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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??