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Friday, 29 December 2017

Octomore OBA Whisky Review!

Just what is an OBA, you ask? This, dear readers, is Octomore Black Art! I've saved a very special dram for this review, and since it's almost New Year's Eve there's no time like the present!

Bruichladdich fans will be familiar with the Black Art series, which have all been un-peated Bruichladdich bottlings, mostly distilled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and released at 20+ years of age. The crucial thing with Black Art is that the cask type/s and size/s are never divulged, so you never know the recipe of the whisky inside it's opaque black bottle. Most releases are widely believed to have mostly used wine casks, but nobody really knows except those that made it, and they're not telling. This concept was the brainchild of former-Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan, after someone assured him that he wouldn't sell a whisky if he didn't tell anyone what was in it. Naturally in true McEwan and Bruichladdich style he proved that person wrong, because these mysterious bottlings have a large cult following, despite being quite expensive. Although they're actually quite reasonably priced if you consider the age you're getting in the bottle, and if you consider the prices of some of the competition, but the last two releases have jumped up significantly in the price department.

Glancing at the photo below, you may notice there's no mention of 'Black Art' anywhere on the packaging. What is there instead is a very convoluted "Octomore OBA Concept OBA/C.0.1" which essentially means Octomore Black Art Concept 01. So Bruichladdich haven't quite committed to calling it Octomore Black Art for some reason, but we'll let that slide for the moment. This "concept" came about during the distillery's open day masterclass during the 2016 Feis Ile, where head distiller Adam Hannett presented a rather mysterious Octomore in the tasting line-up, which he later revealed was Octomore Black Art. Naturally this created a huge amount of interest, and a few months later Bruichladdich sent out an email offering pre-orders of Octomore OBA, due to be released a few more months later in April 2017. It was limited to 2 x 500ml bottles per person on the website, and only 3000 bottles were sold in total. It was also delayed quite significantly by the production of the smaller 500ml bottles and tins, still in the Octomore style, but to Bruichladdich's credit the pricing was really quite reasonable at 95 pounds each including the VAT. Considering the demand there was for this precious stuff they probably could have doubled or even tripled that and it still would have sold out, so they really should be commended for that.

Contrary to Bruichladdich's usual MO, we don't know much about what's in this bottling. There's no ppm level stated like there is in all other Octomore releases, because it's a mix of different vintages and hence different production batches, and there's no age, vintage or cask type stated either, because it's a Black Art. But Bruichladdich have taken a page out of Compass Box's book with a few of their recent NAS bottlings as part of their transparency campaign, so one could enter a code into the distillery's website and get a little more information in return. Basically OBA is a vatting of ten casks of six different types, with the youngest being distilled in 2008, and the oldest being distilled in 2002, not long after the first Octomore batches were produced. So this means that some of the younger contents is 9 years old, which is already old for an Octomore (beaten by only the two 10 year old releases), and the oldest is 14-15 years old. The only other way to taste Octomore of a similar age is to head to Islay for a warehouse tasting at the distillery! Given that it's significantly older than most Octomore bottlings, we shouldn't expect the big peaty punch that the 5 year old bottlings provide, but there's still going to be some smoke in here.

We do know that all of the barley used for this release came from the Scottish mainland, which makes sense seeing as all of those casks involved easily pre-date the first Islay Barley Octomore (6.3, reviewed here). We don't know the cask types or cask sizes used, but after tasting this delicious dram I highly doubt that many of those ten casks were your typical ex-bourbon barrel. And just check out that colour! Speaking of which, I'm sure many were expecting OBA to be presented in an opaque black bottle, but since most Octomores are presented that way, I'm glad they went the other way with the frosted glass and the bright orange tube. It really stands out! Being a Bruichladdich it's all natural colour and is non-chill filtered, and it was bottled at cask strength (59.7%). Which is actually unusual for an Octomore, they're usually slightly reduced before bottling. As with all Black Art releases though, the proof is in the pudding! Let's get to it...

Bruichladdich OBA Concept 01 (Octomore Black Art). NAS, 59.7%. Islay, Scotland.
Vatting of 10 casks of 6 different types. Youngest distilled in 2008, oldest distilled in 2002, all from Scottish mainland barley. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 3000 x 500ml bottles.

