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Friday 29 May 2009

Islay Festival 2009 - Day Seven

“Can I throw my apple-core in the sea?”

Ahhh! A rare lie-in for the bloggers with just an 11am start to our day. Bliss! Today was another day of tastings and we were very much focused on Laphroaig, kicking off with an “Old vs New” tasting, which lined up the now discontinued 15 Year Old vs. the new 18 Year Old and the Old Cask Strength 10 Year Old vs the new Cask Strength 10 Year Old, Batch 001 (Feb 2009).

Presented by Simon Brooking, Brand Ambassador for Laphroaig for North America and Vicky Stephens, the Visitor Centre Manager, this tasting was a great way to compare the out-going product with the newer replacements.

Especially nice is the Cask Strength 10 Year Old (Batch 001). Apparently, according to new laws, when bottling a cask strength vatting, distilleries must now publish a batch number and a year of bottling. This “first edition”, they said, would sell out extra fast as a result. They also said that there’d be 6000 cases, though, so probably no need to panic just yet.

In terms of difference between the current version and the new edition, the main differences are that the new version is sweeter on the nose and sootier on the palate, with notes of Fishermen’s Friends, clove and potato peelings. Great long, warm finish.

After receiving our Laphroaig ‘rent’ (certificates and a mini of Quarter cask), we headed for a quick cheese cob for lunch in Port Ellen, before heading back up to Laphroaig for one of the best events thus far: “Source, Peat, Malt; The Hands-on Laphroaig Experience” with John Campbell, Laphroaig’s distillery manager.

This started with us donning wellies and jumping into the Laphroaig-mobile and being driven up to near the water source, the Kilbride reservoir, where we had a quick dram of the 10yo and tasted the peaty water while John regaled us with a tale of the early 20th-century dispute with near neighbours Lagavulin over the water source.

Back in the car, after a quick pose for John’s Tweet update, we drove down towards the airport to the bog where Laphroaig get all their peat for their own maltings. Before we could tuck into the new cask strength (accompanied by the delicious Laphroaig cheese) we had to earn our dram by cutting some new peat from the bog. This proved rather comical, with Joel turning out to be a natural, while Neil had rather less success (something to do with his Chappish aversion to a hard days work, no doubt).

After much hilarity, we bounced back into the people-carrier and headed back to the distillery where we took in the floor malting. We thought the laughs were over for this tour, but more fun was to be had with all of our thoroughly inept performances on the malting floor (special mention for Tim’s inept performance at the steeping bin).

As the evening beckoned we headed into Bowmore for the Homecoming parade.
At 6.30pm it seemed like the whole island had lined the streets of Bowmore in anticipation. However, this being Islay time, the event kicked off a little late, giving us plenty of time to assume prime viewing positions at the bottom of the street.

The earlier overcast skies had cleared, leaving a warm evening with a bewitching late afternoon sun fading to twilight as the distillery managers led the parade to the square, followed by assorted emergency services, Brownies, kid’s football teams and a horde of enthusiastic flag-waving ankle-biters. After the compulsory speech from Lord Robertson (probably the last politician with any credibility on Islay, being a local lad), it was time for the party to commence with the distillery managers introducing local acts and Scottish bands for the evening’s entertainment.

Meanwhile, our alter egos, Mandate, had drifted down to the harbour wall to catch another glorious sunset, with the late evening rays bursting through clouds onto the shimmering waters of Loch Indaal. It was yet another special moment in what has become an almost transcendental trip.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Islay Festival 2009 - Day Six: Bowmore & Port Ellen

Day 6- Tim's liver takes a day off.

Jeepers, these tastings just keep getting earlier and earlier! The alarm goes off at 7.30 and we’re blearily making tea and filling bowls of sugar puffs before leaving at 8.45 to our first tasting at Bowmore.

Last year’s festival bottling wasn’t our favourite by a long way so we were hoping for something a little bit more exciting this year. The tasting was a run through the distillery’s differing styles of whisky and use of cask- 3 different types of maturation examples; Bourbon, Sherry and Limousin oak, used predominantly for Bordeaux. Master blender Iain McCullum gave us a fascinating presentation on the detail of the mouth and sensitivity of the tongue, which certainly made us all realise how damn important the flappy pink thing actually is….

Bowmore – New Make spirit – 68%
Very grassy and quite estery with some new leather barley and cereal notes.

1999 Bourbon Cask - 58%

Notes of honey brown bread and lots of sea air character.

1999 Sherry Cask - 58%

Raisined sweetness and brown sugar, which became more fruity with the addition of water.

1999 Wine Cask – 58%

Chocolate notes, coffee, pepper and then dry woody aspects. Very good indeed.

Feis Ile Bottling – 2009 – 57.1% - 70cl - 900 bottles

N: Balsamic vinegar, mocha, freshly ground coffee, orange liqueur, soil, turf with some woody notes.

P: Fruity, leathery notes, an impressive mouthfeel of some oil, caramels and sherried notes.

F: A little woody, but all round a big improvement on last years- the influence of 3 types of cask has really bought something to the bottlings overall character.

The short trip up to Bridgend was our next destination for the start of the Islay Ales openday. Paul Hathaway the head brewer took us on a brief tour and after some amazing beer-filled chocolates and a locally reared burger, we rocked into refreshing pints of Angus Og, Saligo and Blackrock.

Our boyband, 'Mandate' was starting to get some attention, so we felt that a moody photo shoot was in order… what better than the hallowed white washed walls of the Port Ellen maltings. Surely the front cover of the NME beckons??

Whilst we pouted and preened around Port Ellen, it seemed sensible to have a proper look round and fortunately Kevin Sutherland, General Manager for the Diageo distilleries was on hand for a truly memorable experience. The malt hoppers, the kilns, the atmosphere of the place still reeks of peat and soul, which was bought to a stunning conclusion with a tasting in one of the Dunnage warehouses- 2 OB bottlings of Port Ellen, which we had been itching to try:

Port Ellen - 1st Release – 56.2% - 70cl

N: Very zesty with heather notes, long slow wafts of elegant peat and soft vanilla. Much lighter and fragrant than other PE releases.

