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Sunday, 22 May 2016

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2015 Whisky Review!

This is one very special Laphroaig. All the Cairdeas bottlings are special of course, but this one is about as Laphroaig as it gets.

2015 was quite a year for Laphroaig. They celebrated their 200th anniversary, and released a number of special whiskies to commemorate the occasion. They also sent John Campbell, their distillery manager, to Australia for a quick tour, and I was lucky enough to interview the legend himself, which you can read about here. As for the whiskies, there was the revival of the 15 yo, the 16 yo travel-exclusive, the 21 yo Friends of Laphroaig bottling, the incredible sherry-matured 32 yo, and this little baby, the 2015 Cairdeas.

This 2015 release is a very unique bottling, which is highly unlikely to ever be repeated. But to explain why it's unique, we need to go over a few points about the distillery. Laphroaig floor-malts it's own barley, which is cold-smoked using their own local peat, then dried in a separate step. Which results in around 60 ppm of phenols on the malt. But because the floor-maltings can't keep up with the quantities required, they source the majority of their barley from Port Ellen maltings (as do most Islay distilleries). Well, this 2015 Cairdeas has been made using only the floor-malted barley, malted at the distillery!

The next point is that the distillery has a total of seven stills, comprised of three wash stills, and four spirit stills, one of which is around double the size of the other three. In this case, the smaller spirit stills produce a sweeter, fruitier spirit, while the larger still produces a heavier, more oily spirit. The results are then combined to achieve the desired new make spirit. Well, this 2015 Cairdeas has been made using only the smaller spirit stills!

The third point is that the distillery has a number of warehouses on site, some of which are traditional dunnage warehouses (dirt floors, casks stacked 2-3 high, stone walls, largely open to the elements), and some of which are modern racked warehouses (modern materials, casks stacked up to the ceiling), along with some off-site warehouses on the Scottish mainland. Well, this 2015 Cairdeas has been wholly matured in one of the traditional dunnage warehouses, and in particular, the dunnage warehouse no. 1, which sits right on the edge of the Atlantic ocean!

So essentially what we have here is an older-style Laphroaig, produced in the most traditional way possible, to commemorate the distillery's 200th anniversary. And on that note, unlike the last two releases, there's been no cask-finishing here (2013 was finished in port casks, and 2014 was finished in amontillado sherry casks-reviewed here), this Cairdeas has been wholly-matured in first-fill ex-Maker's Mark bourbon casks. And while there's no official age statement, it's spent roughly 11-12 years in those casks, after being distilled in mid-2003. It was then bottled at 51.5%, without chill filtration. Something tells me I'm in for something good... and that song is now stuck in your head. You're welcome!
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2015, 51.5%. Islay, Scotland.
Matured for 11-12 years in first-fill ex-bourbon casks. Produced using only the floor-malted barley from the distillery, using only the smaller spirit stills, and matured in 'no.1' dunnage warehouse. Non-chill filtered, unknown colouring (likely natural).

Colour: Light-ish gold.

Nose: Fresh, light and very coastal. More medicinal and coastal than usual, and there's no smoke at all here. Fresh, sweet peat, becoming more vegetal with time. Citrus as well - fizzy lemonade, a little lime. Marker / nikko pen, some cologne, wet earth (almost a sweet mud - but in a good way!) and salt. Smashing.

Texture: Gorgeous. Medium weight. No heat, well balanced but nice & peaty. 

Taste: Ooooh. Very peaty & ashy, and that's a hot ash. A drier and considerably spicier peat now, and pretty different to the normal peat influence I'd expect from Laphroaig. There's a little subtle smoke in there, mixed with the ash. Plus more magic marker and earth. A salty, lemon-y sweetness behind, and a little cola.

Finish: Long. peaty & ashy, still that hot ash and dry & spicy peat, but with the salt, citrus and also surprising sweetness behind. Becomes sweeter and quite malty as the peat starts to subside. Lovely stuff.

Score: 4.5 out of 5. 

Notes: I nearly gave this one a 4 out of 5, but I've since fallen even deeper in love with it while typing out my notes. So I've amended the score at the last minute. A truly brilliant whisky, without any unnecessary frills or fanciness, just pure, honest, authentic Laphroaig. Certainly a must-have for fans of the distillery, although it is markedly different to what you may expect. More medicinal (but not overwhelmingly so) and peaty, and less smoky than what I would expect from your typical Laphroaig. But it's every bit as beautiful. 

