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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Bowmore 15 Darkest Whisky Review!

Not as dark as the Devil's cask releases, mind you! But this whisky itself is actually pretty enjoyable, and quite reasonably priced. In fact, this would be my favourite easily-obtainable Bowmore whisky.

It's been a while since that devil's cask review, so let's do a quick refresher on Bowmore distillery. It's the oldest distillery on Islay, having officially opened in 1779, although the famous 'No. 1 vaults' dunnage warehouse is the only surviving building from that era. Unlike most distilleries Bowmore still floor-malt a portion of their barley, with the remainder (and majority) of the barley requirements sourced externally. They produce a medium-peated whisky, which is quite different in character to the other Islay distillates, and can be hit-and-miss for me, particularly within their standard line-up of official bottlings.

But I'd say that to my tastes, this expression is the pick of Bowmore's standard range. Bowmore 15 'Darkest' isn't to be confused with the 15-year old 'Laimrig', which was never imported to Australia as far as I'm aware, and is apparently very good. That one is bottled at cask strength and is released in batches, while the 'Darkest' is a permanent addition the Bowmore's range and is down in strength to 43%. 46% & non-chill filtered would've been even better! There is also a travel / duty-free exclusive Bowmore 15-year old 'Mariner', which is the same 43% in strength as the Darkest, but is a marriage of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks of at least 15 years of age, rather than a finishing. Interestingly, Darkest started out as an NAS bottling, which was also slightly younger, but the distillery upped the age a little and added an age statement Great stuff, and an unusual move these days!

Unfortunately, as is the distillery's standard practice, 'Darkest' has been chill filtered and has had artificial colouring added. It's been matured in ex-bourbon casks for 12 years, and finished in Oloroso sherry casks for the final 3 years. That's quite a long finishing really, so you would expect a decent amount of sherry influence here. I just wish they had skipped the added colouring (and subsequently told us about it!), especially when the whisky is named after its colour. Regardless, at $110-130 in Australia, this one is priced quite reasonably, considering its age and the cost of sherry casks these days. Particularly if you manage to get it in the lower part of that price range.

Bowmore 15-year old 'Darkest', 43%. Islay, Scotland.
Matured in ex-bourbon casks for 12 years, finished in ex-Oloroso sherry casks for 3 years. Chill filtered, added artificial colouring. 

Colour: Orange-y bronze.

Nose: Cocoa powder / cocoa dust, musty red grapes, berry compote (sweet sauce). Some peppery oak and some sliced oranges. A hint of earthy peat, a mild caramel sweetness, and some dried mushroom.

Texture: Light, but not too fleeting. A little prickly heat initially but dissipates quickly.

Taste: More smoke than on the nose, but still quite soft and in the background. A big pinch of white pepper, some bitter oak. I normally don't like bitterness at all but it's not too bad here, and doesn't last long. Some dried fruit and leather, and a little licorice.

Finish: Short-medium, but not a long going on. Quite peppery, but not in a harsh raw-alcohol way. Something reminiscent of a dark rum, a little of that dried fruit and a hint of smoke.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Don't take that to be a bad score, it's higher than I'd place most of the standard Bowmores (the only exception being the 12 yo). There are some notes I don't completely love, but this one's very drinkable and very pleasant overall. None of that off-putting and often unpleasant floral / violet note that older Bowmores are known and renowned for, which is good news. I can't help but wish it was a little more naturally presented, by losing the chill filtration and colouring, but I've had whiskies where those practices were far more obvious. This one doesn't suffer too much at all.

Definitely my pick of Bowmore's regular line-up, and very reasonably priced for the age. Certainly better value than the more-expensive 18-year old. But I'm certainly not a fan of that expression, so perhaps take that with a grain of salt! If you're yet to give Bowmore a try, I'd recommend this expression to cut your teeth on. Hopefully we'll see the cask-strength Laimrig in Australia at some point, I suspect that'd be very good indeed. Fingers crossed.

Thanks to Dan Woolley, The Exchange and Beam Suntory for the sample.


Sunday, 24 July 2016

Bowmore (That Boutique-y Whisky Company) Batch 2 Whisky Review!

