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Sunday, 30 December 2018

Lagavulin Jazz Festival 2017 Whisky Review!

Something special for the last review of 2018. As I mentioned once or twice in Part 2 of my pilgrimage write-up from 2017, I just happened to be lucky enough to be on Islay during the annual Islay Jazz Festival, and Lagavulin just happen to release a commemorative whisky each year to celebrate the occasion! What a happy coincidence...

Known as Jazz Festival bottlings, they are usually different ages and/or different cask types to the norm, generally personally selected by Islay legend Ian McArthur himself. The last few year's releases have been no age statement bottlings, but they're always bottled at cask strength without any added colouring or chill filtration, so I can certainly make do without that other number on the label. Like many limited edition bottlings these days they aren't packaged in a box, but in Lagavulin's case they do come in a nice cloth or heavy paper bag with a bit of artwork on the front, which I think is a nice touch. They can only be purchased from the distillery, until they surface on secondary auction sites at least, and the more recent releases have been limited to either 3000 or 6000 individually numbered bottles. All of which makes them very collectible and widely lusted after, and very hard to come by on the other side of the world.

The 2016 bottling was also still available from the distillery shop during my visit, and it was a mix of first-fill ex-bourbon casks and re-fill American oak casks (presumably also ex-bourbon), bottled at a cask strength of 54.5%. While a tasty whisky (duh, it's a Lagavulin!) I felt it was a little tame compared to the Feis Ile and Distillery Exclusive bottlings, possibly because of those first-fill casks, so I held off and waited to see what the 2017 version would have to offer when it was released a few days later. And I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be an extremely delicious mix of re-fill American oak hogsheads (250-litre casks) and re-fill European oak butts (500-litre casks) bottled at a hefty 57.6% ABV. So it could be refill ex-bourbon and refill ex-sherry casks (of various styles), or it could be all refill sherry casks, we don't really know, but the resulting whisky is fantastic. It sold from the distillery shop for 99 pounds including the VAT, which is really quite reasonable. For the readers in Europe, that's roughly what the annual Lagavulin 12-year old limited release sells for in Australia (when it's officially imported). While these are limited bottlings, being exclusive to the distillery shop means that those 3000 or 6000 bottles tend to last for a reasonable amount of time, which is brilliant for visitors who have made the pilgrimage, so you do actually have a chance of still finding one of these bottles a fair while after the festival has come & gone.

Like I mentioned back in Part 2 of my pilgrimage, my visits to Lagavulin (there were three, in the end) were easily one of the highlights of the entire trip. Despite it being a relatively large corporate-owned distillery, you'd never guess it when you're actually there. The excellent visitor's centre, the very warm, friendly & helpful staff, and the very reasonably priced tastings and exclusive bottlings all add up to one amazing experience. But without doubt one of the best experiences was attending a warehouse tasting with Ian McArthur, who as I mentioned above personally selected the casks that make up this 2017 Jazz Festival bottling. Tasting this one transports me straight back to the distillery on that cold and wet Saturday morning, which is the sign of a great whisky and a good purchase. I was also lucky enough to have Ian sign a bottle for me! Which meant that I had to pick up a second bottle that was just begging to be opened as soon as I was home, and it's now dearly departed. So let's get to it!

Lagavulin Jazz Festival 2017, NAS, 57.6%. Islay, Scotland.
Mix of refill American oak hogsheads (presumably ex-bourbon) and refill European oak ex-sherry butts. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. Distillery exclusive. 6000 bottles. 

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Lovely. Lots of tar, oily, dirty & sweet diesel, and caked sea salt. Some charred driftwood, drying kelp, ground black pepper and lightly bitter licorice. Sweet dried raspberry and fresh lemon juice, a vegetal and earthy peat and some sweet herbal / leafy smoke. Some sweet & creamy vanilla comes out with more time.

Texture: Heavy weight, very oily and full-flavoured. Plenty of peat and pepper, and a very slight heat that is very pleasant. 

Taste: Massively oily, loads of dank earthy peat and cracked black pepper, and a buttery sweetness. Pepper-crusted smoked bacon, more dirty diesel & charred oak, more kelp and a light medicinal balm note that could be lanolin ointment.

Finish: Long. Black pepper & dank, oily, earthy peat again. Then softens with a nice salted root vegetable note like salted potato chips / crisps. Flashes of creamy vanilla, sweet banana, dried raspberry and more lemon juice. Salt-laden peat and that balm / ointment note carry on for quite some time.

Score: 4.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Fantastic. So dirty and peaty, with so much tar, pepper and buttery sweetness. An excellent Lagavulin with loads of character and complexity for what I would think is a reasonably young whisky. It has most of the classic Lagavulin notes that are found in the 12-year old, but with extra pepper, more sweetness and even more peat. Plus that refreshing sweet dried raspberry note and the typical Lagavulin lemon & brine. It was released at a similar price to what we Australians pay for the 12-year old, and it's a no-brainer for that sort of money. In my opinion it's significantly better than the 2017 Feis Ile bottling was, despite the latter always getting more attention than the Jazz Festival release that follows it. This one is right up my alley, and I do wish I'd bought an extra bottle. Or an extra case...

Having tried the 2018 bottling on this year's pilgrimage I do prefer this one. The '18 is sweeter and lighter, probably due to the addition of some first-fill casks and apparently also some older stock going into the mix, although it was still offered at the same price point. This 2017 Jazz Festival would have to be one of my favourite Lagavulin official bottlings from what I've tasted to date. I think we need to start a petition against Ian McArthur being allowed to retire in a couple of years' time, we can't afford to lose him. Truly delicious, and highly recommended!

Cheers, and here's to a great new year!

Monday, 24 December 2018

Kilchoman Feis Ile 2016 Whisky Review!

As soon as you step outside of Ardbeg's releases, and to a lesser extent also Laphroaig's, Feis Ile bottlings are not easy to come by. This is in fact my first Feis Ile Kilchoman, so this one is very exciting!

Feis Ile (pronounced "faysh eela") is the Islay festival of music & malt, which occurs around May/June each year. All of the Islay distilleries have their own 'open day' during the festival, which usually involves copious amounts of whisky, music, food, and large crowds of people. But the highlight of the festival for most whisky enthusiasts are the special bottlings that each distillery releases specifically for the festival. Aside from the aforementioned Ardbeg and Laphroaig releases, these bottlings can only be purchased from the relevant distillery shop during the festival, and/or until sold out. Well, until you visit the usual auction websites a few days later and come across the masses of bottle flippers that inhabit those dark corners, but that's another story. While the Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Lagavulin releases usually get a lot of collector attention and subsequently fly off the shelves very quickly, the other distilleries' efforts tend to be a little less... ostentatious.

Being the young upstart on Islay by more than 100 years (at least until Ardnahoe start distilling), Kilchoman tend to do things differently. Production began in late 2005, and their oldest whisky to date is 12-years old with most considerably younger than that, but their commitment to quality and very careful production has produced some outstanding whiskies at much younger ages. Aside from growing their own barley for use in their 100% Islay bottlings, which they also floor malt at the distillery, everything else is also done on-site, including maturation and bottling. The distillery's core range is quite diverse these days, with the entry-level Machir Bay and Sanaig bottlings, plus the annual Loch Gorm, "vintage" release and 100% Islay bottling. They also produce a large amount of single cask releases for private buyers, bottle shops, bars and importers, as well as their own distillery exclusive bottlings which tend to be exceptional. Kilchoman's Feis Ile bottlings are not always single casks, but are very small releases (usually 2-3 cask's worth), and they are always bottled at cask strength.

The 2016 Feis Ile release that we're looking at today is an 8-year old single Oloroso sherry butt (500-litre cask). It was distilled in December 2007, before being bottled in May 2016 just in time for the festival, with a yield of 634 bottles. Since bottling is carried out on-site, there's no need for Kilchoman to worry about the massive lead times at centralised bottling plants that most distilleries need to account for. If I'm not mistaken, at the time of release this 2016 Feis Ile was the oldest sherry-matured official release (not a private bottling) to date, and it was also the oldest Feis Ile bottling to date, only beaten by the 2018 Feis Ile 11-year old bottling. Cask strength in this case was 56.6%, and being a Kilchoman it is of course non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. Obviously it's not an easy whisky to find, and you'll need to look to the overseas auctions, which is where this bottle's owner found his. And I'm lucky enough to have a sample to review!

Kilchoman Feis Ile 2016, 56.6%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 12/2007, matured in a single Oloroso sherry butt, bottled 5/2016. Cask number 429/2007, 634 bottles, only available from the distillery. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Very nice. Fresh & bright to start with, but also rich & quite deep. There's a lovely salty, medicinal tang to it like fresh sea salt & drying kelp with a touch of iodine, and a deep butter toffee sweetness. Some dank spicy oak and stewed stone fruit, dark cocoa powder and fresh black pepper.

Texture: Medium weight, rich and very warming. Lightly peaty and quite spicy. A little spirit-y heat as well.

