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Sunday, 28 January 2018

Heartwood Beagle 5 Whisky Review!

Australia Day has just passed, so it seems like a good time for an Australian whisky review! It's another beast from my favourite Australian producer, Heartwood, with a bonus comparison at the end. Why not!

Tasmanian independent bottler Heartwood's Beagle series are vatted / blended malt whiskies, which are a blend of different single malts from different Tasmanian (in this case) distilleries. There have been five Beagle releases so far, and I've had the privilege of tasting the third, fourth and now fifth release, which was bottled in 2017. These bottlings do vary more than you might expect with a series of blended whiskies, since Tim Duckett, the mad alchemist behind Heartwood pictured above, actually destroys the recipe for each release after it's been bottled. So they're all one-off bottlings, and they're all entirely unique. The Beagle name refers to the HMS Beagle that carried naturalist Charles Darwin on his exploratory voyage in the early 19th century, in this case referring to the evolution of whisky!

My journey with the Beagle series started at the same time as my journey with Heartwood as a whole, which was on a cold Tuesday morning in Heartwood's office in Hobart. Of the 5 magnificent drams that were tasted that morning (write-up here), Beagle 3 was my equal favourite. And it was a fascinating concept, a vatted malt from the only Tasmanian independent bottler, where the recipe is purposely destroyed after bottling to ensure that each & every release is unique. I eventually got my hands on a couple of bottles of that fantastic whisky, and still have a little left, so when I was lucky enough to be given a sample of the fifth release, Beagle 5, during a recent dramming session with a fellow whisky geek, it presented an opportunity: compare them! But since I've already reviewed Beagle 3 in depth (here), and since they're very different whiskies, this won't be a head-to-head review, it'll be a full in-depth review of Beagle 5 followed by a brief comparison to Beagle 3. In one very cool little tidbit, the evolution of man pictured on the Beagle labels have also evolved, like the whiskies have: Beagle 3 featured man evolving into a still, Beagle 4 swapped the starting ape for a canine beagle, and Beagle 5 now has an extra step: man evolves into a still, then lies down under the outlet of said still. Mr. Heartwood puts a lot of time & effort into his labels, and although it's a little difficult to see in the below image, little details like these are just brilliant!

On to the nitty-gritty. Beagle 5 is a vatting of seven different casks from two Tasmanian single malt distilleries, Lark Distillery and Tasmania Distillery (the producers of Sullivan's Cove). This release consisted of 175 bottles, bottled in June 2017, at a cask strength of 62.5% ABV, and like all Heartwood whiskies it was not subjected to any chill filtration or added colouring. The casks in this fifth Beagle release included ex-bourbon, ex-port, ex-sherry and ex-muscat casks. Muscat is a sweet fortified wine which is produced from late harvest muscat grapes, with the closest European equivalent being Moscatel, ala Caol Ila Distiller's Edition. I was lucky enough to taste a young Heartwood that was matured in a muscat cask during this incredible visit to the holy grail of Australian bond stores. It was only 3 years old at the time, and it was phenomenal, so this'll be very interesting! Some of the contents of Beagle 5 were peated, but that means peated to Lark Distillery standards which is very light, to the tune of around 8 ppm. And that's also using peat from the Tasmanian highlands, which is far lighter in character than anything you'd experience in a peated Scotch whisky. As you can see from the label below, the % of peated whisky involved is "still too hard to calculate". Love it!

Heartwood Beagle 5, NAS, 62.5%. Blended / Vatted malt. Tasmania, Australia.
Blended from 7 different casks, spirit from Lark Distillery and Tasmania Distillery. Cask types include ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, ex-port and ex-muscat, and some peated spirit. Non-chill filtered, naturally coloured, 175 bottles. 

Colour: Dark bronze.

Nose: Dense & syrupy. Thick stone fruit jam, juicy sweet raisins and a couple of raspberries. Eucalyptus cough drops, burnt toffee, a little salt, and freshly polished oak. 

Texture: Heavy weight, dense & meaty. A little heat, but not much for the strength.

Taste: More thick, dense stone fruit jam, burnt plum jam here. Quite medicinal too, but not in an Islay way, more cough mixture, eucalyptus and aniseed. A little rubber, in a good way, creamy vanilla and some charred oak in the background.

Finish: Starts heavy but lightens up in true Heartwood fashion. More strong cough mixture, some lightly bitter coffee grounds, burnt toffee, more vanilla and a little earthy note. Becomes creamy for a minute before heading back to that medicinal cough mixture note, which is now berry-flavoured. 

