Feb 052016
 

Port Ellen 13th Release042

55% abv

Score:  93/100

 

2013’s official Port Ellen release.  I’m not sure what this one retailed for when it hit the open market, and quite frankly not really interested in hunting that information down, to be honest.  The reality is that it’s now long gone and well beyond what I’m willing to pay for a bottle anyway.

Having said that, a friend of mine who has a warm heart for sharing, a passion for great whisky and really good taste was kind enough to pour this for me just days back.  This and several others which we’ll cover in the coming days actually.  As you can imagine I was diligently taking notes, as were most others in our little collective.

I’ve been questioned about the value of these high end malt reviews before, as in theory they really only pertain to a very small and extremely specific audience.  I spent quite a while mulling over that line of thought before ultimately dismissing it.  I think, because there are very few individuals that will actually get their hands on whiskies like this, that it’s absolutely important to share details.  Otherwise there’s a very small data set regarding these malts that exists in the wider whisky world.  The more information, the better, aye?

Anyway…this is one of the oldest PEs I’ve tried, having spun ’round the sun 34 times since its 1978 birth.  And age is definitely a huge factor in the end product’s character.  Earlier Diageo Port Ellens boasted much more heft, prickling vibrancy and bigger smoke.  This is an exercise in austerity.  Not sure which I prefer, to be honest, but I can tell you this one is a classic beauty.  Islay with age is magic.

Limited run of just 2,958 (highly coveted) bottles.

Nose:  So soft.  Everything is fading and settling into mature austerity by this age.  Nice toasted notes.  Smoke, but not big billows.  Vanilla.  Soft lemon.  Fruit cocktail in syrup.  Mild milk and white chocolate.  Nice warm farmy, barnyard aromas.  Peat and briny, seaside notes.  A slight sourness of fruits.

Palate:  Lemony and very oily.  Much smokier here than the nose belies (and we like that).  Green tea and a general herbaceousness.  Tastes very mature.  Quite soft, all told, for 55% Islay malt.  Hay.  Fruit candy sweetness.  Soft white fruits.

Thoughts:  Gorgeous.  Rich, big and elegant.  Port Ellen in all its inherent singularity and complexity (if that makes any sense).

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:15 am
Feb 042016
 

Port Ellen 15th Release037

53.9% abv

Score:  92/100

 

As of January, 2016, this is the most current Diageo Port Ellen annual release.  And it is a doozy.  Though not necessarily in the ways you might expect.  Let me explain…

As we’ve discussed here a few times, Port Ellen closed 33 years ago this May.  It had been distilling from 1967 through 1983, after having been shuttered from 1929 up until that point in the mid sixties.  Simple math tells us that the entire supply of Port Ellen that our generations have seen hit the market was from a 16 year production window.  That speaks volumes (pun aside) about how much Port Ellen may still be napping in Diageo’s warehouses (very little, I assume).  Also telling is the fact that all previous annual releases were either 1978 or 1979 distillate.  This 15th release is an ’83.  Hmmmm…what?

It’s long been rumoured that Diageo has been sourcing back PE casks from some of the independent bottlers.  The name most often mentioned is Douglas Laing.  Whether there is truth to the mutterings is not likely something that either party is willing to disclose, but it is whispered that Diageo exhausted their own stores and have subsequently restocked via buybacks.  Hence…a 1983 release this time.  Coincidentally, you may notice that many of the Douglas Laing releases have been from the 1980s, suggesting that this may indeed have been the source of Diageo’s rumoured pillaging.

Enough conspiratorial nattering.

A few nights back I was fortunate enough to be part of a private little gathering that sipped our way from the 9th release through the 15th release (with a little extra for ‘afters’).  Over the coming days I’ll share the details for each of these expressions.  I thought maybe we’d start here, with arguably the most atypical of the whole series.  Anomalous though it may be (due to it’s darker complexities and a seemingly more sherried profile), it is still an absolute barnstormer of a malt.

Cost prohibitive, of course, but Port Ellen is becoming as scarce as integrity in the whisky world these days.  This 32 year old was a limited release of 2,964 (grossly overpriced) bottles.  Oh yeah…and it really is utterly magic.

