Sep 302015

I had a strange and enlightening experience a few nights back.  I sat down with a range of whiskies and a mind to taking some notes for upcoming reviews.  This range was built with Caol Ila 30 as the cornerstone malt.  I threw in a Caol Ila 25, a 27 year old single cask of Port Ellen and an Octomore.  I figured the two Caol Ila showed a nice opportunity for compare and contrast; the Port Ellen would be a ‘sister’ malt in a way, and of a similar age and spec; and the Octomore would be easy to dissect by drawing strong points and counterpoints of comparison between the old gems and Islay whisky at youth and bombastic might.

All told I probably spent about an hour and a half on these four glasses, bouncing back and forth, using easily found notes in one malt to highlight strengths and deficiencies in the others.  Etc.  After I’d taken all my notes (and emptied the glasses, of course), I began formatting the posts here on the site.  Now here’s where things got weird.  As I started the Port Ellen template I found a post from several weeks back of this very same expression.  I do recall posting a PE review, but I didn’t realize it was this particular one.  As I started to compare my notes and scores – done in complete isolation from one another and weeks apart, I want to stress – I was rather impressed at how close they were, even picking up some very distinct nuances in both cases.  Have a look for yourself.  I think it says something for the consistency and rigidity of the tasting environment I aim for, and to ensuring nose and palate are tiptop before really digging in.

Not gonna lie…this made me a happy boy.  Check it out…

Port Ellen 27 Provenance Cask #6101
46% abv


Original published review:

Score:  90.5/100

Nose:  Very Port Ellen right off the bat.  Soft biscuity notes.  Old book.  Clean grist.  Faint seabreeze.  Mild citrus and wet rock.  Very faded peat and smoke.  A whiff of Werther’s Originals.  A little bit of honeydew melon and caramel.

Palate:  More alive here.  More fruits.  Oh wow.  Now we’re deeply entrenched in Port Ellen territory.  Smoke and beachside bonfire.  Lemon juice over charred scallops.  Sugar cookies.  Burnt lemon rind.  The smoke grows over time.  Something slightly herbaceous.

Thoughts:  Still a special whisky, but lacks a little oomph that would have pushed it even higher.  Can you imagine at cask strength?  A very restrained and elegant Port Ellen that suits my palate perfectly.  Love this one.


Second independent assessment:

Score:  90/100

Nose:  Instantly recognizable.  Light and coastal.  Fresh seabreezes over wheat fields.  Sugar cookies.  Faint whiff of sunflowers and beeswax.  Far off smoke and soft notes of cinnamon buns in the oven, though fleeting.  There is a touch of peat, but it is even less than an afterthought.  Rather typical of our older PEs.

Palate:  Fragile and endearing, as expected from a Port Ellen nearing three decades.  Very sweet.  Built on a bedrock of soft fruits.  Perhaps melon, pear, apple and lime.  Barley sugars and much like chewing on fresh grains.  Wet rock.  Seared scallops with salt and lemon.  Charred oak.

Thoughts:  Beautiful expression of Port Ellen.  Held a little too in check by the low abv, but it’s by no means dead because of it.  At cask strength though?  I can only imagine.

Pretty damn close, no?  Both sets of notes mention wet rock, seabreeze, grist/barley sugars, cooked scallops, citrus, faded/far off smoke, notes of baking, immediate identifiability as a Port Ellen, fragility/delicacy and too low of abv.

I think this serendipitous little happening will be enough of a catalyst to get me to now intentionally engage in retastings more often.  Definitely a hell of a way to keep a reviewer honest, sharp and consistent.  And if we’re not those things, we’re nothing.


  – Images and Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:35 am
Sep 292015

Dram Initiative #018 – Tamdhu

January 22nd, 2015


(We’re a little behind on some of these past DI event write-ups, so let’s see if we can’t catch up a bit over the coming day.  Between reviews, that is.)

Poor suckers.  When they signed up as members of the Dram Initiative no one told ’em they’d occasionally have to listen to me blather on for hours at a stretch.  I suppose that’s the price to pay for the opportunity to sample some of the fine ol’ drams we offer up.

A fine gent whom I love like a drunken old uncle (y’know…the kind who always wants to borrow money?), and who also happens to be the VP of the Dram Initiative, Maltmonster, once told me a secret to speaking out with confidence on subject matter for which you may be on shaky ground.  That path to enlightenment consisted of two words: ‘Bleeding Heart’.  I won’t get into the linguistic origins of this phrase and context but the theory behind the concept suggests that if you speak with enough assurance and without hesitation no one will doubt you.  It’s rather ‘Miyagi-ish’, really.  Sort of an ‘if do right, no can defense’ idiom.  I took it as such anyway while preparing my presentation for this event.

