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Wednesday 18 June 2014

Absent Friends: Lagavulin & Caol Ila Feis Ile Bottlings

Bling comes to Paradise Island
For the better part of a decade now, Caskstrength has been trekking up to Scotland on an annual pilgrimage to Islay, for the annual Festival of Music and Malt, the Feis Ile. It is a thoroughly enjoyable event and one of the warmest whisky welcomes you can receive anywhere in the world, with outstanding whiskies and tasting sessions, the likes of which are rarely seen outside of festival time. Put it this way, when else would you see Micky Heads, dressed as a Gangsta Rap star?

This year however, our diaries did not allow for a trip up to the whisky isle during festival time, due to other presenting and writing commitments. Fortunately we had already popped in to say a quick hello to the good people of Islay with a visit a few weeks beforehand. With the most recent Caskstrength post being on the latest Laphroaig offering, the next two will feature other Islay distilleries and some of their more unusual output, as a tribute to the great festival.

One of the big draws for visitors to the festival is the annual batch of special releases which the distilleries roll out and there has been no change at the 2014 festival, with the island's eight distilleries (and not forgetting Jura, too) creating something unusual and limited to reward those making the long journey to the Inner Hebrides.  The outturns have changed significantly since the distilleries got behind the festival began back in 2000  - and considerably since 2007, when Caskstrength began its Islay voyages.  

Alas, gone are the single cask offerings, replaced by bottling runs much larger in number. A shame, as we feel that the travellers making the (not inconsiderable) effort to get to Islay should be rewarded for their efforts. But with the huge success of the week-long event and vastly increased visitor numbers, the small outturns left a lot of visitors extremely disappointed when they couldn't pick up a special bottling from their favourite distillery, only to see said bottles arrive on popular auction sites for super-inflated prices a week later.  

It's simply a case of dammed if they do, dammed if they don't for the distillers.  One option could be to explore the possibility of customising the releases for the bottles purchased at the distillery.  Perhaps a special necker/ hand applied shoulder label, or a different capsule colour - or a simple space on the back label for the distillery manager to add a signature if you can track the busy folks down... food for thought, marketing folks out there. 

Anyway, a sample from each of Diageo's Islay-owned distilleries (Caol Ila and Lagavulin) turned up earlier this week, which we were eager to explore. Regular readers will be aware that we usually keep a daily diary of our adventures at Feis Ile and the seven previous Lagavulin releases have been superb, so this gives us a good opportunity to look back at those releases, while trying the 2014 edition. Click on the dates below if you want to see our tasting notes from the previous bottles: Alas, 2007's tasting notes seem to be lost somewhere in the darkest archives of the website, but trust us, it was a fabulous release. 

Lagavulin - Feis Ile 2014 - Distilled 1995 - Bottled 2014 - 54.7% - 3,500 bottles

Nose: A dry, medicinal/carbolic note opens up the proceedings, followed by classic Laga smoky bacon/charred meat, Star Wars figures (apologies, as we've used this ref. before, but take a whiff of a vintage Princess Leia or Chewy action figure and you'll see what we mean... sad but true) some earthy, moist leaves and darker sherry wood notes. The charred notes are dominant, as is the dryness. It's not the most sizzling and vibrant of Lagas, but let's not forget that this is nearly 20 years old now and maturity has taken this beast in a much more sublime direction. 

Palate: Sweet off the bat, into a swathe of drying woody notes, some sweetened black Lapsang tea, more smoked meat, with a surge of peat, zesty lemons and a dusting of both coal and icing sugar. It's rich, powerful and dry, but hangs onto the right side of woody, before the rot begins to set in. 

Finish: Very lengthy, with the smoke subsiding and the resonant sherry sweetness coating the tongue.  

Overall: A tricky toss up here: The recent Jazz Festival bottlings perhaps edge this for sheer brilliance, but without doubt, it still claims a premier spot when it comes to limited edition peated gems. Given the pedigree of Lagavulin - and its staple core whisky with the 16 year old, which pretty much redefines peated whisky, there will always be high expectations placed on the shoulders of those involved in the choosing the releases. Again, they have played a blinder, as this one will absolutely delight the enthusiasts who can get hold of one. 

Our 'mini-journey-from-our-desk' takes us up and onwards to the north of the island, to Lagavulin's sister distillery, Caol Ila. It always amazes us just what a consistent dram Caol Ila is, from the excellent core rage offerings through to independent single casks, rarely do we find a bottling from this distillery that is not exceptionally drinkable. 

When it comes to festival bottles, Caol Ila has also been releasing a series which started off as single casks and developed into longer run offerings, kicking off in 2008.

Caol Ila - Feis Ile 2014 - distilled 2002 - Bottled 2014 -55.5% - 1,500 bottles

Nose: Tremendously spicy on the first sniff, with cloves, cassia bark and a sprinkling of nutmeg, all vying for your attention with black pepper and of course some sweet peat smoke. It's incredibly aromatic, light in character and also in possession of a little fruitiness too: think soft ripened bananas and some freshly picked raspberries too. 

Palate: Very sweet, into the classic lingering Caol Ila sootiness, but backdropped by sweet black coffee, some oaky smoke, a touch of orange zest and nutty breakfast cereal.  On the back there's a slight menthol which, all in all, gives this a sublime balance.  