Nose:  Hmmm…this is quite an outlier from the rest of the Diageo PE OBs.  Almost Sherry-ish.  Rich in creamy toffee/butterscotch notes.  Dough.  Cinnamon.  Very toasted.  Iodine and medicinal notes.  Quite briny and citric.  Farmy too.  Dried fruits.  And also some burnt fruit.

Palate:  Smoky, but it’s a big wet smoke.  Burnt caramel.  Kippers.  Lemon.  Chocolate.  Rich, jammy fruits.  Plum skins.  Tarry.  Licorice.  Mocha/coffee.  Quite tart and tannic at the back end, but not unpleasantly so.   Leather and caramel.  Smoked apple.  And yeah…a little earthy and peaty.  Reminds a bit of older sherried Caol Ila.

Thoughts:  I swear this seems sherried.  Delish, but an odd man odd malt from PE.

*Sincere thanks to the anonymous gent who kindly poured this, and several other, Port Ellen for me at a recent gathering.  Unforgettable.  Slainte.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:12 am
Jan 192016
 

BenRiach 18 y.o. Albariza129

46% abv

Score:  89/100

 

There are a few whisky profiles that really work for me: older bourbon-matured malts that bloom into bold tropical notes; young peat that explodes like pine knots in a bonfire; syrupy, almost overcooked sherry bombs in their third and fourth decades; and malts like this 18 year old Albariza, which marry the gooeyness of rich jammy fruits with the complex subtleties of mature peat.

Put simply, BenRiach absolutely nailed it with the Albariza.  This is one of the sexiest and steamiest marriages of sweet and peat I’ve met so far.  These two alpha whisky styles can either be uncompromising sparring partners or intimate bedfellows.  Fortunately in this case it is the latter.  The peat profile is not quite Islay, in terms of style and make-up, but when rubbing up and down against the rich trappings of sweet PX sherry it manages to emerge in a new guise not dissimilar to Bowmore’s current king-o’-the-hill, Laimrig.

‘Albariza’, for those interested in linguistic marketing origins, is the name of the white soil used for the cultivation of grapes in Andalucía.  A gimmicky name, of course, but so be it, so long as the distillery keeps putting those age statements front and center on the bottles.  It’s when we see the latter disappear in favour of the former that we start to worry.  Moot point here.  As I said…BenRiach really aced this one.  Great malt from one of the most consistently excellent distilleries around.

Nose:  Smoked fruit.  A ‘gooey’, jammy nose.  Damp, peaty notes.  Somewhat farmy, with notes of iodine, pepper and chilis.  Wet leather.  Raspberry and blackberry.  Dried figs and prunes.  Quite ashy.

Palate:  Head-on collision of jammy fruits and ash.  Plums and berry compote.  Threads of smoke and medicinal notes.  Mincemeat.  Very rich.  Damp wood.  Maybe moist tobacco.  Not too, too far off an Islay malt, surprisingly.

Thoughts:  This is like a mainland version of Bowmore Laimrig.  Of course that means I love it.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:48 am
Jan 142016
 

Strathmill 22 y.o. Cask #10310 (A.D. Rattray)158

58.6% abv

Score:  87.5/100

 

This one was a bit of a shocker.  One of those whiskies that go to show that no matter how much you know, sometimes you just don’t know.  I’d have sworn, when I tasted this for the first time, that this was a bourbon-matured malt.  It was only on returning to it much later, and reading the label properly, that I learned otherwise.  Turns out that this clean and nekkid, spicy l’il gem was actually napping in a sherry barrel for the last couple of decades.  I honestly would never have guessed.  Ammunition for my critics to say I know nothing, I s’pose.  So be it.

So, what do we know about Strathmill?  Not a lot, really.  It’s another of those ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ distilleries in Diageo’s portfolio.  The team at this old Speyside distillery pump out nearly two million litres each year, but nearly all of that output is tankered offsite to Auchroisk for blending away into J&B (and likely other suitably unimpressive blends as well).  Historically this has always been because blends were largely responsible for putting bread on the table, but I can’t help but wonder if now – in this age of single malt explosion – Strathmill is finally destined to see official bottlings of single malt released under its own banner.  If things continue status quo I would think it’s only a matter of time.  Blends just ain’t what they used to be in terms of market share (though they are still a far bigger seller than our beloved malts).

