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Sunday, 26 June 2016

Glenfarclas 9 yo Single Cask (Whisky & Wisdom bottling) Whisky Review!

I've already been up-front about the fact that I do not consider myself a big fan of Glenfarclas, based on the expressions I've tried so far. But this is my first time with a single cask, cask-strength bottling, and this one was personally selected by and bottled for an Australian whisky lover. Will this one change my mind?

The man behind this official bottling is Andrew Derbidge, possibly Australia's biggest unofficial advocate of Glenfarclas whisky. Among many other duties, Andrew is the man behind the Whisky & Wisdom whisky blog, and is also the director of the Australian branch of the SMWS (Single Malt Whisky Society), so he's no stranger to single cask whiskies. And when Andrew offered to send a sample over of his own Glenfarclas bottling for review, I'm obviously not going to turn him down!

Apparently while sampling various casks at the distillery (as you do!), Andrew came across a 9 year old sherry butt which he fell in love with, and he couldn't in good conscience allow it to become another component of a vatting / standard bottling of Glenfarclas. So he did what many dream of doing: he purchased the cask from the distillery, and asked them to bottle it for him! There were 650+ bottles worth of whisky in said cask (remember that butts are very large - tee hee), which is a bit much for our limited market, but thankfully the distillery was able to find other interested parties to take the remaining liquid off their hands.

What Andrew ended up with was 252 bottles of 9 year old Glenfarclas, bottled in January 2016 from a single first-fill European Oak sherry butt, at the cask strength of 60.5%. Once the bottles arrived in Australia (after paying a massive customs bill, no doubt), and once Andrew had his personal supply stashed aside, the remaining bottles were put up for general sale at The Whisky Empire. There is still stock available for purchase for a pretty-reasonable $229, and as with all single cask bottlings, once it's gone, it's gone! Next stop, sherry town!

Glenfarclas 9-year old Single Cask, 60.5% cask strength. Speyside, Scotland. 
Bottled for Whisky & Wisdom, 252 bottles. Cask no. 1845, first-fill Oloroso sherry butt. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Deep reddish-bronze.

Nose: Rich, dark sherry - juicy raisins, dates, wood spices. Warm spicy oak. Sherry-focussed of course, but also quite well-balanced. Some hot/strong peppermint. A little clean malt and old soft leather as well.

Texture: Very nice. Medium-weight, juicy and warming. A little heat as well, but not too much for the age.

Taste: Spicy oak, a little spirit-y heat. Date syrup, then the sherry comes out in force - drier than on the nose, peppery spices and dried fruit. More warm, fresh oak. Quite dynamic, alternates between sweet and savoury.

Finish: Medium-length. Malty & spicy, clean spirit, some chewing tobacco and leather, and more spicy oak.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Without a doubt the best Glenfarclas I've tasted so far. Far superior to the 105 expression in my opinion, far less spirit-y and hot, despite it being a similar age and similar strength. Very little heat in this one actually, taking those factors into account. The beauty of a well-selected first-fill cask, right there! That cask hasn't overwhelmed the spirit itself here either, it's still going strong.

This one does remind me a little of Aberlour's brilliant A'Bunadh, which is definitely high praise. If you're a Glenfarclas fan, I would suggest moving quickly on this very limited bottling. Like I said above, being a single-cask whisky, there's only so much of it around, and once it's gone, it's gone!

Thanks to Andrew Derbidge / Whisky & Wisdom for the sample, I imagine it'd be very tough to part with some of your own single-cask bottling from your favourite distillery, so thanks for sharing the love!


Sunday, 19 June 2016

Ardbeg Alligator Whisky Review!

One very rare limited release Ardbeg, with some unusual (and even more so at the time) casks used for maturation. Sigh, yet another one that got away!

Ardbeg Alligator was released back in 2011, and like most older Ardbegs these days it's impossible to find without resorting to auction sites, and you'll want to be sitting down before looking at the prices. I did taste it a couple of times back when it was much easier to get, although I never bought my own bottle. But thanks to a very generous Neil from Malt Traders Emporium, who added his own personal bottle to a recent quickie Ardbeg tasting, I can share the reptilian love with yourselves!

The name here refers to the level 4, a.k.a alligator, charring of a portion of the casks this whisky was matured in. The basic idea behind charring is that casks (particularly new / virgin casks) are charred (scorched internally over open flame) to varying degrees to activate or refresh (internally shaving and re-toasting/re-charring used casks) the wood during the coopering or re-coopering process. Heavy and alligator charring is more commonly used in American bourbon production, because that inner layer of charred oak basically acts as a filter and helps to remove or reduce undesirable flavours. The charring also caramelises the sugars in the oak, and allows the maturing spirit to penetrate further into the staves for more wood influence.    

