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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Starward Tenth Anniversary Whisky Review!

I know I've said it before, but I still think Starward is the best value Australian whisky you'll find. Easy drinking, very reasonably priced and still with more than enough flavour and character to satisfy the whisky enthusiast, it's a winner.

I've covered the history behind Starward / New World Distillery in more detail here, but for a quick recap, the distillery opened in 2007 in a hanger at Essendon airport in Melbourne. The goal from the outset was to produce a more affordable Australian whisky that was also more readily available and more accessible than most, and we can safely say that David & his team have reached that goal. To help achieve this they've moved away from tradition where necessary, using modern equipment and innovative techniques, and taking full advantage of the local climate & conditions, plus fresh Australian wine casks, to help the whisky mature more quickly. They're not resting on their laurels either, with a steady flow of experimental bottlings being released under the 'New World Projects' brand, perhaps the most famous of which is the ginger beer cask finish, now on its third batch, which at least from my outside perspective has been very successful.

While the New World Projects releases are developing their own cult following, the regular / core bottlings under the Starward label are very successful in their own right, and for good reason. Both the standard Apera (Australian sherry) cask-matured bottling and the Australian red wine cask-matured 'wine cask' are very consistent products, which is most likely a result of their solera vatting system used for these bottlings, as well as the skill of the distillery's production team of course. At around $90-100 AUD a pop here in Australia, they may not be "cheap" by Scotch whisky standards, but when compared to most other Australian single malts (with a couple of exceptions), they offer excellent value for money, and they do drink beyond their young ages. The distillery recently re-located to a new larger site in Port Melbourne, closer to the Melbourne CBD, and has added a beautiful-looking bar and some larger equipment to keep up with the anticipated demands of the future.

What I'm looking at today is a first for Starward. Released this year as a commemorative bottling to celebrate the distillery's tenth anniversary, and once again priced very reasonably, it's a vatting of 28 casks of different ages, selected from the eight different types that the distillery has used since they began distilling. The only complaint I've heard about the standard Starwards is the relatively low bottling strength, being 43% for the standard version and 41% for the wine cask version. And this is the case for obvious reasons, since it helps to keep the pricing at a reasonable level, yields more bottles per cask, and keeps the whisky accessible & perhaps more enjoyable for the novice. But the distillery has addressed that complaint with this anniversary bottling, which weighs in at a very nice 52% ABV. As I've mentioned, despite being a limited release anniversary bottling, this one was priced very reasonably (which is certainly bucking the current trend!) at $190 AUD... for TWO full-sized bottles! Yes, this commemorative and limited whisky was only officially sold as a twin-pack, with one marked 'One to Drink' and the other marked 'One to Keep'. Which makes this Australian single malt an absolute bargain!

(image borrowed from Starward's IG)
Starward Tenth Anniversary bottling, NAS, 52%. Melbourne, Australia.
Matured in 28 casks of different ages and 8 different types, apparently mostly first-fill Australian wine barrels. Non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. 

Colour: Dark amber. 

Nose: Ooh, this is fantastic! Lightly buttered toast with rich burnt citrus marmalade. Quite a thick, bold, warm & inviting nose with plenty going on. Very, very nice. Golden sultanas, thick & slightly burnt butter toffee, slightly nutty toasted oak, plum & apricot jams, a little vanilla paste. 

Texture: Medium weight, voluptuous! Very flavourful, and no heat. Yummy. 

Taste: Lovely rich stone fruit, hint of dark berries, more slightly burnt buttered toffee, some warm ground spices, cinnamon & black pepper, maybe even a bush pepper? Delicious toasted & caramelised oak, some more citrus, but more bitter & zesty now. Very slight hint of Starward's bananas, but far less sweet and not the banana lollies that I find in the regular expressions, and it's only a slight hint. A little vanilla paste as well. 

Finish: Medium-to-long length, comes and goes in waves. Some dark cocoa, more golden sultanas, the same lightly bitter citrus zest, more lovely toasted oak. Some red grape tannins, stone fruit jams again, and that warm buttery oak 'til the end.  

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Absolutely delicious! What a dram. And what a nose! So weighty and expressive, but also balanced & complex, there's a real winning nose on this one. Lovely texture as well, and again very complex & balanced on the palate. A seriously excellent whisky from Starward / New World which, like all of their whiskies, belies its age and hides its youth extremely well. This one is definitely more mature in character though, with more dark fruit, citrus and lovely warm oak, and that higher strength gives it a beautiful weight both on the nose and palate, with no spirit-y heat at all. This is definitely my favourite Starward to date. 

Now I'm really regretting not buying a set myself (it was just bad timing for me), so well done all you lucky folk that did! This really showcases what the distillery can do without going too far from their character, which is exactly what an anniversary or commemorative bottling should do if you ask me. Such an expressive and delicious Australian whisky, and as usual from these guys, an absolute bargain for the price. Well done David & team, and happy anniversary Starward!


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Armorik Millesime Whisky Review!

My first French whisky review! I've been pretty impressed with Armorik / Warenghem Distillery's whiskies so far, they're nice easy drinking drams with a little point of difference from their distant cousins across the channel. And this particular bottling is pretty special!

Warenghem Distillery, the producer of Armorik, is located in the town of Lannion, in the north of the Brittany region of France. Their whisky proudly wears the label "Whisky Breton", which is the term for the Brittany region and its people, and the name Armorik refers to the region's name under Roman occupation, in what was then known as Gaul. After the Roman empire's withdrawal and subsequent collapse, the region received a number of British settlers, and became known as Brittany. Said to be more closely related to Scotland, Wales and Ireland than southern France, the region also has its own language, derived from Celtic and bought to the region by those British emigrants. France would probably not be high on most people's list when thinking about whisky. More well known for their wine, brandy, cognac and champagne, you might be surprised to learn that France is actually the world's largest consumer of whisky per capita... (Jeremy Clarkson pause) in the world!

While Warenghem Distillery has been in operation for over 85 years, they only started making whisky in 1983. Initially they only produced blended whiskies, but progressed to single malts in 1998 with the introduction of Armorik single malt, which then launched in 2009. Production levels are quite low, with only around 100,000 litres of single malt produced per year, which puts them more in line with Tasmanian distilleries or the tiny-est of the Scotch equivalents. Armorik is produced from 100% French malted barley, double-distilled in Scottish-built copper pot stills, and matured in either ex-bourbon, ex-sherry or Breton virgin oak casks (I can't say if this is actually a different species to 'normal' French oak), or double-matured / finished in a combination of cask types. Aside from a couple of entry-level expressions that are mainly available domestically, the remainder of their single malt is bottled at 46% ABV and above, without chill filtration or added colouring.

Armorik single malt, along with the distillery's excellent "Roof" rye whiskey, is distributed by Monsieur Jeremy Daunay, a.k.a. Le Baron De Spirits (he's French, in case all of that didn't give it away!), a very nice & very knowledgeable and hard-working gent based in Sydney. He was also responsible for an Australian exclusive single cask bottling that was released last year, which was fully-matured in a French Sauternes sweet wine cask. He kindly donated the sample for this review from one of the last available examples of this particular bottling, and I believe it's now completely sold out. In fact only 48 bottles ever made it to Australia, so I'm pretty lucky to be tasting this one at all!

Armorik's Millesime (French for "vintage") label refers to their single cask bottlings, and was first released in 2012 as a celebration of the distillery's first 10-year old bottling. The release I'm reviewing today is from cask number 3309, which was distilled in November 2002, and was fully-matured in an ex-Oloroso sherry cask before being bottled in June 2016, with a yield of 731 bottles. I've seen a few websites stating that this is a 14 year old whisky, but unless I've missed something, or my maths has failed me, it's actually around 13.5 years of age. It's bottled at a cask strength of 56.3% ABV, and is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. Original retail pricing was quite reasonable for a cask strength & exclusive single cask whisky, at around $275 AUD. Let's get to it!

Armorik Millesime 2002, single cask, 56.3%. Brittany, France.
Matured in a single ex-Oloroso sherry cask, distilled 11/2002, bottled 6/2016 at cask strength. Cask number 3309, 731 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Full amber / bronze. 

Nose: Lovely light & sweet fruits, slightly waxy, and slightly chalky & mineral-y. Rich fruity sherry, a little citrus marmalade, stewed red apples & red berries. Hint of coffee grounds and spicy, warm, slightly bitter oak. With more time, the apple & berry become sweeter and stronger. 

Texture: Medium weight, quite a bit of heat & spice. Warming. 