But moving on, let’s look at this independent Strathmill from the good people at A.D. Rattray.  Is it spectacular?  Nah.  But it is utterly enjoyable, and mindbogglingly under-priced around here.  I paid less than $100 for this one just a month or two back.  Sub-century price tags are simply unheard of for bottles over 20 years now.  Who are we kidding?  We’ve hit a point where many 10 year old malts are falling into this price bracket.  Or worse still, NAS malts at three figures (and beyond)!

This was a 631 bottle outturn from a sherry butt…a very dead sherry butt…and hit the shelves in 2012.  If you can still find one…grab it.  Well worth a hundred clams.

Nose:  Big, naked and fruity.  Toasted marchmallow and banana.  Vanilla, white chocolate and pepper.  The depth of spice is the only thing here that really hints at the sherry influence.  A slight eucapytus bite.  It’s all quite soft and custardy though.  I quite like this ‘simple’ profile.  Softens beautifully by the 20 minute mark or so.

Palate:  A very oaky malt.  Slightly grassy, with green tea notes.  Apple and dry grains.  Underripe pear.  Creamy, but with a woody undernote.  Like the last licks of ice cream on a popsicle stick.  A big cereal-rich back end.  Not overly deep, but pleasant throughout.  I like this style.

Thoughts:  I’d guess third fill bourbon barrel.  Honestly.  I think this speaks to early wood policy in some of the less ‘single malt-driven’ distilleries.  It simply wasn’t (isn’t?) a priority to ensure best-barreling for malts that were destined for obscurity; instead just a need for a vessel for at least three years.  Thankfully a few – like this one – survived the blending abattoir.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 2:12 pm
Jan 062016
 

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt156

43% abv

Score:  88/100

 

A Japanese blended malt from Nikka.  Non age-stated, but let’s assume a middling youth.  Asian malts mature a little bit differently from their Scottish brethren in most cases, so using the same metrics is misleading.  What I can say, though, is that this one is neither underdeveloped, nor is it gracefully waltzing up into its golden years (that apex of maturity we ache for in the whisky world).

Initial rumblings on this one pegged it as a wonder malt of sorts.  Something that was unparalleled in its price bracket in terms of relative quality and depth of pseudo-tropicalia.  I kinda see it, yeah.  Word of mouth from a few trusted sources was enough to get our local club – The Dram Initiative – to spring blindly for a couple bottles to shelve for a future Japanese whisky night.  It now seems that was a solid investment.  The bottle you see in the photo above was purchased on behalf of another l’il club here in town, called Liquorature for an event held a few months back.  The seven or eight gents that gathered over good reads and good malts that night spanked the hell out of it, I should note.  Fortunately there were a few drops left over for a couple of revisits and some tasting notes.

Again…we decry the lack of vintage on the label – in this day and age there is no excuse for clandestine policies regarding age – but concede a well-executed drink.  Oh, and a hell of a price for a Japanese whisky in this era of unrestrained price gouging.

Nose:  Pear, orange and a touch of that syrupy fruit cocktail mix from the can.  Vaguely floral too.   Like a good young Speysider with a more exotic spice bouquet.  White chocolate and vanilla cake.  Kinda reminds of ice cream…or custard.  Not a complex malt, but very well-composed and infinitely drinkable.

Palate:  Nice arrival that immediately shifts gears into darker vanilla and tannic notes.  Plum skins.  Is that peat?  Really?  The fruits that ebb and flow here do border on tropical (but the whisky is just too young for it to truly plunge into tropical territory), with those semi-bitter, but also incredibly sweet, colorful explosions (too esoteric?).  Think of a very muted tropical juice blend poured over angel food cake.  Leaves smoked peaches and oak on the back end.  Neat.

Thoughts:  An incredibly well made dram, and for a ridiculously fair price considering the mark-up on Japanese whisky nowadays.  $60 give or take.  One final note…the nose does somewhat outshine the palate.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 7:29 am
Jan 052016
 

Chu Yeh Ching Chiew181

45% abv

Score:  47/100

 

Jesus Christ.  I’m sorry.  I wish I could find a respectful way to say this, but I simply can’t.  My taste buds are in revolt.  As is my tact.  There’ll be no pulling punches here, as this is – quite frankly – ruddy foul stuff.  Like overtly offensive, if I’m being totally up front.

