Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Islay Farm Distillery

This month we welcomed George Wills from Kilchoman to tell us more about the youngest distillery on the Isle of Islay.

One of three brothers, his father Anthony founded the distillery in 2005. The eldest of the three, he's really lucked out coming to talk to us in Manchester while his unfortunate brothers have been shipped off to two awkward corners of the world (New York and Hawaii) to do similar tastings. It really does pay to be the firstborn sometimes...

Kilchoman was founded with the goal of being small and artisanal. Based at Rockside farm on the Rhinns, just north of the Bruichladdich distillery, they're the only distillery on the island that isn't directly by the sea. In their small mash tun, stills, malting floor and kiln they produce very small batches of whisky at a time and fill around 20 bourbon casks per week, occasionally filling into other cask types. At this pace, they manage about 160,000 litres per year.

Manchester - who'd want to be anywhere else?

Generally Kilchoman release 35-40% of their stock each year, usually when it's around 5 years old. They then keep the rest to age further, except for around 10% of their annual production which is used to experiment with.

They only ever buy fresh casks with the bourbons all coming from Buffalo Trace. They arrive still assembled, often still damp with even a little bit of bourbon left in the bottom. All the refills they use are their own refills.

Coming up to ten years old this year, they do plan on releasing a 10 year old. However, in 2005, their first year, they only filled 7 casks so they're not quite ready just yet for that milestone. Perhaps next year... George tells us they'll do a seven year old soon, and a Madeira cask finish as well - exciting!

Our evening's glorious line-up

Kilchoman 100% Islay 4th Edition

Up first is the 100% Islay 4th edition. The barley is grown, malted, smoked, mashed, distilled, matured, and bottled  at the farm and they grow 100 tons of optic barley per year just for this annual release. Bottled at 50% and matured exclusively in 1st fill buffalo trace bourbon, this one's a light and floral introduction to the range with a lighter peating level than the others in the line-up.

Nose: Sweet vanilla, spring blossoms, wax crayons. Earthy, like the smell you get with fresh soil while gardening. Slightly nutty.
Palate: Sweet grassy barley, lots of vanilla with salty earth and dry vegetal peat.
Finish: A little waxy with smoky ashes.

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014

Second in the line-up is Machir Bay 2014. This one's made with barley from Diageo's Port Ellen maltings, produced at a similar spec to Ardbeg. 90% of the whisky is matured in Bourbon, and 10% in Oloroso, which are then vatted together and bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Wafts of citrus, with sea breeze and sweet barley. Rock dust and linen.
Palate: Sweet vanilla and lemon candy, dry peat, barley sugar and a little mint.
Finish: Gentle oak with a tingle of peat. Drying.

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2015

Now here's a treat! The brand-new Loch Gorm 2015, released just this week. This is a full maturation in Oloroso Sherry hogsheads (not butts). It's not overpoweringly sweet, and has a lot of interesting savoury notes coming through.

Nose: Rubber shoe soles, struck matches, sultanas, glace cherries, custard powder, salted nuts, dry dusty earth.
Palate: Peated salty syrup with sweet barley malt, plums and figs, a little dark chocolate, leading to herbal oregano and peppercorns.
Finish: Spicy clove with lime juice. More delicious dry peat, quite sticky this time.

Kilchoman Original Cask Strength

After a short break, we move onto the cask strength section of our tasting, starting with the Original Cask Strength. This was released October 2014 round about the time of the London Whisky Show. A limited release, this was produced with 35 fresh first fill Bourbon casks and bottled aged five years.

Nose: Wood spice, candy, liqourice, hay, farmyard, salty rocks, herby vegetation and dry straw.
Palate: Oily and sweet. Vanilla, peated custard with cinnamon. A little bit of seaweed. Peat rises to become salty and dry.
Finish: Long and warming with savoury smoke, oak, and salt.

Kilchoman Port Cask Matured

Now this is a really interesting one... A Kilchoman matured for three years in a Ruby Port Cask. The distillery started with 20 fresh 1st-fill port casks and filled them with spirit straight away to capture the flavour.  At 3 years old they decided to release it because the port was having such a strong influence on the whisky. Any longer and it'd have looked like Ribena! The colour after 3 years is already pretty fantastic...

This was released last year and sold out very quickly indeed. We're very lucky tonight because this isn't the official 55% release. George managed to get a full cask strength sample at 59%!

Nose: Smoked cheese with brandied cherries. Musty dunnage warehouse. Barley grain.
Palate: Fizzy sour strawberry laces, with tart raspberry, soft grape, and a Lapsang Souchoung smoke running through.
Finish: Drying with chewy peat and savoury oak.

Kilchoman Cask Sample Oloroso 2009

And now the piece de resistance, a single cask Kilchoman from a 1st fill Oloroso sherry butt. Distilled in 2009, and bottled at a cask strength of 59.2% ABV. This particular release will be released in Belgium but there'll be a very similar one in the UK soon so keep your eyes peeled.

Nose: Sesame seed, caramel wafers, coal tar, plasticine, marzipan, plum sauce.
Palate: Sweet and syrupy with tangy cough drops, cola, orange zest, and tingly sour smoke.
Finish: Long and smoky with plenty of earth and tar. Reminiscent of Ardbeg.

Staggeringly good for a 5 year old. This one really made the night for a lot of the club members. Wow!

What a brilliant tasting. Thanks so much to George Wills and the Kilchoman distillery for coming down to Manchester and sharing such beautiful whisky with us. It'll be lovely to see just how much this already delicious whisky improves over time...

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Progressive Hebridean Distillers

Bands of gold

BRUICHLADDICH have gotten themselves something of a maverick reputation in the whisky industry...

