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Friday, 30 December 2016

Laphroaig Cairdeas Ileach Edition 2011 Whisky Review!

It's the end of the year, and I'm lucky enough to have a very special sample of a very special whisky to celebrate with. It's Laphroaig Cairdeas 2011 'Ileach Edition'!

This one has been on my wish list for quite some time, and it's exceedingly rare: only 6000 bottles were ever released, and since they were bottled over 5 years ago, it's now basically unobtainable. Ileach is the Gaelic term for a native of Islay, Scotland, and the name 'Ileach Edition' was a nod to John Campbell being the first Ileach to manage Laphroaig Distillery in its history. John actually became the distillery manager in 2006, and the Cairdeas releases started in 2008, so I'm not sure about the timing of the name, maybe it was the first release that John selected personally? Anyway, let's not over-think this!

The Cairdeas' are the annual special bottlings released to mark the occasion of the week-long Islay festival Feis Ile, which takes place in May of each year. The word 'Cairdeas' (pronounced "car-chiss") is Gaelic for 'Friendship', which is a tribute to the very successful Friends of Laphroaig enthusiast community / loyalty program. The early Cairdeas releases were quite different to the more recent versions, with the exception of the beautiful 2015 200th anniversary bottling, in that there were no cask finishings involved. The first few Cairdeas releases were pre & simple Laphroaigs of various ages, and the releases were considerably smaller in size than they are today, which makes them very hard to track down and of course very expensive on the secondary market. So far the only one of these older releases I've tried was the amazing 12-year old bottling from 2009 which John himself bought with him on his Australian tour, and opened during my interview with him. What a night that was!

The 2011 release I'm reviewing today, thanks to a sample from another generous anonymous benefactor, is an 8-year old Laphroaig aged in first-fill ex-Maker's Mark bourbon casks, matured in traditional dunnage warehouses, and bottled at 50.5%, which is quite low for the age, so I'm not entirely sure if that was cask strength. From 2012 onwards the Cairdeas releases have not been bottled at their natural cask strength, since the ABV's reflect the year of bottling i.e. 51.2% for the 2012, 51.3% for the 2013, 51.4% for the 2014, 51.5% for the 2015, and 51.6% for the 2016. However I believe all Cairdeas releases have been non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, which is good news. Being only 8 years of age, this 2011 'Ileach Edition' is likely to be slightly more peaty than your average Laphroaig, especially considering that 8 year old whisky is what the distillery often adds to some of its NAS bottlings for more peaty power. Let's find out, shall we?
Laphroaig Cairdeas Ileach Edition 2011, NAS, 50.5%. Islay, Scotland.
Dunnage warehouse matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks from Maker's Mark for around 8 years. Natural colour, likely non-chill filtered.

Colour: Pale gold. 

Nose: Well hello there! Surprisingly complex and refined for its age. Herbal and sweet, with soft, dry herbal peat, aniseed, and a dried fruit (raspberry and apricot especially, and maybe some peach) & floral sweetness - almost like a pot-pourri. Some dried sea shells and wet sand, and even a hint of machine oil.  

Texture: Light-medium weight, warming. No roughness or spirit-y heat at all. 

Taste: Sweet & surprisingly light initially, then a drying, ashy, peaty punch. A burst of white pepper & dry wood spices alongside. A little magic marker & more aniseed. 

Finish: Medium-long length, and quite soft with a milder version of that ashy peat the whole way through, more herbal and earthy now as well, and intermingled with that dried fruit & floral sweetness. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Not at all what I expected from a young Laphroaig at a higher strength - so light, approachable and expressive! Plenty of complexity and refinement as well, particularly on the nose. Just a lovely friendly whisky with that fruity & floral sweetness - the surprising & unexpected lighter side of Laphroaig. Which proves that age is definitely not everything, and also that this is just a bloody fantastic distillery! What a fitting way to round out the year. 

