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Thursday 31 May 2012

Islay Odyssey - Day Three: "Was There 2-4-1 On Wacky Glasses At The Shop?"

After the excess delivered to us in the form of the Ultimate Islay tour yesterday, Wednesday proved to be a much gentler affair. Helped by the fact clouds had come rolling in from the Atlantic to return Islay from a sun-drenched paradise back to a state we were much more familiar with, thankfully it was a slow and relaxed start to the day.

Having penned yesterday’s exploits, we jumped in the Caskstrength wagon to head for Bowmore, who host their open day each Wednesday during Feis Ile for our second booked-in event of the festival and one that did not involve just whisky...

Arriving in the Island’s capital to the sound of bagpipes wafting through the air, we were soon to be sitting down awaiting the start of our first tasting of the day (if you ignore the cheeky dram of Port Ellen 11th release before leaving the house), Bowmore Ale and Whisky Matching.

Hosted brilliantly by Jeremy Stephens and Mark O’Hara who both work in the blending labs of Morrison Bowmore, putting together such whiskies as Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and Bowmore itself, Jeremy Stephens is an ex-brewery worker, having cut his teeth for several years at Fullers in London before moving in to malt production, whisky production and finally into the blending lab. All this experience gives him the ideal skill-set to be able to lecture with poise and authority on both brewing, in a purer, real ale sense and the onward stage of distillation and maturation that gives us the product we so love today: whisky.

Starting with an overview of the processes behind making beer (pretty much the same except that anything that ends up as ‘beer’ tends to have hops added, anything that goes on to be whisky doesn’t) on to distillation and finally maturation.

Once the technical stuff was out the way (peppered with questions from the Caskstrength crew about bottle conditioned ales, brewing malts and keeping / storing real ale) it was in the juice itself.

The idea was simple; matching an ale with a whisky and looking at the flavour comparisons between the two. We’ve done various different ‘matching’ tastings before, but this was something entirely new to us. The big question is, would it work?

We kicked off with a beer that has been specially produced for Bowmore by the chaps down at Islay Ales. Much as with the rolls from yesterday’s picnic made using Lagavulin grist, Islay ales have used the grist from Bowmore to brew their beer and then matured it in an ex-bourbon barrel previously used to house Bowmore whisky. A very smoky affair, as you would expect, this ale weighed in a 7.7% abv and was, aside the peaty element and high alcohol content, a light ale.

Bowmore & Islay Ales – Bourbon Cask Ale – Feis Ile 2012 – 7.7% abv

Nose: Hoppy and malty with vanilla tones and a hint of smoke

Palate: Huge hit of malt and smoke with stewed prunes and chocolate over tones.

Finish: Smoke and Malt

Overall: Tasty, but you couldn’t drink a whole lot of it.

This ale was cleverly paired with a bourbon matured whisky, the Bowmore Tempest Batch 2. We’ve reviewed this before (in fact, the Tempest Batch 1 made our BiG award shortlist in 2010) and it has to be said it really is a fantastic whisky (notes of which can be found here) and this tasting highlighted that fact to us once again. As a pairing with the ale, it was excellent and worked very, very well.

Onwards to the next whisky and beer couple; the Maltman’s Selection and the Nerabus offering from Islay ales. The Maltman’s Selection is a whisky that has picked up a few awards recently, not least the Best Islay Single Malt Whisky in the World Whisky Awards 2012.

Bowmore - Maltman’s Selection - 54.6% - NAS

Nose: big rich notes of coffee, chocolate, cherries, burnt oranges and sherbet.

Palate: Huge. Sherry mixes with more cherries, chocolate ice cream, menthol,
Black Forest gateaux and orange, with perhaps a touch of sulphur on the back, but
only a whisker.

Finish: lingering notes of steeped cherries, chocolate and chocolate malt.

Overall: A big feisty sherry monster, but with more character than you would expect, other than the robust wine notes.  Cracking.

The ale which was chosen to accompany this was the Nerabus, a beer made using pale, dark crystal, caramalt, chocolate and wheat malts giving the ale a rich, dark colour and intense taste, much like a heavily sherried whisky, hence the pairing.

Nerabus - Islay Ales - 4.8% abv

Nose: very little with some wafts of burnt sugar.

Plate: Dark chocolate, truffles, pine nuts, the depth and intesity of flavour found in the richness of sherry or port underpinned with a marmite maltiness.

Finish: Meaty bovril tones.

Overall: Very drinkable for a ‘winter warmer’ ale.

