Jan 012017
 

G4.  The new world order.  Forget the G7.  For those truly interested in understanding the new shining path to global harmony in governance, concentration of intellectual and financial wealth and suppression of Irish attempts at gaining traction in the distillation race, look no further.  Illuminati-like in their spheres of silence (but also, probably, in their spheres of influence), this clandestine collective holds meetings in an underground lair, impervious to outsiders (and direct sunlight), but well-stocked in survivalist essentials (ahem…mature single malt, that is).

The Gang of Four, or G4, has maybe slightly different aspirations than the G7.  Well…most members, anyway.  One dodgy representative of a Celtic island nation may be more inclined to lead the next global revolution than others, but for the most part all intentions are not only benevolent, but altruistic.  All I’ll add to that is ‘never trust a Leprechaun’, especially one with a long memory and the means to an end.

Though the role of the G4 – much like the G7 – remains somewhat controversial and shrouded in secrecy, unsubstantiated rumours persist that member nations may be involved in directly or indirectly funding the IMF (International Malt Federation), subsidizing small revolutionary, tobacco-growing islands, and contributing to the preservation of cultural relevance in the land of the unicorn.  Further, and perhaps more conspiratorial in nature, it is said they are looking to initiate a global cultural renaissance centered around ritual consumption of the blood of Scotland.

The G4, in recent years, has become a slightly amorphous entity.  One ‘member nation’ transitioned its governing office to warmer western climes, so unfortunately now is rarely able to attend G4 meetings.  The remaining three entities have subsequently enacted a policy of inclusion, which allows for smaller developing nations to attend summits and share their voices, if not, in point of fact, paying in proper G4 dues.

The agenda for December’s meeting – as much as can be shared in the public sector anyway – was management of natural resources in the Hebrides.  Namely, decaying vegetative matter, barley crops and fresh water lochs.  Representation for this meeting was expanded to include subject matter experts from Scotland, the Ukraine and France, whose relevant experience in the field was deemed pertinent to the discussion at hand.  Perhaps it would be apropos to mention here that asset management in the Hebrides is of paramount importance to the continued existence of the G4.  In fact, several attendees happen to be lairds of parcels of fertile land in the vicinity of the Kildalton region.

The following ‘minutes’ were recorded during said December council meeting.  Portions have been excised, censored, redacted and sanitized for public consumption.  Notes are largely my own, with input, collusion and validation from G4 delegates.  Fault me for any notable shortcomings; credit them for honesty (to a fault) and artistic flair.  A note to attending delegates: feel free to share further thoughts below if you see fit, as I didn’t collect notes for all.

Thanks to host nations, Ireland and England (with a bit of Scotland) for procurement and dissemination of sample materials.

Laphroaig 10 y.o. (2008) 40% abv – Fruitier than the newer 10s.  Medicinal.  Iodine.  Citrus.  Orange.  Vanilla.  Salty.  Caramel.  Licorice.  Peat.  Oaky.  Salty.  Salt and pepper.  Industrial.

Laphroaig 15 y.o. 200th Anniversary (2015) 43% abv – Fruity.  Orange.  Doughy.  Peat.  Salty pastry.  Damp earth.  Green ju-jubes.  Chilis.  Peppers.  Licorice.  Tarry.  Oakier.  Sen sens.  Slightly bitter.  Medicinal.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 200th Anniversary (2015) 51.5% abv – More old school.  Farmy.  Cereal.  Peat and smoke.  Vanilla.  Dry smoke.  Black licorice.  Leather.  Orange.  Licorice on the palate.  Chilis.  Mint.  Black ju-jubes.  Grains.  Grassy.  Herbal.  Long finish.

Laphroaig 18 y.o. (2009) 48% abv – Fruity.  Orange.  Citrus.  Farmy and earthy.  Chocolate.  Anise.  Iodine.  Peat.  Oak.  Pepper.  Lime zest.

Laphroaig 25 y.o. (2008) 50.9% abv – Roman nougat.  Soft peat.  Lime.  Pepper.  Melon.  Chewy candies.  Orange.  Chocolate.  Rubber.  Licorice.  Juicy.  Mouthwatering.  Creamy.  Sour fruits.  Spice.  Anise.  Lots of licorice.

Laphroaig 30 y.o. (2007) 43% abv – A real fruit bomb.  Tropical.  Pineapple.  Latex.  Caramel.  Peat is very faint.  Red and orange ju-jubes.  Very sweet.  All fruits.  Faintest anise.  Chewy.  Mouthwatering.  Vanilla.  Sweet chewy fruits.   Chocolate (white and milk).

Laphroaig 40 y.o. (2001) 42.4% abv – Another fruit bomb.  Referred to as ‘Hiroshima of fruit bombs’.  Orange and tangerine.  Grilled pineapple.  Cherry.  Spice.  Everything is faint and very stunning.  Very dessert-like.  Fruit salad delivery.  Creamy.  More spice on the palate.  Custard.  Slightly oaky.  Peat.  Smoke.  Eucalyptus.  All are echoes.

Laphroaig 32 y.o. (2015) 46.6% abv – Massively fruity.  Jammy.  Cinnamon.  Tobacco.  Peat is lively for 32 years.  Earthy.  Licorice.  Oily.  Leathery.  Peat.  Grapefruit pith.  Spice-heavy.  Licorice on the palate too.  And cinnamon again.  Rubber and tar.

Laphroaig 27 y.o. (2007) 57.4% abv – A sherry bomb.  Orange and orange zest.  Jam.  Cherry.  Raspberry.  Chocolate.  Dark stone fruit.  Mint.  Heavily-oiled leather.  Very faint peat.  Licorice.  Hoisin.  Very savoury.  More chocolate on the palate.  Spice.  Dried fruit.  Christmas cake.  Coffee.  Dark chocolate.  Figgy.  Oily.  More licorice on the palate.

 

 – Images & words:  Curt

 Posted by at 11:20 am
Dec 142016
 

Alright.  Time to get on this one.  This wee sip session went down a few weeks back and I’m only now digging deep to find the motivation (and inspiration) to share a few words for those who be interested.

My mates locally know I’m constantly on the lookout for opportunity and occasion to pull together an extensive range of malts, a good group of friends and a kickass playlist on my iPod.  This time ’round it wasn’t the malts that dictated event time, it was the calendar.  It had simply been too long since I hosted the gang.  I hunted through samples, open bottles and sealed bottled and in the end found myself with thirteen different Amrut expressions at my disposal.

So…back to India we went.  In a manner of speaking.

20161111_193850

It’s no secret that I’m very much behind this brand.  The malts are great, the local representation is by a group of good people I’m proud to call friends and the global brand ambassador, Ashok Chokalingam, is another of my brothers from abroad, whom I drop everything to see when those rare occasions permit.  Further, the distillery makes incredibly innovative whiskies and serves them up as I like ’em: strong, non chill filtered, uncolored and with an eye to pushing boundaries.  They have also been very honest with us in terms of cask types, batch releases, evaporation rates and age (though not always stated).  But none of this matters an iota if the drams aren’t spectacular.  Fortunately…they are.

