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Tuesday 31 May 2011

Islay day 9 - You Cant Beat A Bit Of Bully...

So here we are, the final fun packed day on Islay and the home straight in what has been a highly enjoyable trip to this wonderful island. Ardbeg have historically been the distillery to close the Feis celebrations and as a result, you always expect something special. This year was possibly the best yet and… against all odds, the sun actually appeared to want to play along.

The distillery had gone the whole hog (or should that be bull?) with a Spanish theme, from the huge imposing bull sculpture overlooking the coastline Flamenco dancers and traditional costumes for all the staff members taking part. They’d also hired in a mechanical bull, which sent shivers down the spine of caskstrength, as memories of drunken stag weekend injuries loomed into view. But not ones for turning away from a challenge, we vowed to prove our rodeo prowess, escaping chafed thighs in the process.

El Ridley clearly mastered the snake-hipped Toreador technique and hung on for a highly credible 25 seconds, but it was a disaster for El Harrison, whose premature ejection from the bull after just 1 second earned him the nickname ‘El Burro Muerto’ for the rest of the day. Tossed off in a second… clearly a word of warning, ladies.

The Spanish theme also stretched to the whisky events during the day and Mickey heads lead a number of enthusiastic Ardbeg committee members through some interesting sherry influenced cask samples, including demonstrating the heavy, rich Pedro Ximenez casks used to mature this year’s Festival bottling, which we reviewed earlier in the week, the notes of which can be found here.

One masterclass that really caught our eye however was a scientific look into the main component of Ardbeg - its wonderfully peaty character. Phenols clearly play a huge part in the development of Ardbeg and a specific discussion into the chemical compounds, which make up smoky aromas and flavours (C6H50H) was held up in the old floor malting warehouse.

Bryony Macintyre (fresh from finishing her dissertation on the science of whisky) led our group through a fantastic tasting, bringing the science to life. Bryony is clearly destined for big things – Mickey, you should start watching your back!

But perhaps the real highlight for us was a chance to try one of Ardbeg’s newest creations side by side against one of their most legendary drams. Ardbeg Alligator is to be the next committee bottling, released on the 1st June and is the latest in a new line of wood experiments from Dr Bill Lumsden. A number of heavily charred (level 4) first fill bourbon casks have been maturing since 2000, peated to the standard Ardbeg level of 55ppm. Having tried some of Ardbeg’s heavily toasted cask experiments (single casks 1189 and 1190 from 2009’s Feis Ile) we were itching to see how the heavy char affected the whisky. Here’s our thoughts:

Ardbeg Alligator – Committee release – 51.2% - around 10,000 bottles

Nose: Immediate spicy, fruity notes, with rolled oak shavings, BBQ charcoal, stewed apples, white pepper and hints of strong tea and fresh bourbon. With a dash of water the whisky really comes alive with wonderful rich vanilla tones, chocolate orange notes and hints of copper. Sterling stuff.

Palate: Big, resonant and dry, leading into more of the chocolate orange notes, sweet vanilla, hints of Five Spice and more stewed apple. Then the smoke arrives, soft, aromatic and gentle at first, giving this a superb complexity.

Finish: The sweet vanilla develops alongside the soft smoke for a very lengthy and pleasing finish.

Overall: What a mega whisky. We were critical of the last committee bottling (Rollercoaster) and its apparent lack of consistency and overly youthful tones, but Alligator is just brilliant. Rich, complex and spicy, it puts Ardbeg right back up there in terms of how to construct a highly drinkable and complex smoky whisky. Miss this one at your peril.

Next up, a dram we’d wanted to try since this site began…Pray silence please for Ardbeg Provenance…

Ardbeg Provenance - 1974 - 55.6%

Nose: Walnut husks, firm asparagus, overripe plums, melted marshmallows and a faint whiff of BBQ. The peat smoke is wonderfully delicate, soft and medicinal, without any overpowering notes whatsoever. With a dash of water, hints of old leather armchairs and polished oak come to the fore, but by then, you're completely taken in. We could smell this all night.