Throughout the presentation we were supplied with different samples of hops and malts, all of which were used very well to highlight the major areas of production in the beers and the whiskies.


As you can see from this picture, there was a real similarity in colour between the ales and their whisky counterparts and the tasting overall was not only educational but fun and the pairings worked a treat. 


Afterwards, we made an unusual purchase at the local Spa shop (all will be ‘revealed’ later), where we bumped in to two of the gang from Master Of Malt who were both on the island for the first time, and headed back to Port Ellen for a catch up with the guys and gals at Ardbeg

Another cheeky dram of the Ardbeg Day washed down nicely, alongside a glass of Alligator and two bottles of this now hard to find whisky were purchased (Alligator is perhaps our favourite Ardbeg expression from the past few years) it was time to head home and prepare for the evenings entertainment...


With barely 30 mins to spruce ourselves up for a dinner held at Lagavulin’s Malt Mill. Old friends from Maltstock, Feis Ile and, of course, London town were there to share in some fantastic food and excellent drams. 

Along with cask samples and rare bottles, one whisky which has been appearing in Lagavulin tasting across the week and is something very special indeed to be released later this year, we were lucky enough to try:

Lagavulin - 21 Years Old - Preview Sample - 52%

Nose: Elegant, with some candied red apple, vanilla, some light summer fruits, then a waft of fragrant candle wax, marzipan and the classic Lagavulin carbolic soap note.  Balanced and very aromatic.

Palate: Sweet, with over-ripe apples, some drying oak notes, a touch of sweet vanilla sugar and some lemon zest, before the smoke kicks in - nothing too dominant, but inkeeping with the classic 16 year old.  

Finish: Lingering notes of red apple skin, dark chocolate, slightly bitter burnt caramel and medicinal peat.

Overall: Certainly THE bottle to look out for when it arrives later on this year, given the near mythical status of the previous 21 year old.  Keep ‘em peeled folks!

Tomorrow we head off to Jura and Kilchoman, so keep your eyes peeled for our post tomorrow!

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Islay Odyssey - Day Two: No Joel, This Isn't The Bar We're Looking For - It's The Job Centre

Well here we are well rested and safely ensconced on Islay. Despite the long drive up, there really is no other way to travel over to this glorious isle. Our previous Campbeltown adventure culminated in us already being weighed down with no less than TEN purchases so the car made a reassuring, yet slightly alarming clatter as we pulled away from the Port Askaig ferry terminal to the strains of our 'Now That's What I Call Islay' -  Volume 4. Fresh in our memory was the superb discovery of the Ardshiel Hotel in Campbeltown, home to a great newly refurbished whisky bar with around 1000 bottles of single malt.
Richard Paterson had recently been in to do a tasting and the owners were thrilled that the bar is gathering a real buzz about it.  We elected to have dinner there accompanied by a tasting flight of local drams selected by the bartender Neil MacKinnon.  And what a flight.  Starting with a highly surprising Glengyle Work In Progress 3 (aged around six years old and already packing a rich flavour and plenty of promise for the next few years) we then enjoyed a rich, syrupy and sweet Glen Scotia 12 year old (which paired well with a home made steak pie). To finish, a Springbank 10 year old rounded out what highlights a vibrant and very distinct region of whisky making, which if you haven't already, should be visited at your earliest convenience.

Pulling in to Port Askaig, we were very much now on a mission. With the new (when does it stop being ‘new’) CalMac ferry ‘Finlaggan’ in our rear-view mirror, the full force of the ‘Japanese Mercedes’ powered us down the road to our first port of call, Lagavulin Distillery.

Greeted by the always affable distillery manager Georgie Crawford, we were booked on to the grandly named ‘Ultimate Islay Tour’ which promised unique access to the three Daigeo-owned sites on the island: Lagavulin, the Port Ellen Maltings and Caol Ila Distillery-  All for the princely sum of £240. That might seem like a lot of money, and it is, but included in the price is transport around the island, a picnic lunch (more on that later), plenty of rare and hard-to-find whisky and both the now-sold-out (and already on eBay *sigh*) Lagavulin Feis Ile bottling and the sister Feis Ile release from Caol Ila, hosted by Classic Malts Ambassador Donald Colville.