‘Cause really, let’s face it, aside from the brand ambassadors and the distillery workers themselves, who the f*ck knows much about Tamdhu?  Before this event?  Not me either.—


Let’s do a quick catch up then.  Tamdhu is a Speyside distillery with a production capacity of about four and a half million litres per annum.  The spirit tends to be rather innocuous, with malty and fruity characteristics.  But that could be almost any Speyside whisky, couldn’t it?  Nothing too exciting, to be honest, but when Tamdhu starts to make its way down the backside of the hill (into its 30s and 40s) it proves to be one of the sexiest old malts around.  The most wonderful thing about that, however, is that the price remains shockingly low, since they tend to be independent bottlings and are from a distillery of little renown.

We got to dig into some nifty little historical whisky roots with this event.  In fact a huge portion of the presentation was a throwback to the late 1800s and early 1900s.  We spoke to the history of early Scottish distillery innovation and architecture; Prohibition and the linguistic origins of the phrase ‘The Real McCoy’; early whisky writing (via Alfred Barnard’s incomparable tome ‘The Whisky Distilleries Of The United Kingdom’); the evolution of technical maltings; etc.  For whisky geeks like me (and a bunch of the members) this stuff is gold.

018 (2)

The name ‘Tamdhu’ comes from the Gaelic ‘Tom Dubh’ which means ‘Black Hill’ or ‘Little Dark Hill’.  The distillery was founded in 1896 and first casked new make spirit in 1897.  At one time Tamdhu was called ‘the most modern of distilleries … perhaps the best designed and most efficient distillery of its era’.  It’s architect was none other than the highly distinguished Charles C. Doig.  Doig, if you’ve done your homework was one of the most foreward thinking of distillery planners, having designed 56 of them in his day, and also responsible for the advent of the Doig Ventilator, or as we laymen know it: the pagoda.

—Historically Tamdhu has always been recognized primarily as a blending whisky, and a rather non-descript one at that.  We wondered if we’d be able to unshackle the malt from this less than flattering yoke.  Much of the distillery’s output gets dumped into Cutty Sark, so that seemed like a logical jumping off point, and a turning point for making sense of the brand’s decision to forego much of the single malt market.

027 (2)

The evening’s line-up fell out as follows:

  • Cutty Sark Blended Scotch Whisky (40% abv)
  • Tamdhu – 2013 NAS Distillery Bottling (40% abv)
  • Tamdhu 16 y.o. First Editions Independent Bottling (56.2% abv) 1998-2014     253 Bottles
  • Tamdhu 17 y.o. A.D. Rattray Independent Bottling (62.9% abv) June 20, 1990 – November 20, 2007     291 Bottles
  • Tamdhu 1989 Carn Mor Independent Bottling from a Hogshead (54.0% abv) 29/09/89-04/02/13     150 Bottles
  • Tamdhu 1971 Gordon & MacPhail Independent Bottling (43% abv) 1971 – 2011
  • Tamdhu 1971 Gordon & MacPhail Independent Bottling (43% abv) 1971 – 2013
  • Tamdhu 42 y.o. A.D. Rattray Independent Bottling Cask #6 Co-op Wine & Spirits Exclusive
    (43.8% abv) January 2, 1967 – March 30, 2009     95 Bottles


There were some truly special malts on offer tonight.  Namely those last three.  And unquestionably the last one in particular was a showstopper of a dram.  I have a serious history going back with this malt.  One that involves some good friends and great memories.  Or maybe great friends and good memories would be a more apt way to put it.  Either way, a roomful of collective sighs validated initial opinions and served to affirm that the DI committee is steering this crew in the right direction.  Nice to see a whisky universally adored.  That shared experience becomes something that transcends the simplicity of a whisky tasting.  I imagine many in the room look back on this one with fond memories now too.


All in all, another very memorable night.  We got to pick on our Irish and ginger contingents a bit, have a few laughs and pull together a tasting that is probably one of the most unique I’ve ever been a part of.  ‘Cause really…who other than the Dram would do a Tamdhu tasting?