Taste: Rich dark toffee and burnt stewed stone fruit, then damp earthy peat and black pepper, followed by sea salt and more stone fruit. A nice puff of oily wood smoke, and a good pinch of chilli flakes.

Finish: Medium length. More black pepper and charred chilli flakes, and a nice dirty engine oil note with some drying kelp and spicy oak alongside. Flashes of dark rum-soaked raisins, vegetal peat and burnt toffee behind.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Very nice stuff. It's a darker, danker, spicier dram than I'd usually expect from Kilchoman, even in a sherry cask, but there's still plenty of character & plenty of flavour to be found here. It is quite spicy though, not in a harsh alcohol way but more spicy oak, chilli and pepper, and there isn't a huge amount of peat to it either. But that's not a bad thing, there's still plenty to enjoy in this whisky. Just don't go into this expecting a higher strength version of Loch Gorm, it's quite different in style. Which is the beauty of single cask whiskies after all, and is also what Feis Ile bottlings should aim for if you ask me. If you somehow manage to stumble across a bottle of this one, it's well worth a buy or at least a try.

Another very tasty young whisky from Kilchoman, that is a different take on their usual style. Is there anything they can't do? Well, no, of course there isn't!

Cheers & merry Xmas / happy holidays!

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength Batch 010 & Batch 008 Whisky Review!

The latest bottling of Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength, batch 010, plus a bonus review of the highest strength release of the much-loved "10 CS" so far! We have some very tasty peat monsters ahead...

I've lamented about the lack of Laphroaig's 10 Year Old Cask Strength in Australia previously, in my review of the epic Batch 006 & tasty Batch 009 bottlings last year, and unfortunately that situation hasn't changed, and doesn't seem likely to change in future. The only way to procure these excellent whiskies down under is to either import them yourself from the distillery when they're released (and don't hesitate for too long - luckily I was quick enough this year), or to import them yourself from European auctions, and both options mean paying the ridiculous taxes and duties that Australian customs slug us with, plus the various courier companies' extra charges. Otherwise you could wait for local re-sellers to do the same, which then means paying rather bloated prices (think $250-ish AUD), although it's still worth it for the die hard Laphroaig fan. What hurts the most is that we can easily see how much of a bargain this whisky is from the distillery, in fact I myself paid an incredible 49 pounds for a bottle of Batch 009 at the distillery shop during my pilgrimage last year, and then had a portion of the included VAT refunded at Heathrow on the way out. That is an absolute steal for a whisky at this level of quality and flavour, and I couldn't leave Islay without one. For those playing overseas that is around-about what we Australians pay for the standard 10-year old Laphroaig at 40% ABV, and as tasty and accessible as that Islay essential is, anyone who has had the pleasure will be able to tell you that the cask strength bottlings are on a completely different level. Since then the distillery's price has increased to around 60 pounds, but it's still very reasonable and offers excellent value for money.

Which brings me to my next point of lamentation. We can also easily see how much of a bargain this whisky is in the United States. Despite having to be shipped across the Atlantic, and then marked up by whichever bottle shops (sorry, liquor stores) have answered the call, it can often be found for slightly less than the aforementioned price from the shop at the distillery itself. Yes, really. I'm talking around $60 USD (plus sales tax, admittedly), which is once again an absolute steal. What's worse is that those lucky Americans seem to get a huge amount of stock of these limited release Laphroaigs which can sit on store shelves for quite some time, and that also extends to the annual Cairdeas bottlings that, for the last three years at least, have not been officially imported into Australia. Naturally they're also not imported into many other countries around the world, it's not just us Australians that miss out, and I'm not forgetting about the sheer buying power of the U.S. either. But it'd be nice if the "Laphy love" could be shared around just a little more, and I'm sure the distillery itself would feel the same way. But that's enough whingeing. I still love you Laphroaig!

The 2018 release of the mighty 10-year old Cask Strength is the tenth numbered batch, although there were a couple of unnumbered batches (known as green stripe and red stripe bottlings) prior to the appearance of Batch 001 back in 2009. Each annual bottling is unique, but they all follow a similar recipe: pure, unadulterated essence of Laphroaig, served up at natural cask strength, and without any of that chill filtration nonsense. Seeing as Batch 010 is something of a milestone, I must admit that I expected (hoped?) that the distillery would do something a little different for this one, but instead they've stayed faithful to the original idea and haven't played around with the recipe. Not that that's any bad thing of course! Batch 010 was bottled in January 2018, at 58.0% ABV. And as an extra bonus, and definitely not just because I happened to still have a sample sitting around, I'm also going to review Batch 008, the 2016 release, after putting the new guy through its paces. Both of these samples came from private sample swaps, by the way. What's interesting about this sample of Batch 008 is that it's from the US bottling, which from what I can gather was a separate bottling run just for the US market. Aside from being a 750ml bottle, it was bottled at 59.9% ABV, while the UK bottling of Batch 008 weighed in at 59.2%. I'm not sure how often that separate bottling run happens, but I haven't noticed such a variance before, so I suspect it may have been a one-off. Both versions were bottled in March 2016, so it's just the difference in ABV that tells the story. That 59.9% ABV just happens to make this the highest strength bottling of Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength to date... Shall we?

Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength Batch 010, 58.0%. Islay, Scotland.
Bottled January 2018. Non-chill filtered, assumed natural colour.

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Rich, slightly dry & spicy. Some heather honey, then loads of ash, some torched dried herbs and thick salted caramel, and a slight hint of dried mint. Some old dusty leather, like an old satchel bag or leather-bound books. Sweet vanilla pods, dried orange and salt-washed black volcanic rock.

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, very rich & syrupy, ashy and spicy. A slight touch of heat, but in a pleasant way.

Taste: Sweet syrupy entry, then a big burst of dry, ashy peat, a little chilli spice and blow torched herbs. Some dried orange again, but it's candied as well now, and a slight touch of licorice.

Finish: Long. More dry & ashy peat, some burning wood embers, a couple of dried chilli flakes and some salted honeycomb. Vanilla and dried orange again but that dry peat is constantly doing its thing underneath.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Delicious stuff, of course! It's a little drier and more balanced than I remember the previous batches being, and that leathery note on the nose is very interesting. There's plenty of peat as well, because of course there is, but it seems drier than usual and it doesn't overwhelm. There's a lot more ash in this one as well, but it's very enjoyable. Such a tasty whisky, I just wish it was easier to get a hold of at a reasonable price! Both the nose, texture, taste and finish and delicious here, but I do find it a little softer than I remember the earlier batches being. 010 is probably more in line with 009 actually, but that's no criticism, not at all, it's just a point of difference. Make no mistake, this is a delicious rich whisky with plenty of character.

Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength Batch 008, 59.9%. Islay, Scotland.
US bottling, UK version bottled at 59.2%. Bottled March 2016. Non-chill filtered, assumed natural colour.

Colour: Amber, but it's definitely slightly darker.

Nose: Sweeter and more intense than 010, with less vanilla, and more typical Laphroaig character. But it's also noticeably hotter and more aggressive, more so than the 1.9% difference in strength would indicate. Sea salt caramel chews, more dried candied orange and torched herbs, but also a little floral around the edges.

Texture: Medium weight, richly flavoured, but quite aggressive and hot in comparison with batch 10. Not unreasonably so for the strength and age though.

Taste: Sweet and syrupy entry again, but that carries on for considerably longer. A dry ashy peat again, but it's quickly knocked out but a big hit of chilli spice that dominates for quite some time, and turns things a little astringent when it recedes. There's a nice sweet peat underneath though.

Finish: Long, but still aggressive to start with. Muddy, earthy peat and some salted peanut brittle. Some bitter herbs now, and a flash of unsweetened licorice, then a touch of both dried orange and dried grapefruit. Some floral sweetness, a touch of sea salt, and earthy, muddy peat to finish.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: A very rich and full-flavoured dram again, but this one is a little aggressive. It's considerably hotter than Batch 010, more so than the slight difference in strength would have you believe, but it does have more of a typical Laphroaig flavour profile with extra chilli heat thrown in. There's also less vanilla here, and far less ash, but surprisingly also less peat. Although that could be down to the extra chilli spice, which is a little overwhelming and a little surprising. But it's not going to ruin anyone's day when there's so much else on offer in this whisky.

Overall notes: In all honesty I had expected to prefer Batch 008 to the latest edition, but that turned out not to be the case. Batch 006 & 007 are still my equal favourites to date, although 001 & the last of the unnumbered "red stripe" bottles that I tried at the distillery were both utterly brilliant as well. Each batch of Laphroaig's 10 Year Old Cask Strength is noticeably different, but they're all delicious, and preferences between batches are going to come down to personal taste in the end. I've never come across one that wasn't extremely tasty and very enjoyable. For sheer volume of flavour, cask strength Laphroaig 10 is hard to beat. If you're an Islay fan, you need to get your hands on one of these bottlings. Even if that means paying over & above the going rate, or helping to fill government coffers with your hard-earned currency. Whatever it takes.