The tour was designed to show previously off-limits areas around the facilities and our first treat was a trip up the stairs to the long since abandoned Lagavulin malting floors, which lay untouched since the 1970's. The old malt bins and bits of machinery were still there, giving us an idea of how far this now powerhouse-of-a-distillery had come in the last 40 years.   The view from the stone staircase over the bay was probably worth the entry price alone.  Georgie then escorted us to the dunnage warehouses and regaled us with stories of the distillery in the 70's, showing us some rather exciting casks in the process, including the one below:

The story goes that Iain McArthur discovered cask 12162 in the warehouse and remembered it as a significant vessel from his time working at Port Ellen. In fact, it was known as the 'remnant cask', where it was used to store the remaining liquid from every single Port Ellen spirit run from 1967-1983!  So a pretty significant and historical piece of wood indeed.

The cask now holds a ten year old Lagavulin from 2002, which Georgie drew some samples of for us to try. Clearly the cask was chosen back in the day for its neutrality and the Lagavulin retains a lot of its spirit character, alongside some wonderful cream soda notes. Our next dram was a 1966 Lagavulin from cask 552 (which we tried during a previous Feis Ile trip) and the setting for the tasting was the wonderful Lagavulin castle ruins, the fresh sea air making the dram taste even better in our opinion.

After our hit of history from Ms Crawford, we were to head to one of the newer sites on the island, Port Ellen Maltings. Built at the end of the 1970’s / start of the 1980’s, the Port Ellen Maltings worked alongside the now much loved and dearly departed Port Ellen distillery for three years before the spirit-producing side was decommissioned in 1983.  Now a huge factory churning out malt for several of the island's distilleries, we were to be given a tour by (the brilliantly named) Ramsay Borthwick, who had taken over as the maltings manager just a week before, having previously been site operations manager at Talisker.

Reinstalled at the site is the old wooden marrying vessel from Port Ellen distillery, in which every single drop of Port Ellen was stored before being siphoned off for filling. The tap (seen in the picture on the right) has had pretty much every drop of PE ever made pass through it at some stage. Nice.

Onwards and upwards the tour progressed with Ramsay doing a fantastic job of explaining a very complex and highly scientific malting process, through the medium of 'chocolate'. (The outer layer of the chocolate bar being the barley husk and the squares inside the starch molecules) What’s not to like about that?! All in, this one of the most comprehensive tours of maltings I have been on and to say I learnt a lot would be an understatement. It almost required a mini-graduation ceremony at the conclusion of the tour. *applause*

From Port Ellen, we were bundled in to our people carriers and carted off to the peat bogs to meet the legend that is Iain McArthur. After a picnic lunch of rolls made from the grist (flour) at Lagavulin (ergo, giving a sweet and smoky nature to the fresh bread) filled with either locally smoked salmon / smoked venison, it was our turn to have a go at digging out some peat, all aided by a dram of Caol Ila 12 years old, unpeated.

As usual, Neil turned up in totally inappropriate footwear, stomping across the boggy ground in a what can only be described as a pair of plimsolls while everyone else around donned some form of Northface-esque foot attire. Watching him attempt to cut peat in such a get-up almost made the entire trip worthwhile...
Having suitably refreshed ourselves with rolls and drams, it was time to head onwards to the north of the island and up to Caol Ila, stopping firstly for a wee dram at their water source.

Climbing up to the (pretty depleted) loch, we were greeted by Caol Ila distillery manager Billy Stitchell with a rather odd looking decanter, something he’d grabbed from his office before coming out to meet us. It turned out to be the Caol Ila Flora & Fauna series bottling, a rather tasty 15 year old offering:

Caol Ila - 15 Year Old -  Flora & Fauna Series -  43%

Nose: Wow, this is highly unexpected.  Not at all like the modern era Caol Ila bottlings we're used to and perhaps more like Rosebank, if it happened to be lightly peated, or a younger Port Ellen.  Swirls of tropical fruit, mangos, sweet vanilla, butter, coconut and soft medicinal peat and chamois leather note. Absolutely superb. 

Palate:  The fruit continues on the palate, with some lighter notes of stewed plums, green apples and lemon zest, all underpinned with a delicate waft of peat.

Finish:  Lingering notes of syrup and apple.

Overall: Undoubtedly one of the finest Caol Ila's we've tried. Subtle, gentle, yet complex, this bottling is almost like a greatest hits of single malts.  

Having supped our dram while gazing out at where the water to make this fantastic whisky originally came from, we made our way down to the final destination for the day, Caol Ila distillery itself.
Arriving, we were treated to a tour of the distilleries newly expanded operations, with two huge new washbacks and one massive new mash tun, all aiding the increased production at this site which in-turn, will service the increased demand for whisky across the globe.