Taste: Considerably dryer than I expected from the nose. More of that slightly chalky minerality, and quite of lot of assertive hot spices - cinnamon, ginger, ground chilli. More red apples and slightly bitter oak, stewed stone fruits & citrus rind. 

Finish: Hot and drying initially, and the now aggressive spice hangs around for quite a while before settling down a bit. Medium-to-long length, but there's not too much left around once that heat & spice subsides. The fruit has turned slightly bitter, the red apple returns, and there's a little more coffee grounds and lightly spicy oak. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: An interesting one! I really liked the nose with that lovely rich sherry and fruit, and the initial hit on the palate was a good one, but that heat and spice killed the latter palate and the finish for me. I even tried adding water towards the end of the dram, which I never usually do when reviewing, and it didn't make much of a difference at all. It really attacked the roof of the mouth, and the last whisky I had, almost 24 hours ago, was over 69% which gives a frame of reference. Nonetheless, it's still pleasantly drinkable, and is a flavoursome drop with plenty of character, and if you like your drams to be very spicy and slightly aggressive then this one will be up your alley. It's important to note though that this was a single cask release which is now sold out, so if you see an Armorik Millesime on the shelves, chances are it's not this particular bottling. 

I'm still a fan of Armorik's work, and had the chance to try a little of the newest limited release, the 4-year old virgin oak matured "Dervenn" (Breton for "oak"), which was very impressive, especially for the age. I look forward to what they come up with next! Thanks to Monsieur Daunay from Le Baron De Spirits for the sample.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Ballechin 10 Year Old Whisky Review!

This one's a bit of an underdog and is a little obscure (for now), but it certainly holds its own, even when matched against the big boys from Islay.

Ballechin is the peated whisky produced by Edradour Distillery in the Scottish Highlands. Located around 1.5 hours drive north of Edinburgh near the town of Pitlochry, Edradour (pronounced "Ed-ri-dowa")is also home to independent bottler Signatory Vintage, who have owned the distillery since 2002, and store their casks on-site alongside Edradour's own whisky. Established in 1825, one of contemporary Edradour's claims to fame was that it was the smallest distillery in Scotland, and while this is no longer the case (I believe Strathearn Distillery now has that title, along with a few other contenders), the distillery is still relatively tiny. With a single pair of worm tub condenser-equipped small pot stills, that are of the minimum legal size permitted for a commercial Scotch distillery, and a permanent staff of only two, the annual production capacity is only around 100,000 litres. The distillery is still housed in the original farm buildings, with all production equipment housed in a single room, although for obvious reasons larger warehouses were added after the acquisition by Signatory.

The name Ballechin (pronounced "Bell-eck-in") is a homage to a nearby farm distillery of the same name, which produced a peated whisky, which closed in 1927. I like this apparent tradition of naming your distilleries' different brands after closed distilleries, I think it's a nice reminiscent touch, and it also prevents your customers getting confused by tasting vastly different whiskies labelled under the same brand. Modern Ballechin whisky, which was first distilled in 2003, is peated to a minimum level of 50 ppm on the malted barley. Which is quite substantial for a mainland Scotch whisky, only beaten by Benriach's 55 ppm and Benromach's 67 ppm that is found in their Peat Smoke expression. So we can expect a nice smoky punch, but presumably without the salty, maritime and medicinal flavours that you'd expect from the islands.

There have been quite a few unusual wine cask-matured bottlings of Ballechin released, although until recently they were unheard of in Australia. Whiskies that were fully matured in Madeira or Sauternes wine casks for example, and more recently even single cask bottlings that were matured in various uncommon cask types, very Kilchoman-esque!. What has recently changed in Australia is that the The Whisky Company has become the official importer for Signatory Vintage and Edradour (among others), and Craig has been working hard to get the name out there in the marketplace, and to bring us new and unusual expressions. And his efforts are certainly working, because both Signatory and Edradour have been gaining serious ground lately, and at quite reasonable prices. Craig also kindly donated the sample for this review, so thanks Craig!

This 10 year old bottling is the first core / regular age-stated Ballechin expression, and like almost all Edradour whisky (the entry level 40% ABV Edradour 10 year old is the only exception) it's non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. It's mainly been matured in both first- and second-fill ex-bourbon casks, with a few ex-Oloroso sherry casks also thrown in. It's quite reasonably priced at $99 here, which puts it in-line with other peated mainlanders like Benriach 10 Curiositas and the aforementioned Benromach Peat Smoke, along with the heavyweights from the islands. So let's get to it!

Ballechin 10 year old, 46%. Pitlochry, Scotland. 
Heavily peated (50 ppm) whisky produced by Edradour Distillery. Matured mainly in ex-bourbon casks with a few ex-Oloroso sherry casks, both first-fill & re-fill. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Nice! Very much like an islander actually. A hint of salt, a fresh, lightly vegetal peat, some musty old wooden furniture, a little shoe polish. A touch of wood smoke, and a sweet vanilla custard underneath. Hint of musty honeyed stone fruit comes out with time, as does a light floral soap note.

Texture: Medium weight, nice punchy intense peat influence, and no alcohol heat at all.

Taste: Lovely powerful, fresh, vegetal, crumbly peat. Lovely! Hint of salt again, some thick, dry, slightly ashy & herbal wood smoke, a bit of chilli & black pepper spice. More creamy vanilla underneath, and a slight floral note again.

Finish: Long! Still quite peaty to start with, then more creamy vanilla, and the crumbly, vegetal peat taking a step back but sticking around. Then that ashy dry smoke returns, along with a slightly bitter vegetal note and more black pepper. Slight honeyed fruit note towards the end, along with the peat.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Well colour me impressed! Lovely characterful & really quite intensely peaty dram. If I tasted this one blind I'd probably guess it was a Ledaig, maybe with a touch of Lagavulin or Port Charlotte mixed in to kill off the medicinal notes in the Ledaig. Which is pretty high praise in my book! It's not overly complex or challenging, but it's seriously peaty and very entertaining if you're into that sort of thing. Which I just happen to be!

Ballechin 10 is considerably more peaty than I remember the above mentioned Benriach & Benromach being, and it's certainly not a dram for the peat novice! A great alternative to the Hebridean beasts though, still with that familiar DNA, it's a lovely straight-forward and in-your-face peat monster. Highly recommended if that's your preferred tipple. If not, try before you buy if possible, as it may be too much for you!

Thanks to Craig from The Whisky Company for the sample, I think you're onto a winner here mate!


Sunday, 30 July 2017

Mannochmore 18 Whisky Review!

A new distillery to tick off the list! And quite an obscure one as well. This particular bottling has been described by the generous sample donor as "the best sherried whisky I've tasted". So there's a bit of anticipation here!

Mannochmore Distillery is located south of Elgin in Speyside, and is a relatively young distillery having 'only' opened in 1971. It's currently owned by Diageo, and shares its site and water source with Glenlossie Distillery, and for a time the two distilleries were operated by the same staff on a 6-monthly alternating roster. Mannochmore is quite a large distillery though, with a current annual capacity of over four million litres via its four pairs of stills, and warehouse space for over 200,000 casks on-site (which also store whisky from other Diageo distilleries), and since 2008 has had its own separate staff. Like many distilleries at the time the distillery was 'mothballed' in the 1980s for five or so years, and again in the mid-1990s for a couple more.

Like many of the obscure distilleries the vast majority of its production has gone into blended whiskies, most notably Haig and Dimple, although I'm sure some finds its way into some of the Johnnie Walker range. There have only been a select few bottlings of Mannochmore single malt, particularly in the case of official bottlings, since the first release in 1992. The most notable of those have been part of Diageo's Flora & Fauna range, and more recently as a sporadically-appearing part of their annual Special Release bottlings. The distillery is also responsible for one particularly infamous and apparently truly horrible whisky, which now of course is a collector's item and is ridiculously expensive for what it is: Loch Dhu, 'The Black Whisky'. Loaded to the hilt with artificial colouring, although apparently "double charring" of the casks also attributed, this whisky was almost black in colour, as you might guess from the name. It's now achieved near-cult status, particularly amongst European collectors with an eye for the oddball & unusual.

This particular bottling though is nowhere near as well known, or as widely disliked. An official bottling from Diageo's 2009 batch of special releases, it's an 18-year old cask strength bottling that was matured in a mix of both re-charred refill ex-bourbon American oak & ex-sherry European oak casks, and first-fill ex-sherry American oak casks. 3210 bottles were released at a cask strength of 54.9%, with an original retail price of 105 pounds, all those eight years ago. These days of course it's quite a bit more expensive, and is mostly only found in online auctions. Unfortunately it's most likely chill filtered, but they may have eased up a bit since it's part of Diageo's special releases (looking at Lagavulin 12 as a fine example!), but I don't believe there's any added colouring here. Anyway, time to pop my Mannochmore cherry!