I did want to mention something.  I had a bit of a revelation not long ago, as relates to young whisky such as Amrut that benefits from the idea of ‘accelerated maturation’.  Many like to say that these subtropical malts taste like very mature malts from Scotland (or elsewhere).  I’ve said this myself on occasion.  While not far off on the sentiments, I think I need to offer a better observation.  It’s not so much that they exactly mirror older malts on a time ratio basis, as it is that they hit a state of full maturity so much younger.  The characteristics are sometimes similar (i.e. Greedy Angels 8), though not always, but what does matter is that there is a point where the spirit and wood have been together long enough.  And recognizing and working with that crux is exactly what Amrut has perfected.

Anyway…a few of us gathered and drank.  And laughed.  And drank some more.  We went through all thirteen, took some sketchy ‘shout along’ tasting notes and just simply reveled in company and intoxication.

…and while it would have been brilliant to finish off with a dram of Greedy Angels…well…beggars can’t be choosers.

20161111_193947

As an aside…it must be an absolute blast to be part of either the blending team or the marketing department at Amrut.  These guys and gals seem like they’re having way too much fun.  Creativity is at an unparalleled height here, as many of these releases can attest.

Just to be clear, these notes below are from five guys shouting out their thoughts.  In many cases there were disagreements.  And they’re also not broken into nose, palate, etc.  It was just sort of a running stream of bullshit.  Articulate bullshit, bullshit nevertheless.  Enjoy!

 

Single Malt (46% abv) – Orange zest.  Doughy and bready.  Fresh scones.  Slight farmy-ness.  Nice spices.  Somewhat salty.  Homemade Play Dough.  Somewhat bitter on finish.

Cask Strength 2012 Batch 17 (61.8% abv) – More fruits now.  Eucalytpus.  Pine.  Perfume-y.  Salty.  Chocolate-y on the palate.  Orange, as expected.  A bit of mince.  Cinnamon and other spices.  Powdered ginger.  Oaky notes on the palate.  Slightly bitter finish again.

20161111_194503

Cask Strength 2007 (61.9% abv) – Softer still.  Spicy.  Substantial bourbon cask notes.  Fennel/anise.  Jujubes.  Orange and chocolate.  Oaky and more spices.  Short finish, said one.

Fusion Batch 40 (50% abv) – Leather.  Fruity and zesty.  Orange candies.  Vanilla.  Fairly light mouthfeel.  Tart citrus zest (orange rind, actually).  Baking spices.  Light peat.

Two Continents (50% abv) – Almost tropical.  Mandarin.  Pineapple.  Tangerine.  Sugar cookies.  A lot of fruit on the palate too.  Coconut oil.  Vanilla cookies or cakes.  Creamsicles.  Pepper or chili.  Sweet, juicy finish.

Herald (60.8% abv) – Less fruits than on the Two Continents.  Less doughy too.  Orange fruits.  Red jujubes.  Cinnamon.  More chocolate on the palate than on the nose.  Bitter chocolate, that is.  Pops on the palate.

20161111_194644

Single Cask #2701 “Bengal Tiger” (56.5% abv) – Sharper now.  Tangy, zesty notes.  A bit of a farmy-ness to it.  Butter.  Creamy and leathery.  A little wine-heavy on the palate.  Touch of peat.  Toffee/caramel.  Black jujube on the palate.  A bit of a savoury note.

Intermediate Sherry Batch 05 (57.1% abv) – A lot of fruit.  Very jammy.  Candied fruits and sugar-coated fruit notes.  Chocolate.  Raspberry and cherry.  Dough.  Orange zest.  Slight savouriness again.  Cola.  This one was universally adored this eve.

Portonova Batch 1 (62.1% abv) – Almond and spice.  Dr. Pepper.  Raspberry.  Spiced mince and jam.  Berries.  Does NOT smell like port.  Ginger.  Sooooo fruity on the palate.  Milk chocolate and orange peels.  Very dessert-like.  Rich and almost surreal.

20161111_194205

Naarangi (50% abv) – Huge orange and spice notes.  Citrus oils.  The fruits are very lively on this one.  The palate is a little disappointing compared to the vibrancy of the nose.  Vanilla.  Lots of candies and fruit notes.  A little too sweet.  Almost liqueur-like.

Kadhambam (50% abv) – Coffee.  Orange marmalade and citrus zest.  Berry jam.  Thick, juicy arrival.  Chewy and juicy.  Syrupy.  A lot of spiced chocolate.  Cinnamon.  Slightly bitter on the palate.  Bittersweet chocolate.  Spicy.  Mouthwatering.

Spectrum (50% abv) – Savoury.  Sulphur? (said one or two…though I say not).  Rubber bands.  Overcooked fruits.  Coffee.  Toffee.  Burnt caramel.  Thick jammy-ness.  Cola syrup.  Dark chocolate caramels.  Smoke.  Nougat.

Peated Cask Strength 2009 Batch 03 (62.8% abv) – Peat.  Earth.  Leather.  A touch of smoke.  Still a lot of fruit.  And definitely still notes of orange, of course.  Universally loved again, but let’s face it…everyone was a little ‘drunk-ish by now.

 

Thanks to Jay, Dave, Tone and Danny for helping make these disappear and more importantly…helping cobble together the rather scrambly tasting notes above.  Appreciate the memories, boys.

 

 – Images & words:  Curt

 Posted by at 12:43 pm
Aug 312015
 

Just ’cause you asked…

Now…I know I’m gonna get lambasted for posting NAS malts here, but the question was related to bang for your buck malts and, as this is a retrospective sorta listing, it would be disingenuous to play politics here.  As I did with the last Top Ten, I simply sorted through my offline spreadsheet of scored whiskies and did a descending sort.  From there I peeled out all limited releases – be they long gone vintages, single casks, special releases, etc – and left just standard readily available expressions (albeit some are batch releases, as stated below in notes).  The list would have been bullshit if I left out the NAS malts.  It wouldn’t have answered the question.  That being said…sometimes you have to hurt the ones you love and I still say I’d buy an age-stated malt with a slightly lower score than support any corporate entity that expects my blind allegiance to their marketing department.

Enough from the soapbox already, right?  For those looking to find some good value malts at affordable prices (I suppose that is all relative, aye?), here are my top ten so far…

No limited releases, or stuff I know was only special in one batch or so, were considered for this list (i.e. Airigh Nam Beist, the Port Charlotte PCs, etc)

1  Talisker 18 (45.8% abv)     (93/100)

– Arguably the best standard 18 year old malt I’ve tried.  And tried again.  And again.  The perfect balancing act of soft fruits and very mild peat.  Revisited this stuff just two days back and yep…still shines bright.  Hard to find nowadays, but worth seeking out.  Note: Talisker 18 is not available in Canada for some reason.  The bottles I’ve tried so far (and have put aside for rainy days) are all older releases.  Hopefully the newer editions are as rock solid as these ones.

2  Ardbeg Corryvreckan (57.1% abv)     (92.5/100)

084– A malt that suffers very little from batch variation as far as I’ve seen.  When people speak of the might of Ardbeg this is the kind of whisky they’re referring to.  Massive and bombastic.  The smoke and maritime notes combine to perfect effect.  Like nearly drowning in the ocean, then drying out by a beach bonfire.  Always a treat to engage a bottle of this malt, especially when you can introduce someone to Ardbeg with it.