P: Moist, mossy notes with a slight smokiness. Elements of kiln dried ham and slight wine notes.

F: Luscious, lingering sweet peat. A truly legendary dram.

Port Ellen - 4th Release – 56.2% - 70cl

N: More medicinal notes than the 1st release, but still elegant smoke, zest and red berries. A lot more aroma filled. Hints of Stilton cheese and grist.

P: An unbelievably smooth palate, soft peats, caramels, sea salt and a hint of something fruity.

F: Fresh strawberry notes followed by a lingering dry note. Another Excellent PE.

After a little rest at the Machrie, we were ready for our 3rd tasting of the day (!!! We never give in!!) This time it was up to the Whisky shop in Bowmore and a tasting of several Queen Of The Moorland bottlings with David Wood.

Tullibardine 1992 – Peter’s Birthday Bottling - 55.6% - 346 bottles

N: lovely cedar blocks, wood and spice, with hints of cigar smoke, dried fruit and

P: Dry but really fragrant, fruity with leather notes.

F: more dryness, but very pleasant fruits that last for ages.

QOTM Laphroaig - 1996 Isle of Islay M+M 2009 51.1% -206 bottles -single hogshead refill

N: Amazing light fruits, lemons, lemon and white chocolate cheesecake, some slightly perfumed notes.

P: Woody, but not too dry- some sherbert lemons and light peat notes.

F: Dry, but very soft, not at all boisterous.

QOTM rare cask Bowmore - 1998 53.9 % Keltings Qtr cask edition XXXI- 82 bottles:

N: Flat cola, lavender, light fudge and mint

P: More cola, spice, rich treacle notes some nice dark fruits.

F: Lengthy, chestnuts.

The evening was spent at the Port Charlotte Hotel, which really lived up to our expectations with a fabulous meal. After starters of rabbit terrine and vegetarian ravioli, we moved on to mains of butter-steamed salmon, monkfish tails and a huge rare steak. Darrell found room for a delicious raspberry, lemon and mango dessert before Neil drove us back to the lodge. The drive back was pretty special, being spent in silent contemplation of the beautiful night-time scenery, with mist rolling down the hills into the bay of Loch Indaal to an in-car soundtrack of Sigur Ros.

On our return, we decided to have a crack at producing our own Festival vatting from the various excellent samples we appropriated on our travels. A TV dramatisation of Jekyll and Hyde provided the perfect backdrop as we maniacally mixed, blended and cogitated!! Stay tuned for the grand unveiling of our masterpiece at the end of the Feis Ile….

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Feis Ile Day Five

Feis Ile Day Five: Ardbeg & Laphroaig

After shaking the bed out to check for any errant sand fleas that might have escaped the heel of a brogue the night before, our team assembled around the breakfast table for scotch pancakes and Sugarpuffs.
Darrell, looking particularly tired, remarked that room-mate Tim’s snoring was akin to a cornered Rottweiller, or, to be slightly more specific, a suffocating wild boar. As expressions of wonder and condolence were wished to the long-suffering Mrs F, an abashed Tim announced his intention to sleep in self-imposed exile on the sofa for the rest of the festival.
After much guffawing (mostly at Tim’s expense), we hot-footed it down to Ardbeg for our first tasting of the week with Mickey Heads.
The line up promised some recent committee bottlings, as well as a mouth-watering flight of recent single casks which got our pulses racing the moment we strolled into the newly refurbished tasting room upstairs at the distillery. Luckily for us, the two Feis Ile bottlings were included so, with a huge smile, we let battle commence!!

Corryvreckan – Committee Bottling- 57.2% - 70cl

N: Notes of creosote, cloves and mint, with a really oily overtone.

P: Linseed oil, sweet minty humbugs with hints of licorice.
F: Long and oily. A delicious dram- will we see this as part of the core range soon?? Come on Ardbeg!! (and please keep it at cask strength!!)
Supernova – 58.9% (already reviewed recently, but still a cracking dram, if not a little expensive now it’s commercially released)

Ardbeg - Single Cask Bottling – cask number 772 – 55.7% - 70cl – First fill bourbon.
N: Honey, lemon, a light waft of sea spray and some menthol notes, mixed with a lovely undertone of pralines and mature cheddar. There’s also fruit salad sweets and sugared almonds on this as well.
P: Very detailed on the palate, with rosewater and fondant notes plus some sherbert and rich toffees. Coffee powder. Dime bars. Then the peat – pretty huge – with wood spice, cocoa and marshmallows.
F: Salty sea spray again, with throat lozenges and a touch of light milky coffee right on the death. Highly drinkable and an indication of some great whisky to come.
Ardbeg – Single Cask Bottling – cask number 1189 – distilled 11/5/98 – bottled 10/12/08- 54% -70cl - Toasted oak – 252 bottles exclusive to the 2009 Feis Ile
For a young whisky, the colour of this whisky was truly something else!!
N: orange peel, clear honey, hints of bacon smoke, church pews, wool and that milky coffee again. With water some wonderful vanilla notes come to the fore, giving you aromas of Caramac, and custard tart.
P: Initial sips reveal very dark Arabic coffee with more of the dry wood vanilla notes and tannic flavours. Toast, furniture polish, leather, old books and stewed fruit. Becomes slightly drying.
F: A rich, woody finish with some dried fruits. Excellent, balanced and overall, a sensational bottling. We all adored this.
Ardbeg– Single Cask Bottling – cask number 1190 – distilled 11/5/98 – bottled 10/12/09 – 54.7% - 70cl - Toasted oak –282 bottles exclusive to the 2009 Feis Ile
N: Noticeable orange bitters (Tonka beans anyone…. ;-) with more woody notes like its sister cask. This one has a much more dark zesty element (blood oranges), mahogany furniture and a sweet aromatic note, rather like Dr Pepper! Some almost rancio-esque notes of leather, raisins and old wood.
P: The wood influence gives this a very dry mouth feel, but it isn’t all one-sided, with a lovely rich vanilla sweetness like home made ice cream milkshakes. Faintly briney.
F: Very heady and aromatic, with something vaguely botanical coming through at the very end. Cask 1189 edges it in the perfection stakes, but don’t underestimate this dram- it’s another killer dram. Ardbeg’s bottlings are both sensational this year.

