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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Two incredibly rare Laphroaigs explored & reviewed!

I like to think I know a fair bit about Laphroaig. Seeing as it's my favourite whisky distillery, which by default makes it my favourite alcoholic beverage, I have no trouble rattling off specifications and details that would easily send the non-whisky nerd into a peaceful slumber. But in reality I have barely scratched the surface, and still have much to learn. I was reminded of this recently when Dan Woolley, Australia's national brand ambassador for Laphroaig  (and more), returned from a trip to Islay with a few very special bottlings in tow.

Among this amazing bounty was a bottle of Dan's own hand-selected custom blend of cask strength Laphroaig (aptly named 'sweet peat'), plus two different single cask bottlings, and something I'd never heard of, which carried the name 'Highgrove'. At first glance, you might pigeon-hole this mysterious bottle as a mere independent bottling, but there's more to the story behind this exceedingly rare and exclusive bottling of single malt. Highgrove is the name given to the Royal Gardens of the private residence of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. As some may know, Laphroaig is the only Scotch whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of The Prince of Wales (meaning they are an official supplier to the royal family), and The Prince (known in Scotland as the Duke of Rothesay) reportedly has a particular affinity for the 15-year old expression. The Royal Warrant is proudly displayed on the labels and packaging of Laphroaig's official bottlings, and the distillery building itself wears The Prince's coat of arms.

The Prince during his distillery visit in 2015. I'm sure even he wanted to take two drams.

Located on a 200+ year old estate South of Gloucester, England, the Highgrove organic gardens are a reflection of The Prince's commitment to environmental sustainability, and are opened for public tours in certain months of the year. The estate also includes a physical shop and online store where a number of exclusive products can be purchased, with all profits going to the Prince of Wales' charity foundation. One of these exclusive products is a private bottling of Laphroaig single malt, and there have been a number of different versions over the years, usually aged between 12- and 15-years, and bottled at either 43 or 46%. Something very interesting which I have since learned about these Highgrove bottlings, although the details are a little scarce, is that the current bottlings are made from organic Scottish barley. I would interpret this to also mean that they are made using only the floor-malted barley from the distillery, as the malt sourced from Port Ellen which supplements the distillery's own is not organic, and therefore could not be included. But I'm speculating a little there.

Unfortunately we can't be sure that this applies to the bottling I'm lucky enough to be reviewing here, because it was missing it's label (which is how Dan managed to get his hands on it, and luckily he was generous enough to give me a sample), so we don't know a cask or bottle number, or exactly which expression this was, but we do know that it was bottled at 14 years of age at 43% ABV. I could only find a few references to a Highgrove bottled at 43%, and all were older bottlings that displayed vintages rather than age statements, which are of course rarer than those currently available from the online store, which are hardly a dime-a-dozen anyway! Since there is no label on this particular bottle we cannot be sure, so I've chosen an image that closely reflects the details I have to hand. Being bottled at 43% will mean this bottling was likely chill-filtered, and will have had added colouring, as is the case with the 15-year old official bottling. So, let's have a closer look at this very special Laphroaig, shall we?
Laphroaig 'Highgrove', 14-year old, 43%. Islay, Scotland.
Exclusive bottling for Prince Charles' Highgrove shop, all profits go to HRH's charity foundation. Ex-bourbon cask matured. Assumed chill filtered and added colouring. Photo above for approximate reference only.

Colour: Gold. Added colouring in my opinion. 

Nose: Very soft & quite subtle for a Laphroaig. Sweet, ripe tropical fruit, rich caramel, some citrus & a nice minerality, like wet stone pavers. Hints of seaweed and dry, earthy peat.

Texture: Light-medium weight, warming & rich. No sign of any alcohol whatsoever, very soft. 

Taste: Tropical fruit again, more rich caramel, and some more dry & earthy peat, more prominent here but still quite subtle. A little soft chilli spice in there too. Slightly drier here than it was on the nose.

Finish: Medium. Drying spices, then light fruit and more wet stones, and the peat comes back towards the end. Quite a light finish, but enjoyable. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Not your typical Laphroaig at all, much softer and more gentle than you may expect. Softer even than the standard 15-year old official bottling, and surprisingly different to it as well. In fact I think I prefer this expression, although it's been a while since I tasted the 15yo. The Highgrove is very, very good quality, there are no off notes or harshness, and there's no sign of any alcohol, which could get a little dangerous considering just how drinkable this one is. Very nice! I'd love to try the more recent Highgrove bottlings as well, they seem to be a couple of years younger and have gone up in strength to 46%, so they'd be very interesting!