In the case of Ardbeg Alligator, the alligator char has been applied to virgin (new / fresh) American oak casks, which were filled with Ardbeg new-make and left to mature for around 10 years. They were then married / blended with standard ex-bourbon cask matured 10 year old Ardbeg before bottling. So the whisky is reportedly between 10 and 11 years of age, despite there being no official age statement. There's no mention of what portion of this release was matured in those alligator-charred casks, but whatever that percentage was, it's certainly made a big difference to this whisky!

It's worth noting here that both component whiskies were matured separately, then married together (blended and left to mature further) before bottling. Ardbeg don't 'finish' their whiskies like most distilleries, they instead mature the components separately and marry those liquids together. Which in my opinion could be partly why their whiskies do not carry age statements. After all, a 12-year old whisky with a 6-month finish in sherry casks is still legally 12 years old, but a 12-year old whisky which also contains some 6-year old whisky is legally 6 years old. But in this case both component liquids were apparently around 10 years of age, so if true an correct, that's not a factor here. Regardless, this one certainly didn't need any more time in the casks.
Ardbeg Alligator, NAS, 51.2%. Islay, Scotland.
Partly matured in heavily-charred virgin American oak casks for around 10 years, and blended / married with normal 10 year old ex-bourbon matured Ardbeg. Non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Copper. Not unlike the recent Dark Cove, in fact (oh no he didn't!)

Nose: Sweet, spicy and complex. Sticky, spicy & fruity BBQ sauce, loads of rich creamy vanilla and caramel. Hint of vanilla custard / creme brulee as well. Some burnt / charred limes, a big pinch of fresh black pepper and silky warm oak. Hints of an extinguished wood fire in the background. A little peat comes out with more time in the glass as well.  

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, warming & oily. Mouth-coating. Lovely stuff.

Taste: Sweet and spicy again. Smoked vanilla, buttery oak, cracked black pepper, some soft peat. Wood spices, warm cinnamon especially. A hint of toasted coconut as well, some charred wood and that sticky, spicy and (tropical) fruity BBQ sauce from the nose. 

Finish: Long. Seriously long actually! Spicy peat initially, then a wave of sweet vanilla and warm oak. Some peat and a little salt comes in, still with that buttery oak and vanilla behind. Lovely. 

Score: 4 out of 5. Very close to 4.5 though. Definitely should have gone with a 10-point scoring system...

Notes: Really delicious stuff! Not particularly peaty or smoky really, the casks have definitely asserted their dominance, but it's still absolutely delicious. The peat is still there of course, sitting in the shadows and adding some serious depth and extra complexity. Between this one and Laphroaig's An Cuan Mor, I'm definitely becoming a fan of peated malts that have spent some time in virgin oak. It really seems to work, it definitely has in the case of those two beauties anyway.  

It's a shame the Alligator is basically impossible to find these days. Definitely another one that got away! A big thanks to Neil from Malt Traders - Emporium for the sample. And the fact that he had his own bottle of this seriously rare Ardbeg out for tasting is remarkable. Much appreciated!


Saturday, 11 June 2016

Macallan & Laphroaig Tasting!

My typical action-packed Tuesday evening consists of watching TV, going to the gym (occasionally), and organising everything for work the following day and/or the rest of the week. And as much as I like my routines, it's not particularly exciting. So attending the recent Macallan and Laphroaig tasting at Cobbler, in Brisbane's West End, was definitely a welcome change...

Hosted by the ever-awesome Dan Woolley, we were treated to three whiskies from The Macallan, and four whiskies from my beloved Laphroaig, alongside some incredible food pairings tailored just for the event. Please also note Cobbler's awesome Laphroaig wall / shrine above (although I wish it was in my house), which I'm going to dub the Woolley Wall (extra points here for fans of the movie 'Get Him to the Greek'), which is very hard to resist. Along with Cobbler's 350+ other bottles, what better view to enjoy while having some whisky?

Speaking of which, our drams for the night were the three stars of The Macallan's 1824 series: Amber, Sienna, and Ruby, followed (after a palate cleanser, which was a very nice touch) by Laphroaig Select, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, and the mind-blowing 25 yo. Like I said, definitely a welcome change from my typical Tuesday!