3  Kavalan Solist Sherry (59.4% abv*)     (92.5/100)

20121102_193444– A wildly inconsistent series by Taiwan’s Kavalan distillery.  I have tried the Solist Sherry at a score of as low as 75 or so and recently finished a bottle that would have outshone even this one I’m referencing here that came in at 92.5.  I would suggest trying before you buy wherever possible, but when Kavalan is firing on all cylinders it is a beaut!  Never ceases to amaze what these guys are able to accomplish in their short periods of maturation.  Semi-tropical conditions work wonders on this spirit.  (Score shown is for cask #S060710026)

4  Ardbeg Uigeadail (54.2% abv)     (92.5/100)

Mar102012 070– Neck and neck with the Corryvreckan, and typically depending on my mood as to which I prefer on any given day.  But while the Corry has been quite consistent throughout its batches, this one has seen a marked shift in terms of profile over the years.  Here’s the thing, though: it may be different now, but I don’t see any decline.  One of the most successful marriages of heavy peat and sherry ever bottled.  I’d argue this, moreso than the Ten, is the true face of the brand.  A classic.

5  Amrut Intermediate Sherry (57.1% abv)     (92/100)

jhfjfjhjlhg 061– Amrut may have built its name on the Fusion (and Jim Murray’s somewhat ridiculous score given to it for that matter), but the distillery’s Intermediate Sherry and Portonova are bigger, better malts in my opinion.  The intermediate sherry is a stunning whisky.  Earlier batches were a little better, but all I’ve tried have been great.  The exotic spices, creamy chocolate and jammy fruits are to die for.  Young whisky has no business tasting this good.

6  Amrut Portonova (62.1% abv)     (92/100)

– I’d be hard pressed to tell you which I prefer (this or the Intermediate Sherry), as both are stunning in their own right.  Additionally, both bring such mouth-wateringly fruity and concentrated jam-like notes to the fore while backing them with subtle and singular nuances particular to Amrut I simply can’t choose.  The distillery’s ‘make’ works well with the influence of these well-seasoned barrels.  The hot climes of Bangalore really allow those casks to breathe.

7  Lagavulin 16 (43% abv)     (92/100)

– I keep reading about Lagavulin 16 suffering from decline and in some sort of tailspin, but as a guy who nearly always has a bottle of this mainstay open I gotta say – much like with the Uigeadail – there may be a some slight change from time to time, but by no means have I seen this one falter.  I know Serge of Whiskyfun mentioned a while back that he feels the same as I do.  Not that we’re looking for vailidation, mind.  Truly a quintessential malt.

8  Aberlour a’bunadh (59.7% abv*)     (92/100)

– I struggled mightily to include this one, but in the end early biases won out.  As did hopes that we’ll see a slight upturn again someday.  This is an expression renowned for batch variance, and that’s part of the reason we love it.  However, it can and does swing from highest of highest to…well…just ok.  I don’t think I’ve found an outright bad a’bunadh, but I have been disappointed on occasion.  (*The score I’m showing here was from Batch 28, in case you were curious.)  We’re seeing a creeping of price on this one, so be careful where you buy, but generally even the worst a’bunadh is better than most of its contemporaries in terms of price point.

9  Bowmore Laimrig (54.4% abv*)     (91.5/100)

015– One of my absolute favorite malts of recent years.  I admit I do have some personal bias from lingering memories of a Feis Ile edition tried on Islay, but make no mistake this is a killer malt.  Huge sherry and middling peat.  Such a beautiful combination of sweet and smoky.  Again, this is a very jammy malt; thick and oily and one that lingers for a long time after tasting.  This is Bowmore’s phoenix malt in my eyes.  (*Score shown is for Batch 1)

10  Laphroaig 18 (48% abv)     (91.5/100)

– This is quite possibly the new ‘classic’ 18 year old on the market, outshining Highland Park’s 18 by miles and really only seeing competition from Talisker 18 or Caol Ila 18 (older editions, that is, and incidentally also not available in Canada).  Laphroaig gets really pretty with age.  The peat fades and the soft fruity notes that step forward are breathtaking.  Up until recently we could get this for about $90.  I think it’s about $110 now, but still a relative bargain for a malt like this.

…and finally… I really wanted to give Bunnahabhain 18 an honorable mention.  It should have been included here, but the most recent bottle I tried (and am still sipping from) has a very predominant sulphuric thread through it.  A deal-breaker, for sure.  Unfortunately this is not the first time I’ve found it in Bunna 18.  When you get a clean batch though…wow.  One of my favorite 18s of all time.

There you have it.  Contestable and debatable.  I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the subject.  Feel free to put your own top ten in the comments below.

Cheers!

– Curt

 Posted by at 8:54 am
Aug 262015
 

A few weeks back I had an email sent my way asking if I had ever posted my top five or ten whiskies, or if there was a way to search the site for this information.  The question was intriguing enough to send me back to the matrix I keep of all malts tried (or those I can recall anyway).  From there a quick sort on ‘scores’ brought the cream to the top and it was just a matter of throwing a few words and pictures together.  All of the whiskies below have been reviewed here on ATW at one time or another, and the photos are all rehashed, but really this is nothing more than a ‘greatest hits’ collection, right?  We don’t really expect new material when we buy a compilation album, do we?

Having said that, let’s dive in.  And remember…I’m not saying these are the best whiskies in the world; just my favorites so far.

Here they are, in order:

1     Black Bowmore 1964 42 y.o. (40.5% abv)     (97/100) barry's place pics 129– This is such in utterly incomparable whisky.  The closest analogy I can draw (and have drawn) is to a smoked glass of Five Alive.  The tropical notes here are mindboggling.  The sour, sweet, smoky combination is to die for.

2     Ardbeg Double Barrel Cask #1745 (49.0% abv)     (95/100) – This one pips cask #3151 (#3 on the list) by a just a smidge.  Its light and delicate nature is so paradoxical for an Ardbeg that its anomalous nature makes it unforgettable.  Again…rather tropical.

3     Ardbeg Double Barrel Cask #3151 (47.7% abv)     (95/100) 130– The darker femme fatale version of the previously mentioned malt.  This one shines through the dark with richer, more sherry-influenced nuances.  Seems a little less delicate than its sister cask, but that’s splitting hairs.

4     Ardbeg 1977     (46.0% abv)     (94.5/100) – Until a fortuitous meeting with the two Ardbeg listed above on a dark stormy night this was the holy grail of Ardbeg releases for me.  Fruity and smoky, complex and almost beyond compare, this one is still a favorite and has some great memories associated with it.  Wish I could get my hands on more.

5     Brora 35 y.o. 2013     (49.9% abv)     (94.5/100) 110– Brora continues to climb the ladder of favorite malts for me.  I’ve not yet met one I didn’t like, but this one leaves the others in its wake.  I went in with high expectations, but even they weren’t high enough to meet this towering beauty.  This is a sophisticated whisky that is immediately alluring, but deserves a lot of time to work out the intricacies.