By the time we’d finished our tasting, the Kiln CafĂ© was heaving and we managed to find a table, for a spot of lunch with Willie JJ and pal Malcolm. Several sensational meals later (including an eye bulging tablet ice cream Pavlova for dessert) and we ambled down to Laphroaig for our 2nd tasting of the day.
Last years FI bottling of Cairdeas was a let down, compared to the others available, so we had high hopes that this years, a caskstrength, 12 yo version was considerably better.
The filling store was our destination for a very informative demonstration from Distillery Manager, John Campbell, Master Blender Robert Hicks and UU Brand Ambassador for Laphroaig, Simon Brooking. Before any whiskies were actually drunk, Robert took the group through a nosing of 3 poor quality casks, to highlight the problem of bad wood and its effect on the spirit inside.
The tasting consisted of five very different whiskies:

Laphroaig Cairdeas – 12 yo – caskstrength release- Feis Ile 2009 – 5000 bottles
N: Pencil shavings, red berries, dry leaves and strawberries with fresh cream all leap out the glass. With water, aromas of toffee and bananas develop.
P: Saltiness at first, but a very fruity dram with a restrained peat (unlike the Quarter Cask or Cask Strength 10 yo)
F: Long peaty and fresh. A huge improvement on last years bottling, that’s for sure!

Laphroaig – Triple Wood
This is a whisky matured in 3 types of cask- Bourbon barrels, Quarter casks and then finally rested in European sherry for 9-10 months.
N: Hints of vanilla custard, nutmeg Menthol, with a slight farmyard/wet hay undertone. With a little water, the peat aspects come through mixed with a little lemon drizzle cake.
P: Earthy and very dry, with a slightly hot and cloying mouthfeel, mixed with Brazil nuts.
F: The dryness continues with more nuttiness and very dark chocolate. A mixed dram.
Laphroaig - 25 yo (2008 edition) – 50.9%
N: Tropical fruit (passion fruit/melon) mixed with white chocolate, white wine notes with a darker dried fruit backbone.
P: Unreduced – a mixture of moist dried fruits, peaches and cream, with the classic Laphroaig medicinal note and flavoursome licorice. Very good indeed.
F: Lovely soft creamy feel and a lengthy sweet finish.
Laphroaig 30 yo - 2004
N: Lovely notes of old polished mahogany wood, plus some sherry influence – raisins, treacle etc. With time, develops nougat, sugared almonds, Edinburgh rock and damson jam. A nose you can get lost in – it’s easy to see why this is such a popular dram amongst aficionados.
P: Medium-full, with an incredibly silky mouthfeel displaying polished barley, pepper and soft wet peat (and I mean peat, not smoke or anything else. REAL peat). The fruit and candy-store notes from the nose pop in and out of the mix, everything is seamlessly integrated into the whole.
F: Long soft and generous. Pretty amazing stuff.
Laphroaig 1981 27yo - Oloroso sherry casks
N: Hugely sherried as you would expect. Incredibly dense, sweet and rich. Hints of balsamic vinegar over rich Oloroso character. Over-ripe bananas, massively concentrated raisin aromas, mixed peel, dark chocolate, dates, and old polished wood. This is very big, if you hadn’t yet guessed.
P: Continues on from the nose. Very big and chocolatey, with rich dark coffee in the background. The sherry influence is everywhere, threaded through every facet of the dram. The faintest hint of (natural) sulphur is here, alongside rich dark chocolate orange notes and tingling spice, but it seems to fit somehow without spoiling the enjoyment of the dram.
F: The fruit and turfy notes survive the sherried onslaught and the surges of oakspices. Big and brooding. A massive improvement on the original 1980 27yo which was too sulphury for comfort. This is the real thing.

Also this afternoon, Joel and Tim took a spin around the island to visit the Kildalton Cross. Despite a mysterious (and gigantic) pile of empty scallop shells situated just outside the churchyard, the cross was as beautiful as ever. The random fact of several hundredweight of scallops seemed to fit perfectly with the enjoyably surreal tone of the festival so far, particularly as Tim has eaten so many scallops himself in the course of the trip.

In the evening the team kicked back at the lodge, wrote up the previous day’s events, had a good giggle at some silly You-Tube stuff and reflected on a good job well done and some tremendous new drams tried on the day. Joel began a list of everything we’d drammed so far on this trip. The total came to 68 different malts tried between the four of us since Friday, so we’re on course for the ton by the end of the week – wish us luck!

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Islay Festival 2009 - Day Four

Day Four – Shame, Sunsets and Sandfleas

Today was all about Caol Ila. After watching Newcastle and ‘Boro crash out from the Premiership on Sunday night we were in high spirits on the way up to the distillery – despite the crappy weather. Joel had done a good job on breakfast, providing exemplary bacon rolls, but after a relatively heavy session over the previous night’s football we felt the need for more, and treated ourselves to some sweet potato and butternut squash soup at the distillery – lush!