I hadn't actually visited Cobbler for quite some time (far too long - so many new additions!), so it was great to be back inside this Brisbane Mecca of whisky. It had also been a while since I had tasted any of these whiskies. In fact, the last time I tasted the 1824 series they followed this insane 52-year old Macallan from 1946, and I hadn't tasted these particular Laphroaigs since this incredible evening with Laphroaig's distillery manager, John Campbell. But they're all excellent drams, in fact I actually wrote the note "hello again, my pretty" for one of my old favourites!

An equal highlight of the evening were the food pairings, although I've been lucky enough to attend a few of these evenings at Cobbler now, and the food (and drink, naturally!) is always brilliant. Dan sits down with the chef each time, and they custom-design each course to work with the corresponding dram. And they really excelled themselves this time! It's worth noting that Cobbler does not normally serve food, and does not have a kitchen, which I'm sure adds an extra challenge for all involved when it comes to designing the menu. But this doesn't seem to hold them back at all, which is certainly a testament to their skills! So, let's get into the whisky, shall we?

The Macallan:

The expressions in the 1824 series are named after the whiskies' colour, which is natural, thanks to The Macallan not adding artificial colouring / e150a to any of their whisky. Which means that the casks used in these whiskies must be expertly married together to achieve the desired consistent colour, as well as flavour, between batches. 

All 1824 series expressions are matured exclusively in ex-Oloroso sherry casks, with the differences coming from the use of different origin casks, and the number of times those casks have been filled. And while these bottlings do not carry age statements, the walking whisky library (a.k.a. Dan) gave us the insider tip that they all contain whisky aged for between 10 and 17 years. 

Amber: 40%, refill American oak ex-Oloroso sherry casks. Soft, honey sweet and nutty on the nose, with some oaky vanilla and a hint of barrel char. Sweet and light on the palate, with honey, soft spices and a little spirit-y heat. Not unpleasant though, especially in winter.
The Amber was paired with out first dish, poached quail eggs rolled in leek ash, which was very interesting. These had almost a curried egg flavour, which helped offset the sweetness of the whisky. 

Sienna: 43%, mix of refill American and European (Spanish) oak ex-Oloroso sherry casks. More sherry-forward on the nose, and some syrupy sweetness, with a little floral perfume, toasted coconut and light citrus and spice. More spices on the palate from that Spanish oak, wood spices in particular, and hints of ginger and orange. Warming & sweet. The slightly higher strength definitely helps here, and this would be my pick of the 1824 range.
Sienna was paired with a beautiful piece of Black Angus/Wagyu-cross beef, with exotic mushrooms and truffle oil, which was absolutely stunning. An incredible rich, earthy umami flavour which balanced nicely against the sweetness and spice of the whisky. 

Ruby: 43%, first-fill European (Spanish) oak ex-Oloroso sherry casks. Sweeter and more intense on the nose, slightly nutty and spicy with sweet orange, pepper and ginger. Fuller and much spicier on the palate, with pepper and ginger again, plus some clove, red and stone fruits and oak.
This one was paired with two different cheeses: An incredible Spanish blue cheese, served on a Scottish oat cake with creamed honey. Good god this was good. Possibly one of the best blue cheeses I've ever tasted, and so much going on with the oat cake and honey alongside. The Second was a truffled French brie, which was just melt-in-the-mouth creamy yummy-ness. Note to self, must find Scottish oat cakes and Spanish blue cheese. An absolutely perfect match. 

We then had a refreshing palate-cleansing cocktail of Limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur), Fino sherry and orange bitters, thanks to Cameron, Cobbler's bar manager. Very refreshing, and it also worked!


On to what I would have to say is my favourite distillery in the world. These guys are doing some truly awesome work, and largely thanks to Dan and his colleagues, we're lucky enough to get a fair few of their limited releases in Australia (except the cask strength 10 yo - which we really need. Sad face).

For this tasting, we skipped the venerable 10 yo, going from the 'breakfast whisky' Select, to my old favourite Quarter Cask (which according to our host is the fourth-highest selling Islay whisky - seriously good stuff), then on to Triple Wood, and finally the incredible 25 yo as a night-cap. How good is that! 