Sunday, 9 December 2018

Ardbeg An Oa Whisky Review!

The first new addition to Ardbeg's core range (not a special release) in a long time, which on paper is a very different expression from a distillery that loves to do things differently!

A few of the Islay distilleries are releasing lighter, more crowd-pleasing (and non-age statement) "beginner's" whiskies these days. Laphroaig has Select, Caol Ila has Moch, and Bowmore has No. 1, and on paper it might seem like An Oa is Ardbeg's beginner's dram, aimed more towards the whisky novice, or at least the Islay novice. I can understand why an Islay distillery would want to have such an expression, particularly in Laphroaig's case where the flagship 10-year old is so divisive. But Ardbeg don't seem to think that way, because unlike those other examples, where the Laphroaig and Bowmore are bottled at 40% and the Caol Ila 43%, An Oa is actually bottled at a higher strength than the distillery's flagship whisky, at 46.6% compared to 46%. And if it had been intended to be a more entry-level and crowd-pleasing Ardbeg, I don't think they would've made that choice without a very good reason. It's also non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, two things that none of those other examples can boast. Ardbeg get a lot of grief in the hardcore whisky community, particularly for the lack of age statements in their line-up and also their marketing efforts, but in my opinion it's largely unfounded. Yes there are no age statements on most of their releases, but they're always non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, are generally enjoyably different to the typical house-style, and the whiskies themselves are always of decent- to excellent-quality.

This whisky is named after the Mull of Oa (pronounced "Oh"), which is the large peninsula that sticks out of the south-western side of the isle of Islay, west of Port Ellen. The area is home to some beautiful scenery, including views across the North Atlantic to Ireland, plus a couple of resident highland coos, some ancient graveyards, and seemingly hundreds of creepy-looking horned wild goats. It's also home to The American Monument, which was built in 1920 to commemorate two American troop ships that went down off the peninsula during the later stages of World War 1. The first of those was a commandeered passenger liner that was torpedoed by a German U-boat, while the second collided with another ship and sank, only a few miles from the site of the first incident, a few years later. Many of the sailors and passengers from those vessels were buried on the island. The peninsula also shelters the south-eastern side of Islay from the Atlantic ocean, protecting the village of Port Ellen and the three southern distilleries from the worst of the storms and westerly winds.

An Oa seems designed to sit between the ever-reliable Ardbeg 10-year old, and the higher strength (and even more tasty) Uigeadail, or at least it does when it comes to price, but it's actually a considerably softer dram than all of its stable-mates. What's most surprising about this expression is the casks that have been used for maturation, and an additional extra step in the process. This whisky is a vatting of Ardbeg that has been matured in several different cask types, including ex-PX sherry, charred virgin (presumably American) oak and ex-bourbon casks, which are then married together in the distillery's new French Oak "gathering vat". The Ardbeg fans amongst us will recognise that none of these cask types are new to the distillery, with the Dark Cove bottling from 2016 containing some PX sherry cask-matured whisky, 2011's Alligator bottling containing some charred virgin American oak cask-matured whisky, and the beastly Corryvreckan containing some virgin French oak cask-matured whisky, and of course basically every Ardbeg official bottling contains a hefty portion ex-bourbon cask-matured whisky. But this is the first time they've all been combined in one expression, and it's one of the more complicated cask recipes Ardbeg has ever released. That "gathering vat" is an interesting addition too, it can't be referred to as a cask or as part of the actual maturation of the whisky, since it's larger than the Scotch Whisky Association's maximum permitted cask size of 700 litres, but many producers believe that allowing different casks to "marry" together before bottling (usually in stainless steel or plastic vats) is crucial to getting a more rounded, mellow and relaxed whisky. But the proof is in the pudding...

Ardbeg An Oa, NAS, 46.6%. Islay, Scotland.
Mix of PX sherry, charred virgin oak & ex-bourbon casks married in French oak "gathering vat". Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Yellow gold.

Nose: That typical familiar & comforting Ardbeg nose with sweet vanilla, sea salt, sandy beaches and fresh tar. Some dark chocolate and licorice as well, with soft stone fruit and a few berries around the edges behind the vanilla. More time brings out strawberry jam tarts (as in buttery pastry).

Texture: Light-medium weight. Its a little lighter here, but there's still plenty of flavour, a good dose of peat and extra sweetness. A touch of heat but not unpleasant.

Taste: Soft and sweet entry, then a nice burst of fresh ashy peat and black pepper. That sweet, lightly creamy vanilla and sweet strawberry jam as well, and some chilli chocolate and some spicy & bitter oak. Turns a little flat heading towards the finish though.

Finish: Short. That slight flatness continues, I suspect it's that bitter oak taking over, but it fades away into that nice ashy peat, some tar and wood smoke, and the strawberry jam tarts again.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: The nose and initial palate are great, really enjoyable actually, but the back palate and finish are a bit of a let-down. That classic Ardbeg combo of sweet & peat is definitely there, and I wouldn't say it's overly soft in comparison with the 10 year old, save for that unexpected flat spot and the shorter finish. I quite possibly would've scored this at a 3.5 without that, and I don't recall coming across that in any Ardbegs previously. But it doesn't ruin the whole experience, far from it. It only makes a fleeting appearance, and this is still an enjoyable dram with a few nice points of difference over the rest of the distillery's core range.

So yes, Ardbeg An Oa would probably be suitable for an Islay novice, but it hasn't been a total compromise like some of the more recent whiskies from other distilleries that were intended for that market. This one will still satisfy the hardened Ardbeg fan in a pinch, or when that Kildalton craving kicks in unexpectedly. Well done to Ardbeg for sticking to the higher strength and natural presentation for this one! My only slight concern would be the pricing, which is around $20-30 AUD above the staple 10-year old. But those PX and virgin oak casks would be expensive, and Ardbeg 10 has to be one of the best bang-for-buck entry level whiskies in the world, so I won't get too hung up on that. Certainly worth a try.


Sunday, 2 December 2018

Bunnahabhain Craft Ale & Moine Brandy Finish Whisky Reviews!

There are only two whiskies listed in the title, but you're actually getting three reviews for the price of one here. The extra one isn't technically whisky though! To the best of my knowledge all three of these are actually Islay firsts in one way or another. So this is a very special post! No skipping ahead now...

Bunnahabhain may seem like quite a conservative and traditional distillery on face value, and to some extent that's true with most of their core bottlings. But when you start looking into their limited releases and particularly their distillery exclusives, that's definitely not the case! How about unpeated Bunnahabhain finished in a Muscat cask? Or peated Bunnahabhain, named Moine (pronounced "Moyn-yah"), finished in a Marsala cask? Or a Brandy cask finish? Or even a very rare Palo Cortado sherry cask finish? And to further prove my point, to my knowledge the first whisky that I'm reviewing today is the first Islay single malt release that has seen the inside of an ale cask. Exciting stuff!

The distillery is easily the most difficult to physically visit on Islay. It may not look far from the Port Askaig ferry terminal on a map, but once you turn off the main road you're faced with around four miles / 6.5km of winding single track two-way road, including pretty much driving through the centre of somebody's farm. Although if you're lucky with the weather it's also one of the most scenic drives on the island, looking across the Sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura. But it's a nice touch when a distillery rewards you for making the journey by offering exclusive hand-filled bottlings (*ahem* Ardbeg...), and Bunnahabhain definitely do that. Offering them in both peated and un-peated form is also a great move. The prices do vary of course, and there is a rarity factor involved, but there are often also 200ml bottlings or even 30ml samples available for purchase which makes those far easier to justify financially. They also seem to have a good range of their other limited releases available, or at least they did during my visit, although understandably those aren't always available to taste.

During my recent pilgrimage to Islay I was lucky enough to taste a few that were available for purchase, including the aforementioned unpeated Muscat finish that my wife ended up buying for herself, and I picked up a very special 200ml bottle myself, and a couple of 30ml sample bottles. There was a strong temptation to buy much more of course, but this was the first day on Islay and we had another eight distilleries to visit, so I had to be very conservative and discerning with my purchasing.

The first that we're looking at is the unpeated American Craft Ale Cask Finish. This one is a hand-filled distillery exclusive "Warehouse Edition" that was released during the Feis Ile (the Islay Festival) in late May 2018, but it was not a Feis Ile bottling. It also sold out some time ago, and was only available in 30ml bottles which will have sold out by now. Unfortunately that all makes it quite hard to find solid information on its particulars, and I haven't been able to find any details on what type of American craft ale cask was used, or how long it spent in that ale cask, or when it was distilled, or how many bottles were filled. So all we know is it was bottled at 50.5% ABV - but we don't know if that was cask strength - and that it spent at least some time in an American craft ale cask. Regardless, ale cask malts are few and far between, and this being the first ale cask Islay single malt it's effectively ground-breaking. So let's give it a shot!

