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Sunday, 28 August 2016

Westland American Single Malt Explored & Tasted!

The 'world whisky' scene is certainly growing, with single malt whisky distilleries popping up in many countries all over the world. But if you were to ask a few people to list those countries, I doubt a single one would name the USA. American Whiskey (note the 'e') is most commonly associated with Bourbon or rye whiskey, perhaps even corn or wheat whiskey. But single malt, made from 100% malted barley? Not yet. But that looks set to change!

Westland Distillery is a relatively small 'craft' distillery housed in a 100-year old former crane factory in Seattle, Washington, in the North West of the United States, only a couple of hours drive South from the Canadian border. The cool and relatively stable climate in Seattle presents a bit of a challenge for the distillery, as unlike many 'new world' distilleries, they can't take advantage of natural heat and humidity to help speed up maturation.

They seem to have risen to that challenge though, as all Westland whiskies currently available are only matured for slightly over two years, with two years being the minimum age for American whiskey. This shouldn't scare you off though, plenty of whiskies are aged for similar periods of time which are delicious and certainly aren't under-matured (Starward, Kavalan and some Kilchomans come to mind), and Westland's spirit is helped along by the use of virgin oak casks. The majority of Westland's whisky is matured a few hours away from the distillery on the Western coast of the US, in a small town named Hoquiam, which for a touch of serendipity is located near the city of Aberdeen, Washington!

Westland's Master Distiller, Matthew Hofmann, is certainly not afraid to do things differently. The distillery is currently using five different styles of malted barley in their whiskies, with the majority being the local 'Washington Select Pale Malt', and they're also importing peated malt from Scotland for their peated expression. Yes, that's right, a peated American whiskey! Still a very rare thing, and this'll certainly be my first. There are quite a few smoked American whiskies out there, but the majority are using wood smoke, rather than peat or imported peated malt. The distillery plans to swap the imported Scottish barley with local barley in the future, dried over American peat sourced from the distillery's home state.

Speaking of expressions, the distillery offers three different 'core' whiskies as part of their regular range. All are bottled at 46%, are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and are aged for at least two years. The flagship expression, 'American oak', is matured in virgin American oak, and first-fill ex-bourbon American oak casks. The next, 'Sherry wood', features the same virgin American oak casks, but substitutes the ex-bourbon casks for ex-sherry casks, of both the Oloroso and Pedro Ximinez (PX) varieties. And the third, simply named 'Peated', goes back to the virgin American oak and first-fill ex. bourbon casks, but adds some Scottish 55ppm peated malt into the mix, courtesy of Bairds maltings in Inverness, Scotland. For now, at least. Enough talk, let's try 'em out!

Westland 'American Oak', 46%, non-chill filtered, natural colour. Ex-bourbon and virgin American Oak casks. 
Sweet & fresh on the nose, with cotton candy / candy floss, pot purri (perfumed dried flowers), lemon zest, juicy barley and a little pepper. The palate is unique and seriously delicious, with roasted coffee grounds, dark chocolate, dark burnt caramel and buttered popcorn. Definitely tasting the effects of those five barley varieties!

The nose didn't quite blow me away, and I was worried it would be too sweet, but that's not the case at all. Those dark roasted malts have really made a big difference here and really shine through. Signet who?

Westland 'Sherry Wood', 46%, non-chill filtered, natural colour. Virgin American Oak and Ex-Oloroso and PX sherry casks. 
Richer and fruitier. The nose is syrupy, with stewed fruits and molasses, plus a little spicy oak and some popcorn. The palate still has the coffee grounds and dark chocolate notes, but they're more towards the back of the palate now, up front is fruit syrup and some treacle. A little of that pot purri as well.

Still has that Westland point of difference from the barley, but the sherry casks have added more depth & richness without overpowering anything. Very nicely balanced.

