Jun 172017
 

Ardbeg Kelpie

46% abv

Score:  87.5/100

 

It’s that time of year.  That May / June window when the fiercest of Islay distilleries releases its latest bit of spirit alchemy on the wider whisky world.  It’s a time that polarizes like almost no other in these circles.  On the one hand, the haters, who detest the gimmickry, marketing hype, youthfulness and lack of age statement.  And let’s not forget a price point that outstrips the core range.  On the other hand, the lovers, who are hooked long before the bottles ever hit the shelf.  These latter, acolytes for life, irrespective of all the aforementioned negatives, ready to lay out the bucks for the lore, the aesthetic, the tongue-in-cheek fun and let’s be honest with ourselves…an unbelievably uniform level of quality.

The simple fact remains, even the worst Ardbeg releases are still better than almost anything else in their weight class.  Price may be a little contestable (depending on where you live), but at least you know you’re not ending up with an bottle of swill at the end of the day.  Kelpie is no different.  This one did some slumbering in barrels constructed of oak harvested from somewhere near the Black Sea.  Apparently we have a mix of straight bourbon-matured Ardbeg and these rather unique Russian barrels.  Neato.

And a Kelpie?  Said apparition is some sort of water demon said to haunt the island’s rocky shores in the form of a nightmarish marine bull or stag sort of creature.  Ummm…’kay.  Let’s go with that.  I admit it, I love the angles Ardbeg seems to find time and again.  We keep talking about it, so it’s obviously working.

But ultimately, all that matters is quality.  Whisky served up this young is rarely going to break that 90 point mark for me nowadays (yass, yass, I’m a jaded old fuck, I know), but high 80s speaks volumes, I think.  May not be for everyone – and this will do little to placate the haters – but it is really good whisky.  In spite of that…can’t help but wish we were seeing older releases with age statements.  Oh…and at fair prices, I should add.

Either way…my Ardbeg love continues on unabated.

Nose:  Whoa.  This seems young.  Seven or eight maybe?  Warm rubber (like bicycle tires in the sun or newly-worn Welly boots), dark chocolate, black coffee, oily vanilla bean.  Licorice.  There’s a fleeting note of Cherry Cordials here.  A mix of olive brine and lime juice.  A little bit of orange.  Some medicinal notes.  There’s a neat savouriness too that hearkens back to Alligator.  Bucketloads of peat smoke and Islay-ness.

Palate:  Slightly rubbery here too.  Peat is sharp and on the attack.  Everything is cloaked in smoke.  Now some softer fruity notes emerge and the mouthfeel becomes surprisingly creamy.  Some orange and lime again.  Firm oak, without being vanilla-laden.  A bit of salted licorice.  The malt is sweet and brings cereal notes that are clean and rigid.  Nice.

Thoughts:  Make no mistake, this is huge whisky.  The 46% abv belies how massive it really is.  Incredible times when 46% seems anemic, no?

 

 – Images & words:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:39 am
Jun 172017
 

Caol Ila 31 y.o. Cask #2930 (Silver Seal)

54.2% abv

Score:  90/100

 

Check out that bottle!  One of the coolest, most retro looking pieces of whisky-ware I’ve yet seen.  Not that we decide our whisky opinions on the aesthetics, but credit where credit is due, right?  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we’re sipping a 31 year old cask strength from one of Islay’s most consistently enjoyable distilleries.  Especially as regards older malts.

Caol Ila ages beautifully.  I think we’ve discussed this in other places.  In many ways it’s like the poor man’s Port Ellen.  The spirit is peated to about the same specs, would have been casked into wood procured under the same wood policy and, in cases such as this, matured to an age we see most Port Ellen releases at.  Let’s not forget that Diageo owned Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen at the same time.  But at the heart of it all, the most important factor is that the oily spirit marries well with wood for extended periods of time.  In fact…I don’t believe I’ve ever met an over-oaked Caol Ila.

And as for this Silver Seal…gorgeous.  Rich and classic.  Elegant, to be sure, but with enough bombast to please the discerning.  The phenols in this malt fade to wispy tendrils of austere beauty, but that mature smoke brings a complexity I miss in modern malts.