Mannochmore 18-year old, 54.9%. Speyside, Scotland.
Distilled 1990, bottled 2009. Diageo Special Release. Matured in refill American oak ex-bourbon & refill European ex-sherry casks, and first-fill American oak ex-sherry casks. Suspect at least lightly chill filtered, but I don't believe it's been artificially coloured.

Colour: Dark amber.

Nose: Interesting! Quite dry to start with, and very mineral-y in character. Some lovely meaty, rich, dry Oloroso sherry, a little savoury honey & vanilla, and that almost Island whisky-like minerality that I'd more expect from a Tobermory or Bunnahabhain. Like a cold stone or volcanic rock. A little yeasty too, and quite well balanced overall. 

Texture: Medium weight, warm & silky. Does have a little heat to it, but it's only light. 

Taste: Nice meaty, dry sherry again, warm baking spices, and more of that stone-like minerality. Slightly salty too, hint of ground coffee and a little raw spirit-y tingle. 

Finish: Medium length. Semi-dark chocolate, stewed stone fruits, slight hint of something nutty. More baking spices too, and a little bitter marmalade. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: A very nice sherried dram from what seems to be quite an unusual distillery! That slightly salty mineral character in particular is very intriguing, like I said above it's something I'd more expect to find in an Island-whisky like a Tobermory for example. So it makes for a great point of difference in this Speysider! Considering the original retail price in 2009, and the fact that it's an 18-year old, cask strength sherried whisky with a relatively small release (even more so nearly 10 years later), this one can still be had for almost-reasonable money on the auction circuit, which I'd say is partly down to it being such an obscure distillery. So it's well worth the hunt if you're into this sort of thing. 

Certainly a very enjoyable dram, although when drinking sherried Speysiders it's hard to resist comparing them to the sherry-bomb masters like Glendronach, Aberlour etc., but this is a different kettle of fish really. It has enough going on underneath & alongside the sherry, plus that unexpected but not unpleasant minerality, and I can't say I've tried anything quite like it. Which is all part of the fun of exploring new whiskies!


Sunday, 16 July 2017

Kilchoman Loch Gorm Whisky Review!

I'm a big fan of Kilchoman's Machir Bay & Sanaig releases, and they offer great value for money to boot. So far though, the Loch Gorm has lost out to those. It's released yearly though, so each bottling is different. So let's see how this one goes!

Islay's only farm distillery is now well past it's 10th birthday, but we've yet to see a general release of a 10 year old bottling. There have been a couple of very exclusive 10-year old single casks, but word around the traps is that we won't see a more widely available 10-year old expression for quite some time, if at all. But then, when Kilchoman's young 4-6 year old bottlings are of such high quality and are clearly so well matured, why would you bother!?! A great example is the excellent Port Cask bottling, which was only aged for 3 years, the minimum maturation period for a Scotch whisky. But you'd never have guessed it was that young, despite being bottled at 55% ABV, and it's now attained almost legendary status despite being a relatively recent release. A combination of careful un-hurried production, sourcing excellent casks & expert cask management seem to be the main culprits for this success if you ask me; but whatever they're doing over there it's certainly working!

Kilchoman have four 'core' expressions in their range, the mostly ex-bourbon cask 'Machir Bay', the mostly ex-sherry cask 'Sanaig', the yearly '100% Islay' bottlings which are made only from the distillery's own floor-malted & farm-grown barley, and the ex-sherry cask only 'Loch Gorm', which is also released in yearly batches. I've tasted the 2014 and 2015 bottlings previously (the 2015 was the better of the two), and while they're certainly good whiskies they haven't offered quite the same value for money as the Machir Bay and Sanaig expressions. For those playing from overseas, those two are generally available for around $100 and $120 AUD respectively, while the Loch Gorm starts at around $150. I can understand why, sherry casks are very expensive after all, but the releases I had tried just didn't offer the same 'bang-for-buck' as their brethren. The distillery also gives us an annual special release, usually matured in an exotic cask such as Madeira or Sauternes wine, and a cask strength bottling usually matured in ex-bourbon casks, and they also release a huge range of single cask bottlings, often for exclusively for bottle shops around the world, and often finished or fully matured in an unusual cask.

That said, the 2016 release I'm looking at is slightly different. While it's still fully matured in ex-sherry casks, it's a mix of both first-fill and re-fill casks, and it's also the first 6-year old bottling of Loch Gorm. As an aside, the recent 2017 release is actually 7 years of age, and I'm really hoping we see some of those bottles in Australia sometime soon! Both the 2016 and 2017 bottlings were comprised of just 17 casks each, so these are getting to be quite limited releases. This 2016 release is bottled at 46%, and like all Kilchomans it's non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. Sample purchased from an online retailer.

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2016, 6 years old, 46%. Islay, Scotland.
Matured in both first-fill & refill ex-Oloroso sherry casks. Distilled 2010, bottled 2016, 17 casks total. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Dark gold. Doesn't really match the above photo. 

Nose: Fruity, light and sweet. Mild dusty, earthy peat, golden raisins in syrup, some orange zest, cheap lemonade soft drink that has started to go flat. A little rubber and cocoa powder. 

Texture: Light weight, youthful but no heat at all. Surprisingly soft actually. 

Taste: Peatier than the nose suggested. A nice warm earthy peat, citrus zest again, a little mild spice. Some sweet rubbery notes again, bitter cocoa, and some stewed fruits. 

Finish: Quite short, with more assertive spice, more earthy peat & rubbery or waxy fruit, subtle grapefruit rind note as well, and mild spicy & dusty peat 'til the end. 

Score: 2.5 out of 5. But see below. 

Notes: To be honest, I suspect this sample, or more likely the bottle it came from, is actually quite oxidised. I don't have a frame of reference for this exact whisky, so it's hard to know for sure, but it has the suspiciously light, dusty, subdued profile that I associate with a whisky that has lost it's mojo. There's also very little sherry influence here, which also makes me lean that way. Either that, or this is by far my least favourite Loch Gorm bottling so far. Or maybe that's the case as well. So why review a whisky that I think may be oxidised? Well that's just the risk I take by posting these weekly reviews! It also keeps things honest though, you're most often getting an un-edited, very-nearly'live' report on the whisky I've just tasted. So there are good and bad points!

Regardless, I'm still not blown away with Kilchoman Loch Gorm. So far the 2015 bottling is by far my pick of the three that I've tried, although as mentioned above I'm yet to get my hands on the most recent 2017 version. Although still reasonably enjoyable, this 2016 bottling also has the least overt sherry influence that I've found in the bottlings I've tasted. So I'd suggest trying before buying if possible, or otherwise in my opinion you're better off going for the excellent value and dependable Machir Bay or Sanaig expressions. Or just splurge and go for a cask strength bottling.  


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Glendronach 18 'Allardice' Whisky Review!

An 18-year old whisky, that usually isn't actually 18 years old! It's great value for money too, and is one of my favourites.

Hang on, what do I mean it isn't actually 18 years old? Are Glendronach ripping us off? No, not at all, of course not. Quite the opposite actually! There has been plenty of chatter around about the actual ages of the standard Glendronach releases being quite a bit older than the labels state, basically thanks to timing. For example, the 18-year old age statement on the bottle I'm reviewing tonight is at least a year short.

What am I on about? Glendronach was closed ('mothballed' in distillery speak) in 1996, and remained so until 2002. No distillation occurred during those 6 or so years, but there was still plenty of whisky maturing quietly in the distillery's warehouses. So for example any Glendronach whisky bottled in 2016 with an age statement of 15 years or more is actually significantly older than that, because the distillery wasn't producing spirit in 2001, so that whisky must have been distilled in 1996. Age statements must of course reflect the minimum / lowest age of the bottle's contents, and obviously no whisky that is younger than the chosen age statement can be included in the recipe.

My current bottle of Glendronach 18-year old 'Allardice' was bottled in August of 2015 (the bottling date is printed on the back of the bottle itself), which would normally mean it was distilled in, or prior to, July 1997. But the distillery had been closed for approximately 15 months at that stage, which means the contents of this particular bottle is actually a minimum of 19-20 years of age. So you can understand why the much-loved 15-year old 'Revival' was put on hiatus, since if bottled in 2016 it would actually be around 19-20 years of age, and why there isn't (in my opinion) much of a quality gap between it and the Allardice I'm reviewing here. The distillery is waiting for the spirit that was distilled after the re-opening to come of age, which means it should return sometime in 2017-2018, assuming that no plans have changed since the recent purchase of Glendronach and its sister distilleries by Brown-Forman. All seems to be business-as-usual so far, so let's just keep our fingers crossed.