6     Mortlach Generations 70 y.o.  Gordon & McPhail      (46.1% abv)     (94.5/100) – One of the world’s oldest whiskies.  I was fortunate enough to try both the 70 year old Mortlach and Glenlivet, but it was the Mortlach with its creaking notes of ancient books, wax and fuel that won me over.  Mindboggling that this one survived to this age in the barrel.

7     Amrut Greedy Angels     (50.0% abv)     (94/100) – Some may attribute personal bias here, but I fell hard for this one.  Really hard.  This was the first edition, offered up at eight years old, but nosing and tasting like a malt probably two decades older than that.  The amount of intrigue and magic Amrut managed to capture at such a young age (relative to Scotch, that is) is simply brilliant.

8     GlenDronach 1972 Cask #711     (49.8% abv)     (94/100) – I like this one the first time I tried it.  On all subsequent meetings I loved it.  Deep, deep resonant sherry, rich in dark stone fruits, notes of tropicalia and spice by the bucket.  This is a syrupy, meditative dram.  The team of elite Calgarians that selected this cask deserve endless accolades.  This is the heights of GlenDronach.

9     Talisker 35 y.o. 2012     (54.6% abv)     (94/100) 038– Tasted due to the generosity of one very kind – and very anonymous – individual, who managed to pull together an incredible night of Talisker for a very privileged few.  This is an absolutely incomparable malt.  Peat meets sweet meets seabreeze and pepper.  Amazingly deep and probably not to be matched by this distillery again.

10     Talisker 20 y.o. 2002     (62.0% abv)     (94/100) 049– Tasted at the same time as the afore-mentioned Talisker 35, this one is much younger, but bottles at a time when there were perhaps older barrels thrown in the mix.  ‘Cause let’s face it…a twenty year old should not taste this good.  Brilliant, brilliant whisky that shows a playful young heat to go with notes of maturity beyond its years.  The 62% abv is misleading.  This was an easy drinker.  An incredible whisky, to be sure.

Unfortunately, yes…I do realize this list reads like malt porn.  Anyone hoping the top ten would include a few everyday affordable malts…well…sorry ’bout that.

Feel free to drop a line or two below sharing some of your favorites malts from throughout the years.  I’m looking forward to hearing what lights you up.

Slainte!

 – Curt

 Posted by at 10:36 am
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
Oct 152014
 

“The Spirits Have Done It All In One Night.” – Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol)

 

…and now, shamelessly, a quick advert…

Granted it is only mid October, but some things need be done sooner than later.

Whisky advent calendars have become all the rage of late, and it’s not hard to see why.  One…the Christmas season is a merry one, and what better method of merry-making than a dram a day?  Two…they inject a little bit of childhood excitement and anticipation into a sadly far-too-adult life.  And three…they make for a bloody brilliant gift for the discerning individual (or snooty Scotch snob alike!).

Calendar 2

Having said all that, I’m happy to be able to help a good mate of mine, Jonathan Bray, spread the word about a project he and his wife, Cindy, have launched.  The first edition of the Secret Spirits Advent Calendar is a seriously impressive undertaking.  From humble beginnings through to the eve of launch, this has been a fun endeavour to follow to fruition.  I’ve gone back and forth with Jonathan through much of the journey, and still can’t help but be wowed by the end result. 

The calendar is a 25 day outturn of drams from three of the whisky world’s leading independent bottlers: A.D. Rattray, Samaroli and Wemyss Malts.  This means, of course, that the whiskies herein could be from any number of different Scottish distilleries.  For those of us in Alberta, where nearly all (if not actually all) of these calendars will end up, this is a very special treat indeed, as bottlings by Samaroli and Wemyss are rare sightings around here and in a way we can almost consider this their formal entrance onto our local whisky stage. 

5808

Directly related to this grand arrival on the scene is what I personally see as the most exciting aspect of the calendar.  Many of the whiskies you’ll try from within its compartments will be made available in a limited number of 700ml bottles (maximum of 60 bottles) from select retailers.  Now this is smart marketing.  I can imagine there will be more than a few gems in here where a sample simply won’t be enough.  The theory is that each day through the month of December, when the whisky of the day is revealed on the website, the retailers with that day’s whisky will be featured.

The wee bottles snugged into each cushioned seat of this hefty Dickensian / Victorian gothic chest are all generous 50ml pours, and run the range through all of the major whisky producing regions of Scotland.  A perfect introduction to the world of Scotch whisky for the aspiring single malter, or just an opportunity for the seasoned pro to take a ‘virtual jaunt’ through the rolling hills of Scotland.  In short, if you’re keen on Scotch, this should be right up your alley.

Calendar

As to the spirits themselves…well…

I’ve shared the word on A.D. Rattray releases (and the company itself) a few times here on the site.  To put it simply, Mr. Morrison has some spectacular casks at his disposal, and duds are few and far between.  Any chance to try a new expression launched under this banner is welcomed.

I only recently tasted a Samaroli release for the first time.  A few weeks back, Jonathan came by for a visit and a few drams and brought along a bottle of Samaroli that has to be one of the most unique releases I’ve ever tried.  I’ll save the specific details for a very near future review, but suffice it to say that the casks at the disposal of Samaroli seem to be of an astromonical quality.

And when it comes to Wemyss, I must admit that I’m as ignorant as can be, so will happily just join the rest of you on the ride and see what sort of stocks they possess.

(And no…I do not know exactly what whiskies are in the calendar.  Pease don’t ask.) 

5824

The calendar was unquestionably a labour of love.  The aesthetes out there will easily be won over by the top notch craftsmanship, as the attention to detail is astounding.  But much like any other whisky, it’s what’s inside that counts.  On that note…I ask anyone who does manage to score themselves one of these units to share their thoughts and nosing / tasting notes on the malts each day through December as they’re unveiled.  

And finally…speaking of scoring one of these… 

Do note that they probably won’t last long in stores.  This first edition is limited to a mere 400 units.  I’m pretty sure if you don’t get in early, you won’t get in at all. 

5812

So…for those of you for whom single malts are old hat, but who just want to mix it up with a surprise a night…this is a hell of a way to do so.  And for those out there looking to begin their journey down the road to Scotch knowledge, there is simply no better way to work your way through the Highlands, Lowlands, Islands, Speyside and Islay than what amounts to a crash course in Scotch whisky.

Secret Spirits have set the bar high with this first edition calendar.  I can’t imagine a better launch for this new brand.  We’ll be looking forward to watching the company grow in the coming years.

5803

The Secret Spirits Advent Calendars are confirmed to be hitting store shelves before the end of October. 

Check out the Secret Spirits site for further details and a list of retailers who should have this available for purchase in the coming days.

…and for anyone who cares to sponsor me a calendar, I’m not too proud to accept early Christmas presents.

An early seasons greetings to you all and a wish for sweet dr(e)ams.