Bunnahabhain American Craft Ale Cask, NAS, 50.5%. Islay, Scotland.
Hand-filled distillery exclusive, released during Feis Ile 2018. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Very pale gold.

Nose: Hmm it's younger than I expected. At least so far. Quite closed off and shy, even with substantial breathing & warming time. There's tropical fruit (banana, papaya, melon), honey and an interesting yeasty note. In fact this could pass for a very young Bruichladdich quite easily, aside from some aniseed and a little floral soap around the edges. Becomes more nutty and a dry sourness develops with more time.

Texture: Medium weight, richer & sweeter than the nose suggested, but it's also slightly astringent. Light acetone-like spirit heat.

Taste: More aniseed and tropical fruit - banana & papaya again, and sweetened pineapple. A nice putty-like greasy quality to it as well, but with that drying & astringent acetone alongside.

Finish: Short. Becomes more nutty, almonds and possibly walnuts, then the honey from the nose comes through with a touch of orange behind it.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Definitely the most tropical Bunnahabhain that I've tasted, which I'd assume to be down to the ale cask. It really could pass for a very young Bruichladdich with a few points of difference, which would be a plus for me, but those points of difference hinder this one rather than help it, at least for my palate. In my opinion it's been bottled quite young, maybe the ale cask was getting a little too assertive and was overpowering the spirit, or maybe it was getting too far from the desired character? The texture is a winner here though, nice & weighty which again reminds me of a very young Bruichladdich. I'm glad this was only a 30ml sample to be honest, but it's still an enjoyable malt, and kudos to Bunnahabhain for trying something different!

Before we get into review number two, I have something even more exciting to share! One of the most exciting distillery exclusives available from Bunnahabhain during my visit isn't actually whisky, because it hasn't spent any time in cask/s. And like the ale cask, I believe this just might be a first for an Islay distillery. I'm talking about new make spirit! Bunnahabhain is actually selling 200ml bottles of both their unpeated and peated (Moine) new make spirit, directly from the distillery shop. To just nose and/or taste a distillery's new make spirit is a very rare experience, let alone being able to actually buy a labelled bottle of said spirit and take it home with you. Once again, to my knowledge, this is a first for an Islay distillery. Obviously this is a limited release and no doubt it won't be available forever, but this is just a fantastic idea. If you ask me there's no better way to get to know a distillery's character than to smell & taste their spirit before it goes into casks, and I wish more distilleries would follow suit! I went for the peated Moine option, and it was bottled at the filling strength of 63.5% ABV (can't call it cask strength can we!). I've only had the pleasure of trying two peated new make spirits previously, and both were very good (particularly Laphroaig's!), so this will be very interesting. I won't be scoring it of course since it isn't whisky, but this is a rare opportunity that I just had to share!

Bunnahabhain Moine (peated) new make spirit, un-aged, 63.5%. Islay, Scotland.
Hand-filled distillery shop exclusive. Non-chill filtered, natural (lack of) colour.

Colour: Nope! Nada.

Nose: Acetone sweetness, a slight touch of grassy smoke but it's very well hidden. Loads of sweet, grassy, damp malted barley, like walking past Port Ellen Maltings at the start of the kilning cycle.

Texture: Medium weight, oily and syrupy sweet. Surprisingly little heat, but it does leave the throat a little raw.

Taste: There's the peat, a nice earthy smoky peat followed by a delicious sweet pear juice with a little orange zest behind. Some spicy and sweet acetone as well.

Finish: Short, but powerful. More pear juice and a little milk chocolate, and grassy malt. The pear juice turns into actual fruit later on, Nashi pear to be exact, with some muddy peat alongside and a little chilli milk chocolate to finish.

Notes: Very tasty actually! It's a bit raw of course, and the slightly hot acetone note will put some people off, but that's to be expected with most new make. Those sweet pear juice and grassy damp malt notes are very enjoyable, and the peat is surprisingly gentle. Vastly different to Laphroaig's new make spirit, but then that's also to be expected! An excellent idea from Bunnahabhain to sell this stuff, and a fantastic opportunity for Islay fans to get their hands on the raw product - in every sense of the word!

Right, onto the third, and this one is most definitely whisky! Bunnahabhain Moine (pronounced "Moyn-yah") Brandy Finish, which is a limited release that was bottled in 2017. As you've probably already guessed it is peated Bunnahabhain (Moine) that was finished in a brandy cask. Brandy is a grape spirit which isn't always aged in oak casks, but in this case it obviously was. Cognac and Eau-de-vie are essentially types of brandy (as is Armagnac), and whiskies finished or matured in those casks are slightly more common, but as far as the actual "brandy" name is concerned, I believe this is again a first for an Islay malt. Being a limited but more general release means that we have plenty of information on this one. It was distilled in December 2004 and bottled in June 2017, making it a 12-year old whisky, and it spent the first nine years in (presumably refill) sherry casks before being transferred to the brandy casks for the final three years, and 4,152 numbered bottles were released at a cask strength of 55.3% ABV. I suspect this will be more familiar...

Bunnahabhain Moine Brandy Finish, 12-year old, 55.3%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 12/2004, matured for over nine years in (presumably refill) sherry casks, finished for around three years in brandy casks, bottled 6/2017. 4,152 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: OK no, it's not so familiar after all! A soft dry peat smoke, and interesting dessert wine note, a white version that's only semi-sweet. Guessing that's the brandy cask? Some grassy malt and a sweet caramelised orange. An interesting condensed milk-like sweetness in the background, maybe milky caramel chews.

Texture: Medium weight, quite rich, very condensed milk-like in feel actually. Lightly peaty and only a slight touch of spirit-y heat.

Taste: Milk chocolate orange, soft grassy peat smoke and a little semi-sweet licorice. A pinch of dry spices, particularly cinnamon, and some dried tarragon. More milky caramel chews, but they're darker here.

Finish: Medium length. Becomes dryer and more astringent with that grassy smoke, dried herbs, and the peat comes back through with that semi-sweet white grape note from the nose. A little smoky plasticine towards the end.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Interesting! It's more up my alley than the unpeated ale cask, but I expected that going in. That milky sweetness is very interesting and completely unexpected, although not in a bad way. I can't say that I've ever tried brandy on its own, but I'd assume that, and the grape note, is coming from the brandy cask? Either way it has worked in its favour, and it's made this whisky distinctly different. That lovely soft peat smoke is lighter and softer than I expected, but that makes it almost refreshing. Very tasty stuff!

So, three totally different spirits - and two totally different whiskies - from Bunnahabhain. I revisited the brandy finish after reviewing the peated new make spirit, just for science's sake of course, and I must admit it was very difficult to find any correlation. But that makes sense with such an usual cask finishing, and an even more unusual result from that cask finishing, and I'll have to compare the new make with some peated Bunnahabhain from an ex-bourbon cask in future to see what happens. The ale cask didn't quite win me over, despite the fact that I'm a big fan of younger ex-bourbon cask Bruichladdichs, and that tropical fruit was quite unexpected in a Bunnahabhain. What would be a cool idea, and I believe a couple of "new world" distilleries have done this recently, is if the ale itself was bottled & released alongside the whisky that was matured (or finished) in the casks that it came from. That would make for a very interesting comparison, or at least an enjoyable boiler maker. Unsurprisingly for the whisky nerd that I am, I found the new make spirit to be the most intriguing of these three reviews. To taste the spirit itself, as it came off the still, is a very special experience, and like I said above I wish more distilleries would follow suit with that one. Kudos to Bunnahabhain for trying (so many) different things, keep it up guys!


Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Second Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 3: More Islay!

We've made it to part three! Part 2 covered visits to Bunnahabhain and Ardnahoe, an excellent tour & tasting at Caol Ila, and a perfect warehouse tasting at Bruichladdich. This third & final chapter of the pilgrimage will cover visits to Ardbeg and Kilchoman, a tour at Bowmore, a tour & cask tasting at Laphroaig, and a warehouse tasting at Lagavulin. Yeah, I guess you could say it was a pretty good trip...

The previous day's brilliant activities were always going to be a hard act to follow, but we would certainly come close with this effort. Since my wife had driven the previous day, I had organised for both of us to walk the famous Three Distilleries Pathway from Port Ellen. We would start off with the Distiller's Wares tour at Laphroaig, followed by a Lagavulin warehouse tasting with the legendary Ian McArthur in the afternoon, and then a quick stop at Ardbeg - hopefully in time for the bus back to Port Ellen. That last part didn't quite go to plan, but it certainly worked out well in the end! Unfortunately the weather wasn't on our side on this pilgrimage, and most of every day saw grey & overcast skies with sporadic rain. Typical Scottish weather really, and it certainly does add to the authenticity of the experience! But this did mean that the views during the walk to the three southern Islay distilleries weren't quite as breathtaking as they were last time. Which did precisely nothing to hamper our enthusiasm!