Apologies for the confusing title! This is an NAS independent bottling of Bowmore single malt, which is a little vague on the details, but is highly regarded by those 'in the know'.

That Boutique-y Whisky Company is a small independent bottler backed by Master of Malt, a large online whisky store based near London. They produce small batch whiskies, including blends, single grains and single malts, which up until April 2016 did not carry age statements. There's no disclosure as to cask types or sizes, or the previous contents of the casks used, and not all are bottled at cask strength, so the ABV % doesn't help us guess the ages. They are also a little hard to find in Australia, and can be pretty expensive, especially considering the 500ml bottle sizes. 

But the general quality does seem to be quite high, they're all non-chill filtered, and they've been quite open about the reason behind the lack of age statements. Their explanation is that because the age variance in some of the bottlings is so high, they'd be selling themselves short if they did add age statements, since they can only state the minimum / lowest age of the contents on the label. But from April 2016 their bottlings began to carry age statements, partly thanks to their support for Compass Box's campaign for transparency. That Boutique-y Whisky Company's bottlings are most easily recognised by the cartoon-style artwork on the labels, which are specific to each release.    

This Bowmore bottling is from boutique-y's second batch, which was bottled at a cask strength of 49%, and there was only 292 bottles released worldwide, which isn't much at all, even taking the smaller bottles into account. So this it quite the rare bottling here. Back when it was available it retailed for around $170 AUD (and that's a 500ml bottle, remember), but very few of those 292 bottles ever made it to Australia, and they're probably long gone by now. This review comes by way of a sample from a generous fellow whisky nerd, and is both my first independent Bowmore and my first whisky from That Boutique-y. Let's get to it!
That Boutique-y Whisky Company Bowmore, NAS, 49%. Islay, Scotland.
Batch 2, cask strength, non-chill filtered. Unknown casks or colouring. 292 bottles worldwide.

Colour: Bronze.

Nose: Interesting, like a thick caramel with a dried-flower sweetness. That floral note is very Bowmore of course, but it's less of a sweet floral-ness than usual in this bottling. Quite a bit of spirit-y bite as well, needed more time in the glass than most. Some thick mixed berry jam, almost like I'd expect from a port cask-matured malt. 

Texture: Medium-weight. Spirit-y, but not as bite-y as on the nose. 

Taste: Spicy and hot chilli initially, then some of that floral sweetness from the nose. A tiny hint of peat, pepper and some more thick berry jam.

Finish: Short-medium length. Still spirit-y, plus a little oak and caramel, and a little salt. Some soft earthy peat and a little dried fruit joins in down the track. 

Score: 2. 5 out of 5. 

Notes: Not unpleasant, still enjoyable, but not much of a showing either. I think there's a little too much raw spirit in there which dominates and subdues everything else, and when it does fade it's taken a few victims down with it. Still, it's not my least favourite Bowmore I've had, I think I just prefer my Bowmore with a little more cask influence and perhaps some more maturity. Not necessarily age mind you, just maturity.  

Not the best performance for my first boutique-y bottling really, but that's not to say others won't be brilliant. Which is both the beauty and the curse of small-batch independent bottlings!Although they're very expensive and highly sought after, there are some boutique-y bottlings of Ardbeg that sound very promising, which I'd love to get my hands on. Never say never... 

Thanks to Matt for the sample, see you both again soon!


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2016 Whisky Review!

Another brilliant Laphroaig this week, which is very limited and going to be very rare in Australia. And one that I very nearly missed out on!

Laphroaig's Cairdeas range is released annually in June, to coincide with Feis Ile, the Islay festival. All the Islay distilleries do a special release for the festival, but only Ardbeg and Laphroaig's bottlings are generally obtainable for those who can't make it to the festival, and/or don't want to spend double (or more) the original asking price on the secondary / auction market. Laphroaig's Cairdeas releases aren't anywhere near as plentiful or obtainable as Ardbeg's 'day' bottlings, but they can be purchased from the distillery's online store if you're quick (and in some cases, if you win the ballot), and are sometimes imported into a few other countries, the USA in particular.