But wait, the title says 'two incredibly rare Laphroaigs', so we're not done yet! 

This next bottling is essentially even rarer than the previous, because this sample came from a single bottle of a single cask of Laphroaig, which had not even been selected for bottling at the time. So at the moment the only way of getting yourself a dram from this cask would be getting yourself to the distillery, and then trying to bribe your way to disturbing this exact still-sleeping first-fill bourbon cask. And good luck with that! Dan really does have a dream job. Obviously there's no photo of this bottling, but we do have all the juicy details to hand. It was bottled at a cask strength of approximately 57%, at 13 years of age, without chill filtration or added colouring, and was matured in a single first-fill ex-bourbon cask from Maker's Mark. Wowsers!


Laphroaig single cask, 13-year old, 57% approx. Islay, Scotland.
Matured in a first-fill Maker's Mark bourbon cask. Definitely non-chill filtered (not filtered at all I suspect, which is very cool) and natural colour. 

Colour: Paler, lighter gold, and even some charred barrel bits! How awesome is that! 

Nose: Fruity again, but under-ripe this time. A lot of bourbon cask character, with toasted oak, sweet caramel, and even a little leather. Salted butter, a little wet soil, but no sign of any peat or smoke. A little alcoholic nip as well, but only slight.

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, lovely natural spirit. No heat at all, rich & velvety.

Taste: Starts soft & sweet, then a slow-motion explosion of dry, spicy, ashy peat. Then soft & sweet again. Some sweetened grapefruit, a good pinch of black pepper, and some strong mint. 

Finish: Medium length. Peat comes back again, then sweet caramel and oaky vanilla, more pepper and grapefruit, but it's dried now. Then something reminiscent of a mild blue cheese coated in black pepper. Weird I know, but I like it! The ashy, slightly spicy peat comes back again towards the end. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Very good of course, as you'd expect from Laphroaig. A lot of bourbon character on the nose, and certainly a sheep in wolf's clothing between the nose and palate, as is the case with a lot of Laphroaigs. Some unusual notes on the palate too, not in a bad way, but rather in a very interesting way! Very drinkable again, but with more punch and definitely more recognisable Laphroaig-y notes that we all (well, most of us) know & love.

I don't think I could choose between these two very different and very interesting whiskies. One is the perfect everyday drinker, very gentle but still engaging, while the other is softly spoken and inviting, but likes to remind you it's the boss every now and then. So if such a thing were even possible, which of course it isn't, I'd have to get one of each. I'm certainly very lucky to have tried them at all.   

Mr. Dan Woolley, I really cannot thank you enough for sharing these precious Laphroaig's with me (and the others over the years), I think I owe you a dram or two! Thanks very much mate. See you next time!

Cheers!   

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Hyde Irish Whiskey Review!

For quite a while now, the only Irish whiskey that interested me was the only peated Irish whiskey, Connemara. Mainly because I personally found most other Irish whiskeys I had tried to be, frankly, a little boring. Triple-distilled, watered down to 40% and chill filtered, and purposely designed to be lighter in flavour and texture than your average Scotch, they didn't really float my boat. But that is beginning to change, because despite being un-peated, what we have here are some very interesting drams!
Hyde Irish Whiskey is a relatively new brand to the Australian market, which is owned by relatively new company Hibernia Distillers, based in South-West Ireland. Current owners Alan and Conor Hyde have their own distillery in the works, but until that is up & running their whiskey is sourced from Cooley Distillery, located North of Dublin, matured in Cork located in South-West Ireland, and bottled under the Hyde label. That second-last part is important, because the climate in Cork is warmer and wetter than the rest of Ireland, which effects the maturing whiskey. 

There are currently five Hyde expressions available, three single malts and two single grain whiskeys, 'single' of course meaning that they were made at a single distillery and are not blended. All expressions carry an age statement, are triple-distilled (as is the norm for Irish whiskeys) and are bottled at 46%, without chill filtration. What's also interesting here is the cask types used for maturation. While all expressions are initially matured in ex-bourbon casks, four of the five are then finished in either sherry, rum or burgundy casks before bottling. This is still quite an uncommon practice in Irish whiskey, where cask finishings have not yet taken hold to the same extent as they have in Scotland.