Finish: Lingering sweetness and a fresh zesty orange note nestles against the slightly sooty/dry peat.

Overall: An outstanding release. Not too woody (somewhat ironic, given the nickname of the current distillery manager, David Woods) and well balanced, this is a whisky with swagger strength and balance. A great bottling indeed.

It is clear to see how there has been a shift in strategy of the Feis Ile bottlings released by the Diageo-owned Islay distilleries in the last two years with the runs increasing dramatically to meet the demand. But this is an issue faced by every distillery on the island and with the continued fascination that Islay holds for new whisky enthusiasts, it is only going to get more tricky to cater for everyone wanting something special. When it comes to the Lagavulin, £99 for a limited release 19 year old is is a valiant attempt to 'keep things real' with the pricing strategy, which has, in recent years become a little absurd.

Fair play guys and see you bright and early next year.   

Monday 9 June 2014

Everybody's Changing: Laphroaig Select Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Before becoming professional whisky writers, Neil and I both worked in the music industry at different major record labels, doing A&R.

A&R is the department within a record company that is responsible for discovering new music, signing artists, making records and managing the artist as a product, through the record company system.

In my time as an A&R Manager at Island Records, I worked with some very inspiring people, from incredibly talented artists, songwriters, record producers, photographers and other creatives. But also people who taught me a lot about the industry of fashion, of tastes, and how to market creativity and artistry, to turn it from an etherial ideal into a tradable commodity, and to build brands which emotionally engage with consumers and take people on a journey.

Occasionally, very occasionally, this involved trying to hoodwink the general public with some artist or another whose talent maybe didn't match the size of the marketing budget allocated to them, and the phrase 'you can't shine a $hite' was a mantra for avoiding those types of deals. But mostly, it was the job of a record company to take the acorn of talent and help grow the oak tree of success from it; to be a magnifying glass over the artists' works.

I remember well a discussion with a very experienced Senior A&R Executive, Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, about the debut album from Keane. The record had been a huge success off the back of three fantastic singles, Everybody's Changing, This Is The Last Time and Somewhere Only We Know and a fourth single was due to be released, with the obvious choice being the Keane-sounding Bend and Break

By this time, the band were enormous, with a huge amount of radio play, sell out shows and a record which had sold well into the multiple of millions and Unger-Hamilton's choice for single release number four was the slightly left-field 'Bedshaped'. I remember well his reasoning:

"Millions of people know what Keane sound like, so we should put out something from the album that is a little different; it might attract a new fan to the band.

And it did, with the album going on to be awarded 9x Platinum status in the UK.

There has been a lot of digital noise in the last few weeks about the new Laphroaig Select, the latest release from the iconic Islay distillery. The noise has not been all positive, it has to be said. Partly due to the copy attributed to this release (spelling Oloroso, 'Olorosso', Hogshead 'Hogs Head' and describing first fill as 'First Filled') and partly due to the liquid, with Serge over at the consistently excellent describing the liquid as "...totally un-Laphroaig Im afraid, the coastal/medicinal/smoky side is there but its just whispering".

But here's the thing: maybe that's the point. Maybe, if you like Laphroaig 10, you've already got a bottle of Laphroaig in your cabinet. Or, like us, more than one expression of this peated beast.

Laphroaig - Select - NAS - 40% abv - RRP £34.99

Nose: Lemon grass, citracal, white peaches, pear drops, icing and a hit of cherry drops. The smoke sits behind all of these, and doesn't give the classic Laphroaig TCP that we are used to, but a more subtle smoky tone which you'd expect to find somewhere in the North of the Island. The whole lot is wrapped in sweet vanilla.

Palate: This is a sweet and subtle dram (not something you'd often say about a Laphroaig), with very light smoke on the palate, gooseberry fool, green tea, dream toppig and fresh lemon juice. Think about eating a lemon and sugar pancake with the dying embers of a summer bonfire in distance. 

Finish: A slight bitterness and more of that lemon juice and delicate smoke. Chamois leather.

Overall: Indeed, this is not a 'Laphroaig' as we know it. If it has a distant relative, perhaps Caol Ila Moch (which is almost £10 more expensive) would be the closest thing to it. In its price bracket sits the No Age Statement offering Laphroaig Quarter Cask (a touch more expensive) and the big and bold famous brother, the 10 Years Old (almost exactly the same price), both of which appeal to a certain type of palate; the classic Laphroaig drinker. But this offers up something very different to either of those, something more akin to a Bunnahabhain, Highland Park 12 yo or, moving away from Scotland, the Hakushu Distiller's Reserve giving a different side of smoky whisky making which might appeal to those whose nose and palate don't agree with so much medicinal peat smoke.

If you are one of those whisky drinkers who bought a bottle of Laphroaig 10 five years ago and still haven't got past the first sip, yet you are on your fourth bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label already this year, then this might just be the Laphroaig for you... it might just be the bottle that widens the appeal of Laphroaig to a different drinker. And that can only be a good thing, so welcome to the (lightly) peated party.

However, if you're looking for the classic Laphroaig DNA, you might want to look elsewhere.