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Thursday 27 May 2010

Islay Feis Ile - bottlings round up

Welcome to the jungle. Here we are back in The Big Smoke. The city is full of giant concrete structures and asphalt pavements that have sucked in the all heat from the weekend, when it hit 30 degrees and are now slowly releasing warmth into the cooler, moist air like a giant urban sauna. Yesterday I walked two blocks in Central London and ended up feeling like Michael Douglas’ character Bill Foster in Falling Down. It’s a far cry from the sundrenched Kildalton shoreline, but in order to afford time on Islay drinking great whisky and buying rare, festival only bottles for consumption at a later date, you’ve gotta put the work in and earn the cash. So here we are, back in our concrete jungle. Back at work.

Getting home to the goodies purchased on the island (and one bottle picked up at Loch Fyne Whiskies en route home- see above) and sitting back with a large dram of the Caol Ila Festival Bottling, we thought we’d put together a summary of the interesting bottlings that we’re released in 2010 and, with the festival not yet over, some exclusives of the ones that are yet to come...

Let’s start with day one, which was the Lagavulin Open Day. Here we picked up two bottles, the single cask Festival Bottling, selected by the amazing Iain “Pinkie” McArthur. Released at £74.99 and limited to around 525 bottles (we can’t remember the exact figure) distilled in 1994 and bottled in 2010 the cask (number 3210) is an ex European oak. Their Distillery Only bottling is a cask strength, double matured, no age statement whisky which retails at £69. I heard someone from the distillery mention that there were only 1,000 cases of this (6,000 bottles) but I don’t know how true that is. You can read our notes on this bottling here.

The Festival Bottling sold out before the end of the day, the first time I’ve seen this with their Feis Ile release. Usually the release is available for a couple of days after their open day but this year it seemed to fly off the shelves. Maybe people have been reading notes on how good these bottlings are. You can read our previous notes on 2008 here and last year's here. Or maybe they've been looking here.

It was a similar story over at Caol Ila, with their cask strength Distillery Only bottling (bottled in 2007) This was the second year that they’d released a festival-only bottling and, much like Lagavulin, it was similar to last years release (both European oak ex- sherry casks) but the 2009 edition was distilled in December 1996 and this years was from August 1999, so just a couple of years younger and it was retailing at £74.99.

Up the bay from Caol Ila is Bunnahabhain who pioneered the whole festival bottling idea under the stewardship of ex-manager John MacLellan, who is now up at Kilchoman. The previous couple of years has seen the price of their festival bottling rocket, but this year they’re releasing a single cask 18yo Pedro Ximinez Finish, 384 bottles at £85. Back on course with something interesting and well priced. The bottle went on sale at the start of the week, but it has been so popular that they’ve stopped selling it to hold some back for their open day tomorrow (bottles available from 10am). A doff of the cap to the chaps at Bunnahabhain. Apologies for the lack of bottle shot here.

As mentioned John MacLellan is now up at Kilchoman and they’re doing their first ever festival bottling this year, a single cask at £55. Distilled in 2007 the bottling will be at 62.2%, drawn from a Bourbon cask (no: 11307) and limited to 258 bottles. A good price but it will be young, of course! We hope to bring you some tasting notes of this shortly (as well as a bottle shot!!)

Heading down the road to Bruichladdich, they knocked out two bottles this year. The first was the excellent (or not so excellent, depending on which blog you read!) Islay Barley 2004 Valinch. Another fill-your-own bottling from the chaps at ‘Laddich, this 6 year old retailed at £55 for 50cl. Last year was a 1993 single cask for the same money (except there was a buy two for £100 deal which legally they’re no longer allowed to do. Something to do with the government’s anti-binge drinking policy. The phrase “cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer” comes to mind!) They also snuck out another very limited bottling which was only available to people with a ticket for the Renegade Rum Masterclass. This was a 20 Year Old Rum Finish single cask of just 105 bottles at 55.5%.

Around the bay to Bowmore and they’ve wrestled the prize for “most expensive festival bottling” away from Bunnahabhain (but only just! More on that later...) by putting out a 25 Year Old at £325. To be fair, there is only 100 bottles of this and they have offered another bottling, batch 2 of their excellent Tempest (batch one review here) which will run to just 500 bottles and comes with a signed certificate, all for just £45. Nice.

Jura aren't doing a specific FI bottling but have elected to release Prophecy, a heavily peated batch and also the Boutique range, which will be part of their on-going range in the future.

Onward to the two Kildalton distilleries we’ve not yet covered; Laphroaig and Ardbeg.

Laphroaig have settled nicely into a consistent release schedule for the Feis Ile, again shifting out a bottle of Càirdéas, this time their Master Edition for £45. Bottled at 57.3%, the whiskies in this edition range from 11 to 19 years in age, as opposed to last year's definitive 12 yo version. No info on how many bottles, but it will be available through the Friends of Laphroaig online shop after the Feis Ile. We'll have some further notes on this bottling shortly.

