I know there’s a fair bit of interest in these Elements of Islay releases, so let’s dig in to a rather juicy little specimen from Laphroaig.
If you’re feeling a little out of the loop as to what these austerely packaged little oddballs actually are let’s see if we can’t first catch you up a bit before we discuss the dram at hand.
Elements of Islay is the brainchild of Sukhinder Singh, he of The Whisky Exchange fame. The man behind Elixir Distillers. The evil genius who tempts us with the Port Askaig expressions. Yeah…that guy. Elements are small batch releases from the distilleries of the land of peat and smoke. Each distillery is given a two digit alpha code appended with a numeric. The alphas hint at the distillery (i.e. Lp = Laphroaig) while the numerics reveal the batch number. As you can see, then, this would be the eighth release of Laphroaig. Easy as pie, right?
Up until recently the only place I had been able to sample these malts was on forays across to the motherland. Thankfully the good folks at Pacific Wine & Spirits have been bringing ’em into Alberta for the past few months. We’ve seen some super cool Octomore, Bunnahabhain, Bowmore and a couple versions of the much-lauded ‘Peat’ land on our shores. Cool stuff, and I am definitely a big fan of this range. It does seem odd, however, that one of the whisky world’s greatest and most experienced personalities would opt for NAS releases. I assume it has to do with these vattings being a mix of largely mature stocks, for a decent degree of complexity, and a younger barrel or two thrown in for vibrancy and heftier smoke profile. That’s just speculation, though. Otherwise, the only rationale I could come up with would be that the age statements associated simply don’t support the price point. I hate to think that’s reason. But at $280 for a 500 mL bottle? Who knows?
Discounting that sad little truth, however…great dram, this. Gooey, chewy and utterly delicious. Jammy Laphroaig in this style is a treat.
Nose: Hmmm. Smells like sherried Laphroaig. Vinegary BBQ note. Charred rib ends. Sweet, tangy berry coulis. Mint jelly smashed headlong into raspberry jam and smeared on slightly burnt toast. Cherry cordials. Nice and lively. And uber smoky. No sulphur to be found!
Palate: Sharp and punchy. Love it! Sweet, gooey and mouthwatering. Berry jams again, on almost-burnt toast. And again, saucy meaty tones. Almost Ardbeggian. Like smushing a red, black and green ju-jube in your mouth at the same time.
Thoughts: Right in my wheelhouse. Great style. Not a great price, unfortunately. Nearly $300 for a 50cl bottle. Ouch. If you have some restraint (in terms of speed of consumption) and deep enough pockets…a really good score, however.
– Image & words: Curt
As much as a’bunadh has changed over the years (and not necessarily for the better), I can’t find it in myself to walk away from it. The whisky is still bold and singular. It’s still ticking all the boxes of proper whisky presentation (excepting our beloved age statement). And it’s still priced fairly.
Wait…nope. Forget that last. Canucks have been complaining about being taken to the cleaners for a bottle of this stuff for a couple of years now (an increase from $70 to $130?! C’mon!), but it seems we’re about to have some compatriots in our struggles. This feisty young NAS malt has jumped from the sub £50 mark to £80 in the overseas markets as well now! What.The.Actual.Fuck.
Not only are we subjected to a sherry “seasoned” casks nowadays in lieu of proper sherry butts, but we’re expected to pay almost double for this inferior degree of barrel influence? The industry has long told us about how expensive butts are (about ten times the price of bourbon barrels is the going narrative) as a justification for the price of sherried malts. So, what’s the rationale now, big biz? Hmmmm.
Anyway. Decent malt, this, if now more on the savoury side of the sherry spectrum than the jammy, fruit-driven side. I’ll drink it, but I won’t buy it anymore.
N: This malt seems to get more spicy and savoury, and less fruity every time I try it. Huge notes of mince pie and rum-sodden Christmas cake replete with marzipan topping. A little bit of cask char. Some in-the-shell peanuts. Just a hint of stewed tomato. Some dry grain.
P: Oh yes. Great arrival. Deep spice and very jammy here (in spite of the lack of similar characteristics on the nose). Viscous and almost syrup-thick. Mixed berry filling in chocolate cake. Orange jam. Almost hints of rye spice. A lingering flavour of balloons (odd, I know). Heavy sherry all the way through. Quite decent, if not the best batch.
T: Better palate than nose.
– Image & words: Curt
Why? Just why? Who is vatting this stuff? It pains me to write this, but it’s pretty simple really: It’s easier to omit than to subtract later or to try to overlook. I would think that should be fairly readily understood. To be completely transparent: Bunna 18 is typically my favorite 18 on the market, but I can’t recall the last time I tried it without finding huge dollops of sulphur. It’s unbelievably frustrating to find such deep honeyed, nougaty fruit notes and have them chained to mediocrity (at best) by brimstone. Please, please, please…leave those flawed and detested butts out of the vatting. And if you’re sulphur-blind…well, maybe don’t be involved in the selection process for casks.