Thanks to Hyde's Australian importer Wonderland Drinks, I'll be taking a closer look at four Hyde expressions today. Two single malt whiskeys, one of which is finished in Oloroso sherry casks, and the other in Caribbean dark rum casks, and two single grain whiskeys, one of which is finished in French Pinot Noir casks, and the other is fully matured in heavily-charred ex-bourbon casks. See, told you these were interesting drams! It's important to note that while the grain whiskeys are labelled 'The Aras Cask', and the malt whiskeys and labelled 'President's Cask' (a tribute to Douglas Hyde, Ireland's first president), these are not single cask bottlings, although they are all limited releases.

These 'Aras Cask' Hydes will be my first single (un-blended) grain whiskeys / whiskies, so let's take a quick closer look at how grain whiskey / whisky is produced compared to its malty cousin. The most commonly used grains are corn and un-malted barley, but there can also be some malted barley, rye and/or wheat involved in various quantities depending on the desired recipe, also known as the mash bill. Distilleries' mash bills are usually a closely guarded secret, but in Hyde's case their grain whiskies are distilled from corn and un-malted barley, and are triple-distilled in a Coffey still. A what? Well grain whiskies aren't often distilled in traditional pot stills, but rather in column stills, a.k.a Coffey (named after the inventor, and nothing to do with coffee!) or continuous stills, so named because they don't need to be emptied and cleaned between runs / batches, which are therefore more time- and cost-efficient, and result in a lighter flavoured, higher strength, and 'purer' spirit than is produced pot stills. So on that note, let's start with Hyde's single grain Irish whiskeys!

First cab off the rank is Hyde's 'The Aras Cask No.3', a 6-year old single grain whiskey matured in a heavily-charred ex-bourbon cask, bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered. Distilled from corn & un-malted barley in a Coffey still. Very sweet & light on the nose, with some cotton candy, vanilla pods, rubbing alcohol. With extra time that changes to acetone, and some more caramel notes emerge. On the palate it's very sweet again, with some sweetened shredded coconut and simple syrup, and something reminiscent of sake (rice wine), and a short & light finish with more vanilla and caramel. This one is just too sweet for my tastes to be honest, with a little too much raw alcohol, but I could see it working well in a cocktail, or perhaps being more suited to a white spirit-drinker.

Next up we have Hyde's 'The Aras Cask No.5',  a 6-year old single grain whiskey matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in ex-Pinot Noir red wine casks from Burgundy, France, again bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered. Distilled from corn & un-malted barley in a Coffey still. Still light and sweet on the nose, but with some oak and red fruit presence calming it down a little. Considerably less rubbing alcohol present with this one as well. On the palate, it's less sweet again, more syrupy, and less alcohol again with a little fruit coming through, and a short and thin finish with a little of that sake-like taste winding things up. The wine casks have definitely added some complexity here, and have also calmed things down a bit.

Now we're on to Hyde's single malt Irish whiskeys! Let's start with 'President's Cask No.4', a 6-year old single malt matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in ex-Caribbean dark rum casks, again bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered. Distilled from 100% Irish malted barley. On the nose this one is richer & warmer than the previous expressions, with some palm sugar, lemon juice, toffee and tropical fruit. A little alcohol prickle here too. Still quite sweet on the palate, but again in a richer, fuller and more mellow way. Some nice malt character here, with some brown sugar and tropical fruit. A short finish again, but with quite a bit of raw alcoholic heat as well. When that subsides, there's more of that palm sugar sweetness and a little spice. This expression is more up my alley, but I can't help but feel it could've used a little more maturation. There was a 10-year old version of this expression, but I believe it's largely sold out and hard to find.

And finally, the flagship of the range, the award-winning 'President's Cask No.1', a 10-year old single malt, matured in ex-bourbon casks before a 9-month finishing in ex-Spanish Oloroso sherry hogsheads, bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered. Distilled from 100% Irish malted barley. The nose is more familiar and quite comforting, slightly richer again and with no alcohol prickle this time. I'm finding quite a strong aniseed note here, not licorice but actual aniseed, plus a creamy fruity-ness, some dusty fruit and a nice cereal-like malt character. On the palate there's more creamy vanilla, some fruit and honeyed malt. A longer and richer finish here as well, with a little oak, spice and creamy vanilla. My pick of the four expressions tasted, and nicely matured with no rough edges or raw alcohol.