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Another delicious flavour-packed beast from Heartwood! Quite sweet and medicinal too, more so than I've found in other Heartwood releases, but it works very well here. I'd assume the muscat cask (or casks) are responsible for that extra sweetness, and I'm liking it! That strong cough mixture note is very interesting as well, but not in an unpleasant way. I can't say I've found that before, but it's very enjoyable here. We'd usually associate medicinal flavours with more heavily-peated whiskies, but that's not the case here, there's no burning hospital / iodine notes to be found, just that strong cough mixture and eucalyptus. Keeps things engaging, challenging and very interesting, which is what Mr. Heartwood always likes to do! 

And now for the comparison!

Heartwood Beagle 3 is quite different to the fifth release, as expected for the aforementioned reasons, although the spirit was sourced from the same two distilleries. The third release, bottled in 2015, consisted of whisky taken from nine different casks including ex-bourbon, port, sherry, and pinot noir wine casks, and 18% of the mix was peated spirit (Lark Distillery origin). It was a larger release too at 220 bottles (thanks to those two extra casks getting the nod), and came together at a higher strength of 68.4%. Unfortunately this little taste comparison marks the end of my bottle of Beagle 3, so I hope you appreciate the sacrifice I'm making here! From memory this bottle has been open for around a year (with the use of argon preserver), but Heartwood bottlings love a bit of oxidisation and I haven't noticed any marked difference in quality or depth of flavour since the bottle was first opened. 

On the nose the third release is considerably lighter-flavoured and less sweet, perhaps easier to navigate, and there's more citrus with the delicious orange oil note that I've always loved in this whisky. There's more spices here as well, but not a big difference in detectable alcohol on the nose despite the near 6% difference in strength. But that could be down to how long this bottle has been open. It's definitely more punchy on the palate though, which would be that almost-6% higher strength showing itself. There's more of that old-school Heartwood hot Australian bushland character, plus a load of yummy chocolate and orange. I do find the finish to be a little shorter and a little hotter, but again that could be down to oxidisation.

Overall notes: I definitely prefer the palate on this Beagle 3 to the newer release, but the nose and finish on the Beagle 5 just beat the older version. They're both excellent whiskies of course, which we can and do expect from Mr. Duckett. In fact I suspect that these Beagle blended malts allow him to work his magic a little more than the single cask single malts do, since there are more ingredients to play with and there are basically no restrictions, it's all down to Tim's mastery of the alchemy that is whisky making. 

If you're yet to try a Heartwood bottling, particularly if you're in Australia, you need to get yourself to a good whisky bar and hunt down a bottle. The sheer volume of flavour and texture in these beauties is well worth the hunt, just be warned that you may end up trying to find as many bottlings as you can, which is not a cheap or easy pursuit. But what a journey it'll be...


Sunday, 21 January 2018

Glen Scotia 15 Year Old Whisky Review!

My first official bottling of Glen Scotia! I've heard mixed things about their earlier official releases, but they seem to have undergone a bit of a re-brand recently, and this one is good!

Glen Scotia is not a particularly well-known distillery, possibly because of the deservedly massive popularity of another independently owned distillery on the other side of town: Springbank! For quite a long time there were only these two distilleries in the Campbeltown region, which was once home to almost thirty in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. But things are looking up this century with the re-opening of Glengyle distillery (producing Kilkerran whisky) in 2004, the first new distillery to open in Campbeltown in almost 70 years, and now with Glen Scotia undergoing major renovations and re-branding. Well technically Glengyle Distillery was re-opened, since it last closed in 1925! Despite being a bit of an ugly duckling, Glen Scotia is actually only a few years younger than Springbank, after originally opening in 1832, and has actually spent less time closed or mothballed in those nearly-190 years than its far more famous neighbour has! They're also similarly sized in terms of production, with annual capacities of around 750,000 litres, although neither actually produces that much, and a much higher portion of Glen Scotia's whisky production goes to blenders.

Glen Scotia mostly produces a lightly-peated spirit peated to around 15 ppm on the malt, although they do produce a heavily peated spirit for 6 weeks of the year, and it's all double distilled in the single pair of squat, bulbous copper pot stills. While they're sourcing their barley from external commercial maltings companies, it's all Scottish barley, and all of their whiskies are bottled at 46% and above, and are non-chill filtered. Unfortunately they seem to use artificial colouring in most of their expressions, which is a shame, but never mind. Many of the distillery buildings are still the originals that date back to the 1830s, and the whole site has recently been renovated and tidied up after the distillery was purchased by the Loch Lomond Group in 2014, which included the expansion of their dunnage warehouse to allow for more on-site maturation, and a refurbishment and expansion of the visitor's centre. 

