Nov 252014
 

Samaroli Evolution 20115837

45% abv

Score:  90/100

 

Arguably one of the most unique whiskies I’ve ever had the pleasure of making acquaintances with.

Evolution is a seemingly annual (or at least vintage batched) release from independent bottler Samaroli that is built on something like a Solera process (without actually being a solera vatting, you understand).  Apparently this great experiment began with the marriage of about twenty rare old single casks in a great wooden vat somewhere.  After a steeping period (my words, not theirs) of approximately six months the blended malt whisky was laid to rest in both bourbon and sherry barrels to further integrate and mature.

After this initial fateful meeting, these barrels would then be re-vatted from time to time, with a portion of the overall volume siphoned off for each new release.  Over the years, additional casks would occasionally find their way into this celestial spirit.  Effectively this process ensures the long-running and eternal DNA of the origin casks has some infinite influence in the ever-maturing malt.  Spectacular and singular.    

See the label in the bottle shot above?  Yes…those are indeed the component malts that make up this whisky.  1957 Mortlach; Springbank from 1959, 1962 and 1965; a Bruichladdich from 1964; both 1967 and 1970 Laphroaigs; a 1976 Ardbeg; some old Port Ellen; and Talisker; Longrow; Glenlivet; and on and on.  Wow.  Just…wow.

On the surface these would seem to be some pretty special barrels.  Reading those names and numbers is like a surreal trip through some of my sweetest whisky dreams.  The reality is, though, that every distillery fills dud casks from time to time, and I simply have to question whether or not some of these barrels may have been less than first tier wood.  I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind deciding to vat away some of these individual components, when single barrel releases would most likely net them astronomical profits above and beyond what the vatting does.  The only thing arguing against my inherent cynicism is that the end result – this Evolution expression – is a damn fine drink and shows no signs of second class whiskies being ‘blended away’ within. 

At the end of the day I’ll simply take my hats off to Samaroli for creating a fine and wonderfully unique expression, and one I’ll not soon forget. 

If this is what Samaroli is bringing to the market, I can’t wait to try more.

Nose:  Raisin.  A bit of smoke.  Old books, and pipe tobacco.  A touch of leather.  Grape juice.  Rye bread and spiced dough.  Dusty dunnage warehouse and a faint flinty-ness.  Licorice root.  Coffee.

Palate:  Almost tastes like a bit of wine-cask influence at work here, though I know that’s not the case.  Cough syrup.  Espresso.  Apples.  Dried apricot.  Old fruitcake or fruit leather.  Moth balls (WTF?!).  Slightly nutty and almost bitter finish.  Not even remotely unpleasant though.

Thoughts:  Shows definite indications of the advanced age of its component malts.  Just smells…’old’.  Very odd profile, but I like it.  Certainly a special whisky.  A great dram, but I do mourn ‘what could have been’ in the individual casks.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 3:33 pm
Nov 242014
 

Islay2 443Bowmore Springtide

54.9% abv

Score:  88/100

 

Another whisky I tried for the first time on Islay around two years ago, give or take. 

A handful of sodden reprobates and I had just finished an unforgettable experience down in the No. 1 vaults beneath the distillery.  We were wrapping up the ‘Craftsman’s Tour’ with a couple bonus drams up in the Bowmore lounge overlooking the shores of Loch Indaal.  It was a sort of ‘pick your poison, boys’ kind of affair led by our wonderful guide Heather.  Among many other malts sampled that afternoon, this was foremost among my choices.  Not gonna lie…we were already more than a couple drams deep – a few of which were drunk directly from the cask – so I can’t promise that my senses were in any condition to properly assess the inherent quality of the malt at the time, but do I recall not being willing to drop the ~£100-150 (or whatever it was) to bring home a bottle.  That tells me I didn’t think it was all that exceptional.