Finally, we finish at Ardbeg who have their open day on Saturday. This effectively brings the festival to a close, along with the final fling and with the 10th Anniversary of the Committee, the buzz of excitement is enormous. Earlier in the year all Committee Members were sent an official invitation to the Open Day with tear-out tickets inside for rides on the day. What will be there? Rollercoasters? Helterskelters? Skittles? Wack The Rat? Who knows! But it sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun.

Whilst we were on Islay, we managed to try a sample of a Distillery-Only 10yo release, which had just sold out when we arrived on Saturday (RRP £180) No doubt there will be other releases like this in the future. Notes below:

Ardbeg - 'Distillery Only' Single Cask - Refill Sherry Hogshead - Cask 2763 - distilled 14th September 1998 - Bottled 5th November 2009- 55.6% vol - 70cl

A note on the colour: much darker than the standard issue 10 year old

Nose: An immediate dusty nature with the nose, hints of sandalwood and cedar. Then the smoke hits in a soft and delicate way - hidden behind the smoke some fruity notes emerge, predominantly over ripe bananas and apricot.

Palate: The first full scale flavour is the fruit, the apricot coming at you head on, using smoke as its engine. Then it starts to heat up, with notes of red chilli and cracked black pepper. With water, the fruits are enhanced and hints of soil and earth appear.

Finish: The smoke really takes hold now and it becomes quite firey on the finish. A last minute delivery of salt hits the mouth at the death. Lots of salt and perhaps a touch of the fruit again right at the end. With water, the saltiness is slightly reduced, creating a better balance overall.

Overall: A pretty solid single cask release from Ardbeg. Our personal preference is for refill bourbon over sherry casked Ardbeg, but this is decent. More like the Corryvreckan and less like the standard Ten, if we were to compare with the standard releases.

One thing we do know about is Ardbeg's Festival Bottling for 2010. (see a sneak preview of the bottle above) Last year they released a Feis Ile pair of 2 single casks, 1189 and 1190, both ten years old (from 1998) and in toasted oak which went out at £130 a bottle. This year's release is another single cask bottling. Whoop! Cask 2761 from 1995, a refill bourbon cask.

As it happens, we were lucky enough to try this at last year's festival at the Twisted Tasting during the Open Day. Back then it was called The Warehouseman’s Special and here are our notes- Perhaps it will taste even better now it's bottled.

Ardbeg - Warehouseman's Special - 1995 refill bourbon - 53.7% - cask 2761 (now Ardbeg Feis Ile Bottling 2010 and bottled at 53.3%)

Nose: Superb vanilla + fudge ice cream over flambéed bananas, coffee revels fresh orange juice, pepper. Fresh chopped mix herbs.

Palate: Heather infused fudge, caramels (hints of burnt sugar?), soft peat, effortlessly sweet notes, into bitterness. Malty cereals. The peat takes time to appear but breaks through to be fairly delicate and well balanced.

Finish: Classic soft Ardbeg fudge, smoke and light elegant peat. Juice from tinned pineapples / a hint of citrus.

Overall: Another sensational dram fresh from the warehouse. We have a soft spot for refill bourbon cask Ardbegs which gives excellent vanilla, citrus and tobacco notes to the peaty spirit.

They’ve squeezed out 228 bottles from the cask and this will be retailing at £220.'s the issue. This is a MASSIVE price rise on last year's releases- especially when you consider that you could have got 2 single casks for virtually the price of just this one!

As most of you already know, the team at the distillery are truly wonderful hosts and from what we've heard, they've worked tirelessly to make this year's open day, also the 10th Anniversary of the committee, the most spectacular yet. I think it is a shame to couple all their hard work and efforts with a bottling that, from our point of view, doesn't offer value for money, especially considering its age and the Feis Ile bottlings released by the other distilleries. Come on LVMH! Sort it out for next year!! Don't let price ruin such a wonderful event. Take a leaf out of everyone else's book and provide something which is easier on the pocket and a true reward for those partaking in what is always such a wonderful open day.

**UPDATE** We're hearing reports that the Ardbeg festival bottling was actually re-priced at the last minute to £125. Fair play here, a much more reasonable price and something for the real fans. Apparently there was a few folks waiting in line from the night before. That's dedication for you!

Anyway, we're not there. We're stuck here, away from all the undoubted merriment. Whisky always tastes that little bit better at the distillery so to everyone who is visiting the island over the next few days, leave all your troubles on the mainland and have a wonderful relaxing time.

Good luck to all the distilleries who have open days still to run (Jura, Bunnahabhain and of course, Ardbeg and we'll see you all again in 2011!