It's also important to note that prior to the distillery closure, Glendronach were using direct-fired stills, and floor-malted barley, and were also using a small amount of peat in the malting process. The malting floors were decommissioned on the distillery's closure in 1996, while the stills were converted to indirect heating prior in 2005. So again if your bottle of 16+ year old Glendronach was bottled this year, it was at least partially made from the floor-malted barley. Any younger than that, and it was wholly made from externally-sourced barley. And if your bottle is 11-12+ years old, it was made using the direct-fired stills. Any younger than that, and it was made using the current steam heated stills.

In my opinion the distillery closure and the gap in production is also part of the reasoning behind Glendronach's large and impressive range of single cask releases, because doing so enables the distillery to sell the cask at its actual age, rather than having to blend it in with younger or older casks in a standard or regular bottling. This certainly isn't a bad thing though, the single cask releases are usually excellent, although the recent batches have been very expensive. On that point, I've tasted a very, very good 20 year old single cask that was distilled in 1995, and also a very, very good 11 year old single cask that was distilled in 2004. So things are looking good for the future!

So, back to the whisky at hand! The name 'Allardice' refers to James Allardice, who founded the distillery in 1826. It's bottled at 46%, is non-chill filtered and naturally (and beautifully) coloured, and is exclusively and fully-matured in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. No finishing here! The Allardice sells for around $150 in Australia, which is very good value for the age and quality you're getting, if you ask me.
Glendronach 18 'Allardice', 46%. Highlands, Scotland.
Fully matured in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Dark rust-red.

Nose: Sweet, warm & rich. Sweet raisins in syrup, rich dark treacle toffee, some cherry & plum jams. Some sweeter stone fruits, apricot & peach, and some red apple. A little flaky buttery dessert pastry as well. 

Texture: Lovely. Syrupy, sweet & lightly spiced. No heat at all. 

Taste: Rich & spicy, considerably drier than the nose though. More of that stone fruit and dessert pastry, plus the raisins and plum jam, but not sweetened now. Some burnt coffee grounds and spicy, soft oak.

Finish: Medium length. Still spicy oak, with cinnamon, clove and a little ginger. Then the treacle and raisins return, plus some more buttery pastry, a dry, rich sherry, bitter dark chocolate and light tannins. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Lovely dram! Plenty of sherry influence of course, but it's not overwhelming, there's still plenty of complexity. Lovely richness of flavour and just excellent quality. Definitely great value for money at current prices. In fact, I'm struggling to think of a better sherry bomb with a similar price tag. I know that's a big call, but I stand by it. Readily available, dependable, and very, very delicious. This is a winner.   

I've always actually preferred this 18-year old to the much-loved and on-hiatus 15-year old 'Revival'. I think I'm in the minority there, but I love the big, rich spicy sherry and slightly 'darker' feel of the Allardice. If you're yet to try it and you're pining for the 15-year old, which is now selling for at least double its original price (and I'm sorry, it's just not worth it), I suggest you give this one a go!


Sunday, 2 July 2017

Bowmore 25 Year Old Feis Ile 2016 Whisky Review!

Yes, an even rarer Bowmore this week. Why not! But this one is a little different to the last...

For a start, it's actually much rarer. It's also a 25-year old cask strength Bowmore that was bottled for the 2016 Feis Ile, and there were only 200 bottles released. It was matured in ex-bourbon casks for 13 years, and 'finished' for 12 years (that's a very long finishing!) in a French oak Claret red wine cask. Original sell price was 350 pounds, so not exactly cheap to begin with, and it's now worth over 1000 pounds on the secondary market. If you can find it at all! Despite the price, and like they did at this year's Feis Ile, Bowmore fans queued for hours to get their hands on a bottle of this exceedingly rare whisky. And once again it sold out in a matter of hours.

Luckily the distillery must have kept a few for themselves, because during his recent trip to Islay for the festival, a certain very lucky and very generous Australian brand ambassador grabbed a couple of samples! It's very safe to say that, just like last week's Bowmore Feis Ile review, I would never have been able to taste this whisky if not for all-round gentleman Mr. Woolley. I also realise that not many people out there will get the chance to taste it, but I can't miss the opportunity to share this experience with you all, so I'm afraid you'll just have to live vicariously through me for the next few minutes!

Before we get into it, let's have a quick look at Claret. Claret is actually a commonly used term that refers to French red wines from the Bordeaux region, or occasionally a 'Bordeaux style' red wine from elsewhere. It's most commonly used in England when referring to a dry, dark red wine. Even if we assume the cask came from Bordeaux, there are over 8000 wine producers of varying styles in the region, so that doesn't really give us much to go on. 12 years is a very long time for a finishing, especially in a first-fill French oak red wine cask, so we can safely assume that we're going to get a lot of wine influence and probably tannins in this dram, and most likely very little peat influence as well, considering the age. We'll just have to find out the not-so-hard way! Like many of Bowmore's recent cask strength bottlings it does clearly state that the whisky is naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, which is great to see. This is actually the oldest Bowmore I've tasted to date, so my curiosity is piqued!
Bowmore 25-year old Feis Ile 2016, 55.7% cask strength. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled May 1990, bottled February 2016. Matured for 13 years in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, finished for 12 years in a first-fill French oak Claret wine cask. 200 bottles released. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Dark copper.

Nose: Interesting! Dusty, dry earthy peat, dirty copper coins, raspberry & blackberry jams. A little sweet tropical fruit, some thick caramel sauce, and a little floral perfume (but not the famed unpleasant FWP that some older Bowmore is known for!). 

Texture: Medium weight, really quite sweet. A little dab of heat but not much for 55.7%. 

Taste: Sweet berry jams again, and more tropical fruit. Slightly bitter & spicy oak, and more of that dusty, earthy peat. A little sweet cough mixture & more copper coins. 

Finish: Medium length, but softening quite quickly. Spicy & fruity initially, with apricot jam, some sweetened grapefruit. Hot wood spices, cinnamon & clove, maybe a little nutmeg. Finishes with lightly bitter oak, soft stewed fruits and that earthy dry peat. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Nice tasty stuff! There's plenty going on here, with a few interesting notes in the mix keeping things interesting. It's certainly had plenty of time in the wine cask, and it's become quite sweet in the process, although that does retreat a little with more time in the glass. Didn't find any wine tannins either which is a bit of a relief, although there was some bitterness that (in my opinion at least) was coming from the oak. I'm really starting to like that grapefruit note that some Bowmores seem to have, although this being the oldest Bowmore I've tasted, I didn't expect to find it here, so it's actually quite refreshing!

Would I pay the current asking price? Definitely not. Not that I could afford it anyway of course, but still! Like the 19-year old from this year's Feis Ile that I reviewed last week, if you managed to get your hands on one of these for the original retail price or close to it, then you got a pretty good deal. But personally I wouldn't be splurging on the secondary / auction market for a bottle.

Once again a huge thanks to Dan Woolley, Australia's national Brand Ambassador for Beam Suntory, for the 'hook-up' with this sample, I absolutely would not have got my hands on this tasty liquid otherwise. Thanks again mate!


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Bowmore Feis Ile 2017 19 Year Old Whisky Review!

The anticipation for last week's review, the 2017 Laphroaig Cairdeas, was high because of my love for Laphroaig. But it's just as high for this week's review, because a number of highly respected professionals have said this was the best whisky of this year's Feis Ile!

Despite only being released on the 31st of May, this is already an extremely rare whisky, since the very limited number of bottles sold out within a few hours of release, with people queuing from 5am at Bowmore's open day during the Islay festival. I don't have an official figure for the number of bottles released, but considering there were apparently only 2000 bottles of the 11-year old Feis Ile bottling, which was a mix of casks, I'd assume it's going to be well under 500-600 or so for this 19 year old hand-filled single Puncheon cask. I'm sure there'll be many of these on auction sites right now, being flipped for double the initial asking price (which was 130 pounds by the way) or more, much to the frustration of those who missed out at the festival. This seems to be the unfortunate fate of most limited releases these days. Although apparently there was a van spotted near the distilleries during the festival that belonged to a European whisky auction site, offering an immediate profit to take people's recent purchases off their hands, which is a new low as far as I'm aware.