Palate: Sweet chocolate and walnut cream - basically like biting into a Walnut Whip. The delicate smoke lingers, with hints of baby back ribs, BBQ sauce and tobacco notes.

Finish: Lengthy soft smoke and rich vanillas, leading into some dried fruit notes. Superbly balanced.

Overall: Without a shadow of a doubt, this is a masterpiece of whisky making. It fetches a high price now on auction sites, but mid 70's Ardbegs have such a magic about them, which gives them such a desirability. If you can beg borrow or steal, get one of these for your collection and open it, don't stick it in a dark cupboard. Whiskies as good as this need to be enjoyed, savoured and remembered for the spirit inside the bottle, not just their aesthetic beauty.

Once again, Ardbeg have delivered a great open day and we very much look forward to next year's Feis. Come and Join us!!

Tomorrow we head over to Arran for the distillery's open day and to pick up a bottle or 92...

Monday 30 May 2011

Islay day 8 - If you’re gonna knead the dough, you’ve gotta bake the bread...

Friday during the Feis Ile always seems like the calm before the storm of the weekend. By that we mean Bunnahabhain hold their open day in the surroundings of the north east coastline, before the madness of Ardbeg’s Saturday event at the final fling event in Port Ellen’s Ramsay Hall. The weather had turned a little colder, but by now, we were a pair of city softies carved out of wood by the unrelenting high winds and rain, which had lashed Islay for pretty much the entire trip.

In recent years (when the weather was better) Bunnahabhain have laid on a Highland games themed event with Caber tossing, welly wanging and horseshoe throwing. But this year was a much simpler affair and main attraction was the stupendous locally caught scallops, flash fried in butter and a generous measure of Bunnahabhain 12yo. Our pal Ian Buxton was also around and delivered a fine masterclass tasting, afterwards signing copies of his bestselling book, ‘101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die’. We start to compile a list of drams to make our own 1,000,001 Drams To Try Before You Expire’ tome, but realise we’d need to have started early- from birth until our 80th birthday, we’d need to sample 34 whiskies daily, not counting leap years.

Bunna’s special release this year was a 14yo, which had spent its final 3 years finishing in a Cognac cask (a first for the distillery) to give it an even more concentrated sweet, floral complexity. In addition to the festival, the release celebrates the 130th anniversary of the distillery and was limited to 472 bottles.

Bunnahabhain – Feis Ile Special - 14yo – Cognac finish – 472 bottles – 59.6%

Nose: Lovely sweetened coffee and toffee notes, with vintage polished oak furniture, light cinnamon, hot cross buns and melted butter.

Palate: A very rich oily mouthfeel, with brandy marinated blood oranges, mandarins warming spices (cinnamon and a hint of clove) and a very sweet note, which balances well against the citrus flavours. With a dash of water, oak smoked ham, coupled with some dry red wine notes.

Finish: Hints of soft brown sugar linger on the palate, with traces of spice and zestiness.

Overall: Although quite different to the regular release 12yo, this bottling shows how the spirit is robust enough to take on the fruity notes of the Cognac cask and remain true to the distillery’s character. Hopefully we’ll see further experiments with Cognac in future bottlings.

Being the main home to blended whisky Black Bottle, the brand was out in force for the day, but instead of just offering regular tastings, their team had taken the opportunity to have some real fun and bought in a couple of ‘Slush Puppy’ machines to give the blend a completely different vibe, you can see our reaction in the video below!

On our way back to the south of the Island, we stopped in to see Gordon at the Islay Woollen Mill, which was now fortunately repaired after the 100mph winds. Ridley got measured up for a bolt of Lagavulin tweed, enough to make a 3 –piece suit.

If you haven’t already visited the mill, it’s well worth a nose around- not only does it have one of the oldest looms in Scotland to look at, but Gordon is a wealth of knowledge on tweeds and tartans, having designed pieces for numerous feature films including Braveheart and The Spiderwick Chronicles. They’ll even sell you a length of Bruichladdich tweed, should you be crazy enough to have a turquoise suit made up!

