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Sunday, 28 February 2016

Kilchoman Machir Bay Whisky Review!

It's been a while since I reviewed a whisky from this young Islay distillery, so it's about time I re-visited them in detail.

Kilchoman are an innovative distillery, producing some seriously good whisky at surprisingly young ages, often at high- or even cask strength. The Port cask bottling for example was bottled at 55% and only aged for the legal minimum of 3 years, and it was brilliant. I put this down to excellent quality new-make (slow fermentation and distillation, among other things) and excellent cask-selection, but there's probably more science and art to it than that. It certainly helps that they don't chill filter, don't add colouring, and don't bottle below 46%.   

Speaking of casks, Kilchoman are using first-fill bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace, and first-fill Oloroso casks from Miguel Martin in Jerez, Spain. They've also used smaller amounts of Port, Madeira and PX sherry casks, among others, for limited releases. Kilchoman is a 'paddock-to-bottle' distillery, as in they do everything on-site, including (floor) malting and bottling, and roughly 30% of their annual barley requirement is grown and malted on-site. The remainder is sourced from Port Ellen maltings. 

My previous Kilchoman reviews were an excellent small batch/single cask bottling, which I've tried and failed to find since, and one of the 100% Islay expressions (distilled only from the floor-malted barley), which I found a little lacking. So we're going back to basics for a look at their entry-level expression, Machir Bay, named after the bay near the distillery, on the west coast of Islay. It's an NAS (although said to be 5-6 years old on average) mix of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, although I suspect it's mostly the latter, prior to a short finishing in ex-Oloroso casks.

Kilchoman Machir Bay, 2014 release, NAS, 46%. Islay, Scotland.
Vatting of 5-6 year old ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, married and finished in ex-Oloroso casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Very pale gold.

Nose: Sweet grilled pineapple, and sweet juicy barley, a little earthy. Dried herbs, candied lemon, and a little new-make spirit, but a good one. 

Texture: Medium-weight. Young, fresh & zesty. But not hot, very nice. 

Taste: Earthy, sweet peat up front, and quite a bit of it. A little ash, hint of spicy smoke, and more of that pineapple and lemon, but less sweet now. A little dry chilli now as well.

Finish: Medium-long length. Still peaty, and a little spicy. More of that fresh new-make, and a little more spirit-y now, but not in a bad way. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Very impressive for it's age, especially considering there aren't any smaller quarter casks involved here. I'd love to try Kilchoman's new-make spirit, I suspect it'd be lovely. As would all of the Islay distilleries', no doubt. Machir Bay is quite well priced as well, at around $110-120 in most stores, which puts it in the vicinity of Laphroaig quarter cask, for which it's a worthy adversary. Although I'd have to give the Laphroaig the decision there, it wouldn't be by a massive margin. And that's high praise for Machir Bay, I think. 

Kilchoman are certainly still one to watch, with whisky this good at such young ages we can expect to see some brilliant releases in the coming years. Speaking of which, they recently bottled their first 10 year old, although only one bottle was made available, which was auctioned off for charity. I believe this was also the first Kilchoman to carry an age statement, so that bottle is really quite special, especially as the proceeds went to a good cause (cancer research). Who knows, perhaps one day we'll all be buying 10 year old Kilchoman off the shelf. I'd love to see a Kilchoman quarter cask expression as well, it would certainly be a winner.

But then, if the younger stuff is this good, why mess with it? Why leave in in the cask for another 4+ years, collecting dust and costing money? I guess that depends on how the spirit responds to that extra time in the cask, and the direction the distillery want to take. 

Many would turn their noses up at a 5-6 year old single malt, which of course is part of the reason there's no prominent age statement on the packaging, but like I've said before, we really shouldn't judge these books entirely by their covers. If you're yet to give Kilchoman a go, I'd highly recommend jumping on that bandwagon. I'll see you there. 


Sunday, 21 February 2016

Nikka Yoichi 15 Whisky Review!

It's about time I reviewed a specific Japanese whisky! Unfortunately this one is already discontinued, and therefore very expensive. But is it worth it?

Nikka was founded by Masataka Taketsuru, who learnt the art and science of whisky distilling in Scotland, where he studied chemistry, and worked at a number of distilleries, including Hazelburn in Campbeltown. On return to Japan he helped start Suntory's Yamazaki distillery, where he became the first master distiller, until he branched out and established Nikka Whisky Distilling in 1934, when he built Hokkaido distillery, now known as Yoichi.  

Nikka own two Japanese malt whisky distilleries: Yoichi, near Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido, and Miyagikyo, near Sendai on the main island of Honshu. They happen to also own Ben Nevis distillery in Scotland, and Nikka as a company is now owned by Asahi breweries, the largest beer producer in Japan. 