The branding and whiskies have also had a bit of a refresh, with more refined and understated packaging and a new range of bottlings, three of which are available in Australia: the non-age statement PX sherry-finished "Double Cask" at 46% ABV, the non-age statement charred virgin oak-finished "Victoriana" at 51.5%, and the 46% ABV American oak (so presumably ex-bourbon casks) matured 15-year old that we're looking at today. All three of these bottlings seem quite reasonably priced in Australia, and I paid a very good $99 AUD for this particular bottle on special from a certain large chain liquor retailer who I'm guessing to now be the main Australian importer for both Glen Scotia & Loch Lomond. That may seem expensive to overseas readers, but for a teenaged single malt in Australia, bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered, even the $125 AUD regular price that most retailers have it listed at is really quite reasonable. For a frame of reference, the entry level 10 year old Springbank retails for $100-120 AUD down here.

I must admit that after it caught my eye in some advertising from said retailer I did a little research, and what sold me on this whisky was the legend that is Ralfy Mitchell ( ralfystuff ). He absolutely loved this whisky and gave it 92 points, a very high score for him, which convinced me to take the plunge. And I'm glad I did!

Glen Scotia 15-year old, 46%. Campbeltown, Scotland.
Lightly peated, matured in American oak (presumably ex-bourbon) casks. Non-chill filtered, artificially coloured. 

Colour: Orange-y amber. Definitely some e150a interference.

Nose: Quite subtle and a little muted initially, it opens up with time but is still quite a gentle dram on the nose. Lots of sweet vanilla icing, spiced stewed fruit: red apples and stone fruit with a few berries chucked in for good measure. Some salty brine and musty old oak, and crumbly caramel fudge. 

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, plenty of flavour, and no heat. 

Taste: More sweet vanilla, but creamy now. A little buttery salted caramel fudge, gentle spices, and a lovely Campbeltown farmyard musty-ness. The fruit is more dried now, and it's mainly the stone fruit that shows.

Finish: Medium length. A big wave of salty sea air and a pinch of peppercorns, more musty & dank farmyard notes. Old warehouses, damp earth, a little dirty oil, and dusty old oak. Lovely. The sweet vanilla and that crumbly caramel fudge return at the end. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Almost scored a 4 out of 5, but it's a little muted on the nose and doesn't pack the same level of flavour that it does on the palate. That's still a good score though, especially if you factor in the asking price! Not quite 92 points in my book but still a lovely easy-drinking dram. I'd have to put this Glen Scotia above most of the Springbank 10 bottlings that I've tried, and I'd also put it on par with the best that I've tasted, the first release with the solid orange packaging (which I tasted in Scotland - it still hasn't made it to Australia!). In fact I'd also put the Glen Scotia 15 ahead of Springbank 15, and it's significantly cheaper than that cousin from the other side of town. Quite the performance from the underdog! 

For the money, this one is a real winner. I wish they'd skipped the added colouring of course, but there aren't many single malts around at this age, particularly that are bottled at 46% without chill filtration, for a similar price. And this would certainly be one of the best. I highly recommend that you give this one a go. I'll admit that I had mixed feelings or even felt a little wary when looking at Glen Scotia in the past, but this 15 year old has certainly changed my mind. I think we can expect big things from this re-launched distillery in the future!


Sunday, 14 January 2018

Laphroaig Brodir Whisky Review!

So you've never heard of this Laphroaig? Well you can be forgiven, because it's not one that is often spotted in the wild in the southern hemisphere. There are actually three different versions of this whisky: Batch 1, which launched in 2012 and was released as an exclusive bottling for a Scandinavian ferry line (aptly named "The Viking Line"), Batch 2, which launched in 2014 and was 'travel exclusive' and was only sold in Europe but managed to show up in a few land-locked specialist stores, and the latest bottling which does not carry a batch number, and is also travel exclusive but has managed to show up in a few land-locked stores. The latter version is the easiest to find since it's available in most duty free stores in seemingly massive numbers, and Batch 1 is all but impossible to source outside of online whisky auctions. But Batch 2 in the middle can still be found at a few specialist stores that have imported a few bottles themselves, and it's a very enjoyable drop, although we obviously pay a premium for the experience compared to those who have easier access to it. Being travel exclusive means that it competes with the brilliant value-for-money Laphroaig PX (old review here), and the very good virgin oak-finished An Cuan Mor. Brodir is actually priced considerably higher than both of those great expressions, so it's already fighting an uphill battle on that front.