 

– Words & Photos:  Curt

 

 Posted by at 1:10 pm
Feb 112014
 

FC Logo

Craft artisan whisky making.  There is arguably no Canadian distillery that has so wholeheartedly embraced this concept as Grimsby, Ontario’s Kittling Ridge Estates Wine And Spirits.  While some may be unfamiliar with the name Kittling Ridge, its less likely that the name of the distillery’s flagship whisky, Forty Creek, has flown under the radar.  The company made its mark on the whisky world several years back with the release of its Barrel Select standard expression.  In more recent years the distillery’s output has been wonderfully augmented with a series of unique limited releases.  Each of these whiskies bears both the hallmarks of the Canadian style and the fingerprints of a distiller at the height of his craft.

I hate to say it, but for those of us who may have started off our dramming days by diving into the heavy, malty complexities of Scotch, Canadian whisky will most likely be something of an acquired taste.  Its sweet, spicy character has more in common with bourbon than it does with the amber blood of Scotland.  Having said that, much like anything worth trying, it’s worth investing the time to learn the intricacies of the subject before forming an opinion.  Canadian whisky is a journey unto itself, and a rewarding one at that.

To quote Canadian whisky authority Davin De Kergommeaux, John K. Hall, the man at the helm, is “a chemist by education, a winemaker by trade, and a whisky maker by passion”.  John has almost singlehandedly brought the prestige and national pride back into Canadian whisky.  In ages past, the world was quite enamoured with this singular drink.  It has served as both the saviour of parched American palates during times of prohibition, and as the trendy ‘it’ drink in earlier decades.  Up until the last few years however, it has rarely been afforded the accolades we Canucks would like to be able to boast of.

But as Mr. Zimmerman once said, ‘The times, they are a-changin’’. 

Aside from John Hall himself, if anyone in the spirits world has been instrumental in helping pull Canadian whisky back into the spotlight, it would be the aforementioned Davin de Kergommeaux.  Davin’s brilliant book ‘Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert’ is essential reading for anyone who endeavours to learn a little more about Canadian whisky.  At some point in the future I’ll be looking at pulling together a few words on Davin and his book so let’s not dwell too deeply on that here, but I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Davin has pulled together a few great pages (Chapter 24) on Kittling Ridge, in which he does a beautifully concise job of setting the scene regarding Forty Creek and the Kittling Ridge distillery.  I could sit here, play armchair hack journalist and regurgitate all of Davin’s hard work for you, but I’d be doing an injustice in paraphrasing, and instead will highly recommend you do yourself a favour and grab a copy of his book. 

And finally…for those looking for a little more information direct from the source, the Forty Creek website is absolutely top notch.  One of the best out there, to be honest.

A quick final note before we jump into some tasting notes…

While there’s no age statement on these Forty Creek releases, it’s a fair assumption that they are all built from fairly young whiskies. It should be noted however that much (if not most) of Canadian whisky is served up relatively young.  I bring this up not to suggest that age is a qualifier in any of the following notes or scores, but simply to say that there is an awful lot of complexity packed into these bottles.  Each one a rewarding experience in its own right. 

I sat down one morning a few days back (yes, I said ‘morning’…what of it?) with seven different expressions of Forty Creek and my tasting note book.  The results…well…see for yourself.

 

Forty Creek Barrel Select
40% abv

Nose:  Vanilla.  Caramel…maybe butterscotch(?).  Nutmeg.  Chocolate.  Salty dough.  Lemon.  A dusting of cinnamon.  Toasted marshmallow (actually…have you ever burnt one over a campfire?  There you go!).  Smells of fresh baking.  Almost dessert-like in ways.  Great cohesion.  Very easy going.

Palate:  Spicy warm arrival that develops into a cinnamon / ginger / molasses cookie note.  Creamy fudge (like the candy shops in Banff, my local mates).

Thoughts:  John knocks it outta the park with his entry level expression.

Score:  87.5/100

018

Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve
43% abv

Nose:  Warm hot cross buns.  Rye bread.  A neat little bit of almost an ashy / peppery nip.  Allspice.  Slightly minty.  A touch of smoke.  Savoury notes too.  Oddly enough, there is a slightly metallic tang here (no…this isn’t mere synesthesia from the name of the whisky).

Palate:  Wow…way more tangy than the Barrel Select.  More on tart fruits and zippy spices.  Big rye notes.  A lot of spice.  Sticky saucy notes.

Thoughts:  Good whisky.  Even without overthinking the name of this one, we are moving closer to Scotch territory now.

Score:  86.5/100

010

Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve
40% abv

Nose:  Chocolate.  Raisin and massive purple grapes.  Rye grains, but…now some sweet corn bourbon notes too.  Lemon pepper.  Tart cherry and gooseberry.  Seems like a lot of sherry influence here.  A mixed  bag of citrus zest (lemon, lime and orange shavings).  Vanilla cream and clean oak.

Palate:  Caramel apple.  Christmas cake.  Less complex on the palate than the nose would lead you to believe.  Almost too easy actually.

Thoughts:  Lots to this one for those who are olfactorily-inclined.  I could pick notes off the nose of this one for hours.  Extra points here for the nose alone.

Score:  88.5/100

010

Forty Creek John’s Private Cask No. 1
40% abv

Nose:  Warm chocolate.  Cadbury’s Fruit And Nut bar.  Some white chocolate too.  Nice spice blend.  More cereals and porridge-y notes now.  Crème brûlée.  Poached pear with a touch of pepper and old ginger.  Vanilla cream and just a little banana cream too.  Rye.  A slightly sour tang.  Very gentle…very approachable.

Palate:  Melted chocolate over tart fruits…with a shake of mixed spices over the lot (cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger).  Tangy again.  What kind of cask play is this, I wonder.

Thoughts:  Would likely make a Canadian whisky convert of most anyone.

Score:  88/100

001

Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
45% abv

Nose:  Cinnamon and raisin bagels.  Butter tarts.  A slightly meaty, Bovril aroma (like those little bags of beef ring crisps you can get in the UK).  Our mate Davin De Kergommeaux found celery (good nose, Davin!), but I’ll go further and say it’s more like celery salt to me.  Chocolate.  Dill.  Old Dutch Bar-B-Q potato chips.  Salty and a little smoky.

Palate:  All works in an odd sorta way on the nose, but on the palate…not so much.  Quite tart.  I wish this had had a little less time in bed with the port.  Too wine-heavy for my liking.  Dried fruits and spice.

Thoughts:  I’m a big fan of the uniqueness of the nose, but wish it all held together a little better.  Extra point for the nose.

Score:  85.5/100

170

Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve
40% abv

Nose:  Creamy?  More fruits now than we’ve seen so far.  Crème brûlée…again.  Vanilla.  Caramel apple.  Chocolate ganache.  Rye and all purpose flour.  Toffee, ginger and pepper.  Lively red fruity notes.  Not far off the nose of the more mature Alberta Premium releases, but sans the dusty dunnage notes.

Palate:  Fresh woods and creamy custards.  More vanilla cream here with some fruity notes.  Chocolate.  A touch of smoke.  The aforementioned crème brûlée is here too.

Thoughts:  Simple: I love it.