I probably sound like the Fedora-sporting sulphur police here, but I stick by what I’ve said in the past: if a malt is sulphured, it is flawed. Sulphur via barrel management is probably the most egregious. Don’t fill young spirit into bad barrels. But there is also the issue of not letting your stills do the dirty work they were meant to do. There is a reason they are made out of copper after all. Run your stills slow enough to let the metal do its work in stripping out all of those off notes.
Okay. To be fair, there’s not bucketloads of it here, but there is certainly enough to warrant discussion. And…for me to debate the standing I hold this expression in going forward.
N: Big and almost cartoony at first nosing. Sulphur by way of struck match(sigh). Almost as if someone lit up at a windswept, seaside distance. Nougat and honey. Great dried fruits and whisky-soaked nuts. Dunnage and polish. Just a slight wine tang. If you can get past the sulphur…nice nose.
P: There’s a sharpness of burnt match again here. And the sherry tastes young and sharp. Kinda fights the age statement in a way. Seems anachronistic. Chewy toffee, dried fruits and scones. Then some maple and clean oak notes. Fruit tea and herbal notes.
T: With time the sulphur fades. Thank God. Still not up where it should be, but head and shoulders above the previous batch. Though it pains me to score this one so low.
– Image & words: Curt
Not quite the li’l Lolita that Ardnamurchan, Abhain Dhearg or Wolfburn is, Kilchoman is now truly coming into its prime. Creeping up to the point where it’s just a few years shy of being able to legally drink itself now, the malt is becoming more and more of a Islay mainstay. Five more years and we’ll be able to say there is 18 year old Kilchoman in the world. And that…I am dying to try.
Alright. In keeping with the spirit of inhumane deregulation that is running rampant in the US right now, let’s just shoot the elephant in the room: I DO work for Kensington Wine Market. Full disclosure. Nothing to hide here. I have biases and I like to think I’m pretty forthright with you guys and gals about ’em. And if my opinion was the only one you were privy to, I’d expect nothing but skepticism. I’m okay with that. I’ve taken my lumps when need be. However…I am going to ask here and now that others who have tasted this one weigh in in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
As to this particular expression: a decade old malt from the li’l farm distillery that could. Ten years. Know what happens at ten years? The peat tends to shed some of its volatility and the softer nuances begin to sashay forth. This is when peat becomes magic in my humble opinion. Less of a one-trick-pony and more of a fireworks show that speaks to accents and deeper complexity. Each year added on becomes a tale of additions and subtractions: addition of nuance and subtle notes coaxed from the barrel and subtraction of intensity and one-dimensionality (not to mention those acetone notes that confirm youth). The true test of this math, though, is whether you reach a zero sum, wherein the pluses and minuses reach equilibrium.
And here…we have it.
You can read the tasting notes below, but what you really need to know is that this is probably the single best Kilchoman I’ve ever tasted. At the time of writing I have tried 48 different expressions from this wee Islay upstart.
Only 212 bottles, and only at Kensington Wine Market.
One final note: This is probably the best Kilchoman I’ve tried. The second best might just be the cask sample for the upcoming KWM exclusive 100% Islay Barley. More to come on that one.
Nose: Loads of smoke, as we’d expect. Incredibly sweet peat. Lime and licorice. Saddle soap and warm leather. Oyster liquor. Seared scallops with a touch of soy sauce. A smear of orange marmalade and a nice line of cocoa that runs through the whole. For how huge and bombastic this is, it’s also incredibly creamy and approachable. Superb, vibrant nose.
Palate: Creamy butterscotch or caramel, then…wham! Smoke and earth. A touch of Thrills gum and some horehound candy. A bit of lemon curd. Nice tangy fruits. Fresh orange. Perhaps some stone fruit. Strong oaky backbone and some oily vanilla. Slightly leafy and minerally at the back end.
Thoughts: Sometimes you don’t need a lot of words. I’ll give you one, though: winner.
– Image & words: Curt
Those sounds that have been keeping you up at night? Yeah…probably me. Sniffles, coughing, throat clearing. My bad. I’ve battled one cold after another for weeks now. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that my wife works in a virtual petri dish of kid germs and somehow manages to smuggle home enough to share with me. Lovely lass, ain’t she?
Anyway…lest ye think I’ve turned tail and run for the hills, I do have a couple of partially written reviews coming in the next wee while (as soon as I feel my senses are back where they need to be). Look for some Elements of Islay (as requested), some more Cadenhead releases (again…just cause you asked) and a few peated gems to share the word on.
In other news, I’ve been shopping around my second novel and am 30k words deep into my third. Blogging’s fun and all, but fiction is where my heart is.
But let’s not wait for reviews to trigger dialogue here. I’m curious as to which distilleries – in this age of delusion and nearly unfathomable prices – you feel are still worth the investment of loyalty and income. Share your thoughts. Don’t be shy.
Grains were starting to worry me there for a bit. I can’t say the fear has been entirely alleviated, but I’m starting to relax my guard a bit. I was beginning to think that grain whisky was the new NAS. You know…a cheap, mass-produced product that required little investment on the part of the big brands and would help ease pressure on maturing malt stocks. Haig Club was a prime example of how bad it could get if we allowed the narrative to continue unchecked.