Over the last couple of years, aside from purchasing from the distillery itself (and then paying shipping and customs charges), a certain large Australian retailer has bought in stock of the Cairdeas, without any fanfare or much effort, at a reasonable price. Unfortunately I have it on good authority that this retailer has passed on the 2016 release, and it has long since sold out from the distillery and from most online stores. I was lucky enough to get a bottle in a swap, but if like me you decided against buying from the distillery in the hope that this retailer would come through for us again, well, happy hunting, and I hope you find a bottle!

The Cairdeas (Gaelic for friendship, referring to the Friends of Laphroaig, and pronounced "car-chiss") bottlings are usually something a little different from the distillery, bottled at higher strength than the standard releases, and bottled in clear glass rather than the usual green. Last year's release was a very special one for Laphroaig's 200th anniversary (reviewed here), while 2014's was double-matured / finished in Amontillado sherry casks (reviewed here), and both were excellent. The 2016 release is different again, although it's back to the double-matured / finished style of the '13 and '14 bottlings, as it has been matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, before being double-matured / finished in Madeira fortified wine casks. Which is a first for Laphroaig, and is still a little unusual for Scotch whisky.

Not familiar with Madeira? It's a fortified wine produced on its namesake island in Portugal, and the wine is heated & cooled repeatedly, and often exposed to air, to alter it's flavour. This method of ageing was apparently discovered by accident after the producers tasted some unsold wine which had been shipped and returned. They found the temperature variation in the ship's hold had altered the wine for the better, and decided to try to emulate the process and make it their standard ageing method. Madeira can be dry or sweet depending on the grape varietal and style, and the unusual maturation method means the wines are much more stable than others, and can be stored (and also matured) for much longer periods without spoiling.

This 2016 Cairdeas was bottled at 51.6%, which like all recent Cairdeas releases, the strength of the bottling reflects the year of release (2015 was 51.5%, 2014 was 51.4% etc.). It's non-chill filtered, and I don't believe artificial colouring has been added (but it would be nice if that was stated on the packaging). As for pricing, it was around the same as previous Cairdeas' at the time of release, but has since almost doubled in value on the secondary market, and will likely continue to rise from there. Sigh.
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2016, NAS, 51.6%. Islay, Scotland.
Matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, then finished in Madeira wine casks. Non-chill filtered.

Colour: Polished bright orange copper.

Nose: Rich & slightly creamy, quite spicy as well - aniseed especially. Orange zest, milky salted caramel. A little rubber, soft ashy smoke but quite mild. Toasted dessicated coconut, earthy peat and some dried raspberry with more time.

Texture: Medium-weight, rich & spicy. No heat at all.

Taste: Lovely big punchy, ashy, herbal peat and a big pinch of spice - aniseed again, plus some hot cinnamon, and mild chilli and clove. Milky caramel again, like a jersey caramel, and creamy orange lollies.

Finish: Medium-length, lots of spices again - aniseed & chilli return, plus maybe some juniper? The orange comes back again, but drier now. Then sweet peat and salted nuts 'til the end.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Very good, and quite different! I'm not usually a big fan of big orange notes in whisky, but it does work in this case, especially with the spice and peat alongside. I must admit I'm yet to try a Madeira wine, I might have to give it a go to add to my arsenal, so to speak, but I would have to say the orange and that rather different spicy-ness would have come from that finishing in the Madeira casks. So they've certainly made a difference!

Another very interesting and very enjoyable Cairdeas from Laphroaig, then. John Campbell has worked his magic once again! It's a big shame that the aforementioned Australian retailer passed on this one, I don't think they should have. But what's done is done, and I'm no businessman. I'd happily pay the standard retail price for this one, but I'd hesitate before spending the sort of dough required on the secondary auction sites. So if you missed out on a bottle and don't want to sacrifice a kidney to the cause, see if you can find it in a whisky bar in your corner of the world, and give it a go. Happy hunting!

A big thanks to my anonymous source for the sample of this amazing malt, highly appreciated good sirs!


Sunday, 10 July 2016

Laphroaig Lore Whisky Review!