Ending up at the top of the distillery, (literally on the roof) it was time to try what we thought would be the last dram of the day (but boy, were we mistaken), the Caol Ila Feis Ile 2012 bottling:

Caol Ila – Feis Ile 2012 – Filled: 15/01/2001 – cask no 300897 – 60.4% abv – 70cl (around 620 bottles)

Nose: A huge hit of the classic coal dust smoke, followed by rich runny honey, some mint jelly, hot sand after rainfall and some red berries. With water the spiced fruit notes increase and the whisky takes on aromas of mincemeat.  

Palate: Hot and smoky, this gives off wafts of bacon frazzle crisps, meaty overtones of smoked haggis and sweet cure bacon. With water, the sherried nature of this comes to life with more vibrancy and colour to the palate. Really takes water well.

Finish: Long, lingering and smoky.

Overall: We both agreed that this is the best Caol Ila Feis Ile bottling to date with an excellent balance -  powerful, yet complex.

But- oh no... As everyone turned to leave, the sight of another three whiskies in Billy's office took us all by surprise.  The sound of jaws dropping could be heard as far away as the Islay Woollen Mill. Alongside the 2012 Lagavulin Feis Ile bottling sat  two final drams and perhaps the pinnacle of Islay whiskies in our humble opinion- Port Ellen annual release No.1 (which we reviewed last year and tasted equally as exquisite stood on the rooftop at Caol Ila) and the official bottling of Lagavulin 30 year old.  

Breathe deeply caskstrength...

Lagavulin - 2012 Feis Ile Release - 1998 - Cask 1716 - 55.1% 

Nose: Raspberry ripple ice cream, apple strudel and icing sugar.  Sweet, with the classic cream soda and carbolic soap underneath.

Palate: Vanilla notes, green apple, some chopped hazelnuts and a big hit of medicinal smoke.  Lighter than the 16yo, but slightly more complex than the 12yo.  

Finish: Lingering orchard fruit and a sooty peat smoke.

Overall:  We were divided over whether this was better than the Caol Ila, with Joel preferring it, but Neil feeling the spiciness and fruit of the Caol Ila tipped the balance in its favour.

Lagavulin - 30 years Old - Distilled 1976 -  52.6%

Nose: Candied fruit, tinned peaches, chamois leather, lemon meringue pie, lavender and a hint of Parma Violets.  The smoke is restrained, gentle and super subtle, with just a caressing waft of the classic Lagavulin carbolic soap. Truly astonishing.

Palate: This is where it gets really serious. Coconut, more lavender, light vanilla stewed fruit (rhubarb, strawberry and raspberries) with an underpinning of American oak-influenced creaminess, this whisky just screams - no sorry - whispers perfection. The balance is extraordinary. 

Finish:  The fruit notes give way to more of the light peat and a touch of creamy maltiness for an extremely long finish indeed.

Overall: No doubt, the finest Lagavulin ever bottled.  This is one of those whiskies that demands the time, the company, the setting and your full attention and delivers more than you could ever hope for.  

Despite the relatively high face value of this tasting, if you break down the actual value and quality of the whisky tasted, the two festival bottlings, the unprecedented access to previously off-limits distillery areas and, more than anything, the time spent with the likes of Georgie, Billy, Ian and Ramsay for pretty much a whole day, this is undoubtedly cheaper than the sum of the parts if they were offered individually. As a result, it is one of the best tastings the festival has surely offered thus far.  Lord knows what they're planning for 2013. 

Monday 28 May 2012

Islay Odyssey - Day 1: A Man With An Ice Lolly Is A Man With Responsibility

Joel:  4am is very early. Or very late, depending on which side of it you stand. This morning, we stood on very much the wrong side; the post-sleep side. The side where eagles dare...

As my blackberry alarm (which sounds very much like a pirate ghost ship from the future) sprang to life, it seemed to leave me cowering under the blankets, wishing for the invention of some sort of transporter, startrek-like, to whisk me away to my final destination... firstly Campbeltown, down the Mull of Kintyre, and latterly onwards to Islay for the second half of this year’s Feis Ile, Festival of Music & Malt.

Rising from my slumber like a caveman from winter hibernation, I was greeted in the corridor of our accommodation, somewhere west of Oxford, by Neil. He’s been up a good 30 mins longer than I; for what reason I cannot ascertain. Our aim: to be away by 5am and reach Campbeltown before 4pm.