Let’s face it…the Italian independent bottlers know their whisky.  Between these guys, Samaroli and Wilson & Morgan there are some spectacular casks on the market.

Nose:  Slightly doughy with a pepper note.  Some light peat and smoke.  Hints of candy and bubblegum.  Nice citrus backbone.  A hint of grassy, herbal tea notes.  A hint of savoury herb, maybe oregano.  Salt and pepper.

Palate:  Grassy arrival.  Very oily.  More smoke now.  Oak is assertive, but pleasant.  Neat fruity and sweet development.  Linseed oil.  Citrus peel.  Earthy, peaty notes sprinkled all over this one.  Nice tart closeout here.

Thoughts:  Very nice whisky.  Rich throughout.  Balanced and delicious.  This is the first Silver Seal malt I’ve tried.  Hope to get my hands on more.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:29 am
Jun 032017
 

Caol Ila Connoisseurs Choice 2003 (Gordon & MacPhail)

46% abv

Score:  90/100

 

It’s become a bit of a thing.  We go to Islay.  We buy a bottle (or two) for drinking around the hotel (or B&B) and in between times.  And consequently that bottle becomes an object of some sentimentality.  It helps, of course, when the whisky turns out to be brilliant.

This G&M 2003 was just such a case.  A dozen years old and a firecracker of a malt.  Five of us on Islay last September found this bottle intriguing enough to cough up a few quid for when we saw it at both the Co-op and the Whisky Shop.  We pooled our schillings, popped the cork and poured the first round and not a face in the room could help but light up in appreciation.  Brilliant dram, this.  Clean and pure and, while not exactly a classic Caol Ila, it is certainly a classic malt.  Gordon & MacPhail have some of the best barrels in the industry, and it’s a treat to see them starting to hit the shelves at 46% instead of the old 40% or 43%.  Appreciate it much.

One of our crew brought back a bottle with him, but I was butting up against my limits of what I could bring back (who am I kidding?  I demolished those limits).  Not to mention, my suitcases were bursting at the seams.  Fortunately a few bottles of this landed in Calgary not too much later and I was able to scoop one.  I think maybe we’ll save that one for a session of trip reminiscences with the boys at some point a little further down the line.

Nose:  Smoke, peat, ash and iodine.  All of which we’d likely expect.  None too delicate here.  Oil.  Earth.  Citrus.  Minerally notes.  High cacao dark chocolate.  Green rock candy.  More chocolate emerges with time in the glass, milk and white now.  Vanilla.  Some sort of fruity reduction.  A hint of bubblegum.

Palate:  Oh wow.  What an arrival.  Smoky and fruity.  The color belies how sweetly, juicy this is.  Usually this much mouthwatering juiciness comes in darker heavily sherried malts.  Some citrus again.  Smoked shellfish.  Lovely linger on all the right notes.  Smoke just builds.  Again…that touch of bubblegum.

Thoughts:  Gorgeous variant on a Caol Ila.  I think I’d guess Laphroaig blind.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:10 am
May 162017
 

Head To Head – Auchentoshan Valinch 2011 vs Valinch 2012

 

I quite fell in love with Valinch when it landed here.  The 2011 edition, that is.  It sold out before I managed to scoop a couple for future sipping sessions, but such is.  These aren’t the sort of whiskies I generally squirrel away for any other reason than value and price point.  Let’s face it…there’s always something new coming, as a mate of mine says.  I did pick up the 2012 when it arrived, but found it…well…less exciting than its predecessor.  Still quite a good dram, but it didn’t light my fire in the same way.

A few weeks back a mate of mine came by with a heel of the 2011.  Lo and behold I still had a heel of the 2012.  Neither were opened in the year of release, so rest assured these bottles are not on life support.  Both have been open for a fair while, however, but I’m happy to report that they are still lively and bright.  Perfect opportunity for the H2H I’ve wanted to do for quite some time.  So let’s do it.

