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Thursday 29 March 2012

From American Dream to American Dram: Tuthilltown Distillery and Hudson Whiskey

Over the next three days we are going to be taking a look at a few craft distilleries; one in the UK and two in the US.

The distillery we're starting with is the first to have received a licence to distil in New York State since prohibition in 1933. Set up by former professional rock climber Ralph Erenzo and his business partner Brian Lee, the story of the birth of Tuthilltown distillery is both heart-warming and entertaining. But the real praise should come for their unique approach to creating some fantastically unique spirits.

The story starts after founder and partner Ralph Erenzo purchased a farm in the idyllic Hudson Valley, around 100 miles north of Manhattan, with the express purposes of turning it into a retreat for climbers.

The local community, most of whom are displaced city dwellers having worked hard to purchase their small slice of heaven, were none too pleased about the thought of having these hippy-types come and sully their American dream.

Knockback after knockback hit Erenzo's project until one day he snapped. Calling in a local expert on property law, he asked what could be done with his down-at-heel farm which didn't require planning permission. The answer: a winery.

Due to a loophole in New York State law, opening a vineyard was considered 'farm use' and therefore did not require a change of use nor planning permission. However, Erenzo was not keen on opening a vineyard (NY wines don't have a great rep, apparently) it was fast realised that under the same law fell distilling and thus the Tuthilltown distillery was born!

Of course, I make the whole process sound a hell of a lot simpler than it was. There was a clear divide between Erenzo and his neighbours, to the extent that in a local meeting regarding the development of the distillery, one native called him a 'moving target'... so you get the idea as to the level of opposition in this part of New York State, whatever the proposed project! (FYI, at the time of applying, the licence to distil in new York State costs $1250 for 3 years. Cheaper than a membership at most gyms...)

And so the story started. But you can't just stop there. Getting in capital, finding the right premises, getting some stills made is all very well... but at some stage you have to make some liquid, some hooch, some... gulp... whiskey, which is exactly what the small two-man team did... with gusto!

The two chaps, Ralph and Brian had no experience of how to run a distillery, let alone make whiskey. "If a man in a field with a kindergarten education and no teeth can do it, how hard can it be?", Erenzo apparently commented to his business partner at the time.

Fair point.

Erenzo caveats this by saying that making a lot of whiskey in a huge distillery is hard, but that was not what they set out to do. In fact, he goes as far as to suggest not taking advice from experts. Why? Because they're too used to dealing with things on a large scale that they find it difficult to work at such a small scale and advise appropriately. An interesting thought indeed.

The creativity of the team at Tuthilltown can be seen not only in their range of products (super premium vodka made from local apples, single batch unaged corn whiskey, single malt whiskey) but in the way they are made and matured.

Not bound by Scotch Whisky Association regulations (for obvious reasons), they can play and have some fun, producing high quality spirits at the end of it all. One of the tricks, for extra-fast maturation is the use of small barrels (ranging from 3 - 20 gallons in size). Nothing new there, I hear you cry! However, to increase the surface-area-to-liquid ratio, the cooperage where their casks are made (in which Tuthilltown distillery now own a share) have small dimples drilled in to the staves. This, along with their small half-bottles (375ml) which meant their bottles were placed in front of others on a back-bar or on photoshoots, means I'm starting to think this lot are pretty bloody clever.

Another piece of fantastic innovation is what the distillery is calling 'Sonic Maturation' (or as someone at our tasting referred to it, 'Rapturation'). Not having enough work force to turn the barrels in the warehouse (a traditional practice for added flavour / maturation), some bright spark realised that playing loud music, in this case bass heavy rap, in to the building loudly would shake the juice in a barrels, Jurassic Park-style, thus helping the liquid to mature quicker.

Already I like this lot!