Showered, shaved and fed, we jumped in our car of choice for this year’s tip (previous models have included a dreadful KIA and a bone-shattering Merc A-Class), a full Alan Partridge-style Lexus Hybrid 4x4 for the 440 mile drive. We’d done a similar trip before (many times before) to the ferry terminal for Islay, but this time we were to go that little bit further and visit the chaps who make Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn whiskies.

The drive was as smooth as one could hope for, hitting the fantastically run, independently-owned Tbay services on the edge of the Lake District by 8.30am. It was all looking good. After a full English breakfast and the purchase of a selection of homemade pies for later in our journey, we carried on towards Scotland.

Up and over Glasgow, the sunshine was streaming down as we made our way along the side of Loch Fyne and in to Inveraray. Stopping to quaff the aforementioned pies on the waters edge, we took in a pit stop to see Richard Joynson at Loch Fyne Whiskies. Our first ‘mistake’ of the day...

Always greeted by a smile, a witty quip and usually a dram (I once popped in on the 5 min long ‘natural break’ the coach from Glasgow to Kennacraig gives you in the town, only to have a dram slammed straight in to my hand), Richard’s excellent selection in such a small space is coupled with prices which meant we simply couldn’t resist picking a bottle or two, so Neil and I took full advantage; I bought a Tomatin Decades (which came second in our Best In Glass Award 2011) and Neil a 1995 Laphroaig Signatory Vintage Cask Strength Collection, one of only 233 bottles, sampled while chatting with the good man himself, a Master of the Quiach.

Grinning ear-to-ear with our new found friends, Mr. Tomatin and Mr. Laphroaig, we caught up on a few much needed rays and headed onwards down to Campbeltown, where we’d learn that our adventure for the day (if not least our purchases for the day) had only just begun...

Neil: So after nearly ten hours on the road (and what a superb day to be driving up to this glorious part of the world) we finally pull into Campbeltown. The distillery, Campbeltown Malts (or Springbank if you prefer) is neatly located down a nondescript side alley off the high street. We’d arranged to collect a cask sample from a friend of ours, which was sitting on reception as we arrive,  but kindly, they had also arranged for us to get a ‘warts and all’ tour - a real treat considering the rather classic nature of the distillery. 

When it comes to an image of how a distillery used to look, Springbank have perfectly preserved the aesthetic and the passion behind whisky making.  In fact, it is without a doubt, the most traditional distillery we’ve ever visited.  From the malting floors and the belt-driven machinery to the cask iron mash tun, Springbank looks every bit the distillery it probably was back in 1912 and is a far cry from the modernist approach most of us are used to seeing.  As far as we can see, this is the only computer used during the distillation process:

In fact, our guide John mentioned that the closest they have come to using technology is a calculator. 

John explained the difference in peating levels/kilning between the different whiskies made on site with around 24-30 hours of kilning over peat (some sourced locally, but most bought in from Tomintoul) for Springbank, six hours for Longrow and of course no peating at all for Hazelburn.

The stillroom is again a mixture of Heath Robinson ingenuity and good old-fashioned simplicity, with an unrivalled ‘if it ain’t broke…’ mentality.  Having three stills means that they can play different tunes using the range of peating levels (Hazelburn being triple distilled and Springbank being two-and-a-half times distilled, using a process a little too complicated to explain by my sleep deprived brain)

One 'high tech' feature that made us laugh heartily was the simple set up of a bucket crudely held at an angle by wire within the wash backs, so that if the fermentation gets too violent, the rising foam head will tilt the bucket, releasing some ‘anti foaming agent’ into the wash.  Sometimes the best ideas are the most simple- and clearly effective.

For those of you who have, like us, made the annual pilgrimage to Islay many times but never ventured down as far as Campbeltown either on the way over or way back, make sure you put this wonderfully quirky but traditional distillery on your list now – it is unquestionably worth the extra miles. 

Joel: After the fantastic visit to what has to be described as “the distillery which health & safety forgot”, we headed over to the town’s local whisky shop, run by Cadenheads. Our second, big ‘mistake’ of the day...

As we wandered in to their newly appointed premises, one thing became very clear: there were some fantastic and unusual bottles on the shelves and guess what? We’d be leaving with some of them. 

First up were the two single cask offerings which the distillery bottled for their open day, held last Thursday; a Longrow, 9 Years old and from  a fresh fill bourbon cask yielding just 230 bottles and the other a Springbank aged for 12 years in a fresh sherry hogshead and giving an outturn of 313 bottles. Such were we wooed by the samples we were given, that we decided to pick up a couple of these little gems each.