What's a "Brodir" then? Well the word is the ancient Norse translation for the word "brother", which is a nod to the ancient connections between Islay and Norway - mostly by way of the Vikings. The whisky itself is a non-age statement bottling that has been matured in ex-bourbon barrels before being finished in ex-ruby port fortified wine casks, before being bottled at 48% ABV. All three are ostensibly exactly the same in that regard, but there are reports of differing levels of port influence between the different batches. There's no mention of colouring or chill filtration on the packaging, but since the 48% ABV Laphroaigs are generally non-chill filtered let's go with that. Port casks are not a common thing for the Islay distilleries, in fact to my knowledge only Laphroaig and Kilchoman have dabbled in that arena in recent years, although I'm sure Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain also have the odd port cask lying around. Laphroaig first entered the fray in 2013 with that year's Cairdeas release also being finished in port casks, and bottled at 51.3%. That one was very popular, but unfortunately like many of the Cairdeas bottlings it never made it to Australia, at least officially.

What can we expect from a port cask-finished Laphroaig? Generally a port finish will give red fruit and spice notes, and in this case I imagine it will also have toned down Laphroaig's trademark medicinal peaty punch, and vice-versa. We don't know how long this whisky spent in those port casks, or if they were first-fill or refill casks, but we do know that they held ruby port, which is named after its colour, and means the port was young, typically being aged for 3 years or less. Interestingly though ruby port is most commonly aged in stainless steel vats rather than oak casks, so I'm guessing that those casks were 'seasoned' with ruby port specifically for Laphroaig, rather than being used by the vineyard in their normal operations and then sold on to a distillery. Which is the common practice in the whisky industry these days anyway, and in some cases the distillery is involved in every step of the process, selecting their casks and having them shipped to their vineyard of choice, and dictating the type of wine and the length of maturation. The fortified wine is then dumped out of the casks before they're shipped back to the distillery to start the new chapter in their lives. But I'm digressing here, so let's get back to the whisky!
Laphroaig Brodir Batch 002, NAS, 48%. Islay, Scotland.
Finished in ex-ruby port fortified wine casks. Batch 002 bottled in 2014, travel exclusive. Assumed non-chill filtered, unknown colouring but likely natural.

Colour: Copper with pink tinges. 

Nose: Quite fresh, with soft ashy, powdery peat, some wood embers, and sweet berry jam. Strawberry & blackberry jam, slightly creamy, with some glace cherries for good measure. Christmas-y wood spices too, nutmeg and cinnamon. A little gristy malt and salt as well. 

Texture: Light-medium weight, fresh, smoky and spicy. No heat at all. 

Taste: There's much more peat here, but it dissipates quite quickly. Less sweet than the nose suggested, and significantly more spicy. A whack of hot wood ashes, more wood spices and a little aniseed. Some warm oak as well. 

Finish: Short-medium length. Lots of aniseed now, more warm oak, and the sweet berries return but in the form of a weak-ish cordial now. The ashy peat is still there, but it's behind the spices now. Especially that aniseed. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: Almost a 3.5 score, but something didn't quite gel with me in this one. It's not your typical Laphroaig, it's quite refined and almost elegant in fact, I don't think it would take added water too well. But it's very enjoyable in it's own right. The extra sweetness on the nose and the spices on the palate are added dimensions, and as predicted they do weaken the typical peat, smoke and citrus fruit found in most Laphroaigs. The nose is lovely with that berry sweetness alongside the soft peat and spice, and then it's much more spicy and considerably drier on the palate, before becoming quite light on the finish. Once that aniseed note drops off, that is. The port finish hasn't overwhelmed anything though and it's only overtly noticeable on the nose, which is not what I expected. Now I really want to try the 2013 Cairdeas, just to see how they compare!

As for how Brodir fares compared to the other 48% ABV travel exclusive Laphroaigs, I don't think it quite gets there. It doesn't have the amazing bang-for-buck and power of the PX, or the complexity of the An Cuan Mor, but it does offer a lighter, sweeter take that some might gravitate towards, even at the higher price point. Almost a summer's day Laphroaig, perhaps?