In our next instalment, we ride a attempt to ride a bull, try to perfect a few Flamenco steps and enjoy the best of Ardbeg’s brand new and vintage releases.

Friday 27 May 2011

Road To Islay Day Seven: Harrison, it's not about the money or the midgets.

Awaking to a fug of cigar smoke and the inimitable taste of Lagavulin from the night before, Thursday was yet another day of dashing all over the island in search of some cracking whiskies. Today was the day of Kilchoman’s open day, but also Jura, so our plan was to get the small ferry over to the island in the morning. But disaster struck. Again, the weather was too rough and the crossing was cancelled, throwing our trip out the window. So instead we stopped into the Islay Ales Brewery for a little look round and a quick half of their two whisk(ey) themed beers.

Islay Ales - Kentucky Kiss- 5.1%

This is a beer, which has been fermented in fresh bourbon barrels, then bottle conditioned. It is a dark, malty stout style ale, with pronounced malt extract aromas and a very fragrant, floral waft of bourbon sweetness. The palate has lots of character, with a sweet, malty tongue coating taste, again with bags of the bourbon fruitiness. Anyone fascinated with the link between beer and American whiskey should grab a bottle of this, as the flavours are extremely well balanced and showcase just how progressive Islay Ales have become as an artisanal brewery.

Islay Ales – Single Malt Ale – 5.0%

Winner of a gold medal at the CAMRA champion Bottled beer awards in 2010, the single malt ale has a superbly clean, floral nose, with pronounced hoppiness and lemon zest, reminding us of a slightly heavier IPA. It is brewed using only pale malt (hence the ‘single malt’ description) and American Amarillo and English Bramling Cross hops. The palate is again clean zesty and very hoppy, making this a cracker of a summer ale- alas not what we’re experiencing on Islay at present.

Onwards to Kilchoman and we arrive to a bustling open day, which is hugely pleasing and a sign of prosperity for this great new Islay distillery. The festival bottling this year is a 5yo from 2006 and a vatting of 2 fresh bourbon casks - no 31 and 32 and then finished in Oloroso sherry. Apologies for the lack of picture- we’ll stick one up as soon as possible.

Kilchoman – Feis Ile 2011 bottling – 500 bottles - 56%

Nose: Very fresh marzipan notes, slightly zesty, with buttery tones and a whiff of smoke and dark sherry.

Palate: Sharp with heathery honey tones, with sooty coal smoke, then sweet banana foam sweet notes. More than a hint of Caol Ila’s Moch about it, but at cask strength.

Finish: The smoke lingers with light, sweet malt notes.

Overall: Light weight with less of the pronounced peat, which earlier bottlings of Kilchoman have exhibited. We really liked this – again thinking it will probably shine brighter on a hot summers day than a rain sodden weekend in May!

We had a little chat with Anthony Wills who gave us a sneak preview of the distillery’s new bottle shape, which will see its first service for their 100% Islay bottling, which is due out later in June. Caskstrength will be back on Islay for the launch, so stay tuned for more info…

We’d worked up a bit of an appetite by now and our pals at Master Of Malt were hosting a bit of an impromptu BBQ at their digs in Carnduncan. The wind had begun to whip up but our chef Ben expertly manned the stoves- to produce some of the finest Southern style cuisine we’ve ever tasted; Racks of baby back ribs, home made BBQ sauce, thinly sliced lamb and hand turned burgers. But to begin - Ridley had to encounter his culinary nemesis, the humble Islay oyster. Quite why anyone can derive pleasure from oysters is beyond Ridley- as this video perfectly illustrates.

In our next post, we visit Bunnahabhain for their open day and start pricing up distillery themed 3-piece tweed suits at the Islay Woollen Mill. Will Ridley’s Visa finally succumb to the massive seizure it has been threatening??