And to be honest with you…I still don’t.  It is, however, an awful lot better than I recall from that intense dramming session.  That may sound like damning with faint praise, but that would be selling the whisky short.  This is actually very good stuff.  When the opportunity presented itself to revisit this oddball limited edition Bowmore (via the generous offer of a couple of friends of mine*) I leapt at it.  Sitting down with the glass once again was like being yanked back to that moment in time.  A tired group of friends…our last day on Islay…our last distillery tour on the island…and an unforgettable piece of my ‘whisky life’. 

Springtide was so named for the period when the earth, sun and moon are aligned.  Apparently that is the window in which this whisky was distilled.  I’m not sure what significance we’re supposed to believe that that concept has for this NAS Oloroso sherry cask-matured malt, but I guess we’ll concede points for originality (if not clarity and forthcomingness in marketing.  Ahem…age statement, anyone?).   

All gimmicky and shit, for sure, but still tasty.  Worth trying if you can find it.

Nose:  Sweet smoked dry fruit.  Grapes.  Sunflower seeds.  Oily.  A wee bit of tar, ash and rubber.  A tangy meatiness.  Stirfry sauce.  Citrus.  Tobacco and dried cherries.  Eucalyptus.  Some chocolate and salt taffee.  Florals emerge late and almost ghost-like.

Palate:  Spiced chocolate sauce and lapsang souchong tea.  Rum-soaked fruitcake.  Leaves quite a taste of smoke and grape skins in the mouth.  Or maybe plum skins.  Medicinal in a fruity cough syrup kinda way.  This is heavy sherry and moderate smoke.  Neat.

Thoughts:  May not be to everyone’s liking, but it works a treat for me.

*Thanks to Greg and Jarka Winters for the opportunity to try this one again.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 4:00 pm
Nov 202014
 

Bruichladdich Black Art 4.1IMG_6363

49.2% abv

Score:  84.5/100

 

Whatever closed door deals-with-the-devil or blasphemous alchemy Jim McEwan is engaged in when concocting these Bruichladdich Black Art releases is slowly becoming a thing of whisky lore.  People love to talk about this kind of stuff.  People other than McEwan himself, that is.

Attend one of his tastings and he’ll happily tell you to naff off when pressed for details on this malt (though in that friendly affable Ileach manner).  Secrecy itself has become the sales pitch.  The hook here that gets the tongues a-waggin’ and the rumours milling is that Jim simply refuses to disclose what exactly the component barrels are that constitute these special ‘Laddie releases.  The truth may never come out, but the hallmarks of a lot of wine-cask tomfoolery are all over the end product.  No surprise, really, considering the Laddie warehouses boast legions of former wine barrels with interesting varietal names stenciled all over them.  This is almost like the secret weapon in the Bruichladdich arsenal.  They have a broader palette to work with than most other whisky makers.  While most distilleries will be maturing spirit within the confines of bourbon, sherry and perhaps port vessels, Bruichladdich can harness the influence of Château d’Yquem, Château Margaux, Cabernet Franc, Brunello, etc.  Almost an unfair advantage, in terms of pure flexibility.

The real question is, though, does it work?  In some cases, yes.  Absolutely.  In other cases…well…

Let me be frank here (cause that’s what we do).  This 23 year old is a bit of a Frankenstein show for me.  It’s not cohesive.  It’s not really pretty even, aside from the snazzy packaging, that is.  There’s some charm, sure, but you have to go deeper than the surface level in order to find it (i.e. this is not bad as a nosing whisky…but not quite so special on the palate). 

But hey…I’m just one guy.  What do I know?  I know many out there who feel differently about this whisky than I.  A lot of folks really love this drink. 

It does seem, however, that most people are either really on board with the Black Art releases, or really not on board. I probably lean more towards the latter group, while recognizing it as not a bad dram, but simply falling outside my preferred flavour camp.  As always…caveat emptor.

Nose:  Quite jammy.  Chocolate doughnuts…with chocolate glaze.  Some wine or sangria-like notes.  A touch of a salty seabreeze.  A vague whiff of suede.  Sour purple ju-jubes and wine gums.  This is a heavy, heavy dram. but I like the nose quite a bit actually. 