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Benromach Triple Distilled Whisky Review!

I'm not usually a big fan of triple distilled whiskies. I often find them too light, hot and solvent-y, and in many cases also lacking in character. But this one is from one of my favourite Speyside distilleries, and it has another major advantage over other triple distilled drams: it's lightly peated!

To my knowledge this is the only generally available triple-distilled whisky in the world that has a substantial (read: detectable) level of peat influence, so Benromach are breaking some new ground here! But they're no strangers to trying new things and setting new trends, so we shouldn't be surprised that it was this Gordon & MacPhail-owned Speyside distillery that decided to pave the way. More commonly found in Ireland, triple-distilled Scotch whiskies aren't a very common thing, with only a few working Scottish distilleries still using this practice. The most widely-known would be Auchentoshan in the Lowlands, followed by Springbank in Campbeltown with their unpeated Hazelburn brand.  

As you can probably guess, the term signifies that the spirit in question has been distilled three complete times. This will result in a lighter spirit in terms of flavour, aroma and texture, and it will end up at a higher alcoholic strength (coming off the stills) than it would if it was only distilled twice, since the ethanol is essentially more concentrated. Not all triple-distillation is equal either, like it does in a twice-distilled spirit the result largely depends on the size and shape of the stills, since a taller still will provide more reflux and will result in an even lighter spirit. It also results in less peat influence in the finished spirit, although that's not applicable in most cases since the vast majority of triple-distilled whisky (or whiskey - Connemara is double-distilled) is unpeated. In the case of this Benromach, the spirit was distilled once in the wash still and twice in the spirit still, since the distillery only has a single pair of stills. It's a limited release of 15,000 bottles, but I wouldn't be surprised if we do see older or otherwise different versions in the future. 

This new expression is lightly peated to around 15 ppm, as is the case with all but two Benromach expressions ('Organic' is unpeated, and 'Peat Smoke' is heavily peated, as you might guess), which gives it a big advantage, from my personal perspective at least, in comparison with other triple-distilled whiskies. Another advantage is that Benromach only use first-fill casks, which in this case were all ex-bourbon barrels, which should have helped to calm any hot or harsh spirit-y notes (if any were present in the first place). It's also bottled at a higher strength than most Benromach expressions at 50% ABV, and is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. This bottling was distilled in 2009 and bottled in 2017 at 8 years of age, and it's quite reasonably priced for an unusual and limited release, at around $100 AUD. I last tasted this whisky at the distillery itself in Speyside (during this incredible visit!), so it'll be very interesting to take a closer look at it on my home turf. The sample for this review was generously provided by Alba Whisky, the Australian importer & distributor for Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail, among others. 
Benromach Triple Distilled, 50%. Forres, Speyside, Scotland.
Distilled 2009, bottled 2018. Triple-distilled, lightly peated, matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 15,000 bottles. 

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Fresh and clean, but also nicely rich & mellow. Crisp red apples, dried sweet berries, vanilla, light grassy malt. A little dessicated coconut over milk chocolate fudge. Slight menthol and a tiny hint of tobacco smoke. 

Texture: Medium weight, warming, but no heat. Slightly creamy, much richer than most triple-distilled drams.

Taste: Fresh and light, crisp grassy malt, vanilla and some dried fruit, slight touch of smoke behind. Slightly astringent, but also nicely balanced. Little flash of citrus too. 

Finish: Short-medium length. Sweet minty milk chocolate, slight hint of the dried coconut and sweet berries, more grassy malt and soft wood smoke. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Very enjoyable, in fact it's my favourite triple-distilled whisky from those that I've tried so far. It does have a little of that trademark triple-distilled acetone, but you'll only notice on a sip that was too big. Also bear in mind that it's bottled at a significantly higher strength than 99% of triple-distilled whiskies, and it's certainly more characterful and interesting than that 99%; at least compared to what I've tasted on the journey so far. The closest competitor would probably be Hazelburn Rundlets & Kilderkins, although they're rather different whiskies in a lot of ways. 

I do of course prefer the double-distilled drams from Benromach, with their extra weight and character, but this wasn't too much of a departure from the house style. As expected the lightly peated malt, and Benromach's richer, heavier approach have really helped. Another quality whisky from what is well on its way to becoming my favourite Speyside distillery! Thanks to Ian & Ross at Alba Whisky for the sample, much appreciated gents.