Westland 'Peated', 46%, non-chill filtered, natural colour. Ex-bourbon and virgin American Oak casks. 
More familiar of course, but in a comforting and refreshing way! A lovely fresh & zesty peaty-ness, and it's a sweet and earthy peat. It's not overwhelming though, there's still plenty of character - tropical fruit in syrup, particularly charred pineapple and some juicy peach, some roasted under-ripe banana and roasted nuts. The same warming peaty-ness is there on the palate, plus a hint of that dark roasted malt and a pinch of pepper.

Definitely my favourite of the three expressions, with a good balance of that comforting peat and that unique Westland malt profile. Seriously impressive stuff, and I look forward to trying their locally-peated version when it becomes available!

Overall, all three of these American whiskies have really impressed. Especially considering they're only around two years of age! At no point do they seem rough or under-matured, they're all very drinkable and well balanced. The flagship 'American Oak' really surprised me on the palate, I don't think I've tasted anything like it before, and it's delicious! Westland clearly know what they're doing, and they're definitely a distillery to watch!

Westland American Single Malts are on their way to Australia courtesy of Alba Whisky, the Australian importers and distributors for Amrut, Benromach and Port Askaig, among others, and the Westland range should be available through Australian specialty bottle shops and online stores by late September. While pricing hasn't been confirmed just yet, the RRP is expected to be around $150. I highly recommend trying all three expressions if you can, they're all unique and rather different in their own right, and surprisingly complex & engaging for their age. Great stuff.

Thanks to Alba Whisky for the samples!


Sunday, 21 August 2016

Octomore 7.4 Whisky Review!

Another peated whisky that spent some time in virgin oak casks! Seems to be becoming more common (and it seems to work brilliantly). But this is the first I've tried from the kings of all things experimental, Bruichladdich (pronounced 'Brook-laddy'). And, well, it's an Octomore!

I'm a massive fan of Bruichladdich's 'super-heavily peated' Octomore series, with the 6.3 Islay Barley expression still being one of my favourite whiskies of all time. Although those famous ppm numbers have calmed a little since then, these are still some of the peatiest whiskies you can buy. And the numbers aside, these bottlings are usually remarkably balanced, complex and approachable for their age (5 years, with one exception) and strength.

This one is a little different though. It's older than previous expressions (with the exception of the 10yo), and has also had a slightly more complicated maturation regimen. Once again Bruichladdich have gone where no-one has gone before, taking a little Ardbeg-style separate maturation and marrying, and a little Amrut-style 'intermediate' maturation, and combining the two with the super-heavily peated Octomore spirit. This is certainly not just a straight-forward cask finish!

What we have here is a seven year old whisky, with 25% undergoing virgin French oak maturation for the full seven years, and the remaining 75% being matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks for three years, followed by two years in virgin French oak, followed by another two years back in first-fill bourbon. The ABV hasn't suffered through all of this either, coming in at 61.2% when all was said and done, and it was peated to 167 ppm on the malt (prior to distillation and maturation), which is considerably lower than the other recent versions. And considering the extra age and the types of casks employed, I'm not expecting a massive peat blast in this one. But I'm sure it'll still be there!

Only 12,000 bottles were released in early 2016, and while all Octomore releases are expensive, this 7.4 expression isn't an extremely massive jump in price from the .2 travel-exclusive releases, despite the extra age and no doubt very costly maturation. A very small quantity of those bottles is just starting to appear in Australia, and while the RRP is apparently $260, unfortunately they seem to mostly be priced around the $300 mark. Regardless, I don't imagine stocks will last very long!
Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 Virgin Oak, NAS (but see below), 61.2%. Islay, Scotland.
167 ppm. 25% matured in virgin French oak casks for 7 years, 75% matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks for 3 years, then virgin French oak for 2 years, then back to first-fill ex-bourbon for 2 years. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 12,000 bottles.

Colour: Glistening bronze. Beautiful. The power of virgin oak!

Nose: Oooh, this is different. Sweet fruit & lots of spicy, nutty oak. Salt and a little white pepper, soft hints of peat on the edges. Baked sweet stone fruit and some banana with warm caramel sauce. Chocolate-coated dried orange, furniture polish and vanilla pods.

