Jan 262015
 

“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” – Tom Waits

 

Sorry for the long time between posts, friends. I’m still fighting through the last of a cold that just doesn’t seem to want to let go. Whisky reviews are, of course, out of the question, and lest I become known as the squeaky wheel or the malcontent (too late), I figured it was best to shy away from the next of my planned ‘sure-to-be-controversial’ topics of discussion until we lob up a few softballs first. Those more ‘discussion-inducing’ posts will come, but let’s space ‘em out a little bit, aye? There just seems to be too much industry apologism of late to not address these things, but…all in good time, as they say.

So…Instead of stirring it up again so soon, let’s share some thoughts about something else that is probably fairly relatable to any of you who are currently with me on this pilgrimage from whisky neophyte to enlightened sage (or credible bullshitter, at least). Something that has more to do with feelings than arguments over fact or opinion. Before you start thinking I’m getting all sappy and stuff, let’s just dive in. Nothing too controversial here; just a little bit of sentimentality and rose-coloured nostalgia.

I recall years back, when I started to fall head over heels for the single malts, the wonder of going out hunting for a new whiskies to buy. Trying to find something to impress both my senses and my friends with whom I’d be sharing.  Every bottle was bought with the intention of being opened that evening. There was no thought to putting aside for future days. Every experience was a shared one, because the bottles were typically cracked beneath the warmth of heat lamps on my deck with a few friends and some good music. I’m sure many of you can relate to this, but man…those first ever sips of Laphroaig or a’bunadh or Octomore were nothing less than a revelation. A deliverance. (No…no inbred banjo pluckin’ or…ummm…’manlove’ implied.)

A couple months back, a good friend of mine – still in the early days of his own malt-ucation – drew the perfect analogy to those early days of whisky experimentation. He said he now goes into whisky shops reading labels and ogling the tins and bottling strengths with the same excitement as he once had in music stores while flipping through album covers.

I’m a music junkie. I’m 36 years old. That’s old enough to have been through vinyl, cassettes and CDs. I know exactly what he’s talking about. I remember buying KISS ‘Destroyer’ on big beautiful wax at about the age of 7 just because of that artwork!

After a while we all move further along the path from our knowledge basis of ‘sweet fuck all’ to a place from where it’s pretty certain we’re making informed buying decisions. Seems like the right direction, obviously. So why do I seem like I’m down on this state of educated grace? I’m not. Trust me.

I’m extremely grateful for all that I have now and all that I’ve been able to try along the way. Would I change anything if I could go back? Nah…not likely. I think every experience in life contributes to the here and now. I’m just at a point of looking back, though, and saying ‘man…I miss them good old days’.

I’ve been rather blessed with a perfect storm of things that have brought me to where I am on my whisky road. Good friends who were happy to come along for the ride and have been great traveling partners ever since; a hometown that is a hotbed for single malt enthusiasm; friends and industry folk with much more experience to guide, educate and illuminate the path ahead; an educational background in critical thinking, writing and relatable beverage industry experience; and probably most importantly…a very understanding wife.

I’ve put in a lot of hours and effort in order to have tasted what I have, but I don’t kid myself…I stand on the shoulders of giants. And hopefully I have adequately thanked them all at some point along the way. I’ve also learned that in a strange way, the most appropriate way you can thank them is to pay it forward to others. Counterintuitive, I know, but that’s the way it works for us whisky enthusiasts. But having said all of that… it occurred to me that all of the glorious whiskies I’ve tried over the years have been bought at the expense of simple innocent excitement. A ‘Sophie’s Choice’ that I never knew I was making, if you will. I drink great whisky quite regularly, but I am excited about it far less frequently than I used to be. No less grateful for it, just less ‘over the top’ excitement.

Going forward from here, I do plan on changing the way I approach whisky. I want that thrill back in the game. And I think there may just be a way to recapture some of that ‘kid at Christmas’ anticipation and ‘not knowing-ness’. I talked about this very subject with another mate of mine just a few days back. The one way you never really know what you’re gonna get – and can still find that surprise almost every time – is in the independent bottlings. Especially from some of the more obscure distilleries and bottlers. Chances are good that these malts will also tick off most, if not all, of my personal whisky preferences: cask strength, age-stated, non-filtered, etc. This also leans more to the ‘drinker, not collector’ approach, which I like as well.

And if you’re curious…no. Nothing much will change here on ATW (though you may or may not see a few more indie reviews tossed into the mix). My personal buying will likely morph a little bit, and that’s about it. Not gonna lie…the prospect is sort of exciting. Some things change when you grow up. But there are ways of recapturing at least some of the magic.

No matter how rare, old, expensive or exclusive the malts you’ve been blessed to try, I imagine this sentiment of reflection is rather universal after a few years of doing what we do. Do any of you ever feel the same? Ever wish you could step back and experience that naïve thrill of the hunt all over again? Do you remember a few years back going to whisky shops and scanning the labels when everything was foreign and exciting? When you had no clue what to expect out of the bottle, but had to take a flyer based on what the sales guy said or by the appeal of the packaging?

If you have no clue what I’m speaking of, I envy you and raise a glass to your own journey.  Actually…either way, I raise a glass to you.

