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Sunday, 28 April 2019

Springbank Local Barley 10 Year Old Whisky Review!

Springbank may not grow their own barley on-site, but that's the only step in the entire process that is not carried out at the distillery. These 'Local Barley' bottlings are as close as it gets, and they're very special!

As the name suggests, these Springbanks exclusively use malted barley that was grown in the Kintyre region in Western Scotland. That barley, which is often of a different variety to those commonly used in the modern distilling world, is then floor-malted, milled, mashed, fermented, distilled, matured and bottled on-site at the distillery (have a read here for a closer look). While most Campbeltown fans will be aware of the more recent Local Barley bottlings that started with the fantastic 16-year old in 2016, some may not be aware that this isn't the first series of Local Barley bottlings that Springbank has released. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s they released a small range of what are now (understandably) ridiculously rare & expensive whiskies that were distilled in the mid-1960s. They're the stuff that dreams are made of, and from the reviews I've read the lucky few who actually taste them are not disappointed. But this more recent series of Springbank Local Barley is more affordable and obtainable. First in the series in early 2016 was that aforementioned 16-year old, followed by an 11-year old in early 2017, followed in late 2017 by the 10-year old that I'm reviewing today, and a 9-year old in late 2018 that has only recently made it to Australia. The fifth and final release in this series is due in late 2019 (in Europe), and it's rumoured to be the oldest bottling in the line-up so far. And there's another rumour that we can expect some local barley Longrow and possibly Hazelburn releases in future. But time will tell. 

There are only a few Scottish distilleries that acknowledge and actively explore the roles that 'terroir' and provenance of ingredients have in their final products, but it's extremely exciting for us whisky nerds when they do. Springbank and Bruichladdich would be the main high-profile contributors there, and in my opinion it's no coincidence that they also happen to be two of the most transparent, hands-on, variety- and quality-focused single malt distilleries in the world. Many other distilleries, particularly the larger and more commercial types, will argue that changing barley sources and strains does not make any noticeable difference to the finished whisky. But for various reasons those distilleries often have very little control over that part of the process anyway and are often held back by commercial pressures, so we should probably take that with a grain of salt. In my opinion there are far too many other factors involved for anyone to be able to objectively determine just how much of a difference it makes in any particular whisky, but it usually does have an effect. In any case there's no arguing against the appeal of using quality local ingredients in basically any product, and Springbank is just about as 'local' as it gets in the whisky world!

All of these Local Barley bottlings are bottled at cask strength, and as with all Springbanks there's no chill filtration or artificial colouring nonsense going on here. All of these releases name the exact farm that grew the barley used in that bottling, and the exact strain of that barley, and the number of bottles in the release, right there on the labelling. Each bottling so far in this recent Local Barley series has been distilled from different strains of barley grown at different farms (but all lightly peated Springbank), so there's no shortage of variety in these whiskies. Speaking of the labels, their design and fonts are almost identical to those unobtainable bottlings from the late 1990s, which is a nice touch. 2016's 16-year old release was distilled from Prisma barley and filled into 80% ex-bourbon casks and 20% ex-sherry casks, while the 11-year old second release in the series was distilled from the ancient Bere barley variety and matured solely in ex-bourbon casks. This 10-year old release, bottled in late 2017, was distilled from Belgravia barley grown at West Beck farm, only a few miles from Campbeltown, and was matured in 70% ex-bourbon casks and 30% ex-sherry casks. 9,000 bottles were released at a cask strength of 57.3% ABV, and it's completely sold out in Australia (so probably around the world). Tasting time!

Springbank Local Barley 10-Year Old, 57.3%. Campbeltown, Scotland.
Distilled from lightly peated Belgravia barley grown at West Beck farm, Kintyre. Matured in 70% ex-bourbon casks & 30% ex-sherry casks. 9000 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Sweet and very citrus-y and first approach, and also lightly chalky and floral. Loads of candied lemon, plenty of dusty sweet malt, some wet stone and ground white pepper. A little vanilla paste, marzipan and sea spray. A slight alcohol nip as well. With more time some floral honey develops, and some damp earth.

Texture: Medium weight. Oily and funky, but surprisingly dry - especially after the nose - and a little hot.

Taste: More citrus, with lemon rind, dried grapefruit and a little dried pineapple. More dusty malt but it's much less sweet now, it's more husky and dry. A little marzipan, some damp & muddy peat, and loads of white pepper behind the citrus and that floral (but not overtly sweet) note. Far drier than the nose suggested.

Finish: Medium length. Some drying chilli heat, then more citrus and more white pepper. A little salty and chalky minerality alongside a quick flash of Springbank's farmyard-y note, and that dusty & husky malted barley returns later on.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Very tasty whisky, as always from Springbank, but it does seem a little feisty with those pepper and chilli notes, and the dryness on the palate is a little surprising. Of the three Local Barley expressions I've tried to date (16, 9 and 10 year old), this one would be ranked at number three, it's the least tame and perhaps the more austere of the bunch, and it also has far more citrus notes and a shorter finish in comparison. But it still has loads of character, and that classic Springbank minerality & farmyard-y "funk" that us Campbeltown fans can't get enough of. It may not sit well with beginners on first encounter, but it's well worth giving it the time & attention it deserves.

This is actually one of the drier and more citrus-led Springbank's that I've come across, which is surprising, but isn't a criticism by any means. As you would hope with this sort of bottling series, and also this sort of distillery, they're all different, and they're all full of flavour and character. With local barley, and with Springbank, it's hard to go wrong. I look forward to the next release.


Sunday, 14 April 2019

Heartwood Expletive (@#$%^&*) 4 Whisky Review!

Another delicious and slightly mad release from the alchemist Mr. H, and his first PX sherry finish in fact!