Wednesday 26 May 2010

Islay Feis Ile 2010 Day Three - Everyone's Got A Caol Ila

After the show it’s the after party

And after the party, it’s the hotel lobby.

And ‘round about 4 you gotta clear the lobby

- R Kelly, Ignition (Remix)

These immortal lyrics were sung by R Kelly on his 2002 hit “Ignition (Remix)” and sums up pretty much the goings on between the end of the Bruichladdich Open Day and the start of Islay: Day Three.

Needless to say, there was a very slow start to Caol Ila day...

After a wonderful fry-up at Chez Middleton, it was time to hit the road. The weather had turned a wee bit cooler, but the skies were still bright blue and the sun was bright and sharp. Our first port of call was to nip up and have a nosy around Kilchoman. The distillery isn’t far from the Islay Outpost and our journey took us on a fantastic ride along the bottom of Loch Gruinart. Anthony showed us the new tasting room, which is an excellent addition to the already successful cafe. The Festival bottling will be released on Thursday, a single cask of just over 250 bottles. Sadly we won’t be around to try it but no doubt, it will be a cracker.

Our next stop was Caol Ila, standing tall on the majestic Askaig coastline over looking the wonderful paps of Jura. We love visiting Caol Ila, especially when the sun is out- a perfect balance to the briny blasts of wind which certainly perk up the skin.

We had with us a sample of the new Caol Ila’s Manager’s Choice bottling and this seemed like as good a time as any to do a little comparison between this single cask release and the two other bottlings available for the festival- The official Feis bottling (an 11 yo Ex-European Oak single cask bottling) and their regular Distillery Only bottling, from 2007.

Caol Ila – Feis Ile Bottling 2010 – Distilled: 19/08/1999 – bottled: early 2010 – 11 years old – ex European oak – cask number 305646 – 61.9% vol – 70cl

Nose: Huge amount of toffee (Werther’s Originals), baking soda, peat, menthol and walnuts. With a little water, some sweet condensed milk notes are noticeable. Very sweet and rich.

Palate: The sweetness from the nose initially follows through to the palate, but eventually gives way to a pleasant woody dryness. Hold this in the mouth for any length of time and you’ll get an Incredible heat. Spiced notes (we’re not talking subtle here, so think small, sweet but powerful red chillies and Cayenne pepper). With water: hazelnut and almond flavours begin to come through and the whole complexion softens, but given time in the glass, it starts to sparkle in a sherbert’y way. Very nice indeed.

Finish: Long, spicy and fruity with rich red fruit compote. With water, the finish shortens slightly and there is a drying hint of bitterish oak- nothing unpleasant though.

Overall: a really solid and complex dram that certainly needs water to soften the blow a little and bring the rich, spicy flavours in to focus.

Caol Ila - Managers Choice Bottling – 1997 – European Sherry Oak – 58% ABV – 70cl

Notes: peat, slight hints of marmite and freshly cut pine. Shoe polish and leather. Hazelnuts. With water there are hints of green apple and the toffee is all but gone.

Palate: Immediately there is a sweetness which hits through the fresh pine and menthol notes. It grows increasingly in warmth and wholewheat notes with some sherry richness and brown sauce spices. With water: as with the nose, this becomes really apply, like freshly sqeezed cloudy apple juice. Much more subtle and far less interesting with the addition of water.

Finish: Long and lingering with roasted coffee. A real plum tones hits through on the final finish. With water: softer and duller, but with a good length to it.

Overall: the opposite of above as the addition of water to this dram just takes all the interesting aspects of the palate away and leave mainly apple flavours. Not bad at all, but one to be drunk neat.

Caol Ila- Distillery Only bottling – NAS – 58.4% - Bottled in 2007

Nose: Natural caramel, Dime bars, sweet coconut, dark chocolate covered brazil nuts, and a little hint of something fresh- runner beans. A lot more youthful smelling than the other bottlings in our taste-off.

Palate: Quite hot and spirity. Soil, soot, pepper and a healthy dose of clove oil. Becomes a little more biscuity (Digestives) with water.

Finish: Long, with malty cereal notes and classic sooty Caol Ila peat lingering in the mouth for a while.

Overall: Good stuff and certainly right in there with the Caol Ila family, but best enjoyed with a drop of water.

Verdict: We’d go for the neat Managers Choice over the other two, however the Festival Bottling 2010 is excellent, but certainly needs water to bring out the subtle and complex flavours.

Despite the bracing Caol Ila wind and several caskstrength drams, the previous 24 hours exertions were starting to take their toll; our delayed hangovers from the night before were starting to collectively kick in! Thankfully, help was at hand when a text came through from our host, Joanne. Homemade fish pie in oven- help yourself!! Just the sort of news we needed to hear, as Joanne’s fish pies are legendary for their restorative powers.