After meeting up with Paula from Edinburgh’s Whisky Experience (on behalf of Edinburgh Whisky Blog – Guys, sorry you couldn’t make it), it was time to taste some whisky, and it’s fair to say we were pretty stoked about it – we love Caol Ila here on the TWE blog and caskstrength. The tasting was conducted by Mr. Caol Ila himself, Billy Stichell.
Caol lla New Make 70.2%

N: Pure cereal – very oily. Very reminiscent of a cachaca or rhum agricole.

P: Pretty hot and assertive, as you might expect at seventy per cent abv. Some estery notes, but the over-riding impression is of a very well-made spirit. Clean as a whistle.
F: Hot and short, but not too bitey. A drop of water was called for here, and opened up a very clear uncooked sweetcorn character.

Next up was a bit of a scoop: the 10yo Unpeated 65.4%, not scheduled to appear on shelves until October!

N: Beautiful. Sooooo chocolatey! Also coffee, chocolate cake, sponge, trifle etc – you get the idea. Very, very promising.

P: Really delicious. Crystal clear distillery character, with lemon, cereal, rich chocolate, sherbert and sponge-cake sweetness.

F: Long and lovely. This is a real treat. Last year’s 8yo unpeated was a great whisky, but this is even better.

The next two drams were the widely-reviewed Caol Ila 12yo and Distiller’s Edition, so we’ll skip straight to the Caol Ila Distillery Only Bottling (58.4%, bottled 2007)

N: Natural caramel, Dime bars, sweet coconut, dark chocolate brazil nuts, developing runner bean aromas.

P: Quite hot. Soil, soot, pepper, clove. Becomes biscuity with water.

F: Long, warming.

O: Good stuff, best enjoyed with a drop of water.

Finally came the 2009 Festival bottling (Sherry Cask, 1996, 58%)

N: Chocolate biscuits. Leafy and grassy with a hint of menthol. Brown breadcrusts. Fudge and shortbread.

P: Surge of peat, over some honeycomb, syrup and roasted cereal notes. Good body and depth of flavour. Very pleasant.

F: A bit of heat, nicely-balanced with lingering sweetness and some chilli and black pepper notes.
We were all very impressed with this, it was very good stuff. Great to taste Caol Ila from a sherry cask as well coupled with a well presented tasting by Billy.

We didn’t have anything in the diary for the rest of the afternoon, so we were playing it by ear. We sauntered on up to Bunnahabhain for a brief chat with John MacLellan, who showed us his very impressive collection of Bunna festival bottlings.

On the way home, we dropped into the legendary Duffie’s bar in Bowmore and bought a dram of this year’s Bunnahabhain ‘Moine’ festival bottling, which is a heavily–peated spirit finished in an Oloroso cask:

N: Youthful and spirity. Pepper, soot, Edam. Not very expressive.

P: Vegetal, earthy peat – but very little else. Very thin, crisp and hot. Completely one-dimensional.

F: Fresh shoots, still hot. Nothing to it.
O: We felt that while it was a good idea for Bunna to do a heavily-peated bottling, it really needed something else to make it interesting or worthwhile. This was the most disappointing of the festival bottlings so far.

After returning to the ranch to write up the previous day’s events, we moseyed into Port Ellen to take part in the annual blind nosing contest held in Ramsey Hall. Neil and Joel were pretty confident, having both scored an impressive seven out of ten last year. As it turned out, this confidence was totally misplaced, with Neil’s four out of eleven the best score we could manage between us. Ashamed and embarrassed at our poor performance, we legged it before the ceilidh started.

The sun was just starting to set as we drove back to the Machrie, so on impulse we grabbed a bottle of Port Askaig 17yo and strolled the couple of hundred yards to the beach. As we arrived, we were privileged to witness a quite stunning sunset. Sparking up a Cohiba and swigging the Port Askaig, we grabbed a few photos as the clouds blazed with the embers of the dying light. It was a truly beautiful moment and we were all exhilarated as we strolled back over the hotel’s golf course in the dying light. Unfortunately a family of sandfleas had stowed away on our rugs and emerged when we got back to our lodge, causing Neil great distress. A Chap can’t be having uninvited insects disporting themselves in his chambers. Still, you can’t have it all your own way.

Islay festival 2009 - Day three

Day 3: What the hell is a Tonka Bean?

The weather had improved incredibly after Saturday's wash out, so onwards to the Bruichladdich open day. Speaking to Jim McEwan the night before, the last 8 years of festivals have remained sunny for the distillery’s open day, so all fingers were crossed that the 9th would be shining on us too. The courtyard was heaving as we arrived at midday and after some food in the malt barn, (slices of Islay AND Jura pork!) we sampled 3 of the distilleries ‘First Growth’ bottlings- all essentially 16 yo Bruichladdich’s, finished in first growth wine casks:

Bruichladdich – First Growth Series – Margaux Finish 46%

N: Red grape juice, a faint hint of smoke and notes of mandarin orange and peach- quite closed though.

P: Very woody indeed, with lots of dried fruit, but more perfumed than a sherried finish, with lavender and rose water and big flavours of grain / cereal on the death.

F: More drying wood spices and a lengthy, peppery finish.

O: A difficult-to-read dram.

Bruichladdich – First Growth Series – Chateau Lafite Finish 46%

N: Chocolate powder, blackcurrant jelly, damsons, toast, white grape juice and hot buttered corn.

P: Rosehips, honey black pepper, dried ginger, baked apples and rhubarb crumble.

F: Long, with pepper and honey into fading spice.

O: Something really interesting going on here, try to seek out and find out for yourself.

Bruichladdich – First Growth Series - Yquem Finish 46%

N: Lots of sweet white grape juice, fresh orange juice and mandarin with a hint of cocoa powder.

P: Quite an oily mouth feel, which comes across a lot stronger than its 46%. Elements of clear honey and coffee, which make it very pleasant.

F: A touch of red chilli, with a very dry end note.

O: Yet again, worth seeking out for its well developed finish.