But the music reference doesn't stop there. Finding a foothold in the liquor market in New York was hard work, but achievable. Taking on the whole of the States? Almost impossible for a distillery of this size. So how does one make a name in the sprits world? Well, learning from the likes of Jimmy Hendrix, The White Stripes and The Kings of Leon, you head over to where people have real taste... Britain (well, in this case Europe!). Building a following in Europe is easier than the states and taking the 'success abroad' story back home creates some much needed PR and awareness, eventually converting to sales.

The growth of distillery now means they have 3 stills (running 100, 200 and 540 litres) and a shop onsite which last year generated over $500,000 in revenue. The staff have grown from 2 to 20 in 4 years and not a single one of them is trained to work in a distillery. Sounds a lot like the early 1800's in Scotland, to me! (Except the distillery shop bit, of course)

This remarkable story is best told in this short video:

But it would mean nothing without a liquid in the bottle to stand up to the recently written legend. Stories are great, but if the ending is weak the narrative means nothing. Having tried a selection of the range, including the 4-Grain made with corn, rye, wheat and barley and the unaged New York corn whiskey, I can wholeheartedly say that the products do indeed provide the perfect happy ending to the set-up of the story. But let's not stop there, let's have a real dig down in to two of their releases:

Hudson - Single Malt Whiskey - 46% abv

(matured in new American oak)

Nose: The nose gives suede and leather jackets hanging side-by-side in an old wardrobe, mixed with some honey and dark sugar at boiling point.

Palate: Rich and full of bitter orange, cinnamon and low coco dark chocolate and a lighter citrus note to underpin, followed by some sweet vanilla.

Finish: The finish is cedar wood and oak with a hint of suede again.

Overall: Is it a Scotch? Is it a bourbon? Somewhere between the two, without the rich black cherry notes of a bourbon and a lighter chocolate tone. This is more Japanese than American, so gets a firm thumbs up here.

Hudson - Manhattan Rye Whiskey - 46% abv

Nose: The classic rye tones in the nose, but with a sweeter, icing sugar touch.

Palate: This is like the smell of our local timber merchants translated on to the palate, with a hearty slice of wholemeal bread and a thick layer of salted butter. Strangely homely!

Finish: Real ale, baked potateo skins and a hint of mint.

Overall: Thoroughly enjoyable on its own, I'd love to try this in a few of the more robust whiskey cocktails.

Monday 19 March 2012

Whisky Live Competition! Drink with Pilots Ridley & Harrison

Well then- here we go. Another competition on Caskstrength. This time it ties in with our fun masterclass, which is happening at Whisky Live London. As mentioned in our last post, we'll be running a tasting covering a wonderful 'flight' of whiskies that you can only sample at Duty Free - so the only way to taste 'em is to hop on a plane (bad) or come and see us (excellent choice!)

So far, the line up of drams we have for you is exceptional, with new Travel Retail releases from Laphroaig, Auchentoshan and The Glenlivet and Bowmore sitting next to some amazing duty free drams from Highland Park, The Macallan and Jameson. And if that's not enough, there's also a surprise whisky, which will be announced at the end of the tasting...

We've got a pair of tickets to give away for Friday's Whisky Live London which also includes entry to our masterclass.

Getting your hands on them couldn't be simpler. Just email us at the following email address

with the following phrase as the title of the mail:
'Come Dram With Me'

Please include your age, name and location. For logistical reasons, please only enter if you can actually attend Whisky Live London -this Friday 23rd March
from 5pm until 10pm. Oh...and over 18's please. Kinda figures, right?

We'll let the winner know on Thursday midday!

If you don't win, you could always just come along anyway - tickets for Whisky Live London are still available from

Good luck!

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Come Fly With Us!!

'This is Captain Ridley speaking. We're currently cruising around 40,000 ft on Flight W.H.1.5.K.Y and there's no sign of any turbulence whatsoever. So sit back relax and enjoy the compliments of our fully stocked whisky bar- there's a few fabulous flights of cracking drams to choose from...'

No we haven't gone barking mad due to decompression sickness or over indulging on salty in-flight snacks, we simply wanted to invite you to a rather fun masterclass tasting we're hosting at this year's Whisky Live London on Friday 23rd March.