The road home took us via Bowmore where we nipped in to see David Wood and his Queen Of The Moorlands tasting at the Islay Whisky Shop (check out the heavily peated Bunnahabhain bottling they’ve done for the festival) before hot footing it back for a hearty measure of pie. After a quick scrub up we headed back down the island to Port Ellen for the now famous Blind Nosing Competition held at Ramsay Hall. In previous years we’d done ok, and this year we returned full of confidence only to turn in a disastrous performance!! It’s a lot harder than you think!

This year was not easier and despite leaving it to our instincts we only managed to get 4 out 10 whiskies correct. Well done to the Japanese chap who got an amazing 8/10 and to Angus McRail who took 2nd place with 6/10. As the sun set over the Port Ellen maltings, we picked a few Gorse flowers (we’ll be knocking up a liqueur from an old family recipe we found, so watch this space folks for some notes).

A melancholy descended over us as we headed back towards Guinart for the final time- this was our last night and as with every year we’ve attended the festival, the friendship and goodwill we’ve experienced on this fantastic island is overwhelming. Many thanks to all those who have made our time on Islay so special, but once again special thanks to Joanne and Derek Middleton- your generosity knows no bounds.

We’ll be doing a ‘tribute’ post later this week in homage to the Ardbeg Open Day, including details of the festival bottling but before that a final Feis Ile 2010 post on our journey home including details of an interesting competition. Until then, Happy Feis and see you again in 2011.

Monday 24 May 2010

Islay Feis Ile 2010 Day Two- Stick It In Ya Bloodtub....

We awoke on day two of our Islay trip to blazing, bright sunshine. This island really is one of the most beautiful places in the world when this weather strikes. The beaches look positively Caribbean, but this is no rum island, it's whisky land and today was Bruichladdich day.

Situated towards the North of the island, on the way to Port Charlotte, Bruichladdich and Kilchoman are not too far apart as the crow flies (a little longer as the hire car drives, especially if Ridley is behind the wheel...) sitting like small independent states on the edge of a bigger country. The night before we’d grabbed a chat with the legendary Jim McEwan, Master Distiller and head of all things whisky at ‘Laddich. In an impromptu moment he grabbed a piece of cardboard and drew us a picture of the “whisky cake”, a roughly drawn pie chart showing massive slices for Diageo, Suntory, LVMH, etc. Then Jim drew in Bruichladdich’s share... so small it didn’t even come in as a slice. 0.9% of the market, to be precise.

Bruichladdich come in for some stick, mainly due to the huge amount of bottlings they are now famed for releasing. But there is method behind the madness, reason in the season. When you only have 0.9% of the market, you have to make it work for you and Bruichladdich do this through releasing varied and interesting bottlings as and when it suits them. Not beholden to a marketing department or a think tank and focus group situated miles away from the distillery, if they want to release it, they’ll release it. And more power to them for this attitude.

Bruichladdich is also famed for their open day. Unique to ‘Laddich is their whitewashed walled quad which, along with being a suntrap also provides an excellent, controlled space for entertaining. Their open day, as with Ardbeg’s (the final Saturday of the festival), falls on a weekend so it tends to attract a greater number of locals, all looking for some fun on their day(s) off. We arrived at 12pm, after a lovely walk down from Port Mor, to hear strains of Europe’s The ‘Final Countdown’ blasting out from the quad, played brilliantly by the local school orchestra. My school orchestra used to make us play stuff like the 'Saints Go Marching In', so to hear one of your favourite tracks with full brass was fantastic- more power to the conductor!

The queue was already building up for the festival bottling so we joined the back, as this was one we certainly didn’t want to miss, having tried a sneaky taste the night before. It really is one of the best ‘Laddich’s we’ve tried in a while- the first bottling to use 100% locally grown Islay Barley (Chalice) from the Kentraw Farm.

Bruichladdich 2010 Feis Ile Valinch – 2004 – cask 1667 – Dist. 2004 – Fresh Sherry Butt. – Bottled 23/5/10 by me!! 57.5%

Nose: Big caramel notes, burnt sugar, vanilla, chopped hazelnuts, and bags of raisins. Lots of raisins. It is still showing signs that it is a very young, but with water, it becomes a lot more tame.

Palate: Initially sweet and nutty with Crème Brûlée topping flavours coming strongly to the fore. With water, the dried fruits are dominant . Very drinkable indeed, but does need water to smooth out some of the youthful notes.

Finish: The remnants of raisin and Demerara sugar linger on the palate. Excellent.

Overall: First ‘Laddich of the day and we’re off to a flying start. One to bag for sure if you can get a chance.