Once the shop had died down slightly, we managed to dive in for a sneaky tasting of the festival Valinch, which, had been selling like hot cakes since the open day started:

Bruichladdich – Oirthir Gaidheal, Festival Valinch, Cask 013, Distilled 22/04/93 bottled…. Today!!! 53.6% vol 50cl

N: Honey, fudge, caramel, chocolate, Very similar in fact to a Cadbury’s Curly Wurly, dipped again in white chocolate.

P: 80 ppm, so it packs a punch in the peat dept. Very ‘earthy’ with a nutty middle. Baked dark chocolate dessert, combines with fresh cream.

F: Mint, chopped nuts, atop vanilla ice cream with a hint of grist.

O: A very enjoyable dram. Huge middle with some big nuts.

At 3pm we were ushered up the hill towards ‘The Vatican’ Bruichladdich’s duty-free warehouse for a Robert Burns tasting- which provided a huge insight into the man and the myth as well as giving the audience a huge opportunity to try some wonderfully textured Bruichladdich drams- including a VERY special bottling indeed:

Bruichladdich- 1989 Rum Cask Finish –limited to 106 bottles, exclusive to the Robert Burns tasting event, Feis Ile 2009. Cask Number 1878 - 56.5% vol - 50cl

N: Sherbet, with hugely rich floral notes and sweet fruity notes, which combine with slightly burnt sugar and dark rum aromas.

P: Hard candy sweets, which evoke a day out in your local sweetshop back in the 80’s- Swizzle Sticks, Parma Violets and sherbet lemons, with a hint of sweet soft peat hidden away at the back. Really enjoyable and very surprising.

F: The finish is long and sweet, leading into passion fruit with a slightly salty death.

O: One of the most interesting and unexpected Bruichladdich’s we’ve tried, different to the other rum finishes but certainly a step apart. Fantastic stuff.

As the sunset descends over Bruichladdich, the team head back towards the Machrie hotel for our evening’s festivities- on this occasion, a well-earned feast of local cheese, cold meats and some Port Askaig 17 yo. We try to decipher the tasting notes for another of this year’s festival bottlings, only to fall about like naughty giggling school boys. So far, 2 days down and we’re pretty much convinced that it’s setting out to be an absolute cracker.

Monday 25 May 2009

Islay festival 2009 - Day two

Day two: The Monocled Muppets

The 6.30 wake up call resonated through our ears like plates being dropped in a restaurant; initial shock followed by reluctant applause. But you get on with enjoying your lot and pay your bill at the end. And a reasonable bill it seemed as we made our way up the A83 to Kennacraig for the 9.45 ferry to Port Ellen.

As we pulled up in to our slot, awaiting ticket check and load-in to the ferry, Neil got out his confirmation email from CalMac to confirm our booking on the "SS Politician".

(Editor’s Note: What follows is a dramatisation loosely based on actual events. Contains mild peril. May not be suitable for readers of a nervous disposition).

: (in jest): Oh nuts!, I’ve left the booking confirmation behind!

Everyone Else (not quite in unison): No you haven’t. Stop dicking around.

Neil: Ha Ha, I was only jesting – here it is (waving piece of paper)

Wait a minute – that says 24th May. Today’s the 23rd. 24th May is tomorrow.

Silence is a funny old thing. And at that moment a gaping chasm of silence descends on the car. Birds cease to sing, clocks stop ticking and the facade of Neil’s psyche slowly crumbles. Beads of sweat break out on the professional Chap’s brow. The silence is only then broken by the dull thud of chewing gum dropping onto tweed from Neil’s gaping mouth.

Never have a pair of brogues moved so fast as the caskstrengther moves like lightning, coat tails flapping furiously in the breeze, to the ticket office and, after some discussion, it is discovered that the heart-stopping and trip-threatening booking error was actually just a typo....

After a round of hot, sweet teas (followed by a shot of Airgh Nam Beist) order is restored and our ferry successfully departs for Islay.

Nothing quite prepares you for the arrival into Port Ellen – the sight of the distilleries and their huge black lettering looms into view and you suddenly realise you’re finally running on Islay time.

Our first appointment was a catch up with the fine folks at Ardbeg. Unfortunately, the 'hoovers' were, as predicted, out in force and the practice of procuring as many limited ‘1 per person’ festival bottlings by whatever means possible has become the ugly face of the Feis Ile. More on this later.
Despite the depressing sight of slimy creatures handing wads of money to old ladies to buy bottles for them, we were determined to have a great time- and after catching up with the chipper Mickey and the irrepressible Jackie (thanks for the delicious Uigeadail !!) we headed down to Lagavulin for a Warehouse tasting we shall never forget!

Last year we attended a tasting hosted by Iain McArthur which was sensational and this year’s was no different. Iain led us through several vintages of Laga', starting with an 8 year old (2000, cask 426, 58%):

N: Brine, balsamic vinegar, developing grass, vanilla, clove and Caramac.

P: Pepper, tweed, honey, woodsmoke, wet wood and chilli heat.

F: Shortish, hot – exactly as you’d expect for a spirit of this age and strength.

Lagavulin 1997 - cask 420, 56%

N: Creamy, with a more pronounced natural caramel aroma. Quite oily.

P: A lot smoother than the 8yo, still quite hot and spicy with a sweet edge.

F: Quite hot and peppery.

Then a real treat – cask strength 16yo!

Lagavulin 1993 - 54%

N: Balsamic vinegar, new plastic (think Star Wars figures), licorice, fresh rhubarb. Noticeably less overt phenols.

P: Blackcurrant leaf, some floral notes, restrained smoke.

F: Lengthy and majestic.

O: A superb dram. Iain mentioned that there might be a cask-strength bottling of 16yo in the works. Unfortunately, he also revealed that it’ll be £350.

Lagavulin 1969 - 48%
- a 1966 (cask 552) was also tasted but has been reviewed here from last years FI.