Fortunately, most of the grain whisky we’re seeing (almost entirely via the indie bottlers) is being showcased with a substantial amount of age behind it. Usually at least two or three decades. It’s this sweet spot (actually, I’d argue that maybe it’s more like the fourth or fifth decades) in which grain whisky really shines. Kinda like the awkward and gawky little sister who finally emerges – chrysalis-like – from her teen years to be the princess her parents always knew she was.
Yet even with age statements that supercede my years (not by much anymore, sadly), I find grains largely miss the mark for me. There is a lack of complexity that brings them more in line with mature Canadian whisky than any other category. It serves to showcase just how important the malting process is to Scotch whisky. Those myriad layers of flavour and aroma simply don’t develop the same when the distillers are using maize, wheat, rye or unmalted barley as their mashbill. Not to say those can’t all be great in their own right, but examples of spectacular expressions are much more few and far between than in the single malt sphere.
This Invergordon from 1972 is a bit of a gem. Not a pristine diamond, but a precious stone nevertheless. There is a sparkling purity here that is easy to fall for. And even more easy to become enamoured with? The price. $400, give or take. For a four decade old dram, that is a steal.
Nose: Soft-smoked caramel notes. Toasted oak. Crème Brulee. Steamed milk. Nougat. Pine and eucalyptus. Brioche. Old notebooks. Furniture polish. Soft chocolate.
Palate: A surprisingly vibrant palate. Super-creamy and easygoing. Fresh woods. Raw almond notes all over this one. Faint marmalade. Hot cross buns. Toasted marshmallow. More on those warm toasty caramel aromas. But ultimately…a little too woody. That kinda negates what would have been a lovely finish.
Thoughts: I like it. A lot. But it’s short term relationship kinda stuff. Not a full blown love affair.
– Image & words: Curt
It’s always a treat returning to this wizened old granddad of the Islay family. I’ve tasted this expression going back to 2008 and every year is a balancing act between restraint and indulgence. Part of me itches to pop the cork with a couple of mates and not stop until we reach the bottom. Another part of me recognizes how special the malt is and keeps my indulgent side at bay. A true Jeckyll and Hyde show.
Yes, of course there have been ups and downs in this run of 25s, but there is not one I haven’t loved and savoured along the way. As you’d expect, soft and restrained smoky tones smash head-on into a melange of gentle fruits that run the gambit from juicy orange and lime to soft melon and pseudo-tropical trappings. The resulting spirit is never short of delicious and more often than not hits the spectacular mark. Campbell and co. at Laphroaig know what they’re doing when it comes to ensuring the more mature stocks are kept tiptop and the resultant vattings are consistently excellent.
As for the 2015? Beauty. The 2016 is better, but it’s nothing more than shades and nuances. If you can afford the sticker price (high, I know), it’s well worth securing a bottle. At the very least hit up your local whisky bar (if such exists wherever you may be) and sip a dram. You’ll not be disappointed.
Nose: Soft and beautiful. Driven by soft fruits – almost tropical – and very clean white smoke (by that I mean not black, dirty, oily smoke). Creamy and threaded through with oily vanilla bean. Slightly minerally. A little grilled pineapple (brilliant caramelized sugar notes) and charred orange peel. Black Wine Gums. Faint lime notes. Rubber band and fabric bandages. Give it time in the glass for the smoke to grow.
Palate: Almost tropical again, and an incredibly bold and lively delivery. Rich and gorgeous. Some tannins do grow toward the back end though. Surprisingly jammy and gooey. Rubber and char notes. Great soft confusion of flavors (hinting at good integration/complexity). Slightly more vegetal here. Some grapefruit too. Gorgeous development.
Thoughts: I think we’ve said it all, haven’t we?
– Image & words: Curt
So. Upcoming reviews and such. What distilleries/brands/expressions would you like to see more of?
The Blasda of the Orkeys. Had to be said.
Malts like this to, to me, are kinda like CCR touring without Fogerty. Or the Doors continuing after Jim Morrison died. You may still be trading off a well-established brand, but ultimately you’re not really giving fans what they want.
Highland Park without sherry is neat, but it’s not Highland Park. Just as Blasda was a cool as hell Ardbeg (and, contrary to what you may have heard, very good), but let’s face it…it was just barely an Ardbeg. Full volume is a bourbon cask-driven version of our Orkney darling, rich in soft vanilla, clean spice and firm oak, but lacking in the oomphy, gooey dried fruits that work to enhance that smoke and slightly peaty tang. It is decent enough malt to be sure (and the price point is just over half of what the regular 18 is), but I probably wouldn’t reach for this one very often.
And dear lord, that packaging. Bad. So bad.
I’ll stick with my HPs with some age and sass to them.
Nose: Vanilla and very clean smoke. Homemade fruit salad. Pepper and ginger. Orange and mixed berry scones. A touch of artificial cherry. More orange. Peppered custard.
Palate: Smoke. New tooth picks. Opening a fresh ream of paper. Faint white pepper. Overbaked pie crust. A lot of fruit, but there’s a slightly too strong oak thread running interference. Good mouthfeel. Good arrival. Then…it’s kinda downhill.
Thoughts: Not bad, but rather pointless.
– Image & words: Curt