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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Bowmore Black Rock Whisky Review!

Another travel-exclusive Bowmore to explore this week, and this one seems to have mixed reviews...

To be honest, Bowmore would quite easily be my least favourite Islay distillery. Although that's really like saying it's my least favourite Ferrari! I absolutely loved their Devil's Cask, or at least the second release that I've tried, but aside from that, I'm yet to try another Bowmore that has truly impressed me. So far I've also tasted the Legend, Small Batch, 12- and 18-year old, and the travel exclusive 'Gold Reef', and they've left me rather underwhelmed. The only exceptions so far are the 15 yo 'Darkest' sherry-finish, which is definitely my pick of the 'standard' Bowmore range, and the 10-year old 'Tempest' cask strength which is matured in first-fill bourbon casks, so basically the bourbon-matured version of the Devil's Cask: cask strength, 10 years old, non-chill filtered, and I suspect also natural colour. If only more Bowmores followed that suit!

This travel-exclusive 'Black Rock' expression sounds promising on face-value, in that it's "predominantly matured in ex-sherry casks" (with the remainder being ex-bourbon), as opposed to the afore-mentioned Gold Reef, which was "predominantly matured in first-fill bourbon casks". Unfortunately though the Black Rock is down to 40% ABV, and you'll notice there's no mention of 'first-fill' in the blurb on this one, both of which probably aren't going to work in its favour. I suspect it's also 'predominantly' quite young, but that could be OK if allows more of the peat influence to shine through. Bowmore's whisky is already lightly-peated to when compared to its Ileach neighbours, weighing in at around 25 ppm on the malt (Ardbeg comes in at 55 ppm, for example), which will then slowly ebb away with time in the cask. The name by the way refers to the large black rock that sticks out of the water in Loch Indaal, not far from the distillery, which was apparently the inspiration behind this expression. 

So will this be some sort of devil's cask for beginners? I don't think so, unfortunately. It's likely to be held back by the low bottling strength of 40%, and the fact that it has been chill filtered and has definitely had a lot of artificial colouring added. The pricing doesn't seem to be too bad though, going for around $80 for a 1-litre bottle in Australian duty-free stores. And hey, it's a young, partly-sherry matured whisky from Islay, so all is not lost just yet, and the proof is in the drinking (pun intended). Tally ho!
Bowmore Black Rock, NAS, 40%. Islay, Scotland.
'Predominantly matured in ex-sherry casks', chill filtered and artificially coloured. Travel-exclusive.

Colour: Orange-y copper. Definitely loads of adding colouring here. 

Nose: Sweet, with very waxy fruit, sugary caramel and dusty marshmallow. Some very sweet red fruits & berries, and something rubbery which is hard to pin down. There's also some wet copper coins, and a little earth and sweet vanilla.

Texture: Light and thin. No heat though.

Taste: Light dry smoke, some blackcurrant and blackberry dessert sauce (sweet, thin/light, not jam-y). A little earthy peat comes out with more time in the glass, but so does some off-putting bitterness. 

Finish: Short and light. Some bitter fruity-ness, maybe stone fruit that's passed its best-before date. Some more of that wet copper, and a hint of earth behind. Maybe a tiny hint of orange as well. 

Score: 2 out of 5.

Notes: I was going to go with 2.5 out of 5 initially, but that bitterness that came through with time convinced me otherwise. It's not overly unpleasant or nasty though, just unusual and a little quiet and subdued. I can't help but think a slightly higher strength and skipping the chill filtration (and preferably also the colourant) would have really helped this one. But then it is quite well-priced in its 1-litre bottle, although for my money I'd still be spending the extra $20 for a bottle of Laphroaig PX. All day, every day. But then, the PX is an absolute bargain, so maybe that's not a fair comparison. It's my benchmark for travel-exclusive whiskies, particularly when you also consider value for money, and it's not surpassed very often! 

So unfortunately Black Rock was another Bowmore that hasn't impressed me. In fact I prefer the standard 12-year old to this one, even taking the slight jump in price into account. If you're after a bit of sherry cask influence in your Bowmore, go for the 15-year old 'Darkest'. It was very impressive, offers decent value for money, and is probably my favourite 'standard' Bowmore in fact. And you don't need to travel internationally to be able to buy it...


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origins 2012 Whisky Review!