N: Super sweet peat, cocoa, fruit sherbet, cloves, tobacco notes and orange zest- sensational

P: Tar, with a heavy mouth feel, followed by pepper, rosehips and lots of wood tannins.

F: Long and elegant, with more rose coming through.
O: An absolutely exceptional cask, just the right level of a woody notes and still fresh as a daisy.

At a later masterclass, we got to taste this year’s festival bottling, which follows on in the tradition of using European oak casks for the last few festival bottling:

Lagavulin Feis Ile bottling – 13 years and 9 months old. – 54.4%

N: Dried prunes, cereal notes, grist, Play Doh and rice pudding.

P: Gritty, then into honey, hazel nuts, creamy fudge, a touch of hot peppers and more rosehips

F: The sherry influence comes through on the end, with wood spice and an element of saltiness.

O: Not as immediate as last years bottling, but still a strong showing against some of the other distillery’s expressions.

After a light bite (crisps!) we were suited and booted for our evenings entertainment- the Bruichladdich soiree, over at the Port Mor community centre. The food was as we’d hoped for, an exceptional array of fresh local seafood and meat, washed down with the distillery’s mouthwatering 18 year old. An excellent end of the day and hopefully the start of things to come for the week!

Sunday 24 May 2009

Islay Festival 2009 - Day One

"Your balls are bigger than mine"

Day 1- Well, this is it. Over 6 months of planning and many excited emails, the 22nd of May has arrived - our first day on the trek towards Islay and 2009's Feis Ile. This year’s reports are a collaborative effort between and The Whisky Exchange Blog, and will be published on both sites, so apologies to those of you who subscribe to both of our RSS feeds! No rivalry here. Our collective goal is to bring you interesting, irreverent and informative information on all things whisky!

This year, our 4-strong crack team is somewhat akin to the A-Team (in the same way that my local pub football team are in someway akin to Manchester United) - each with our own specialised skills:

Colonel Neil Hannibal, ‘I-love-it-when-a-plan-comes-together' Ridley:
The master of disguise. Special proficiency in facial hair, cravats and tweed.

Joel 'B.A. - I pity da fool' Harrison:
The muscle and gold jewellery. Has left his Snickers tank in the garage and swapped it for a metallic blue Ford Focus. Likes milk, dislikes flying. Enjoys snack treats.

Tim 'Howlin' Mad Murdock' Forbes:
Busted out by the crew from a maximum security desk at The Whisky Exchange. The lunatic fringe of whisky tasting. Specialist in off-the-wall aromas (detecting rather than emitting).

Darrell 'Faceman' Sheehan aka- 'The Voracious D'
Skills: Charm offensive, swordsmanship and good Karma. Peat enthusiast. Popular with the ladies.

An early start of 6am presented no problems for the intrepid whisky foxes and the liaison at Heathrow’s Terminal 1 started well enough, until a light snack was mentioned. A morally reprehensible sausage sandwich and the most ill-prepared Eggs Benedict ever (possibly made with a Curate’s Egg) were the rewards for our 40 minute wait at the Tin Goose restaurant in the departure lounge. Take note for the future, hungry travellers!

A rare and random sighting of Billy Davies, manager of Nottingham Forest, made us chuckle and reminisce about last year’s Feis Ile trip and our encounter with Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar- perhaps an omen of good fortune for this year?? Even the 2 hour delay did little to dampen our spirits and before we knew it we were taking off and looking forward to our wonderful drive down the Kintyre peninsula – little did we know what the mischievous SatNav held in store for us.....

Now, following SatNav is often like taking advice from your girlfriend. Listen, nod, agree, but ultimately you should add in a dollop of common sense, some man-maths and go your own way. Ignoring all our own advice, we followed the SatNav to the letter which took us to a ferry port we’d never even been near in recent trips to Islay. Confused, we paid our toll and made our way across a Mull and onward for a beautiful drive towards our first stop, Loch Fyne Whiskies.

Fortuitously, what seemed like a navigational disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise: when we docked in Dunoon we suddenly realised that by taking the ferry instead of the mountain drive we’d originally planned we now had a clear run up to Inverary, escaping the Bank Holiday weekend traffic out of Glasgow. Back of the net!

An Alan Partridge discussion ensued during the drive through the heart-stoppingly gorgeous countryside leading up to Loch Fyne. A profusion of bluebells lined the roadside and swept up into the rolling hills of Argyll, and at one point it seemed like every corner we took revealed another stunning vista. In between elucidating the finer points of Inner City Sumo, Youth-Hostelling with Chris Eubank and Monkey Tennis, the team agreed that we were indeed blessed to have such a drive on such an unexpectedly sunny day. The car resounded with cries of ‘Smell my cheese, you mother!’ and ‘Stop telling me what to do!’

The welcoming folk at Loch Fyne and their, as always, impressive array of bottlings started a slight itchy feeling in the wallet – one that Mr Ridley found too alluring to ignore. From the corner of his eye, he spied the ultimate in gentlemanly accoutrements since the advent of the mobile trouser press; the ‘Tippling Stick’, an antique looking walking cane with a covert liquid-centred heart (basically a long glass phial for filling with one’s favourite dram). Ideal for those long tube journeys back home in London!

Onward we drove, finally reaching our destination for the day, the Hunting Lodge Hotel. No real need to say much about this place as we stayed there last year. Pretty much the same, with fantastic food and a good night’s sleep. Between dinner and bed, we were able to raid their selection of whiskies at the bar, indulging in:

Imperial: 1991 15yo 43% (G & M bottling) – Ripe melons grain present themselves on the nose followed by some sooty smoked bananas. A little Sulphured on the palate, leading to a sharp, woody and sherried finish.

Craigellachie Provenance: 1991 12 year old 46% - light swimming pool like peat with some cream and summer fruits on the nose, leading to some lovely cream soda and cereal notes and floral flavours on the finish.