So how does it compare to other Cairdeas releases? Like all of them it's totally different to the rest, and it's beautiful in its own right. Personally I'd go for the 2009, 2015 and maybe 2014 releases over this one, just based on my own personal tastes, so that's doesn't take anything away from the Ileach Edition by any means. Now I just need to get my hands on a dram of the 2008 and 2010 Cairdeas' to complete my Cairdeas journey. They're possibly the rarest of the lot, with even fewer bottles released, and even higher collect-ability. Oh and the 2013 Port wood release too, which never made it to Australia at all. I'm sure they'll all be really easy to find... not! 


Saturday, 24 December 2016

Glendronach Single Cask 11 Year Old Whisky Review!

A cracking young sherry bomb from my favourite sherry bomb distillery. The perfect way to see in Christmas! All single cask whiskies can be a bit of a risk as some are better than others, but this one's definitely a winner.

Glendronach's single cask releases are very popular, and are becoming increasingly difficult to source for a reasonable price in Australia. But every now and then a few stores get their hands on some, and they usually don't last long. Each batch consists of around a dozen casks / releases that are hand-picked by master distiller Billy Walker, mostly consisting of Oloroso and PX sherry casks of varying sizes and ages, although there have also been a few other oddities released over the years. Also adding to their allure is the fact that they are always bottled at cask strength, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and of course are very limited as far as availability goes. I've been able to taste a few of these bottlings now, and while a couple have been exceptional, some have been less than spectacular. Still good, but not great. But that's always the risk of any single cask bottling from any distillery.

Prices vary depending on the age and cask type, ranging from whisky distilled in the same cask for 40+ years to younger whiskies that are married together and finished in a single sherry cask. But generally speaking, these are very good whiskies which are deserving of their cult status. It's important to note that a single cask release does not necessarily mean that the entire contents spent its entire life in that one cask, particularly where there was a cask finishing involved, which can be a little confusing. Some of these bottlings from Glendronach will state on the label that they were finished in a particular cask, or that they were fully matured in a single cask, or they may not specify at all. I'm thinking that this bottling came from a few different casks which were finished in a larger cask before bottling (so technically still a single cask bottling), because 702 bottles were released, which equates to 491 litres of whisky without any spillage. That would mean an angel's share of only around 9 litres over 11 years from what I assume was a 500-litre puncheon (the common size), which is far too low. You would expect that sort of evaporation within around two years at most. This doesn't really matter of course, they're still single casks technically, but it is something to be aware of.

This particular bottling, from cask number 5524, was the youngest whisky from batch 12, which first appeared on the Australian market in late 2015. It was finished in a single Pedro Ximenex (PX) Sherry puncheon, at a cask strength of 57.8%. Unfortunately we don't know which cask type/s it was / they were initially matured in, although I would assume ex-Oloroso sherry but it could also have been ex-bourbon casks. As I mentioned above, there may have been a few casks involved here (of at least 11 years of age of course) which were finished in this one puncheon, and subsequently bottled as a single cask release. This one sold for around $200 in Australia when it was available, but is now completely sold out. That may sound a little pricey for an 11-year old whisky (it was the youngest release in this batch), but really isn't too bad for a single cask bottling of this calibre and popularity. And considering that batch 13, which was released not long after this one, sky-rocketed in price in Australia and saw bottlings with roughly the same specs increase in price by around 50% (so a similar bottling to this for $320 and above), this one was a bargain.
Glendronach 11 yo Single Cask, 2004, 57.8%. Highlands, Scotland.
Cask 5524, from batch 12. Finished in a single PX sherry puncheon. Cask Strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Dark copper with rusty red tinges. Very pretty.

Nose: Sweet & spicy, fresh & youthful. Lovely rich sherry notes - juicy, plump raisins in sweet spiced syrup, warm fresh & spicy oak. Fruit mince pies dusted with icing sugar, mixed fruit peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and some brown sugar. Beautiful.

Texture: Rich & syrupy, but not heavy. Light to medium weight, plenty of flavour and complexity.

Taste: Spicy, fruity & rich. A considerable amount of oak here for what is a young whisky, plus more raisins in syrup, baking spices, and blow-torched orange peel. Plenty of spice with soft clove, some white pepper, ground ginger and nutmeg.  