Rescued in 2001 by an independent group of investors, the distillery was rebooted and has spent the last fifteen years endeavouring to produce thought-provoking whisky that captures the essence of Islay and its people.

Bought by Remy-Cointreau in 2012, the folks from the shores of Loch Indaal continue to shake things up. Renowned for experimentation, putting out a lot of limited expressions, unusual cask selections, and going against the grain of the industry expectations (please, forgive my puns...).

Joining Us...

Joining us for the tasting we have "The Bruichlassies", Joanne Brown and Kate Hannett, both Ileachs with a passion for the Isle of Islay; and, we're also joined by Brian Copeland - Remy Cointreau's "Man In The North" (is it just me, or does that sound like a title from Game of Thrones...?).

Left to right: Jo, Kate, and Brian.

Up first on stage is Jo, a brand ambassador for Bruichladdich, whose job it is to travel the world selling whisky. Hard life, but someone has to do it! We're given a lesson in pronounciation - it's "eye-luh", not "izzlay", or "eye-lay"; and it's "bruck-laddie", not "bruch-lad-ditch" or "bruckladdock".

Growing up on Islay, she's been immersed in whisky since she was a child. In fact, at the tender age of five her school sent her class on a trip to the Bowmore distillery. That's pretty rock-and-roll; when I was at school they sent us to visit a cardboard box factory -_-

1. Bruichladdich Scottish Barley, "The Classic Laddie"

Jo introduces the first dram of the evening, the vibrant aquamarine bottle of Bruichladdich Scottish Barley, "The Classic Laddie". The story goes that, when Mark Reynier (one of the band of independent investors) first visited the distillery this is what colour the sea water was in Loch Indaal.

This is a multi-vintage whisky (a.k.a. No Age Statement, or NAS) but Jo's happy to tell us it's around 5/6 years old. When it comes to their whisky, Bruichladdich don't keep many secrets.

Produced in a mixture of American oak ex bourbon casks, and European oak ex fino sherry casks, the whisky is unpeated and bottle at 50% ABV. All the distillery's bottlings are non chill filtered and free from colouring.

Nose: Salty, earthy and grassy with limes and bananas. Slightly rubbery with a strong mineral smell.

Palate: Salty custard with limes and cinnamon. After sitting in the glass a while, vanilla sponge cake.

Finish: Oily walnuts, sultanas.

Deceptively simple at first but reveals more character with each sip. Very approachable and smooth at 50%. A solid introduction to the core range of Bruichladdich whiskies.

Jo also talks us through why they avoid chill filtering their whiskies and why they bottle the whisky at 50% - it's all to do with oil.

To demonstrate this, Jo pours a generous measure and then carefully and slowly trickles water into the tilted glass. With a light behind the glass, you can clearly see the "band of gold" form at the top. This is where the oil and the water have separated out, leaving the oil floating on top.

Dipping your finger into this, you can feel the oil on your skin - give it a rub on your hands and you can get a lot of the aromatic profile of the barley coming through. Plus, as we're told by Jo and Kate, if you go home reeking of whisky you can explain you were just rubbing it on your skin!

That oil gives the whisky a smooth, buttery mouthfeel. Chill filtering would prevent the whisky from going cloudy at cooler temperatures, but you'd sacrifice that soft, smooth texture in your mouth and most likely a good deal of the flavour imparted by the oils.

The night's certainly shaping up to be an education!

Now we go over to Kate for....

2. Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006

Kate takes the stage and talks us through the Islay Barley expression.

The barley in this was grown in 2006, distilled in 2007 and matured purely in bourbon casks until it was bottled at 50% ABV. Apparently, the Islay farmers were paid for their barley (at least partially) in whisky!

Nose: Farms, stable-smell of hay and straw, salty again, wet flowers.

Palate: Creamy. Salty porridge with apple. No citrus this time, but a touch of menthol and spicy nutmeg.

Finish: Hazelnuts and a little more salt.

Bruichladdich was rebooted by two wine buffs, and two whisky experts. In France, the concept of "terroir" explains the character of wine, cheese, whisky, brandy etc by considering the place in which it's made. The soil, climate, variety of barley, locality to the coast, location of warehouses, origin of cask, colour of the stillman's underwear (!) all feasibly impart an effect on the flavour and overall character of a whisky.

Many distilleries, due to demand, have to import barley from abroad. This would compromise the terroir of the spirit, so Bruichladdich only use Scottish barley in all their whiskies. For this expression, they've gone one further and made it exclusively with barley grown on Islay. Specifically, at Rockside farm just up the hill where Kilchoman distill their whisky.

Kate talks a bit about growing barley on Islay. From the island to the West you've got very little across the Atlantic until you get to Canada. She explains the climate like this:

"On Islay, everyone has the same hairstyle - whichever way the wind is blowing."

Now - in the words of Monty Python - for something completely different!

3. The Botanist Gin

You're seeing this increasingly - distilleries producing clear spirits in addition to aged spirits. Whisky's a long waiting game, so being able to distill something that can hit the shelves immediately really helps cash flow in a small distillery.

Jim McEwan, the master distiller at Bruichladdich, entered into the task of gin production by sampling different grain alcohols. Typically, a gin is made by buying pure neutral grain alcohol and soaking botanicals in it. This is then re-distilled with a still that filters the vapours through a container holding more botanicals.

Jim went for a 100% wheat alcohol, due to the sweeter flavour. This gets loaded into the Laddie gin still, the fierce lady known affectionately as "Ugly Betty". Betty is an old Lomond-style still, and so is squat and dumpy compared with the tall, slender necked whisky stills. She puts out an 80% ABV gin which is then watered down with spring water to a bottling strength of 46%.