I've reviewed quite a few Heartwoods over the years, and each has been - intentionally - very different to the last. Proprietor Tim Duckett (pictured above in his casual summer gear) has in my opinion been responsible for some of the best whisky ever released in Australia. To call Heartwood an independent bottler is selling it a little short, because the whisky that comes out of that nondescript bond store and Hobart office tends to be absolute magic. The world's best independent bottlers offer something that the original distillery does not, by putting their own twist on the product that sets it apart. And Mr. H, as he's known to his ever-growing legion of fans, has become a master of doing just that. From a recent Australian Muscat (sweet wine) cask-matured release, to the Dregs bottlings that are literally vatted leftovers from dozens of previous releases, and from 73.5% ABV monsters to some of the oldest Tasmanian single malts released, Heartwood has never rested on its laurels.

The Heartwood we're looking at today is a great example of that. This is the fourth and final release in the "Expletive" series, or more accurately the "@#$%^&*" series, of Heartwood bottlings. These are, or rather were, whiskies that were not behaving themselves and were not playing nicely with others. Mr. H's remedy for such problem children usually involves smacking them around a bit with a large wooden paddle, subjecting them to verbal abuse, and locking them in the "hot box" where they can reflect on how they've acted. But the four whiskies in this bottling series were even more stubborn than most and did not respond as expected, and had to be re-casked. The first, simply named @#$%^&*, was released in May 2017, and was initially matured in a second-fill port cask before being finished in first-fill sherry casks - twice! Yes, two different sherry casks gave their all over three whole years to whip that whisky into shape. Which would not be an economical thing to do! Hence the name of this series, causing Mr. H "a great deal of grief" and filling a few swear jars in short order.

The three subsequent Expletive releases all originated from the same two ex-bourbon casks, LD813 & 823, which were filled with spirit from Lark Distillery. Since they weren't responding to treatment those two casks were married together and then split into three different sherry casks for finishing, namely a 200-litre Oloroso cask for release number two, a 100-litre Oloroso cask for release number three, and a 100-litre Pedro Ximinez cask for release number four, before being bottled in August, September and October 2018 respectively. All yielded less than 200 x 500ml bottles, meaning that when all was said & done those three releases, less than 600 bottles in total, had used five different casks. Which would not have come cheap by any means. The re-casking had also resulted in dilution, since the finishing casks had been sealed with water prior to filling. So the natural cask strength of each of these releases was around the mid- to high-fifties, which while reasonably high by normal standards is actually relatively low for Heartwood bottlings which are known for their high strength and dinosaur-like flavour profiles.

As usual for Heartwood bottlings the labels of these three releases are not to be missed. The first release featured dinosaurs watching the fatal asteroid heading towards them, with one of the unlucky beasts exclaiming "@#$%^&*". The second release featured the extinct Tasmanian Tiger watching European settlers land on the small island state, exclaiming "@#$%^&*2". The third featured a Dodo watching one of his recently deceased brethren being carted off to become dinner for explorers from a certain European nation, exclaiming "@#$%^&*3". The fourth and final release's label, pictured below, featured something of a role reversal with human's looking on as the last male Northern White Rhino died of old age, exclaiming "@#$%^&*4". As Mr. H said at the time, "we are the ones that need to say @#$%^&*". This final release in the series is the subject of today's review, and is the first Heartwood bottling to spend some time in a PX sherry cask. Exciting stuff! It was bottled in October 2018 at a cask strength of 55.4% ABV, with 181 bottles released. As with all Heartwood releases there is no chill filtration or added colouring nasty-ness to be found.

Heartwood @#$%^&* 4, NAS, 55.4%. Tasmania, Australia.
Spirit from Lark Distillery matured in 2 x ex-bourbon casks, LD813 & LD823, married & filled into single 100-litre PX sherry cask. Cask strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour. 181 bottles. 

Colour: Dark amber w/ rusty red tinges.

Nose: Sweet BBQ plum marinade, dusty stewed stone fruit with a little booze poured over, and a slight dry malty-ness. Musty with dark soy sauce, lightly burnt toast with salted butter, vanilla sponge and a hint of clean rubber (pencil eraser).

Texture: Heavy weight, thick & slightly chalky. Very much like the BBQ plum marinade, but with a little alcohol heat to it.

Taste: Yep, more of that marinade, that dusty & boozy stewed stone fruit and burnt toast with lightly salted butter. Which would be down to toasted oak, I would say. It's meaty & powerful, but it's a little less aggressive than some Heartwoods have been.

Finish: Medium length, with a big pinch of black peppercorns and some cayenne powder. Then that boozy stewed fruit returns, becoming a little drier with more oak and a little Tasmania / Lark trademark eucalyptus forest.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: It's a big whisky with a bit of heat to it, like all Heartwoods, but it's also less aggressive than many of the older bottlings were. Less mongrel, as Tim would say. That could be down to the significantly lower ABV and the extra cask influence from the finishing, but then this whisky is presumably younger than some of the archive releases, so maybe that's not the full story. Aside from that trademark eucalyptus note it is less recognisable as Heartwood / Lark / Tasmanian whisky, but then it's one of very few PX finishes to come out of the state so that's understandable. That BBQ plum sauce note is enjoyable, but it's also quite dominant, and there's still some heat to this one despite the lower strength and added cask influence. I could see it going very well with some BBQ pork come winter time!

Well done to Mr. H for trying something different with this one, and whipping it into shape very nicely. Heartwood fans are going to enjoy this one, as usual the volume of flavour on offer here is not easily found from many other Australian producers. This release was considerably more expensive than most releases to date, with a controversial significant price increase, although I notice that the most recent Heartwood release has come back down again. Let's hope there's some middle-ground in between the two, so we can keep enjoying as many Heartwoods as possible!