Finish: Medium length. A little malty-ness initially, then more peppery oak, becoming dryer. More raisins, a little spice. Hint of brown sugar and cinnamon. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: So good, in fact one of the best single cask Glendronachs I've had so far, especially if you factor in the price. And really a perfect way to see in Christmas! It's young & fresh, but still so flavourful & balanced. There's plenty of sherry influence, but it hasn't overwhelmed either. I'd say the original cask/s were ex-sherry as well, but they've been expertly selected and finished to come up with a result like this. Very impressive, and a great example of what my favourite mainland distillery can do. Some might have turned their noses up at the age statement on this one, but if so they really missed out here. Glad I was able to grab a bottle of this one before they all disappeared, and of course the very nice updated packaging also helps.    

Love your work Mr. Walker & team, please keep it up!

Cheers, and merry Christmas! 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

SMWS 132.2 'Stunning Panorama of Exotic Fruits' Japanese Whisky Review!

Since the short Christmas break is almost upon us, I thought I'd celebrate with a seriously rare bottling from a seriously rare distillery! Before you start googling the SMWS distillery codes, let me save you the trouble: it's a Karuizawa!

Even amongst whisky fans only die hard fans will have heard of this Japanese whisky distillery, as it went silent (ceased production) in 2001 after 45 years of distilling, and was finally closed altogether in 2011. Thanks to this fact, and the fact that it was Japan's smallest distillery, it's also one of the rarest and most sought after Japanese whiskies. The buy-in price for even a mid-range bottling of Karuizawa is well into the thousands, and can usually only be found at auction or specialist rare whisky stores (with pricing to match). A bottle of 52-year old Karuizawa holds the record for the highest amount paid for a Japanese whisky at auction, which went for almost $120,000 USD in Hong Kong in 2015. Absolutely insane. Needless to say Karuizawa bottles are way out of my price range, so this review comes to you via the extreme generosity of an anonymous benefactor.

 Karuizawa's old warehouse buildings. Image courtesy of

Karuizawa Distillery was located in the town of Miyota, around 3 hours drive north-west of Tokyo, and is near the base of Mount Asama, an active volcano which last erupted just last year in June of 2015. In fact run-off and natural springs from the volcano supplied the water source for the distillery, which also imported Golden Promise barley (arguably a big contributor to the past successes of Macallan) from the UK for distillation in its two pairs of small pot stills, giving an annual production capacity of just 150,000 litres. To help you put that into perspective, the current production capacity of Hakushu Distillery is around 3,000,000 litres, while Yamazaki's maximum capacity is more than twice that. There are some remaining casks of Karuizawa still maturing, although they're now located at Chichibu Distillery and are owned by UK-based No.1 Drinks Company.

This particular bottling that I'm reviewing is an independent bottling from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and was released in 2013 with an 'out-turn', which is SMWS speak for release, of 335 bottles. I've covered more details on the SMWS here (along with a review of an amazing Ardbeg bottling), but to recap they sell single cask whiskies, and more recently also other spirits, from a large range of distilleries, and they always bottle at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring. This 132.2 bottling is a 22 year old Karuizawa which was matured in a single refill sherry butt (a 500-litre cask), and as the numbering tells us it was the second cask of Karuizawa to be bottled by the SMWS. It was bottled at a cask strength of 62.4%, which is quite massive for a 22-year old whisky, although a number of older Karuizawa bottlings do seem to be surprisingly high strength, so it could be down to the local climate and storage conditions.

SMWS 132.2 (Karuizawa), 22 years old, 62.4%. Miyota, Japan. 
Matured in a refill ex-sherry cask, distilled September 1991. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 335 bottles released.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Richly fruity, spicy & sherried. Dried fruits - mango, red apple, orange, red berries and stone fruit. Some dusty toasted oak, and powered spices - sandalwood, cinnamon, roasted nuts, and some dried flowers. A little salty as well. 

Texture: Medium-weight, but quite punchy, spicy and drying.

Taste: Richly fruity & spicy again. More stone fruit, then hot dried chilli flakes. Sweet sherried fruits, oxidised red apple, saw dust, and something a little ashy, like cold ashes. 