And by the way…I hate KISS.

 

- Curt

 Posted by at 3:30 pm
Jan 152015
 

Let’s go way back in time…

Long before the abstract concept of currency came into play, mankind had to determine standards for exchanging goods and services. Our collective past has shown us that we as a species used to be much more diversified in terms of our skillsets. We had to know how to fulfill our basic needs and, further, how to maintain them indefinitely. As a simple example, does not every man out there have a dad that seems to know just a little more than he does about home maintenance? Fixing a car? Raising a family without a handbook or the internet at his disposal?

In those early days we also learned that there was strength and security in numbers. Civilizations came together. Skills became much more specialized. Division of labour took on new dimensions. Not everyone had to be able to make bread…or forge tools…or work stone…what-have-you. Instead, man was wise enough to realize that he could rely on his brother (or sister) to provide something that he himself was not quite as adept at making or doing. So long as he had something to offer his brother (or sister) in return, that is. This became a quid pro quo system (or a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario). Brilliant. Initially, at least. Until societies expanded to the point where it simply wasn’t feasible to have the ‘specialists’ swapping favors all the time, or until your neighbour had something you desperately needed, but perhaps had nothing to offer in return.

So what came next? Why, the advent of the monetary system, of course. Value ascribed to tangible commodities (precious resources initially, then to coins and paper in a more abstract promissory capacity). This allowed for a rather faceless economic system to develop. You no longer had to rely on the trust and reputation of your mates to do business. Instead you could trade a hard value to a perfect stranger in order to enact a transaction. It all sounds a little cold when worded as such, but so be it.

Granted, this is all very simplified, and occasionally anthropologically contested, but that’s sort of the gist of it.

Now, why do I bring up trust and the handover of value from one to another here? It’s simple, really.

Like it or not, we whisky geeks have built a relationship with our brands, our distillers, our ambassadors and our spirit sellers. On the consumer side we’ve done our due diligence by buying the products, attending the events and sharing the good word via social media (and otherwise). We’ve done so to date because we were able to work off a long-developed understanding of value. We knew it took substantial initial investment and a huge outlay of cash on the part of the distilleries in order to first create the product. We knew there was overhead and other expenses such as labour, utilities, facility maintenance, leases or mortgages, shareholders, tariffs, etc. We knew there was a not inconsiderable delayed return on investment due to the necessary maturation times of the spirit, and inherent warehousing costs. We also knew that beyond all of this there were bottling, labeling, transport, marketing and other such expenses. Fair enough.

Our willingness to lay out our hard-earned money for a fine bottle of Scotch, produced by working men and women in one of the most beautiful places on earth, was based on an acceptance that Scotch whisky exemplified class, elegance, tradition, history, time and beauty. We could pick up a bottle and contemplate in awe that the spirit in our hands had taken 18 years to make. 18! Amazing. We could marvel that the world was a much different place when the whisky we held was distilled and left to sleep the seasons away on a dirt floor somewhere in the rolling hills or along the rocky coasts of Scotland. And because we knew what had gone into that bottle, we were ok with paying what the sticker on the shelf asked of us.

We’ve now moved forward a few steps down the road from those times. The prices that are staring us in the face from those shelves have doubled or even trebled in the past few years. We’ve watched the fluctuation in markets that have relationships with the whisky industry (grains, fuels, currencies, etc) and acknowledged that ‘yeah…I can see how this would have an effect on the distillers trying to make a go of it.’ I think we could all reasonably expect some sort of an incremental creep in pricing strategies. A fair increase, of course, and one that was relative to related markets. Again…we could always look back at that big ‘18’ on the bottle and think ‘yeah…I can support that kind of investment’.

But now…in our day…a new trend has emerged. Not a new concept, mind you. But a new trend towards the brands slowly (or not so slowly in some cases) stripping away those reliable numbers on the bottle that had previously confirmed for us that the distilleries were just as invested in our purchases as we were. Yes, of course, some non-age-stated whiskies have always been around. And blended whiskies, of course, have rarely trumpeted their age (unless they wanted to be sold as premium spirits). But we’re not just seeing a few non-age-stated whiskies anymore. We’re seeing a tidal wave of brands that have moved in this direction as a means of protecting their valuable mature stocks, while continuing to generate cashflow via the turnover of spirit that historically the brands would have seen as too young to be released as it is. So how is this being mitigated? How are they managing to sell us these younger whiskies and still make them drinkable (and not only drinkable, but in some cases very good)? Through clever vatting on the part of their blenders (and then, of course, a healthy splash of marketing wherewithal).

Many young barrels are being married with a couple of older barrels – which add a little complexity and knock off some of the younger, more spirity edges – then the whisky is sold under a clever name, rather than a number. That age statement which used to be such a key marketing tool for the brands in times of plenty is now a liability due to the requirement that any number on the bottle reflects the youngest whisky therein, and not the oldest.

Just so this is all abundantly clear: we are now buying younger whiskies at prices inflated to ratios that are unsupported by the relative increase in respective costs…and with no justification on the part of the producers. The most prevalent defense is their insistence that our palate decide and not our intellect. And while that is my paraphrasing, the sentiment is just as insulting when spun by the brand ‘faces’ and ‘voices’.