Mary, one of the distillery's "ninja grannies" decided one day to make a cheese cake. To make it more fun, she decided to add some Botanist gin to the recipe. Somehow, she "accidentally" used the concentrated pre-bottling strength gin... and you can guess what kind of an afternoon the staff had at the distillery when she shared it out!

Nose: Mint, juniper, aniseed, cumin, lemon, touch of coconut.

Palate: Very refreshing neat. Tangy salted lemons and bitter citrus peel.

Finish: Slightly drying cloves.

The Botanist contains nine base botanicals which include juniper, cassia bark, angelica, liquorice, and citrus peels.

The condenser box contains twenty-two foraged botanicals from Islay which are infused during distillation - these include three types of mint, bog myrtle, sweet Sicily, heather, and (to my delight) gorse.

Gorse is that yellow flower you see growing on knarled clifftop bushes by the coast. At the right time of year, they smell of coconuts - a bit like the smell of some sun cream, or maybe even a PiƱa Colada.

A History Lesson

It's the halfway point for this evening's drams... time for some history!

The Victorian still house at Bruichladdich
Bruichladdich was founded in 1881 by a family from Glasgow. They brought their engineering and business acumen to Islay and built what was considered a state-of-the-art distillery at the time with tall, slim neck stills to produce a lighter, more delicate spirit.

There have been many changes of ownership over the years. Jim Beam shut it down in 1994 until it was rescued in 2001 by a group of independent investors. It was bought for £6.5 million and around £5 million of that price was to pay for the existing stock of between 6,000 and 8,000 casks. The stock was potholed with gaps, which is one reason the distillery have produced so many limited release expressions and experimental finishes.

Jim McEwan was brought in from Bowmore distillery as the master distiller. He started age 15 as a cooper and has now clocked up over 50 years working with whisky. He's something of a rock star in the whisky industry, well known for his passion and humour.

Jim "Springsteen" McEwan
The distillery and all its stock was sold to Remy Couintreau in 2012 for £58 million. Not a bad little profit on the original £6.5 million! All the members of staff had shares, so their hard work over the years paid off nicely, though Jo made a point to discourage us from buying Lamborghinis as she says they're pretty terrible to drive!

Today, the distillery employs 71 full time members of staff and still uses the original Victorian equipment with no computers in sight except for book-keeping and running the webcams.

Enough history - time for the second half!

4. Bruichladdich Black Art 4th Release

Now things get serious... Here's the 4th release of the Bruichladdich Black art, a 23-year old mystery expression whose secret recipe is known only to Jim McEwan himself.

Lot's of interesting occult iconography on the bottle too...

It's bottled at 49.2%ABV, most likely has a sherry influence, and that's about all we know. People have pondered over the years whether it's port, sauternes, shiraz, fino, PX, oloroso, rum... we're told it's likely around 6 different casks.

Nose: Icing sugar, slight smoke, dates, sweet tobacco, custard powder.

Palate: Golden malt, rich and oily with spices. Green apples, then sticky figs, soft dates, chocolate, Brazil nuts, and banana bread.

Finish: Long, chewy, oaky finish with wafts of fruit coming through.

Jim mixes up every release of Black Art, so each one has different characteristics. I enjoyed the 3rd release very much, and this one's just as appealing. Given time, it yields a lot of different flavours...

Kate tells us now about the hairy, gruff apprentice that Jim is training up to take over when (or if) he eventually retires. Adam, Kate's brother, started 9 years ago at Bruichladdich and has been involved with many of the releases. The latest Port Charlotte release in the PC range is named with a nod to Adam.

5. Port Charlotte Islay Barley

Now we get onto the peated section of our tasting! Port Charlotte has been a huge success over the last few years, with many proclaiming it as the epitome of a modern Islay whisky.

The barley was grown on six different farms on Islay and the spirit was matured in a mix of American and European oak and bottled at 50% ABV.

Nose: A walk on the clifftops. Muddy boots, beeswax, lavender, wet flowers, with dusty icing sugar, barley sugar, salty sand, pear skin and a little tropical papaya.

Palate: Sweet and salty, with a rich and buttery maltiness. Grassy notes with honey and lemon throat sweets, ripe pears and a rising crisp dry peat smoke.

Finish: Toasted oak, black tea.

Port Charlotte whisky gets its name from the village just down the road from the distillery. There was once a real working distillery down in Port Charlotte operating from 1829 until 1929, whereupon it became an early casualty of the Wall Street crash.

The last bottle of whisky distilled at the Port Charlotte distillery was drunk at a funeral on Islay, we're told by Kate. As you can imagine, funerals on Islay involve a large number of the residents and there's a tradition that the whisky is opened and poured while the grieving friends and relatives are at the graveyard.

Not long ago, all coffins were carried by hand from the settled areas of the island to the church as a mark of respect. The men would shoulder the burden and the walk to the church could take a day or two. As sustenance, the men would take with them oat cakes, cheese, and some liquid refreshment in the form of whisky.

At least on one occasion, the men arrived rowdy and merry at the church before realising that not one of them knew any longer where the coffin was...

6. Octomore 06.3 Islay Barley

Oooh yes - it's Octomore time! The barley in this was exclusively produced on Octomore Farm, where there was once an old illicit distillery that eventually closed in the 1840s.

It's quite dark in the glass for a five-year-old. Thick line of oil sticks on swirling. At 64% ABV, this is serious stuff. Matured in a mixture of European and American oak and watered down to 64% with a little spring water from Octomore Farm.

Nose: Savoury, cooked meats, sweet Summer hay, sea spray, thyme and lavender. Quite grassy, and nowhere near as phenolic as you’d expect for such an intensely peated malt.

Palate: Very malty to start. Intense medicinal rush, calms down to reveal a little barbecued banana. Lots of deep, earthy, vegetal and herby notes among the peat. There are sweeter, raisiny, chocolatey, coffee notes in there too.