Oh bugger, another Laphroaig Cairdeas to review. I'll just have to struggle through it I guess, just another sacrifice I have to make for you, my dear readers...

Ha, as if! Ticking this one off leaves three more on the list of Laphroaig's annual Cairdeas (pronounced "car-chiss") special releases that I haven't tried, the first release from 2008, the 2010 'Master's Edition', and the 2013 port finish. At first glance you might think this 2012 'Origins' release was just a random vatting of ex-bourbon casks, but oh how wrong you would be! What we have here is a special bottling that commemorated 18 years of the Friends of Laphroaig program, containing a mix of whisky from the casks used to create the original 2008 Cairdeas bottling, and some younger Laphroaig that was fully matured in 125-litre quarter casks. Remember that the regular Laphroaig Quarter Cask bottling is only finished in these smaller casks for an average of seven months, so Laphroaig that was fully matured in quarter casks is quite the rarity.

The original 2008 Cairdeas didn't carry an age statement, but that half of this 2012 Origins bottling is said to range from 13-21 years of age from both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, while the re-coopered ex-bourbon quarter cask-matured half is said to be 7 years of age. But remember that full-term maturation in those smaller casks will have had a different and more pronounced effect in that relatively short amount of time than a regular 200-litre barrel would have. So this whisky has had quite the complicated upbringing. Unlike the 2013 and 2016 (boo!), and of course the earlier releases, this 2012 release did actually make it to Australia officially, and seemed to be a slow seller, possibly because the very large retailer in question didn't make much fanfare when it appeared on their shelves, so most people probably didn't realise that it was available, or possibly because it took Australian Laphroaig fans a while to figure out what it was they were looking at! Whatever the reason was, it's now long gone.

This was also the year the distillery started bottling the Cairdeas at increasing strengths that corresponded to the year of release, so this one was bottled at 51.2%, the 2013 at 51.3%, 2014 at 51.4% etc. and there's no official word on whether this was cask strength or not, so I'm guessing it wasn't. This version does clearly state that it is non-chill filtered though, which is a great move. I could only find one source for the size of the release, which that source claimed to be 20,000 bottles, but that seems rather large to me, and I can't find any information to back it up, so take that with a grain of salt. Anyway, on to the tasting!
Laphroaig Cairdeas 'Origins' 2012, NAS, 51.2%. Islay, Scotland.
50/50 mix of 7 year old whisky fully matured (not finished) in quarter casks, and 13-21 year old vatting of casks from the first Cairdeas release in 2008. Non-chill filtered, likely natural colour.

Colour: Pale-ish yellow gold. I'm guessing natural.

Nose: Fresh, creamy & peaty. Creamy vanilla, strong fresh aniseed, recently cut grass, and fresh, warm peppery oak. Drying grapefruit and some candied lemon peel, and a damp, ashy peat tying it all together. A hint of something like a medicinal balm as well that's hard to pin down. Tiger balm maybe?

Texture: Lovely. Medium weight, creamy & peaty. Very slight heat, but not in an unpleasant way.

Taste: Lovely rich peat, a spicy & ashy peat now. Creamy vanilla again, and a little of Laphroaig's lighter side showing with a fruity and floral sweetness.

Finish: Medium length, more of that grapefruit, and the aniseed coming back with some extra spice and a little chilli now. Then the vanilla & peppery oak again, and the peat still lurking in the background the whole time.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Great stuff of course, as can always be expected from Laphroaig, and a nice mix of the different styles from the distillery as well, probably thanks to the different ages and different casks, so there's plenty going on. In the same vein though, the medicinal and coastal notes that most of us love in our Laphroaig are all but missing in this one, again probably due to the different ages and different casks that were used. So it's quite a different expression as well, edging towards the lighter side I'd say. Not that that's a bad thing of course, it's still a great quality Laphroaig with a very interesting recipe, which is what makes Cairdeas even more special.

So far, I'd have to say my personal favourite from the range that I've tried would be the 2009 12-year old, followed by the very special 2015 anniversary edition. But really you can't go wrong with any of the Cairdeas releases! Speaking of which, there are rumours and a prototype label of the 2017 version out there on the internet, and it looks to me like it's going to be awesome. If it's all true, it's been fully matured in quarter casks (again, not finished), and is bottled at cask strength. If anybody in Beam Suntory or no large Australian liquor retailer in particular is reading this, please bring it here, and please don't deprive us Laphroaig-loving Aussies of the chance to try it! Keep your fingers crossed folks.