So what has effectively happened now – whether the industry will admit it or not – is an imbalance in the relationship we had spent so much time cultivating. That once understood covenant between producer and consumer. That understanding that allowed us to symbiotically partner up, assuming we were both mutually gaining. As we all know, a relationship of this sort is based on trust. Sadly that trust has been eroded. The scales have tipped, and the consumer is unquestionably the loser.

Ahhhh…so now we’re back to trust, as we were in the opening paragraphs above. As you can see, we’ve come full circle. Now let’s get to the rub…

The brands won’t trust us to buy their whisky if they put a low age statement on the bottle. They don’t trust us to think for ourselves and make wise decisions with our money. They think we will assume a whisky with a low number on the bottle is inferior to their shelf-neighbour’s age-stated whisky and that we’ll maybe reach for that one instead (and what is wrong with that, even if so? Is that not the free hand of the market at work?).

Interestingly enough, while they are cynical and untrusting of our consumer prowess, they insist that this information we’re clamouring for is irrelevant and that we should simply trust them to make the decisions as to what is best for us. They are the experts after all. I mean, really, what could some blogger or writer – who has only tasted a couple thousand whiskies across all ages and styles – possibly know about this stuff, right? We are left to feel like we’re coming across as the annoying squeaky wheel, the to-be-dismissed angsty teen or the bad apple spoiling the bunch. ‘The whisky will still be good’, they say. ‘Don’t worry about what it costs you to buy it, versus what it costs us to produce it’, they don’t say (but it is, of course, implicit).  Ummm…no.  It simply doesn’t work that way in the real world.  Not in any of the transactions or purchases I make, anyway.

Ironically, those missing numbers do make a dramatic reappearance when they want to sell their ultra-premium rare and old malts for astronomical sums. Because let’s face it: who will buy a bottle for $2,500 if they have no idea what their $2,500 is actually buying?

Trust is a two way street. But right now, we’re on a one lane highway and going the wrong direction.  And where do we go from here?  I honestly don’t know, but I’m sort of tired of not getting a peek at the map.

 

- Curt

 Posted by at 1:01 pm
Jan 142015
 

Distillery In Focus:  Port Ellen

043Every now and again here on All Things Whisky, we wax a little poetic on the mystique of Port Ellen.  If the post or review is something that finds its way to Twitter, it’s bound to get retweeted many a time.  If not, it tends to be picked up at some point down the line and linked to by some German or Danish forum.  There’s a lot of love for this distillery irrespective of the fact that it’s not produced a drop in well over 30 years.  And if anything, that adoration is only increasing as the years wear on.

The early 1980s were a rough time for the whisky industry.  Scotch had been thrust face first into the limelight in the 1970s as the ‘it’ drink and soaring demand led to many distilleries cranking open the taps and producing more spirit than the markets could reasonably support.  As we see time and again, man never seems to learn the harder lessons of economics.

With hundreds and hundreds of thousands of barrels resting in warehouses all over Scotland, and a declining consumer base, the “eyes bigger than the belly” approach of the industry began to take its toll on the bottom lines of the producers’ ledgers.  There was simply no need to continue making whisky on such a scale.  Many distilleries slowed down and finally stopped flowing altogether.  DCL (The Distiller’s Company Limited) – owners of Port Ellen – shuttered 11 distilleries in 1983, with others following suit all the way through the early 1990s.  If memory serves, there were around two dozen distilleries that locked up shop in 1983 alone.

It was in May of ’83, amid this rash of distillery closures, that Port Ellen was deemed surplus to requirements; it’s peaty pungency being used primarily at this time to add a smoky elegance to DCL’s blends such as Johnnie Walker.  Also in the expansive pages of the DCL portfolio in 1983 were Lagavulin and Caol Ila.  The former was well established already as a single malt with reputation.  The latter was a far greater producer than the wee Port Ellen distillery, which managed an annual output of only about 800,000 litres.  Additionally, from what I can gather, it seems that Port Ellen was recognized at the time as somewhat of an inferior whisky, with a feinty edge to it.  With the markets being what they were, the writing was on the wall for Port Ellen.  Caol Ila’s peat prowess became the go-to for the smoky components of any blend bill.

After nearly 160 years of operation – albeit sporadic and marred by fits and stops in production – the gates were pulled closed on Port Ellen for the last time.  But let’s step back a bit and take a quick peek over our shoulder at the road that brought us to this juncture.  This will be a brief history (and I mean very brief), as this subject has been covered elsewhere by others, and I’m simply trying to provide a little bit of context.