This just goes to show the massive difference Laphroaig's floor-malting and cold-smoking processes have on the finished whiskies, even if it's 'blended in' for the other expressions. What a fitting way to celebrate their 200th birthday. Bravo Mr. Campbell! 

The history and heritage in this one speak volumes, after all this is probably as close as we can get to tasting Laphroaig from a century ago. And boy does it work. Unfortunately it seems to be completely sold out, at least in Australia, and as far as I'm aware only one retailer ever secured stock of it (and thank christ for that). I'm certainly glad I managed to get my hands on it before it was too late.  

Since we're on the subject of Cairdeas, Laphroaig will be releasing their 2016 bottling at Feis Ile shortly, which is back to the previous year's style. This one is finished in Madeira casks, which is a first for Laphroaig as far as I'm aware, and is still uncommon in Scotch in general. That one should be very, very interesting, and no doubt it'll be delicious. Fingers crossed that it shows up in Australia ASAP. 

Cheers!

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Benriach Curiositas Whisky Review!

A very nice peated main-lander, which represents great value for money, and is a worthy competitor for the entry-level peaty beasts from Islay.

Having recently attended an excellent Benriach tasting at Malt Traders, presented by Benriach's brand ambassador Stewart Buchanan, which included the brand-new NAS un-peated cask strength expression (definitely one to look out for when it arrives), it's about time I reviewed another of their peated whiskies. Interestingly, this one surprised a few of the attendees who thought they didn't like peated whisky, until they tasted this one!

I've tried this 10 yo 'Curiositas' expression a few times now, and it never fails to impress. As you can probably guess, the name is Latin for 'curiosity' (most of Benriach's peated malts are given Latin names, to set them apart from the rest of the range), which I believe refers to peated Speyside malts being a little uncommon, although that's not so much the case these days.

Benriach use malt peated to around 55 ppm for their peated expressions, quite a high level for a main-lander, which to my knowledge is beaten only by Benromach's Peat Smoke. This is peat from the mainland of Scotland though, so it doesn't have the medicinal or coastal flavours we'd get from the Islands. Which is probably why it suits the non-'peat head' a little more than some.   

I've reviewed Benriach's PX-finished 'Heredotus Fumosus' and Port-finished 'Solstice' previously, but so far I personally prefer their bourbon cask-matured peated expressions, namely this 10 yo Curiositas, and the 17 yo 'Septendecim'. It should be noted that there is a 40% version of the Curiositas, but as far as I can tell that was only for the UK market, while the rest of us enjoy the that's-more-like-it 46% version. This one is priced at around $90, which puts it near Ardbeg 10, my yard-stick for bang-for-buck peated single malt. How does it stack up?
Benriach Curiositas 10 yo, 46%. Speyside, Scotland. 
Ex-bourbon cask matured, peated to 55 ppm. Non chill-filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Light gold.

Nose: Peaty & ashy initially, which fades slightly with more time. Some flat cola, a nice floral sweetness, vegetal & herbal peat, and a little fresh earth. Hint of sweet tropical fruit, and something a little dusty as well.

Texture: Very nice. Medium-weight, no heat. Phenolic, but nicely balanced. 

Taste: Spicy, chunky peat up front, a little hot ash. Some heathery honey sweetness. The peat dominates, but I don't mind!

Finish: Medium-length, still some spicy peat, and some nuts - cashews, I'd say. A little chilli spice, some buttery oak, and some of that cola from the nose. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: A great little peated malt from the mainland, without the notes some find offensive in our beloved Islays. It's easy drinking and great value for money, but without sacrificing flavour or texture. Very enjoyable, but I do prefer the 17 year old 'Septendecim'. It's a little more complex, as you'd expect, and it's not priced too far above the 10. But if you're after an affordable and approachable peated mainland whisky, or perhaps if you're not a fan of peated Islay or Island whiskies, this is certainly one to consider. As for how it compares to the Ardbeg, personally I'd give the Ileach the win, but I suspect quite a few folks would swing the other way. It's certainly a close thing, and really just comes down to personal preference.