Finish: Salty butter on toast, liquorice root, smoked cheese. Long – very long. Lip-smacking ages after it’s gone.

Phwoar. This is going down beautifully… It’s comforting, but fierce. Earthy, but sweet too. So many outdoor notes of herbal vegetation – you can nose it for hours and still find more character appearing.

Octomore Farm is now owned and run by Farmer James Brown, "The Godfather of Soil". Turns out he's also Godfather of Joanne - fancy that! This is the ultimate in Islay provenance. All the barley to make this release came from a single field on James' farm. It doesn't get much more local than that...

Releases of Octomore always push the limit when it comes to peating levels but this is a whopper even compared to others in the range. Typical peating levels are 167 parts of phenol per million – this release weighs in at 258PPPM!

A typical peated malt has its barley smoked for a few hours. The barley used in Octomore can take up to seven days continuous smoking at the Inverness maltings!

Thoughts provoked?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I'm known (with good reason) in the club as a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Bruichladdich. I've got shelves of the stuff at home, been to the distillery, done the warehouse tasting tour, and I do literally own the T shirt. So you might want to take my opinion with a pinch of salt here and forgive the gush.

What Jo and Kate have shown us during their tasting is the humour, warmth, passion and spirit of Islay. The brand has been steeped in this since the reboot and it comes across in every aspect of how the business works and presents itself. These are real people, with amazing stories to tell. They're honest, proud, self-deprecating and confident.

People often overlook this, but whisky-drinking is a very emotive, passionate experience. That olfactory connection goes way down deep into your subconscious (and, if you're so inclined, your soul).

Bruichladdich get that. You feel it when you look at the bottles, when you visit the distillery, when you speak to the staff, and when you drink the whisky. The tradition of language, humour, storytelling and character comes through every step of the way.

And the whisky's bloody cracking too.

Thanks again to Jo, Kate, and Brian - hope to see you all again in Manchester soon!

Posted by Sean Handley

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Aston's Villa

It's been all systems go here at Whisky Club HQ so the blog has suffered some what as a result!

Back in October 2014, we had arranged a night of delectable drams with arguable Manchester's best Tobacco and Spirit merchant - Aston's in collaboration with the independent bottling legends Gordon & MacPhail.

A great crowd of members turned up at Aston's eagerly awaiting oak matured delights being expertly dished out by Mike Fisher of G&M and poorly by Andy. Mike took us through a presentation focusing on G&M's heritage and history and a little background about what makes them one of the best and largest independent bottlers of whisky in the world.

The first whisky we were treated to was a bit of a surprise. A mystery Dram.. hmmm

Mystery Dram - ?%

Some of the thickest legs we've ever seen on a whisky, like treacle! The nose was a continuation of the theme as this was also heavy, thick and cloying with a good richness but retained some light malty qualities... a whiff of smoke was mentioned. If the nose was thick the palate was thicker, a nice toffee and milk chocolate note as well as a touch of that elusive smoke, fruity clumped jam on top of a cream scone. A good oily mouthfeel on this too with a long warming finish.

What was it? Well, like us, you'll find out at the end.

  • Glenburgie 10yr - G&M Distillery Label 40%
 Glenburgie is a little known and yet well used Speyside distillery. The spirit is rarely bottled as a single malt and can therefore be hard to come by. However it is a staple ingredient in the famous Ballantine's Blends.

This particular bottling, on G&M's Distillery Label range was matured for 10 years in refill sherry hogsheads and first fill sherry butts. Quite an impressive maturation for a lesser known blend component spirit.

The nose was buttery, a touch of spice and fruit, thanks to it's maturation in refill sherry casks it also carried a little hint of (the now overused) Christmas cake and a touch of charred oak.

The dram continued to deliver as the palate was surprisingly flavoursome and warming, more ticks in the box for this little whisky so far. Toffee, butterscotch, spices and and berries such as cherry and raspberry were on the cards here with a slightly nutty backdrop. A bit like one of those berry Granola yoghurts. This ended in a very smooth but long finish.

Overall, this went down really well and the best part? The price at £22-£30 RRP! You will find this in Aston's and from online retailers but not in supermarkets.

This unassuming and surprising little whisky makes for a relaxed kicked back mid week sipper or a great alternative to the usual Speyside Suspects in this price category, especially considering the sherry maturation. Belter. 

  • Imperial 1995 - G&M Distillery Label 43%
Founder Andy has a bit of a soft spot for this now demolished distillery. Imperial, founded in 1897 was a Speyside distillery providing, what was in most cases, blend component malt for then owners Pernod Ricard's range of blends.

Our second of G&M's Distillery Label range. There has only ever been one official bottling of Imperial by previous owners Allied. This particular bottling is an 18 year old and was matured in refill sherry casks for the full duration.

The nose was spicy with a lot of various fruit. Strawberry jam, raspberry, crunchy green apple and warm pastry, almost apple pie! There's also a bit of cinnamon in there and a heavier dusty/oak note in the background.

On the palate the consistency was good, again more of that strawberry jam but this time with crunchy nut cornflakes, vanilla custard and a little bit of milk chocolate.

This bottle retails at around £55+ and again can be found both in Aston's and online. For an 18 year old whisky from a now closed distillery, sherry matured and in what all honesty is a very nice dram, who could argue with that?

Comparable to many other 18 yr old whiskies in this price range if not better and makes a change from the usual brands!

  • Linkwood 25 yr - G&M Distillery Label 43%
Next up Mike pulled out the stops by revealing a bottle of 25 year old Linkwood.on G&M's own label. Our third Speysider of the night, Linkwood which is situated near Elgin, G&M's spiritual home, is currently under Diageo's tenure.