A brand-new Laphroaig to Australia, which should start appearing on the shelves in early August. A couple of stores did import it themselves a month or two ago, but the pricing was prohibitive, really. Now it's soon to arrive officially, and it's priced far more reasonably. Oh, and it's also pretty damn good!

This one has copped a little flak from some reviewers for it's lack of age statement, and for some reason many were doubting Laphroaig's explanation of it's contents, thinking that it was simply a higher-strength version of the entry-level 'Select'. It's true that there are multiple types of casks and different ages involved, but there are some seriously rare whiskies in here, and the overall flavour profile is far above that of the 'beginners' Laphroaig' Select. Personally I don't see why there was so much negativity towards this one, it's hardly the first & only NAS whisky on the market! One of the main issues seems to be the price, which granted is a little higher than the other NAS Laphroaigs (which are relatively young whiskies), but seems very reasonable considering the component whiskies involved here.

What we're looking at in this expression is a mix of six different Laphroaigs, ranging from 8 to 21 years of age, including some fully-matured in smaller quarter casks (yes, fully-matured, not finished!), some finished in virgin European oak, some matured in refill casks for maximum peaty punch, and some matured in ex-Oloroso sherry casks, and two ages of substantially older whisky that was fully-matured in first-fill bourbon casks. So there is certainly some very serious whisky in here, and it's certainly not over-priced!

The name 'Lore' refers to the passing of knowledge by word-of-mouth, and is distillery manager John Campbell's tribute to the distillery's history and the craftsmen that have made Laphroaig over the last 200+ years. Laphroaig are calling this 'the richest Laphroaig ever', and 'the richest of the rich', which is a little subjective of course, but there is certainly no lack of flavour here. Adding to that is the fact that Lore is bottled at 48%, and like the other Laphroaig expressions bottled at and above that strength, is only barrier filtered, rather than being chill filtered.

We don't know the exact pricing just yet, or exactly where it'll be available, but look at it this way: one of the Australian stores that imported Lore direct from the distillery was selling it for $259, (which is a stretch in my opinion), and they appear to have sold out of their stock. The official retail will be well under $200, probably somewhere in the range of $170-180, which is far more reasonable, and there will also be a decent amount of stock available. Yay!
Laphroaig Lore, NAS, 48%. Islay, Scotland.
Mix of 8-21 year old whisky from 5-6 different cask types (see above for details). Non-chill filtered.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Takes some time to open up, but it's worth the wait! Quite mineral-y - damp rocks near a beach, or even a wet sharpening stone / whetstone, including the oil. Creamy natural oysters in the shell, definitely, and something a little nutty. Rich floral honey, drying driftwood. Dried herbs & heather, some wood spices, and dried stone fruit. Not getting much peat here, it noses like an older, sweet & fruity Laphroaig. 

Texture: Light-medium weight, first soft & gentle, then warming & spicy. No heat at all though. 

Taste: Gentle arrival, then a big punch of ashy peat which builds gradually. Warm spicy oak and floral sweetness. Then a good pinch of black pepper and some chilli flakes, more dried fruit (mango now as well) and ground wood spices.

Finish: Medium-length. Spicy, ashy peat, but becomes sweet quite quickly. The mineral / whetstone from the nose comes back, plus the floral sweetness. Some bitter oak now, and dried fruits under the soft, sweet peat. More typical Laphroaig here, once the dust settles.

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Quite a different expression from Laphroaig here! A surprising floral sweetness which reminds me a little of the 25-year old, but then the peat in this one reminds me a little of the 2015 Cairdeas! Definitely more mineral-y than usual as well, rather than medicinal. Very dynamic, goes from gentle to powerful and then back again, and then repeats the process. I'm not quite sure about that slight bitterness I'm getting with more time in the glass, but it's not off-putting either. 

Personally, I wouldn't call it the richest Laphroaig ever, but it's certainly very engaging and quite complex. There's plenty going on here to keep you busy, and it will have changed again the next time you pick up the glass. There are definitely a good balance of ages and casks in here as well, and these guys certainly know what they're doing. As if there was ever any doubt about that, of course!

