Wish you all the very best for a great 2014. Glasses high!
Have fun…be safe…make memories.
Here’s a treat from the last days of Port Ellen. This Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask release was distilled within two months of the distillery shuttering its gates once and for all.
I’ve read and heard that Port Ellen’s closure had as much to do with inferiority of distillate as it did with being surplus to requirements at the nadir of the early ’80s whisky crash. Let’s call this the ‘Great Malt Depression’. Whether or not that perceived inferiority was a reality or not is not something I’ve been able to determine for myself, simply because the only Port Ellens I’ve tried to date have all been at least 20 years of age. It’s hard to argue with the fact that 20 years in a barrel is going to do good things for almost any whisky. The true test, of course, would be sample the young malt (or even new make spirit) alongside a young Caol Ila and young Lagavulin from the same era and see if there was a noticeable disparity.
At this point though, I’m not really sure and don’t really care. What can be claimed with a reasonable amount of certainty – and supported by empirical evidence (however subjectively assessed) – is that Port Ellen is definitely a spirit that ages well. Further, in the interest of greater understanding, this is a subject to which I’m more than happy to devote research time.
This particular bottling is one from the warehouses of Douglas Laing (long before the brothers split the company). The Laings seem to have been sitting on a gold mine of Port Ellen, and if the fates are kind, they still are. ATW’s own deviant, Maltmonster, put together his own assessment on what he believes are remaining PE stocks in a feature piece here. Hmmmm. Only time will tell, I suppose, but hopefully he’s well shy of the true numbers.
This make went into wood as a babe in 1983 and came out a strapping young 20-something in 2006. Those interim 23 years were spent coming of age in a refill sherry butt, which eventually conceded a total of 549 siblings (errr…bottles).
Nose: Very ‘Port Ellen-esque’. Briny, oily and citric. Oysters on the half shell. Smoke and a bit of peat, which seems to be riding off into the sunset. More salt and iodine. Deepest of dark fruit threads. Maybe (just maybe) some very dry pithy grapefruit. Very nice nose…almost classic Port Ellen.
Palate: Not quite as strong as the nose, but still damn fine. Bold and citric. Some chocolate. Salty and smoky. Kinda flinty. Fades into the cereals.
Overall quite typical and expected. And that’s a good thing.
– Reviewed by: Curt
– Photo: Curt
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Port Ellen is arguably my favorite distillery. Sorta hard to explain why, and have it make any sense if you’ve never tasted the whisky, but lemme try anyway…
I’ve had better malts from dozens of other distilleries. I’ve drank some Port Ellen that was rather mediocre. I’ve also tasted Port Ellens that were borderline bad. So how is it then that I can even suggest it may be the distillery nearest and dearest to my shriveled l’il black heart? Quite simply because there is a certain allure, mystique and untouchable magic in the whiskies from this closed Islay distillery. Most of you who’ve been around for a while will be thinking ‘wait…I thought Ardbeg (or maybe even Amrut) was your favorite.’ While those two certainly hold pride of place for operational distilleries, there’s just something intangible and inexplicably shiver-inducing about sipping drams from the lost currents of time.
It’s been more than 30 years now since spirit flowed from the stills at Port Ellen, but for those nostalgiacs (is that a word?) still suffering the pangs of heartache, there’s cold comfort in the fact that time stands still for any unopened bottles of Port Ellen floating around out there. If you can still score a bottle (or more)…do so. And don’t be shy about sharing the experience with friends when you finally pop the cork.
This Connoisseurs Choice release is a rather young PE, by current standards, at a mere 21 years of age. I’d almost guess younger even, to be honest. The dram itself is more than decent, however, sadly, 40% is not the way to serve this up. That’s like playing Slayer at elevator music volume. Port Ellen needs to be amped up to allow all of the delicate intricacies of the spirit to show through.
Nose: Grassy and herbal, but the citrus bites first. A nice sweet / sour balancing act. Mild peat and smoke, but wood smoke (not quite as bold as a mesquite or hickory, but very pronounced nevertheless). Hay bales meet dunnage warehouse. Quite a zippy fruit mix. Pomegranate…and maybe orange. Soft vanilla.
Palate: Waxy. Again…grassy and herbal. Thin burnt notes. Smoked fruit skins. More peat and smoke than the nose lets on. That smokiness hangs around a bit and dries out nicely. Much less sweetness than the nose as well. Palate doesn’t quite deliver what the nose hints at. Thin in terms of flavor, mouth feel and staying power. Still a good drink, but…to cop a cliché…’woefully underpowered’.
