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Sunday, 25 March 2018

Lagavulin 12 Year Old 2017 Whisky Review!

I apologise in advance, but this review is going to include a bit of whingeing. Like the magnificent Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength, the subject of today's review is another brilliant whisky that we Australians have been unfairly deprived of recently. Sad face.

Lagavulin 16-year old is an undeniable staple of the entry-level peated whisky scene. It was responsible for showing many current hardcore whisky enthusiasts, including yours truly, just what was out there in the whisky world, and most haven't looked back since. The 16 is still a great introduction to Islay malts, and is still a nice easy drinking dram for those who are a little more experienced to return to. But when compared to the higher level whiskies from its neighbouring distilleries, it's held back a little by a relatively low bottling strength (43%), chill filtration and added artificial colouring. Prior to the welcome launch of the Lagavulin 8-year old in 2016, which has since been made a permanent addition to the range, the 16-year old and its PX sherry-finished Distiller's Edition sibling (which is also chill filtered, artificially coloured and bottled at 43%) were the only easily obtainable Lagavulin bottlings. So there wasn't a lot of further Lagavulin exploration left for many of those hardcore enthusiasts. 

But there is something out there that can fix that little problem. Lagavulin 12 year old, which is bottled at natural cask strength, naturally coloured and also non-chill filtered. But it's only released once a year as part of Diageo's annual special releases, along with un-peated expressions of Caol Ila, and official bottlings of Brora and Port Ellen. And unfortunately, while the releases aren't particularly small, the Lagavulin is usually the most affordable, and arguably the most popular, and is often the first to sell out from those annual special releases. I'm assuming this is why Australia has missed out on the last three bottlings of this delicious drop, aside from a couple of specialist bottle shops that are parallel importing stock from Europe on their own, which understandably comes at a higher price. To be fair we did officially get stock of the 2014 release of the Lagavulin 12, and it seemed to hang around for longer than I would've guessed, so maybe that has something to do with why we haven't seen the subsequent releases. Likewise a certain large retailer had stock of the excellent 2013 release, but good luck finding that one these days.

I have had the pleasure of trying both the 2015 and 2016 releases of this special drop in bars, finding one in the UK last year and one in Brisbane whisky haven Cobbler. Both were very good, and despite the 2016 bottling commemorating the distillery's 200th anniversary, neither was ever officially imported into Australia. Which means that if you found a bottle from a local parallel importing retailer you were going to have to pay an extra 50% or so over the price that the 2014 release (that was officially imported) was selling for. The fact that these bottlings have sold out from those parallel importers signals to me that there's definitely a market for them in Australia, especially at a lower price, even if it is increased slightly from the earlier bottlings. There's also the fact that they're utterly delicious whiskies, and are in my opinion the best example of Lagavulin that us mere mortals can afford, unless you visit the distillery itself on Islay. **EDIT - Diageo's Australian Brand Ambassador Simon McGoram tells me that Australia is getting a limited allocation of the 2017 release! So I stand corrected, and it's great news!**

Anyway, enough of my moaning! The sample of the 2017 bottling I'm reviewing today was a sample swap with another whisky geek, who picked up a bottle in Europe. It was bottled at a cask strength of 56.5%, without added colouring and no chill filtration. Which shows in the lovely oily, almost dirty texture, which we can largely thank Lagavulin's squat, bulbous stills & downward-angled lyne arms for. Like all recent versions of the 12-year old it was matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, which lets Lagavulin's delicious oily, dirty (in a great way), medicinal & coastal spirit show itself in full. Time to dive in!

Lagavulin 12-year old, 56.5%, 2017 bottling. Islay, Scotland.
Cask strength, matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, Diageo special releases 2017. Natural colour, non-chill filtered.

Colour: Very pale gold. More colour than the 8-year old though.

Nose: Lovely. Oily, peaty & coastal. Thick brine, salted butter, dried sweet herbs and aniseed. Dried sweet lemon, fresh salty oysters, spearmint. Some vegetal, ashy peat but it's subtle and refined here. Plenty of Lagavulin's trademark dirty engine oil and diesel fuel, and a little clean, old rubber.

Texture: Also lovely. Medium weight, oily and dry, and remarkably soft for the strength. No heat whatsoever.

Taste: Big dry, ashy, spicy peat, which builds for a couple of seconds then explodes. More aniseed, some sweet cigar ash, more brine and fresh sweet shellfish. It starts quite dry overall but then subtle sweetness pokes through, like a salted light toffee, and seafood sweetness.