Palate:  Great immediate arrival, with a lot of spice and deep threads of sour dark fruits, but quickly bitters into oversaturated wine notes.  Not my thing, I must admit.  Apples and apple skins.  Like chewing on a stick of wine-soaked wood.  An odd spice note.  Touch of leather.  Faint licorice.  Like black wine gums.  Somewhat sour and punchy.

Thoughts:  A nose that shines, but a palate that only dimly illuminates.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 2:12 pm
Nov 172014
 

Ardbeg Kildalton (2014)043

46% abv

Score:  92/100

 

Some whiskies carry a story.  Not the marketing department fluff or the PR nonsense, mind you, but the personal tales we relate back to them.  They become sort of timeless and cherished through the memories we associate back to the opportunities we had to taste them.  Ardbeg’s Kildalton 2014 is one of those whiskies for me.

I first tried this Kildalton with a group of good friends before a great meal at a very special Ardbeg event.  Imagine an evening of brilliant peated malts, a setting sun, long limo rides, a Top Chef-catered multi-course dinner in an isolated setting and spectacular cigars to close it all out.  Fortunately, I don’t have to imagine; instead, simply remember.  I should acknowledge here that it’s truly interesting to note how many of my favorite malt memories are intertwined with drams from this incomparable Islay distillery.  Not a coincidence, I’d suggest.

This special limited one-off Ardbeg was released in order to raise money for something called The Kildalton Project.  This undertaking – sanctioned by Ardbeg (LVMH), the North Highland Initiative (NHI), and HRH Prince Charlie – is an effort to “support ‘fragile, rural communities’ across the North Highlands’.  In particular, a good portion of the funds are to be used to restore the St. Columba Village Hall in the distillery’s near-neighbouring village of Port Ellen.  Neat.  And rather admirable.

This 2014 Kildalton is not to be confused with the now-legendary 2004 release under the same appellation.  The earlier incarnation was a lightly peated dram, but at a higher bottling strength.  It is also very limited and zealously coveted by Ardbeg collectors.  While I’ve not yet tried that earlier version, I can attest that the 2014 is a stunner.  A tasteful vatting of ex-bourbon casks and new and refill sherry butts.  Simple and elegant.  I’m happy to see an Ardbeg that hasn’t been tinkered with too much.

And finally, the name of this expression – for those who may not be fully ‘in the know’ – is a tribute to the spectacular and monumental high cross of the same name at the site of the ruined Kildalton Parish Church on the Southeast end of the island.

Nose:  Smoky and briny, but soft for a contemporary Ardbeg.  Vaguely Laphroaig-ish (Hmmm…slightly more than ‘vaguely’, actually).  Lemon squeezed over oysters on the half shell.  A little bit of lime and chocolate too.  Quite coastal and oceanic.  Salty and peppery.  Fennel.  Green Jolly Ranchers.  All told, though…quite soft and creamy dessert-like (think Airigh Nam Beist vanilla notes).

Palate:  Gentle arrival.  Anise.  Wet rock.  Briny shellfish.  Smoke.  Poached pear.  Lemon pepper.  Grilled meat.  A little bit of coffee with good cream.  Good balance of peat and sweet.

Thoughts:  Great ‘pure’ Ardbeg.  This is Ardbeg the way it should be served up.  Austere and classy.  The only way I would have tweaked this one would have been to leave it at cask strength.  Sadly, not one a lot of Ardbeg fans will be able to try, as this release was (is?) a distillery-only exclusive release.

*Sincere thanks to our mate Andrew Ferguson for surrendering a good portion of valuable suitcase room in order to bring me back a bottle of this malt from the distillery earlier this year.  Slainte!