– Words:  Curt

– Photos:  Curt, Steve and Scott (aka The Ginger Buddha)

 Posted by at 7:40 am
Sep 282015

Caol Ila 25 y.o. (2011)030

43% abv

Score:  88.5/100


I last tasted this one at home amid a small range, side by side with the Caol Ila 30 year old special release and a couple others.  While this 25 year old distillery bottling is served up at a rather anemic 43% abv, the 30 year old weighs in a much more strapping 55.1% abv.  I should also make known that there was this nagging little voice in the back of my skull that kept whispering about how spectacular the old 25 year old cask strength edition was.  Ill-advised preconceptions had me coming into this one less than enthused for the low abv, I hate to admit it, but still eager to try.

Happy to report that while it was indeed a little thin, it was certainly not lacking for character or quality.  In fact I found it not dissimilar to Port Ellen of comparable vintage.  Not much of a surprise there, really, as these two malts have almost always matured to a similar profile by this age bracket.  Delicate whisky that deserves complete attention, arrives with little bombast, but lingers beyond the last sips.  That’s an admirable quality for a low test, chill-filtered (and probably coloured) whisky.

My favorite Caol Ila by no means, but one I would love to have made available locally on a much more regular basis.

Nose:  Almost Port Ellen-esque.  Slightly grassy and herbal.  A touch of lime.  Very fresh and light.  Cooking oil on wood.  Faint, faint smoke.  Sweet and dessert-like.  Some vanilla.  Pastry and a little orange and lemon.

Palate:  Slightly leathery at first.  Again…I’d probably guess Port Ellen or older Caol Ila if tasted blind.  Oak.  Oysters on the shell.  Notes of lemon.  Very bitter and strong vanilla.  A little bit of smoke now.  It grows bigger on the tongue.  Smoked apples skins.

Thoughts:  Lovely whisky but a tad disappointing nevertheless.  So many great notes.  Should have been left intact, high strength and unfiltered.  Oh well.  We can carry on about what we don’t have or lean back and acknowledge that this is still a very special malt.


 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 2:34 pm
Sep 252015

Octomore 6.3 Islay Barley068

64% abv

Score:  89.5/100


It’s always a treat to spar with this heavyweight.  I somehow always come out standing at the end, but perhaps a little worse for wear, punch drunk (or just plain drunk) and somewhat wobbly on my feet.

This is the beast we’ve all been talking about since word leaked a long while back about a malt boasting a peating spec of 258 ppm.  258?  Really?!  Yep.  Sounds monstrous, I know, but the reality is a little different than that, in spite of all our preconceptions.  It is true, however, that this Octomore 6.3 is unquestionably the most scorching show of measurable phenolic heat to which we’ve yet been subjected.  I think the previous highest peating level was 169 ppm.

It’s been mentioned by others, though – and I’d have to agree – that there seems to be a threshold beyond which the olfactory and palatal sensors cease to detect any more noticeable increase in phenols.  Put simply…this tastes no peatier or smokier than some malts on the market with phenolic specs in the range of 40-50 ppm (think Ardbeg or Laphroaig).  Where we get the true test of might (the ‘put hair on your chest’ test, if you will, boys AND girls) is pairing this heft of peat with a paint-stripping 64% abv.  This is an absolute uppercut of a whisky, all told.  And incredibly awesome for it.  Much more than a novelty, I should add.  While I can’t imagine striking a balance was the aim with this one, I can say that it’s sometimes fun to simply revel in the effects of this sort of punch drunk lopsidedness.

Nose:  Smoke and peat.  Burnt rubber.  Cola syrup with A familiar Bruichladdich rich buttery note.  Very farmy and rich in dark soil.  Flinty and mineral-y.  Tart lime and citrus zest.  Slightly bittering, but in a good way.  Maybe burnt caramel.  No need to go further.  This is big, but incredibly also very sharp and seemingly delicate.  Neat balance struck here.

Palate:  So oily and mouthcoating.  Simply incomparable  Octomore is undoubtedly the most singular malt in the world.  Sharp cola notes meet farmy, earthy peat.  Smoke builds and rolls out in wave over wave of black billows.  Burnt rubber.

Thoughts:  What I wouldn’t give to drink this along the shores of Loch Indaal.  Despite 258 ppm this is not an abomination of a drink.  My score is in concession of the fact that I am an unapologetic Islayphile.


 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 2:30 pm
Sep 242015

021Caol Ila 30 y.o. (2014)

55.1% abv

Score:  90.5/100


This was one of my most highly anticipated releases for 2014.  To my knowledge it is the oldest distillery bottling of Caol Ila that Diageo has ever offered up.  It’s certainly the oldest official release I’ve tried so far.