Linkwood is another distillery whose majoriy of whisky is destined for blends of the owning company. There have however been several official bottlings of Linkwood and a fair few independent bottlings knocking about too.

On the nose this proffered cut grass or hay with a herbal quality, like opening up the spice cupboard at home, toffee and plums.

The palate was again, herbal but maybe not as refined as you'd expect a 25 yr old to be. There's also leather, toffee and a slight hint of coffee too, less espresso more flat white. Oak influence throughout. The finish was relatively short but warming before coming back with an almost bitter encore.

Coming in at around £90 for a 25 year old is pretty good value for money as far as recent releases are concerned. Our only gripes were the low Abv and the unexpected bitter tang towards the end.

Linkwood can make some very, very good whisky. This bottling is another Marmite bottle for the club with a split in opinions which is part of what the Whisky Club is all about!

  • Bruichladdich 1991- G&M Cask Strength Collection 52.4%
Wowsers Batman, it's a 22 year old cask strength Bruichladdich! If Mike treated us witht eh 25 yr Linkwood then a CS 22 Laddie was up another level. There's no sherry here as this was a bottling of 2 hogsheads combined and bottled in 2014.

G&M do a good line in their Cask Strength range with other bottlings including those from Clynelish, Caol Ila and more. Good company to be in then. This particular wee Laddie was un peated much like the majority of it's brothers and sisters and interestingly was distilled before the distillery's closure in 1994. A real treat then!

The nose had a touch of the maritime Laddie salt but then something surprising. A massive hit of limes and cream, key lime pie and then some! A touch of barley and honey in there too alongside a whiff of the Bruichladdich farmyard notes associated with their peated bottlings!

On the palate the dram changed slightly, whilst it did carry a tart citrus, it then developed into a maltier dram with a mineral tang like licking a pebble on a beach. Crisp barley and Icing sugar led into a long and relatively sharp tart finish.

Carrying an RRP of around £100+, this is some competitive pricing from G&M for a Bruichladdich at this age especially at this strength.

  • Highland Park 8yr - G&M 43%
Ah Highland Park, we've had a fair few expressions from the powerhouse of Orkney at the club in our 2 years of being. This particular bottle was one of the lowest age drams of the evening, matured in a refill hogshead and bottled at 43% what did this dram have in store.

Spritely and fresh on the nose whilst having whiffs of the Highland Park house style peat flutter in and out. Raisin, toast, apple and marmalade were all here with a slight creamy note alongside.

On the palate it was initially a dry ashy delivery however this is quickly cast aside by the fruitier notes in the young spirit. Lemon, toffee, apple sauce and lemon meringue pie come in quickly followed by a very nice warming coal fire smoke and peat. There was a touch of dried herb here too, oregano perhaps? Considering the 43% abv the smoke had plenty of legs to it.

The finish is of medium length with the peat playing centre stage slowly tailing off into a savoury ash and herbal note.

Overall, at around £30RRP this is an absolute bargain. This whisky belies its age in terms of subtle complexity, despite only being 8 years old I would happily (and did) purchase this and think it more than stands up to some of the official Highland Park bottlings, particularly the more recent NAS releases.

This little hidden gem will happily keep your (proverbial) fuel tank topped up nicely. A great mid week peaty treat and is also great in smoky cocktails!

  • Ledaig 1998 - G&M Connoisseur's Choice 46%
G&M's Connoisseur's Choice range is well known across the globe. This is their flagship bottling range with the highest number of releases and bottles overall compare to their other ranges. From 2012 all CC bottles were Non chill filtered, Natural colour and bottled at the increased strength of 46% compared to the original 43%.

This Ledaig hails from the Island of Mull and the Tobermory distillery. Ledais is another style of spirit and brand distilled at the same distillery akin to others such as Bruichladdich (Port Charlotte). Ledaig is like Tobermory's peaty cousin and can be hard to find at the higher age levels such as this 15 year old.

The nose carried dried wood, rubber tyres, a touch of lemon but remained quite dusty and dry. Towards the tail comes seawater/salt and seaweed.

The palate initially proffered a drying smoke alongside brine and damp earthy notes, before opening up to show a touch of honey and even a bit of lemon rind in there too.

The finish carried on from the palate with a short but drying end.

An interesting dram indeed, peat often compliments Island whisky styles with their 'maritime' notes. This retails at around £42 RRP.

  • Caol Ila 2001 - G&M Connoisseur's Choice 46%

Our final dram of the night saw us take on another Connoisseur's Choice bottling. This time a 2001 Caol Ila from one of Islays most famous and popular distilleries.

Matured in first fill bourbon barrels this 12/13yr old Caol Ila had our resident peat heads (everyone) excited.

The nose carried some of those crucial Caol Ila notes with waxy lemon and a lot of their trademark peat. With this though there's vanilla, a touch of basil and leather. Yum

A good oily consistency again got this off to a good start on the palate. Again the smoke at the fore but leading into pepper, more lemon, digestive biscuit and brandy snaps. More smoke towards the end.

this led into a very satisfying lengthy warm finish with the peat guiding to the finale.

This was a great dram to finish on and can easily compete if not overtake some of the standard Caol Ila core range from the distillery in this price range. This carries and RRP of around £50.

A fantastic line up with great input and presentation from Mike of G&M. Aston's put on a great night for us and we've had feedback from everyone who attended who said it was a resounding success.

Mystery Dram - ?%

But wait? What about this "Mystery Dram" that we tried when we arrived... Well Mike put us all out of our misery and revealed what was in the (sneakily decanted) bottle...

It was the English Whisky Co's Chapter 13 from Norfolk in England!