Glen Grant-Glenlivet: 1989 13yo 62.4% (Cadenhead’s) – A nose of vanilla cream and green apples with coffee and tobacco moved to an oily mouthfeel reminiscent of rhubarb & custard boiled sweets. A strong fruity finish of red jam and dessert wine.

Ardmore: 1990 G+M 55% - Medium-bodied with cereal and strong smoky notes. Good length, mostly on turf and coal, with a hot, spicy finish.
Longmorn 15yo – Pretty much as remembered, although the bottle seemed to have been open for a while. Restrained sherry, treacle tart, raisins and a hint of smoke.

Longrow 100 proof – Medium-bodied , quite hot with white pepper and hot cinnamon apple. Long, peaty finish and packed a weighty punch. Darrell was a big fan of this.

Royal Lochnagar 1985 18yo 43% (Provenance) – Rich tea biscuits, banana and biscotti on the nose. Bran flakes on the palate, with freshly baked bread and copper tones, before a deep rich finish of cooking apples and cinnamon.

With a 6.30am alarm call we retired for a quick dram of SMWS Rosebank on the sea view balcony of one of our rooms and then it was off to sleep...

Monday 18 May 2009

Is this, or is this ain't an Islay?

It's all very exciting! I've received an email from our airline, confirming that it is less than five days until we fly out to Islay. Well, sort of. First off we must fly to Glasgow, where we pick up a hire car and drive north, then west, then south and finally settle for the evening in a small hotel just south of Kennacraig, ready to recharge our batteries for the morning ferry ride over to the isle. So what way to heighten the expectation of another 10 day trip to Scotland than with a wee dram of something from Islay. Newly purchased, I hastily cracked open a bottle of...

Caol Ila - Distillers Edition (Finished in Moscatel Cask) - 1995 - 43% - 70cl

Nose: Ginger, butter, hints of sea weed and some honeysuckle. Not at all like an islay!

Palate: This is where it gets very strange indeed. If you didn't put Caol Ila on the bottle, you'd be hard pressed to pin-point the region, let alone the distillery that this comes from. The Muscat takes the driving seat providing a sweetness you'd more commonly find in a sherry finish Spey. Not at all overpowering, there are limes, ginger ale, hints of peat smoke and salt. A very different experience for any Caol Ila fan.

Finish: Subtle red chillies, a touch of peat. The sweetness from the start hits the back of the mouth after a while. Fairly long for something so subtle.

Overall: It's like ginger beer mixed with salt and seaweed, which oddly throws up a combo which won't be to everyones taste but I found very drinkable. Roll on Islay!

Friday 15 May 2009

Some Splendid Suntory Specials...

Phew! what a busy week in the spirits world!

The start of the week saw some of the cream of the worlds tipples packed into the vast halls of Londons ExCel centre. Then Thursday, it was the flavours of the Orient that got Caskstrength's tastebuds in a twist with the release of Suntory's newest blended masterpiece- Hibiki 12 years old.

At a suitably oriental venue (the Nobu restaurant in the London Metropolitan Hotel) we were lucky enough to meet some of the men behind the sensational dynasty of Hibiki blends and got to taste some seriously interesting cask samples, which perfectly demonstrated how Japan continues to innovate and produce some of the world's finest whisky.

Our tasting mat contained cask samples from an array of differing styles of Suntory whisky- from an intensely sherried Yamazaki 14 year old (which I would dearly love to get a bottle of!!) A Hakushu distilled in 1994 and matured in a white oak Puncheon followed, which had a superb creaminess, mixed with fragrant lavender, and then- 'Malt X'- which turned out to be a another 14 year old Yamazaki, matured intensely for 2 years in a cask containing plum liqueur- one of the many whiskies which make up the Hibiki 12 year old.

General Manager and Senior Blender Shinji Fukuyo and his team have expertly married together grain and malt whiskies of up to 30 years old and then matured for a time in 'Umeshu ' - Japanese plum liqueur casks. But their innovation doesn't end there, for as Seiichi Koshimizu, Suntory's chief blender points out; 'our goal was to create a uniquely Japanese whisky that is mellower and smoother than any other premium 12 year old whisky in the world'
The secret to Hibiki 12's purity is filtration through bamboo charcoal- which is very much evident from the first sip. This is actually the 2nd time we've tried Hibiki 12 (firstly in our recent round up of Whisky Live) but there was no stopping us diving back in for a second taste!

Hibiki 12 year old blended whisky - 43% vol - 70cl

Nose: Hugely fruity and, dare I say it- plummy (no surprise there) with slight wafts of fragrant licorice, rice wine, honeysuckle and when you dig deeper, some wonderful buttery/creamy notes. Given a bit of time in the glass, an array of other sweet notes come through, such as honey, lots of vanilla pod and country fudge notes. Sensational stuff.

Palate: Well, this is really where the whisky comes into its own- the delicate, yet rich texture in the mouth is about as smooth as i've ever tasted. Not a trace of alcohol burn in the slightest, just layers of smooth malt and grain, with more of that licorice coming back, leaving your mouth with a clean, fresh taste. That may sound like a tooth paste, but mark my words, try this and you'll be really amazed at the clarity it has.

Finish: The finish has some lengthy, spiced notes and this is where the first element of dryness comes through- nothing too oaked, just well balanced and throughly enjoyable.

Overall: We loved the small sample we tried at whisky Live and if anything, to try it for a second time only highlights just what a quality whisky this really is. Contender for our Best In Glass awards this year?..... oh yes...

Many thanks to Hiro Miyamori, Takeshi Tsuruoka and Shinji Fukuyo from Suntory for this insightful tasting and long may they continue to make great whisky!