We felt a spot of lunch was in order, so visited the buffet bar, which is run by the local lifeboat charity. At £7, you get probably the biggest and best amount of quality food we’ve seen for a while, from curried scallops to venison. By the end we are totally sated and smiling from ear to ear...

Next dram was one of the other Valinch bottling offered on the day- The Italian Job- a cask from 1992, bottled especially for the festival. Rich apricots, banana and pancakes on the nose, followed by some slightly sugary rum notes. The palate reveals a little peat, backed with toffee,white pepper and some green chillies, fried in butter. It’s not a bad drop at all, but for my money, the official Feis Valinch pips this to the post in terms of excellence.

Our party of 3 were then spurred into action as the dramming bar was temporarily short staffed, so team Caskstrength (plus the Whisky Guy) were tasked with keeping the very thirsty visitors in whisky for a few hours. We were introduced to our 3rd Bruichladdich of the day by a friend and wow! all of us had one of those Eureka moments. For those of you that like wonderfully buttery, fruity bourbon influenced whiskies, look no further than the recent 16yo Bourbon cask release.

It is quite simply, a total stunner. Fresh crisp fruit (apple/banana), Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, lovely oily mouthfeel and a sweetness to die for, it has all the hallmarks of a really well made vatting of brilliant bourbon casks. This retails for around £45 and is going to become a cabinet staple at Caskstrength towers.

Sadly, we didn’t win the raffle prize, offering a brand new Bruichladdich blood tub, but the day was drawing to a wonderfully relaxed end. A little hop and a skip around the quad for the Ceilidh was enough to get us red faced and in need of another dram and fortunately, some top lads from Falkirk just happened to have a little something up their sleeves- their own bottling of Port Charlotte!

Port Sgioba – 8yo – Cask 826- distilled 6/12/01 – bottled 2/3/10 – 66% vol – 286 bottles

Nose: Hint of gentle smoke, slight note of farmyards and wet hay. Underneath there is a huge woody sherry note and some lovely fruity sweetness.

Palate: Minty and fresh initially, the high alcohol strength gives palate a thorough coating. It’s dry, but the sherry notes are superb, with further swirls of smoke. With water and honey notes come to the fore and further notes of peat smoke.

Finish: Lingering notes of honeycomb and the dry/fruity sherry.

Overall: Sensational drinking. This has some excellent balance between the soft peat and powerful sherry wood influence. If you’d like to try it out, contact us for details and we’ll try to hook you up with the casks owners!!

Tomorrow’s post will sadly be our last from this wonderful island until next year’s festival, but rest assured it’ll be a cracker- Caol Ila’s open day, where we review the Feis Ile, Distillery Only and Managers Choice bottlings side-by-side. How’s that for a threesome!!

Sunday 23 May 2010

Islay Feis Ile 2010 Day One – While My Credit Card Gently Weeps

Here we are again! Sitting in another anonymous hire car on the sea front at Kennacraig, waiting for the CalMac ferry to dock...

Only a few days ago Islay 2009 was just a distant memory. Mandate, our imaginary boyband from last year had long since disbanded, our 2009 Festival bottlings all but finished and credit card bills finally paid off... sort off.

Today, we embark on our 4th Feis Ile – our touring party has changed slightly for this year, saying farewell to Faceman and Tim, but welcoming our good friend Darren Rook aka ‘The Whisky Guy’ as our travelling companion and fellow drinker- Huzzah to Mr Rook!

Sadly, this year's trip is shorter than the previous excursions and we have only 3 (fun packed) days to take in this wonderful island. As we board the ferry we spot some of the usual Feis Ile suspects: Hansemalt. The guys from Falkirk. That chap who looks like Neil in 30 years time. They’re all here, again. And the sun... well, the sun has got his hat on had has very much come out to play. The thermometer in the car reads 27 degrees. Bliss!

Our first port of call was to get up to Lagavulin for their open day. Drams aplenty and the temptation of two, yes two, unique bottling available from them this year. The majority of cars leaving the ferry were all heading in the same direction as us, and we snaked up the South Eastern side of the island like the Serpent off to see Eve with his apple. Parking was limited but we managed to squeeze little hire-car in between two camper van (Ardbeg Tie Guy’s? Hans Moleman’s?) and the first task was to join the queue for the Lagavulin shop.

Previous years demand had created the need for greater, er, “crowd control” and people were forming an orderly line in the baking Islay sun on an 8-in / 8-out basis. Once inside the shop, we were faced with a dilemma... one bottle or two? Not, of course of the Festival Bottling which was very much limited to one-per-person, but should we also add the newly launched Distillery Only bottle to our first purchase of the day?