Finish: Long, but quite light. Drying and spicy. More sandalwood and chilli flakes, fading to wood spices and more fruit - oxidising red apples, and sweet stone fruit, dried flowers, and more sawdust. A little of that cold ash comes back with more time, which I find surprising.  

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: As Mr. Vader would say, impressive, most impressive! Very complex and quite challenging as well. Started out a little hot, which you might not expect given the age, but this is definitely the highest ABV old whisky I've ever tasted, so by that degree it wasn't bad at all. And it settled down nicely with more time in the glass anyway. There's a nice amount of rich-yet-slightly-dry sherry influence in here too, which is very pleasant. Certainly completely different to any other Japanese whisky I've tasted, richer and more characterful, and of course more challenging. Granted I don't have much experience in this particular field, but I would guess this to be what an 'old school' Japanese malt would have been like. And thanks to the SMWS, it was unadulterated and most importantly, undiluted in every sense. 

I feel very lucky to have even tasted a Karuizawa of any sort, but even more so to sample one of this calibre and rarity. I'm struggling to understand why this distillery was closed, and even more so why the previous owners declined multiple offers to purchase the distillery before it was too late. Regardless, what an experience, and a fitting way to ease into the last weeks of the year. A big thanks to the aforementioned benefactor for this sample, I owe you one... again!


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Benriach Albariza Whisky Review!

An 18-year old peated malt from one of my favourite mainland distilleries, which along with it's sister distilleries was recently purchased by a large American drinks company. So far everything seems to be business as usual, and let's hope it stays that way...

Benriach doesn't have the cult following of it's sister distillery Glendronach, but they're making some excellent whisky, including some very good heavily peated expressions, with my personal picks so far being the excellent value 10-year old 'Curiositas', and the 17-year old 'Septendecim', both of which are matured in ex-bourbon casks. In fact all of Benriach's peated whiskies use the same 55 ppm peated malt, which is the same level as Ardbeg, although they're using mainland peat which is quite different (and some might say more approachable) to what you'll find on Islay. Speaking of malt, Benriach re-commissioned their own floor malting facility in 2012, which means they're now one of the seven Scotch distilleries that are malting some or all of their barley requirements on site. Obviously we won't see the results of this return to the traditional methods for a few more years, but it'll be very interesting nonetheless.

Much like Glendronach, or perhaps even more so, Benriach aren't afraid of toying around with different cask finishes, particularly when it comes to their peated expressions. In the recent past there have been limited releases that were finished in port, sherry, madeira and even dark rum casks, and for that matter they recently released a whisky that has been fully matured (not finished) in ex-bourbon quarter casks, simply named 'Peated Quarter Cask', which to my knowledge is the first time any distilleries have attempted this. You'd would think that full-term maturation in these smaller casks would result in too much wood influence over time, and I'm yet to try it, but it's a very interesting idea which has certainly piqued my curiosity. Anyway, back to the cask finished whiskies!

Today's expression is an 18-year old peated expression which has been matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished in Pedro Ximinez (aka PX) sweet sherry casks, and it's been named 'Albariza', which refers to the chalky white soil preferred by the vineyards in Andalucia, the sherry-producing region of Spain. Despite the relatively heavily-peated malt used, we can expect those 18 long years to have reduced that substantially. The Albariza was released at the same time as two other limited-release 'finished' peated malts, the Madeira cask finished 'Latada', and the dark rum cask finished 'Dunder'. All were 18 years old, and all were bottled at 46%, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. PX sherry casks aren't used anywhere near as often as Oloroso for maturing whisky, but the results can be beautiful when it works (looking at you Laphroaig PX), so I have high hopes for this one.

Benriach 'Albariza' 18-year old, 46%. Speyside, Scotland.
Heavily peated. Matured in ex-bourbon casks, finished in ex-Pedro Ximinez (PX) sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. Limited release of 3800 bottles approx.

Colour: Dark red-y amber.

Nose: Sweet & fruity, syrupy. Rich sweet stone fruit, musty red grapes and raisins. Light soy sauce, wet copper and a hint of earthy peat. Red licorice, mint and dried herbs come out with more time. 

