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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...