Select: 40%, a mix of five different cask types, including virgin American oak, ex-PX and Oloroso sherry, and ex-bourbon barrels and quarter casks. Sweet and lightly medicinal on the nose, a little wood smoke, smoked salmon, light salt and vanilla. Light and approachable / quaff-able on the palate , and well balanced. Certainly a beginner's Laphroaig, considering the 10 yo is so divisive. For some it's love at first sight, while others can't stand it, and it puts them off peated whisky altogether! So this is the ideal first Laphroaig for the peat novice.
The Select was paired with a poached scallop with prosciutto and a smoked pipi (small shellfish with a similar flavour to a mussel). Laphroaig is always brilliant with seafood, and this was no exception.

Quarter Cask: This was the one. "Hello again, my pretty!" 48%, non-chill filtered, a mix of 5-11 year old Laphroaig, married together and filled into the quarter casks for 7-9 months. Rich and sweet, mildly spicy and oaky on the nose, and lightly medicinal with a little ash behind. Rich and full, sweet and peaty on the palate, with some ashy smoke, earthy peat and spiced vanilla. This would be my whisky pick of the night, unless of course one has the disposable income required to splash out on the last one! Actually, you'll need one of each...

This one was paired with a foie gras and duck pate tartlet, which I didn't expect to work so well, but it definitely did! The rich pastry and savoury pate matched nicely with the rich, peaty Quarter Cask loveliness. 

Triple Wood: 48%, non-chill filtered, follows the Quarter Cask maturation method but is then finished in European oak ex-Oloroso sherry casks. On the nose it has much more spice, but is softer otherwise with more complexity. Rich and peaty of the palate, with a little fruit and spice coming though. The taming effect of the sherry cask plus the extra age has made a big difference here. I recently tasted this one immediately after a dram of Lagavulin 16, and as much as I love the Lagavulin, it was destroyed by the Triple Wood (thanks to its higher strength and slightly younger age). 

This one was paired with our last course for the evening, and as I listened to Dan give the details on the Triple Wood, I noticed barkeep-extraordinaire Elliot doing something disturbing - he was setting fire to some Laphroaig! But don't panic, it was being flamed and reduced for drizzling over our dessert of poached pears with figs. Yet again, this was incredible! Relatively light, not too sweet or rich, excellent. 

25-year old: Our night cap for the evening, and a seriously incredible, and expensive, whisky. 45.1% cask-strength, matured in ex-bourbon casks for 18 years, then moved to refill ex-Oloroso sherry casks for 7 years. This one is probably the opposite of what most people would expect a Laphroaig to be. So gentle, soft and inviting on the nose, very fruity, floral, sweet and spicy. Light and soft on the palate, with plenty of fruit, warm spices, sweet citrus and some subtle dry smoke. Just gorgeous. It's pricey, but it's well worth it. Anyone care to donate $600-or so to the cause? I'll even let you taste it!
So yet another outstanding tasting from Mr. Woolley and Cobbler, which surpassed all expectation. These events really are well-worth both the mid-week excursion and the ticket costs, which are not even close to what the drams alone would cost in a bar, let alone the incredible food pairings alongside. 

Dan always keeps things relaxed and casual, and imparts real knowledge gleaned from first-hand experience at the distilleries (the lucky bugger). Regardless of your experience level, you're guaranteed to pick up as much whisky knowledge as you care to absorb, without it being compulsory for those who aren't really interested, and are just there to drink great whisky paired with some great food. Whichever side of that fence you sit on, you're bound to be thoroughly satisfied and certainly enjoy yourself. Highly recommended! 

A big thanks to Dan Woolley, Cobbler, Laphroaig and The Macallan for another outstanding evening. Hope to see you at the next one! 

While we have Laphroaig on the brain (a little more than usual, at least), I know I mentioned it in my review of last year's Cairdeas, but this year's release, which is finished in Madeira casks, is now available. Although like last year, it's being sold from the distillery website by ballot, which is now closed. But the distillery will release any unsold bottles from said ballot in a few days, and I'm sure they also have a few in reserve. No doubt it will be excellent, and I can't wait to try a Madeira-finished Laphroaig. Like most Australians I missed out on trying the 2013 Port cask-finished release, so I'm hoping this one will fill that void. 

Having said that, I've decided to hold off on purchasing, purely due to the duty and taxes involved (thanks, Australian government.), in the hope that a certain large chain will get their hands on some, like they have for the last couple of year's releases. Of course I could end up missing out and regretting that decision, in which case I'll have a dram of the 2015 mixed with my own tears. But fingers crossed!    


Sunday, 5 June 2016

Ardbeg Dark Cove (General Release) Whisky Review!