Finish: Long and warming, becoming quite soft. Still has that ashy and spicy peat, and the aniseed, maybe actual licorice root now. And that diesel fuel and dirty engine oil. That might not sound particularly pleasant, but trust me, it is. Laga lovers won't need to be told that! There's some ashy wood smoke here too, and a slightly bitter wood-smoked fish, plus more of those dried sweet herbs and dried citrus in the background. Then the ashy, coastal peat returns to round everything out. Delicious.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Pure, unadulterated Lagavulin. Very easy drinking and soft for the age and strength. Remarkably so, in fact, especially when you consider that there haven't been any first-fill or notably assertive casks involved in this whisky. And it's remarkably mature regardless. There's not a huge amount of complexity perhaps, when compared to the more subtle single malts anyway, but it still has a lot to say. Big, peaty and dirty, but also soft, easy-going and disarming. Lovely Lagavulin with loads of character. Like the packaging says, "as fine as new milk"!

I know I keep harping on about this, but it's a real shame that these 12-year olds aren't easier to get a hold of in the southern hemisphere. And yes, I do prefer this one to the 2014 release that we did get. It's sweeter, more dirty, and even softer. Nosing and tasting this beauty almost takes me back to the warehouse tasting at the distillery with the legendary Ian McArthur, which if you ask me is a hallmark of all the great Islays. They transport you back to their place of origin, even if you've never been able to visit in the physical sense.

I've pleaded with Laphroaig and Beam Suntory in the past when it comes to their cask strength expression, which we also don't get here, and I'm going to do the same here with Lagavulin and Diageo. Please guys, don't neglect us Lagavulin freaks down under, just throw a few dozen cases on to the next available boat! We'll love you for it. **EDIT - We're getting a small allocation of the 2017 release! Great news!**


Sunday, 18 March 2018

Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso Whisky Review!

It's been quite a while since I last tasted a Glenlivet, in fact I can't recall tasting one since the old Nadurra 16 Year Old was discontinued a couple of years ago. It was replaced by the non-age statement (NAS) "First Fill",  which was then joined by a peated cask finish, and this one: Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso.

As you can guess from the name, this expression is matured in Oloroso sherry casks. Although it's a non-age statement bottling it still follows the Nadurra (Gaelic for "natural") recipe as it is now: being non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength. Rather confusingly there are also duty free / travel retail exclusive Nadurra bottlings which are watered down to 48%, and usually sold in a 1-litre bottle. So I guess they're slightly less Nadurra than the regular Nadurra! I also note that there's no mention of natural colour on any of the packaging, which is a shame, but those Oloroso sherry casks are all first-fill (they haven't been previously used for whisky maturation), and with that in mind it is quite light in colour, so I don't imagine there's any e150a caramel shenanigans going on. The Nadurra range is also bottled in batches, so there'd be no need to add colouring for consistency purposes.

Glenlivet Distillery didn't make it to my list of visits on my pilgrimage to Scotland, largely due to timing constraints, and the fact that it's located a little off the beaten track in Speyside. I didn't venture any further south than Glenfarclas, and Glenlivet is around another 15 minutes drive further south. The distillery is actually named "The Glenlivet", with the "The" being added in the late 19th century after a number of other Speyside distilleries were using "Glenlivet" as an add-on to their distillery name, ostensibly to indicate that they were a Speyside distillery. The distillery is a huge one of course, being one of the biggest Scotch brands, and it produces just shy of 11 million litres of spirit per year from their 14 stills, which puts them amongst the largest malt whisky distilleries in the world in terms of production capacity. They're currently owned by Chivas Brothers, which is turn owned by Pernod Ricard, who have a significant Scotch whisky distillery portfolio, although the majority of them are not widely known as single malts.

I imagine the idea with this Nadurra expression is to take on the "sherry monster" market that is currently dominated by Aberlour A'Bunadh, Glenfarclas 105 and Glendronach Cask Strength, all of which are young, non-age statement cask strength whiskies that are fully matured in sherry casks. In fact I believe this is the only regular Glenlivet expression that is fully matured in sherry casks, the rest of the range are either finished in sherry or are a marriage of different cask types. Nadurra Oloroso is competitively priced against those competing sherry monsters too, actually coming in a little cheaper than most at $99-110 in Australia. This particular bottling that I'm reviewing is from batch OL0816, which as you can guess was bottled in August of 2016, and came in at a strength of 61.3%. So let's get to it and see how it lines up...

Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso, NAS, 61.3%. Speyside, Scotland.
Matured in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks. Batch OL0816. Non-chill filtered, cask strength, assumed natural colour.

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Nutty, rich & clean sherry, very much Oloroso. A bit of an alcoholic nip too, but it is young whisky bottled at 61.3% after all. Dried fruit, date syrup, some sweet oak and sandalwood. A little leathery furniture polish, and some red & green apples in the background.

Texture: Hot & spicy, slightly oily, light-medium weight.

Taste: Hot & slightly harsh on entry, but only slightly. More fresh, nutty, dry sherry, more sweet toasted oak, and some slightly creamy vanilla behind. Over-stewed fruit, stone fruit, red apples and a few raisins.

Finish: Short length, still a little hot and feisty, more dry here too. More of Glenlivet's (and Speyside's) trademark apples and light malt coming through. Plenty of dry wood spices here too, more sandalwood and a little cinnamon. Light toffee apples and dark chocolate towards the end.

Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Notes: An enjoyable dram that certainly packs a punch. It could probably use a drop or two of water, but that's not how I roll with these reviews. The heat doesn't ruin the experience though, it's a nice light spirit-y nip that isn't overly unpleasant. And again, it's young whisky at 61.3%! That said, it may be a bit too much for those that are used to having their drams at 40-43%. There's still plenty of actual spirit character present in this Glenlivet too, with those apples and lightly oily malt notes showing themselves, so the sherry casks haven't been allowed to overwhelm the spirit as is sometimes the case with these sherry bomb whiskies.

Unfortunately though whenever I try a new sherry cask-matured un-peated dram I can't help but compare it with my beloved Glendronach. And in this case there's hardly any comparison, although I must admit that the equivalent Glendronach is significantly more expensive. I'd probably put this one on par with Glenfarclas 105 in my book, and that one has a pretty serious following out there in the whisky world, so take that into account. Actually, I'd rank this one just ahead of the 105. Still, it never hurts to try something different, and at the asking price the Nadurra would sit comfortably on my shelves.


Sunday, 11 March 2018

Kilchoman 10th Anniversary Whisky Review!

Until recently we didn't see much of the rarer Kilchoman bottlings in Australia, and if we did it was thanks to some parallel importing from some of the more astute online specialist stores. That's definitely improved with the change of importer / distributor, but there are still quite a few that we (understandably) don't hear a lot about. Thanks to a generous Kilchoman-obsessed mate, I'll be having a close look at a few of them in the near future!

We all know that Kilchoman was, until Ardnahoe arrived, the youngest distillery on Islay, having opened in 2005. Which means that while Laphroaig & Ardbeg were celebrating their 200th anniversary in 2015, the youngster was celebrating its 10th anniversary. There wasn't the huge fanfare and onrush of commemorative releases that the older Islays bestowed us with, and if you ask me that's not Kilchoman's way of doing things, but there was one very special bottling released to mark the occasion. Released during the Feis Ile on the 28th of May 2015, Kilchoman 10th Anniversary is a cask strength vatting of whisky distilled in each year between 2005 and 2012. So it contains both (roughly) 10-year old Kilchoman and 3-year old Kilchoman, with plenty of others in-between, which of course is why there's no age statement. If there was it'd have to be that of a 3-year old whisky, which wouldn't have come close to telling the whole story.

Kilchoman aren't at all afraid of young age statements either, since the majority of their bottlings will have both the year or even the exact date of distillation and the year or exact date of bottling printed (or hand-written) right there on the label for all to see. I'm sure that's helped by the fact that they're absolutely brilliant at producing mature young whisky- remember that age and maturity are two different things (a rule that also applies to much more than whisky). I've had the privilege of tasting some excellent 5-, 4- and even 3-year old Kilchomans, often at high strength, which have been remarkably drinkable, complex and mature for their age. In fact I can comfortably say that those young Ileachs have been the best 3-4 year old age stated whiskies that I've tried to date, and there's a review of one of those young'uns coming soon.