Question? What question? Of course we should! £69 buys you a cask strength No Age Statement Lagavulin which, according to Dr Nick Morgan from Diageo:

“[This release] contains a number of special casks that had been intended for bottling as Distillers Editions over the past few years but were found to be surplus to requirements, and have been sitting in our warehouse ever since. These have undergone a second (or ‘double’) maturation in American Oak cask wood that has previously held fortified wine – in this case, sherry treated American Oak casks. But unlike our regular Distillers Edition bottlings, these are offered at natural cask strength, and carry a no age statement.”

Sounds pretty good, a cask strength version of the Distillers Edition... let’s find out

Lagavulin Distillery Only Bottling – 2010 release (we’re sat in a cafe in Port Charlotte and don’t have the bottle with us, so ABV and photo to follow soon).

Nose: Hot buttered brown toast, cigar casing, dust and soft smoke. The overriding notes are of soft brown sugar being whipped into eggwhite and butter, pre cake mix but with some added spices

Palate: There is a fair amount going on here, with burnt flapjack, rich butter and dollops of plum chutney. A soft smoke and earthiness envelopes these flavours and the natural cask strength helps to push them through.

Finish: A medium to long finish with soft peat, cinnamon and hint of mint. It belittles it’s cask strength nature.

Overall: A really cracking dram with a touch more complexity than your average Lagavulin (and Lagavulin is rarely “average”...). This would run the 12 year old close as the best release of Lagavulin this year.

As usual at Lagavulin, there is always something interesting to try from a cask in their warehouse. This year, in the dramhouse they were serving up handfilled and labelled bottle of a 1993 single cask...

Lagavulin – warehouse single cask – Feis Ile 2010 – 1993 – Cask #4504 – no ABV (cask strength)

Nose: Dried Cranberries!! Peat notes, pine sawdust, toffee apples slightly soapy floral notes

Palate: A little pine freshness/woody notes, slightly vegative note. Fruit jellies and a hint of slightly meaty, but pungent smoke. Nice.

Finish: Dry notes, back with the sawdust and smoke.

Overall: a surprise dram. Slightly reminiscent of the Feis bottling a few years ago, with an added vegetative note.

Now this is getting fun. Less than an hour on the island, the sun is beating down, we’ve bagged two exclusive bottles of Lagavulin and already had two amazing drams. Ahhhhhh.... what can make this moment any better? Well, a while ago I was offered a couple of interesting bottles of Lagavulin at a very reasonable price. Seeing an opportunity, I decideded to bag one as a present for Neil on the advent of his next birthday. Sadly, his birthday isn’t until July but this seemed like the prefect opportunity to wheel the gift out... a bottle of 16 Year Old from around c.1990. I can’t be sure of the exact date of bottling or release but all the signs point towards early 1990’s, in which case the whisky inside must be mid-1970’s at the very earliest. Happy Early Birthday, Neil!

Cracking open the bottle with eager expectation, it only seemed right to compare and contrast this early 1990’s bottling with one from 2010...

Lagavulin 16 Year Old – early 1990’s edition v Lagavulin 16 2010 release.

Neil’s thoughts: The new bottling is definitely sweeter, slightly more pronounced peat. Maybe a little fresher, but where there many differences, there are clearly similarities. New notes of menthol – perhaps from the wood selections…strains of barley higher nitrogen content?

Darren’s thoughts: The new 16yo is definitely slightly sweet than the older 1990’s bottling. On the nose there’s little difference, possibly slight fresh bread comes on in the newer bottling, but it’s on the palette where the sweetness is really present. As it washes over the tongue there is a very subtle almond croissant drizzled with honey, again the bread is there by the nutty sweet is dominant.

Joel’s thoughts: The colour of the old 16 is much darker and earther. The current batch of 16 has a tendency to look like a teenage girl on a night out in Liverpool; bright orange and slightly luminescent. The early 1990’s 16 is darker, with greater mahogany tones to the colour; less David Dickinson, more Nancy Dell'olio. As for the palate, the old 1990 is undoubtly smoother with lower tones of cereal and oat against the slightly higher menthol tones of the 2010 release. Both excellent, but there is a fresher, more lively feel to the current release. On a toss of a coin, I’d take the older bottling. But I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed with the current batch.

After filling up on Lagavulin, it was time to get some food in our bellies. Only one place in the South East coast will satisfy... the Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg. Trundling the short distance up the road we arrived in excellent spirits to Arbeg, if not a little (or even in red neck Darren’s case, a lot) sunburnt! Crab chowder followed by Clootie Dumpling laced with 10 Year Old provided the perfect foundation for some Ardbeg... happy, happy days! On sale from today (Saturday 22nd May 2010) at the distillery shop was the new 2010 release of Supernova.

Ardbeg – Supernova 2010 Release (2nd release) – 60.1% ABV

Nose: Once you delve through the huge peat smoke you hit the spirit which come as you with a very sweet maple syrup and bacon note, icing sugar and hints of marzipan. Vanilla ice cream. With water, some liniment and damp wool emerge.