So, Ardbeg day has been & gone for another year! Let's have a look at this year's commemorative bottling.

This year, and for the first time as far as I'm aware, Moet-Hennessy Australia bought in the 'committee release' version, i.e. the higher strength, un-packaged, usually distillery-only version, of their Ardbeg day special release. The 55% ABV version of Dark Cove was very well priced, and also very well received. I've reviewed it here, and rated it a strong contender for one of the best Ardbeg Day releases so far. It's a close call between it and Ardbog for me, anyway.

That review was from my own bottle, which means that now that I have a sample of the 'general release' 46.5% ABV version (thanks to Moet-Hennessy), I can compare the two side-by-side. You'd be forgiven for thinking it won't be a fair fight, but not so fast, because this may be a closer race than what you may think, given the difference in strength. But before we get into the tasting, let's refresh our memories of the Dark Cove specs.

As far as we know the two versions of this whisky are identical save for the alcoholic strength, which also means some of the details are still a little vague. All we can learn from the packaging is that 'it's heart has been matured in dark sherry casks', and that it's not chill filtered. So we can assume that the dark sherry casks were ex-PX sherry (but we don't know the portion of sherry-matured whisky in the bottle), with the remainder being ex-bourbon cask matured. As per usual there's no age statement, but unfortunately there's also no mention of whether it is naturally coloured or not. We know Ardbeg don't usually add colouring, but I wish they'd print it on the packaging so we could be certain. Particularly when there's such an emphasis on the colour of this whisky in the marketing and directly on said packaging.

We can't compare the two versions of this whisky without mentioning the pricing. The 55% committee release was an absolute bargain at $150 in Australia, and of course sold out long ago, while the 46.5% general release is priced at $170. So the committee release was an incredible deal, and let's hope they do the same again next year! As for the general release, 46.5% is the lowest strength Ardbeg day bottling they've ever released, and unfortunately it seems that every year the widely-available versions get lower in strength, while the pricing stays roughly the same. Nonetheless, let's have a look at the new general release version first, then we'll have a look at how the two compare.

Ardbeg Dark Cove (General Release), NAS, 46.5%. Islay, Scotland.
Mostly matured in ex-bourbon casks, partly matured in ex-PX sherry casks. Non-chill filtered.

Colour: Gold, slight tinge of copper.

Nose: Quite sweet initially. A little salt, quite maritime as well. Tar, some musty & wet wood, a hint of peat. Golden syrup, a little grease, and something floral which is tough to pin down. A little floral perfume, perhaps.

Texture: Nice medium-weight, a touch of heat but not unpleasant.

Taste: Dry & spicy peat, a hefty pinch of spice, particularly clove and ginger, maybe a little cinnamon. Some mild lemon zest, touch of dark chocolate, and more of that tar & salt from the nose.

Finish: Short-medium length. A little peat mixed with a load of spice. Some spent coffee grounds, tarred rope, and the peat comes back down the track with a little smoke alongside.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

In Comparison:
Lined up against the 55% committee release, there is definitely a big difference in colour (which is reassuring), like comparing the 10 yo to Uigeadail. On the nose, the general release is much lighter and sweeter, and of course the sheer volume of aromas and flavours, and even more so the texture, is vastly different. But these are all to be expected with a near 10% difference in strength.

Tasting them side-by-side, the general release loses most of the darker notes and most of the more obvious sherry influences on the palate, which I love in the committee release, and while there is more spice in the 46.5% version, there is also definitely more heat. Which is one difference I did not expect to find with these two.

Notes: So there is definitely a big difference between the two versions, and I definitely prefer the committee release. But some may feel differently, and the general release does stand up on it's own. I can see occasions where I would choose to drink the general release over the committee, much like a Benromach 10 43% vs. Benromach 10 57%. And after all, you can't get the committee release anymore, while the general release is out there in reasonable numbers.

But I'm sorry Ardbeg, there's no way this is your darkest whisky ever, you could almost have gotten away with it with the committee release, but the general release is considerably lighter. Why make that the focal point of your marketing when it's not even accurate?

Regardless, the Dark Cove general release is still an Ardbeg worth having (provided you already have a bottle of Uigeadail!). It's a different take on the make, I don't think I'd pick it as an Ardbeg in a blind tasting. I'd put it on even footing with last year's release, Perpetuum, and it's certainly a big step up from Auriverdes from the year before. A big thanks to Moet-Hennessy for the sample, and I'm already looking forward to next year's Ardbeg Day! See you there.