Right off…the 2011 is lighter in color than the 2012.  While color means less than nothing in this reviewer’s eyes, it does speak to batch variation.  In and of itself, no bad thing, so long as the quality stays uniformly high.  The ’12 has a richer golden hue.  The latter is just a hair shy in terms of abv.

Initial nosing…hmm…fairly consistent across, but the ’11 is definitely softer.  Let’s dive in a little deeper.

 

Auchentoshan Valinch 2011

57.5% abv

Score:  88/100

 

Great wide appeal, I imagine.  Fruity, sweet and infinitely approachable.  May not be overly complex, but in a case like this – where everything is clean and rich – there’s no need to overcomplicate things.

Pretty sure this is exactly what I recall from a couple years back.  And yes…I did go through my old tasting notes.  a few new ones here, but mostly the same.

Nose:  Yep.  As expected.  Soft vanillas and rich orange notes.  Zest and all.  Some tangerine or tangelo.  Soft oak notes.  Seems like lively bourbon barrels.  Maybe even some first fill or virgin oak in there?  Notes of almond and toasted marshmallow.  Maybe even some very sweet, soft chocolate.  Some fairly substantial spice notes that hint at just how active those American Oak barrels were.

Palate:  Big bombastic arrival.  Orange zest.  Strong thread of dark vanilla.  Yep…syrupy, with a lot of fruit.  Some eucalyptus (again…those free-spirited American Oak barrels).  Slight herbaceousness (am I spelling that right?).  Even a touch of licorice.  Lovely.  Oaky linger.

Thoughts:  Sticking with initial assessments.  This is like a creamsicle.  Originally scored an 88.  No need to change it up.

 

Auchentoshan Valinch 2012

57.2% abv

Score:  84.5/100

 

Hmmm.  The balance so effortlessly achieved in the 2011 is sadly MIA here.  Still decent enough, but the palate can’t deliver what the nose hints at.  Definitely not in the same league as the first edition.

Nose:  Orange and vanilla.  But sharper on the zest, and a little less on the sweet, pulp notes.  Some chocolate, both white and milk.  Definitely more chocolate than on the 2011 edition.  Some syrupy fruits, bordering on jammy.  Softer than expected, considering the wallop the palate delivers.

Palate:  More aggressive here, with a fair bit more oak.  Oily arrival.  Drier and more harsh on those wet wooden notes.  Citrus pith and oily orange skins.  Dark chocolate.  And again…some licorice.

Thoughts:  I like the nose more than palate, but even the palate is decent.  Seems younger than the previous batch though.  Kinda reinforces the fears we have about both NAS and slippage.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:13 am
May 152017
 

KWM 25th Anniversary Blends (Berry Bros & Rudd)

 

As promised, though a day or three late (what else is new, right?), a few thoughts on the new KWM exclusives.  These siblings came from the warehouses of the good folks at BBR.  I don’t know the whole story – and hopefully you’ll forgive my lack of homework here – but I have come to understand that Andrew Ferguson at Kensington Wine Market was offered up these undisclosed blended beauts as part of a sample set that included mostly single malts.  These ones jumped out as something special.  The 40 year old, in particular.

The beauty of mature blends like this is that they often bear most of the hallmarks of good malts, and they usually come in at a substantially more approachable price point.  Proof’s in the puddin’ though, aye?  So let’s dig in.

 

Berry Bros. & Rudd 25 year old Blended Scotch Whisky

46% abv

Score:  84.5/100

 

I sampled this in the store a few weeks back and was immediately charmed by the nose.  Soft and hinting at some sort of tropical melange.  Never quite gets there, but suggests it.  Perhaps it’s just the subtle pineapple notes.  Sitting down with it in a more controlled environment I’m a little less enamoured, but still impressed.  The wood is loud, but when it settles, the subtleties that prop it up are quite lovely.

Good whisky.  Great blend.  Limited to 222 bottles from cask #46572.  $199.99

Nose:  Pineapple and vanilla.  Pine or eucalyptus.  Almost noses like mature Canadian whisky in some ways.  Citrus.  Floral notes.  Soft aromas of fresh baking.  Very soft fruits in syrup.