Longrow – Open Day Bottling – 9 Years Old – Fresh Bourbon Barrel – Distilled October 2002 – Bottled 24 May 2012 – 230 bottles – 59.1% abv

Nose: Succulent wafts of tropical fruit, fruit gums, a hint of peat, some lemon zest, sweet vanilla and fresh tangerine segments. Fruity, summery and absolutely superb. Young, but with a huge depth of character.

Palate: Initially very sweet, with a carry over of the vanilla aromas, some mint/menthol notes, fragrant smoke and a rich oily, tongue coating mouthfeel.  With water, the fruitiness becomes more pronounced, as does the swirls of aromatic smoke.

Finish: A touch of green apple skin and a lingering light smoke on the drying palate.

Overall: £50 doesn't buy you a great deal in terms of a 'festival' bottling these days (take note, Islay) but Springbank have smashed it out the park with this Longrow single cask.  A real gem of a find and well worth the lengthy drive it took to purchase.  

The Cadenheads shop has, apparently, recently undergone somewhat of a renovation and out the back of the purchasing area is a new sampling room, designed as an extension to the Springbank distillery visitors tours and lovely it looks too.

As we were lead back to the main shopping area, a rare sight caught our eyes: a large selection of full bottles marked ‘Duty Paid Samples’, locked away behind grill-covered doors, each with their own price tag, each for sale.

A new venture from the chaps at Cadenheads, these bottles are all cask samples drawn from various butts, barrels and bloodtubs in the warehouses owned by Campeltown malts. When they pull a sample for testing, they fill a bottle, cap it, pay the duty and sell it off in the shop. A true one-off, one of one, these utterly unique bottling mean the purchaser must take a real leap of faith, with just the whisky type (Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn) and the cask style / abv available. No samples, no tasting notes, no way to try-before-you-buy.

Looking through the list of what was available, we settled on buying a 2003 Springbank, matured in a Burgundy wine cask at bottled at 59%. Ripping the top off, this is what we found:

Springbank – Duty Paid Sample – Warehouse No. 5 – 2003 – One of One bottle - 7 Years Old – 59.0% abv – 70cl

Nose: Strong elements of burnt sugar, dark and over-ripe black cherries, fresh coffee and well stewed plums and prunes. Very rich.

Palate: A strong and robust flavour with a slight bitterness, the red fruit comes across as warm and, again, over-ripe with elements of dark plums and black forest gateaux. Rum and rasin dark chocolate hit the sweeter end notes. With water, the whole thing sits back a little, opening up the malty-end of the flavour but maintaining the huge personality which it gives off.

Finish: The finish gives sweet tea without water and those black cherries again.

Overall: Did I mention over-ripe black cherries and black forest gateaux? Yeah, I thought so...! Oh, and it cost £45. Yeah, that’s right... £45!

Impressed? Enough to head back to the shelves to pick up another Springbank, this time 16 years old and matured for full term in fresh port and two Longrows, both 8 years old, one matured in fresh sherry and the other in fresh bourbon. A brilliant way to sell totally unique bottles which really are one of one, this encourages the purchaser to put aside marketing bull and go with gut instinct. Will the other bottles we bought match up to the one we opened? Who knows, but it sure is going to be fun to find out!

On top of an additional bottle of Springbank Rundlets & Kilderkins, we left with bags weighed down as heavily as our eyelids, off for a rewarding meal and a good, long sleep.

Onward to tomorrow, with ten new bottles in our stash and we haven’t yet hit Islay....

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Ardbeg Day

The 2nd June marks a special day on the island of Islay.  As part of the the annual Feis Ile (which we are visiting again for the 6th year now) Ardbeg have decided to rename the 2nd June as an official Ardbeg Day.  Quite whether they've approached the Queen to get the name changed is another matter (she's quite busy at the moment, I believe) and I'm not sure it will count as a national holiday, for those of you having to work. However if you are attending the Feis this year, the line up, which Ardbeg have thrown together looks like a lot of fun indeed -  Olympic-themed japery including phenolic gymnastics, sheep tossing, (one of Joel's favourites) bog snorkelling (another one of Joel's personal favourites) and terrier racing (canine permitting)

Alongside the events is the traditional bottling, which is produced especially for the day.  In the past several years, the Ardbeg releases have been exceptional single casks and very limited release bottlings, resulting in long queues outside the distillery from an early hour.  We've been in those queues - dependent on the weather, it's actually quite fun.  This year will be a little different.  Although the heart of Ardbeg Day will be directly at the distillery, around the world, separate splinter events are happening from everywhere between Vancouver and Vietnam (quite possibly) and for the 99.999% of Ardbeg fans out there, the good news is that the bottling will be available across the globe from a number of Ardbeg Embassies just for the day.