Anyway, that's enough of that. Bowmore had three different whiskies specially bottled for the Feis Ile this year: an 11-year old that was matured in both sherry & red wine casks, this 19-year old that was matured in a sherry puncheon, and a 27-year old that was matured in a single port cask. All were bottled at cask strength, and were naturally coloured and non-chill filtered (and stated this on the labels, which is excellent!). All three were distillery exclusives, and all three are sold out completely. So I'm very lucky to get the chance to taste any of them, especially this 19-year old!

Bowmore is more of a medium-peated Islay whisky compared to it's neighbours, being peated to around 25 ppm on the malt, and the distillery still floor-malts a portion of it's barley requirements on-site, using powdered local peat. The floor-maltings can't support the distillery's 2,000,000 litre annual capacity though, so the majority of barley is sourced from elsewhere, most often from the Scottish mainland. Something I'd personally like to see is a Bowmore take on the 2015 Laphroaig Cairdeas, which only used that distillery's floor-malted barley. No doubt I couldn't afford a bottle anyway, but it'd be very cool to see something like that from Bowmore!

This Feis Ile exclusive was distilled in January 1998, and bottled in May 2017 at a cask strength of 54.3%. It was matured in a first-fill Oloroso sherry puncheon (a 500-litre cask, squatter in shape than a sherry butt), and as mentioned above it's naturally coloured and non-chill filtered. On paper it sounds like an older and obviously far more limited version of the Devil's Cask series; well the first two Devil's releases anyway, which were fully Oloroso sherry cask-matured. Which is very exciting for me, since this second release of the Devil's Cask series is still my favourite Bowmore so far, by quite a margin. But that just might be about to change...

(image borrowed from Google)
Bowmore Feis Ile 2017 19 Year Old, 54.3%. Islay, Scotland.
Distillery & Feis Ile exclusive, cask strength, matured in a first-fill Oloroso sherry butt. Hand-filled, natural colour and non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Extremely dark brown, almost cola coloured, and it's natural remember! Makes Glendronach 18 look pale!

Nose: A little shy at first, thick & condensed. Fizzy cola and nutty, dry sherry. Some fresh ginger and butter caramel. Musty red grapes and blackcurrant cordial, a little salted semi-dark chocolate. Coffee grounds with more time.  

Texture: Lovely! Medium-heavy weight, thick, juicy & chewy. Slight touch of heat. 

Taste: Dark & spicy, but very fruity as well. Black cherry syrup, some blackcurrant again, and more salted chocolate but it's definitely dark now. Spicy fresh ginger, more fizzy cola and musty grape. A little spicy wood smoke, and some grapefruit! Didn't expect that in a whisky like this!

Finish: Medium length. The smoke shows itself a little more, dry & ashy wood smoke, with the spice, dark chocolate and ginger still present. Coffee grounds again, some mild grape tannins, and a little spicy oak.  

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Seriously delicious stuff! Very much like a darker, broodier Devil's Cask with a quick dose of steroids! Very, very enjoyable with plenty of complexity and balance, and a little of Bowmore's tropical fruit still coming through. Definitely my new favourite Bowmore! The peat is basically undetectable, and the smoke is very subdued, but after 19 years in a first-fill cask that should be expected, and I'm sure they're adding depth to the notes that do come through more strongly. It's still a gorgeous dram, dark & fruity, and the perfect whisky for a cold winter evening. Once again, I just wish I had more of it!

I'm not sure that I'd pay the current secondary market prices for it (even if I did have the financial means), but if you were lucky enough to grab one of these at the original retail price, or reasonably close to it, you got a seriously good deal! Now I need to find some more hand-filled Bowmores to try. Oh, that's right, there's another one coming next week...

A massive thanks once again to the very generous Mr. Dan Woolley, Australia's national brand ambassador for Beam Suntory, without whom I most likely would never have seen this whisky in the flesh, let alone have had the pleasure of tasting & reviewing it. Very much appreciated mate!


Sunday, 18 June 2017

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2017 Whisky Review!

I'm struggling to express just how much anticipation I'm feeling today (yes, all day). This whisky is something I've always wanted to try, and I never expected to be tasting and reviewing it just a couple of weeks after it was actually released on Islay! It helps to have good friends in high places, and I really can't thank them enough!

At the time of writing, this year's version of the annual Cairdeas bottling hadn't even been released on Laphroaig's own website, due to some major technical issues. Both it and batch 009 of the cask strength 10 year old will be available soon though, and then they'll probably be unavailable again soon after! We may end up getting stock of the Cairdeas in Australia though, usually 3-6 months after release, as long as a certain large retailer makes the right decision and brings it to the waiting hordes of Aussie Laphroaig lovers! This year's bottling is considerably bigger than previous Cairdeas' were in terms of volume, with around 32,000 bottles released, so keep your fingers crossed folks!

OK I've strung you along enough, what is this whisky I'm getting overexcited about? It's the 2017 Laphroaig Cairdeas, and you'll find four little words on the label: Cask Strength Quarter Cask. Yes, it's a cask strength version of the excellent Quarter Cask bottling from Laphroaig's regular 'core' range. Normally reduced to a still-respectable 48% ABV before bottling, this very special version weighs in at a pretty substantial 57.2%! It still follows the proven maturation method of the regular Quarter Cask bottling, which is a mix of 5-11 year old Laphroaig taken from ex-Maker's Mark bourbon casks, mostly first-fill, that are married together and finished for around 7 months in smaller 'quarter' casks. Those are also first-fill ex-bourbon casks, but they're re-coopered and re-sized to a capacity of 125-litres, a quarter of the size of a sherry butt. These smaller casks provide the maturing spirit with more wood contact due to the smaller surface area, which in the case of the regular version of Quarter Cask results in a deliciously sweet, rich and creamy whisky, without losing that beloved peat and smoke that Laphroaig is renowned for.

The regular version of Quarter Cask is already extremely popular, and was my favourite Laphroaig expression for quite some time. In fact it's still my favourite 'core range' Laphroaig bottling, so the anticipation for this cask strength version is pretty damn high! This Cairdeas limited release promises to be similar to the regular version, but with the volume turned up, and was actually decided on after the distillery received masses of requests for a cask strength version of 'QC'. Like the regular version it's non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and I just can't wait any longer!
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2017, NAS, 57.2% cask strength. Islay, Scotland.
Mix of 5-11 year old ex-bourbon cask Laphroaig, married and finished in 125-litre quarter casks for around 7 months. 32,000 bottles. Non-chill filtered and naturally coloured.

Colour: Pale yellow gold. Nothing like the above photo. Definitely natural.

Nose: Super soft, quite subtle for a Laphroaig. Damp, vegetal peat, menthol cigarettes, charred oak. A creamy vanilla fudge, a little salt and fresh kelp. Pencil shavings, and demerara sugar crystals (aka coffee crystals).

Texture: Oh yeah! Light-medium weight, soft and velvety, no heat at all despite the strength.

Taste: Yummy! Incredibly easy to drink. Vanilla toffee sweetness, then a wave of creamy, earthy peat and a little pepper. Some spearmint lollies and a little salted caramel dessert sauce.

Finish: Medium length. Drying slightly, a building ashy smoke and driftwood embers. Then the menthol returns, with some very soft earthy peat underneath. Creamy vanilla fudge again, slightly bitter oak, another touch of white pepper, and some salted caramel again.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: So, so good! So soft, so warm & welcoming, I just wish I had some more! I'd heard a bit of negative feedback on the interweb, but I think those people might be missing the point here. Sure it doesn't have the punchy intensity of the cask strength 10 year old, or the medicinal notes of the standard 10, but it's beautiful in its own right. What we have here is an extremely drinkable cask strength Laphroaig. Yes it's a slightly tamer version than you might presume, which is exactly what those quarter casks are meant to do after all, but that doesn't mean it's not as good, it's just a different take. And it's one that you could easily drink all night long. It has plenty of the sweet creamy notes that us QC lovers crave, with a lovely intact peat influence, and some balancing pepper and mint notes to add some more depth. And I love it! Very nearly a 4.5 score in fact.

If you're a fan of the standard Quarter Cask (and who isn't), be well warned: you're going to want more than one bottle of this! I already do! Dear aforementioned large Australian liquor retailer, if you're reading, do not miss out on this one please. I reckon you're going to need a lot of it.

A massive thanks to Dan Woolley, Australia's national brand ambassador for Beam Suntory, for the chance to try this beautiful whisky so soon after it was released, along with the other incredible samples he generously gave up (watch this space!) less than a day after he got off the plane from Scotland. You're a gentleman mate!


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Elements of Islay Peat Whisky Review(s)!

