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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!

Cheers!

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.

Cheers!    

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!

Cheers!