Texture: Light-medium weight. Quite light & soft, no heat at all, and well balanced. 

Taste: Sweet stewed fruits in syrup, soft hint of earthy peat. Musty sherry, slightly salty which is surprising, some peppery oak and brown sugar. 

Finish: Short-medium length. Bitter oak and slightly burnt toffee. Getting drier. Stewed fruit, white pepper and something earthy and savoury - possibly mushrooms?  

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: Good stuff, and good quality as usual with Benriach. I would've liked a little more weight and heft to the mouth feel, and a little more peat despite the age (I find the 17 year old Septendecim much peatier), but it's very approachable without being bland or boring. Nice and complex on the nose, but the palate didn't quite live up to my expectations. Still a nice dram though, maybe even a summer's day dram without being too light. The Albariza seems to be sold out everywhere, which is understandable considering the relatively small limited release, and it was quite reasonably priced when available. 

So far I've preferred the ex-bourbon cask matured Benriach's to the others, particularly when they're peated, so it's probably down to my personal taste as well. I must admit I preferred the 12-year old 'Heredotus Fumosus' PX finish to this older version, it had a little more peat and a little more weight to it from memory. Benriach are doing great work, and the news of them re-commissioning their malting floors is very exciting. I'm predicting we'll see some local barley-type expressions in the future, which will no doubt be excellent. Let's just hope the new owners have the same outlook as the guys who brought this distillery back to life.


Sunday, 4 December 2016

Gordon & MacPhail - The Wood Makes The Whisky!

I was lucky enough to receive four samples recently, direct from independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail in Scotland! Well, after I pried them out of the cold, ruthless hands of Australian customs that is (it was three weeks between them landing in Australia and me being notified of their arrival. Go team). Two of these samples are from slightly obscure distilleries that I've never tried before, one is from a distillery that I've only tried once, and the other is from a favourite Islay giant. So I'm going to give a quick rundown on the distillery details, and since I'm sampling four different whiskies in succession, a 'quickie' review of each.

But before we get into that, let's re-cover the story behind Gordon & MacPhail. G&M, as they're commonly known, is one of Scotland's oldest and most highly regarded independent bottlers, with roots dating back to 1895, and the company has been independently and family owned ever since. They also purchased the excellent Benromach Distillery in 1993, which since it reopened in 1998 has been garnering fans worldwide with their very high quality bottlings. G&M recently launched their 'The Wood Makes The Whisky' campaign (along with a very informative website), selecting a range of their bottlings that they feel highlight the relationship between the whisky and the cask. And since they've been maturing whisky in casks for over 120 years, they have plenty of experience, and a massive library of cask samples, to call on to get the resulting whisky exactly how they want it. To this end, the majority of G&M bottlings do not carry clear official age statements, but they do give the year of distillation, and often the exact date of bottling. They're also behind some of the oldest whiskies ever bottled, including a Mortlach that was a whopping 75 years old. If you have to ask, you can't afford it! So, let's get into the whiskies at hand, shall we?

First cab of the rank is a young bourbon cask-matured malt from G&M's Connoisseurs Choice range, distilled at Glen Spey Distillery, a Diageo-owned distillery which as you can probably guess is in Speyside. The vast majority of Glen Spey's production goes into blended whiskies, mainly J&B, and there have only been a couple of official bottlings, most of which aren't highly regarded. This bottling from Gordon & MacPhail was bottled in 2013 at 46% ABV, having spent approximately 9 years in refill bourbon casks.

This one was very pale gold in appearance, and I didn't pick a lot of cask influence here at all. On the nose I found dusty straw, red apple and acetone. On the palate it was lightly malty, with some wood spices and a little charred oak with some raw spirit on the finish. Overall I found this Glen Spey was pleasant enough and relatively easy drinking, but was rather bland and uninteresting, with very little cask influence.