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Bowmore Gold Reef Whisky Review!

Another travel-exclusive Bowmore, that was launched alongside its stable mate 'Black Rock', and yet again we're only told it's "predominantly matured" in first-fill bourbon casks, and there's no age statement. But at least this one is bottled at a slightly-better-but-still-not-quite-there 43% !

I wasn't particularly impressed with Bowmore Black Rock (review coming soon), and if it's a sherry finished Bowmore you're after I'd go for the 15 year old 'Darkest' instead, no question, and it's also much easier to get a hold of without needing to fly overseas. This 'Gold Reef' expression doesn't contain any sherry-matured whisky, but seems to be more focused on first-fill bourbon casks, so the only real frame of reference I have is the very impressive 10-year old cask strength 'Tempest', which isn't really a fair comparison with this non-age statement (NAS), so most likely younger bottling, at 43% ABV. The name in this case is meant to represent the sunlight reflecting off the coral reefs that can be found off Islay's coast, following the same theme as the other travel / duty free exclusive Bowmores, Black Rock and White Sands. Price-wise, this one isn't too bad, at $100 for one litre, and is only $5 more than the 40% Black Rock. It's also (spoiler alert) considerably better, if you ask me.

There seem to be a few brands that focus on this travel retail market more than others, and the two Beam Suntory-owned Islay distilleries are right up there, although to be fair the two travel-exclusive offerings I've tried from Laphroaig, PX and An Cuan Mor, are excellent. I personally wish it wasn't a thing, or at least not so much of a thing, because it basically means you're depriving a good portion of your loyal customer base of the chance to buy those bottlings, at least on a regular basis. Bruichladdich is another example, as much as I love the distillery and their whiskies, making the recent releases of the fantastic '_.2' versions of Octomore and cask strength 'PC_' versions of Port Charlotte travel-exclusive is just plain mean! I understand that the travel retail market is a big one, and that you need to have offerings that stand out, especially when the prospective customers are novices or are buying for gifts, but for Christ's sake please leave some of the good stuff for the rest of us!
Bowmore Gold Reef, NAS, 43%. Islay, Scotland.
"Predominantly matured in first-fill bourbon casks". Chill filtered, artificially coloured. 

Colour: Yellow gold.

Nose: Salty & coastal. Waxed citrus & tropical fruit with extra wax, some dusty red apple, salty sea breezes, some wet copper coins. A fresh floral sweetness and hint of honey, and a hint of damp earth.

Texture: Actually not bad. Still light weight, but much improved thanks to that extra 3% ABV. 

Taste: Drier than it was on the nose, and there's some peat here now. A dry, earthy peat, quite prominent initially but fades quickly. Some coal dust and slightly bitter oxidised fruit. A salty citrus tang, and lightly bitter burnt toffee. 

Finish: Some more bitterness here, but it's cleared up by a little spirit-y heat on the tongue. That fades too, then we have a little salty citrus again, becoming quite creamy, and the soft earthy peat comes back with some dried herbs and more fruit. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: Not bad really, I'm pleasantly surprised to be honest. There's some roughness on the finish, and it's not a particularly complex dram, plus I'm not a fan of that bitterness on the palate and in the finish. A better texture than expected though, that extra 3% definitely makes a difference here. I'd still like a heavier, weightier texture, but I suspect that the majority of potential buyers for this whisky wouldn't feel the same. It does have some serious competition at the same price point, even in the duty free store, but I think you could easily make a worse choice than the Gold Reef. And when you've just stepped a long flight and are staring, bleary eyed, at rows of mysterious bottles of whisky, most likely without the chance or the time to try any of them, that's good to know.

If you're looking for some more peat and some more sweetness though, I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but just head straight for Laphroaig PX! Thanks to the anonymous donor for this sample, much appreciated. 


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Talisker Dark Storm Whisky Review!

Ah, Talisker, the medium-to-lightly peated whisky from the Isle of Skye. Their 10-year old was the first peated single malt I ever tasted, and it was eye opening, although it was then immediately followed by Lagavulin 16, which absolutely decimated it. The distillery has released a myriad of NAS bottlings since then, including this travel exclusive 'Dark Storm'.