Texture: Medium-heavy weight. Gorgeous. The legs on the glass are near-permanent. Rich and spicy.

Taste: Spice explosion! There's more peat here than on the nose, but it's certainly been beaten down by the casks (as expected). Oak-y vanilla, big handfuls of wood spices & pepper. Dry & earthy peat, a little chilli salt and some soot.

Finish: Medium-length, sweet & spicy initially. Some hot ginger, then the oak comes in to start drying it all out. Vanilla syrup, charred hot wood chips.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Very good, and undeniably very, very different as we should've expected from Bruichladdich. The massive oak influence and loads of spices may put off some Octomore fans, particularly with the massively dialled-down peat and smoke. Personally I was expecting an Alligator-like experience, but it's not in that camp either, this one stands apart from any Islay I've tasted so far. In fact this one gave my oak-influence envelope a good push! Highly recommend trying this one folks, I don't think we're likely to see another quite like it.

This was quite an expensive release, but that's understandable considering the extra age and mega-expensive new French oak casks, which have certainly worked hard for their money. It is also quite rare now, basically all of those 12,000 bottles seem to have been snapped up, and once again I missed out (most of my budget - plus a bit more - has been sent in Heartwood's direction lately!) on a rather unique Octomore. So a big thanks to the generous fellow-whisky geek who parted with this sample, much obliged mate!


Sunday, 14 August 2016

SMWS 33.133 'Whipped With Happiness' (Ardbeg) Whisky Review!

A rather different single cask independent bottling of Ardbeg from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). I'm not quite sure about the 'Whipped With Happiness' thing, but this is definitely one incredible whisky!

The SMWS was officially syndicated in 1983 in Edinburgh, Scotland, after the founder had toured the distilleries of the Scottish Highlands a few years prior, and convinced a few friends to split the cost of a cask of Glenfarclas. These days the Society has over 26,000 members and has branches in 19 different countries, offers paid yearly subscriptions which enables the member to purchase Society bottlings, grants access to members-only rooms around the world (such as 'The Vaults' in Edinburgh), and to discounted tickets for Society tastings and events. Members also receive a 'starter pack' which includes three samples of bottlings, a notebook and membership card, and a subscription to the Society's quarterly magazine, 'Unfiltered'.

The Society was purchased by the Glenmorangie Company in 2004, who then sold it to private investors in 2015. Since then, a number of positive changes have taken place, one of which is the 'partner bar' program, which as of yesterday (13/08/16) has hit close to home, with the launch of Brisbane's SMWS partner bar in The Gresham in the CBD. Even without the partnership this is one outstanding whisky bar, with very reasonable pricing, great friendly and knowledgeable staff, and a great range including some very rare and unusual malt, rye and bourbon whiskies. With this partnership with the SMWS, The Gresham now has a diverse and very unique range of their bottlings available for purchase by the dram, so Society members (who receive a discount) and non-members alike can try the bottlings before buying or before joining up.

The SMWS bottles single cask, cask strength, naturally presented spirits only after they have passed through stringent blind tastings by a panel of 22 independent judges. While single malt Scotch is still the mainstay of the group, they have more recently also bottled casks of Cognac, Bourbon, single grain whisky and Japanese single malt. The bottlings are often matured in unusual casks, and aside from the very quirky titles and tasting notes on the labels, you'll find an age statement, cask information, number of bottles and the date the spirit was distilled.

You may also notice something missing from the labels: the distillery name! Instead you'll find the distillery's unique identifying number, and the Society's cask number from that distillery. For example, in this case the bottle code is 33.133, where '33' is the Society's code for Ardbeg distillery, and '133' denotes that this is the 133rd cask of Ardbeg the Society has released. The reason for this secrecy was originally contractual, where the distilleries did not want their name printed on the labels (and this is still the case with some companies), and it is also because the single cask bottling may not reflect the distillery's typical taste profile (which is a big benefit of independent bottlings). There is a way around this though: to find out which code corresponds to which distillery, just have a read of this list on The Whisky Portal website.