So…is this actually whisky?  I honestly don’t know.  I bought it in a section labeled ‘whisky’.  The tag beneath it said ‘whisky’.  But nowhere can I find reliable information as to whether or not anyone actually considers this a whisky.  It is, however, a distilled beverage made from barley (and other stuff), so let’s proceed anyway, if for nothing other than shits and giggles (and an occasional foray into masochism).

An ingredients list that features sorghum, barley, peas, sugar and bamboo leaves should be your first clue that things may be a little squiffy here.  However, that sort of mixture should logically give a rather organic and earthy profile, shouldn’t it?  Not a chance here.  This one is an ‘x-file’ of a drink.  It’s a soupy-smelling, meaty anomaly and should actually be left on the shelf…or maybe used for cooking.

Chu Yeh Ching Chiew is served up in a 500 ml bottle.  That’s about 480 ml too much considering I probably needed only about 20 ml for this write-up.  Now ‘scuse me while I go scour my tongue with an S.O.S. pad.

If anyone out there knows more about this one please feel free to share.

Nose:  Nose:  Beef ramen flavour packet.  BBQ Beef Hula Hoops (for those of you with access to UK snack fare).  Miso.  Very savoury and spicy.  Dried meats and tea leaves.  Maybe sweet peas (but that could be nothing more than the power of suggestion).  Polish, citrus zest and a fleeting aroma of chocolate.  But really all that other stuff is buried behind the big beefy Oxo/Bovril/Beef ramen scent.  This is the meatiest drink I’ve ever nosed, and that includes the time I tried ‘bone-luging’ Lagavulin 16 down a freshly de-marrowed beef bone.

Palate:  Gah!  Less meaty now.  More on over-the-top sugar sweetness and vegetable soup.  Tomato.  Kale.  Lemongrass.  A bit of meatiness now.  Plain egg noodles.  Fuck, is this ever weird.  No more.  I’m done.

Thoughts:  <shudder>

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 

 Posted by at 10:43 am
Jan 042016
 

Ardbeg Rollercoaster Committee Release097

57.3% abv

Score:  90.5/100

 

Oh, man.  If only this were a legitimate road to travel.  Back in 2010 Ardbeg released what would become – for me, anyway – the poster child for what NAS whisky could be (if it has to exist at all, that is) without the interference of the SWA and the British government enforcers.

Ok, so the bottle doesn’t say 10 or 12 year old, as you can see, but it does have a curious band of dates dancing across the front label and an even curiouser little bar graph on the back label.  Hmmm.  What have we here?  Long and short of it is that before the folks at Ardbeg got their knuckles rapped for disclosure (well…not exactly), they printed up these labels and 15,000 bottles of Rollercoaster hit the open market.  And those aforementioned dates and graph?  A breakdown of the vintages that went into creating this careening gem of a malt, as well as the percentage of each that made it into the final vatting.  These component casks range from 3 to 12 years of age.  Now…if Ardbeg had played by the rules this one would have had to have been labeled a 3 year old.  Would that sell?  Maybe.  Probably, actually, but you’ll never convince Big Business of that.  Too much of a gamble.

Anyway, Ardbeg gave us the details, were subsequently given the ‘shame on you’ treatment’ and that was the last we saw of what is – in my mind – a brilliant way of selling a marriage of young and old.  Of course, the proof is in the puddin’, as they say, and fortunately this is a hell of a sexy malt, proving that there’s nothing wrong with bridging malt gaps; only with the concept of doing it without being held accountable to the consumer (read: the dreaded NAS).

For those of you interested in the actual barrel breakdown…voila!

1997 Cask: 2nd fill – 9.5%
1998 Cask: Refill Hogshead – 12.2%
1999 Cask: 1st Fill Barrel – 14.2%
2000 Cask: 1st Fill Barrel – 10.9%
2001 Cask: Refill Barrel – 6.2%
2002 Cask: Refill Barrel – 8.9%
2003 Cask: 1st Fill Barrel – 11.7%
2004 Cask: 1st Fill Barrel – 10.6%
2005 Cask: 2nd Fill Sherry Butt – 10.4%
2006 Cask: Refill Hogshead – 5.4%

Great whisky that is now a part of malt lore.  Much as Balvenie’s Tun series (early days anyway) and Glaser’s recent online info share will be for future generations.