Islay's only farm distillery has started undergoing a bit of an expansion recently, with the goal of doubling the current annual production capacity by the end of 2018. There's already a new malting floor and kiln, giving a 50% increase in the size of each batch of floor-malted barley, with the capacity for further expansion in the future. There's also a new still house in the works, with the addition of two new stills (bringing the total to four), a new second mashtun and six new wooden washbacks for a total of ten. Crucially all of that new equipment will be built to the exact specifications of the existing gear to keep things consistent. Last but not least will be five new warehouses, to be built in the next few years. While doubling the capacity does sound like a large increase, it's important to remember that even when doubled it'll still be a very small distillery by Scottish standards, with an annual capacity of under 500,000 litres of spirit per year.

Anyway, back to the bottle at hand. This 10th Anniversary commemorative bottling was limited to 3,000 hand-numbered bottles, and was only available either from the distillery shop or from a select few re-sellers (and now only secondary auctions). The original retail price was just under 90 pounds, which is quite reasonable for such a special bottling and is almost exactly the same as the "regular" distillery-exclusive expressions. I've mentioned above that this bottling contains some whisky that was distilled in 2005, the first year of operation, but it gets even better: that 2005-origin whisky was taken from cask number 1/2005. Yes, the first cask filled at Kilchoman Distillery! Now that's pretty damn special! It was bottled at 58.2% ABV, and like all Kilchoman is of course non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. Let's get to it!

Kilchoman 10th Anniversary, NAS, 58.2%. Islay, Scotland.
Vatting of vintages from 2005-2012, including the first cask filled, ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 3000 bottles, released May 2015.

Colour: Medium gold.

Nose: Fresh, soft and grassy to start with. Becoming earthy and slightly coastal with a nice underlying under-ripe tropical fruit note. Very reminiscent of the 100% Islay bottlings, and a little shy. Some milk toffee, lightly torched citrus peel, and soft herbal wood smoke. Slightly fizzy coke bottle gummy lollies. Some buttery oak shows itself with more air.

Texture: Light-medium weight. Soft, earthy and lightly fruity. Well balanced with no heat whatsoever.

Taste: Soft entry, more under-ripe tropical fruit and fizzy cola lollies. Building dry, earthy and bitter peat, and more milk toffee. The peat becomes quite big and spicy then fades again going into the finish.

Finish: Medium-long length. Some bitter dark chocolate, milk toffee again but it's less sweet here. Some spicy, ashy, dry peat and dry driftwood, and more of that sweet but under-ripe fruit.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: A very nice easy drinking Kilchoman. You'd absolutely never guess that it was over 58%! Very well balanced too, nothing dominates and each note gets its chance on centre stage. Quite like that under-ripe fruit notes under the milky toffee, and those cola lollies remind me of the 100% Islay bottlings in a big way, but with more peat. I wonder if there was more than a few casks of the farm-grown floor-malted barley involved in the vatting? It wouldn't surprise me. For such a small distillery to make their 10th anniversary bottling so accessible and relatively affordable is great to see. Hopefully that has had the result of plenty of these bottles being opened and enjoyed, rather than being kept aside for collections. But then it's not exactly every day that you get the chance to see the 10th anniversary of an Islay distillery, this would be the first chance in more than a century to do so, so we can't begrudge the collectors that opportunity either.

It must be an incredibly stressful and worrisome task to start a new distillery. Especially when it's a privately owned one that doesn't have any big blenders or regular un-aged spirit sales to rely on for steady cash flow. But Kilchoman and the Wills family and the late John MacLellan have obviously done a great job, and their hard work has paid off. Here's to the 20th anniversary in another seven years!


Sunday, 4 March 2018

Glenmorangie Bacalta Whisky Review!

My first Glenmorangie review! And it's one of the best examples that I've tasted to date.

Glenmorangie Distillery is located near the town of Tain in the Scottish Highlands, around an hour's drive north of Inverness. Originally a brewery, the site was converted to a distillery in 1843, and was purchased by Glenmorangie Distillery Co. in 1887. These days it's owned by LVMH, a.k.a Moet Hennessy, and is quite a large distillery with six pairs of very tall pot stills, the tallest in the industry, and an annual production capacity of around six million litres. Which makes it more than five times the size of LVMH's other well-known distillery, Ardbeg, in terms of capacity. Glenmorangie is also one of the top selling single malts in Scotland domestically, with their entry-level 10-year old 'Original' expression being the most popular.