Yoichi distillery wouldn't look out of place in Scotland, and in fact was carefully planned to emulate the Scottish style, with it's mountainous and coastal surroundings, cold climate and Scottish-style construction. The distillery itself also employs (direct) coal-fired stills, which even in Scotland are very rare, and actually imports Scottish peat to use in their production process. Something you'll find at Yoichi but won't see in Scotland is Mizunara (Japanese oak), but due to the high cost, high demand, and limited (and highly regulated) supply, Yoichi only partly-mature their whisky in Mizunara casks.

The majority of the distillery's production goes into Nikka's blended whiskies, such as Nikka 'from the barrel', and the Taketsuru range. The company has been in the whisky press recently, as word got around that their age statement range was going to be discontinued and replaced with new NAS whiskies. And like all Japanese whisky (largely thanks to Jim Murray), the pricing for Nikka age statement whiskies went crazy.

If you can find a bottle of this 15 yo in Australia, don't expect much change from $500. Which of course is quite insane for a 15 yo single malt bottled at 45%, but that's largely to be expected with a well-regarded Japanese whisky at the moment. Especially with a discontinued one. There's not a great deal of information out there on the specifics of this 15 yo, but we know it'll be lightly peated, part-matured in Mizunara, and likely has been chill filtered. As for the rest, we'll let the whisky do the talking!
Nikka Yoichi 15 yo, 45%. Yoichi, Hokkaido, Japan.
Part-matured in Mizunara (Japanese oak) casks, remainder unknown. Likely chill filtered. 

Colour: Copper

Nose: Quite well balanced, sweet overall. A little earthy peat, stone fruit in syrup, coastal breezes. Pine forest, wet stone, thick toffee and sweet oak. 

Texture: Medium weight, syrupy. Very nice. 

Taste: Sharp & earthy peat initially, and a surprising amount of it, but it fades quickly and sits in the background. A little spice as well, some hot cinnamon, clove, and maybe sandalwood? Charred, bitter oak. More of that stone fruit, something nut liqueur-ish, as well.  

Finish: Medium length, balanced and soft. Some sweet fruit, nuttiness, and a little more oak. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Nice, and easy drinking, but I was expecting / hoping for more complexity and more punch in the finish. Reminds me a little of some of the recent NAS Taliskers, but with a different edge to it. Certainly more peat than I've experienced in most Japanese whiskies so far (Hakushu heavily-peated and Nikka 'peaty & salty' being the exceptions), but it's still light by Scotch standards. 

The Yoichi does seem closer to Scotch, for me, than most of the Japanese whiskies I've tried so far. Which isn't really surprising, that's basically how it was designed. Having said that, in Japanese whisky terms, I do prefer Hakushu 12 to this one, especially in terms of value. And on that note, there's no way Yoichi 15 yo is worth the insane asking prices that I've seen. For this sort of coin, there are some incredible Scotch (and other) whiskies available which represent far greater value for money. But at the original RRP, I can see why the Yoichi became so well-regarded. 

So should you be rushing out to buy a bottle, even at these prices? Well, it depends on what you want out of it. If you're going to drink and enjoy it, then I would say no. Save your pennies for a few bottles of more-reasonably priced whisky, and enjoy those instead. If you're buying it purely as an investment, or are just going to flip it in a few months, then you're really part of the reason why Japanese whisky has gone crazy, and is now out of reach for most whisky drinkers. But, perhaps unfortunately, you probably will make a profit on it. After all, the chances of this one becoming more widely available, and subsequently more-reasonably priced, are slim-to-none. So I'll leave that decision to you...


Sunday, 14 February 2016

Benromach Golden Promise Whisky Review!

That's not innuendo, I promise. See what I did there?

Golden Promise is actually a type / strain of barley, which has fallen out of favour with most whisky distilleries, thanks to it's low yield and vulnerability to disease, in favour of more efficient and reliable strains. Highly regarded for it's flavour, Golden Promise can still be found in Glengoyne and Macallan distilleries in their whisky production, and it is more widely used by breweries, mostly for fuller-flavoured beers such as India Pale Ales (IPAs).

Benromach distillery decided to revive this older-style malt for their 'Origins' series, which looked at how relatively small changes in the production process can result in relatively large differences in the finished whisky. They have produced two different batches of Golden Promise in this series, batch 1 and batch 5. The sample I'm reviewing is from batch 5, which was distilled in 2005 and bottled in 2013, but there are still a few bottles around, and it's a very interesting whisky.

That Golden Promise barley was lightly peated to around 12 ppm, like most Benromach expressions (with one exception) and after maturing in American oak (not European) sherry casks, it was bottled at the decent strength of 50%. It's definitely natural colour (Benromach do not add colouring), but unfortunately I can't find any clear indication on the almighty google as to whether it's been chill filtered or not.

Nonetheless, I'm a big fan of both versions of Benromach's 10yo, and the heavily-peated Peat Smoke, so it'll be interesting to see just how different this one is compared to the 'house style'. Let's get to it!
Benromach Golden Promise 2005, 50%, Forres, Speyside, Scotland. 
Distilled in 2005, bottled in 2013. Matured in American oak ex-sherry casks.

Colour: Very pale gold. 