Our second expression from these guys and this not only came as something of a surprise to everyone but made a lot of us appreciate how good this stuff has gotten in the last few years since we tried their also tasty Chapter 9!

Looks like the St George distillery remains one of those in England to keep your eye on.

In fact it went down that well that a few people bought a bottle!

Once again the whole club extends our thanks and gratitude to both the excellent and attentive Aston's and Mike of G&M for putting on a fantastic night. Astons can be found in the Barton arcade of St Annes Square and not only proffer a very very good selection of both Distillery and Independent malts, but also stock other great spirits too in addition to their vast range of cigars, tobacco and accessories!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Age is a Virtue?

Thanks to Josh for the Picture

Our second tasting of August was based around a recent trend in the whisky industry; the increase in No Age Statement releases.

A No Age Statement release or NAS for short, is pretty much as it sounds, a whisky where the company does not disclose on the bottle (or anywhere else for that matter) how old the whisky is.

SWA regulations say an age statement must show the age of the youngest contributing spirit in the bottling. Ie  With a bottle of Glenfarclas 15 the youngest whisky contained within it will be 15 years old although there may be some older malt content in there also.

One of the reasons for the large increase in NAS releases is that distilleries cannot meet demand and are having to use younger whiskies in order to allow their spirits to mature.

So what happens when the gloves come off and we take a look at some of the industries flagship releases?..

Image Courtesy of the Whisky Exchange
Tomatin Legacy - 43%

The club has a bit of a bitter sweet relationship with bottles of Tomatin in the past with the old 12 year old version not performing well but the 15 and 30 receiving high acclaim. However how did the 2013 NAS Legacy release from the Highland Distillery fair?

Bottled at 43%, a good start. Matured in ex bourbon and virgin oak the nose is spicy, yet creamy with a touch of citrus. Fresh and spicy. The palate is surprisingly strong but well balanced, cinnamon,  barley, apple, brown sugar and honey with a long and spicy finish.

At around £20-£25 a bottle this is indeed very good value for money despite not having a number on the bottle. The clubbers guessed this sat around the 7-8yr old mark. A good mid week pick me up.

Singleton of Dufftown - Tailfire 40%

No dear friends this is not an indication that Diageo have spanned into film production with the release of a new James Bond film starring Jim Murray as a Panama hat wearing, Glencarin toting MI5 agent.

Tailfire, coupled with the other release, Sunray are the 2 latest NAS releases from the Dufftown distillery.

Tailfire was matured in refill sherry casks and bottled at 40% with the red label indicating what the producers feel are associated red berry flavours of the spirit.

Nose, well, fair enough there is a bit of strawberry jam there, a touch of malt, crunchy nut cornflakes and warm bread. The palate is smooth but quite a thin texture. Honey, apple pie and victoria sponge. This is a very, very sweet whisky.

Tailfire sank a bit with only a few positive comments about the nose. On the plus side unlike Sunray it doesn't sound like a Care Bear film.

Tailfire's RRP sits around the £30-£35 mark.

Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve - 43%

Image Courtesy of the Whisky Exchange
This is the club's second Yamazaki with the 12 yr old tasted back in summer 2013. The 12 yr old now sells at between £45-£55 which compared to £35 in 2013 is a big hike so we settled on this dram to see how it compares.

The Distiller's Reserve was released alongside the sister distillery Hakushu Distiller's reserve.

The nose is quite fruity, think pineapple upside down cake, coconut and almonds with a touch of oak. The palate is again fruity but will a well balanced sherry and oak character as well as peach and a dab of milk chocolate. The finish is medium in length and smooth with a touch of spice.

Distiller's reserve got a mixed reception with clubbers feeling it lacked a bit of depth.

Highland Park Dark Origins - 46.8%

Assassin's Creed Dark Origins David Beckham Edition
Our 3rd Highland Park of the month! Highland Park Dark Origins was hot off the press after release in late July 2014. Andy and Sean had already snaffled a sneak preview of the release at Dramboree thanks to Daryl Haldane's tasting (where he also let them in on a little secret as to it's age but our lips are sealed).

Dark Origins takes inspiration from the distillery's somewhat illicit past centered around a local man a butcher come smuggler - Magnus Eunson. Eunson was a renowned smuggler of spirits who used the local church to stash his goods. The new packaging bearing what some described as 'Assassins Creed David Beckham' with a hooded figure shrouded in a dark smokey tones leans towards what HP seem to be going for. (Obviously we cannot confirm or deny if the chap actually looked like the former England footballer)

Matured in 80% first fill sherry casks and 20% refill sherry and bottled at 46.8%. The nose is musty, tar, tobacco, oak and dark chocolate. The palate shows some orange zest, pepper and thick toffee alongside the signature Highland Park smoke.

Dark Origins went down well, with the clubbers noting the depth of flavour and amount of first fill sherry casks but in turn thinking the RRP of £65 was steep given that the age statement 12 year old is £25.

Laphroaig Select - 40%

Unbelievably, only our second Laphroaig. The Select has caused something of a stir with the online whisky community. We won't tell you why but here's how it went down at the club.

Select is matured in a vast number of cask types including Olorosso sherry butts, American white oak, PX Hoghsheads, Quarter casks, ex bourbon casks and more. We have a contingent of in-house peat heads as you might expect from a whisky club but nobody had prepared themselves for what came next.

The nose, salty initially, a touch of seaweed, lemon, caramel and a very faint dry smoke. The palate was quite distant and never really got started. More lemon, a touch of menthol and chocolate, think Fry's mint bars, Caramac and a final note of the traditional Laphroaig TCP. The finish was short with a touch of peat and clove notes seeing you to the end.

"Hmmm" Those being the words of several members.

