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Tuesday 24 May 2011

Road To Islay Day 4: Kissing a chimney sweep brings you luck…

As the whole of the UK braced itself for a reprise of the Icelandic ash cloud, Islay had more pressing things to hand; primarily the onslaught of forecasted 70mph winds, torrential rain and whatever else Mother Nature could sling its way.

Waking at 8.30am, we were greeted with bright sunshine and just a few gusts of wind here and there. Had this been a case of over-zealous reporting? Or almost the complete reverse of the classic Michael Fish weather report of many years ago, which resulted in the UK resembling a wasteland, instead of the Caribbean paradise Mr Fish had incorrectly predicted?

However, never underestimate Islay.

As we merrily set off towards Caol Ila the sky quickly bruises, the rain belts down like daggers and the wind nearly blows the car into the bog myrtle. Suddenly, from nowhere, all hell has breaks loose. The video, below (possibly the funniest we've made) goes a small way to demonstrating just what the common Islay phrase of ‘four seasons in one day’ exactly means…

After picking up the missing pieces of Ridley from the Caol Ila car park, the shuttle bus ran us down the hill towards the famous Askaig based distillery. This will probably be the last time we’ll get to see Caol Ila in its current state, before Diageo begins a £3.5 million overhaul of the site, which will see huge upgrades to the mashing capabilities.

As with the previous Caol Ila Feis Ile opendays, distillery manager Billy Stitchell was running several masterclasses and we popped our head round the door of the main warehouse to check out the line up:

From left to right: Caol Ila 12yo, Distillers Edition, new make (peated), Moch, new make (unpeated), Caol Ila Feis 2011 release, Caol Ila Unpeated.

A pretty formidable line up, I think you’ll agree. This years festival bottling got the most attention from attendees and here are our thoughts on this release, which is now the 3rd official festival single cask:

Caol Ila – Feis Ile 2011 bottling – Cask 301696 – Bodega sherry – Distilled: 08/02/2000 - 64.3%

Nose: Grapefruit, earthy mulched leaves, a hint of sweet white chocolate, Caol Ila’s classic sooty overtones. With water, some natural gas notes emerge.

Palate: Soft peat notes initially, into sweet vanilla fudge, Caramac bars, cereal notes and a touch of evaporated milk.

Finish: Sweet, with short zesty highlights.

Overall: Again, markedly different to last year’s bottling. The sherry notes aren’t as pronounced as expected, with lighter, more delicate flavours giving this a summery feel- probably not particularly what anyone is looking for on a day like today, but another solid bottling nonetheless.

Special mention should at this point go to the newly released Moch bottling, with its wonderful mixture of light vanillas, sherbet lemons and creamy banana notes - available to Friends Of The Classic Malts members… fortunately we’d packed our membership ‘passports’ so picked up a couple of bottles, although we suspect they probably won’t last the rest of this week, given how damn easy it is to drink.

The blasts of icy wind and rain showed no sign of stopping and as we continued our journey back down to Port Ellen for a very special tasting. We stopped to pick up a lovely couple from Germany, who it transpired had been camping out in the south of the island - seriously hardcore to brave the elements with nowt but a piece of canvas between you and the elements.

As well as being a pair of Ardbeg fanatics (yes, this is a real tattoo) it transpired that we were in the presence of probably the only female chimney sweep on the island. Apparently, it is lucky to be kissed on the cheek by one (we’re honestly not making this stuff up…), so as we pulled outside the old, disused Port Ellen warehouses, we offered up a warming dram of a Golden Cask Port Ellen from our travelling dramming kit in exchange for a lucky peck.

To taste any dram of Port Ellen in close proximity to its spiritual home seems to give it some extra special fairy dust and the Golden Cask release was no exception – sweet and creamy, with touches of tropical fruit and buttery flapjack. Cracking stuff. But would the kiss provide us with any luck?

Our Port Ellen workout was only just beginning and the real reason for parking up at the old distillery site was for the tasting to end all tastings. We’d managed to get tickets to a special charity event (International Port Ellen Day) run by John & Dick from the Fiddlers Whisky Bar in Loch Ness. These guys had assembled a treasure trove of vintage Port Ellen bottlings, to be enjoyed in the original filling store of the distillery, now home to a local Blacksmith. All 10 official PE releases were on offer (gulp), as well as some independent bottlings and one VERY SPECIAL finale.


Where else, but at the very start!!

Port Ellen 1st Release – 56.2%

N: Chamois leather, wet tweed, linen, beautiful fragrant peat and vanilla’y oak.

P: Sweet candied fruits, condensed milk, subtle hints of Parma Violets and fresh butter.