In 1825, along the shores of Loch Leodamais in the wee fishing village of Port Ellen, the Port Ellen distillery was founded by one A.K. MacKay and Co.  His initial investment of effort may have been impressive, but perhaps his management skills left something to be desired, as bankruptcy proceedings followed shortly thereafter.  According to the inimitable resource, Malt Madness, the distillery ‘changed hands a few times’ in the 11 years between its founding and the 1836 acquisition by 22 year old distilling entrepreneur John Ramsay.  Ownership then remained in the Ramsay family until 1920, when the distillery was bought by the Port Ellen Distillery Company.  This tenure was to be short lived, however, and came to an end in 1927, when the distillery was acquired by DCL (the forerunner to what is today drinks giant, ‘Diablo’…err…I mean ‘Diageo’).  Within two years of acquisition DCL mothballed Port Ellen and the distillery sat in silence for four long decades.  Whisky production would not resume on site until 1967.

Knowing as we do that the distillery was once again mothballed – this time permanently – in 1983, tells us that there were really only about 16 years worth of production between 1967 and 1983 from which all of the contemporary stocks of Port Ellen have been pulled.  This small window, and low peek distillery capacity, speaks volumes to the possible remaining stores of Port Ellen resting in situ in all of Scotland’s warehouses.  What is especially disheartening is turning our thoughts towards just how many barrels probably ended up lost to blending.

It is a sad fact, as I noted briefly above, that the whisky made at the Port Ellen distillery was widely known as a rather weak example of Islay malt.  It was not particularly prized for its underlying character – apparently noted as thin and somewhat feinty (careless cuts in the spirit run, perhaps?) – but it’s smoky resonance was still in demand for blenders looking to add a little complexity to their concoctions.  Sounds a far cry from what we know of the distillery’s reputation in this ongoing whisky renaissance, I’d suggest.

So if Port Ellen was generally recognized as an inferior whisky, able to be done away with and surplus to requirements, why then does it consistently score highly in ratings and reviews and continue to attract collectors and connoisseurs by the scores?  The answers are multifold, adding to the complexity of understanding the inherent worth of the whisky in the bottle.

052First…nearly all of the Port Ellen you’re likely to encounter is mature beyond the age most malts see the inside of a bottle.  In reality, this is simply another way of saying that we just don’t see young Port Ellen.  It doesn’t really exist.  The single malt initiative didn’t really take flight until Glenfiddich’s push in the 1970s.  Considering Port Ellen’s less-than-household-name status and reputation as being a blender’s whisky, it’s not surprising that there are so few surviving examples of young Port Ellen.  Even the exceedingly rare Port Ellen from decades ago that may have borne a low teens age statement on the bottle was likely to have some older casks vatted into it, as that is what was done in those bygone days.  Otherwise, most Port Ellen that you’ll find rated and reviewed nowadays will boast an age statement of mid to high 20s and, more contemporarily now, into the 30s.

Does this lead credence to the ‘older is better’ argument?  Yes, in a way.  Quite simply, oak does amazing things to whisky as the two interact with one another.  Give them enough time together and something special is almost always going to happen.  It should certainly be noted, though, there have definitely been duds in the independent Port Ellen releases out there (read: bad barrels).

So, is it fair to generalize that Port Ellen is an incredibly whisky, when the data set consists primarily of malts that have exceeded the two or three decade mark?  Let’s just say that nearly any distillery would most likely boost their average ratings a few notches if all they released were hyper mature malts.  Young whisky has bigger peaks and valleys.  Old whisky has rolling hills.  Which is more pleasant to drive, do you think?  Much Port Ellen is special because of its advanced maturity.  So, yeah…maybe older does equate to better.  Not as a rule, but on the average.

Second…Port Ellen has become the ultimate collectable cult whisky.  Islay malts are probably the most widely coveted for collectors and the island is seen as almost the ‘spiritual home’ (pun intended, I suppose, or at least acknowledged) of Scotch whisky.  With current demand being quite high for these smoky, peaty malts, you can only imagine the appeal for completists or obsessives to get their hands on whisky from a distillery that existed only briefly, if at all, within most of their lifetimes.  Not only is it a rare chance to try a ninth Islay distillery, it’s the chance to taste a malt from a closed distillery.  There are, of course, collectors whose sole raison d’être is to hunt down these liquid time capsules.  For them, Port Ellen is the grail.

Finally…let’s not discount the fact that sentimentalism plays a large part in this equation for many as well.  The historically bent out there will acknowledge in an awed timbre that what is in the glass with any dram of Port Ellen is literally liquid history.  Sharing this malt is like a sepia-toned trip down a memory lane you’ve probably never walked before.  Kind of that ‘homesick for the home I’ve never had’ syndrome.  I can certainly attest that it’s easy to lose yourself in the drink and romanticize this facet of the whisky.  I concede that some of my all time great whisky moments with friends have been over a dram of Port Ellen.

So, really…is that it?  Older, scarcer, more collectable and draped in nostalgic romance?  Nah…of course not.  There is no two ways about it: much Port Ellen is really, really inherently good.  You’ll find the occasional less-than-stellar showing, of course, but the majority are austere beauties that are memorable and of world class quality in both the highly sought after official releases and the more prolific independent bottlings.

043And let’s be clear: Diageo’s official bottlings of Port Ellen are beyond spectacular.  Those I’ve tried anyway.  There is such a profound complexity of soft fruits, threads of smoke and earthiness, oceanic influence and oak carved nuance that it’s hard to imagine anyone not being instantly enamoured with the drink.  These are natural cask strength expressions that carry all of the subtleties of Port Ellen in an elegant, yet powerful, incarnation.