Score:  90.5/100

156

Forty Creek Heart of Gold
43% abv

Nose:  More of a spicy rye character now.  Substantial wine notes.  Massive bucket loads of jarred prunes (think those little jars of baby food).  Slight smoked meat note.  Damp wood.  Pepper.  Lots of spice.  I’m getting a vague iodine (almost urine…sorry!) note here somewhere.

Palate:  All prunes again.  Some smoke.  Dried fruits and moist rye bread.  Having trouble pulling more out from around that prune character.

Thoughts:  Not the integrated whole I had hoped for.  Don’t get me wrong though…still a top notch whisky.  Think I’ll go back to the Confederation Oak.

Score:  86/100

007

Sincere thanks to my mate, Piers, for helping pull together so many of these wonderful whiskies for me.  You’re a good man, Piers, irrespective of what most people say.  Love ya, brother.

Big cheers to Canada’s best whisky maker, Mr. John Hall.

 

– Words & Tasting Notes:  Curt

– Photos:  Curt

 Posted by at 12:56 pm
Dec 302013
 

Well…another Year Come And Gone.  Let’s hope all of us have both taken something away from it and made our mark upon it.

It was an interesting whisky year for yours truly.  While I neither traveled abroad in search of that elusive ‘grail’ dram, nor got to taste any really special new Port Ellens (both hallmarks of a great year), I did manage to mine a hefty lode of whisky moments (and bottles) that will linger for years and years.

2013 saw the milestone launch of The Dram Initiative, a new whisky club here in Calgary doing things just a little bit differently (and, I like to think, quite spectacularly).  This little enterprise is being helmed by me, Maltmonster and a couple other great whisky mates.  I’m rather proud of the efforts put forth and the results achieved already.  Some great personal memories were made with whisky world ‘celebs’ Dave Broom, Davin de Kergommeaux, Wille Tait, Anthony Wills, James Robertson, Jim McEwan and others.  But to be honest…most of the truly special memories were private little affairs with close friends and good bottles.

Memorable events attended include all of the afore-mentioned Dram Initiative club nights, the Willow Park Whisky Fest, Andrew Ferguson’s epic Ardbeg Double Barrel tasting, Bruichladdich with Jim McEwan at Willow Park (always a treat to see him) and a couple of great private tastings at my place and friends’ homes.  To all involved…thank you.

Now…let’s talk about some of the year’s most memorable drams.  Just so we’re on the same page, I’m not calling these ‘best of the year’, nor am I offering up any sort of ‘award’.  These whiskies are simply the malts that resonated with me; ones I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.

First up…

Amrut Greedy Angels – Man, what a shitstorm this one caused here on ATW when I posted my notes and thoughts on it.  The argument centering around not whether or not the whisky was great (which it was), but whether or not Amrut had done the ethical thing in releasing this (they did).  All drama aside, this was one of the bright spots in an already bright year for my personal tasting opportunities.  Knockout whisky.  Huge kudos to our friends in India.  Special shout out to Ashok Chokalingam, Amrut’s global ambassador for coming out in the face of some less than pleasant words being bandied, and responding like the gentleman he is.

Ardbeg Double Barrel – These two 1974 Arbegs (casks 1745 and 3151) were tasted at the Southern Alberta Pioneer Hall with a great group of folks, and all due to the guiding forces of Andrew Ferguson at KWM and the fine folks of Charton Hobbs.  The whole evening was simply magic.  One of those memories that will burn brighter and brighter as the years roll by.  As for the whiskies themselves…best Ardbeg I’ve ever tasted.  And that is saying something, considering the esteem I hold this distillery in.  Achingly perfect whiskies.

130

Compass Box The Last Vatted Malt – Tasted right near the back end of the year.  This was a surprise that came right out of left field.  My good mate, J Wheelock, was kind enough to share a couple ounces of this celestial spirit.  I literally sat back stunned when I first nosed and tasted it.  An absolutely brilliant concoction by Mr. John Glaser.  Good friends doeth good deeds for good friends, and Mr. Wheelock just earned himself oodles of brownie points on the karmic wheel for his generosity of ‘spirit’ here.  Thanks, brother.

BenRiach 1983 – Tried a couple of great BenRiach 1983s this year; one exclusive to Kensington Wine Market and another that was part of the distillery’s annual run of releases.  Almost a toss-up as to which one was a better dram, but let’s just say I’d be happy with a glassful of either.  The little beauty shown below is not the KWM exclusive.  I believe there may still be some of this one left on the shelf, if you care to go pay a visit to Andrew in downtown Calgary.

023

BenRomach Kensington Wine Market Single Casks #126 and #246 – Speaking of Andrew…here’s another pair of gems from his shop of wonders.  This may seem like an odd selection, being as they were only 8 and 9 year old whiskies respectively, but Man…they came out of left field for me and knocked me out with how great they both were.  I’ve since sent several people I know down to KWM to nab bottles of their own.  Very impressive drams from a distillery I’ve not really tried anything too memorable from in the past.  To all who were involved in cask selection…well done.

Brora 30 y.o. Old & Rare Platinum – Dear god, but this is a brilliant dram.  Bottled farmyard.  If it weren’t for the Ardbeg mentioned above, this may very well have been my personal favorite whisky of the year.  Price makes this rather prohibitive, but a single taste is enough to make anyone rethink their spending ceiling.  With Brora getting scarcer and scarcer on the ground, this was a great encounter.

barry's place pics 155

Tullibardine 1965 – Not one of my top whiskies, by any means, but the mix of setting and surprise factor were enough to elevate this one up a couple notches.  Deep and redolent of gorgeous fruits…some tropicals…and an advanced state of maturity all aligned to make this a real winner.  This was followed by a ’62 Tulli which simply couldn’t compete wit the depth of this old beaut.

Jura 1976 – I have a bit of a soft spot for Jura.  This is a distillery that I used to actually turtle away from.  Having said that, I’ve watched the malt get better and better over the past few years.  Now it’s sort of that underdog I can’t help but root for.  If they continue on their current trajectory the sky is the limit for Jura (and yes, cynics, this will take a while yet, but they will get there).  Either way…this 1976 was a truly special whisky.  Having the opportunity to pop it (and many, many other Juras) in the company of ‘Wee’ Willie Tait…priceless.

068

A.D. Rattray Tamdhu 42 y.o. – A bottle bought by a mate of mine, Lance (he of The Lone Caner fame), for an evening of discussion over ‘Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn’, this one knocked the socks off a few of us.  Wow, what a whisky!  I think the surprise factor helped it notch an extra point or two, but it truly is remarkable.  Especially at the price point it was retailing for.  Sadly…gone before I could scoop one, though I dearly wish I had managed to put one aside, if for no other reason than the sentimentality associated with a good night with good friends.  Sigh.

003

…and finally…

Lagavulin 21 – While now akin to buying gold bricks, this special release was just that.  Remarkable really.  The previous edition earned almost universal raves, which is contrary to what a couple local mates think of it (apparently a bit of sulphur aboard?).  Either way, this was a damn fine dram from Islay’s most refined of distilleries.  Man, what sweet harmony of sweet and smoke.  Divine.  Oh yeah…and disgustingly overpriced.  Oh well.

