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Monday, 2 April 2018

Port Charlotte PC11 & PC12 Whisky Reviews!

Two cask strength, travel exclusive, age stated and sherry finished Port Charlottes! Yes please!

These are not easy whiskies to find in Australia, unfortunately. While some European general retail outlets somehow get their hands on some stock of these releases, in Australia they're confined only to the duty free (travel retail) stores. So the only way to get our hands on them (without resorting to overseas auctions) is to leave the country, or at least have a helpful family member leave the country temporarily. While they're significantly more expensive than the excellent Port Charlotte CC01 release (reviewed here) that has since been released, they are older whiskies and seemingly more scarce, and perhaps also more traditional. They're also quite possibly the last two releases in the "PC_" series of bottlings, which started with the 5-year old PC5 bottling back in 2006. That's not confirmed and is only my own assumption, but the 12-year old PC12 release was bottled back in 2014, and the aforementioned CC01, which is also cask strength and travel exclusive, was released in 2016. So I'm just joining the dots, but I could be wrong. As much as I love the cognac cask-matured newcomer, I do hope there's also a PC13, 14 or even a 15 also in the works! That said, I did spot a couple of rows of something very exciting during the 'laddie warehouse tasting while on the pilgrimage last year...

Enough said... very exciting!

Port Charlotte is of course Bruichladdich's heavily peated whisky, peated to 40 ppm, sitting comfortably between the un-peated Bruichladdich and the super-heavily peated Octomore, which to date has gone as stratospherically high as 309 ppm. While Octomores are also higher in strength and generally bottled at a younger age, don't take that to mean that Port Charlottes have a soft touch in comparison, particularly in their cask strength guises. They're still deliciously peaty whiskies, even in their teenaged years. And let's not forget that Octomore can be surprisingly refined despite its youth and the very high numbers. The name Port Charlotte refers to the village of the same name which is down the road from Bruichladdich on Islay, and was home to Loch Indaal Distillery, which closed in 1929. Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte is a homage to that long dead distillery, the product of which was said to be quite peaty and heavy in character, and the warehouses which are the last remnants of Loch Indaal Distillery are now home to some of Bruichladdich's maturing stock.

The PC11 and PC12 expressions that I'm looking at today are cask strength (59.5% and 58.7% respectively), age statement (11- and 12-years old, respectively) Port Charlottes that have both been matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished (ACEd) in ex-sherry casks. Thanks to very helpful Bruichladdich Brand Ambassador Chloe Wood I've learned that PC11 spent 9 years in those ex-bourbon casks, and was finished in Oloroso sherry casks for 2 years, with PC12 spending the same time in ex-bourbon casks and an extra year in sherry casks. So this wasn't a rushed six month finishing by any means, both of these whiskies have spent a substantial amount of time in sherry casks. These two were larger releases than the earlier bottlings in the series, with 12,000 bottles of each expression released, while the majority of the PC series consisted of only 6,000 bottles each. Speaking of the earlier releases, let's clear something up. While there was a 10-year old cask strength release in the PC series, aptly named PC10, there have also been two releases of 10-year old Port Charlotte, the first of which was bottled at 46% and the second at 50%. Some seem to also refer to these two bottlings as PC10, so it's important not to get them mixed up. The real PC10 is of course far rarer than either of those 10-year old general releases, and in fact I don't believe either it nor PC9 ever made it to Australia.

Another way to differentiate the PC series is the Gaelic names adorned on the labels & tins, which for PC11 is "Eorna Na h-Alba", which translates to "Scottish Barley", since it was made exclusively from Scottish barley. For PC12 the Gaelic name is the rather more difficult "Oileanach Furachail", which translates to something like "Attentive / Faithful Student", in reference to current head distiller Adam Hannett's long tutelage under the legendary Jim McEwan, although this whisky was bottled quite some time before Jim handed over the reigns. The PC12 can still be found in a couple of Australian duty free stores for $200 AUD, but the earlier PC11 is very scarce and would need to be found at auction or private sale. Naturally (pun intended) both of these whiskies are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, as is the Bruichladdich way, and we very rightly love them for it. This is going to be pretty special...

Port Charlotte PC11, 11-year old, 59.5%. Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland.
"Eorna Na h-Alba", translates to "Scottish Barley". Matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. Cask strength, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. 12,000 bottles, travel exclusive.

Colour: Dark copper.

Nose: Sweet, softly smoky & herbal. Rich, musty sherry, with sweet juicy raisins and grilled dark stone fruit, and lovely smoky barley. Fresh & sweet citrus juice and sea salt, and a little tar. Some treacle, and a little chocolate coated licorice.