1,100 cases of this special Ardbeg Day bottling will be produced (which in real-person-speak means around 13,000 bottles), so the outturn is relatively on a par with that of some of the previous Ardbeg Committee bottlings and also the Laphroaig Cairdeas bottlings, which were released alongside the Feis Ile.  The bottling is selected and married using several parcels of refill sherry casks, which were previously used for Uigeadail and the ABV will stand at 56.7%

We were lucky enough to spend some time with Dr Bill Lumsden this lunchtime and get a sneaky peak at the whisky, alongside several other expressions of Ardbeg including the 10 year-old and the mighty Alligator (which Bill describes as his 'Sweeney' version of Ardbeg, for reasons too long to explain in this post.)

Ardbeg - Ardbeg Day Bottling - 56.7% - NAS - 70cl.  RRP £60

Nose: Hearty notes of dry ginger, woody spices, hints of golden syrup and fragrant vanilla. With water, the spice notes develop and the sweetness gets more syrupy.  

Palate:  A superb dryness hits first (making one think about rich, dry Oloroso sherry) with more dried ginger, cinnamon, peppered meats, a hint of apple pie and a dusting of dark sugar.  With water, there is also a creaminess, perhaps reminding the palate of some of the Ardbeg bottlings of the last few years -  Uigeadail, Airgh Nam Beist and Alligator.  In fact, the dried fruit, chocolate gingers and orange zest notes are very reminiscent of the snappily titled bottling of last year. 

Finish: Lingering notes of dried fruit, with a touch of the ginger and a little menthol creeping in.

Overall:  Another highly drinkable Ardbeg, which sits firmly in the flavour camp of many of the distilleries favourite bottlings.  It is powerful without water, but doesn't lose its dynamic when a touch is added.  If you liked Alligator, you'll definitely enjoy this.  Question is, would you be prepared to undertake a bog snorkelling session for a bottle?   

I guess we would.  Zip up Harrison. We're going in.

oooh, what could this be? An Ardbeg Playing Card perhaps. Click on it for some fun, fun, fun...

oooh, what could this be? An Ardbeg Playing Card perhaps. Click on it for some fun, fun, fun...

Monday 21 May 2012

Bowmore's New Batch

'Small Batch' is quite a hot topic at the moment.  Numerous bourbon producers retail a small batch whiskey, each one purportedly demonstrating a differing characteristic to the company's regular releases- Four Roses, being a noted - and highly enjoyable example.

But what does 'small batch' mean exactly?  The problem I have with this phrase is that it is relatively meaningless, given that there are no actual parameters surrounding what size a small batch could be.  If you're the Balcones distillery in the USA, held together with tin foil, passion and ingenuity, a small batch is likely to be pretty much what it says on the bottle - very small - and limited to boot.  But if you're Beam Global, a small batch could be 20,000 cases- so long as it isn't getting into the realms of what a regular release amounts to.

The same thing applies to single malts with small batch written on the label.  Take Kilchoman for instance. Should this tiny distillery release a small batch of something, one would expect it to be only a few hundred bottles, given the size of the operation.  But where does that leave Morrison Bowmore?

This month, Bowmore release a small batch single malt of their own.  Matured in first & second fill bourbon casks, the whisky purports to be the distillery's lightest and delicate expression to date, bottled with no age statement and at 40%.  But the question still remains about what exactly a small batch of Bowmore is??  According to the press release this whisky is 'launched in response to consumer demand for special and small batch whiskies...a genuine release of limited volume, vatted in restricted quantities...'

Ok. But that still doesn't tell me a great deal.

Does any of this really matter?  Does anyone actually care?? Shall we just have a dram and stop wondering???

Bowmore - Small Batch Reserve - 40%

Nose: Perfumed fruit gums, liquorice, lemon zest and a faint waft of smoke jump straight our of the glass- no hanging around here.  Given a bit of a nose around, some red berry fruits, strawberry sherbet, black pepper and Swarfega (that terrifyingly 'green' hand cleanser) start to emerge. It's intriguingly light, yet very pleasant indeed. Outdoors with a summer BBQ would be an ideal location for this dram.