The back bar at The Gresham. So many whiskies, so little time!

Currently at The Gresham you'll find over a dozen SMWS bottlings to choose from, ranging from a 2-year old Bourbon, to a 10-year old Miltonduff matured in a white wine cask (named 'Burnt Spotted Dick'. Right...), to a 22-year old ex. Bourbon cask Glenfarclas, and plenty more, and there's still more to come! But you'd better hurry, because being single cask limited releases, once these bottles are gone, they're gone!

Which brings us to today's little beauty. Sorry to disappoint you so soon, but at the official launch of the partner bar program at The Gresham yesterday, this bottle lasted less than 6 hours. It's all gone! But I was lucky enough to get a small sample for the purposes of this review (I also bought a dram to try at the launch - and then a second!). I'm sure bar manager Ryan is going to try his utmost to procure a second bottle of this already very-rare beast, and other amazing releases, but in the meantime you're just going to have to live vicariously through me.

What we have here is an 8-year old Ardbeg, which has been fully-matured in a second-fill ex. Oloroso sherry butt. Cask number 33.133 had an 'out-turn' of 654 bottles, at a cask strength of 60.5%, and like all Society bottlings is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. Fans of the distillery will recall that Uigeadail contains a portion of ex. Oloroso sherry-matured whisky, thought to comprise around 20% of the total volume, but that's about as close as us mere mortals can get to sherry-matured Ardbeg, as far as official bottlings go. Enter the SMWS to save the day, because this 100% sherry-matured Ardbeg is here to show us exactly how magical that can be!

SMWS 33.133 (Ardbeg), 8 years old, 60.5%. Islay, Scotland.
Single cask, matured in second-fill ex. Oloroso sherry butt. Distilled May 2007. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 654 bottles worldwide, released early 2016. 

Colour: Rusty red copper.

Nose: Lovely! Plenty of Ardbeggian notes straight away. Coastal with salty sea air, brine and warm sand. Rich stewed fruits in thick syrup. Bacon grease, milk chocolate, and soft dirty, ashy peat underneath.

Texture: Medium-weight, luscious. It's a beastie, but you'd never guess the age and strength. 

Taste: Boom! Peaty and ashy, sweet and savoury. Thick caramel, dried fruit, black pepper, milk chocolate with smoked salt. 

Finish: Medium-long length. Thick ashy smoke, fruity & slightly musty dry sherry, some vanilla & spicy oak, and soft, earthy peat. 

Score: 4.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Seriously, seriously good. Rich, sweet, savoury and peaty, and it's all working together. There's plenty going on, you could spend an entire evening nosing and savouring this beauty. There's a good balance of distillery character and cask influence as well, you'd pick it as an Ardbeg straight away, but with a different edge to it. This is what I dreamt 100% sherried Ardbeg would be, and it's from a second-fill cask! 

I'd put it slightly above the 55% Dark Cove committee release OB, and well beyond the 46.5% version. Brilliant stuff. Hats off to the SMWS tasting panel, they really had a hit with this one! If only there were more of it. As great as this one is, I can't help but wonder why Ardbeg haven't released a 100% sherried expression themselves, it's really a missed opportunity if you ask me. As this independent bottling proves, it doesn't need to be old, it doesn't need to be first-fill, and it doesn't need any fancy marketing. And all of that should help keep the price down. And Ardbeg-heads (like myself) would be all over it. Pretty please!

So, while this outstanding SMWS bottling may be all gone, there are plenty of others on the bar at The Gresham to cut your teeth on. And when those are all gone, more will take their place! So get along and dive right in. If you're unsure of what you're looking at or looking for, ask the staff for a recommendation or just start at the left and work your way through. See you there!


Sunday, 7 August 2016

Ledaig 10 (Signatory Independent Bottling) Whisky Review!