Thursday 26 May 2011

Road To Islay Day Six: Dial "W" for Whisky

Yesterday was was the traditional clash of open days, in that Bowmore and nearby Islay Ales were showing their wares and the majority of Islay visitors descended to the middle of the island. We hadn’t booked into any events during the day, so had a leisurely stroll into the distillery for a dram of their festival bottling.

In previous years, Bowmore have opted to release 2 bottlings; a regular general release (and cheaper £50 option) and a super-limited, once in a lifetime type of bottling at a high price. This year, 100 bottles of a 1983 vintage were available from the distillery shop at £350 and, of course, the queues began at the crack of dawn.

Caskstrength had neither the will, patience, nor the finances to join them at 4am in the gale force winds and piercing rain, but we’re sure the end result will live up to expectation, given the quality of the recent 1982 vintage release. Here’s our thoughts on the more reasonably priced chappy…

Bowmore – Feis Ile 2011 bottling - Laimrig - 15yo – 51.4% - 500 bottles

Nose: A big slug of sherry wood, followed by dried figs, polished oak furniture, smoked roast pork, BBQ sauce, followed by lashings of wood smoke, the longer you leave it in the glass.

Palate: Thick and unctuous, dried cherries, strawberry jam on brown bread and very strong oak influenced flavours.

Finish: Gentle smoke, peppered with more sherry tones and sour cherries. On the death, there is a whisker of tropical fruit, but it’s gone in a heartbeat.

Overall: A solid sipping whisky- Bowmore have got this release right. There is enough maturation to justify the price and the release is limited to reward those festival goers who are dedicated Bowmore fans, but lack the wonga to become serious collectors. Well worth seeking out if you can grab one.

This seemed like a good day to try another Bowmore, this time one which we picked up at the nosing competiton earlier in the week. The chaps from Master of Malt have been over and they cheered up a bedraggled queue of folk waiting for the electricity to be restored by handing out some of their Drinks By The Drams, all gratis! What nice fellas. In the lucky dip bag we picked out the following:

Bowmore - 1982 - The Octave - Duncan Taylor - 27 Years Old - 50.6% ABV

Nose: Rich and Creamy with hints of subtle hints of smoke. Pure caramel pudding (with sea salt), green herbs and coconut.

Palate: This is very drinkable at cask strength, as the green herbs of fennel and thyme come to the fore, backed with wood spices and some delicate smoke kicking through at the death.

Finish: Again, tonnes of cream soda, smoked salmon and cream cheese.

Overall: A delicious whisky but I wonder if the smaller, fresh oak Octave cask which this has been additionally matured in has overpowered the base spirit and smoke a little too much.

As it started to absolutely throw it down, we decided to give Islay Ales a miss today (we’ll be visiting later this week) and in the early evening we headed back to Port Ellen for our main booking for the day. A few of the distilleries decided to do whisky & food matching evenings (Laphroaig organising something for the Friends Of Laphroaig and Ardbeg doing a BBQ for their committee members).

However, Lagavulin had put together a 3 course meal in conjunction with the Harbour Inn and we duly booked a couple of places. The meal and cracking presentation by the masterful Colin Dunn consisted of beautifully hot smoked salmon and oysters to start, accompanied by the Lagavulin 2010 12yo bottling.

The main course was pink Islay Lamb which paired well with the Lagavulin festival bottling and the absolute highlight was the dessert; a sea salt and caramel chocolate pudding w/ Caol Ila Ice cream, washed down with a choice of 2 whiskies- The Caol Ila Moch (which is fast becoming our dram of the Feis) and the Festival bottling.A few key folk from both Lagavulin and Caol Ila were present, including the new Lagavulin Distillery manager, Georgie Crawford and Billy Stitchell, Manager at Caol Ila.

A relaxing Port Ellen 4th release and coffee ensured that we were too stuffed to move a muscle and sadly the Ceilidh band missed out on Ridley & Harrison’s ‘ambitious’ dance moves, which was probably for the best.