Palate:  A lot of oak.  Fairly creamy though as the wood fades.  Then a berry-driven tartness crops up.  And a bucket of spices.  Then the wood resurfaces.  There’s a fruitiness here, but it’s almost as if the fruits have been baked into something.

Thoughts:  I recall liking the nose an awful lot when I first tried it.  Less wowing now, but still good stuff.  Noses like a single malt.  Give it time in the glass.

 

Berry Bros. & Rudd 40 year old Blended Scotch Whisky

46% abv

Score:  92/100

 

Holy hell.  What have we here?  This is immaculate.  We’ve not only nudged into tropical territory we’re drinking mango smoothies on white sands on a tiny little atoll in the Caribbean.  Yum.

The nose is instantly a mouthwatering, knee-buckling showstopper.  As good as I recall it being on first tasting, it came nowhere near the heights I’m seeing now.  Much more texture and integration here.  Noses and tastes like a wizened old single malt.  Love it.

Limited to 120 bottles and will set you back $429.99.

Nose:  Gorgeous mature nose.  Almost tropical…ok, not ‘almost’.  Soft doughy notes.  Melon and orange.  Great toasted oak notes.   Sweet and tart at once.  Nice balance.  Some smoke meets Five Alive tropical fruit juice.  Richly oiled woods.  Old books.  Caramel syrup.

Palate:  Rich in tropical fruits.  All mango, orange, papaya and such.  Juicy and oily.  Lovely palate.  Surprised at how restrained the oak is.  Maybe some chocolate and unlit cigar.  Polish.  Fruit skins.  Gooey, thick caramel syrup notes.

Thoughts:  Great whisky.  All around.  I would not guess this was a blend.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 4:26 pm
May 072017
 

Caol Ila 1984 21 y.o. (Cooper’s Choice)

46% abv

Score:  85.5/100

 

A few weeks back, at a whisky club meeting in the community hall we frequently douse in fine and rare Scotch whisky, a good mate of mine, Joey, brought me a little flask.  I don’t recall his exact words (even though this was at the beginning of the night, before the madness ensued), but he said it was a Caol Ila.

I took it home, poured it into a glass sample bottle and left it on the shelf until it caught my eye again about a week and a half ago.  I paired it up with a couple other Caol Ila samples (’cause that’s the way I try to taste these things) and sat down with pen in hand.

Now…to be fair to this one, I did try it against a couple of 30+ year old expressions.  It came across more feisty and more lively, but maybe a little more shallow in terms of complexity.  To be expected and, if you know me, not at all outside my preference.  I like peated malts with personality.  That’s not to suggest this was a young’un.  Even blind (knowing only that it was Caol Ila) I could tell there was some age on it.  21 years, I found out later, and from a 2006 vintage.

All in all, this was textbook Islay, if not immediately recognizable as Caol Ila.  A lot of brilliant flashes of flavor and aroma with just the slightest off note.  Sulphur?  Maybe.  Tough to tell, but something threw this one off just a tick.  Still a rock solid malt.

Nose:  Smoke and rubber.  Lively fruits, particularly lemon (and maybe lime).  Chewy candies, not gummies.  Ashy.  Orange zest.  Butter tarts.  Smoked, oily fish.  Heavy, almost burnt caramel.  Thick and viscous.

Palate:  Liorice.  Grilled lemon.  A fair heft of oak and smoke.  Pastry.  Oily again, and actually a little drying. Long and smoky finish with some grass at the back.

Thoughts:  Vibrant.  Lively.  Hints at some sulphur, but I’m on the fence as to whether or not I’m imagining it.

* Thanks, Joey.  Fun one to try.  Love tasting blind like this.

 

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:24 am
May 062017
 

A few mates have passed on some wee samples over the past couple of months.  I’ve been delinquent in addressing this, so let’s get down to it.