In recent years, however, Diageo’s Port Ellen OBs (aka ‘official bottlings’ or ‘distillery bottlings’) are stretching the bounds of most folks’ incredulity with their hefty four figure price tags and seemingly favoritism-based market allocations.  In fact, last year’s 14th release hit the shelves at a retail price of about £2200.00.  Converting that to one of the North American currencies equates to ‘divorce’ and/or ‘homelessness’.

Independent bottlings, long the most accessibly priced options for the majority of us, have seemingly gone the way of the dodo.  There may yet be a last few specimens dust gathering on local shop shelves depending on in which part of the globe you hang your hat, but for the most part they are nothing more than memories at this point.  An occasional new Gordon & MacPhail or (one of the) Laing Brothers release may hit the shelves from time to time, but the reality is that where these once sat in the very low three figure mark, even they have crept up to about $1500 a pop.  Sadly…the days of Port Ellen being available to the average punter – albeit at a bit of a stretch – seem to be long gone.

So the question then becomes one of relative worth.  Does the whisky justify the price tag you’re going to be walloped with?  I simply can’t answer that in any meaningful way.  Here’s the way I usually put it when confronted with questions of this ilk:  If you have a load of disposable income, and are in a position to buy expensive toys with no repercussions, why not?  If money is not a concern, spend it on the enjoyment of the finer things in life.  Port Ellen can unquestionable be one of those things.  The most valuable things I have (excepting my beautiful wife and children) are memories and experiences.  A good drink with good friends goes a long way to making more of both of those.

I guess maybe we’ll close with a discussion that seems to pop up from time to time, but with no real weight behind it.  “Could there be a renaissance for this lost Islay distillery?”  Short answer:  “Who knows?”  Strange things happen from time to time in the wider whisky world.  This would certainly be one of the strangest though.  All indications suggest the distilling equipment was long ago dismantled and parceled out, and that the still house was demolished to make way for an expansion of the malting facilities.  Granted the warehouses are still intact, the pagodas and such still stand and much of the footprint is unchanged.  As I said…who knows?  My gut says it ain’t gonna happen though.

A better question to consider might be “do you really want Port Ellen to come back?”  Distillers like to sell us on the idea that every nuance of their production (water source, dings in the stills, exact spirit run times, warehouse situation, etc) has to be consistent down to the nth detail in order for the magic to happen.  If that is indeed the case, do we honestly believe we would have a true likeness of the Port Ellen we love with whisky from a ‘cloned’ distillery?  At best it might be a Clynelish vs Brora situation.  At worst…well…if you’ve watched The Walking Dead you’ll know resurrections aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.

With a heavy heart I say let sleeping dogs lie.

Islay2 237

 

- Images & word:  Curt (With an acknowledgment to Malt Madness for a wee bit of the distillery history I was a little unsure of.)

 Posted by at 1:52 pm
Jan 142015
 

“Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch, we are free.” – Alan Moore (V For Vendetta)

 

A quick word of advice.  Do with it what you will.

“Get uninformed.”

Go back to square one and learn it all over again.  On your own terms and empirically.  Stop drinking the Koolaid the industry is pouring you.  We’ve all done it at some point.  But then again at one point everyone believed the earth was flat too.  Learning is not just regurgitating.  It’s using a critical mind.  Doubt anyone and everyone in marketing.  They’re not out for your interests.  Maybe their initial goals were pure but, like politics, you soon learn the way to the top does not include adhering to morals.

I simply cannot believe the tripe I am reading from ‘industry’ people, many of whom I formerly had some sort of admiration for.  I can’t believe they would intentionally dupe people who are now in the same position they were a few years back.  Others – newer to the scene – are even more dangerous, simply repeating what has been fed to them since day one.  Jim Murray acknowledged this very problem in the introduction to his 2014 Whisky Bible.

A second word of advice.  Also to be used at your discretion.

Love your single malt whisky.  Love it so much that you’re willing to defend it even if that means pissing people off.  Chill-filtration does serve only to increase marketability…at the expense of your tasting experience.  Artificial coloring is a bitter coloring agent that affects flavour and only serves to increase marketability…at the expense of your tasting experience.  Non age-stated whiskies exist to allow the brands to sell you younger whisky, at whatever prices they set, while not acknowledging that this is what they’re doing…at the expense of your tasting experience.  There is simply no other reason for NAS whiskies to exist.

I get that many whiskies that “suffer from these deficiencies” are in fact good whiskies, but that does not justify their existence.  Many analogies come to mind, but let’s choose a less offensive one.  This is all akin to saying “Well…at least these shoes fit beautifully” while watching a documentary about the sweatshop in which they’re made.

I repeat…”get uninformed.”

Vendetta

 

- Fearless Leader

 Posted by at 7:08 am
Jan 132015
 

Arran 17 y.o.102

46% abv

Score:  86.5/100

 

Arran turns 20 this year.  That’s right.  20.  I know we’re all used to distilleries touting claims of antecedence and longevity, but Arran is a relative upstart in the Scotch whisky world.  The distillery was founded in 1993, released it’s first malt a couple years later and has since continued an evolution that has been both innovative and on an impressive upward trajectory.