– Reviewed by: Curt
– Photo: Curt
The mighty Thor. A rather impressive entry into the Highland Park echelon, to be honest. If you’ve been following along with the distillery’s output in recent times you’ll likely have noticed a bent towards not just a tie to the Norse / Viking side of things, but an outright embracing of it.
Thor is the first release in what Highland Park has dubbed the Valhalla Collection. This is to be a four part limited edition collection. Now…let’s just hope the shoddy debacle that resulted from the execution of Highland Park’s Magnus series is not replicated here. Said issue concerned the first release of that series being ~6,000 bottles, the second ~12,000 bottles and the third….a mere ~3,300 bottles. As you can imagine, the net result was a lot of Highland Park fans being unable to round out their collections, and none the happier for it.
In this case, Thor debuted with a huge production run of 23,000 bottles. The second Valhalla release, Loki, came in at 21,000 bottles (uh oh). Let’s see where the next two end up. Hopefully there’s a form of redemption in this one.
I’m not here to gripe, though. Merely to provide a bit of forewarning to those out there who may not have followed the earlier saga. Caveat emptor. That and, of course, to share a few tasting notes with those out there who are about to hand over their hard-earned dollars. Is Thor a worthwhile purchase? Depending on the price point you’re comfortable with…yes. This is a really good whisky. Highland Park firing on all cylinders, to be sure.
Wanna know what this one is like? Let’s get ‘er done.
Nose: Smoky, peaty and malty. Some straw or hay notes. Pepper. Somewhat porridge-y or oatmeal-y. Honeyed ham. More thick honey and a meaty, almost marmite-like, note. Beef Ringolos (like Beef Oxo almost). Old cigar box. Pretty sure there is some older whisky vatted in here.
Palate: More peat and smoke than expected. A little less forgiving on the palate. Astringent almost. Sponge toffee with spice (??). Anise. Smoked wood at the back end. 16 year old malt must be the youngest in here. There definitely seems to be notes of more mature whisky in this vatting.
– Reviewed by: Curt
– Photo: Curt
Event Date: November 5th
The best laid plans of mice and men…
This particular Dram Initiative club event was originally scheduled as a triple-header tasting, but as events unfolded on the other side of the pond it became, by necessity, a double-header. Funny how things work out, but in the end, this was ultimately a change for the better.
This part of year is often the time when our spouses declare themselves ‘whisky widows’ and resign themselves to the fact that for a few weeks the whiskily-inclined will be a) MIA, b) redolent of peat reek and c) begging for spousal taxi services. Such is the nature of whisky season.
Early to mid November sees a bevy of brand ambassadors, distillery managers, whisky moguls and assorted other interesting folk make their way through Calgary for several days of festivals, tastings, master classes and private engagements. It was armed with this knowledge that the DI approached our friend Andy Dunn (the handsome gent in the third photo below) about the possibility of snagging one of these individuals for a private tasting for the club. Andy was gracious enough to offer up not one, but three of the industries more interesting and eclectic individuals: James Robertson of Tullibardine; Michael Urquhart of Gordon & MacPhail / BenRomach; and Anthony Wills of Kilchoman.
As matters would have it, a couple weeks into our event planning Andy informed me that Michael had to postpone his trip due to Gordon & MacPhail being on the receiving end of a rather prestigious award. Seeing as Michael is the company’s Managing Director, you can imagine it was imperative he was present.
We’re nothing if not adaptable, however, and let’s just assume this was a case of serendipity. This change in pland and agenda allowed for what was ultimately a more focused evening. And a highly enjoyable one at that, I should add.
If any of you have been following along with these write-ups of past club events, you’ll likely recall that the first formal meeting was a kickoff night featuring a range of eight Tullibardine expressions reaching back to an exceptional 1966 World Cup edition. The poor sap charged with exercising the gift of gab was none other than yours truly. In spite of a cold and sore throat that had me clinging to the last of my voice by mere threads, we spoke about the launch of the club…about whisky in general (and detail!)…and about Tullibardine itself.
No amount of research or cobbled-together fact sheets are comparable to having the inside track from one of the distillery’s magnates, however, so it was simply a no brainer to revisit Tulli a couple months down the line, albeit with a completely new line-up of malts. And, of course, with the ace in the hole of James Robertson, international sales manager and sort of the global face of Tullibardine in attendance. Slightly unorthodox to do it twice in a year? Sure. But just goes to show…we’ll do what we need to in order to make these events magic.