After a brisk, cold & slightly damp 30-minute walk from our bed & breakfast were arrived at our first stop, the mighty Laphroaig! I had already visited this distillery on the last pilgrimage, and we went for the same option again, the Distiller's Wares tour, which involves a more in-depth distillery tour, three drams straight from the cask in Warehouse no. 1 by the sea, and a 250ml hand-filled bottle of your choice of one of those three casks. This isn't exactly a cheap tour at 70 pounds per person, but it's the only way to get your hands on an official bottling of hand-filled cask strength single cask Laphroaig, let alone one that you personally fill in the warehouse, and the three casks offered are always excellent. But we'll get to that shortly.

When I last visited Laphroaig the malting floors were in use, but the kilns were not, which meant I didn't see (or smell) the peat fires, but I did get to stand in the kilns themselves and taste some of the leftover malt. Well this time it was the opposite! After a quick look at the unfortunately empty malt floors and an explanation of how everything worked, we were taken down to view the kilns themselves. And what a view that was! The fires were burning a little hot at the time so peat was being heaped on in an effort to cool them down, which resulted in the glorious aroma of Laphroaig's hand-cut peat filling the room. This was followed by a look at the mash tun and washbacks, and a taste of the smoky, sour & malty wash, before heading to the still room. Those seven gorgeous stills were busy doing their thing at the time, and we were also able to dab our fingers into the low wines as they flowed into the spirit safe. Then we were off to Warehouse No.1 to taste some casks...

And wow were they special! On the last pilgrimage I was very surprised to find that there was a sherry cask on offer, an extremely good PX finish in fact. Well this time there were three! Specifically a bourbon cask-finished sherry cask (yes, unusual!), a fully-matured Oloroso cask, and a sister cask to that PX finish from last year! So now I had yet another difficult choice ahead of me. Interestingly these casks are picked out by the shop & tour staff at Laphroaig, from a range of options that are selected by John Campbell himself. First cab off the rank was the bourbon cask finish, which was a 14-year old Laphroaig at 51.3% that had first been matured in a sherry cask, then moved into an ex-bourbon quarter cask, and then finally into a full-sized bourbon cask. A very unusual maturation method, that's for sure, but it worked, resulting in a rich and relatively soft Laphroaig that felt far more mature than its age statement would have you expect. Next up was something very exciting that I'd never tasted before. A 7-8 year old Laphroaig that was fully-matured in an ex-Oloroso sherry hogshead (250-litre cask) at a whopping 59.8% ABV. This was my pick for my hand-filled bottle in the end, and was a delicious whisky with plenty of Laphroaig character still present (probably due to the young age and high strength) alongside that dried fruit and raisin-y sherry cask influence. Just delicious. The third cask was my wife's pick for her hand-filled bottle, which was a sister cask to my pick from last year and was every bit as delicious as that slightly younger version. This one had spent five years in a bourbon barrel before moving into a PX sherry hogshead, so a 7-8 year "finishing" in a PX cask, which is amazing! It was a super-rich sherried Laphroaig with loads of flavour, and it certainly made for a tough choice between it and the Oloroso cask. But if I'm honest the bits of barrel char in the Oloroso cask may have tipped me over the edge...These casks are definitely worth the price of the tour if you ask me, even with the hand-filled bottles being only 250ml. They're absolute one-offs and are basically irreplaceable.

Back in the visitor's centre we were in for a treat. I had arranged to have a quick chat with none other than John Campbell, Laphroaig's Distillery Manager, who I last met back in 2015 during his Australian tour. John was in the middle of experimenting with some new water & waste management practices, and I managed to get a bit of insider info on the distillery's expansion plans, a very exciting future release, and a couple of other snippets. It was certainly surreal for me to see him on his home turf on Islay when last time we met it was in my home turf on the other side of the planet! Letting John get back to work we headed to the tasting bar, which has had a bit of a revamp since I last visited. They now have a massive range of Laphroaig bottlings available for purchase by the dram, including samples of a couple of the casks that we had just tasted in the warehouse, and the entire range of Cairdeas bottlings since 2009, unfortunately except for the 2013 Port Wood release, plus a massive selection of the brilliant 10 Year Old Cask Strength bottlings. We went straight for the only Cairdeas I hadn't tasted to date, which was the delicious 2010 'Master's Edition', and two very early batches of the 10 CS which I'd never even seen in the flesh: the last of the un-numbered "red stripe" batches, and Batch 001 from 2009. They were absolutely amazing, and I couldn't pick a favourite between them. I think this is new setup is great to see and it'll certainly help people tick off a few bucket list whiskies from their list, I just hope the distillery can keep it up! After collecting the "rent" for our Friends of Laphroaig plots, a 50ml miniature of Laphroaig 10 that you claim after printing your ownership certificate, and finally a quick coffee for the road, we were back on the Three Distilleries Path to our next stop, Lagavulin!

I thoroughly enjoyed the entire Lagavulin experience last time (so much so that I visited three separate times), so before we had even booked our flights I knew that the Lagavulin warehouse tasting with Ian McArthur had to be on the itinerary. This Islay legend has been in the industry for over 48 years now, originally working at Port Ellen Distillery for 13 years before it closed, and then moving to Lagavulin. He's a larger than life guy, but in a quiet and unassuming way, and he's been presenting the distillery's warehouse tastings for years with his characteristic Islay wit. Ian tells me that he's planning on retiring in another two years, which will mark 50 years in the industry for him - not a bad showing - so if you haven't yet attended one of his tastings, well, now you have your deadline! While I did miss the Jazz Festival itself this time, the 2018 Jazz Festival bottling was still very much available, and it was our welcome dram on arrival in the warehouse. It was lighter and sweeter than the brilliant 2017 bottling despite a slightly higher ABV, and was taken from first-fill American oak barrels, refill American oak hogsheads and refill European oak puncheons. Ian later mentioned that there were also more older casks involved in this one, which he would know since he personally picks the casks for these bottlings! We were then treated to drams pulled straight from a 6-year old refill cask, a 16-year old refill cask, a 20-year old first-fill sherry cask (my pick of the lot), a 21-year old refill bourbon cask, and a 25-year old first-fill sherry cask. All were very special drams of course, and the tasting offers incredible value at just 25 pounds each. This is definitely something that should be on everyone's Islay itinerary!

Back in the shop there was yet another difficult decision ahead, with the 2018 Jazz Festival bottling and also a small amount of the excellent 2017 bottling still available, both at 99 pounds, but there was also the 2018 Feis Ile bottling to choose from! This one is an 18-year old Lagavulin from refill & rejuvenated (shaved & re-toasted / charred) American oak hogsheads and European oak sherry butts. It was a little more expensive at 130 pounds, but for an 18-year old cask strength Feis Ile Lagavulin that's not unreasonable at all. In the end I grabbed one of each, and was again lucky enough to have Ian sign the bottles for me, which is just incredible, although it makes them harder to open - but it'll still happen eventually! I'm a big fan of how Lagavulin (and Caol Ila for that matter) handles these special edition bottlings, where they're completely exclusive to the distillery shop and are kept for those who have made the effort to visit the distillery, and they release a decent number of bottles, either 3000 or 6000 these days, which means there is usually enough to go around for at least a few months after each festival. Diageo certainly seem to value & appreciate visitors making the trek to their distilleries, which is great to see! Since the weather had closed in by the time we had finished up at Lagavulin we weren't looking forward to the walk to Ardbeg to catch the bus, but luckily my wife had befriended a small American tour group, and their guide & driver kindly offered us a lift since they were on their way to the Kildalton Cross. Since we were already cold & damp we took up this very generous offer, and we were glad to see the cross & church one last time and escape the rain for a while. And we made the bus with plenty of time to spare!

Next up, and the last tour of the trip, was the often-unloved Bowmore Distillery. I had missed out on a tour here on the last trip, mostly because I didn't plan ahead since they're not my favourite of the Islay bunch. But they can still produce some great whisky, and they're home to one of the island's three active malting floors, so I decided to give the tour another try. And they had a spot available! I went for the standard tour, which only costs 10 pounds and includes the tour, a miniature tasting glass, and a 15ml dram of three core range Bowmores. It was the last tour of the day, which unfortunately meant that the tasting bar had closed by the time the tour had finished. I would suggest that in future they either move the tour forward 30 minutes or extend the tasting bar's hours by 30 minutes, since that's prime time for tour attendees to try the whiskies that they're interested in buying. Speaking of which, unfortunately there were no Bowmore hand-filled bottles available from the distillery shop during my visit. In fact there wasn't last year either. The exclusive bottling was a 17-year old "Warehouseman's Selection", but it was a little pricey at 125 pounds and wasn't available to taste thanks to the bar being closed, so I gave it a miss. While I was there another potential buyer came in looking for hand-filled bottles, and when he was turned away mentioned that he'd now visited the distillery four times and has never been able to get one. These bottlings must be very sporadically released, but I've tasted a couple of excellent ones (particularly this Feis bottling) so they're still worth a shot (pun intended).