On a bit of a (potentially) sad note, Billy Walker and his partners in Benriach Distillery Company, who own Benriach, Glendronach and Glenglassaugh distilleries, recently sold their entire business to US company Brown-Forman, owners of Jack Daniels and a couple of other non-Scotch distilleries. Time will tell what effect this has on the brilliant work these three fantastic distilleries have been doing, but apparently at this stage all staff will be staying on, including Walker himself. Personally, I hope these distilleries continue just as they are, and the new owners let them do their thing. They've been very successful so far, and if it ain't broke...

Thanks to Benriach's Australian importer/distributor World of Whisky for the sample of the Curiositas.

Cheers!

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Dun Bheagan Islay 8 yo (Lagavulin) Whisky Review!

No, this isn't the official 8 yo bottling that Lagavulin are releasing to mark their 200th anniversary. Unfortunately that one's not due to hit Australian shores until August. This is an independent bottling from Ian McLeod Distillers, under their Dun Bheagan label.

Unfortunately we don't 100% know this whisky is Lagavulin, because Lagavulin (or rather Diageo, I suspect) don't want their whisky to be seen in independent bottlings, so it's officially known only as Dun Bheagan 'Islay Single Malt 8 yo'. Which also means they can change the source distillery between batches, so all bottlings may not be the same. But I have it on good authority that this bottling came from Lagavulin distillery. Interestingly, Ian McLeod's website states that these bottlings are 'matured at the distillery of origin'. Whether this means Diageo's warehouses on Islay, or those on the Scottish mainland, I can't say.    

The Dun Bheagan range of independent bottlings are all non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and are bottled at 43% and above. 46% and above would be nice, though! They're quite obscure and hard-to-find in Australia, I'm yet to see one 'in the wild', so this review comes to you thanks to a sample-swap with a fellow whisky nerd.

Dun Bheagan is the Gaelic name of a small town towards the Northern end of the Isle of Skye, which was the historic seat of the chief of Clan McLeod. Ian McLeod Distillers are actually quite a large company, who own Glengoyne and Tamdhu distilleries, and are also behind the 'mystery' whisky brands 'Smokehead' and 'Isle of Skye', among others.

This is the youngest Lagavulin I've tasted so far, and I've put a little aside to compare with the 8 yo official bottling when it finally arrives. Although that one is bottled at a much-better 48% ABV, so it may not be a fair comparison. I'm a massive fan of Lagavulin's brilliant 12 and 16 yo's, and the distiller's edition is good, although a little expensive, and the 2013 Feis Ile bottling is among the greatest whiskies I've ever tasted. So this younger independent bottling should be an interesting experience!
Dun Bheagan Islay Single Malt 8 yo, 43%. Islay, Scotland.
Independent 'mystery' bottling of Lagavulin, from Ian McLeod. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Honey gold.

Nose: Essence of Islay (which should be a unisex aftershave/perfume). Mild sweet peat, a good pinch of salt, some iodine and seaweed. A little wood smoke and some sweet fruit - bananas, stone fruit. Burnt toffee.

Texture: Quite light in weight, but still impressive for just 43% and just 8 years. The beauty of non-chill filtration? I'd like to think so.

Taste: Sweet & ashy peat now, some salt, and more sweet fruit. A little bananas in toffee (banoffee pie?), and a little unexpected bitterness which is a little off-putting.

Finish: Short-medium length, sweet peat and light fruit. A little wooded white wine, some chilli, and a little fruit and sweetness.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: I enjoyed the nose, but the rest, not so much. The bitterness on the palate and the lack of punch and perhaps complexity on the finish. It can't be the strength, because it's the same as the 16yo official bottling, which is excellent. It doubt it'd be the age either, because many Islays are bottled younger without any trouble. It's just missing a few factors for my tastes. The 'wow' factor, perhaps. Maybe if it'd been bottled at 46%, that'd be a different story, but I'm not sure.  

Still enjoyable though, and an interesting spin on Lagavulin which is hardly ever seen in independent bottlings these days. From what I can see it's priced around the same as the 16yo (and the entry-level Ardbeg and Laphroaig OBs), and as much as everyone loves an underdog, it's not even a close fight at that level of competition.

Speaking of which, the aforementioned 8 yo official bottling is looking promising, it's getting positive reviews around the traps, and apparently should be keenly priced to boot. Unfortunately we have to wait until August to find out, although some independent shops have imported it themselves, which of course pushes the price up. There's plenty coming, so my personal advice is to be patient. Regardless, I can't wait to try it.