You guys (and gals) know me.  I don’t take free stuff.  Not my style.  And by ‘free stuff’ I mean the kind of commercially ‘gifted’ packages that would come from the brands hoping for reviews or whatever.  In the earliest days I debated it, certain I could maintain my independence and lack of bias, but even then I questioned whether or not others would believe me as I spouted opinions from this tiny bastion of non-conformity.  Ultimately integrity was much more important than scoring freebies, so I just said ‘no thanks’.  I try to be kind when contacted, usually just informing the solicitor that they wouldn’t be able to get it into Canada anyway, but the reality is…I just don’t want to tarnish the relationship we’ve built here.

I do, however, benefit from friends passing tiny vials my way from time to time.  They have nothing to gain, just want to share and are curious about my opinion on some of these drinks.  I’ve written up some of them here on the site.  Usually these posts are accompanied by a pic of the sample bottle labeled in their own handwriting.  Sometimes I’ll ask them for a bottle shot to use, in the event they still have the full packaging.  I am currently sitting on a handful of these samples that I really should pay attention to.  They’re expensive whiskies (I imagine), and will be fun to taste.  More than that, though, it seems only right to the good folks who have shared.

The only exception that may seem compromised is that I do occasionally get samples (about an ounce, maybe less) from a couple local retailers.  These are friends trying to get the word out on exclusives and such.  I’ve always said I would help my friends and our local scene.  Here’s the deal:  If the product is shit, I probably just won’t review it.  If it’s good, I’ll review it and you can trust that I actually liked it.  Either way…the quantity is usually single cask kind of small.  Its really only the locals that benefit from these reviews.

Anyway…just wanted us to be clear.  After all…transparency is key, no matter what the big guys would prefer.

So…heads up.  I’ll be posting a bunch of these ‘vial reviews’ in the coming days.  I’ll credit those that allow me to (though some prefer relative anonymity).

Cheers.

 

– Curt

 Posted by at 10:27 am
Apr 242017
 

Caol Ila 34 y.o. (Cadenhead Small Batch)

60.1% abv

Score:  93.5/100

 

Yep.  Three and a half decades of sleep.  Gives my wife a run for her money in terms of affinity for dozing.  This one was tasted as part of an utterly mindboggling range of independent Caol Ila this past weekend.  Not only was it the oldest of the run, it’s actually the oldest of the 46 Caol Ila I’ve tasted to date.  Just shy of half of those have been older than 20, to be fair, so I do have some idea as to what we’d be looking for in older expressions of Caol Ila.  We certainly found it here.  And then some.

This is fantastic stuff.  Peat that is so far off in the distance it has faded into a seamless sfumato-esque haze that seems like nothing more than a suggestion.  Soft fruit notes and essence of mature old malt.  Hard to dissect, really. the integration is that complete.  And 60.1% at 34 years?  Wow.  Spectacular strength and delivery of flavour.

Sometimes you don’t need a lot of words to get the point across.  I think we’ll leave it at that.

Nose:  Spectacular nose.  Maybe the best Caol Ila I’ve ever nosed.  Old whisky to be sure.  Latex and soft, soft oak notes.  Melon.  Bordering on tropical.  Just hints of lemon pie.  Some orange.  Gorgeous tartness.  Vague industrial oiliness.  Slightly fishy.  Just the barest whisper of smoke.

Palate:  Awesome.  Maybe the oak is a little too strong, but otherwise everything is in check and firing on all cylinders.  Wow.  Great fruit tart enormity.  Thick and oily.  Grapefruit (flesh, pith and zest).  Licorice.  Hint of eucalyptus.  Gorgeous all the way through.  Nice finish on orange fruits and citrus.

Thoughts:  Great integration, great complexity.  This makes me think of old Samaroli casks.  Well done, Cadenhead.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:34 pm
Apr 182017
 

Laphroaig Lore

48% abv

Score:  82/100

 

I love Laphroaig.  It was one of my first and truest whisky loves.  I like to think that no matter what missteps the brand may ever make (and there have been a few; I’m looking at you, Select) I will still be there waiting.