The tour itself was enjoyable but busy, and our guide was excellent despite having a full tour mostly consisting of non-whisky geeks. Bowmore is a modern distillery in some ways and a traditional one in others, for example their wooden washbacks were replaced with stainless steel units years ago, but they switched back to wood again when they weren't happy with the difference that came from the steel washbacks. Yet those same washbacks have automatic CO2 extractors and de-foaming fans mounted under their lids. The floor-maltings are traditional of course, and they are noticeably smaller than Laphroaigs, but the sausage-shaped peat used in the kilns is cut by machine rather than by hand. And the four stills are monitored by computer software, but also by the stillman manning the room. Those large and plain stills are quite interesting in their own right, all four have different angles and lengths on their lyne arms, and three have their condensers mounted inside while the fourth is mounted outside the building, with its smaller lyne arm going through the roof. I was excited to see the famous No. 1 Vaults, Bowmore's dunnage warehouse that actually sits below sea level in some parts, but then I was a little disappointed when we could only view them from behind glass. Laphroaig's internal iron gate is a much more welcoming option if you ask me. The viewing area setup in the warehouse is nice though, with display versions of a half-coopered cask and old coopering tools, and cut-out sections of staves from both bourbon, sherry and wine casks to help demonstrate the differences. One complaint here though, when exiting the still house on the way to the ancient No. 1 Vaults we were greeted by a charming massive Beam Suntory corporate sign that proudly told us how many days had passed since Bowmore's last recordable safety accident. For gods sake people, this is a 200+ year old Scotch whisky distillery, visitors do not want to see that! I remember finding the same thing at Aberlour last year, it completely ruins the mood and takes you right out of the moment. I understand that we live in the age of occupational health & safety, but at least keep this crap out of sight of the distillery tours!

Once back in the visitor's centre overlooking Loch Indaal we were presented with our three drams, with Bowmore 12 in our miniature tasting glasses and a take-home 15ml sample of the 15- and 18-year olds. I've never been a huge fan of Bowmore's core range to be honest, although the 15 year old 'Darkest' was quite pleasant - and it's recently lost that slightly erroneous (because the whisky was artificially coloured) extra name and is now known simply as the 15 year old. Since the tasting bar was now closed that was it for Bowmore, but I'm glad to have finally ticked that tour off my list, and to have seen their very interesting setup. I've now visited all but one of Scotland's distilleries that are still floor malting their own barley in-house, with the one exception being Highland Park. Although Benriach was closed at the time of my drive-through visit if you want to get technical! These rarities are great to see, since like only a few other things in the whisky industry it's a practice that hasn't been significantly altered by time or technology.

So that leaves us with two more Islay distilleries, Kilchoman and Ardbeg. Unfortunately we didn't have time to tour Ardbeg this year, which was a shame since their "ArdBIG" tour was one of my highlights on that first pilgrimage, but my wife was curious to see the distillery (mainly just the shop I suspect!), so we stopped in for a quick visit after a bit of seal-spotting in the bay a couple of minute's further on from Ardbeg. The distillery had added a couple of extra buildings (presumably warehouses) since I had last visited, although I'm told the gift shop is being moved to make way for more cafe seating. The entire site was looking beautiful in the morning light, and I managed to sneak around and get a photo of the famous warehouse wall by the pier, but thanks to the weather it couldn't really compete with the excellent view from last year. The shop itself had pretty much the same range of merchandise and whisky that it did last year, with a good range of accessories as usual. But aside from the 23-year old Ardbeg that was now in place of the 21-year old, like last year there was nothing on offer that couldn't be easily found at home at relatively comparable prices. Ardbeg is now the only active Islay distillery that does not offer an exclusive bottling of any sort, which is a real shame since their whisky can be so utterly fantastic, and in my humble opinion they need to fix that as soon as possible!

Since we were in the area I took this last opportunity to finally visit Dunyvaig Castle, the naval base of the Lord of the Isles in the 16th century who ruled his territory from Islay. The foundations are much older than that, and it's believed that the original castle was itself built over the ruins of an ancient fort. More incredible history from this incredible island! This spot will also give you unrivalled views of Lagavulin from the sea side, which were stunning even on a very overcast day as you can see from the photo a few paragraphs back. Definitely worth the small amount of effort to walk there and touch such an amazing piece of history and soak in the atmosphere. One of many... spiritual... moments on this trip.

Last but absolutely not least was Kilchoman. Islay's smallest distillery is a little out of the way, involving a 15 minute drive from Bruichladdich on a single-track road. But the views from said road are absolutely incredible, from Loch Gorm to Saligo Bay and Machir Bay, and of course the distillery itself is brilliant. The difference in physical size is immediately obvious, even from the outside, when compared to its Islay brethren. It has a different atmosphere to it, it's charming and more "homely" and somehow comforting. Since we were mobile on this trip we were also able to drive a little further on and have a look at Kilchoman Church, the decrepit and closed-off but still impressive church and graveyard that is visible from the distillery, and of course Machir Bay itself. There's quite a bit of building going on back at the distillery, with the expansion work very much under way. The new malting floor & kiln were completed earlier in the year, and the new still house and tun room are in place, although I'm not sure what stage the internals are at. The visitor's centre and cafe haven't changed, they're still excellent, although the old display cases full of older bottlings had mostly been replaced with current bottles available for purchase. Kilchoman's shop does have a major draw card all of its own, the shop exclusive single cask bottlings! During my visit last year that was a Caribbean rum cask finish which was excellent, and this time around it was again something special, but in a different way. This time it was a 10-year old Kilchoman from a single ex-bourbon cask, selling for a not-unreasonable 110 pounds, and it was utterly delicious. So needless to say one of those was my final purchase on Islay, and once again I already know that I should've bought two...

Leaving Islay is a very difficult thing to do. Particularly when the weather on that final day is the best of the entire trip, a realisation that is made all the more painful by knowing that you're booked in on the first ferry and have a rental car to return and a train to catch back in Edinburgh. But it was a busy few days, visiting all nine of Islay's distilleries, and ticking off some bucket list sights, not to mention whiskies. I don't think these posts can accurately portray just how special this island is, you really do need to experience it yourself. There actually is nothing like it. And once you've finally been, Islay will have carved out a piece of your heart for safe-keeping until the next time you visit. And that piece seems to get a little larger each time you leave...

So that's it for the second pilgrimage! Thanks for reading, I hope you've enjoyed these long-winded write-ups, and I hope they've inspired you to get to Scotland and Islay on your own pilgrimage. You absolutely will not regret it. Cheers!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Second Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 2: Islay!

Part 2 of the pilgrimage! It's another long one, but it's well worth the read if I do say so myself...

After a brilliant-but-too-short morning at Campbeltown (covered in Part 1), we were back at Kennacraig in time for the ferry to Islay. Just about everything had been planned ahead, all of the main activities were booked in, and the anticipation was high. There would be visits at Bunnahabhain, Ardbeg, Kilchoman and even Ardnahoe (yes - very exciting!), tours at Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Caol Ila, and warehouse tastings at Bruichladdich and Lagavulin. For those counting at home, that's all nine of Islay's distilleries covered! This instalment will cover Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and Ardnahoe.

On the previous pilgrimage to Islay (here and here) I had made a point of catching the ferry that would deposit us at Port Ellen, mainly to get an ocean-side view of the three southern distilleries, Port Ellen maltings and the village itself. And those views were well worth the extra time spent on the water. But due to the ferry timetable and our busy schedule that wasn't an option on this pilgrimage, which ended up being for the best since in the week leading up to our booking multiple ferries to Port Ellen ended up being cancelled or diverted due to the weather conditions. So we were sailing into Port Askaig for the first time, although the weather wasn't cooperating and we did not have much of a view for most of the trip. But from my perspective the benefit of landing at Port Askaig mid-afternoon was clear - pun intended. We would be at the correct end of the island to visit the distillery that I missed completely on that first pilgrimage, Bunnahabhain. The one that got away. So I'm sure you can guess what the first stop was!

Bunnahabhain is not easy to get to. In fact it's the most inaccessible of the Islay distilleries, involving an unnerving seven-kilometre drive on a single track road, mostly winding and narrow and with very limited visibility around corners. But having missed it last time due to the lack of a car, and having righted that wrong this time, visiting this northern Islay distillery was firmly towards the top of my list. I should add that if you're lucky with the weather that unnerving drive would be beautiful, and luckily it did clear on our return leg, so even without the destination it is worth it. The distillery is famously drab and unkempt, and you shouldn't expect any fancy setups or polished surfaces here. Adding to that is the renovation and repair work that is currently under way, in fact many of the older buildings and houses surrounding the distillery were being demolished when we visited, which was a little sad to see but also understandable. The distillery shop is located in the middle of the distillery grounds at the shore-end of the long pier that sticks out into the Sound of Islay, which means driving down an utterly shocking potholed gravel road (sports cars need not apply) between a couple of warehouses to get there. But the view from said pier, both out to Jura and back towards the distillery, and the special bottles available inside will see that drive being forgotten very quickly. 