Both Joel and I will be your whisky pilots, taking the assembled Club Class ticket holders through SIX exceptional drams, that are only available as Travel Retail Exclusives. The 'Flight' features some sought after bottlings of old, as well as a host of brand new releases, which have only just been launched in airports across the globe, so promises to be a very smooth journey indeed!

Something from the trolley?

Not only will you be receiving a special commemorative whisky tasting passport on check in, but we've taken the liberty of hiring a highly attentive, glamourous air stewardess to serve your drams throughout the flight. There will also be a few surprises in store and perhaps even a little 'in flight entertainment'.

There are just twenty places available for the tasting which will be leaving promptly at 8.15pm on Friday 23rd March so consider it like travelling via a whisky fuelled private jet! Tickets are just £15 each for the tasting, so for booking or further information, visit
Whisky Live - The Honourable Artillery Company, Armoury House, City Road, London, EC1Y 2BQ

We'll be doing a little competition to win other Whisky Live goodies later this week, so stay tuned... and until then - have a safe flight, with Caskstrength Airways....

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Team Sheet: The New Glenfiddich Whisky Collection

The moment Fabio Cappello was sacked as England manager the country took a sharp intake of breath. All across the land, work colleagues were leaning over booths, engaging their co-workers in conversation. Barmen in pubs from Norwich to Newcastle were hosting the same conversations in their hostelries. And taxi drivers in London, Birmingham and Manchester were no longer asked: “What time are you on ‘til, mate?”, in favour of the one question fuelling all these discussions.

Who will take over as England manager?

This question is still being discussed, at great length on some 24 hour news channels, grateful for the content in these times of mass media. But to whom did The FA turn so close to a major tournament? Well, in the interim at least, a chap called Stuart Pearce was put in charge. Nicknamed ‘Psycho’ from his ‘take-no-prisoners’ playing style, Pearce has been promoted from his role as manager of the England Under 21’s team (as well as being at the helm of Team GB’s attempt to win a gold at the London 2012 Olympics) to take full charge of the England First XI.

Moving a manager up from what is effectively the England youth team in to the first team shows the same journey that a lot of the players have been on, rising up through the ranks to break in to the main squad. This coming summer will see an international breakthrough for players such as Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck and Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge, both of whom have graduated from the U-21’s to play with the ‘big boys’ on the world stage. If you want to see who will probably be playing for England tomorrow, go and watch the Under 21’s today.

It seems that increasingly, a similar testing ground for quality and acceptability is being applied to whisky, via the world of Travel Retail (nee, Duty Free). Take Johnnie Walker Double Black, for instance. Initially only available in Bangkok, Dubai, Beirut, New York JFK, Singapore and Sydney airports, such was the reception of this new product that the distribution was widened and you can now pick up a bottle in your local Sainsbury's.

I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I know a lot of whiskies are and will remain Travel Retail exclusives; a good thing in my book. If you’re gonna risk life and limb getting on a giant metal bird (there is a reason why, when you arrive at an airport, the first word you see is TERMINAL...) then you deserve to be able to buy something unique, something special, something no one else has. I also don’t want to feel like my purchase was ‘market research’ which I’ve had the privilege to pay for. However, on the flip side I like Johnnie Walker Double Black; it’s a bloody good blend and I don’t want to have to fly in and out of Beirut airport to buy a bottle, thank you very much. Sainsbury’s Nine Elms is a hell of a lot closer to where I live.

All of this brings me to a new set of releases from Glenfiddich; two new introductions to their first team and one wearing a brand new, shiny kit.

The first is a graduate from the ‘youth team’ that is Travel Retail, with the launch of the Glenfiddich 19 Year Old Age Of Discovery Madeira Cask Finish in to the UK. Previously only available in Travel Retail, we reviewed this whisky here and after trying it again, we weren’t so enamoured with it, finding it a little thin in both body and flavour. It almost reminded me of an alcoholic version of the orange squash from Sunday School, but if they’d have served this instead, then I wouldn’t have minded going each week...