Cheers!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Ardbeg Supernova 2009 Whisky Review!

This is one of my bucket list drams, which is now very rare and worth mega-bucks. Thanks to a very generous fellow whisky geek, I finally have the chance to try it!

This is, or rather was, the original version of Ardbeg's extra-heavily peated Supernova. Hitting the shelves back in April 2009, it was quite a large release at the time, consisting of some 18,000 bottles. But that was seven long years ago, and it is now extremely hard to find, and very expensive. It also won a couple of major awards at the time, including the whisky of the year from the hat wearer (who makes it sound like he built Ardbeg single-handedly back in 1815), which of course added to it's popularity.

The Supernova range is peated to 'well over' 100 ppm on the malt, a big step up from Ardbeg's usual level of around 50 ppm, although in fairness that's still quite high. The recent additions to the Supernova range have gotten a little soft though, with the addition of more sherry-matured whisky in 2014 (reviewed here) and the final 2015 release, and I suspect some slightly older contents as well. And both of those releases were also down to 55% ABV.

But this 2009 version, sometimes referred to as the 'stellar release', and the subsequent 2010 release (reviewed here in the early days) were true peat-monsters; young and high-strength, big and powerful (dare I say explosive?) Islay beasts. 100 ppm may not sound like a lot these days, largely thanks to Bruichladdich's Octomore series, but there are more factors that will influence the actual level of peaty power than that one number. So rest assured, this one is definitely a contender for Octomore's crown.

There's isn't a lot of detailed information about this release around, and you won't find any mention of age, casks or colouring on the packaging. But you will find mention that it is non-chill filtered, plus the slightly ambiguous 'well over 100 ppm'. I don't believe it has had any colouring added, Ardbeg don't do that as far as I'm aware, which is one of the reasons that they use a green bottle. And I would guess that it's ex-bourbon cask matured, most likely in refill casks to retain as much peat influence as possible in the finished product. But I could be wrong there, so we'd better take a closer look. Very excited to finally try this one!
Ardbeg Supernova 2009 'Stellar Release', NAS, 58.9%. Islay, Scotland.
Peated to 'well over 100 ppm', non-chill filtered, likely natural colour. 

Colour: Pale gold. 

Nose: Fantastic. Very Ardbeggian. Lime zest & black pepper, creamy peat, and creamy vanilla ice cream by the sea. Some ash, soil & tar, and a little spirit-y bite. So far not as peat-forward as the numbers might suggest, but oh-so beautiful.  

Texture: Thick & creamy, medium-to-heavy weight. 

Taste: A big peat explosion, as promised! But it's still a lovely creamy peat. Seriously lovely. Some dry, hot ash, a touch of chilli chocolate. Some more lime and black pepper too, and a slight hint of pineapple. 

Finish: Long! Starts with the dry, hot ash and black pepper, then that gorgeous creamy peat comes to the fore. Then some chilli flakes, a little more candied lime, salted potato chips, and a smouldering peat fire. 

Score: 4.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Seriously good stuff, and now I'm kicking myself that I didn't hunt high & low a few years ago and pick one up when they were more available and within reach. It's a proper Ardbeg, un-tamed and un-apologetic, with plenty of complexity and power. Based on my admittedly limited experience in the older whisky field, I'd call it an old-school Ardbeg when compared to today's offerings, and I feel very privileged to have finally tasted it. Although it's now left me wanting more! 

The 2010 'nova was the first mega-peated whisky I tasted (and subsequently bought), so this one also reminded me of those early days. But how do they compare? From that I remember of the '10, it was nowhere near as creamy or lime & pepper-y, and not as complex or balanced. And it was certainly hotter, more than the ~2% difference in strength would warrant. I do definitely prefer the '09 bottling, it's an absolutely beautiful Ardbeg, and I'm smitten with the stuff. Now where did I put that damn time machine...

While we're on the subject, this year's Ardbeg Day is coming up, on the 28th of May. They're actually calling it 'Ardbeg Night' this year, linking it with the marketing theme behind this year's Ardbeg Day special release, Dark Cove. I've reviewed the 55% ABV committee release version here, which has since sold out world-wide. I was very impressed with it, but the general release version which is released on the day is down to 46.5%, and it looks like it'll actually be more expensive than the box-less committee release, at least in Australia. Regardless, if it follows the lead of the 55% version, it'll definitely be one to try.

Cheers!