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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.