Tuesday 12 May 2009

DISTIL Diary - Day one

Before we get calls from C&E - no, we haven't started an illicit pot still in the shed at the bottom of Caskstength towers (although it was considered...!) The next couple of day posts concern the DISTIL conference over at the ExCeL Centre in the London Docklands. Caskstrengh were invited down to sample a few wares and put a few faces to names of the many jolly and hard working folk in the drinks trade.

The event, isn't centered on any particular spirit- and on arriving at the vast conference halls, you'd have to look twice to notice the whisky exhibitors among the more noticeable brands were Welsh marvels Penderyn who had a small stand, as did the new owners of Glen Moray - La Martiniquaise and independent blenders and bottlers, Angus Dundee Distillers (who make the fine Mackillop's Choice bottlings)

First presentation of the day was with the totally unstoppable freight-train-of-whisky knowledge that is Mr Richard Paterson. If you have seen Richard in action before, you'll know that there should be a health warning attached to his presentation. As well as the ludicrous amount of knowledge he throws out to his audience, handfuls of barley, jugs of water, ice buckets and confetti all feature in Richard's arsenal- and by the end of his mesmerising blending class not one person left questioning his passion for the spirit.

Caskstrength were lucky enough to try one of Richard's landmark blending achievements- the Whyte & Mackay 40 year old- which did not disappoint:

Whyte & Mackay - 40 year old blend - 45% vol - 70cl

Nose: Really intense orange zest, dark chocolate and bonfire toffee, followed by lots of spicy cedar cigar box woodiness. Make no mistake, this is serious stuff.

Palate: More oranges (of the blood variety) tobacco notes, black java coffee, and a mouthful of very oaky sherry lambaste your senses, but quickly reassure you that you're in safe hands- and in for a very long and enjoyable ride.

Finish: I timed my journey around the arena after finishing this dram- 18 minutes and 33 seconds - and I was still tasting a wonderfully tangy, oaky finish, laced with licorice for minutes after that. Sensational.

Overall: Not a lot more can be said about this dram, other than that it defies the ageing process and is as effusive and vibrant as Mr Paterson's presentation!!

Next up, and a more botanical theme in the shape of a gin nosing masterclass led by Beefeater's Master distiller- Desmond Payne. Although this blog predominantly features fine whisky (and the occasional ale, when we feel like it) be sure to look out for our first forays into light spirits with a special 'gin week' coming soon!

Onto the flavour of the Caribbean- and the Demerara rums of El Dorado. Highlights included the 15 year old and the wonderfully rich and reduced 21 year old, which had all the woody, spicy elements of a wonderfully aged single malt.

El Dorado rum -21 year old - 40 % vol - 70cl

Nose: Rich, silky and unctuous – with big mahogany aromas, wax and dried vine fruits. Almost hints of Cognac. This is undoubtedly one of the highlights that highly aged rum brings to the senses.

Palate: An immediate sweetness hits the palate with a definitive ‘liqueur’ like mouth feel. Gentle flavours of marzipan and golden toffee give way to an unexpected freshness. This has all the hallmarks of a well-reduced sauce.

Finish: More lingering sweetness, leading into drier, oaky notes.

Overall: A tremendously luxurious sipping rum, for those warm, summer evenings spent in the company of a fine Macanudo, or Hoyo De Monterray cigar, whilst the sun gently sets.

Soon enough, it was 4pm and time for a refreshing pink gin, in the company of the lovely folks from The Spirits Business magazine, Patience & Daisy.

More to follow tomorrow...!

Monday 11 May 2009

The Royal Choice

As part of one of my various day jobs (Jack of all trades, master of none) I was asked to write a piece on 'Drinks with Royal Patronage'. Great- where do I start, I wondered? Clearly the Royal family have always liked their booze (Princess Anne and the indefatigable Queen Mum were HUGE fans of a rather potent cocktail- Dubonnet and gin)
But look back further and the Royal Warrant has been a life blood for many of our most resilient and well known drinks brands. It was a seal of quality, respected the world over and usually reflected Britain at its very best.

Today there are over 800 Royal Warrants (look closely and you'll notice the various 'crests' adorning plenty of household names) and over 30 specifically supporting alcoholic drinks from gins, wines, ports, sherry and... of course... whisky.

Laphroaig has been supported by the Prince Of Wales since 1994, when he visited Islay, nearly crashed his plane on the blustery runway and stayed a little longer than expected. Some would say it was fate...He fell in love with the 15 year old and never looked back. Examine any bottle of Laphroaig and you'll see the classic '3 feathers' logo of the Prince.

Which brings me nicely onto their newest bottling- the 18 year old.

I must confess that I did not share the Prince's affection with the now discontinued 15 year old, which seemed to confuse as to its real identity- it was neither peaty, nor subtle enough to get me excited, in the same way perhaps as the Quarter Cask. Will this new expression be the new pretender to the peated throne, or lose its head in the Tower?? One shalt now find out....

Laphroaig 18 year old - 48% - 70cl

Nose: A lovely waft of soft peat, which, if you read our previous posts, is something we're mad keen for. But there is something else- red apple, chocolate covered fudge and dig deeper, a heady waft of Carbolic soap. Definitely more characterful than the 15 year old at this point.

Palate: Lots of coal/oil and more than a passing resemblance to our new favourite Islay malt- Caol Ila. Quite salty and coastal notes are noticeable at first but then a sweet fizzy sherbet note comes through, with more of that chocolate fudge. There's very little of the more medicinal notes you find with the younger expressions of Laphroaig.

Finish: More Carbolic notes lead into a long and pronounced salty finish.

Overall: A dram which doesn't wear its medicinal heart on its sleeve, but certainly has more than enough to make this a real contender in the older peated malts market. We have recently put this up against the Talisker 18 and our beloved Lagavulin 16 and it faired superbly well.

I wonder what the Prince will make of it? well, 'One thinks that it will show splendidly, what what....!'