What bottles am I talking about? Well I don't want to spoil a future review so I won't tell you what came home with me, but there's a very wide range to choose from. There's a cask sitting in the corner waiting for you to hand-fill your own distillery exclusive bottle, and there's a wall full of distillery exclusive and limited edition bottlings, plus the core range of course. Most are available to taste, including the recent unpeated Palo Cortado sherry finish (an Islay first) which was very interesting, an unpeated Muscat finish, and a peated (Moine, pronounced "Moyn-yah") Marsala finish and PX sherry finish, among others. But while the staff member manning the counter was friendly and accommodating with the samples, I have to say that based on our short visit the overall feel of the place wasn't overly warm or welcoming, particularly in comparison with the other distilleries. Which I guess is also part of the distillery's charm, it's very rough & ready and isn't particularly worried about catering for tourists. Nonetheless I'm very glad to have finally ticked Bunnahabhain off my list, and those small purchases that I did bring home with me are definitely worth watching out for! After that harrowing drive back to the A-road (with my wife at the wheel this time) there was time for a quick reconnaissance stop at Caol Ila, before heading down to Port Ellen to check into our accommodation. 

As any fan who has visited Islay will know, driving through and around the island is almost a surreal experience. It's hard to fathom that when you drive past a distillery or landmark you've actually driven past that distillery or landmark, and it's almost a constant feeling! And speaking of landmarks, there was something else that I missed completely on the last pilgrimage that was also towards the top of my list on this trip. I'm talking about The Kildalton Cross (pictured above), which is around a 20-minute drive further along from Ardbeg, but be sure to watch out for deer on the road, and - less urgently and for different reasons - seals in the bay on the way. Personally I'm not religious by any means, but this medieval cross and the long-disused church next to it are incredible to see, and if you ask me have transcended their religious significance to becoming artifacts of pure history. The now-roofless church is technically a ruin but is very well preserved, and dates back to the late 1100s, while the cross itself is at least three centuries older. For some perspective that means the Kildalton Cross was erected around a century before the Vikings started raiding Scotland in the late-ninth century, and the church was built over one hundred years before William Wallace was born. Just incredible! Remarkably, unlike many ancient artifacts that have been replicated and moved to museums or art galleries for various reasons, what you're looking at here is the original and authentic thing, while the replica (itself made in the mid-1800s) went to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. As fantastic as the Kildalton Cross is, the church is just as amazing, with ancient gravestones outside and the carved grave slabs of knights (yes, knights!) inside, one of which is embedded in one of the church walls. An absolutely amazing place that I can't recommend highly enough.

Our first full day on Islay was a busy one. After a delicious full Scottish breakfast at our B&B in Port Ellen, we headed to one of my favourite distilleries: Bruichladdich! Since I had toured this fantastic distillery on the last pilgrimage I aimed straight for one of the best whisky experiences on the island, the Bruichladdich warehouse tasting! This brilliant tasting includes three cask strength whiskies: an unpeated Bruichladdich, a heavily peated Port Charlotte, and a super-heavily peated Octomore, all drawn straight from the cask in front of your eyes, before being filled straight into your including tasting glass! I was lucky enough to be a guest of the distillery this time thanks to their excellent Asia Pacific Brand Ambassador Chloe Wood, who I met at the Brisbane launch of the tasty new Port Charlotte Islay Barley & 10-year olds. Chloe also hinted that the casks on the warehouse tasting would be changing around September, so I couldn't wait to get there and see what was on offer. These casks are specially selected for the warehouse tasting by Adam Hannett himself, and just like the three casks that featured last year, the three that were sitting on the warehouse floor were mind-blowing. Although I didn't realise it until after the fact, we were hosted by Lindy MacLellan, wife of the late John MacLellan, Distillery Manager at Kilchoman and previously Bunnahabhain. Lindy was a fantastic host, full of knowledge on Bruichladdich, Islay and whisky in general, with plenty of local stories and a palpable passion for her island home. Exactly what you'd want from an excellent tour guide.

I've teased you enough now, so here are the whiskies! To taste any whisky straight from the cask in a cold, dank dunnage warehouse is always going to be a special experience. But Bruichladdich really go over-and-above with their offerings. What you see above is a 26-year old Bruichladdich at 52% from a first-fill bourbon cask, a 14-year old Port Charlotte at 57% with a 6-year additional cask enhancement (Bruichladdich speak for finishing / double-maturation) in a white dessert wine cask - most likely Sauternes, and a 9-year old Octomore at 62%. Now a 9-year old Octomore at 62% was always going to be special, but this was something else entirely. This cask was a "remnant" of Octomore 6.3! 6.3 was the first Islay Barley Octomore, peated to a whopping 258 ppm on the malt, and bottled at a massive 64%, and it's still my favourite Octomore bottling to date. This now-nine year old example was left happily slumbering in a second-fill ex-bourbon cask before being selected for the warehouse tasting, and was sitting at 62% ABV after the four extra years of maturation. The Bruichladdich was beautiful, that classic Bruichladdich style with extra sweetness and tropical fruit, citrus & salt, while the Port Charlotte was very rich & syrupy, almost a floral-yet-smoky dessert whisky with a brilliant texture. Both were very mature and very drinkable, but that Octomore, as I've probably already given away, was my favourite of the three. In fact it was one of the most amazing whiskies I sampled during the entire trip, possibly even the outright most amazing, and it was among some very serious company. It was still massively peaty on the palate, nicely medicinal but also sweet and rich, with no sign of any heat despite the very high ABV. It's impossible not to get swept up in the moment when you're tasting a whisky like that in a setting like that, particularly for a Bruichladdich fan, and the combination of those things was absolute magic. I'd happily go back to Islay right now just to taste that Octomore again!

As incredible as those three whiskies were, being in that dank & dirty-yet absolutely beautiful dunnage warehouse alone is almost as special. I don't see how you could visit Islay and not go to a warehouse tasting, and Bruichladdich's should be at the top of your list! Sitting amongst rows and rows of casks, stacked only three high of course, with some exciting labels. What did I spot? How about some Rivesaltes wine casks full of Islay Barley Octomore? or Port casks full of Bruichladdich? Or, wait for it... casks of chocolate malt Bruichladdich. As in, Bruichladdich distilled from heavily-roasted malted barley! There was a Bruichladdich Valinch bottling released in early 2018 that featured this same malt, although I'm not sure on the proportions or the cask type, but it may well have been a relative of these casks. That's very, very exciting stuff, and I can't wait to see (and hopefully taste) the results! On last year's pilgrimage I happened to spy some Marsala casks of Port Charlotte, which are due for travel retail release shortly as Port Charlotte MC01, as in Marsala Cask 01. So with any luck some of those special casks will find their way into bottles next year, and the level of anticipation is already high! Bruichladdich would have to be one of the more experimental and progressive Scottish distilleries in general, and are certainly the most experimental and progressive on Islay. Not everything makes it into permanent bottlings of course, sometimes they become micro-provenance bottlings, cask explorations or Valinch bottlings instead, but it's great to see them trying so many different things, even under the new ownership that has clearly only changed things for the better. I can never wait to see what these guys come up with next!

But that's not the end of our Bruichladdich experience. Just as the warehouse tasting (and a distillery tour, if you haven't had the pleasure) is a must-do, the 'laddie shop itself is also not to be missed. With a great range of merchandise, a section dedicated to the distillery's Botanist gin for the non-whisky lovers, and a ridiculously impressive collection of past bottlings on display among the rafters, not to mention a huge range of current whisky offerings for sale, one could easily spend hours in here without even a shred of regret. In fact I may have come close to doing just that! The shop staff (who are often also tour guides, which is a great move!) are gracious, patient and generous hosts, despite being extremely busy with distillery visitors and customers, and both Lindy and my tour guide from last year's pilgrimage Frazer were manning the counter, so there was plenty of knowledge available when needed! As luck would have it the brand-new Octomore 9.3 Islay Barley was sitting on the shelves, and I was lucky enough to taste a small sample. As usual with these Islay Barley Octomores - and with Octomore in general -  it was delicious, and although there were a couple of amazing drams under my belt at this point it was very full-flavoured with loads of malted barley character, but also briny and slightly floral and very drinkable, which is incredible for such a heavily peated young whisky at high strength. That really seems to be something that Bruichladdich excel at, and is real a testament to their hard work. So did I grab one to take home? Well I was very tempted, but there was something in the corner that I had to take a close look at first. Yes, I'm talking about the Valinches!