There’s much more we could say about this one, but only so long I expect to be able to hold your interest, so how ’bout some tasting notes now?

Before we do, though, a big cheers to my mate Voytek for allowing the opportunity to try this one.  That was an unforgettable night!

Nose:  Ashy and redolent of beachside bonfire.  Very juicy and sweet, fruit-rich nose.  Ardbeggian through and through. Smoke and black licorice.  Chocolate.  Charred scallops and seared meat.  Warm rubber.  A sweet and savoury collision.  A slight leathery note in the background.  Iodine and apples.  Tangy…like a good BBQ sauce.

Palate:  Yes!  Yes!  Yes!  What an arrival!  If only the stocks existed to make this recipe a staple in the core releases.  Big tart, green notes.  Black licorice meets blackberry jam.  A mouthful of strong, strong medicine.  Loads of syrupy dark fruits.  Loads of smoke.  Lime zest, bittersweet chocolate and a hint of coffee.

Thoughts:  I expected a bumpier ride, to be honest, but this is a freaking great build.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 2:23 pm
Jan 032016
 

Laphroaig Cairdeas 200th Anniversary 2015120

51.5% abv

Score:  92/100

 

I love what Laphroaig has done with the 2015 edition of the popular Cairdeas expression.  This bog beast is built entirely of barley floor-malted at the distillery (as opposed to most Laphroaig releases which feature predominantly malted barley procured from the Port Ellen Maltings), distilled in the squat l’il stills and then matured in the Number 1 Warehouse (yes, that is a different place than Bowmore’s legendary Number 1 Vaults) near the briny influence of the Atlantic (if you believe that makes a difference).  Whereas we can usually expect Laphroiag’s phenols to hover around 40-45 ppm pre-distillation, who knows what we have here?  The peat level isn’t really the main talking point however.  The fact that this is an entirely old school malt with a crystalline purity and stunning balance is.  Wow, what a dram.  Best Laphroaig in a long time, and that is saying something.

The elephant in the room is that this is – for all intents and purposes – an NAS expression.  The reality is though that John Campbell, distillery manager and the architect of this dram, has been rather forthright about this one; explaining that it was laid down in 2003 and bottled in 2015.  Effectively an unofficial 11 year old, I suppose, as his comments referred to it being ‘nearly twelve years old’.  This Cairdeas wears its youth like a badge here, shining bright and conspicuous.

I first tasted this one in a range that included three different Leapfrog 25 year olds, and still this Cairdeas held its own (and then some).  Well worth tracking down and spending your shekels on.  Oh, and having said that…this one was released in 2015 for the distillery’s bicentennial.  It is limited, but to just how many bottles I’m not certain.  20,000 litres in total, I believe.  Grab before it’s gone.

Nose:  Key lime pie.  Peaty, earthy and smoky.  Ash and mineral notes.  Eucalyptus, in a Mint Leaves candy kinda way.  Green Jolly Ranchers.  I know this is built on 11 year old malt, but it noses older.  Very much a fruity candy treat.  With a medicinal edge, of course.  Soft sugared dough.  Dust, blood orange and tangerine.  Latex and ‘old whisky aroma’  (what we’ll call ‘OWA’ from here on out).

Palate:  A licorice, smoke and medicinal arrival.  Again…wow.  How does an 11 year old taste this mature?!  Soft fruit meets sugar cookies.  Lime zest, rubber.  Slightly, slightly bitter.  Ashy and oily as hell.  Faint cardamom in soft chocolate.

Thoughts:  The best Laphroaig I’ve had since the 25, I think.  This one works for me on so many levels.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:37 am
Dec 312015
 

Read this.  It may change your life (or at least your vantage of whisky).  As always, Serge nails it.  Whisky has no better spokesperson.

Thanks, O Alsatian One.  You lead, we follow.

 

 – Curt

 

 Posted by at 6:40 pm
Dec 292015
 

Rest in peace, Lemmy.  Thanks for everything.

DONINGTON, ENGLAND - JUNE 12:  Lemmy Kilminster of Motorhead performs on stage on June 12th, 2005 at day three of the Download Festival, in Donington Park England. (Photo by Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images)

1945-2015

 Posted by at 12:59 pm