Arran, it should be noted, is one of the heavyweights in the cask manipulation game.  They’ve engaged in malt maturation in a wide range of barrel types, put together quirky and unusual vattings and found angles to market these oddball releases (think Devil’s Punchbowl, the Peacock Edition, Millennium Casks, Machrie Moor, Moscatels, Madeiras, Pomerols, etc).  Sounds a little like Bruichladdich’s M.O., no?  None of this tomfoolery works, however, without a good base spirit, and fortunately Arran is another distillery that has managed to find a sweet spot with their distillate.  Good new make put into good barrels leads to great whisky.  And that is exactly what is happening here.

It’s already been a fun ride watching Arran mature and evolve into a respectable malt, and quite frankly, they’re only getting better.  The prospect of some really mature whisky from this distillery in another decade or so is enough to seriously whet the appetite if the character holds consistent.  Arran’s most mature expression to date is this 17 year old, but now that we’re into 2015 we should be seeing an 18 year old crop up at any time.  I know some whisky geeks that will be vulturously watching the clock tick down till the release of that one, just as lecherously as those out there who had their creepy Emma Watson birthday countdowns going.  (Bad joke, I know)

And this one?  Clean, elegant 17 year old malt.  As the warehouses on the Isle of Arran fill up over the years, and the blenders have more casks to choose from, I can see this whisky getting better and better.

Nose:  Some great fruity notes.  A little bit of orange and milk chocolate.  Some very soft vanilla cream notes.  A faint banana note.  Good granola.  Some citrus…almost lemon meringue pie-ish.  A touch of butterscotch.  Nice spiciness.  Great creamy nose.

Palate:  Some cinnamon on the tip of the tongue.  Apple and lemon.  Berry coulis.  Toasted marshmallow.  More spices and licorice too.  Some oak comes at the back, but not a strong influence.

Thoughts:  One of, if not the best Arran I’ve tried to date.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:29 am
Jan 122015
 

Talisker 25 y.o. (2012)025

45.8% abv

Score: 89/100

 

Let’s have a go at another of the great old Talisker 25s.  This one a little less great than the earlier editions that bounced around at more natural cask strengths, but well worth discussing anyway.  For whatever reason (read: profit margins and stretching of mature stocks) Diageo opted to bring this one (and I think the 2011 edition) down to their standard Talisker strength of 45.8%.  Still respectable compared to a lot of the standard industry bottling strengths, but such a shame to hobble a malt like this in its prime.

Talisker is one of the most iconic of Scotch whiskies.  A peppery, moderately peaty malt from the Isle Of Skye.  Its character is immediately recognizable in youth, but becomes a little more chameleonic in its twilight years.  As with most peated (or peppery)whiskies in their 20s and 30s, you’ll see an emergence of fruits at this age that serves to slightly outshine some of the more phenolic notes.  To me, Talisker is Talisker at any age, but it definitely gets better as the years move on.

I’ve seen some of the less than enthusiastic reviews of this one online and, while I know where they’re coming from, I’ll go somewhat contrarily here.  Not because I don’t agree with the gist of their beef (the lower bottling strength, in relation to previous iterations), but because the whisky has to stand and fall on its own merits.  The malt is really good, and at the end of the day this was a $220CA bottle of 25 Talisker.  Hard to believe, in this age of seriously skyrocketing pricing structures.  That sort of value for dollar may NEVER be seen again from this distillery.

I did put aside a couple bottles of this one, but may actually scoop one or two more before they’re gone for good.

Nose:  Old book and a little bit of dust.  Faint smoke and light earthy peat.  Nice soft white fruits in syrup (green grapes and pears, maybe).  A note of blanched almond.  Salt and pepper.  Wet beach.  Faint waxiness.  A little bit of leather.  And…some more sweet fruit notes.  There is an odd tangy note here too (coming from sherry maybe?).

Palate:  Yep.  Talisker with age: delish.  A sweet candy, gum-like fruitiness.  Mouthwatering.  Mature, waxy and beautiful.  Lemon juice over oyster.  Pepper.  Might be some bittersweet chocolate too.  Tastes like there’s some sherry at play here, but its influence is minimal.

Thoughts:  Not the glorious old Talisker 25 of days gone by, but great nevertheless.  Definitely still a ~90 pointer.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:00 am
Jan 072015
 

(Shameless ATW plug for a local event and good cause…)

 

The 2015 MS Calgary Whisky Festival

MS FEST

 

Folks,

Please allow me a moment to share the word about an upcoming event for our local folk here in Alberta:

Next Thursday, January 15th, 2015, The MS Society of Calgary is hosting one of the city’s most lauded annual events.  The MS Calgary Whisky Festival has become one of the biggest and most recognized whisky fests in the country, and this year’s fest promises to live up to all that came before.

Not simply a gathering of whisky world elite (though certainly that), the MS fest is a chance to come out and do some good for a charitable cause.