I’ve been fortunate enough to taste a couple of 30 year old Caol Ila independent bottlings, but it’s debatable how true they are to the distillery’s target profile, irrespective of how great they were.  This opportunity to see what the brand itself would offer up as the apex expression of its mature malt is a privilege, especially in light of the hefty price tag associated.  Even if I ultimately wanted to scoop one up, the nearly four figure price tag was enough of a deterrent.  Enter the generosity of friends, and voila!  A few notes to share and some lasting memories of another glorious example of what mature Islay whiskies can be with enough time and care.

This bottling – a part of Diageo’s annual run of special releases – was a limited release of 7,638 bottles.  The price was high, of course, but so is the payoff.  Having tried it now, would I drop the coin for this one?  Nah.  I’ll save those kind of rare purchases for something a little more special.  That shouldn’t belittle the point, though, that was a special dram and one I’m pretty damn pleased to have as a notch on my bedpost, if you will.

Nose:  This is BIG whisky, and one I’d never peg as a Caol Ila.  Quite ‘meaty’ for lack of a better word.  Burnt wood.  Big spicy notes.  Well-seasoned leather.  Opens slowly into thick threads of smoke and caramel.  Citrus, but less than I’s expect with Caol Ila.  Lime candy.  Certainly somewhat coastal.

Palate:  Oh yeah.  Nice delivery.  Massive and oily.  More smoke now.  Peaty and earthy notes grow bigger over time.  Tangy fruits and an intensity somewhat like an underripe green apple.  Pencil shavings.  Caramelized ham.  Again some leather.  Slightly menthol.  Salty, and did I mention oily?

Thoughts:  This is a whisky tied up tight.  Hard to unravel and demanding of attention.  Complex and not really all that recognizable as Caol Ila.

* Sincere thanks to the kind, anonymous gent who shared a healthy dram of this with me.  Appreciate it.


 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:45 am
Sep 202015

From Whisky Advocate, Summer 2015:

“No Age is also, as I’ve said before, a perfect way to explain the difference between age and maturity, to show the whisky maker’s art.  To do that, however, the new whiskies must be as good if not better than the ones they are replacing.  Too many high profile examples have failed to do that.  There is no transparency as to what goes into the bottle, what the principles of NAS are, why it is happening now.  Again, it’s a failure to engage.”

 – Dave Broom

 Posted by at 5:30 pm
Sep 182015

BenRiach 1997 Madeira Finish Cask #7591043

54.6% abv

Score:  86.5/100


The tasting notes on the tube for this one used the word ‘tropical’.  If you know me, you’ll know that is somewhat like offering free porn to a lonely teenage boy.  A good mate of mine is largely responsible for drawing me into the hunt for those malts that bear the hallmarks of exotic fruits and the sour / sweet tang of tropicalia.  I tend to think of them as ‘Five Alive’ whiskies.  They’re elusive, no doubt about it, but they’re also knee-bucklingly good.

The thing is, these tropical notes are typically found on much older whiskies, primarily of bourbon cask influence (but occasionally immaculate sherry butts too), so I was skeptical of this one to say the least.  The stated vintage and the suggested profile made as much sense to me as Trump leading the primaries heading into this 2016 election.  In other words…does not compute.

And yeah…sure enough, the closest this one comes to ‘tropical’ is that single word on the packaging.  Oh well.  I paid about a third of what I should have for this one.  Can’t complain.  And additionally it’s a pretty damn decent malt in its own right.

Nose:  Definitely not tropical, but fruity enough.  A surprisingly savoury note on top.  Banana.  Almond.  Lots of spice, probably primarily cinnamon.  Vanilla pudding or creamy custard.  Moist tobacco.  Salty pastry dough.

Palate:  A little too much wine.  Syrup-soaked fruits.  Some apple and nutty notes.  Still a little banana, but not as prevalent as on the nose.  Quite dessert-like in some ways.  Strong oaky backbone and a lot of spicy nip.  A little bit of orange zest.  Definitely a tannic malt.  Leaves a dry woodiness.

Thoughts:  The nose is much softer (and better, let’s face it) than the palate.  The BenRiach character is hidden behind the Madeira unfortunately, but it’s still a more than decent malt.  Glad I scooped up a couple at a great price.


 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:05 am
Sep 172015

Tomatin 40 y.o.059

42.9% abv

Score:  92.5/100


This is the apex of the Tomatin range, both in terms of true age-stated lordship and pure ‘intrinsic quality’ (to borrow an apt but overused phrase from our mate Ralfy).  Not a malt you’re likely to come by easily – or affordably, for that matter – but one that certainly stands as an extraordinary offering from this Highland distillery of recent reknown.