Colour: Dark polished bronze. Gorgeous.

Nose: Bloody fantastic! Rich & fruity, dense & sweet. Smoky apricot jam, golden syrup, dusty cigar leaves, a little brine and marzipan (sweet almond paste). Very sweet berries with a little cream, warm buttery pastry, with a beguiling earthy peat underneath. Some gorgeous old oak and a little fizzy cola with more time.

Texture: Heavy weight, thick & oily. Jam-packed with flavour! No heat at all, just excellent.

Taste: Boom! Flavour explosion! So much going on at once. Heavy, oily almost acrid smoke hits first, then masses of sweet stone fruit, thick buttery caramel, some berry compote and fresh salt. Lovely big, fresh earthy peat, a little soft old leather.

Finish: Very long. More delicious fresh earthy peat, cigar smoke, bitter tannins and a little rubber bringing the sweetness down, with more of that smoky apricot jam. Then some more berries but they're much less sweet now. Soft old leather again, some charred salty smoked meat, and burnt stewed stone fruit.

Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Notes: Wow, what a whisky! Very nearly gave this one a 5 out of 5. So absolutely packed with flavour and character, with masses of fruit and surprising sweetness alongside some wonderful salt, peat and smoke. But it's not your typical Octomore by any means, and I'd say that was the idea, so if you go in looking for the 'normal' 5-year old Octomore experience you may be disappointed. But lose those preconceptions and you'll be blown away by the sheer volume of flavours that are on offer. The nose on this Black Art (let's just call a spade a spade) is amazing, almost transcendent, and the palate is almost an out-of-body experience. The peat and smoke are still there, but they're more refined and more mature in the OBA. They're less dominant and confrontational than they are in most younger Octomores, instead they're more supportive and more in harmony with the rest of the experience. And what an experience it is!

Seriously amazing stuff here. OBA is already commanding a high price on the auction circuit, especially considering it's a 500ml bottle, but honestly if you're a Bruichladdich and/or Octomore fan then you've just got to taste this at least once. Just make it happen. The original asking price from the distillery was an absolute bargain, and Bruichladdich really should be commended for that. So if you were lucky enough to score one (or two), you should be counting your blessings and thanking the 'Laddie for their generosity. I know I am.

Will we see a properly-declared Octomore Black Art in the future? Or a Port Charlotte Black Art? Time will tell, but here's hoping! Come on Adam, you know you want to...

All the best for the new year folks, see you in 2018!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Gordon & MacPhail Ledaig Hermitage Finish Whisky Review!

What? A wine finished Ledaig from G&M? Yes please!

Ledaig, pronounced "Led-chig" or "Le-chayg", is the heavily peated whisky from Tobermory Distillery on the Isle of Mull, which is off the western coast of Scotland, north of Jura and South of Skye. The distillery sits right on the harbour in the island's main village of Tobermory. The distillery was originally named Ledaig in 1798, but wasn't officially licensed until 1823, and was renamed Tobermory in 1979 after a very tumultuous past with a number of ownership changes and closures. In fact the distillery has been closed for two 40 year periods on separate occasions in its history, along with a few shorter closures, the most recent of which was in 1982, when the warehouses were (sadly) converted into holiday apartments, before the distillery was purchased and rescued by Burn Stewart in 1993.

Burn Stewart is now owned by South African company Distell, who therefore now also own Bunnahabhain and Deanston distilleries. Deanston, north of Glasgow, is apparently where most of Tobermory's whisky is matured, since there is no warehousing on-site on Mull. Distell seem to be investing considerable funds into these distilleries, with Bunnahabhain undergoing a large-scale refurbishment in the near future, and Tobermory is currently inactive for the same reason, being due to come back to life in March 2019. It's unfortunate to see a distillery shut down for two years, and the gap that this is going to create in their future maturing stock will be significant, but at least the visitor's centre is still open, and there's still plenty of Ledaig whisky available for the moment, although stock of Tobermory 10 & 15 has all but disappeared. Interestingly this two year closure and refurbishment, which will even include replacing the stills themselves, will not include any increase in production capacity (800,000 litres annually), which I find a little strange. Apparently most of the planned work is intended to "improve the visitor experience".