With all the peat rattling around our gums, we felt like it was time to break out something a little softer, but wonderfully complex to go with our cigars (a Hoyo De Monterrey Epicure No. 1 and a Bolivar Belicoso Finos) and what better treat than Duncan Taylor’s magnificent Black Bull 40yo blend, which we picked up on route from Loch Fyne whiskies. All in all, a sensational end to the evening, although a spot of exercise tomorrow is probably now…

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Road To Islay Day Five: An additional Scoop of Ardbeg

In case the main course of Ardbeg 10yo and Airigh Nam Beist wasn’t enough for you – we can bring you tasty morsel for dessert- in the shape of this year’s Ardbeg Festival bottling!!

The official release is this Saturday for the open day, but we managed to get a sneaky dram earlier today, alongside another brand new Ardbeg with some real bite- but more to come in the next few days on that one.

This year is something completely different for Ardbeg. 2 casks, fully matured in Pedro Ximenez have been vatted together, creating a yield of around 1200 bottles. Let’s grab the bull by the horns and take a big swig…

Ardbeg - Feis Ile 2011 release – distilled 1998 – 13yo – 1200 bottles

Nose: Rich dark damsons, figs, butter notes and some dark treacle, coat the palate and immediately grab hold of you… Then, given time, the smoks develops, slowly at first, but swathes of wood smoke, wrap their way around the tongue. There is a lot of balance here, full marks for marrying 2 powerful forces together.

Palate: Initially dry, with big sherry notes, then touches of the sweet dark fruit again (raisins) and the slowly emerging wood smoke. A deft touch of lemon zest on the back palate

Finish: Dry, lingering notes of sherry and smoke. Wonderful length

Overall: A superb bottling and a real treat to try something different from Ardbeg. Also full marks for the distillery on doing a release that is accessible for many festival goers.

As you can see from this picture of the liquid in the glass, this is seriously thick and seriously flavoursome stuff...

Islay Day 5 - Inspector Gorse

After Monday’s monumental Port Ellen tasting, our palates felt a little fragile and the only remedy was a long walk, to drink in Islay’s other great treat to the senses – its scenery.

We’d signed up to take the 2km walk to Ardbeg’s mighty Airigh Nam Beist (fed by the distillery’s main loch Uigeadail), to savour the surroundings and a few drams on the way. The weather seemed to be calm on our approach to the loch, but as we experienced yesterday, this is Islay- only an idiot would walk around in the countryside without a decent jacket. Thank the lord for North Face. Ok, their fabric is about as natural as a can of Coca Cola but when you have sideways hail hitting you in the face, the hoods are pretty decent.

A little dash of Ardbeg 10yo on the way helped keep out any cold and pretty soon, we’d reached the loch, a brooding black stretch of water, which was spewing out spray whenever the wind hit it. We slipped an empty bottle into the depths and pulled out a sample to try with the whiskes and to take away for our liqueur project (more of which later on.) I’m sure that the scientists among our readers may argue otherwise, but there is something inherently better enjoying a dram in the elements, with a dash of the source water to cut it - and both the Ardbeg 10yo and the liberal slug of the 1990 Airigh Nam Beist we got for the journey back were absolutely sensational.

Our guides Kristy & Neil told us about the chilling story of the nearby Kildalton Castle, purportedly the most haunted building on Islay. The tale goes that John Talbot Clifton, who owned the Castle had planned his final burial place 2 thirds of the way up nearby Knoc Hill, at a point where he would forever be able to see into his wife’ bedroom window. Many years after his death, some telegraph poles were put in, running down the hill, with one directly in front of his grave and on three separate occasions that very pole was felled during storms. It was decided that it might be better to move it away from the grave and the problems remarkably stopped… Spooky.

From one legendary spirit to another and we head down to Laphroaig for their open day. The distillery has continued the tradition of their Cairdeas bottlings with the 3rd instalment, The Ileach Edition. We enjoyed a quick dram in the tasting room

Laphroaig – Feis Ile 2011 bottling – Ileach Edition – 50.5% - 8 years old - 10,000 bottles (or thereabouts!)

Nose: Wet earth, sweet barley sugar, light but bright medicinal notes, lint bandages and a touch of mint.