Next up we have a whisky from G&M's Distillery Labels range, which carry very cool retro-style labels that are recreated from the respective distilleries' historic labelling. This bottling is from Strathisla, a little known Speyside distillery owned by Chivas brothers (and I'm sure you can guess where a big chunk of their production ends up), which is actually Scotland's oldest operating distillery, having been founded in 1786 under the name Milltown Distillery, before being renamed Strathisla in 1950. I have tasted an SMWS bottling of Strathisla before, a young cask strength version that was matured in a refill bourbon cask, which to be honest did not impress me at all. This G&M bottling is a little different though, as it has spent approximately 10 years in first fill sherry casks, and was bottled at 43% ABV in 2015.

This one is pale gold in colour, and is immediately warmer and richer on the nose, with plenty of fruit, malt syrup and is also a little nutty. On the palate it's really quite fruity, with grapes and light tannins, a little dark chocolate, lightly waxed fruit and peppery oak. Very enjoyable with more complexity and more flavour than the Glen Spey, and definitely far superior to the other Strathisla bottling I've tasted. Not a sherry monster by any means, despite the first fill cask, but very enjoyable. This bottling has certainly changed my perception of this distillery, despite the relatively low strength.

Next we have an Inchgower, a Diageo-owned Speyside distillery located nearer to the coast, which is a big contributor to Bell's blended whisky, and is also a component of some Johnnie Walker expressions. This bottling is from G&M's Connoisseurs Choice range, and is approximately 14 years of age, having been bottled in 2016 at 46% ABV, and was matured in refill sherry casks. This will be my first Inchgower, although it seems to be quite a highly regarded distillery in the whisky community and there are quite a few independent bottlings out there.

This one is shining gold in colour, and on the nose is sweet & fruity, with good pinches of spice and pepper, and a little damp grass. On the palate I found stewed fruits in syrup, some gentle warm oak, a little peppery spice. Enjoyable again, with only slightly less cask influence than the Strathisla, so I'd guess this was still quite an active cask despite being a refill.

No surprises here really, but the Islay is my pick of the bunch! This is an (approx) 11 year old Caol Ila from G&M's excellent Cask Strength series, distilled in 2005, and it has spent all of those years in first fill sherry casks! Caol Ila should need no introduction, being Diageo's workhorse Islay distillery, and producing some lovely understated and often overlooked peated malts. I believe this is the first Caol Ila I've tasted that was matured in first fill sherry casks, since the vast majority of bottlings are mostly matured in either refill sherry or refill bourbon casks. As the name suggests, this series is bottled at cask strength (57.3% in this case), and is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. I've previously tasted the 2003 and 2004 versions of the G&M Caol Ila, both of which were matured in refill sherry casks, and they were both very good quality, particularly the 2003.

Straight away this Caol Ila feels more familiar, but with a noticeable difference to most bottlings. Light gold in colour, it's surprisingly sweet on the nose, with boiled sweets, baked ham glazed with honey & balsamic vinegar, a spicy and grassy peat, some blow-torched dried herbs, slightly metallic coal dust, and a little chilli spice. On the palate it's very sweet again, rich thick fruit syrup with a gentle smoky edge to it. There's chunky dry peat, a little chilli spice, and sugar-topped baked fruit. The finish is medium length, and is gently peaty & spicy, with more of that glazed ham and dried herbs. Lovely stuff. Definitely sweeter than your typical Caol Ila, in fact I think it's in a similar vein to the excellent Distiller's Edition official bottling (which is finished in Moscatel sweet fortified wine casks), which is pretty high praise! As such it's also quite different to the other G&M Caol Ilas I've tasted, sweeter of course but also a little less peaty, and perhaps more refined and elegant. Very, very good stuff. These guys certainly know what they're doing!

Overall, all four of these whiskies made for an interesting exploration into cask and wood influence, across a range of quite different 'base' spirits. None had a massively overt cask influence, and none had any one particularly dominant note, which of course is what Gordon & MacPhail aim for: well balanced, subtle, flavourful and drinkable whiskies. They're certainly one of the more consistent independent bottlers out there, and thanks to the brilliant efforts of their Australian importer Alba Whisky, we residents of this great southern land also have access to a good range of their bottlings! And that's not something that can be said as often as I'd like!

Thanks very much to Gordon & MacPhail and Ian McKinlay for the sample pack, and for helping me tick some new distilleries off the list, and thanks for doing such great work!