Ledaig is a bit of an underdog in the peated whisky world, and I'm a big fan. Their 10-year old entry level bottling offers excellent value for money and is a real challenger to the entry level bottlings from the Islay heavyweights, and is definitely helped by the 46.3% minimum strength and lack of chill filtration and colouring. The sherry finished official 18-year old is excellent as well, and enjoys those same advantages, albeit at a much higher price tag than the younger variant. There are quite a few independent bottlings of both un-peated Tobermory and Ledaig around, usually on the younger side, but that doesn't mean they're lacking in flavour or in quality.

This particular bottling of Ledaig is from independent bottling royalty Gordon & MacPhail. It has been aged or around 9 years in ex-bourbon casks before a 26-month finishing period in Hermitage red wine casks from Guigal vineyard in the Rhone region of central France. We don't know exactly which wine variety these casks held previously, but given that most Hermitage wines are of the Syrah variety (known as Shiraz in Australia) I think we can safely make that assumption. This is not G&M's first foray into wine finished peated whiskies, since there have been both Hermitage and Sassicaia cask finished Caol Ilas in recent years, and those same cask types are also used in G&M-owned Benromach Distillery's wine finished expressions.

I must admit the bottling strength of 45% in this one has me a little concerned, and it was the same with those aforementioned Benromachs and wine finished Caol Ilas. Why not just go up to 46% and lose the (assumed, but most likely) chill filtration? **EDIT: G&M tell me that despite being bottled at 45%, this and their other wine finished whiskies are not chill filtered! Great stuff guys!** G&M's Cask Strength bottlings aren't chill filtered, so I can't see it being a bottling line issue. G&M don't add any colouring to any of their whiskies though, so we know that's not an issue. There have been some excellent sherry finished & sherry matured Ledaigs bottled recently, so let's see how that delicious dirty, coastal peaty style works with a French red wine cask! The sample for this review came from G&M and Benromach's excellent Australian importer and distributor, Alba Whisky. Thanks gents!

Gordon & MacPhail Ledaig Hermitage Finish 2005. 45%. Mull, Scotland.
Heavily peated whisky from Tobermory Distillery. Distilled 2005, bottled 2012. Matured in ex-bourbon casks for 9 years and finished for 26 months in Hermitage French red wine casks. Non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. 4100 bottles. 

Colour: Bronze with red tinges. 

Nose: Interesting, it's quite muted. Sweet and slightly musty red fruits - juicy red apples, berries, some plum jam. Some cinnamon sugar and clove spice, very lightly meaty. Sweet concentrated fresh oak, and some sweetened grape juice. Opens up a little more with extra time in the glass, but it's not a very expressive dram. 

Texture: Light, and a little flat and sulphury. No heat at all. 

Taste: Still strangely flat and muted initially. Some dirty (which is a good thing) peat here, but it doesn't stick around long. More spicy, sweet and oaky red wine, and more sweet red apples. More musty red grapes, slightly meaty again, and hints of earth and salt. 

Finish: Medium. Very chalky though, and a little sour. That chalky-ness really coats the mouth and doesn't let go, and I'm thinking it's sulphur since there's an egg-y sour quality to it. Not overly unpleasant though, just very weird! The peat returns later on, but that chalky, musty mouth-coating sulphur doesn't let go until the very end and just dominates everything. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: A very interesting dram, and quite a challenging one! Certainly one of the milder Ledaigs that I've tried, and it seems like either the cask has dominated and then faded a little, or the cask & spirit have clashed and neither recovered properly. I had high hopes for this one and was very excited to try it, but it hasn't quite lived up to my expectations. The typical Ledaig profile is very hard to spot in places, and it's a little flat and muted on the palate, and then that very strange chalky, musty sulphur note on the finish was very dominant, and didn't sit right with me. Maybe a higher strength would have helped, but I'm not sure. Still a nice dram though, the nose is very enjoyable if again a little muted, and it certainly improved and opened up with more time in the glass. A big thanks to Alba Whisky for the sample!

G&M's lower strength bottlings are typically quite light and balanced, which is still the case here, but I do prefer the G&M 'Connoisseurs Choice' Ledaigs that I've tasted. They were bottled at 46% to boot and were slightly older, and still kept that lovely meaty, dirty and peaty character that I look for in a dram of Ledaig. They're more traditional in that sense, and don't push the boundaries as far as this Hermitage finish does.