As you might be able to guess from the name of this blog, I'm actually partial to the odd peated whisky. So when Elements of Islay released a whisky simply named 'Peat', they certainly got my attention! Now it's officially coming to Australia, and I can finally take a closer look.

Elements of Islay is an independent bottler owned by Specialty Drinks, the company also behind The Whisky Exchange. The "mystery whisky" independent bottler Port Askaig also comes under the same umbrella, although the Elements of Islay range is a little less mysterious. The majority of the company's bottlings are small batch limited releases from various Islay distilleries (as the name implies), and while there is no distillery name on the label, you will find a relatively simple code instead, inspired by the periodic table. So 'Ar' refers to Ardbeg Distillery, 'Oc' to the Octomore brand, 'Br' to Bruichladdich etc., and the corresponding number refers to the batch number. So 'Lp7' for example would be the 7th batch of Laphroaig released under the Elements of Islay brand, 'Oc2' would be the second Octomore, etc. All are bottled at cask strength, in 500ml bottles, and are often very small releases drawn from just a few select casks. Some of these distilleries' whiskies are very rarely seen in independent bottlings, particularly where the distillery name is not-so-subtly implied rather than being a mystery, so some of these releases are very sought after and rather tough to find.

The company recently released their first blended whisky, simply named 'Peat', which is arguably the most crucial element of many Islay whiskies. This blended malt / vatted malt, meaning that it is a blend of various distilleries' single malts, with no grain whisky involved, is also the first permanent addition to the line-up, rather than a limited or one-off release. The distilleries involved are obviously located on the isle of Islay, with "a handful" of different distillery's whiskies blended together, and each batch is constructed from an average of around 60 casks. It's a bit of a risky name for a whisky I think, since your average punter might look at the name and assume there was nothing else going on, and that it was a one-trick pony. But they'd be wrong of course, as any Islay drinker will happily testify, peat is of course a crucial element of the peaty favourites, but it's only an element, it's not the whole package. One the other hand, peat lovers will take one look at the label and know that they're probably going to fall in love!

There are two different versions of this blended malt from Elements of Islay, a newer version named 'Pure Islay' and reduced to a bottling strength of 45%, and one named 'Full Proof' which as you can guess is bottled at cask / vatting strength of 59.3% with no extra water added. Both are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and will be available soon with an RRP of $98 and $128 AUD respectively. And thanks to a sample of each generously sent by Ian from Alba Whisky, the Australian importer for Benromach, Gordon & MacPhail and Port Askaig (among others), I'm able to review both for your reading pleasure. So we'll start with the 45% version first, and then we'll move on to the big daddy!
Elements of Islay Peat 'Pure Islay', 45.0%, NAS. Islay, Scotland.
Blended / vatted malt (blend of different single malts, no grain whisky) from various Islay distilleries, around 60 casks in each batch, produced by Specialty Drinks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Extremely pale, white wine. 

Nose: Warm & soft. Comforting earthy & slightly vegetal peat, some sweet ham hock. Very coastal as well, with sea spray, a wet volcanic rock minerality, and some cool sand. A little orange as well, and a light spicy ash. Slightly grassy too, and more time brings out a sugary vanilla icing.  

Texture: Light-medium weight, plenty of flavour, and no heat at all. 

Taste: Very nice. Initially quite soft, then a wave of mild fruit syrup sweetness and an earthy, lightly spicy peat. Lovely spicy ash and a little creamy vanilla. 

Finish: Medium length. Softens again with a combination of that honey ham sweetness and soft, earthy peat. A slight bitterness here too which passes quickly and leaves that sweet fruit syrup, a lick of salt and that mild earthy, coastal peat.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Very easy drinking, dangerously drinkable actually! The peat is definitely not the only point of interest here, there's plenty going on. No overt cask influence or fancy flair, just clean spirit, and like it says on the tin: "Pure Islay". I couldn't guess the entire contents in the blend, but I'd say there's definitely some Caol Ila in there thanks to that sweet ham note, and possibly some Ardbeg or even Kilchoman as well. Among others of course. Very enjoyable, and a great 'session-able' dram. What a wine drinker might call a "quaffer"! 

Elements of Islay Peat 'Full Proof', 59.3%, NAS. Islay, Scotland.
Blended / vatted malt (blend of different single malts, no grain whisky) from various Islay distilleries, around 60 casks in each batch, produced by Specialty Drinks. Bottled at cask / vatting strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Very pale gold, but with a little more colour to it as you'd expect. 

Nose: Interesting, it's a little more spirit-y as you'd expect, but it's quite different as well. Needs quite a bit of time and warmth to relax and open up, it was uptight for quite a while. It's more grassy and more herbal than the 45% version, and surprisingly it's also considerably less peaty! It's also sweeter, with a little sour citrus, and quite a meaty raw spirit with some light acetone notes. Sweet vanilla, some smoked fish, and warm buttery pastry. 

Texture: Medium weight, big & spicy. Not too much alcohol heat for the ABV, although it's there, but more of a big pinch of warm spices. 

Taste: Spicy & punchy, and a little aggressive. Meaty and grassy as well with that smoked fish, and a dry, ashy, cold wood smoke. A little mild honey and some lemon zest behind those spices, namely white pepper and also some cumin & hot cinnamon.

Finish: Medium-long length. A little raw spirit (but not a bad one) initially, then a nice warming, spicy smoke. Some creamy vanilla fudge, tobacco / cigar leaves, and a dry, earthy, peat that hangs on for quite a while! 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: It's a big Islay beast, no question, and it's quite young and feisty in character, and once again peat is certainly not the only player. In fact I think it takes more of a back seat in this version, at least until you get to the finish. I know both whiskies are the same blend at different strengths, and yet I think different componen malts dominate in the different versions. In this one I'd guess young Lagavulin to be the main player, thanks to that grassy note. It's definitely very different in spirit (pun intended) to the Pure Islay, which of course is exactly the idea!  

Overall, well, I didn't expect it to go that way! Just goes to show that ABV isn't necessarily everything when we're well above the minimum. Both are good whiskies, but the Pure Islay is so approachable and relaxed, while the Full Proof is big, punchy & spicy but also less expressive, if that makes sense. The Pure Islay actually reminds me of Port Askaig's 100 Proof, albeit with a little less intensity and punch, while the Full Proof is quite a different beast entirely. Different occasions and moods would call for one over the other I think, but personally I can certainly see myself reaching for the 45% version more often, and I have to admit that I didn't expect that result coming into this review. 

Both versions of Peat should be available soon from the good online retailers, Nicks and The Whisky Company will be among the first, and both certainly offer good value for money. I highly recommend checking them out!

Thanks to Ian & Ross from Alba Whisky for the samples, and thanks for the hard work, continuing to bring these and the other great drams to us thirsty Australians! 


Sunday, 4 June 2017

Hazelburn 10 Year Old Whisky Review!

I must admit I haven't gone out of my way to try Hazelburns. Being the un-peated and triple-distilled whisky produced by Springbank, I didn't think it could possibly push my buttons like the other two single malts from the distillery do. Was I right, or was I wrong?

I should declare that I'm not generally a big fan of triple-distilled whisky or whiskey, I usually find that they lose character and even flavour when compared to double-distilled variants. But Springbank may just knock this theory on the head, since their other malts have so much character. Plus the whisky bottled under the regular Springbank label is already 2.5 times distilled, in a complicated system where (very basically) a portion of the spirit from each run is distilled for a third time, and the remainder is not. But having said that, said Springbank-labelled whisky is also lightly peated, while Hazelburn is completely un-peated. So will that delicious Campbeltown oiliness still be present? Or will the trademark Springbank 'funk' be dialled down or deleted altogether? Either way, this is going to be a interesting one!

Triple-distilled Scotch single malts are not particularly easy to come by these days, with lowland distillery Auchentoshan probably being the most widely known current practitioner, and Rosebank (RIP) probably being the most widely known past practitioner. While most distilleries generally have their pot stills in pairs, those who practice triple distillation regularly will often have sets of three, a wash still, an intermediate still, and a spirit still. This is not always the case though, some use the same still for two distillations, particularly at distilleries where the majority of their whisky is not triple distilled. After this extra distillation the new make spirit is higher in alcohol, and has also had more copper contact and more reflux during the extra distillation. This generally gives a lighter, 'cleaner' and more floral or fruity character to the whisky, as heavier flavour compounds were left behind in the still, and any sulphurous compounds were taken care of by the extra copper contact.    