Glenmorangie were among the first single malt distilleries to start experimenting with cask finishing, a.k.a. secondary maturation / double maturation, where the whisky is moved into a different cask for a brief period of maturation before bottling. The current head of distilling & whisky creation for both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, Dr. Bill Lumsden, certainly picked up this concept & ran with it, and these drams are often finished in unusual or uncommon casks to help them stand out, and to provide a different experience. The distillery now regularly releases these 'finished' whiskies, both as generally available 'Private Edition' bottlings and as travel (duty free) exclusive expressions. They're often named in Gaelic, usually in homage to the type of cask used for finishing, or as an indicator of how that expression differs from the norm.

This particular bottling, named Bacalta, is the most recent of those private editions, and has been finished in Malmsey Madeira fortified wine casks. "Bacalta" is Scots Gaelic for "baked", which refers to how Madeira wine was traditionally produced, being baked by the sun's heat to alter its flavour on the Portuguese island of Madeira. These days cheaper Madeira wine is heated in large tanks to accelerate this process, called the Estufa method, while higher quality wines are still traditionally matured in barrels either directly under the sun or on the upper floors / in the roof cavities of buildings, which is known as the Canteiro method. This production method results in a much more stable wine which can be stored for months after opening without issue. Malmsey is the sweet & rich style of Madeira, much like PX is to sherry, although it still has the trademark acidity of Madeira wine. It's much more "quaff-able" than PX in my experience, that acidity and the nutty character really helps to balance the sweetness and richness, but it's still very much a dessert wine.

In the case of Glenmorangie Bacalta, the distillery had American oak 250-litre hogsheads coopered & heavily toasted (not charred) specifically for this whisky (Madeira is typically aged in 500> litre casks), which were shipped to Madeira to be filled with wine, and were left to 'bake' in the traditional method. They were then emptied and transported (whole) to Scotland, where they were filled with maturing Glenmorangie spirit taken from ex-bourbon casks at around 10 years of age. While a typical 'finishing' or secondary-maturation would be around 6-12 months, in this case the whisky was bottled after 2 years in the first-fill Madeira casks. So while there's no age statement, we have a whisky that is somewhere in the region of 12 years of age. Like the rest of the 'private editions' It's been bottled at 46% ABV without chill filtration, which is good to see, and while there's no mention of added or natural colouring, I don't believe there's much, if any, of the dreaded e150a in here. Let's have a taste, shall we?

Glenmorangie Bacalta, NAS, 46%. Tain, Scotland. 
Matured for around 10 years in ex-bourbon casks, finished for around 2 years in first-fill 250-litre Malmsey Madeira wine casks. Non-chill filtered, suspected natural colour. 

Colour: Yellow gold.

Nose: Nice, but quite mild. Honeyed malt, whole oranges and orange oil, quite prominent actually. Some buttered caramel, nutty oak and baked red apples. More cereal grains with more time, and a little raw spirit.

Texture: Light weight, sweet & malty. A little peppery spirit-y heat, but enjoyable. 

Taste: Sweet honeyed malt again, with more of an orange rind & marmalade note now. Some stone fruit as well, honeyed apricot and baked white peaches. Some dry wood spices and a little peppery raw spirit again, with a subtle apple note behind. 

Finish: Short length, with more spice and fruit, turning dryer overall. Some crumbly pastry and a slight bitter orange note, and more stone fruit. Then dry tea biscuits with currants. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: Pleasant and easy drinking, although a little too light and mild for my personal tastes. Glenmorangie does often remind me of triple-distilled whiskies, no doubt that's largely thanks to those tall stills, with that peppery raw spirit note being present in most of their expressions that I've tasted. Signet is the sole exception there so far. I would love to try Bacalta at a slightly higher strength though, just to see what would happen. Not that 46% isn't enough of course, but it's still very light in this guise. Maybe the new (or old) Astar would fit this bill with it's higher bottling strength? That said I don't believe there are any cask strength Glenmorangie bottlings on the market, so maybe there's not much of a demand out there for such a whisky? 

This Bacalta is still an interesting dram though, with just enough point of difference to stand out from the crowd of your average light, fruity, straight ex-bourbon cask drams, and it's much more satisfying than the entry-level Glenmorangie Original for me. Well worth giving it a go, and it would certainly be a nice summer's day whisky. 

While we're on the subject the latest Private Edition Glenmorangie was released recently, named "Spios" for "spice" it's been finished in ex-Rye whiskey casks, which again is a very unusual thing, and might even be a first for Scotch single malt. I'm yet to try that one, but I'm sure it'll be very interesting!