Kudos must be given to G&M for trying something different here, and it's still worth a try. In fact all of their private label bottlings seem to push boundaries and take risks, and might even pave the way for others to try the same. For instance the red wine cask-finished G&M Caol Ilas seemed to be quite successful, and lo and behold the current Caol Ila Distillery Exclusive official bottling has a few red wine casks in the mix, which to my knowledge is a first for a Diageo official bottling. I can't say that G&M influenced that of course, but just maybe...


Sunday, 3 December 2017

Distillery in Detail: Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail!

The last distillery visit of my recent pilgrimage to Scotland was a very special one, and it was also one of the highlights of the whole experience. Benromach has been one of my favourite mainland distilleries ever since I tasted the two versions of their delicious 10-year old bottling (reviews here). The distillery is located near the town of Forres, around 20 minutes drive west of Elgin, or around 50 minutes drive east of Inverness. It's actually the smallest distillery in the Speyside region, with an annual production capacity of under 250,000 litres, and the distillery itself is beautiful with a very nice visitor's centre, and a very well-stocked shop (including a distillery exclusive bottling!). In fact in my experience this is one of only a few Speyside distilleries where you can still get a sense of traditional and careful production, and painstaking manual labour, all in the pursuit of excellent quality single malt.

The distillery was originally built in 1898, and passed through a number of hands and quite a few closures until winding up under the ownership of DCL, one of the companies which would later form Diageo. While in the hands of DCL the distillery was mothballed in 1983, and it sat silent for 11 years, often being raided for parts and equipment, until it was rescued by Elgin-based family owned independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail, otherwise known as G&M, in 1993. G&M then spent over five years carefully refurbishing their new distillery, even replacing the stills, before production began in 1998, when it was officially reopened by HRH Prince Charles. The goal from the outset was to produce a classic Speyside whisky. And by "classic" they mean old style: medium bodied, rich and lightly peated (to 10-15 ppm) spirit, with the idea being to get as close as possible to a pre-1960s Speyside whisky. And although owned by an independent bottler, none of Benromach's whisky goes into blends, it's all bottled as single malt.

Despite Benromach's ethos of producing a classic Speyside whisky, they're certainly not afraid to also try new things. For example, they produce a delicious heavily peated (up to 67 ppm) whisky, not a commonly found thing in Speyside, which is aptly named Peat Smoke; they're bottling one of the world's only completely certified organic whiskies (which is a hugely difficult thing to do) and they were the first to do so; and they've recently released a triple-distilled Benromach made from the same lightly-peated barley, which to my knowledge is the only peated triple-distilled Scotch whisky currently on the market. All of which is not a bad showing considering they've only been distilling for 19 years since re-opening!

Alongside these new and unusual releases they've managed to stay traditional and "old school" when it comes to production. The distillery uses only the aforementioned lightly-peated barley in all but one expression (the aforementioned Peat Smoke), and it's all Scottish barley by the way, and uses both brewers and distillers yeast in their wooden washbacks, along with long fermentation and slow distillation, and everything is done by hand. There's no automation software or computer assistance involved in the production at any stage, which again is not particularly common in contemporary Speyside. They only use first fill casks to mature their whisky, generally using ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, so there are no refill casks involved, and they're only using traditional earthen-floored dunnage warehouses to store those casks. You certainly do get a sense of this small-scale traditional production inside the distillery, with all of the production equipment being housed in a single building, including the shiny stills with their downward-angled lyne arms which are obviously crucial to Benromach's heavier and more characterful style of spirit.

The distillery offers a range of tours, priced from 6 pounds for a basic tour and tasting of the 10-year old, through to 125 pounds for a personal tour with the distillery manager which includes a bottle of the distillery exclusive to take home. While there is no photography permitted inside the distillery buildings, all tours do take a look inside a dunnage warehouse, which is often not the case on many distillery tours and is an absolute must see in my opinion. These cold, dank, and often dirty & dusty warehouses are an essential part of the process and should be celebrated as such!  

