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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!