Moving on to the next member of their squad, the newly packaged 21 Year Old: now we’re talking. This is a whisky and it has been given the packaging overhaul it deserved. Housed in what can only be described as a beauty of a bottle, the additional ‘sub-branding’ of Gran Reserva has been added to the moniker. You also get a bigger box, a booklet and something described as ‘an intricately designed filigree pattern’ on the label. Erm, okay.

The liquid itself is matured in American oak casks and then additionally matured for four months in Caribbean rum casks.

Glenfiddich – 21 Years Old – 40% abv - £99 rrp but cheaper here and here

Nose: Baked apple and cinnamon, toffee and tablet, black bananas and baked pear all come through on the nose, with a lovely rich sweetness underpinning the aromas. Some leather tones, but new leather, not vintage.

Palate: Banana dipped in dark chocolate fondue, some wood tones of dry oak, liquorice (salted?) all come together to give a bold palate full of tasty flavours. Well balanced and rich.

Finish: Spice and cinnamon on the death with a sweet, vanilla ending.

Overall: A really excellent whisky. I’m a huge fan of the rich oak 14 and their excellent 18 Years Old offering, but this really does turn up the flavours up a notch and shows such a great lineage across their sub-£100 range.

To finish off the additions to their new squad is a late comer to the game; the Ian Wright (or Matty Elliott for Oxford fans...). Not making its way up through the youth team ranks, but landing with a bump and a hefty transfer fee is the 1974 Vintage.

This is Glenfiddich’s first ever Vatted Vintage Reserve and was constructed, much like the excellent Snow Phoenix, by combining whiskies of different strengths, ages and finishes (although all from 1974, one would wager). A panel of their Global Brand Ambassadors, headed up by the talented Malt Master Brian Kinsman, were give vintages from 1973, 1974 and 1975 to choose from. After much debate this whisky, the 1974, was chosen and bottled. Only 1,000 bottles have been made with just 50 being released in the UK at a fantastic price of £499. If you can find it!

Glenfiddich – 1974 Vintage – Released 2011 – 1000 bottles only - 46.8% abv - £499

Nose: Blackcurrant leaf, toasted brown bread with butter develops into cinnamon toast topped with vanilla sugar. Some of the pear notes from the 21 come through providing a balance to the spicy cinnamon tones. Very well balanced and well constructed nose.

Palate: A huge hit of sweet tea and blackcurrant lozenges is underpinned with a note of freshly baked sourdough bread and a freshly opened packet of dried mixed fruits. The addition of water softens the palate in more of a fruit cake direction, but the vanilla is still present enough to give this an extra dimension.

Finish: Long and spicy with some drying tones of wood.

Overall: A very well put together whisky at what is these days, a good price for a rare bottling. Great job all round.

So there we have it. Two new additions to the Glenfiddich First Team and a new kit for one player. Sadly for me, at the age of 32, I think my international football career may be over. I’m off to email Stuart Pearce my retirement notice, before he tells me the sad news that I’ve not been selected for Euro 2012 anyway...

Thursday 8 March 2012

All The Way To The Finishing Line

What an incredible few months it's been. Unbelievably we now hit March and the rumbling of the jungle drums has begun in earnest, with the whisky business releasing a salvo of new releases upon us or urging us to revisit some classics of old.

Last month perfectly highlighted this premise, when I attended a superb whisky event in Helsinki. Uisge, now in its 2nd year was a rip roaring success and the organisers estimated that over two days, around 1,5oo people attended the event, held at the heart of the city. What is surprising is that despite the good will of the organisers, the brands attending- and of course the attendees, it is virtually impossible to do anything remotely exciting with whisky- and indeed- other spirits, due to the draconian rules imposed by the Finnish government and their state monopoly Alko, who control the sale of high strength alcohol. Uisge was a huge success, without any promotion, advertising or even an official website! Hell, the only thing you could find about the event was an 'unofficial' Facebook page and lots of chatter about it via Finnish whisky groups and societies.