I was lucky enough to catch up with Alastair Milligan, export representative for Gordon & MacPhail, at Benromach, who very generously showed me around the distillery, before a quick tasting in the visitor's centre. It may have been a quick tasting, but it was very, very special since I was lucky enough to taste the then-new triple distilled Benromach (review coming soon!), the current distillery exclusive bottling, and one more... Benromach 35 year old! We started with the new triple-distilled, which is bottled at a higher strength than most of Benromach's expressions at 50% ABV. I'm not usually a big fan of triple-distilled whisky, I often find them too light and a little lacking in character, but this is definitely one of the best that I've tasted. While I'm sure the lightly-peated malt and first-fill bourbon casks help, I'd say that it's also the heavier, more robust Benromach spirit that is largely responsible for that. It's a very fresh, fruity and lightly smoky dram that was way down on the acetone notes that I usually find prominent in triple distilled whiskies, despite being only eight years of age. Which is yet another testament to the skill of the distillery team.

Next up was the current distillery exclusive bottling, which was a 15-year old ex-bourbon single cask bottled at 59.9% ABV. This one was very nice, again it was fresh and fruity, with plenty of character, and the typical Benromach "touch of smoke" was amplified nicely with the high strength. But the star of the show was definitely the 35-year old. This very special whisky is beautifully presented in a dark wooden box, and still carries hints of that excellent Benromach packaging design. Obviously this whisky was distilled long before G&M took ownership of the distillery, and there's not many casks left from that era, and it was fully-matured in first-fill sherry casks. Although bottled at a relatively low 43% it was full of character and flavour. Liquid toffee apples in fact, with a little wax, and some leather and oak mixed in. It wasn't dominated by the sherry or the wood either, which is quite an achievement for a whisky that was matured in first-fill casks for 35 years. Absolutely delicious! That was the end of the Benromach part of this incredible afternoon, and like all of the best distillery visits do, actually seeing, touching, and smelling the working distillery, and then tasting the results, on site at the distillery, gives you a new degree of appreciation for the whisky you find in your glass long after the experience itself has ended. It's a gift that keeps on giving!

But that's not all folks! Alastair was also kind enough to show me around Gordon & MacPhail's headquarters in Elgin, including an incredible warehouse and an absolutely mind-blowing tasting. After a quick drive-by of Diageo's massive Roseisle distillery plant to give me a sense of scale (and did it ever!), we toured the famous George House, before finishing up in the original Gordon & MacPhail shop in the centre of Elgin. What a way to spend an afternoon!

Gordon & MacPhail started out as a grocery store and whisky brokerage in 1895 in Elgin (so pre-dating Benromach Distillery by 3 years!), and the company is still privately owned by the fourth-generation descendants of John Urquhart, who joined the company in 1896, and went on to become a senior partner in 1915. It was Urquhart who began purchasing new make spirit from various distilleries and filling it into his own casks, which were then matured at their place of origin, with the intent to either use them for blends or to bottle them as what we now call single malts. G&M produce a huge range of bottlings, including both blends and single malts, perhaps most famously the Connoisseurs Choice and Cask Strength ranges.

G&M strongly believe that the wood makes the whisky, and after visiting one of their incredible warehouses I could easily see that being put into action over many decades of hard work. Unfortunately no photography was permitted inside the building (for understandable reasons), so you'll just have to take my word for it, but this was like an Aladdin's cave of extremely precious whisky. Thousands of casks were sitting quietly in this massive racked warehouse, waiting for their time in the spotlight to finally come. I can't go into specific details here, but I'd wager that G&M have the largest range of very old casks still maturing than any independent bottler, and quite possibly more than many distilleries as well. After a quick walk through the bottling hall and packaging area, which is responsible for bottling both G&M and Benromach products and shipping them all over the world, I was led up to the incredible new tasting room for a dram.

This tasting room itself has to be seen to be believed. The fittings & fixtures are truly beautiful, including light fittings made from barrel hoops, and the walls are lined with Urquhart family portraits, a copy of the original trading license from 1895, and lots and lots of whisky! One end of this large room is home to hundreds of cask samples, and this alone could easily be mistaken for a whisky museum. 1952 Ardbeg anyone!?! But that's definitely not all, because on the other side of the room, in a very pretty (and very secure) display case you'll find four extremely special bottles of whisky. We're talking about a 75-year old Mortlach, two 70-year old Glenlivets, and a 70-year old Mortlach. These are the longest matured single malt whiskies that have ever been bottled, so we're in some serious company here!