Palate: Wow, the palate is super light on the first sip, then comes the smoke (sweet, creamy woodsmoke) followed by more of the red berry fruits, some perfumed pomander/make up notes and sweet vanilla.  It's like kissing someone who's wearing bright red lipstick, after they've finished a menthol cigarette -  and I don't mean that to sound derogatory. 

Finish:  Lingering notes of the fruit and vanilla with the last gentle notes of the smoke. 

Overall:  Light, summery and with all the hallmarks of Bowmore, just paired back.  It will make a subtle introduction to the distillery for a newcomer, or those fans of Bowmore who prefer a more gentle touch. However, one question I have is where this leaves the regular 12 year old? There are several similarities between this small batch release and the 12yo (both bottled at 40% and both lighter expressions of Bowmore) but this expression retails at around £10 more, despite not having an age statement on it.   

Batch size eh... Just how long is this particular whisky-flavoured piece of string?  

Friday 18 May 2012

Seven Nation Army

To say that India is a big whisky market would be, well, an understatement. Last year I had the pleasure of sharing a dram with Dr. Vijay Mallya, the ‘King of Goodtimes’ and Indian drinks Barron.

During our ‘session’, the facts came thick and fast; from the huge (and I mean huge) amount of liquor sold in the country, through to the current number of potential consumers reaching drinking age every day (more than 50% of the population is under the age of 25) and onwards through to the complex taxation system within each Indian state which seems to be holding the industry back there.

The whole affair was fascinating, not least as I have a monthly column writing about whisky (real whisky, not Indian Made Foreign Liquor) in a major Indian daily newspaper, so I’m like a dry sponge thrown into the Playboy mansion pool when it comes to facts and figures for this particular market.

One of the biggest challenges facing brands operating in the spirits category, especially in the luxury spirits category, in India is how to upscale their offerings. With assaults on the marketing from the likes of Johnnie Walker and Royal Salute, proper ‘Ultra Premium Scotch whiskies’, it’s a tough old game when you’re churning out molasses based spirit all day long.

However one company, one major player in the market, has seen an opportunity to build a luxury brand for the Indian market dealing with high-end Scotch whisky. Seven Islands is a new label on the block, acting somewhere between an independent bottler and a diffusion brand (to steal a fashion term) started by Tilaknagar Industries Limited, one of the biggest drinks brand owners in India. As I rifle through my reams of notes on liquor sales in India (seriously) I see they own Indian whisky brands such as Shot, Classic and Mansion House, so they know their stuff. (Note to anyone starting an Indie band: look to Indian liquors for band names. Here are some examples: Red Knight, Special Appointment, Black Stallion, G.S. Genius, Silver Peg... the list is almost endless)

It seems from the launch of this brand, that the idea is to create a ‘cool’ independent bottling and then take it back to India once the brand value has been properly built in places such as the UK and Spain. Well, it is a shame they didn’t take the time to mention either the ABV or the age statement of the liquid in their literature, giving their text over pretty much solely to the idea behind the brand. Personally, I  feel it is always dangerous to focus on the brand building at the expense of the liquid. Or not even at the expense of the liquid. I mean, they don’t give any details about the liquid what-so-ever in their press release. A bad sign.

What we do know is that the hooch in the bottle is from BenRiach and subsequent research has shown up that it’s been bottled at 42.8% abv. Oh, and it is going to be £90. So let’s have a try of the liquid and see if they’ve got solid rock on which to build their house, or if they’ve just gone down the beach and chosen some sandy land...

Seven Islands Vintage – NAS – 42.8% abv

Nose: Apples and pears are the most notable aromas to jump from the glass and the longer one enjoys these notes, the more prominent the flavours of clear apple juice become, backed with a hint of furniture polish and some cinnamon. It’s actually very inviting.

Palate: Apple strudel, short flurries of whipped cream, rich honey and heather. The palate is soft and smooth.  Very drinkable.

Finish: Medium in length, the finish has elements again of apple sauce, spiced rum and some hint of vanilla.

Overall: Hugely inoffensive, this whisky is dangerously drinkable but for a luxury product, I was expecting something richer, thicker and a whole lot more sherried. I’m not sure I’d be happy to part with £90 for what appears to be a perfectly drinkable No Age Statement, no-name (unless you’ve got a press release) Scotch whisky.

I’m kinda left confused by this release. Scant details on the liquid always makes me shudder;  like when I’m at a football match and order a ‘meat pie’. “What is this mystery meat you’re serving me up?” I’m left to wonder. I guess Pukka Pies have built a very good business on that, but then they’re not pretending to be Mark Hix are they?