This was certainly not like any Laphroaig any of us had had before. With an RRP of £35 + which is more than the 48% Quarter cask - £27 and around the same price as the 10yr old, this release seem to be a few pints short of a party.

Talisker Port Ruighe - 45.8%

On that bombshell we raced onto the final dram of the night. The Talisker Port Ruighe. Pronounced 'Port Rhee' after the Skye town, the release is bottled at the trademark Talisker strength of 45.8% and was finished in Ruby Port casks.

The nose is surprisingly chocolatey with dried cranberry, fig, cigar leaf? and a touch of woodsmoke. The palate is smooth yet produced the expected peat smoke but also kept in line with toffee, cherry and summer fruit pudding notes. This was topped by a lingering drying sweet finish.

A pleasant surprise from this little number. A few around the room mentioned their disappointment in the Talisker Storm and Dark Storm releases that were put to market around the same time as this bottling but very much enjoyed this one.

Sitting at around £40 RRP this is a little indication of how tactile Talisker spirit might actually be if paired with a more unusual cask type. Good stuff.

 Overall Dram of the night was tied, undecided if you will between Highland Park Origins and the Talisker with a few votes for the Tomatin. The Tomatin though got top marks for value.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Duty Free Drams

Our first tasting in August saw us play host to several famous whisky brands and examples of their Travel retail Exclusive whiskies.

These are bottles that can only be picked up in airports across the globe and provide an interesting look at different stock as well as providing good value for money in many cases due to the sheer size of the bottles with most being 1 litre in size.

Before we get started the club would like to say a huge thank you to Inverhouse Distillers, Jameson and Highland Park for providing us with the bottles for this evening.

Old Pulteney, Noss Head - 46%

The first Pulteney at the club and we have the Wick distillery's entry level in to their travel retail range, Noss Head'. Part of the Lighthouse Series' named after different lighthouses on the north Scottish coast, Noss head was matured exclusively in ex Bourbon casks and bottled with No Age Statement.

Light in colour, this appears to be a young whisky as from the nose it is light, spritely and spicy with green apple and what is often seen as the trademark Pulteney salt. The palate too features citrus, vanilla and spice with a surprisingly long finish.

This retails at £39.99 and for a litre of Pulteney, this is fantastic value for money and provides a step away from the usual house style.

Jameson Select Reserve - 40%

As we've had this little Irish beauty previously, the notes can be found here.

Balblair 2004 - 46%

Balblair is a picturesque distillery nestled in the Highlands who are quickly (and quite rightly) becoming recognised as a leading player in the whsiky market. Balblair bucked the trend of the usual Age statement a few years back, rather than show '12 years old' they chose to show the vintage of the whisky, which is more akin to wine than whisky. In this case a 2004 vintage.

The 2004 is a 10 year old whisky bottled in 2014 and is matured solely in ex bourbon casks.

The nose is light, honey, vanilla, lemongrass alongside a savoury note and a touch of malt. The palate is fresh and comes back with the vanilla, brandy snap biscuits make an appearance before a dry medium length finish.

Retailing at £44.99 this Balblair provides a god chance to try a lighter highland style without breaking the bank.

Old Pulteney Duncansby Head - 46%

Next up, another Pulteney, this time though Duncansby Head which was matured in both Bourbon and sherry casks giving this a little more of a rounded edge.

The nose gives off the Pulteney salty sea air again, this time though with toffee, honey and hazelnut. The palate is warm with a good oily texture. Flavours include orange oil, raisins and herbs.

The finish is medium length with vanilla, oak and spice.

At £45.99 this gives an altogether more classic Pulteney experience with more depth and richness than the Noss Head.

Balblair 1991 - 46%

Ok now, next up is a bit of a curveball in that it wasn't a purely Travel retail bottling coupled with the
fact that it was only available for a 6 month period back in 2010 when a stand in was needed before the new 1990 bottling replaced the old 1989. However this gives the 1991 a rather unique edge.

A very bourbon affair with that Balblair honey again, orange peel and vanilla. A light and fragrant palate, thin mouthfeel but a long spicy finish.

Highland Park Svein - 40%

Highland Park's Warrior series has been one of the success stories of the modern Travel Retail market for whisky producers. Based on legendary Viking warriors due to Orkney's Viking past, this 1ltr offering is No Age Statement comes in at a very reasonable £39.99 but what did we make of it?

Nose gives some initial toffee and a very soft underlying smoke, oak and coal. The palate is somewhat mellowed due to the 40% but retains a robust cinnamon, dark chocolate and smoke influence. Maybe some tropical fruit back on the nose now too?

Overall? Good value for money at £40.

Highland Park Harald - 40%

Lastly we come fact to face with another Viking Warrior from Orkney. This time Harald. No not our
favourite tuba playing Australian neighbour, but another bottling in Highland Park's Warrior series.

Harald is named after Hrald Fairhair, a Viking King of Norway who first set up viking earldom on  Orkney. Bottled at 40% and using whiskies matured in both European and American oak casks, Harald gives nuts, orange peel and spice on the nose. The a palate is thick and almost clunky with toffee, vanilla and christmas spices.

A nice bottling here from Highland Park with an extra dimension compared to the Svein.

Harald retails at £70

Monday, August 25, 2014

Commonwealth Nations

24th July saw us tackle a line up of whiskies from across the commonwealth in conjunction with the Commonwealth Games.

Australia - Sullivan's Cover Double Cask - 40%

First up we tried the Sullivan's Cove Double Cask, a Tasmanian whisky matured in both American and French Oak.

Australians are well known for their competitive nature when it comes to sport whether it be Cricket, Rugby or Tiddlywinks. Likewise the Australian whisky industry has flourished and has recently been making real in roads into the world market like a momentous scrum pushing into Scotland's half.