Having an opportunity to host James as he shared his stories, insight and humour was a treat. The man is a gentleman with deep reserves of knowledge and an articulate way of presenting it. You get to see a little bit of what lies behind the liquid in the glass. Whisky is about people, after all, and James brought that home.
After working our way through four different Tullibardine expressions (a couple from the recently rebranded core range, and a couple of older ones including a 1965), we pulled out one last special drop to toast the first part of the eve…a 48 year old 1962. Great dram, but couldn’t beat the ’65 (in my opinion).
Since we were aiming for each of the gents to present four malts this eve (plus that extra treat of the ’62), we ran with little time between speakers. We gave the crew a few minutes to lob a few questions at James before turning the floor over to our second guest of the eve: Mr. Anthony Wills. Anthony is the founder and managing director of Kilchoman, Islay’s youngest and certainly smallest distillery (until Gartbreck comes online in 2015, that is).
Again, that insider’s perspective is invaluable to us as whisky nerds, so having the gent who actually founded a distillery come through to speak…wow. Anthony took a landlocked farm, refitted parts of it as required and is now distilling a phenomenal young heavily-peated whisky on the premises. I simplify, of course, but in this short little bit of rambling I simply can’t do justice to the stories of Anthony’s technical obstacles, drive for investors, distillation trial and error and what-have-you. Fortunately, much of this can be seen on youtube under the SMTV channel. A quick search by name should find you Anthony’s videos, which are well worth a watch.
It was a treat to be able to pour for the club, among others, Kilchoman’s Inaugural release, which Anthony himself hasn’t tried for years. A special dram, and a bit of Islay history now. This is one to remember.
Anthony’s sincerity of passion is infectious. I scanned the room a few times, watching members leaning forward in their seats, fascinated by both the balls it took to undertake such a risky endeavour, and by the inspired path to creating a new page in the annals of Scotch lore. Cool stuff.
And while we’ve tackled a few peat monsters in previous horizontal tastings, this was the first club date so far to feature a peaty vertical tasting. Well…half of one anyway. The reaction from the group? Hahaha. Mixed, I think. No worries…we’ll bring ’em all over to the dark side eventually.
For any that weren’t a little too weebly or wobbly, and had a safe way home, we closed out the night with an offer of one last dram of one of a couple of Kilchoman single cask releases I had brought along. Gotta go out on a high note, right?
Sincere thanks to James and Anthony for their time and insight. And perhaps most importantly…thanks to Andy for helping make this a reality. It is appreciated. Slainte!
– Words & Photos: Curt
There’s a lot of love out there in the whisky-sphere for the Ardmore Traditional Cask. And please believe me when I say that I really want to like it more than I do.
A couple of years back when I first tried this expression, I recall being slightly underwhelmed. Fast forward to the days leading into 2014 and…well…sadly, I’m still kinda underwhelmed. It’s not a bad whisky, but for all it has going for it, it simply never quite takes the plunge into ‘great whisky’ territory.
Ardmore is a distillery which has long produced malt whisky for blending purposes. Primarily for Teachers Highland Cream, if what I’ve read is correct. The distillery was built in 1898 in Aberdeenshire in the Scottish Highlands, and produces a ‘fully peated’ Speysider. The results are…well…pretty much what you’d expect, but with a few quirks that allow it to boast a rather singular profile.
The folks at Ardmore, much like Laphroaig, are using Quarter Casking for some of their maturation. This allows for increased spirit to wood contact and a substantially accelerated ageing process. While this works with bog beasts like Laphroaig, whch benefit from being dished up young and fiery, I’m not sure the experiment is as successful in this case. Maturation in Quarter Casks, by nature, has to be short, or the resulting whisky will be nothing but oak. The flipside, however, is that the barrel hasn’t really had enough time to knock the jagged edges off the young spirit. And there are definitely some edges here.
Do note…this is a whisky which absolutely needs time to open up. It’s not entirely at its best right off the cork. Let it breathe. Let it relax. It does deliver with a bit of patience, but still…not quite to the standards I’d hoped. There is a lot of promise here, but something seems to be just not quite there yet. Maybe an extra point for the nose.
Nose: Leather and earthy peat. Then more leather. Some iodine. Man…can’t get over the ‘saddle-like’ leather notes. Very ‘dry’ smelling, if that makes any sort of sense. Light raw tobacco. There are some fruit notes, to be sure, but rather generic and typical of what you’d find in one of the ‘Glen’ distilleries. Nothing unique. There’s a vague hint of salmon with lemon and capers. Some caramel. And…a bit of a floral note. Not tooooo far off a Springbank, really. Think this would age well, but as it stands…middling at best.