Anyway, this isn't a piece on the state of Finnish drinking culture. What I wanted to highlight is that Finland, alongside its Scandinavian cousins is now a real serious hotbed of whisky knowledge and passion.

As part of my talk on cask finishes- the organiser presented me with a mystery whisky to discuss with the assembled group. It transpired that it was a cask strength Laphroaig, which have been re-casked into a smaller five litre vessel, which had previously been seasoned with Oloroso sherry for several weeks.

A debate ensued as to how long the whisky needed to develop extra complexity and depth- not that long is transpired - with a rich treacle like overcoat giving the powerful laphroaig an amazing additional personality. I was also fortunate enough to take home several samples of similar finishing experiments undertaken by one of Finland's keen collectors and whisky aficionados, Mika Hanka - including a wonderfully rich take on Ardbeg's Renaissance. Many thanks Mika!

Anyway, all this got me thinking about the nature of cask finishing. Some people hate it, some people, it seems, can't get enough of it. I think the problem largely lies in the fact that the majority of cask finishes of old were done to hide the undesirable characteristics of the base whisky, masking it in whatever sticky/tannic/fruity cloak available.

One series of cask finishes that changed the benchmark with their ability to highlight the synergy between a distillery's individual characteristics and the additional maturation in decent, complimentary casks was the Diageo Distillers Edition range. As we discussed last week, during the lagavulin tasting post, the Distillers Edition bottling Laga, highlighted that sherry and peat can happy play in the same sandpit, even growing up as childhood sweethearts. It still stands as one of my all time favourite Lagavulins, especially that each batch seems to differ slightly, but never disappoints.

Whilst in Helsinki, I had the opportunity to try the Talisker Distillers Edition and was shocked by how much the hot,peppery, salty peat consumed so well with the Amoroso casks used for the additional maturation, so all this got me thinking, wouldn't it be nice to demo a few of the others in the range, that you don't get to see every day?

So here is the first tranche of three, including the Oban, Clynelish and Caol Ila.

Oban - Distillers Edition - Distilled in 1995 - bottled in 2010 - Double matured in Montilla Fino sherry oak - 43%

Nose: An initial note of cloudy apple juice kicks off the proceedings, followed by white grape fruitiness, some elderflower notes, floral/zesty candle wax and a slightly salty/briny note. Balanced and extremely inviting.

Palate: A big malty coating, followed by some orchard fruit sweetness, some hints of liquorice and then a wash of sea salt. It's big chewy and dominating.

Finish: Liquorice notes, a hint of anise and the sea salt all linger, as the palate dries out.

Overall: A proper mouthful of whisky. It is smooth, well balanced but bold and compelling. The fruit is harmonious the the character of the original whisky. What a great start.

Next up: Clynelish, in all its waxy glory...

Clynelish - Distillers Edition - Distilled in 1993 - bottled in 2010 - Double matured in Oloroso Seco oak - 46%

Nose: Well, first things first - there's the wax. Big bold and beautiful floral candle wax, but this time, there is a distinctly sweet fruit note to contend with too. Almost fresh gooseberries, a bowl of over ripe strawberries and some malted breakfast cereal. Perhaps even a whiff of powder paint too.

Palate: Strawberries and fresh cream, all the way. A distinct malt note also develops, perhaps like rye bread but it balances the sweet fruit out nicely.

Finish: Lingering fruit, with a return of the classic Clynelish wax right at the end.

Overall: Another cracking example of putting the right whisky with the right cask. Lovely stuff.

Finally for this instalment - Caol Ila.

Caol Ila - Distillers Edition - Distilled in 1997 - Bottled in 2010 - Double matured in Moscatel oak - 43%

Nose: A very sweet, almost sickly smoke note, which has undertones of barbecued bananas, icing sugar and dessert wine. Surprisingly integrated, with the medicinal notes balancing well with the sweet fruit.

Palate: Very clean, with more sweet peat on the palate, but developing sugary notes, some ripe banana again and a little drizzle of lemon juice.