As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, the folks at Tomatin have blitzed the market in recent years with an ever-growing range of age-stated and non-age-stated expressions.  Unfortunately however, the latter seem to be coming more to the forefront, and several of the numbered releases are being shelved indefinitely.  This seems to be the ‘worldhood of the world’ in whisky spheres lately.  I’ve not deigned to review the NAS offerings (as regular readers will no doubt understand), but have tried to shed a little light on the rest of the range over the last week or two.  As none of these malts were new to me, there haven’t been a lot of surprises.

In short, the brand is still one that bores me.  Most of the releases I’ve tried have been mediocre at best and quite depressing at worst, but older Tomatin shows that it is a malt that benefits from prolonged maturation.  The 25, 30 and 40 are all quite special in their own right.  Younger than that, though, and I’d generally take a pass.

Seeing as this long gone 40 year old was a very small run of only 1,614 bottles, it’s unlikely that too many folks out there will ever get their hands on a dram of it, and that is truly a shame as it is a really, really nice whisky.  If you do get a shot at it though, this is the one expression in their stable that offers a glimpse of greatness.

Details, for those interested:  A vatting of seven ex-bourbon hogsheads, distilled in 1967 and bottled in 2007.

Nose:  Oh wow.  So sexy.  Very mature.  Oily delivery and immediately has me wrapped around its finger.  Waxy.  Gorgeous fruits that are taking us right into tropical territory.  Pepper and polished wood.  Old cabinets of books.  A little bit of cherry and some latex.

Palate:  Yes!  Tropical and lovely.  Big threads of cherry or pomegranate.  Five Alive with grenadine.  Baking spices, clean grains and soft vanillins.  Incredibly balanced palate.  This is what makes older whiskies incomparable.

Thoughts:  This is right in my wheelhouse.  A beautiful nose and an equally lovely palate.  This is harmony.

* Thanks to Andrew Ferguson at KWM for the chance to try this one.  Slainte!


 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 12:56 pm
Sep 162015

I was going to post another review today, but it seems…trivial and unimportant right now. Instead let’s give thought to this today…


Rest in peace, Terry and Hailey


Our hearts and thoughts are with the friends and families affected.  This one hits a little too close to home.

“Don’t let your heart get broken by this world” – Dan Bern

 – Curt

 Posted by at 7:26 am
Sep 142015

Tomatin 30 y.o.009

46% abv

Score:  89.5/100


So…like almost any malt whisky, prolonged maturation tends to bring out the best in Tomatin.  Yes, I am aware that this is a gross generalization, but it’s at least one that bucketloads of empirical research on the part of yours truly supports.

The age-stated range in the sub 25 year category are all somewhat below par and a little disappointing in my opinion.  The 25, however, was a bit of a revelation (as the price still hasn’t climbed into the stratosphere by that point), and the 30 falls in similar territory (albeit you’re now creeping up a little in regards to cash outlay).  Initially these two malts were priced in close proximity locally, but I think there’s a little more divergence nowadays.  Even the 40 year old came in under $1,000CA when it arrived.  I think it might be a slightly different story if it were to land now.

This 30 year old distillery bottling bears some superficial similarities to its younger sibling (the 25, that is), but think of it like an adopted child that takes on the outward appearance of the adoptees.  This one carries itself with a little more heft and is a slightly ‘darker’ malt than the its contemporaries.  To be a little more clear: the 25 and 40 share a deeper thread of tropical vibrancy that, while still noticeable in this expression, is a more periphery characteristic and somewhat outplayed by the drier tannic profile.  Still a special malt (especially coming from a distillery that I find to be anything but special overall), this one is well worth the price tag if you find it in the low $300s.

I should note, too, that this is another of the ‘archived’ expressions.

Nose:  Nectarine and jammy / syrupy notes.  A nice, spicy nip.  Some bittersweet tang here; almost Five Alive-ish.  Or tropical Lifesavers candy.  Substantial wood.  More on soft, doughy baking spices than the mature fruits of the 25.

Palate:  Almost tropical here too.  Tangy and juicy delivery, before it starts to get a little sour.  Very much something I dig.  Orange and mango.  Ok…it IS tropical.  Just a little too tannic, but not enough to damage the score.

Thoughts:  A toss up between this and the 25 as to which I prefer more, but I think I lean towards the younger one.  Probably a case where a little more research is required.  😉

*Thanks to Andrew at KWM for the sample.


 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:54 am