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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!