Texture: Medium weight, oily and powerful, but no spirit-y heat or rawness. Just masses of flavour.

Taste: Rich & smoky. Much more smoky here in fact, a nice dry & spicy smoke, especially on exhale. More fruit & citrus, more semi-dark chocolate and a little aniseed. More dry & savoury overall than the nose, plus a lovely salty coastal peaty-ness that is refined, but not shy by any means.

Finish: Long, sweet & smoky. Plenty of dark chocolate and more sherry fruity-ness, plus a slight nutty-ness behind the licorice. With more time, that lovely coastal peat and a little spicy oak come out to play.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Lovely dram! Very well balanced, with nothing overwhelming anything else, but cask(s), spirit and peat all working together, and the overall result being deliciously refined and luxurious. It's still a smoky dram of course, but there's also much more to it. I love that the barley is still detectable on the nose as well, it's definitely a 'laddie!

Port Charlotte PC12, 12-year old, 58.7%. Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland.
"Oileanach Furachail", translates roughly to "Attentive / Faithful Student". Matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in ex-sherry casks. Cask strength, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. 12,000 bottles, travel exclusive.

Colour: Dark copper again, but a shade or two lighter (not as noticeable as in the photos).

Nose: Lighter and sweeter, with nice musty grapes, nutty sweetness and juicy over-ripe peaches, dried oranges and a couple of dried berries. The peat is there, but it's lighter, softer and a little dusty here. Some gristy malt, and dried oranges.

Texture: Medium weight, no heat again. Softer and juicier, but still fresh and characterful.

Taste: Sweet and juicy, lots of lighter fruits in syrup, some powdery, dusty and spicy peat. A mix of tropical and lighter stone fruit in fact, and a pinch of cinnamon. Slightly weighty dark caramel, with a hint of aniseed.

Finish: Medium length, lighter and sweeter again. Fruit syrup with the same juicy tropical- and lighter stone fruit, more of that powdery soft peat, another pinch of cinnamon, finishing with sweet fruit & wood spice.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Surprisingly different to the 11-year old, that extra year in sherry has certainly made itself known, it's softened everything up, and made the overall package much juicier and fruitier. This is a more refined and gentle dram, perhaps with a little less complexity than the younger sibling, and certainly less peat and smoke. That's not a criticism of course, it's just a different take.

Before we get into the overall notes, I have to mention a little something which was potentially disastrous for this review. This was not the first bottle of PC12 that I have opened recently. In fact the first was a very, very different whisky. It was full of sulphur! Not the full-on egg-y undrinkable sulphur that I've only experienced a couple of times, but nevertheless an unpleasant very rubbery, rotten vegetable sulphur that very nearly completely ruined both the nose and palate. It was from a batch bottled in July 2015, and it was so different (for the worse) to the PC12 I had previously sampled that I actually returned it to the retailer, who were helpful enough to swap it for another bottle from a different batch. Bad batches & bottles do happen, although this is certainly the most obvious difference that I've encountered to date, going far beyond the usual realm of "not quite as good". From the research that I've done, it seems to only be a very small minority of PC12 buyers that have encountered this (including Serge from whiskyfun), perhaps it was even only the one batch that was affected, but I can't be sure on that. Had I been stuck with the sulphured bottle, I would not and could not have reviewed it, since it would not be a fair representation of the vast majority of bottlings, and it would not have scored well either. What I can be sure on is that this replacement bottle is vastly superior, a completely different whisky in fact, and is certainly back up to the usual delicious 'laddie standards.

So, overall these are two surprisingly different whiskies. The PC11 takes the win in my book, but both are delicious drams. The 11-year old is stronger, more assertive and significantly peatier, while the 12-year old is softer, sweeter and fruitier, and more integrated. Both are certainly are lovely characterful and more refined takes on Port Charlotte compared to the younger bottlings we're all more familiar with. The difference in peat influence is interesting too, PC11 is lovely and smoky and coastal, while the 12 is much softer and more powdery and dusty, almost reminiscent of a Bowmore-style peat influence.

It's fantastic to see Port Charlotte entering its teenaged years, while the younger bottlings are still out there doing their thing. I'm a huge fan of the brand, while it seems to sometimes be overshadowed by Bruichladdich and even more so Octomore, these are not whiskies to overlook! I'm sure we'll be seeing more older expressions in the coming years, and I can't wait. I'm sure I'll be lining up (or trying to recruit a whisky mule for travel retail) to get my hands on a PC15 in the future.