Palate: Again, digging (almost literally) through the peat and heat, you’re hit with malt followed by mint humbugs. A hint of dark chocolate come through with the addition of water.

Finish: There is pungent peat lingering on with some white pepper and red chillies.

Overall: This latest Ardbeg release is drinkable but definitely needs water to send it into orbit.

While at Ardbeg we were also treated to a sneak preview of their festival bottling. Not out until the open day and, despite us not being able to be there, we will publish a tribute post on their open day, featuring other Ardbeg releases as well as their Feis Ile Bottling 2010.

Our time on the south east coast at the Kildalton distilleries was coming to an end. There was just time to pop in to Laphroaig on our drive home to say hello to the chaps there, before heading up to Port Charlotte for a dinner hosted by Bruichladdich. As today (Sunday) is their open day, we’ll reserve reviews of the evening and the whisky for tomorrow’s posting.

What to expect in day two: a single cask indie Port Charlotte, the Bruichladdich Feis Ile 2010 bottling, more sunshine and probably some in-jokes about people we’ve met. What’s not to like??

Tuesday 18 May 2010

What a Dram Good Idea....

Novel Idea Of The Week time again folks!

Ever seen a bottling that you've dreamed about getting your teeth into, only to find that it is way beyond your wallet's current capacity ? It has certainly happened to us... probably on a weekly basis, truth be told! Well our chums at Master Of Malt- ever the innovators have been racking their whisky addled brains for a while now, for a solution to this problem.

What they've come up with is brilliantly simple but terrific idea- Drinks By The Dram. Why not open a few of their most coveted bottlings and pop a generous drams-worth into a sample, so you can enjoy it for next to nothing...

According to Ben Ellefsen, (one of the Masters Of Malt), "As pretty serious whisky fans ourselves, we wanted a way that we could sample new releases from our favourite distilleries and bottlers without the expense of committing to a whole bottle of each before we'd even tried it. Drinks By The Dram started life as a way of allowing our staff and friends
to compare and contrast a range of whiskies, safe in the knowledge that the
investment required was not one that was likely to land them in the
dog-house on a semi-regular basis."

Three cheers to that!! Perhaps we'll no longer need to leave new (and slightly ill-advised) purchases in the boot of the car now, until Mrs Caskstrength has popped away for the weekend.

A sneak preview of some of the brands that are coming up include Glenfarclas, Bruichladdich, Murray McDavid, The Vintage Malt Whisky Company, Renegade Rums, Alc-hem-ist, Signatory, Edradour and many more, with a number of Master Of Malt bottlings also included. There's also a full list of the drams that are available Here:

As you can see from the picture above, the lads have gone to town on the packaging- each sample bottle is individually wax dipped to seal them, with the label printed on local hand-made paper.

Within the next couple of days approximately 40-50 whiskies will be available, with several hundred more available within a month.

If you fancy finding more about Drinks By The Dram, check out the link Here:

Welcome Aboard!!

Last week, I had a mini travel meltdown, much in the same vein as the wonderfully funny film- 'Trains, Planes and Automobiles'
I first got stuck in an unbelievable traffic jam, all for the sake of a seemingly inept team of electricians digging up the same piece of road, which another seemingly inept team from a telecommunications company had dug up and filled in only days before. Then, on my way to a whisky tasting, my train ground to a halt as the driver had 'clocked off' early with no one able to locate his replacement.

The trilogy of travel tragedy was completed by the return of the volcanic ash cloud delaying some friends I had staying. Sadly, it looks like it might return again next week... NOOOOO!
It's times like this, when there's only really a few options left dear readers;

1. Become a reclusive type, only venturing out on foot to procure more whisky.

2. Charter an overnight piggyback from a large muscular gentleman (ala, Geoff Capes- World's Strongest Man, 1983 and champion Budgerigar breeder)

3. Locate the nearest 70ft yacht and slip on a piped boating blazer.

Admittedly, finding a local yacht is not that easy if you live in Tamworth (or central London for that matter) but the feel of a maritime wind rushing through your locks is enough to get me feeling giddy, quicker than you can say 'Howards Way'

All this leads me to a recent excursion I took over in Venice. There are no cars, or trains to screw up your travelling plans, just lots of open water and even smaller water ways, with which you can traverse this diverse and architecturally unique city.
My last visit to Venice was as a small child and I seem to remember becoming bored within 5 minutes of viewing yet another glass blowing museum with my parents. However this time was very different- it involved drinking Talisker, a visit to the legendary 'Harry's Bar' and a short trip on an immaculately restored sailing vessel.