Superb in every way. What a start.

Port Ellen 2nd Release – 59.35%

N: Clean Linen, oak chips, sweet vanilla.

P: Tinned fruit cocktail, fresh cream and heather honey. Slightly waxy with water.

Less of an explosion of the senses than the first release, but still heart stopping.

Port Ellen 3rd Release – 57.3%

N: Fresh vanilla pods, hints of fruit compote (crushed strawberries and raspberries) and orange fondant creams.

P: Mega soft peat, rich vanilla ice cream and the Parma Violets, but very subtle notes this time around.

With increased age, the complexity is remarkable. Stunning.

Port Ellen 4th Release – 56.2%

N: Much more buttery, with orange zest, sweet fondant icing, vanilla cream and wafts of chamois leather. Slightly dusty.

P: More spicy than the others, malt loaf, with the dustiness giving a pronounced peppery note. Lingering dried lavender notes.

Developed, with a spicier side evening out the recurring notes of vanilla and leather.

Port Ellen 5th Release – 57.4%

N: More waxy this time, with honey comb, a touch of ginger, dusty books and orange blossom.

P: Really sweet vanilla ice cream, topped with malted milk biscuits. Dives quite quickly into a very dry oaky note.

Beguiling nose, but slightly flatter flavours. The first bump in the road.

Port Ellen 6th Release – 54.2%

N: Wow, big return of the chamois leather, slightly fermented yeasty brown bread, salty sea spray, clean almost floral vanilla notes. Water brings buttered rum notes.

P: Slightly salty, into malty oatcakes, golden syrup & wood smoke.

Perhaps the most maritime PE so far.

Port Ellen 7th Release – 53.8%

N:Natural gas? Wet wool, then fruit compote and slightly zesty lemons. More Parma Violets.

P: Initial sweet fondant, but quickly into a dry oakiness. Slightly bitter, not as open as the others.

The weakest release in our opinion.

Port Ellen -8th Release – 55.3%

N: Vanilla essence, into heady pine smoke and wet leaves. The most smoky yet?

P: Classic Parma Violets again, with sherbet dib dabs and 1970’s sweets.

A childhood dram if there ever was one. Sweet and positively fizzing!

Port Ellen – 9th Release: 57.7%

N: Boiled travel sweets, cherry drops, crushed strawberries, slightly medicinal, ether & clean Aloe Vera.

P: Hot!! Needs a touch of water. Very sweet, fruit compote and dry, earthy peat.

Fabulous nose with wonderful complexity.

et voila… Port Ellen -10th Release – 54.6%

N: Floral candle wax, fresh cherries, grapefruit, blackcurrant leaves and sponge cake. Very fruity.

P: Blackcurrants, into waxy Manuka honey, hints of delicate peat and vanilla.

Very stately, a highly fitting send-off…

Remarkably, the all the odd number releases came from 1979, whereas the even no’s were all from 1978. With a drum roll, John unveiled the finale bottle, which proved to be the youngest PE in the room, but also the most interesting:

Port Ellen – G&M vintage bottling – 15yo – 75cl – distilled in 1969 – 40%

Nose: Back to the chamois leather, blackberry leaves, buttery vanilla ice cream with a very light waft of smoke and dairy fudge.

Palate: Fresh raspberries & strawberries, light smoke notes and a distinctly burnt caramel note. Apparently PE made around this time would have been made using direct fired stills, so perhaps this has contributed to this particular note.

Finish: Light, restrained smoke, but unmistakably Port Ellen.

Overall: A real treat for the senses and an incredible experience to try something this old (and young) next to the regular releases.

Where on earth do you go from here, you may ask? Well, there’s no point in trying to taste anything else- our palates were sated beyond belief. So a trip over to Ramsay Hall for the annual nosing challenge was the obvious choice.

The competition has a very simple premise; 9 blue glasses, each holding a mystery Islay/Jura whisky - one from each distillery. In addition, there are 2 other glasses containing new makes. The aim is to identify as many as you can in an allotted time. Caskstrength haven’t fared particularly well in previous years, but maybe our lucky kiss would prove the decisive missing link to success?

Well…. It only went and worked. Ridley, flush with the aromatic wafts of smoky Port Ellen went on to claim 3rd place, so much kudos to Angela, our new lucky charm. We’ll keep supplying the whisky, if you keep supplying the kisses!!

In tomorrow’s post, we head up to Loch Airigh Nam Beist for a glass of peaty water, taste Laphroaig’s festival bottling and pick some tasty Gorse flowers for a little cookery lesson, Keith Floyd style...