We weight these things, not by the failings, but by the successes, and there is simply no comparison to the heights reached by some of the Laphroaig I’ve drunk (25 year olds, 30 year olds, 40 year old, cask samples, single casks, etc).  So it’s with a somewhat forgiving heart I’m going to try to talk about Lore.  I heard a while back that this one was to be a replacement for the 18 year old.  That was whisky shop talk, but there may be some basis in truth.  After all, we’ve watched 18 go the way of the dodo, only to be replaced by a limited edition 15 year old, which also abra cadabra’d its ass out of here.  Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs when we see a beloved and mature classic with a respectable price point (18 years and only about $100 locally!) disappear in favor of a $200 NAS offering.  Ouch.

The point has been made, so let’s not belabor it.  How about the whisky in the jar?  How does Lore stack up to the rest of the Laphroaig range?  In short…pale, flat and uninspired.  It’s slightly unbalanced and lacking in the oooomph I’m looking for in Laphroaig.  I’d drink it, of course, but only on someone else’s dime.  Probably best to take a couple bottles of 10 or QC over this, if you want my two cents.

Nose:  Lime.  Warm rubber.  Shellfish.  Smoke and peat.  Eucalyptus.  Vanilla.  Surprisingly restrained.  Salt and pepper.  Licorice and tar.  Dry, faint Lapsang Souchong.  Watered down, maybe.  Too heavy on the rubber notes.  Like bicyle tires in the sun or new Wellies.  Very dry and…flat.

Palate:  So muted.  Better than Select, but by nickels and dimes, not dollars.  More peat, smoke, and licorice.  Dry smoke.  Earthy and herbal.  Some pepper and chilis.  Everything dull though.  Slightly chalky and minerally.  Some green candy notes.  Not a lot in the way of finish.

Thoughts:  We went from 18 to 15 to this?  Ouch.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 7:02 pm
Apr 172017
 

Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve113

59.6% abv

Score:  84/100

 

Finally getting ’round to this one.  Odd considering this was one of those ‘jump the shark’ malts for me.  I remember a little too well a dialogue with a good mate of mine (a vested retailer) who was somewhat irked with my indignation at the nearly $200 price tag on this NAS unpeated Caol Ila that hit the shelves in late 2013.

That still sits wrong with me, especially in light of subsequent age-stated variants in the line (as high as 17, I think, locally at least) that have come in cheaper.  Such is.  Let’s not regurgitate the old cud.

Unpeated Caol Ila.  Odd stuff.  The 10 y.o. was a monster.  Can’t say it was spectacular, but it was unquestionably singular, and there was enough behind it to make me an admirer.  This one?  Well…not as much, I’m afraid.  That 10 was about six points higher in terms of abv and still had a ghost of peat glimpsed at the periphery.  This one (seemingly quite young, I might add) is much more naked.  Wood and clean spirit.  Not a lot more.  Spirity almost, if I’m being honest.  Still a decent enough drink, but not even close to a bargain at these prices.

When a few of us visited the distillery in very late 2012, one of the distillery folks mentioned that Caol Ila had not done another run of unpeated spirit since (I believe) 1999.  Each each successive release in their “Unpeated Style” line was simply the next successive year of a slowly maturing distillate.  I don’t think that is the case anymore (if it ever was), but I’ll try to do some digging and follow up in the comments below.

If you can find it, stick with the 10 year old Unpeated from about eight years back (give or take).

Nose:  Citrus (mostly lime).  Minerally.  White chocolate.  Had a preconceived notion this would nose a little older.  Vanilla cake.  Touch of orange and melon.  Herbal tea notes.  Somewhat reminiscent of Canadian whisky in an odd way.  Overall…quite nice and approachable.  Not even remotely Caol Ila-ish.

Palate:  Whoa.  Big oily arrival.  Grassy.  Some Sauvignon Blanc notes.  Oak and vanilla.  Lemon.  Some creaminess here.  Still not Caol Ila.  Would never guess blindly.  Sharp woody notes.  Dries up.

Thoughts:  Better nose than palate.  Ultiamtely lacking personality.  Not bad, but almost too naked and lacking in character.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:29 pm