Nose: Grassy - fresh cut grass. Lemon-flavoured boiled lollies/sweets. Dry grasses as well, and some vegetable chips. Hint of cola, but the cheap & slightly dusty-tasting kind. A little prickly as well. 

Texture: Light, a little hot. 

Taste: A little dry smoke up front, then a big whack of chilli. Chilli powder, to be specific. Slightly grassy & herbal behind, and a hint of dry peat, but it's dominated by that heat. Tongue tingling, raw alcohol heat. It's not the hottest whisky I've tasted, far from it. But nothing else puts up much of a fight, so unfortunately it's the star of the show. 

Finish: Short, and still hot. A little dry barley as well. 

Score: 2 out of 5.

Notes: Definitely too young, in my opinion, or perhaps it needed some fresher casks. But then the character of that Golden Promise barley may have been lost, so perhaps that would not have helped either. I can't say I picked up a lot of barley influence anyway, but that could be down to me. 

I should add that I opened this sample a while ago, so that may have had something to do with it, but I can't be sure. I even tried adding water, something I pretty much never do, to see what sort of a difference it would make. It dampened the heat a little, as you'd expect, but it didn't bring out any considerable change or boost in flavour. Nonetheless, it was interesting to try a whisky made from a specific type of barley, it's not something you see very often. 

As always this is just my opinion, and this is definitely the only Benromach I've come across that I haven't totally enjoyed. A big thanks to Alba Whisky for the sample, sorry it took me so long to get around to reviewing it. Shame it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment of course, but I have to call 'em as I see 'em!


Sunday, 7 February 2016

Cask Islay Whisky Review!

At first glance you might assume this was a blended whisky. But no, it's a mystery single malt!

Cask Islay is one of the few 'mystery distillery' independent bottling's of Islay single malt (Finlaggan being probably the most widely known). The source distillery is usually un-disclosed, usually at the behest of said distillery or it's owners. Clues can sometimes be found in the name of the whisky, e.g. Port Askaig is likely to be Caol Ila, but there's no such luck in this case.

Cask Islay is sold by A.D. Rattray, an independent bottler based on the West coast of the Scottish mainland. They market another brand of mystery single malt sourced from Speyside, named Stronachie (18 yo reviewed here), and a blended whisky named Bank Note. The company is owned by Tim Morrison, formerly of Morrison Bowmore Distiller's, the parent company of Bowmore distillery, under Beam Suntory. So is Cask Islay a Bowmore? Who knows. The internet rumour-mill tells me it could be from Bunnahabhain, and that it's a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. 

There was previously a blended malt (sourced from multiple distilleries) version of Cask Islay, but these days it's a single malt (from a single distillery). There's no age statement, or statement about chill filtration or colouring on the label. We can semi-safely assume it hasn't been chill filtered thanks to the bottling strength of 46%, but if that is the case, I wish they'd state it on the label! It is quite well priced though, at around $80 AUD at Nippy Sweetie Whiskies, who kindly supplied the sample for this review. It still has some big competition at that price level, so how does it stack up?

Cask Islay Single Malt, NAS, 46%. Islay, Scotland.
A.D. Rattray independent bottling, from an un-disclosed distillery. Possibly non-chill filtered, but not stated on label. 

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Definitely Islay! Brine, coastal air, hot sand. A little tropical fruit, pinch of fresh black pepper. Dried seaweed, toasted marshmallows, tiny hint of coastal peat. Nice.  

Texture: Medium, a little heat as well. 

Taste: More peaty than the nose suggested, a dry & spicy peat. More black pepper as well, plus some dry chilli flakes, some after-shave / eau de cologne, fresh apples, and a hint of raw alcohol. 

Finish: Medium length, pepper & chilli still there, quite hot actually. The after-shave is back too, and a little peat behind. Those apples have oxidised (turned brown) now, and they're much more prominent, too prominent for me to be honest.  

Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Notes: Basically - really enjoyed the nose, didn't mind the taste, didn't like the finish. It's definitely young and lightly-peated, and I'm having trouble picking the distillery. I'm going to go with a lightly-peated Bunnahabhain, but I could be wrong. If I'm not wrong, it doesn't hold a candle to the heavily-peated Bunna's I've tasted, although it is considerably cheaper, so not really a fair comparison. **UPDATE: I've been told it's actually Caol Ila, via Facebook. Wouldn't have guessed that!**

If it had lived up to the nose, it could've been a winner, so I am a little disappointed, particularly with the finish. As always though, this is just my opinion, whisky is a subjective thing, so you may feel differently. But for me, even at the decent price, this one can't compete with the entry-level official bottlings from Islay.

On a more positive note, the enterprising folks at Nippy Sweetie have recently started doing 100ml bottles of selected whiskies. They haven't asked me to mention it, I just think this is a brilliant idea! Particularly for some of the rarer and more expensive malts, where it can be daunting to open a bottle, even more so if you know it'll take you a while to finish it. A 30ml sample bottle isn't always enough when you're enjoying a new whisky, so these are much better! Just leave some for me, please!