017

So many more great ones I could list, but we’ll leave it at that and let the reviews here on ATW speak to the others.  Hopefully 2014 brings much more of the same.

To all my mates who shared drams with me (both mine and theirs)…Slainte.  It’s not the same game without you.  Thanks for being who you are.  To those I’ve yet to clink glasses with…believe me when I say I look forward to the first opportunity to do so.  To those of you who just pop in for a bit of light reading…many thanks.  Your comments are a great reward for any time invested.  They more than make it worthwhile.

All the best to all for a beautiful, and dram-filled, 2014!

 

– Words and pics:  Curt

 Posted by at 12:47 am
Aug 122013
 

themacallanlogo

So…after tackling some malts from the Fine Oak range and the Sherry Oak range – not to mention a brief detour to check out the new 1824 series – let’s move on into a few of the more ‘out there’ Macallans.  Think Duty Free, foreign market, one-offs, etc.  If and when you get the opportunity to try any of these, do not necessarily expect to recognize many of these as typical of the Macallan profile.  There’s a familiarity, sure, but these are by no means typical of the core range (or what used to be the core range, for that matter). 

As with the FO and SO features, let’s start here with notes on the Macallan New Make spirit.  Sort of a benchmark, if you will:  

 

Macallan New Make

Notes:  63% abv.  Crystal clear.

Nose:  Slight nuttiness.  Malty.  Fresh bitter fruit.  Rubbery acetone.  Metallic note somewhere in there.  Oh yeah…and some cereals.

Palate:  Fire water.  With a bit o’ citrus.  Estery.  Please put this waxy young thing into the rock tumbler (ahem…a fine sherry bucket) and knock those edges off.

Thoughts:  Unrecognizable as a Macallan really.  Shows you what the distillery’s wood policy really means.  Cool as hell to see this as a new make.

068

Macallan 12 Elegancia

Notes:  40% abv.  Fino and Oloroso casks.  1L for Duty Free.

Nose:  Malty and caramel sweet.  Sugary sherry and a bit of marzipan.  Toasted Marshmallow.  Yeasty rye bread.  Darkest roasted grains.  Peppery spice.

Palate:  Malty and not nearly as sweet as I’d expect from Oloroso influence.  Bit of an oaky nibble.  Some wine-ish notes.

Thoughts:  Maltier than I expected for something called ‘Elegancia’.  Slightly disappointing, but bad by no means.

047

Macallan 1851 Inspiration

Notes:  43.3% abv.

Nose:  Malt.  Kinda dank and dusty.  Citrus and leather.  Fruit and nut.  Clove and potpouri.

Palate:  Wham!  Thar’s that old school charm.  Made the hair on my wife’s arms stand up.  Grains are large.  As is the malty charm.

Thoughts:  Completely out of sync within the Macallan range.  This is not a comment regarding quality…simply an observation.  Good?  Meh.  Drinkable?  Absoloodle!  Weird?  F*ckin’ right!

 

Macallan ‘Whisky Maker’s Edition’

Notes:  42.8% abv.

Nose:  Vaguely yeasty and faintly malty.  Creamy and caramely.  Almond.  A heft of spice and smooooooooth chocolate.  Sweet…sweet…sweet!  Almost red licorice sweet.  Without knowing yet…this must be Oloroso.  And perhaps a smidge of florals in the background.

Palate:  Oaky…fruity…spicy.  Exactly what I’d expect.  Oh…and did I mention sweet?

Thoughts:  A whisky that just can’t quite deliver to the palate what the nose promises.  Comes out closer to a Balvenie than a Mac.  Odd, I know.  Not bad at all though.  I could happily revisit this one a time or three.

 

So, what’s next?  Think we’ll move on into the Macallan Travel Series.  Stay tuned…

 

– Words & Tasting Notes:  Curt

– Photos:  Curt

 

 Posted by at 7:31 am
Jun 302013
 

Ardbeg Double Barrel

The sky has been bruised and tortured for days now.  The clouds are still leaking and the wind is tussling with pretty much everything it can catch…and winning.  This deluge has been on and off for days now, but it seems the fiercest of it all may now be in the rear view mirror.  We in Calgary hope so anyway.   

I started putting this piece together over a week ago, but the floods and other concerns have, quite rightly, taken precedence.  While I, and most of the local people I know and love, are safe and didn’t suffer much in the way of loss, I do know others who did.  I, and all associated with ATW, wish you well and offer any help that can be provided.  You know where to find us.

Let me share a few words now about a rather spectacular event that took place not long before the floods swept through.  I’m simply going to pick up where I left off…

I’m sitting at a computer with the lower half of my body damp and, in all likelihood, dripping on the carpet under my desk.  Hey…there’s only so much an upside-down inside-out umbrella can do to keep your head dry, let alone your lower regions.  It’s very early.  And dark.

In short…a near spot-on model of Scottish weather.  What better ambiance to share a few words on an event that went down only days ago, also on a rather bleak and rainswept eve?  Though I’d initially hoped to get this written in the day or two immediately following, life got in the way, as it often does.  Either way…step in and dry off.  Let’s have a dram of Ardbeg and chat.

083

While I may have missed this year’s June 1st Ardbeg Day festivities (again…life), there’s simply no way they could have come close to measuring up to what has been dubbed ‘The Ultimate Ardbeg Experience’.  On June 14th, at the Southern Alberta Pioneer’s Building, Calgary’s Kensington Wine Market put on a once in a lifetime tasting.  For the legions of local acolytes, and several from afar, this was an evening not to be missed.

The line-up was centered around opening the legendary Ardbeg Double; An over-the-top ornately extravagant guncase housing two different bottles of vintage 1974 Ardbeg.  And, of course, a few extras we’ll get to in a bit.

095

As each of the attendees arrived, we were pulled aside for a quick photo op with Kensington Wine Market‘s Andrew Ferguson and Ardbeg Brand Ambassador, Ruaraidh MacIntyre.  Preserving this one for the ages, I suppose.  And perhaps rightfully so.  I know of no other tasting in the world that has popped the top on the Double Barrel.

The room was laid out beautifully.  Ardbeg goodies everywhere against the rustic backdrop of a sort of ‘hunting lodge’-esque hall.  Very suited to the occasion, and when one considers the ambience of the darkened skies and onset of the rain, the overall experience was sublime.  A few of us hung topside for a while snapping pictures of the room and the bottles themselves before joining the rest of the guests who had made their way to the lower hall for a bit of an informal pre-event cocktail hour.

There were tangy Ardbeg Ten caesars and drams of Galileo on offer for those who wanted a bit of a warm up, and of course we all did.  For those gasping at the idea of burying their beloved Ardbeg in Clamato juice and spices, rest assured that this really does work.  I’m a purist with whisky, if ever there was one, and still I’ll happily sip on one of these salty, smoky cocktails when offered.  One was enough though, before the Galileo seemed a better fit for the evening.

096

Downstairs, in the less kitschy lower hall, the party was in full swing.  Familiar faces all around and a lot of reunions of sorts.  Nice to see so many good people gathered and sharing a laugh.  Some of the usual suspects I hadn’t seen in months, or longer, and these sorts of events make me wonder why we wait for formality before gathering.