Finish: Lingering notes of the sweet medicinal peat, but a resurgence of some of the sweeter wine characteristics.

Overall: Perhaps the least 'immediate' from this batch of Distillers Eds, but nonetheless, inviting and drinkable. I think in terms of the peat monsters, Lagavulin certainly has the edge from this series.

We'll be introducing several of the other bottlings in the range in part two, but until then, let us know your thoughts on cask finishing - have you experimented at home? Tried a finish that was out of this world?? We want to hear from you....

Friday 2 March 2012

Lagavulin : Whisky With Friends

Recently I had to send a bottle of whisky to the Bishop of London. In with the delivery, I wrote a small note on how the Cleric might wish to interact with this particular spirit. My advice was thus:

“There are four ways to drink your whisky and only one of them is correct:

1. Neat. As nature intended.

2. With a tiny teaspoon of water. This lowers the ABV and releases some of the flavours

3. With a block of ice.

4. With friends.

You may choose to drink this whisky any one of the ways listed in 1, 2 and 3. That is entirely up to you. I’m giving you total freedom and permission to drink this how you like, within those boundaries. However, number 4 is a must.

Whisky is a convivial drink. It is a conversation. It gives and you should give back to it. The best way to have an experience with whisky is to share it with other people, especially a whisky as good as this.”

This is true for all drams. Some may taste better with water, others neat. But all, without exception, taste better when shared with friends. And so it was that last week, I took a detour home from a trip to Orkney to spend some time in Glasgow and then Islay sipping whisky with friends.

However, the bulk of my friends, my life and my community are all much further south, down in London and on Monday morning I found myself driving past Lagavulin distillery at 5am, to make an appointment to be in London to meet with some friends (and make some new ones, too) for a tasting of... yes, you’ve guessed it: Lagavulin.

The good people at The Whisky Exchange had invited Diageo’s Scotch Whisky Ambassador Colin Dunn along to walk an audience of around 60 people through some of the distilleries regular releases as well as a some recent expression now very much on the ‘endangered whiskies list’. As if this wasn’t enough, TWE proprietor and heavy-weight of the whisky world Sukhinder Singh supplied two bottles of rare Lagavulin for the evening, bottles very much classed as ‘extinct’ within the whisky world. Well worth a 5am start, me thinks...

Having spent a few days leading up to this tasting at the home of peated whisky, it was always going to be a challenge to get enthusiastic about dropping my suitcase off and hopping on the 155 bus up to London Bridge, swapping the beauty of rural Scotland for the, erm, ‘personality’ of Elephant & Castle roundabout; the fresh air for the fresh attitudes; isolation for industry. Arriving weary and tired, it wasn’t long before the company and the liquid on offer provided me with a much needed energy boost...

The line up for the evening was simply jaw-dropping. Before we got going, a small sample of new make spirit greeted us; strong, peated and warming, this was the opening chip in what was to be a long and successful stay at the table; a night where everyone left a winner.

Aside from a dash of white spirit, the opening dram of the evening was the expression that people will be most familiar with when it comes to Lagavulin, the 16 Years Old. We’ve said it here before, but this, along with the Balvenie Double Wood, is one of the greatest standard whiskies available for under £45 (it’s a shame that this is now a touch over £40) and often features highly in our recommendations for new recruits to the whisky category.

Colin had invited a mixologist along who took full advantage of Lagavulin 16’s rich and smoky flavour to create a fantastic cocktail called ‘Smoke on the Water No.2’ using Lagavulin 16, Grand Marnier, Byrrh Gran Quinquina and Mozart Dark Chocolate Bitters, all topped off with some dry ice infused with a blend of smoky teas. Very tasty indeed!

Next up in the tasting was the Lagavulin Distillers Edition from 1995. Additionally matured in Pedro Ximinez Sherry casks, this additional ‘education’ creates a sweeter yet more robust spirit from the 16 Years Old and one we could talk about for a while. Colin Dunn wanted to show the attendees what flavours good, old Sherry can offer younger whisky and he produced, from his own personal stock, a bottle of PX Sherry from 1927. Astonishing. Next week we have a feature exclusively on the Distillers Editions coming, so you’ll have to wait until then for extensive tasting notes on this expression! Don’t worry... it’ll be worth the wait!