Obviously these aren't exactly open for tasting, but Alastair had selected a few extremely special drams to finish off the visit to these hallowed grounds, which just happened to include the oldest whisky I've ever tasted! We're talking a 15-year old Linkwood, a 21-year old Mortlach, a delicious 23-year old Glen Scotia, and then the stars of the show: a 52-year old sherry cask Glen Grant distilled in 1961, and a 56-year old sherry cask 'Speymalt' Macallan distilled in 1950! Both of these were absolutely incredible, as you'd expect, with the Glen Grant still being full of fruit and not at all overly oaky, and the Macallan (labelled as Speymalt by G&M) being full of dark chocolate, fruit and spice. Somebody pinch me!

All five drams were very balanced, as is G&M's goal with all of their bottlings, and it has to be said that compared to some official bottlings these very old G&M whiskies are actually quite reasonably priced. I know that sounds silly when you're talking about $30,000 and upwards for 700ml of whisky, but compared to similar very old whisky from the big brands that are on the market, which are considerably younger to boot, it's actually quite reasonable!

After this phenomenal tasting we were off down the road to Gordon & MacPhail's shop for a quick look around. Which is still the original shop that first opened in 1895, located on the other side of Elgin. What's amazing here is that the shop is still a working delicatessen, a grocery store, and a wine & spirits store, as well as having a dedicated whisky section with over 1000 bottles on the shelves! The shop often has exclusive bottlings as well, which at the time included an 8-year old Bunnahabhain and a 19-year old Mortlach, both bottled at cask strength. While there's obviously a huge range of G&M bottlings available there's also a massive range of official bottlings from various distilleries, Scottish and otherwise, and all are priced very reasonably. Unfortunately it was now after closing time and I was holding everyone up, so I panic-bought a miniature Connoisseurs Choice Ledaig (which was delicious) and got out of the way. But it was incredible to get the chance to look around this 120+ year old shop, which is still family owned, and to see it still operating as a 'normal' shop with such history is pretty amazing. I highly recommend stopping in here on your way through the Highlands, and I suggest you save some luggage space for the occasion!

With that it was on the road again, still beaming from the whole experience! If you'd told me that morning that by that evening I would have tasted a 35-year old Benromach, a 52-year old Glen Grant and a 56-year old Macallan, after looking at & touching some casks that are older than my father, I'd have laughed at you. What a way to spend the day! Gordon & MacPhail have long been one of my favourite independent bottlers, and this visit has of course reinforced that feeling. They do consistently good work through both their independent bottlings and their beautiful distillery, and long may it continue. A massive, massive thanks to Alastair for showing me around and truly going above & beyond, it's very much appreciated mate! And thanks to Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail for having me. I can't wait to get back over there and do it all again!

Since this is also the final part of the pilgrimage write-up, there's another more sombre experience which deserves a mention, and which definitely deserves a visit if you're making this pilgrimage yourself: Culloden Battlefield. We stopped in on the way back to Inverness, and although the visitor's centre had closed for the day we could still walk the tracks. This meant it was practically empty which certainly added to the already heavy atmosphere. Culloden Moor was the site of the last stand of the failed Jacobite rebellion in 1746, and it's now regarded as a war grave. Over 1500 outnumbered Jacobites (mostly Scots) were killed on this field, compared with around 300 British army troops, and the battle itself lasted less than an hour. It's a very sobering, sombre and almost spooky place, especially so in the dying light of a cold evening with mist rolling over the hills. There are flags on the field that mark the lines of both sides, along with memorial stones dedicated to the various Scottish clans that were erected in 1881, along with a memorial cairn. The battlefield and visitor's centre is only around 15 minutes from Inverness, and I highly recommend that you visit. It's all too easy to forget about Scotland's tumultuous history and past hardships when you're touring distilleries and drinking glorious whisky, so if you ask me this should be on everyone's itinerary when visiting the Highlands. Personally it served as a reminder that this stunningly beautiful, friendly and welcoming country hasn't been treated too fairly in history...