This is in fact the first Hazelburn whisky that I've sat down and properly reviewed, not counting the small sip of the impressive Rundlets & Kilderkins release I tasted last year, so it's fitting that I'm reviewing the entry level 10-year old as my first proper foray into the brand. Like all single malts from our beloved Springbank distillery, it's bottled at 46%, naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and every step of the process is carried out on-site. As you may recall, Springbank is currently the only distillery in Scotland that can make this claim. From floor malting 100% of the barley for their use, to steeping and mashing, to distillation, maturation, and finally bottling of three distinctly different whiskies, it all goes on at the distillery.

Those three whiskies are the double-distilled and heavily peated Longrow, the 2.5-times distilled and lightly peated Springbank, and the triple-distilled and un-peated (the barley is dried only with hot air) Hazelburn that we're looking at today, which was first added to the Springbank line-up in 1997. This 10-year old ex-bourbon cask matured expression first appeared in 2014, and is now the entry level Hazelburn bottling. It's quite reasonably priced at around $120 AUD on average, although this does leave it $10-20 above the great value Springbank 10-year old, most likely due to the more expensive production process. Shall we?
Hazelburn 10-year old, 46%. Campbeltown, Scotland. 
Triple-distilled, un-peated single malt produced by Springbank Distillery. Ex-bourbon cask matured, non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Light, clean & fruity. Fresh red & green apples, and quite a lot of musty-ness, like an old factory floor (and what I imagine a dunnage warehouse to smell like). A little lemon oil, some honey, a hint of acetone, and some balsamic vinegar. 

Texture: Light-medium weight, clean with a slight touch of heat. 

Taste: Light & clean again, more of that musty-ness, almost an earthy & mushroom-y flavour. More lemon oil, and a good pinch of chilli spice. Hint of barley and some sawdust. 

Finish: Short & very light. The apple from the nose returns, and the lemon oil is still there, plus an ethanol / acetone that dries the mouth out. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: A good quality dram as we can expect from Springbank, but if you ask me the triple distillation and lack of any peat influence has really held back the complexity, texture and finish that we'd expect from this distillery. There's still a bit of that Springbank 'funk' to be found here, which is a relief, but it's been subdued a little too much if you ask me. From what I remember, the Rundlets & Kilderkins version of Hazelburn was much more complex and frankly more enjoyable than this standard 10-year old. And despite the jump in price, I'd say it's well worth it if you're searching for a good introduction to Hazelburn. Well, provided you can still find a bottle of the "R&K" in your neck of the woods. There is also a 12-year old sherry cask matured version of Hazelburn, but I'm yet to try this one myself.

While I did enjoy this dram, based on what I've tried so far, I can pretty safely say that triple distilled whisky is not really my thing. Although I enjoyed the Rosebank I was lucky enough to try, I'm still yet to come across a triple distilled whisky that I would gladly swap with one that was double distilled (or the 2.5-times distilled Springbank). They just seem to lack the personality, character and texture that I look for in a dram, and there's often too much of an acetone or ethanol note that is still present, despite generally being bottled at a lower ABV than what I'm used to these days. I think this is also the main reason that I'm not generally a big fan of Irish whiskey, except for the double-distilled (and peated) Connemara that is.

So I can't say I was disappointed with this 10-year old Hazelburn, it is basically what I expected, but for my personal tastes this one can't hold a candle to the equivalent Springbank or Longrow expressions. But that's just my take, as always.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

Ardbeg for Days - 5 Year's Worth of Days Reviewed!

Ardbeg Day is finally around the corner, along with the arrival of the 'standard version' of this year's commemorative bottling, named Kelpie. Australia was lucky enough to receive an allocation of the extra-special 'committee release' earlier this year, so this seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at the last 4 year's worth of 'Day' releases, before finishing up with this year's bottling. Why not!

Unfortunately I couldn't get my hands on any of the first 'Day' release from 2012, simply named 'Ardbeg Day', since it's now very hard to find and of course is very, very expensive. I have tasted it before though, around 4-5 years ago when I was just starting to get into whisky, and I still remember it being delicious! So we'll just have to make do with 2013's Ardbog, 2014's Auriverdes, the standard version of Perpetuum from 2015, the Dark Cove committee release from 2016, and this year's Kelpie committee release! Not a terrible way to see out the weekend, hey?

What am I talking about with standard versions and committee releases? Well in the last few years there have been two different versions of the Ardbeg Day commemorative bottlings, where the committee release is bottled at a higher strength, is more basically labelled and presented and sells without a box, while the standard version (released on Ardbeg Day itself) is bottled at a lower strength, with more recognisable Ardbeg presentation and a matching outer box. Obviously the standard versions are also much more numerous, and are much easier to get a hold of, but they're not always cheaper when you're comparing the initial retail prices when first released.

For the 2012, 2013 and 2014 bottlings there was only the one version released, while for the 2015 the (only slightly) higher strength version was labelled as 'distillery release' and was ostensibly only sold from the distillery's own shop, while for the 2016 and 2017 bottlings there have been significant differences between the two versions. The committee release of last year's Dark Cove was bottled at 55%, while the standard version weighed in at a much-lower 46.5%. This year's Kelpie committee release was bottled at 51.7%, while the standard version is down to 46%, which is the equal lowest strength of any recently released Ardbeg, and the lowest strength of the 'Day' bottlings so far. Not that 46% isn't enough of course, it's basically the new standard for quality single malts (which is great to see), but previous special release bottlings from Ardbeg were a little more generous.

Australia has been lucky enough to get an allocation of the last two committee releases (plus the 2014 and 2015 Supernovae), sold directly from Moet-Hennessy Australia, and pricing has actually been very reasonable (cheaper than the standard versions!) despite the inevitable high demand. I really hope that this continues, since in the past finding these extra-special Ardbegs in Australia was nearly impossible, unless you resorted to importing them yourself from Europe, which put them out of the reach of your average whisky geek. So keep your fingers crossed people!

Now, on to the fun part! I'll give a brief run-down on each bottling in question, plus tasting notes and a score, and finally some more details on this year's 'Kelpie' release since this is the first time I've reviewed it. And I'll declare a winner at the end, because why not! In the interests of fairness I visited these whiskies over three separate nights, with an ample break & plenty of water between each dram. To my knowledge all are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, although not all have this clearly stated on the packaging.
Ardbeg 'Ardbog', 52.1%, 'at least 10 years old', released 2013. The only 'Day' commemorative release to have an age statement! You won't find a big number in prime position on the label though, it's in the fine print on the back. This alone doesn't necessarily make it better of course, but it's always nice to know. Ardbog was a marriage of spirit fully-matured (not finished) in ex-bourbon casks, and spirit fully-matured (not finished) in ex-manzanilla sherry casks, all aged at least 10 years. So that's essentially a 10-year old age statement. The name and packaging details were a tribute to Islay's venerable peat bogs.

My bottle of Ardbog has been open for around 3 years now, and while I've been using wine save (argon gas preserver) for most of that time, it's obviously still going to have an effect.

Colour: Polished bronze.
Nose: Lovely. Rich, sweet and salty, with stewed fruits in sweet syrup, some dark, rich toffee and a little cocoa powder. Earthy & salty peat, slightly nutty - roasted walnuts? And some slightly creamy vanilla.

Texture: Medium weight, buttery, with a dab of heat. Still quite rich despite being open for that long.
Taste: Quite rich with a deep peaty-ness, it's definitely oxidised but it's not going out without a fight. Spicy with salty earthy peat, hint of that cocoa, and more sweet stewed stone fruit. It is starting to go a little flat unfortunately. Stupid oxygen, what did you ever do for us anyway!?!

Finish: Medium length, spicy & peaty fading into mild coastal salt, fruit syrup and dusty, ashy peat. Some more creamy vanilla and little hints of citrus alongside the slowly ebbing peat.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: I'd love to taste a fresh one again, I think this bottle is approaching its final sunset. It's lost some of it's sparkle and is getting a little flat. Very glad I split some into smaller sample bottles a while back. Still very enjoyable though and there's plenty of 'Ardbeg-ness', just less of that intensity of flavour that I remember it having. Regardless, definitely a very good one.

Ardbeg 'Auriverdes', 49.9%, NAS, released 2014. A marriage of Ardbeg matured in ex-bourbon casks, apparently mostly second-fill, with specially-toasted virgin American oak barrel ends / lids, and 'traditional' ex-bourbon cask matured Ardbeg. The name is the Portuguese translation for 'green & gold', meant as both a tribute to the 2014 soccer world cup that was held in Brazil (who's flag is green & gold, and Auriverdes is their team's nickname), and as a tribute to Ardbeg's green bottle and the golden contents.