Whisky no. 3 came in the form of 12 Year Old, hot from the current crop of Diageo’s annual Special Releases (2011), notes on which you can read here. And this is kind of where the tasting really took off, as it was the first of four different (and I mean different) 12 Year Old expressions which underpinned the essence of why this flight of whiskies was such a great experience.

The two ultra rare bottles which TWE had supplied for the tasting were both 12 Year Olds, both from the 1980’s and both the classic ‘white label’ editions, but each with a slightly different lineage; one from the UK and one from Italy. These are two bottles that Neil and I have always wanted to try, so it was a real treat to get to try one, let alone two, of these very sought-after early releases.

Lagavulin - 12yo - 1980's White Label - 43% abv (Italian bottling):

Nose: Rubbery peat smoke, something very oily and stewed tea. Dig a little deeper and you'll find notes of cream soda and vanilla ice cream.

Palate: Ginger snap biscuits, seaweed! Slightly aged peat, but there's a huge hole in the middle of this palate with a slight element of grainy weakness to it. Very iodine'y and medicinal around the edge, but nothing in the middle.

Finish: Masses of medicinal flavours, some mint and thyme.

Overall: Disappointing. Lacks any real complexity or direction.

Lagavulin - 12yo - 1980's White Label (White Horse Bottling) - 43% abv

Nose: Lemon Sif cleaning fluid, light peat notes lovely vanilla ice cream and icing sugar. The closest nose to the recent releases of Port Ellen we’ve had, aside from the Port Ellens themselves!

Palate: Unmistakably Lagavulin on the palate with soft peaty tones, farmyard elements, sooty and salty, with some slight tropical fruit notes and green apple skins.

Finish: Light and refreshing, with a deft hint of peat on the death.

Overall: A vast improvement over the Italian bottling. This is Laga like we like it - bold, but beautiful...

These two bottlings could not have been more different and highlight the inconsistency of single malt whisky in early incarnations of now more standard bottlings. Delicate yet so very Lagavulin, the second of these ‘white label’ editions was so beautiful, so light and easy to drink, that I can see why it fetches the sort of sums it does at auction.

To see us home were two more recent official releases; firstly the 12 Year Old Friends Of The Classic Malts edition, released in 2008 which we first reviewed at the start of 2010 and loved back then. Little has changed from our original assessment and this bottle really showed how amazingly well this release stands up in the range of current editions and previous releases.

The finishing touch was a dram of the now legendary Lagavulin 21 Year Old. This bottling has gained cult status (reflected in the price) after Serge Valentine’s review on his brilliant website listed it with a huge score of 95 points and the honour of being his favourite expression so far; quite an honour when you look at how many bottles this living legend has sampled.

Lagavulin - 21yo – 1985/2007 6642 bottles - 56.5%

Nose: Farm yard notes- like Brora, but with a bigger sherry influence. Hugely woody too, as the whisky develops in the glass. Some chamois leather notes start to emerge, alongside rabbit hutch hay, natural yoghurt, buttery mashed potato and dusty books.

Palate: Sweet, but then almost instantly, very woody and dry. Some honeycomb notes, a touch of mint and dark honey. But mostly dryness.

Finish: Dry and bitter, with some quite meaty overtones lingering as the palate dries.

Overall: To be honest, this is the 2nd time we've tried this and it didn't blow us away. In our opinion, it is too woody and lacking the finesse of the younger 12yo's, which sail past this for complexity and character and of course the mighty 16yo.

The night showed off an awesome selection of drams new and old from one of Scotland’s greatest distilleries. Our favourite expression was the Friends of The Classic Malts 12 Year Old which just goes to show, that no matter how you like to drink your hooch, whisky always tastes better with friends.