Palate: That salmon note carries here. Wish it hadn’t, to be honest. Some earthy peat notes and leather too. Smoke and tannic fruits. Disappointing.
– Reviewed by: Curt
– Photo: Curt
Sometimes you just gotta share a little bit of ‘awesome’.
A couple weeks back a few of my mates and I braved a whole lot of nasty weather in order to go see one of the world’s greatest rock bands, Pearl Jam.
The show was killer. Great setlist…great seats…and some hijinks on the part of yours truly that made it a little memorable (some things we’ll just keep secret). One of the highlights, though, was another opportunity to see just how well this band connects with its fans. Just before launching into ‘Go’, from possibly-their-best-album Vs., Eddie gave a shout out to a little man from Calgary named Jaxon Smith. The gents from PJ had seen a youtube clip of Jaxon beating the hell out of his drumkit with his own rendtion of ‘Mind Your Manners’ from the new album.
The crowd, in a great display of solidarity with their little hometown rockstar, went mad with applause. Awesome stuff.
…And here, finally, is a clip of the actual dedication itself.
Way to go, Jaxon. You’re awesome.
Eddie, Jeff, Stone, Mike, Matt (and Boom)…you are gentlemen of the highest calibre. Cheers. Can’t wait to see you back here.
We’ll raise a glass (of Kool-Aid) to Jaxon! Slainte!
– Photo: Yahoo OMG
This is a special dram. Momentous, really. One of those whiskies that stands to define a place and time. That moment (midnight of November 22nd, 2011) can be witnessed here, for those with a bent to history (however recent).
John Glaser’s ‘get in the ring’ approach to whisky making has led to a reputation as sort of the people’s champion of thumbing your nose at authority (or antiquated and self-serving authority anyway). For this alone, the rebellious side of me will always hold him, and Compass Box, in high regard. Now, couple that attitude with a damn fine run of whiskies and, well…
We’re fans of Compass Box. Let’s leave it at that.
In 2009, new legislation (‘The Scotch Whisky Regulations’) decreed, among other things, that the term ‘Vatted Malt’ was to be invalidated. Enforcement of the new mandate was to go into effect as of the back end of 2011. This semantic reformation, while of negligable impact to some, was monumental to Compass Box.
From the pen of Glaser: “At midnight on November 22nd, 2011, an era ends. After that point, it will be illegal for whiskymakers to use the term Vatted Malt to describe a Scotch whisky made from the combination of two or more single malts. From 23rd November 2011, this style of whisky will by law have to be labelled as a Blended Malt Scotch Whisky. Vatted Malt is a term that has been in use since at least the 19th century. It represents a style of whisky in which Compass Box specialise, so it has special meaning for us. Therefore we have decided to take a lead in the education of whisky drinkers about the new legal definitions of the 5 styles of Scotch whisky. We feel that this is an important change to the law that needs to be explained to whisky lovers. As the new laws come into effect, we want to take this opportunity to educate, to look to the future and to help the industry as a whole.”
The Last Vatted Malt is Compass Box’s eloquently expressed response to this new approach. A commemoration of the end of an era; a final ‘F U’ to the powers that be; and an acceptance of the challenge. All of which would have been mere ceremony if Scotland’s last vatted malt wasn’t such a phenomenally executed piece of work.
I’ll go one further, and say that this is unquestionably John Glaser’s most impressive offering to date (at least as far as I have been able to taste). It is a marriage of 36 year old Glenallachie (22% of the malt) and 26 year old Caol Ila (78% of the malt). And, man…does this work a treat! One of the most subtlely sublime older peated drams I’ve ever tasted. A beautiful one-off I’d love to see repeated at some point (albeit under a different name, of course).
Nose: Gorgeous and rich. So mature. So much balance. So much class. Smoke and smooth natural caramels. Creamy sweetness and mildly spiced white bread dough. Fruit salad in sugar syrup (think canned fruit cocktail). Now some more mature dried fruit notes. This is really an astounding nose. The earthiness of peat has been softened to allow the smoke to show through. Just the slightest bit of the typical Caol Ila briny citric edge. Immaculate.
Palate: Creamy…caramel-y…smoky…fruity…sexy…sassy. Oh, man…I truly love this whisky. Fruits in melted toffee. The perfect harmony struck here between spice, smoke, wood and cereal. Almost too easy a drinker, even at 53.7%. I could happily curl up with this bottle and a great book until the wee hours.
– Reviewed by: Curt
– Photo: Curt