The Double cask is a vatting of 3 different single casks from the distillery.

The nose is velvety with the unmistakable notes of rich Cognac and milk chocolate. The French oak lends well to Sullivan's base spirit.

Onto the palate and this dram is a completely different beast! Now the American ex bourbon casks come into their own, vanilla, spice and a warm toffee note.

A short but warm finish ends proceedings.

This was certainly a dram of 2 halves, coming in at an RRP of £65, like all 'New world' Whiskies part of what you pay is the air miles getting it to the UK. If it was touching the 46% mark and cost a bit less the consensus was that it would be a good bottle to have on the shelf.

New Zealand - Milford 15 - 43%

Next up just a hop skip and a jump away from Australia and we're onto New Zealand, home of the Mighty All Blacks, Lucy Lawless and the Lord of the Ring's The Shire.

There is no distillery called Milford, in fact his bottling is that of the Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin on New Zealand's South Island that closed it's doors back in 2004. It's always interesting to feature a whisky from a closed distillery.

The whisky was matured in ex bourbon casks for 15 years before being bottled in 2004 prior to the distilleries closure.

Whisky gospel scribe and Panama Hat advocate Jim Murray is a past supporter of certain NZ whiskies. Let's see how this one fairs.

The nose is, frankly, harsh. Spirity and callously dry. There are some notes of banana and brown sugar in there but alongside are ever present notes of nose stinging Birdseye chili... Odd considering this whiskies 15 year maturation.

The palate retains it's form to the letter with altogether shallow and throat stinging onslaught. Not much else to say really..

The finish, well I'll leave that to your imagination.

We picked this up from the Whisky Exchange for £57 and appeared to be one of the last available in the UK from what we've seen afterwards. I think with this dram we saw why this distillery ended up closing it's doors for good.

Can't win them all!

Canada - Pike Creek - 40%

Oh Canada, never one's to blow their own trumpet Canadian whisky has somewhat fallen to the back of people's minds. However this was not always the case with Canadian whisky representing a huge market share in the US and beyond. Think Canadian Club in the hands of Don Draper in the 1960's HBO Series Mad Men.

However, Canada is back on the attack with several new distilleries and releases representing a huge increase in Canadian whisky output.

Pike Creek is a No Age statement blended whisky from Corby Distillers distilled at the more than amply sized Hiram Walker distillery in Ontario. The whisky is then sent off to Hiram's warehouses in ontario, interestingly these warehouses are unheated, temperatures can vary from 28C in Summer to around -10C in winter. This results in the casks expanding, retracting etc in the varying temperatures as well as having an effect on the actual speed of maturation.

The whisky is initially matured in American white oak casks before being transferred into ex Port Pipes.

The nose is fruity, very fruity. Think pears, cranberries and blackberries with a slight cinnamon backdrop.

Moving onto the palate, this displays a lot of grain characteristics, vanilla, honey and a touch of strawberry from the nose possibly.

The finish is short but again quite fruity with a touch of oak.

At £48 from The Whisky Exchange this provides an interesting alternative to Canadian Club and Crown Royal, with the added bonus of avoiding that somewhat garish purple faux velvet pouch.

Scotland - Glengoyne 15 yr old - 43%

Onto the host nation! You could almost hear Flower of Scotland bellow from the tin as this bottle was
poured out.

Glengoyne is an interesting distillery in many ways, it is one of the very few Highland Whiskies to use purely un peated barley, it also has the slowest distillation times in Scotland. Your 3rd Glengoyne fact of the day is that despite Glengoyne's Highland status, it's own warehouses right over the road are in the Lowlands showing Glengoyne is only a Highland whisky by the skin of it's teeth/tarmac.

The 15yr is matured in a mixture of first fill ex- sherry casks, bourbon casks and refill hogsheads.

The nose? Altogether more Scottish, heather, quite creamy with toffee and black forest gateaux alongside.

On the palate this whisky retains a thick oily texture that whisky lovers well... love. More toffee here before turning to nutmeg, shreddies cereal and honey.

The finish lends itself more to the oak from the casks with spice.

For £45 at Master of Malt, this provides a very smooth and fulfilling single malt from the modern home of whisky.

India - Kadhambam - 50%

To finish we go back east to the sweltering climes of Bangalore in India. We've tried a few Indian whiskies now, this one however has to be one of the most unique.

This was matured in 3 different cask types with one being that of a local liquor delicacy, Bangalore Blue Brandy, but don't let that put you off, the whisky is also transferred into Rum casks (from Amrut's own rum) and Oloroso sherry casks.

Luckily it seems that Amrut ran out of cask types to mature the spirit in otherwise we could have been here for a a while. A very modern approach to whisky production though which is always good to see.

As mentioned in a previous post the hot climates of countries such as India lends itself very well to the maturation of whisky with spirit maturing at a faster rate than that of one kept in the somewhat cooler and moister Scotland.

The nose is spicy, think cinnamon and star anise alongside brandy butter over a christmas pudding.

The palate is where the 50% comes in to it's own. Raisins, orange oil, cinnamon again and dark chocolate. Oddly a slight twang of a rich, thick Port in there too at times, ironic considering this to be one of the few cask types not used in this whiskies maturation!

The finish is long as you'd expect with notes of leather and oak.

Overall a very unique and tasty dram indeed. Kudos to Amrut for pushing the boat out with some top notch cask experimentation here.

Available at Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange although be warned this is a limited release and comes in at £68 - £73

Dram of the night along with the Gold Medal went to the Glengoyne.. but only just! With a well deserved Silver and for the Amrut Kadhambam and the last podium finish and Bronze to Pike Creek.

Overall a fantastic showcase of what whiskies are out there from countries you might not always expect!