Palate: More sweet grain tones, pineapple chunks and a light, zesty note, backed with a wash of medicinal peat. With water, sweetcorn, hot buttered popcorn and a touch of plum.

Finish: Light, but lengthy, with the medicinal peat lingering and sweet cereal notes.

Overall: Not a million miles from last year’s release, perhaps less medicinal than the 10yo, and more in-keeping with the Quarter Cask, without the spirity notes. A decent all-rounder.

By now we were famished, so headed back to our home from home in Gruinart for a slice of our host Joanne’s famous Black Pudding Quiche. But on the way we decided to stop to pick some gorse flowers, for a rather moorish liqueur. Later in the week we’ll be bringing you a little video on how to make this fabulously sweet, zesty recipe, using an Islay whisky as its base.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

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

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

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

However, never underestimate Islay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finish: Sweet, with short zesty highlights.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where else, but at the very start!!

Port Ellen 1st Release – 56.2%

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

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

Superb in every way. What a start.

Port Ellen 2nd Release – 59.35%

N: Clean Linen, oak chips, sweet vanilla.

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

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

Port Ellen 3rd Release – 57.3%

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

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

With increased age, the complexity is remarkable. Stunning.

Port Ellen 4th Release – 56.2%

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

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

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

Port Ellen 5th Release – 57.4%

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

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

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

Port Ellen 6th Release – 54.2%

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

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

Perhaps the most maritime PE so far.

Port Ellen 7th Release – 53.8%

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

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

The weakest release in our opinion.

Port Ellen -8th Release – 55.3%

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

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

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

Port Ellen – 9th Release: 57.7%

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

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

Fabulous nose with wonderful complexity.

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

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

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

Very stately, a highly fitting send-off…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 22 May 2011

Road To Islay Day 3: Spent Wees

What a difference a day makes when you’re visiting Islay. From the meteorological nightmare of Saturday, Sunday sees a return to bright sunshine for Bruichladdich’s open day. Surely Jim McEwan must have done a deal with someone to ensure almost perfect conditions for the past 10 years now… perhaps their Black Arts bottlings hint at a slightly darker side to the distillery??

Whatever the case, 12pm arrives and a queue of eager festival goers wait patiently for the gates to swing open and the courtyard is bathed in bright sunshine and the smell of drams weighing heavily in the air.

This year’s festival bottling is different to the previous few. Although there is a regular Valinch in the shop, Bruichladdich have decided to celebrate the launch of the Feis and their new website with 2, 70cl bottlings – a 1998, distilled by Whyte & Mackay in a 2 weeks when the distillery was mothballed and 3 years before the new owners got the keys. The second bottling is a 2001 made using some of the first distillate made by the new owners, released to mark 10 years since the reopening. There are 2000 bottles of each release priced at £50 each. Let’s put the 2 whiskies head to head:

Bruichladdich Reborn – 1998 - 46%

Nose: Light cream soda notes, vanilla ice cream, lemonade and a faint waft of peat. Apparently it is mixture of lightly peated spirit and some with a higher 25ppm.

Palate: Sweet maltiness, leading into a buttery cream toffee note and spicy sugar coated licorice.

Finish: The peat lingers on the palate, but there is a distinct ‘vintage feel’ to this whisky- different to other Bruichladdichs we’ve tried.

Bruichladdich Reborn – 2001 – 46%

Nose: Boiled sweets, candyfloss, a hint of nuttiness and a slightly more pronounced ‘box fresh’ peat- i.e. a bit brighter and direct.

Palate: Sweet sugary tea, creamy cereal and slightly sooty, oaky peat, which coats the tongue

Finish: lingering peat, with a further drying oak note resonating.

Overall: Given time in the glass, both whiskies develop and really open up. If you love sweeter, buttery candy notes, you’ll be delighted by these, but in our opinion, the older vintage probably just tips the scales as our pick of the 2. It’s that bit more developed and pleasing on the palate.