Aside from a quick pass by the serving station, I didn’t get too close to the food.  It looked great…it smelled great…but I can’t attest any further, unfortunately.  This eve was all about the drink, so it was a conscious effort at palate preservation.

102

Social hour is always great, but it’s also a bit of a waiting game.  The flight upstairs was a stunning one and anticipation high, so when the call came we made our way back upstairs to claim a seat with no second reminder needed.

The evening started off with Scott Westgard from Charton Hobbs providing a brief introduction and thank you to all for coming out.  He then took a moment to speak of Andrew’s accomplishments on behalf of Ardbeg (and more) and to present him with a plaque commemorating the one year anniversary of the Calgary Ardbeg Embassy, something that is quite a point of pride for both Andrew and KWM, I believe, and rightly so.

Andrew took a few moments to share a few words on the generosity of both Kensington and Charton Hobbs in helping to subsidize this event before gracefully ducking the spotlight and handing over the reins to the evening’s host extraordinaire, Ruaraidh MacIntyre.

1214

I’m not sure Ardbeg (or LVMH, perhaps I should say) could have a better ambassador than Ruaraidh.  He’s mere months removed from Scotland; grew up on Islay; and has generations of familial ties to the Ardbeg distillery.  On top of these blood qualifications, Ruaraidh is passionate about both the island and the whisky.  His humour and comfortable delivery are the perfect medium for bringing to life what Islay is really all about.  Ruaraidh entertained with touching anecdotes, hilarious tales and heartfelt pride.  Great speaker with great subject matter.  For an audience…it doesn’t get better.

142

I mentioned earlier that the line-up for this tasting was tip-top.  That may have been understating matters.  The flight was seven malts deep, from peat monsters to delicate old stunners.  How best to structure a flight like this is something I deal with frequently between personal tastings and Dram Initiative events.  You always want to save the best and most aged gems as the closing treat, but when it comes to peat…the younger ones that come before can easily beat the hell out your senses before getting to the true showcase.  Tough call.

Anyway…here’s how it all went down…

Uigeadail – Starting with a beefcake such as the Uigeadail before moving into the subtleties inherent in older whiskies was a bit of a concern for me, but it all worked out.  I was initially afraid of blowing out the tastebuds before the big show so I only took wee sips from this and the following dram.

Corryvreckan – Again…another big boy.  Small sips.  Came back to this one at the end of the night.  Had to save the receptors for what was to follow.

17 – Having just killed off my own 17, it was a treat to revisit, and wow, was this a stunner.  Big batch variance from the 17 I had just finished.  This one was rich in sweet subtle tropicals and incredible depths of complexity.  Some malts in here much older than 17, I think, and if I had to venture a guess I’d say this was one of the earlier 17s released.  Spectacular, and one that created quite a buzz this night.

1977 – An all-time favorite of mine, and one I couldn’t see being dethroned as the best of the Ardbeg releases.  Until tonight, that is.  This 1977 was brought along from Victoria by Lawrence Graham.  You’d likely know Lawrence as the gent behind The Victoria Whisky Festival and Whisky Intelligence, among many other whisky endeavours.  Thanks, Lawrence.  This really was a treat.

Ardbog – This was the evening’s closer, and followed on the heels of the Double Barrel bottles.  Unfortunately, the glasses for this dram were slightly compromised, and by the time we came round to this one, the whisky had fallen apart and was a murky mess with a funky flavor.  Perhaps a little soap residue or something.  Oh well.

139

Conversation at the tables was fun and relaxed, with everyone happy to share in the making of memories and spend a little time getting to know their neighbour.  Guests had come from afar for what was truly a world-class event.  Andrew managed to pull in folks from Montreal, San Francisco, Victoria and more.

Anyway…I think we’ve laid enough of the bedrock.  Let’s talk about the reason we were all here.  Ardbeg Double Barrel.

130

The Double Barrel is sort of an iconic thing of lore in the Ardbeg spheres.  For those that may have visited the distillery, this would be the elaborately packaged ‘gun case’ you would have seen locked away with the diver’s helmet behind the glass enclosure.  The case features two different bottles of vintage 1974 Ardbeg, eight engraved silver cups, an oak pen, and a couple of leather-stitched books.  All presented in the aforementioned hand-crafted leather gun case.

The sticker you’d have seen in the shop at Ardbeg…£10,000.  For anyone who may have nabbed one of the four that made its way to Canada…just over $15,000.

So…with no further ado, I’m going to share my tasting notes here, but no scores.  An event like this is not the environment to properly assess a whisky.  Even tasting notes should probably be taken with a grain of salt, but here goes…

 

Ardbeg Double Barrel Cask #1745151

49% abv

Nose:  Tropical-like fruit notes, with vibrant peach and tangerine at the forefront.  Jelly candy…somewhat like a red cherry ju-jube.  Creamy milk chocolate.  Licorice.  Touch of iodine.  The smoke is only an afterthought here.  Crisp cookie notes.  Creamy caramel and smooth subtle vanilla.  Smooth and complex spice profile.

Palate:  Smoke and peat are a little more pronounced now.  Finally.  Some salt licorice.  Slightly fishy note.  Salty dough.  Smoke and licorice grow, then ebb into echoes of fried tropical fruits and very pleasant vanilla oak.

Thoughts:  This one followed on the heels of several good drams, including a great bottling of the 17 and directly after my favorite Ardbeg, the 1977.  I hate to admit it, but that ’77 has now been dethroned as my favorite Ardbeg to date.  This cask is stunning.  An absolute diamond.

 

…and now…the second bottle…

 

Ardbeg Double Barrel Cask #3151157

47.7% abv

Nose:  More chocolate here than on #1745.  Still tropical, but slightly less…technicolor, if you will.  This is made up for by a darker, more mysterious air to this one.  Dark European bread dough.  Smoked oyster and maybe a little smoked fish as well.  Doughy and carrying some beautifully balanced spices.  Butter tarts, Andrew mentioned, and was dead-on accurate.  Slightly more pokey and peppery.

Palate:  A little more peat here than on the previous cask.  Smoke and dark chocolate.  Some coffee notes (strong…espresso-like) and high content dark chocolate.  Licorice.  Salty and briny.  Much more in the style of contemporary Ardbeg.

Thoughts:  Deeper and darker than cask #1745, but not necessarily better for it.  Very complimentary though.

 

Overall…

Definitely a slight preference for the first of the two, cask #1745.

Though I can’t share scores here, these are both certainly in the 93-95ish range (give or take).  Especially the former.  What I wouldn’t give to sit down again with these two and do a proper session.

Whisky is meant to be shared among friends.  It’s meant to make memories with.    This night 30 or 40 friends got together over a dram (or maybe it was eight) and made a helluva pile of memories.

An extra special thanks to Andrew and Kensington Wine Market.  Andrew has wanted to turn this into a reality for the better part of four years now, and I truly don’t believe anyone but he could have actually followed through and made this happen.

Also, to Moet Hennessy and Charton Hobbs…a bow.  Merci.

 

– Words & Tasting Notes:  Curt

– Photos:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:35 pm