Talisker has a number of associations with the sea. Firstly there's no escaping that wonderfully evocative coastal aroma, which tells us many a tale about life on the Isle of Skye. It is also one of the destinations on the (now famous) Classic Malts Cruise, which takes would-be sailors on a 200-mile voyage through the Inner Hebrides, from Oban to Skye, and back south via the distilleries of Islay. Now the Italians have got in on the act, with their very own 2000km whisky cruise, starting in Genoa on the West coast of Italy, visiting Naples and Palermo on the way, with the finish line in Venice, to the North East of the country.

The boat in question is a wonderful piece of history. Built in 1897, it has been painstakingly restored to its former glory, with all the modern sailing gizmos such as motorised rigging and sonar all hidden beneath the authentic wooden decking.

Our short trip around the Venetian coastline started with several restorative cocktails in Harry's Bar, made famous as Hemingway's watering hole of choice and as the creator of the Bellini. Rain had descended giving Venice a murky character, reminiscent of the film 'Don't Look Now', but little was to dampen our spirits as we took the vessel out of the harbour. If anything, the slightly choppy sea and damp air almost gave the impression that a little piece of Skye had come to Italy, perfect for a Talisker tasting!

As I took the wheel (before downing any drams, I assure you) a real sense of calm washed over me- I've never been much of a sailor (my Great Uncle had the sea legs in our family) and for a brief moment, I began to understand how strong-willed men and women can suddenly abandon their lives on land and take to the high seas, in search of adventure and a sense of the unknown. It is a formidable beast the sea, with the ability to turn on anyone who cares to disrespect its authority in a mere heartbeat. Fortunately for me, the sun had just started to come out which signalled the beginning of our Talisker tasting, which included 6 expressions from the range.

We've reviewed a good number of Talisker's on here before, but never out in the open (and certainly not on the ocean!) so I was keen to see how the briney air and the undoubtedly beautiful background scenery would influence the character of this superb whisky. Here are the highlights.

First up: A liberal measure of the 10 yr old, which as expected, gives out bags of soft peat, mixed with a classic salty mouthfeel and slightly hot chilli finish. To coin a phrase from a good friend of ours, 'it goes down like a waterfall and comes up again like a volcano'. A solid and definitive start then.

Next: the 18yo. I haven't tried this for a good while, since I gave the remaining half bottle I had been keeping to my neighbour, as a forfeit for losing a chess match. Grrr.

Talisker 18 yo - 45.8%

Nose: Sweet candied fruit, almonds, (hint of sweet marzipan) classic Talisker peat and a more pronounced pepperiness, with some lovely coal dust notes emerging.

Palate: Humbugs, more candied fruit, with a sweet peat smoke twisting its way around the tongue.

Finish: Lengthy and sweet, with a hint of salt emerging at the death.

Overall: I think this could have only been bettered by having our own Tenor serenading us whilst we drank it!

Talisker Distillers Edition (2009) 45.8% Distilled 1998 - final maturation in Amoroso Sherrywood

Nose: Toffee apples, with a sweet Demerera sugar note, drier sherry notes and a hint of wet hay and soft smoke.

Palate: Much sweeter on the palate than the 10yo, with red apples, more brown sugar, then into the hint of Talisker pepper and smoke that we know and love.

Finish: Woody notes come to the fore, with a sherry/wine note lingering in the mouth.

Overall: You can see the influence of the Amoroso wood on this, but fortunately, it hasn't dominated the original Talisker too much, just nudged it along in a different direction. Very good indeed.

Talisker 30 yo - 2009 bottling 53.1%

Nose: More candied fruit (Rhubarb and Custards - remember them?) but this time floral notes too- rose petals, mixed with a dose of Iodine, soft peat, Cream soda and some white chocolate. So much more delicate than any of the other expressions. With water, a lighter grassy note comes through.

Palate: An explosion of fruit, with strawberries, plums, with a hint of the Talisker pepper. With water, more fruit notes emerge with a lighter creaminess. Also, hints of Earl Grey tea come through. Fruity and aromatic. Not the first thing that Talisker conjures up, but this never ceases to amaze and delight in equal measure.

Finish: Lingering traces of sweetness merge into pepper and a drying cedarwood note.

Overall: A superb expression, made all the more special by the surroundings.

The sun has finally fully reared its head and we shore up the yacht to the quayside, near to the Basilica di San Marco. Quite a few people are drawn to the vessel and before long, more whisky is poured and the conversation is in full flow. Although this will be the yacht's final mooring place for a while, the entire voyage around the coast (expertly skippered by Captain Davide) has been a real success, not only bringing a taste of Skye to Italian whisky lovers but also a sense of adventure. One thing's for sure, it conclusively proves that Talisker is the ultimate Maritime malt- for those of you that fancy taking to the unknown waters, there's only one dram to fill into your hip flasks with!