To be fair, I do still enjoy the 10-year old Talisker, although I feel it's held back a little by chill-filtration and loads of artificial colouring (much like most of Diageo's entry-level expressions). It's also being pushed to the wayside these days by a few similarly priced and similarly presented non-age statement bottlings, namely the 'Skye' and 'Storm', neither of which have really impressed me. I found the new entry-level 'Skye' to be very disappointing in particular, far too gentle and too 'conformist', almost completely devoid of Talisker's calling cards of salt & pepper, although that's probably exactly what they were going for. But I'm a big fan of the 57 North and 18-year old, and I hope those two and the 10-year old expression aren't going away any time soon. Time will tell!

This expression, the travel / duty free-exclusive 'Dark Storm', is matured in 'heavily charred casks', and is supposedly the peatiest & smokiest of the range. I can't see how it could possibly be peatier than the 57% ABV '57 Degrees North', especially considering the distillery only produces the one base spirit, but hey, let's find out anyway. The Dark Storm is quite reasonably priced, at around $95 AUD for a 1-litre bottle, and is bottled at Talisker's standard strength of 45.8%. Which means it's definitely chill-filtered, and it's definitely had plenty of artificial colouring added. It's also important to remember that the majority of Talisker's whisky is not matured on the Isle of Skye, it's mostly transported by tanker to centralised warehouses on the mainland of Scotland. Which is fine, many distilleries do the same for various reasons, but it's something to keep in mind.

As a quick point of interest, the first officially non-chill filtered Talisker was released in 2016, the travel-exclusive and non-age statement 'Neist Point'. It's not exactly cheap at around $220 AUD for 700ml, but at least it could be a step in the right direction. I'd be very interested to try it, but it's a little too pricey to buy untested, if you ask me. Not that I travel overseas often enough to be able to buy it anyway! Ah, the wonderful world of travel-exclusive bottlings.

And one more point of interest before we get stuck in, which I either never knew or had forgotten about, is that Talisker uses (and has always used) worm tub condensers, much like Mortlach and Benrinnes (have a read here for more information in a previous review), to cool the alcohol vapours coming from it's odd number of three spirit stills (paired with only two wash stills). As it happens the odd number of stills are a throwback to the triple-distillation which was practiced at the distillery until the late 1920s. So perhaps this large commercial distillery isn't quite as modernised and commercialised as some purists believe.

Talisker 'Dark Storm', NAS, 45.8%. Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Matured in 'heavily charred casks'. Chill filtered, added artificial colouring. Duty free / travel exclusive.

Colour: Orange-y amber. Artificial looking... 

Nose: Sweet & salty. Brine, lots of sweet stone fruit, citrus boiled sweets / lollies. Dusty old red apples and some toasted oak, and a hint of bitterness. Was quite hot initially, needed some extra breathing time in the glass, but calmed down nicely. 

Texture: Light-medium weight, a little heat but not unpleasant or off-putting. 

Taste: Salty, peppery and fruity. Not getting much smoke, but there is a little earthy peat there, although it doesn't hang around for long. More old red apples and stone fruit, the brine and black pepper is there, but it's a little subdued compared to the 10 year old, if memory serves.

Finish: Short length. A little heat, a drying chilli spice initially. Then a little soapy and lightly floral, and some dry earthy peat that hangs around a little longer now. Then spirit-y again, fades to leave that old red apple and a hint of salt. 

Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Notes: I must admit, I liked this one more than I thought I would! The nose is enjoyable, although quite sweet and not particularly complex, and it's nice on the palate as well, but falls over when it comes to the finish. I'm still keen to try the new Neist Point expression, but so far none of the newer Talisker expressions have impressed me. I'd suggest sticking to the 'traditional' 10- and 18-year old, and 57 North for your Talisker fix, or the sherry-finished Distiller's Edition if you're looking for something a little different. The distillery makes some excellent whisky, this one just didn't quite hit the mark for me. 

Honestly, if you're looking for a good value peaty single malt on your way through a duty-free / travel retail store, just head straight for Laphroaig PX if you ask me. It's only a few dollars more than this Talisker, still comes in a 1-litre bottle, and is bottled at a higher strength without the chill-filtration and caramel colouring. And it tastes fantastic.