Sitting quietly near the back wall of the shop are two casks, a Bruichladdich and a Port Charlotte. These are very special single cask whiskies, again picked out by Adam Hannett, waiting to be hand-filled into 500ml bottles right there in the shop as Valinch bottlings. These are always cask strength, and are often from an unusual cask type, age and/or strength. The Valinches that were available during my last pilgrimage were a Syrah cask-matured Bruichladdich at a very serious ABV, and a Banyuls cask-matured Port Charlotte, which was something I'd never seen before. That was a tough decision, but I went for the fantastic 'laddie cask back then. This time around though the Bruichladdich was a 14-year old first-fill ex-bourbon cask, and the Port Charlotte was... wait for it... an 11-year old first-fill sherry cask at 62.9%! Since the Feis Ile Port Charlotte Valinches have been bottled in the new squat green bottle design that you see above, which I'm going to dub the "smoke grenade-style" bottles, which I'm a fan of, and the limited releases are now mostly named using acronyms. For example the new travel-exclusive Marsala Cask is dubbed MC01, while this particular Valinch cask was dubbed SHC01, as in sherry cask 01. Both of the Valinch casks are available to taste at the shop counter, and both were delicious! The 'laddie was a lovely classic style Bruichladdich with that sweet, fruity & malty punch, but the Port Charlotte was something else. Extremely rich and full of chocolate, sherry and smoke, as soon as I tasted it I knew it had to come home with me. Speaking of which, these Valinch bottles are very reasonably priced at 75 pounds each, for 500ml bottles admittedly, but they're distillery exclusive single casks and cask strength, so I consider that very reasonable considering the rarity and exclusivity that's involved here. These two casks certainly make visiting the 'laddie shop even more special, and they're reason enough alone for me to get back there as soon as possible! Why did Australia have to be on the other side of the planet...

So after a completely perfect experience - and many excellent samplings - at Bruichladdich we were on the road again, headed to Caol Ila. I did say it was a big day! Luckily my wife had picked up a few snacks for the drive, so we had a quick lunch on the road to something I was very excited about. Caol Ila's Cask Strength Experience! 25 pounds gets you a quick tour of the distillery, something else that I hadn't been able to do on the last trip, followed by a dram of a distillery exclusive or limited release bottling and four drams taken straight from the cask. So this is roughly the equivalent of Lagavulin's warehouse tasting, but it includes a tour of the distillery and a full-sized Glencairn glass instead of a miniature version. It doesn't include Ian McArthur though! Caol Ila is still an under-appreciated distillery in my opinion, it's often seen as a faceless corporate giant that is mostly at the mercy of the blenders, but serious fans will be familiar with the magnificent single malts that this softly-spoken workhorse distillery can produce. And visiting the distillery for a tour like this will certainly help reinforce that! Unfortunately the distillery was in their annual "silent season" at the time of my tour, and they were last year as well (September last year, October this year. Just my luck!), but that wasn't so bad in the end because it meant we could actually take photos during the tour, something that is usually never permitted in a working Diageo distillery.

A good tour guide can make all the difference to a visitor's experience and impression, and the opposite is also true, but we had a brilliant one in Justina, Caol Ila's lead tour guide. It was very clear that she had genuine passion and interest in both the distillery, Islay and whisky in general, and she kept things very casual and conversational but honestly informative, even when faced with hardened malt fans. Diageo distilleries can get a bad rap among whisky enthusiasts, but I've never had anything close to a negative experience at either Caol Ila or Lagavulin, both are extremely welcoming, genuine and generous which of course is all down to the distillery staff. The larger scale at Caol Ila will be very clear if you've visited any of the other Islay distilleries, with a larger mash tun, six huge wooden washbacks, and four massive stills, with their fat necks and long lyne arms, which were undergoing maintenance at the time of our visit so could only be viewed through glass from the control room. But it's still fantastic to see it all up close! The "cask strength experience" part of the tasting was up next, which takes place in the old cooperage room inside the distillery's single on-site warehouse, and involved some serious whiskies!

We started with the a choice of 2018's unpeated special release or the current Distillery Exclusive bottling, which was a new bottling for 2018, and was surprisingly different from 2017's release that I purchased last year, being notably sweeter, and a little lighter & brighter in character. The cask selection is similar between the two - a marriage of refill & first-filled bourbon and red wine casks, but for this new version the cask details are printed on the label, the ABV is a little lower at 57.4% compared to 58.8%, and the number of bottles released has been doubled to 6000. So the first batch must have been very successful! Unfortunately this delicious and unexpected new release made my whisky purchasing decisions more difficult, but we'll get into that later since we have some delicious cask samples to talk about first. The chance to taste Caol Ila in its purest form was always going to be special, but we were really in for a treat with these four drams!

Our first cab off the rank was a 6-year old refill ex-bourbon cask, intended to showcase Caol Ila's spirit character at a young age with minimal cask influence, and weighing in at a hefty 60.9%. It was delicious as you'd expect, with plenty of peat and Caol Ila's sweet, grassy DNA really shining through, and no heat to speak of. Next up was a 12-year old first-fill bourbon hogshead at 61.9%, which made for a very interesting comparison with less overt spirit character, a richer and fuller texture with more honey and vanilla and less peat as you'd expect, but also less sweetness. These two drams were very special of course, but the next two were about the blow our socks off. Both were fully matured in first-fill European oak sherry butts! I had the honour of drawing our third whisky from the cask with a valinch, and it turned out to be one of the best Caol Ilas I've ever tasted, and one of the absolute stand-out whiskies of the entire trip. It was a 22-year old at 55.4%, with a beautiful bronze colour, and a delicious rich, spicy, chocolatey and nicely peaty flavour that was absolutely magical. Like I said with the Octomore at the Bruichladdich warehouse tasting, this whisky alone would be enough to get me straight back on a plane to Islay. Absolutely outstanding. But that's not all, the final cask sample and second sherry-matured dram was also extremely special. It was a 30-year old! Yes, a 30-year old Caol Ila from a first-fill European oak sherry butt. And at 56.5% ABV no less. It was a magnificent whisky with a dark, musty character and a very rich texture, and it still had flashes of that warm grassy smoke that Caol Ila is loved for. There's only been one 30-year old official bottling of Caol Ila in recent history, which retailed for around $900 AUD, and it was "only" from ex-bourbon casks and was not a single cask bottling, so you can imagine what this whisky would have been worth if they had chosen to bottle it. But they didn't, they put it aside for the cask strength experience to be enjoyed - for a total of just 25 pounds remember - by the serious Caol Ila fans who had made the pilgrimage to Islay. What an incredible experience, and it was yet another absolute highlight of the entire trip. I'll definitely be doing this tour again next time!

Now I had a difficult decision in front of me back in the distillery shop. Due to luggage space I had decided on, or rather resigned myself to, getting "only" two bottles from Caol Ila. And there were two bottles that were calling my name from the shelves, that 2018 Distillery Exclusive that I mentioned above, and something that I did not expect to find in October. The Caol Ila Feis Ile bottling! 2018's bottling was a vatting of refill American oak hogsheads and rejuvenated (shaved & re-toasted) European oak butts, at an ABV of 58.2% and carrying an age statement of 10 years, with only 2,500 bottles were released. After tasting this one it became a more difficult decision, but in the end it came out on top, with two of them coming home with me. One to drink, and one to keep - not sell. Being from the other side of the planet I had only come across one Caol Ila Feis Ile bottling before on my home turf, so getting the opportunity to buy my own was very special, and something I definitely could not miss out on!

We had one last appointment to get to, so it was time to say goodbye to Caol Ila and head back towards Bunnahabhain. Why, you ask? Well we weren't actually going as far as Bunnahabhain this time, we were stopping at something closer that is incredibly exciting. Islay's ninth distillery, Ardnahoe!

Ardnahoe is not yet open to visitors, although it should be towards the end of the year, but I had emailed ahead to ask if we could please take a quick look around. We were met at the gates by Bryony, part of the visitor's centre's management team, who graciously showed us around this very exciting distillery owned by independent bottler Hunter Laing. The distillery team and their legendary production director Jim McEwan were still experimenting with various things when we were there, and much of the inside of the distillery was still under construction, but the equipment was all up & running, and it was looking absolutely gorgeous. If you've been following the distillery's setup you'll know that this is the only Islay Distillery using worm tub condensers (very exciting!) and very long lyne arms, and Jim McEwan's plans for the distillery involved producing both unpeated, lightly-peated and heavily-peated spirit, so it's safe to say that this distillery will be totally unique on Islay. Which is excellent! Admittedly I did have a few drams under my belt at the time, but the excitement in the air was certainly contagious. This brand-new distillery on Islay, the first since Kilchoman opened thirteen years ago, has been designed in a modern way, but has kept to tradition and absolutely no corners have been cut. I can also attest to the view from the still room being one of the best on Islay, since it sits on top of a hill rather than down on the coast itself (no need to hide from the excise man these days!). We were also lucky enough to try a batch of unpeated wash that was fermenting at the time, and it was very tasty. Nutty and sweet rather than sour and very promising to this amateur observer. The resulting spirit that will soon start flowing from those gleaming new stills and their worm tubs will certainly be worth the wait. A big thanks to Bryony for showing us around on the day, it was very much appreciated and was an absolutely unique experience. I can't wait to try the finished product in a few year's time!

So that's it for the second instalment of the second pilgrimage write-up, congratulations on making it this far! The third & final part will be coming next week, and will feature Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Kilchoman and a quick stop in at Ardbeg. Cheers!