There was also a promotional version of Auriverdes in a gold-coloured bottle that was used for PR events and the like, but the whisky inside was identical to the normal green-bottled version. I wasn't a fan of Auriverdes at the time of release, so let's see if time has healed this wound...

Colour: Yellow gold.
Nose: Much lighter, with far less peat and salt, and a little less sweetness. There's ripe tropical fruit, particularly papaya and banana, maybe some red apple. Citrus as well, plus some lightly salted butter and a mild earthy-ness. Hint of coconut and a little vanilla & dry toasted oak.

Texture: Medium weight again, a little spicy heat, fresher (duh) and still rich but much lighter in character.
Taste: Sweet & fruity, and a little salty citrus tang. More ripe tropical fruit and some vanilla sponge cake. Mildly spiced milk chocolate, and a slight earthy-ness again.

Finish: Short-to-medium length. Lightly toasted caramelised oak, slightly salty tropical fruit, slight hint of coffee grounds.

Score: 2.5 out of 5.
Notes: Nice and fresh and clean, but it's still not a true Ardbeg if you ask me. Barely detectable peat or smoke, and a much lighter and more tropical dram. I suspect it's younger than Ardbog, although peat does tend to mask youth a little, but there's slightly more heat in this one despite the 5% drop in ABV. It's not unpleasant though, and it's still decent quality, it just doesn't do it for me. I still think that Ardbeg were going for a lighter, tamer dram here to appease the non-Islay drinkers, and in that regard I think they succeeded.

Ardbeg 'Perpetuum' standard release, 47.4%, NAS, released 2015. There was very little information given about this bottling, in fact the official details were that it was a mix of "old and young Ardbeg, from ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks". So that tells us basically nothing. Perpetuum was also the commemorative bottling for Ardbeg's 200th anniversary, and the name basically means 'never ending' or 'going on forever' (as in perpetual motion).

This was the first year that Ardbeg also released an 'extra special' version of their special release for Ardbeg day, although the white labelled 'Distillery Release' version of Perpetuum was only slightly higher in strength, at 49.2%. It's reportedly also notably better than the standard version, despite apparently being the same whisky at a slightly different strength.

Colour: Pale gold.
Nose: Fresh & bright. Sea spray, milk chocolate, sweet frozen (not fresh) strawberries. An earthy, damp peat, mild chilli salt, creamy vanilla. Slight dried herbs & floral note.

Texture: Light-medium weight, fresh & creamy, no spirit-y heat at all.
Taste: Fresh & quite peaty, a nice deep earthy peat, a little of that chilli salt again, slightly powdery milk chocolate. Creamy vanilla and more dried herbs.

Finish: Medium length, nice soft peat, some ash. Some spice as well, then slightly grassy dried herbs.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: Well balanced and flavoursome, with plenty of peat. A few interesting notes, but it's not a big departure from the standard / core range Ardbegs, with a little of each showing itself at various points. Which is basically what it says on the tin anyway. It's a pleasant peaty easy drinker, but it doesn't quite hold up compared with the mighty Uigeadail, or even the 10 year old for that matter, particularly with pricing factored in.

Ardbeg 'Dark Cove' committee release, 55%, NAS, released 2016. Once again there wasn't a great deal of information given about this one, other than stating that its "heart" has been matured in "dark sherry" casks, which is a little ambiguous and could mean either Oloroso or Pedro Ximinez. As most suspected at the time, this turned out to be ex-PX sherry casks, and I wish they'd just printed that on the damn label.

Speaking of the label, this one proudly claimed to be "the darkest Ardbeg ever", which simply wasn't accurate, especially in the case of the considerably lighter 46.5% 'standard' version, which I previously reviewed here. Both versions of Dark Cove were a marriage of ex-PX sherry casks and 'traditional' ex-bourbon cask Ardbeg, and we don't know the proportions of each. Again both versions are the same whisky bottled at different strengths.

Colour: Bronze.
Nose: Sweet & fruity to start with, rich but not overtly peaty. Sweet juicy raisins, dried fruit (blackberry?), some treacle, spent coffee grounds. A little salty sea spray, some new rope, a little spicy wood smoke.

Texture: Medium weight, rich & powerful.
Taste: There's the peat! A spicy, dry peat with a little ash and wood smoke. Rich spicy sherry, some burnt caramel, but far less sweet than the nose.

Finish: Medium length, quite spicy, ginger. Then comes back to that sweetness, chocolate, rich sherry & dried fruit, and a fleeting floral note. Hints of sea spray, treacle and a little tar.

Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Very good stuff. It's lost quite a bit of peat compared to what I remember, having been open for around a year (with winesave), and has become seriously sweet. Still very nice though, and a nice different take on the typical Ardbeg style. While quite sweet, it's not in the usual Ardbeg ex-bourbon creamy vanilla way, more of a rich fruity style of sweetness. Definitely the second favourite so far (and no it's not just the ABV talking), but how is the new one going to stack up?

Ardbeg 'Kelpie' committee release, 51.7%, NAS, released 2017. This latest release is a marriage of traditional ex-bourbon cask-matured Ardbeg, and Ardbeg that has been fully matured in virgin oak casks. The oak used for these casks was sourced from the Adyghe Republic in Russia's south-west, near the Black Sea, which is extremely unusual, so kudos to Ardbeg and Dr. Lumsden for once again trying something new. Ardbeg Corryvreckan is very popular, and is partly-matured in virgin French oak, and the partly-virgin American oak matured Ardbeg Alligator was a huge hit, but that bottling used virgin American oak that had been heavily charred, so this is a totally different story really.

The name Kelpie refers to a shape-shifting water spirit from Scottish mythology, which obviously has nothing to do with Ardbeg really, but a 19th century poet wrote about a Kelpie that lived in the gulf of Corryvreckan (does that name should sound familiar), which is off the Northern coast of the isle of Jura, Islay's northern neighbour. There is going to be a standard version of Kelpie released to coincide with Ardbeg day this year, which will be bottled at 46%. As I've mentioned above, that's the lowest strength for a 'day' release so far...

Colour: Gold. Slightly paler than the partly-virgin French oak matured Corryvreckan, which you'd think would be the closest comparison.

Nose: Fresh, sweet and spicy. Pretty damn spicy actually - not alcohol sharpness mind you, but actual cooking spices. Ginger, clove and maybe cumin? The sweetness fades with time, becoming drier and also slightly herbal. Soft caramel and spiced baked apples, a hint of vanilla custard and a little citrus (orange?) zest.

Texture: Medium weight, with a little alcohol heat behind the spice.

Taste: Soft initially, then quickly becoming hot & spicy. Some dry, ashy wood smoke but not a great deal of it. Definitely cumin now, some menthol, and a little ginger. Cloudy apple juice. Not very Ardbeg-like, it's pretty different and quite unique actually!

Finish: Medium length, Still loads of spices initially. More cumin again and some cinnamon powder, and a little nutmeg. A little soft, earthy peat underneath, and more of that apple juice. Some bitter high-cocoa dark chocolate as well that hangs around until the end.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Very interesting! Not your typical Ardbeg by any means, in fact I'm not sure what I would guess this to be if I was tasting it blind. Very spicy, a spice bomb in fact, which dries everything out and takes away most of that signature Ardbeg sweetness. The peat and smoke is quite subdued as well, hidden under those spices. Pushing my spice boundaries actually! It's pleasant though and fairly easy drinking, although I do miss the intense peat & sweet combination that we all love. But it's refreshing to see Ardbeg come up with something distinctly different for this special release. Russian / Black Sea oak was always going to be different, but I never expected to be quite this unusual! It has definitely improved and relaxed a bit in the week-and-a-half or so since I first opened it, and the spices have been amplified and the peat quietened since the first second introductory drams. It'll probably keep changing too, so I'll be sure to check in with it regularly over the next few weeks. For science, of course...

As for a winner, well It'd have to be a tie between Ardbog and the Dark Cove committee release. Both are excellent, and are very different in their own rights, although I suspect if my bottle of Ardbog was fresh it would have won outright. As we can expect from Ardbeg though, all five whiskies are distinctly different and are great quality whiskies. It's a tough gig when the 'core' range of Ardbeg, being the 10-year old, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, are so damn good to begin with, so let's hope they keep pushing those boundaries and keeping things fresh & exciting. I'm sure they'll do just that.

It'll be very interesting to see how the 46% 'standard' version of Kelpie goes compared to this one. Will the spice be dialled back a bit, and will the peat come out of hiding? Time will tell, and as always I'll be lining up with the other Ardbeg-heads to find out on the 'day'. See you there folks!