish, was a bit of a let-down. Not quite what I expected from my first Benrinnes. But like I said above, this one my not reflect the house style, as it's intended to emulate the character of the original Stronachie whisky. 

This one would suit a whisky novice of beginner I would say, and it is priced accordingly, especially for an 18 yo single malt at a reasonable strength. And if you're a fan of the lighter, sweeter malts, this one may be more to your liking than it was to mine. 

Thanks to Nippy Sweetie Whiskies for the sample. Up until the January 17, they are going to be donating 5% of the value of all orders to support the victims of the nasty bush fires happening in Western Australia right now. So if you've been holding off on an order, or you see something you like, now is the time. Not only do you get whisky in return, you'll also be helping to support a good cause. A great initiative from Nippy Sweetie.

Cheers!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Bowmore Devils Casks Whisky Review!

My first Bowmore review, and something tells me this might be a good one!

Bowmore distillery is the oldest distillery on Islay, having been officially founded in 1779, in it's namesake capital town. The distillery sits across the water from Bruichladdich on the shores of Loch Indaal, which opens to the Atlantic ocean. They've actually managed to keep hold of some of the original methods in the production process. They use Scottish barley, a portion of which is floor malted at the distillery and dried using (powdered) local peat, to a level of around 25 ppm on the malt. But their three-level malting barn cannot keep up with the distillery's production requirements, so the remainder is sourced from elsewhere, mostly from the mainland of Scotland. This results in a relatively light-medium peated whisky, especially when compared with it's Southern-Islay counterparts.

Which is partly why Bowmore is often low down on my list of preferred Islay whiskies, along with the fact that I have not been particularly impressed with their entry-level offerings (the legend, small batch, and 12 yo, and also 18 yo expressions). I suspect this is largely thanks to the low bottling strength and chill filtration, although the flavours haven't blown me away either. But there have been a few bottling's which bucked this trend and that have amassed a huge following, and huge collector-level prices, on their own merits. There seems to be a simple recipe to these cult-status bottling's, mainly that they're bottled at cask strength, carry an age statement, and are matured on-site in the distillery's 'No. 1 vaults' dunnage warehouse, which is the last remaining 18th century original building, and supposedly the oldest in Scotland. The majority of Bowmore's whisky is matured off-site on the mainland, so the casks matured at the distillery are more authentic and certainly more desirable.

One of these special expressions is the Devils Casks series, which is supposedly named in reference to a local legend about the Devil escaping Islay in a cask of Bowmore. More importantly though, they've all been matured in first-fill sherry casks, bottled at cask strength, and without chill filtration. The first two batches were reasonably priced at the time of release, and were both 10 years old. The first is now very collectible and very expensive, with the second release slowly catching up. The recent third and final release of the series is expensive to begin with (more than twice the price of 2014's batch 2), and unfortunately has lost the age statement from the previous versions.

The sample I'm reviewing (thanks to a swap) is from the 2014 second release, which was bottled at 56.3%. I was also lucky enough to grab a bottle recently when a big Australian retailer unexpectedly found a few bottles somewhere, and they subsequently sold out within days. But should I have bought two?


Bowmore Devil's Casks, 10 yo, 56.3%. Islay, Scotland.
Batch 2, released 2014. Cask strength, non-chill filtered, 100% first-fill sherry casks.

Colour: Very dark bronze. Darker than it looks in the photo above. 

Nose: Dark stewed fruits. Dark, rich salty sherry. Brown sugar, coffee grounds, fizzy cola. Dark plums,  and red grapes in thick syrup. Salted nuts, toasted oak and sweet malt. Hints of tannins and soft peat.

Texture: Medium. Richly flavoured, a little heat, but in a good way.

Taste: Light peat, more fizzy cola, rich dark fruit jam. Lots of dark, rich sherry. Salted nuts again, a little dry smoke. Dark, tarry treacle. 

Finish: Long. Chilli dark chocolate, tar, dry earthy peat. Getting slightly sweeter and fruitier, with ashy smoke. Then earthy peat and sweet sherry, some salted liquorice, and some sweet malt.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Very nice. A little different to the norm for me, but in a good way. Very enjoyable, and certainly my favourite Bowmore so far, by a huge margin. But that's to be expected, thanks to it being bottled at cask strength and without chill filtration. Great stuff, and a bargain at the original price. So yes, I definitely should have bought two!

It's a shame the distillery released such a small amount of the first two batches, and that they priced the third (NAS) batch so much higher. I could understand if it was a little higher, but at over double the price only one year later, it's a little much. But, I haven't tried the latest batch, so I shouldn't pass judgement just yet. Having said that, I don't see how batch one could be worth the sort of money it's going for at auction. It's now strictly in collector territory, unfortunately. 

This one makes me want to try Bowmore Tempest as well, which is also 10 year old and cask strength, but it's been matured in first-fill bourbon casks instead of the sherry of the Devils Casks series. It's much less hard to find, and much less popular with the collectors, which helps keep the pricing down. Certainly one to keep an eye out for, I think. 

But then there's no denying the appeal of ex-sherry cask whisky, especially when there's a little peat involved. Delicious stuff.

Cheers!