After this mini tete-a-tete, it was time for a bite to eat in the cavernous cooperage, which today doubles as a marketplace- full of local crafts, cakes and...whisky tablet- a weakness of ours and something that no Islay fan can leave without. We also had a little flutter on how many grains of barley were stored in a 70cl bottle - the prize being a bottle of Laphroaig 10yo. Using science (well, actually a pretty random guesstimate) we thought about 2,150. If anyone has a more scientific idea, get in touch!!

As many of you know, Bruichladdich recently installed a new Lomond still, affectionately known as ‘Ugly Betty’, which has been used to produce their Botanist gin- bumper packed with botanicals, some of which are grown on Islay.

This year the open day team have hired the services of 2 mixologists to play around with both the gin and some of their more cocktail friendly whiskies. The lovely Carmen Operetta from NY developed a fabulous fruity punch, which slipped down a treat and offered a welcome break from the usual peat-covered palate that one usually leaves Bruichladdich with. Check out some of Carmen’s other creations here:

Up at the Vatican (one of Bruichladdich’s several warehouses) Jim McEwan invited 3 singers to accompany his brilliant and -in places, irreverent masterclass, but Caskstrength were booked in for an equally fun tasting hosted by the girls from Bruichladdich’s mainland sales team…Beware Jim – you have some serious competition!

The tag team approach between Natalie and Joanne was a highly refreshing approach to the bog standard tasting format and so was their choice of whiskies- at least 3 exclusive drams, yet to be released. Joanne gave a great insight into the history of the Port Charlotte releases and how they were based on the Lochindaal distillery (including a great insight into Islay funerals, which you can see in our video.)

Here’s our thoughts on the highlights:

Bruichladdich Black Arts – 3rd Batch – 22yo – 50.7%

Nose: Unmistakable cask influence here (Jim is still tight lipped about the exact cask type, but we reckon either port, Madeira or a mix of both) Rose wine, strawberry jam and candy strawberry sweet, with hints of dried red apple and spices. But the wood has given this a definite over-oaked note.

Palate: Flat cola, cinnamon, more strawberries and jelly fruit sweets.

Finish: The palate is dominated by oak notes, with a hint of the fruit getting a glimpse at the very end.

Overall: Not the best example of heavily wine influenced whiskies, if we’re honest. The cask has really dominated the spirit here and it was our least favourite dram from the tasting. Still if you’re into big bold oak influence, this might just be your thing…

Port Charlotte – PC9 – 9yo - 40ppm – 65.3% (although it will be reduced at bottling)- 6000 bottles, to be released later this year.

Nose: Lovely delicate vanilla, swathes of soft peat, vanilla cheesecake and copper notes. With water, a slightly earthier note comes through with wet sand, freshly turned earth and a hint of some floral lavender.

Palate: Sweet candy, more of the vanilla cheesecake, rich butter, Werther’s Original candy and a salty, earthy but gentle peat, slowly coating the tongue.

Finish: The peat and earth notes give this a very lengthy finish.

Overall: In keeping with the previous PC releases, this one will be a cracker when it is eventually bottled and released. Keep your eyes peeled for an official release date.

Octomore – Special Feis Ile masterclass sample – 159ppm – 2005 (6yo) Unreleased – 63.9%

(Alas, this is presently unscheduled for an official release, but if there is a god, it will see the inside of a bottle at some point soon…)

Nose: Lemon zest, forest floor notes (musty moss) slightly minty, with fresh apricot, carbolic soap and (obviously) masses of very pronounced peat.

Palate: Initially very creamy, with meringues, whipped cream, followed by vanilla ice cream, a blast of sweet peat and a liberal tongue coating of sea salt. It’s PC, exactly as you’d hope it would be. Superb.

Finish: You’ll be tasting this for days.

Overall: The best dram of the day, by some way. Please release it.

Tonight we're off to try a curry, Islay style and no doubt a few more drams. Tomorrow is Caol Ila day, but also 70MPH winds which, if the whisky doesn't, is sure to blow us off our feet...