“The 2015 Calgary Whisky Festival in support of the MS Society of Calgary is set to be another barnburner of an event. Last year’s festival drew 400 attendees and featured nearly 150 whiskies from distilleries in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the US, Japan and India. This year’s event is set to be even bigger and better with over 100 different whiskies, over 30 presenters and a capacity of 500 participants. New this year we are offering a VIP package, which will include a Macallan Master Class featuring a very rare and special bottling. This is a unique chance to taste whiskies from around the world, and meet talk directly to distillery representatives. Funds raised at the event help us provide much needed services in the community for those affected by MS, as well as help fund ground-breaking research dedicated to finding a cure. Get your tickets now, they won’t last long.”

 

When: Thursday, January 15, 2015
Doors Open: 6:00 pm
Where: Epcor Centre- Jack Singer Concert Hall Lobby
Tickets: $99

Click here to purchase tickets.

 

This is a chance to sample whiskies from the following distilleries and bottlers:

Aberlour, Adelphi, Alberta Distillers, Antiquarry, Arran, Auchentoshan, Balvenie, BenRiach, Benromach, Big peat, Black Burn, Bruichladdich, Bushmills, Bowmore, Cadenhead, Canadian Club, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Chichibu, Clan Denny, Compass Box, Edradour, First Editions, Glendronach, Glenfarclas, Glenglassaugh, Glengoyne, Glen Kinchie, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Green Spot, Glen Scotia, Gordon & MacPhail, Jameson, Johnnie Walker, Hepburn’s Choice, Highland Park, Inchmurrin, Jim Beam Brands, Kavalan, Kilchoman, Knob Creek, Laphroaig, Loch Lomond, Macallan, Michter’s, Miyagikyo, Mortlach, Nikka, Old Particular, Red Breast, Samaroli, Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Smokehead, Spey, Springbank, Springbank Society, Stronachie, Talisker, Timorous, Tomatin, Tullibardine, Yukon Spirits, WemyssScallywag, Yoichi

 

Come find me if you do make it out.  Let’s turn this into a night to remember while doing something positive for the MS society.

 

- ATW 

 

 Posted by at 9:49 pm
Jan 062015
 

This is a big topic. Bound to offend some.

Anyone else out there noticing a glaring lack of critical writing when it comes to whisky? Yes, there are threads of rampant discord in the commentary sections beneath many an article or post online, but what about the actual article itself? Is it critical? Or the printed word in hard copy? What happened to the type of writing that was meant to parlay objective truth, and not merely tout the rainbows and unicorns side of things? Is it a thing of the past?

Once a year (conveniently, not long before Christmas) the ‘prophet’ Jim Murray takes to his pulpit and spews forth two pages of fine print fire and brimstone on subjects such as sulphured casks, the rise of world whiskies and decline of Scotch or what have you. But two pages?  Once a year?  That’s a mere blip in the grand scheme of things. And I have to admit my own cynicism in this regard. How much critical thought is actually behind these diatribes in terms of representing reality vs simple self-serving agenda-pushing (read: “I need a new tack to help sell this year’s ‘bible’). Just as an example: sulphur is honestly about 1/50th the problem Jim makes it out to be.

Aside from Jim, though, who is at least doing something in his own twisted way, who out there is actually taking the industry to task? The whisky periodicals (Whisky Magazine, Whisky Advocate, Unfiltered, etc) are nothing more than ad space, seemingly endless and over-generous awards and the occasional distillery feature. Even worse…pseudo-irrelevant articles about cooking and such.  These publications are pretty much nothing more than an extension of the various marketing departments.  I mean, c’mon…any supposedly respectable publication that puts that Beckham/Haig bullshit on their cover and still expects to be recognized as a reliable authority on the subject is at best delusional, and at worst absolutely contemptuous of their readership.Haig & Haig

And unfortunately, yes…it is indeed true. Most bloggers (not all, mind you) are simply so enamoured with whisky that it seems nearly everything is awesome. I don’t question their hearts being in the right place, but I do question the rose-coloured glasses they seem to view the spirit through. Hey…we all wear them in the early years. Been there and had to recognize my own shortcomings through experience.  I honestly do think most bloggers are truly in it for love of the game, but a lack of criticism to offset the praise leads to the scales tipping immeasurably in favour of the brands. Do I think these bloggers are throwing out glowing reviews and kind words in return for free goodies? Not really, no. Some do perhaps. They’re probably the exception though, and not the rule. I can really only think of one egregious example of overt shilling for freebies (even self-confessed, in fact), but this is not as much of a problem as others seem to believe (or so I choose to believe).

So, I guess what I’m asking is: Where’s our Noam Chomsky? Our Naomi Klein? Not necessarily pure journalists, per se. But researchers par excellence who do the sifting through tons of information to collate truths into digestible chunks for the masses? Critical writing, that is. Does this even exist anymore?

We almost need our own sort of crisis to force change, I think. A ‘Whiskygate’, if you will. We need a ‘Deep Throat’. An insider to come forth from the industry and speak in a way that blows the doors off the sleight of hand the brands try to bamboozle us with. We need more truth telling.