Overall, these are definitely eye-opening drams which certainly highlight the different effects that cask finishing can have on maturing whisky / whiskey. The 10-year old single malt is certainly my favourite of the four, with a more familiar, richer and more mature profile, but all are interesting and engaging whiskeys in their own right, which are well worth trying for yourself! I look forward to seeing what Hyde come up with in the future, particularly once their own distillery is up & running. In the meantime, since Cooley distillery currently produce the world's only peated Irish whiskey, I'm hoping to see some peated Irish whiskey with an exotic cask finishing, it'd certainly add to the experience and would practically sell itself! Fingers crossed. Thanks again to Scott from Wonderland Drinks for the samples.

Cheers! 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Rosebank 15 yo (Single Malts of Scotland) Whisky Review!

Rosebank has been closed for nearly a quarter of a century, and although it has never enjoyed the cult status of a Port Ellen or Brora, its whisky is still highly prized.

Rosebank Distillery was located in the Scottish Lowlands, in the town of Falkirk. It was founded in 1840 on the banks of the Forth & Clyde canal, and was named after the roses which grew along the banks. Rosebank was rather unusual in that it produced triple-distilled Scotch whisky, where (in very basic terms) what would normally be considered new-make spirit in most distilleries, having been distilled twice, is then distilled a third time, resulting in a 'purer' spirit and obviously a higher alcohol content.

This practice is far more common in Irish whiskey, but there are currently only two active Scotch distilleries that are regularly producing fully triple-distilled whisky; Auchentoshan in the Lowlands, and Springbank in Campbelltown (under their Hazelburn brand), although Benriach has also dabbled in triple-distillation with certain limited bottlings in the recent past. Generally, triple-distilled whisky is lighter in flavour and texture, and in my opinion usually less characterful thanks to the removal of those 'impurities'. Rosebank does (or rather did) regain some of this character through the use of worm tub condensers, giving back some of that texture and flavour.  

The distillery was closed in 1993, despite being very well-regarded. Due to the expense required to modernise its waste processes to bring them in-line with EU standards at the time, then-owners United Distillers (now part of Diageo) decided to mothball the Lowland distillery in favour of Glenkinchie, with its far larger production capacity and easier logistics. The distillery buildings were sold to British Waterways in 2002, and while there have been a number of efforts to revive it, none have been successful thus far. The remaining stock is now owned by Diageo, and is released as part of the annual 'special releases', although the pricing is generally more reasonable compared to the other 'dead' distilleries.

There are a few independent bottlings around, which are of course becoming much rarer as the years go by. So I'm lucky to be able to taste one of those, thanks to a generous fellow whisky nerd. This bottling is from the bottler Single Malts of Scotland, owned by Speciality Drinks, the company behind The Whisky Exchange store, and the Port Askaig and Elements of Islay brands. This particular bottling is a relatively young 15 year old, which was matured in an ex-bourbon cask before being bottled at 46%, without added colouring or chill filtration. So this should make for a pretty good introduction to Rosebank!
(don't worry, it isn't clear! This is the empty bottle that the sample came from)
Rosebank 15 year old, Single Malts of Scotland, 46%. Falkirk, Scotland.
Matured in a single ex-bourbon cask. Distilled July 1991, bottled March 2007 by Speciality Drinks under their Single Malts of Scotland brand. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. Cask 2902, 284 bottles.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Interesting! Not overly light or overly sweet like I expected. Still floral and sweet, but also fruity and spicy. Acetone, toasted spices, baked green apple, peaches, a little raspberry. There is some grain character here with the acetone but I wouldn't say it's malted barley that comes through.

Texture: Not bad at all, medium weight. Syrupy with a little heat, but not too much.

Taste: Sweet, honeyed and fruity.More malt character here, but still not a lot. Quite a bit of raw spirit as well, plus that lightly floral sweetness.

Finish: Medium-length, but quite one-dimensional. Still quite spirit-y to start with, then the fruit comes back, particularly the apple, but it's oxidised now. A little dry oak here as well.

Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Notes: Quite interesting, and not quite what I expected. But in a good way! Although I imagine at 40% and chill filtered it might have scored lower, I was really expecting not to like this one at all. I'm yet to try a Hazelburn, but so far this would have to be one of the best triple-distilled whiskies I've tasted. The nose in particular was very enjoyable, despite that acetone / raw spirit note, although the palate wasn't quite 'up my alley' and the finish fell over a little bit. Definitely not an active cask here either in my opinion. Nonetheless, I'm lucky to have even tried a Rosebank, especially one so well presented. So a big thanks to my anonymous benefactor for the sample of this one.

So, if you're lucky enough to come across a Rosebank in a bar or you find a dusty bottle somewhere with a reasonable price, don't discount it straight away, it could pleasantly surprise you.

Cheers!