So, if the rumours are true and Lore is replacing the 18-year old as a permanent addition to the line-up, it's not the disaster that some might have you believe. In fact this should help convince some of the anti-NAS brigade that all is not always what it seems. Welcome aboard Laphroaig Lore, I hope to see you again soon!

Thanks to Dan Woolley, Beam Suntory Australia and Laphroaig for the sample.


Sunday, 3 July 2016

Port Askaig 100 Proof Whisky Review!

Haven't heard of this whisky before? It's a 'mystery malt' independent bottling, but the name is a big clue towards discerning which distillery it came from...

Port Askaig is on the North-Eastern side of Islay, and is home to one of the island's two ferry terminals. Oh, and the largest distillery on the island in terms of production capacity: Caol Ila. So we can be pretty certain that Port Askaig whisky is distilled at Caol Ila, which is good news! There are rumours that the other expressions of Port Askaig may be sourced from other Islay distilleries (and they're all single malts), but this particular one is a regular bottling sourced from Caol Ila. Being such a large distillery doesn't hold Caol Ila back in terms of quality, although the low strength of the regular official bottlings (43%) means the whisky can be a little tame for some. They're still good whiskies, but if it were bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered, I suspect it'd be brilliant.

So, where does one go if they like Caol Ila, but they'd like a little extra strength? Enter the independent bottlers to save the day! The company behind the Port Askaig brand is Speciality Drinks, which among other things are also behind the Elements of Islay independent bottlings, and are the sister company to The Whisky Exchange store in London. Until recently, Port Askaig was tough to find in Australia, but that is soon going to change, as Melbourne's Alba Whisky have started to import it in in small quantities. All Port Askaig whisky is bottled at 45.8% and above, and in the case of this particular expression, at a cask strength of 57.1%, aka 100 (British) proof.

While prices aren't finalised just yet, at an RRP of around $150 AUD, this bottling has got to be the cheapest way of getting your hands on cask strength Caol Ila. The official Caol Ila NAS Cask Strength bottlings from Diageo are long gone, and are impossible to find in Australia, and most independent bottlings at this price point are bottled at around 46%, so this is a great value bottling. Port Askaig 100 proof is matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, and while there's no official age statement, the youngest whisky in this one is seven years old. Unfortunately I can't find official word on chill filtration, but based on the texture I don't believe it has been chill filtered. And based on the very pale colour and tinted bottle, I'd definitely say it's naturally coloured.

Port Askaig 100 proof, 57.1%, NAS. Islay, Scotland.
Believed to be Caol Ila. Matured in refill ex-bourbon casks. Unknown chill filtration, natural colour.

Colour: Very, very pale white wine. Definitely natural!

Nose: Essence of Caol Ila. Smoked ham, sweet peat, charred BBQ'd meat, grassy, some dried herbs and a little green malt. Lemon sherbet and boiled sweets. 

Texture: Excellent. Medium-heavy weight, thick & chewy, and a tiny touch of heat. 

Taste: Thick, dense and warm wood smoke, but it's not too dominant, it's gentle and inviting. Crispy smoked bacon and bacon grease, hot wood ash and warm spices. Sweet herbal peat, and a little more of that lemon sherbet from the nose.

Finish: Medium-long length. Hot wood ash and chilli spice, tapers quickly to sweet peat, lemon zest and some earthy dried herbs. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Very enjoyable, and definitely great value for money. The finish falls off a little, and it's not overly complex, but if you dig these flavours (like I do), it's definitely a winner! Pure, unadulterated Caol Ila, but nicely amplified and concentrated over the regular official bottlings. Lovely. 

I must admit I sometimes shy away from independent and/or mystery bottlings that I'm not familiar with, but there's no reason to do so in this case. These guys clearly know what they're doing. If you're a fan of Caol Ila but you wish they'd turn up the volume, or you've had your fill of the standard bottlings, this is a sure-fire way to satisfy that desire. Watch out for this one when it reaches our shores, it's not far away!

Thanks to Alba Whisky for the sample, and for going to the effort of importing this, and their other, whiskies. This one's a keeper if you ask me, and I just might have to grab a bottle for myself!