I highly recommend reading the Whisky Sponge, if you don’t already. Any reference he (or she) makes that you don’t understand…google it. There are many truths buried therein. Additionally…our own Maltmonster teases here on ATW with conspiracies and far-fetched takes on reality, but the nuggets of criticism are real and founded. Read My Annoying Opinions for much less annoyance than you might imagine. I think he was a little more cantankerous in early days, but still occasionally pulls the curtains back a bit. There are others. Find them.  Don’t be lazy.  Don’t be content with what you read in the magazines.  Nowadays they only exist to exist and to sell you stuff.

Read the comments in the forums and sites by some of the more cynical whisky lovers out there. They may not have their own podium from which to orate, and yes, some of the overt pessimism and seeming anger need be ignored, but the insight is often priceless. Take these cynical views and temper them with optimism.

Before closing, I do want to laud one individual who has spoken out about this very issue. You likely know him. Lads and lasses, Mr. Dominic Roskrow in video form.  The eight minute mark of this video is key. Well done, Dom. Appreciate the candid approach.

That’s my two cents (and probably worth only half as much).  Up to you now whether you want to reach for the red pill or the blue one.

 

– Words:  Curt

– Image:  Shamelessly cribbed from The Whisky Sponge site

 Posted by at 10:49 am
Jan 062015
 

Old Pulteney 17 y.o.076

46% abv

Score:  88/100

 

A couple years back when Old Pulteney 21 was declared Jim Murray’s whisky of the year, I said it was (in my opinion) somewhat inferior to the 17 year old.  Here we are now, a couple years down the line, and I have to say that the latest releases of 21 are actually now better than the 17.  More in line with the way it should be, really, especially recognizing the premium that has been levied on Pulteney since the award of said distinguished title.  We’ve seen the 21 year old expression increase by at least a couple dozen dollars in the past year or two.  The quality…meh.  It’s still in the ballpark of where it was back then.

Pulteney is one of the Northernmost Highland distilleries in Scotland.  And while the distillery doesn’t necessarily have warehouse walls that are being battered by the sea, it does actually produce a malt that stands out a little from the pack, bearing as it does, a rather pronounced coastal influence.  Similar in some respects, I suppose, to Bunnahabhain or Scapa or something for bringing the briny, oceanic side to the bottle sans the hefty peat influence that we normally find in parallel with that profile (let’s face it…the briniest buggers are from Islay).  It’s also a malt that has found favour among the old school cognoscenti.

This latest 17 year old?  Good stuff.  Well worth having a bottle around when the price looks right.  Do note though, that it is not the same 17 as a few years back.

Nose:  Salty and coastal, as most have noted when it comes to Pulteney.  A slight putty note.  Roman nougat.  Reminiscent of almond paste, or Indian sweets.  Almost a distant smokiness.  Cream of wheat.  Lemon zest.  Is that caramelized pineapple?

Palate:  Still getting that smoky note.  And waxy.  A touch of lime.  Oak.  Orange, pear and a little apple.  Black currants.  Very old school and appealing palate.

Thoughts:  Not as strong an outing as the Pulteney 17 of a couple years back, but a great whisky nevertheless.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:30 am
Jan 022015
 

SMWS 77.28 “Tropical Nights”155

54.9% abv

Score:  92/100

 

Would seem the only way I can get my hands on Glen Ord is through our friends at the SMWS.  Literally the only releases from this somehow seemingly elusive Highland distillery I’ve ever tried have been via the enigmatic green bottle with the oh-so-clever tasting notes and the naming conventions that put even the most out-there baby-naming Hollywood celeb to shame.  So be it.  As long as the quality remains as astronomically high as these SMWS expressions I’ve tried, I’m more than ok with the concentration of brand.

Glen Ord produces oodles of juice, but precious little ends up with ‘Glen Ord’ on the bottle.  Most finishes its journey under the ‘Singleton’ banner or smushed into obscurity in Johnnie Walker.  This 25 year old was a real treat to run into in its slightly more bespoke incarnation.  Sadly though, this hoggy yielded a mere 236 bottles at 54.9% abv.

The bottle says this whisky was matured in a second fill charred oak hogshead.  Nothing overly unique there, of course, but a style that definitely appeals to my palatal preferences at this wizened old age.  This is arguably my favorite whisky profile right now.  Yep.  Even supercedes the big peats I’ve been pouring down my gullet for years.

Not a lot more to say here, other than this is another absolutely exceptional malt from Glen Ord.  In fact, it was actually one of the most exciting drams I tried all year.  Not to say best, but unforgettable and yes…very, very good.

Nose:  We are indeed close to tropical here.  What a great nose.  Grilled pineapple.  Dried orange fruits.  Fruit scones and sugar cookies.  Dusty and waxy notes.  Rosewater.  A dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg over good vanilla ice cream.  Soft pie crust.  Just a hint of candied ginger.  Pristine wood.

Palate:  Some pineapple again.  Oh, wow…what a great development throughout.  Lots of sweet mouth watering fruit notes.  White chocolate.  Pepper.  Fruit flan with sweet pastry crust.  Very juicy.

Thoughts:  Malts like this are the reason we drink whisky.  Keeps getting better and better as the bottle breathes.  One of the best SMWS bottles I’ve tried.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:33 pm