Another cracking dram from my favourite 'underdog' distillery. And also a bottling that I missed out on, unfortunately!

Ledaig (pronounced 'li-chayg') is the name given to the 'richly' or 'intensely' or 'wonderfully' peated (seems like they're trying to avoid the word 'heavily') whisky produced at Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull, and while both brands are under-appreciated, they're producing some truly excellent whisky. All their expressions are bottled at 46.3% and above, all current expressions carry age statements, and all are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. There aren't many distilleries around that tick all of those boxes! No watered-down entry-level expression, no fancy & expensive NAS or travel-exclusive bottlings, and while we're at it, there's no excessive marketing either. Great stuff.

Tobermory, as in the un-peated spirit from the distillery, can be a little divisive, particularly the sherry-finished 15-year old. Personally I'm a big fan, but some don't care for it. The peated Ledaig seems to be more popular, and is held in high regard by most who take the plunge and try it out. The entry-level 10-year old (reviewed here) is excellent value for money, and if you ask me is a real contender for Ardbeg 10's crown of best bang-for-your-buck peated whisky. But what we have here is a little different.

This is a 10-year old cask strength bottling of Ledaig from independent bottlers Signatory Vintage, which has been fully-matured in a first-fill sherry butt. Until recently, Signatory's bottlings have been hard to find in Australia, but The Whisky Company (the artist formerly known as Nippy Sweetie Whiskies) is now the official Australian importer, and things are looking much better already. Signatory are a family-owned independent bottler, who also own Edradour distillery in the Scottish Highlands, and you'll also find the independent bottler's warehouses and bottling plant adjacent to the distillery.

This bottling is from Signatory's 'Cask Strength Collection', and is a single cask, 10-year old Ledaig from cask number 900145, the afore-mentioned first-fill sherry butt, which yielded 576 bottles. It was distilled in November 2005, and was bottled in January 2016 at a cask strength of 54.6%, without chill filtration or added colouring. Something tells me this'll be fantastic!

It was quite reasonably priced on release at around $180 AUD, but unfortunately is totally sold out as far as I can see, at least for the time being. I didn't get a bottle either (sigh), but this review comes from a sample provided by a generous fellow whisky-geek. Let's find out exactly how badly I regret missing out, shall we?

Ledaig 10-year old (Signatory Vintage), 54.6%. Isle of Mull, Scotland. 
Signatory Cask Strength Series. Single cask no. 900145, first-fill sherry butt, distilled 11/2005 and bottled 1/2016. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 576 bottles. 

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Crisp, zesty coastal peat, sweet milky caramel with a pinch of salt. Sherry, with dried fruit and light spices. Very coastal as well. There's a little nip of alcohol, but not much at all for the age & strength.

Texture: Lovely. Medium-weight, no raw heat, well balanced.

Taste: Drier and more spicy peat now, some (mild) chilli milk chocolate. Brine, hot ash, then a wave of that milky salted caramel and a little dried fruit. Well balanced & delicious.

Finish: Medium-long length, Spicy, dried fruits and rich caramel. Still peaty as well, dry & crumbly peat now. Still briny and coastal as well.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Seriously, seriously good. Very impressive and very enjoyable! In fact I'd say it's one of the best younger independent bottlings I've tried to date, and it's great value for money to boot. Not quite a peat monster, but rather a well-balanced peated and sherried dram, which is very drinkable for the age and strength.

Ledaig is quickly becoming my favourite non-Islay peated whisky. Between the excellent-value 10-year old and delicious 18-year old official bottlings, and now this 10-year old cask strength independent bottling, they're doing excellent work. If you're a fan of the peaty side of life, and haven't yet tried a Ledaig, add it to your list and get to it. And from memory this is now the third Signatory bottling I've tried, and all have been very good quality. Let's hope there's more to come.

So yes, I really wish I had bought a bottle of this one. But it turns out all is not lost, Craig from The Whisky Company tells me he has some more stock of this bottling due in October. Hands off 'til I've gotten one!