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:27 pm
Nov 132014
 

Octomore 6.1IMG_6336

57% abv

Score:  87.5/100

 

Bruichladdich’s Octomore is now unquestionably the undisputed heavyweight of peated whisky.  The phenolic levels in nearly each successive release keep creeping ever upwards, redefining the weight classes and changing the face of the sport (whisky drinking) forever.  For a while there Ardbeg Supernova seemed to be an able sparring partner, but these Octomore releases just keep swinging haymakers.  At this point it’s simply no contest.

This particular version of Octomore is the ‘6.1 Scottish Barley’.  It sports a 167 ppm warning on the bottle.  Just hitting the markets as I write this piece is the ‘6.3 Islay Barley’ edition.  That release boasts a scorching 258 ppm on the label.  Those of you familiar with these escalating peat wars will most likely be well aware that there is a vast difference between the phenols in the malted barley prior to distillation, and those that actually end up in the finished product.  In all cases, however, I believe the 258 ppm refers to the peating level prior to distillation.  This is most likely the reason why, even though the numbers for each Octomore get more and more ludicrous, the actual peat- and smokiness never seem to get out of hand.  The end product is still crystalline and pure.  And damn good, I might add. 

Forgive the bias lapse in the previous sentence.  I am an unapologetic peat head.  But you already knew that.

There really is no dud in the Octomore range as yet.  This particular batch is probably one of the weaker ones I’ve encountered, if I’m to be completely honest, but even so it comes in head and shoulders above most other young malts.  Let’s face it…most drams hitting the shelves at a similar age would be outright flops.  Peated whisky is a different story.  And Octomore is yet an even different story.

If you’re a daring soul, and someone who appreciates bold flavours and doesn’t mind dropping between $100-150CA on a 5 year old whisky, give it a go.

Nose:  Crisp smoky bacon.  Earthy.  Saline and heavy in all things related to fire (smoke, ash, char and …well…more smoke, honestly).  Sweet BBQ.  A squeeze of lemon.  Rubber (like a new pair of Wellies).  Anise or fennel.  Cola syrup.  Mint Leaf chewy candies.  At the tail end of a good, long inhalation, you’ll get some butter and cereal notes.

Palate:  Rubber and tart apple.  More peat now, and still smoke, of course.  Lemon rind.  Slightly burnt olive oil.  Ocean-doused campfire ashes (not that I’ve ever had a mouthful).  Walnut, as it fades (almost Chardonnay-ish, somehow).

Thoughts:  The palate is a notch or three below what the nose had me hoping for, but still a rather exceptional five year old.  Let’s not forget that…this is only five years on.  Not my favorite Octomore, but a worthwhile dram nevertheless.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 3:45 pm
Nov 072014
 

BenRiach 1999 Cask #40043269

55.6% abv

Score:  90.5/100

 

These are the drams I spend my time hunting for.  Whiskies that defy the number on the bottle, somehow fall under what I consider an acceptable budget threshold and manage to bring sexy back to the taste buds.  Unfortunately, in this age of so-called ‘mature malt shortages’, these types of drams are becoming more and more scarce.  The reality is that the premium levied on every additional year of maturity seems to be increasing exponentially faster than my salary is rising.

Much like playing out the grasshopper and the ant scenario (stashing away bottles now for the tough seasons ahead), the distilleries seen to be embracing an old adage themselves: make hay while the sun shines.  They are wringing every drop of profit out of each grain of barley.  It’s up to the discerning consumer to do their homework and suss out the gems.  Caveat emptor, and all that.

You can only imagine then, how much of a treat it is to discover a malt like this one.  A 13 year old single cask of BenRiach bottled at 55.6%, not colored and non chill-filtered.  And to make it even more of a homerun…it came home with me for about $75 Canadian. 

This is an absolute showcase of just what is possible when good spirit goes into an alpha bourbon barrel.  Proof positive that BenRiach, as we’ve long trumpeted, puts out great single casks.  Especially those of clean, mature bourbon barrels.  This is a great whisky at a very ripe age.  Credit to all involved.

Nose:  Touch of toasted coconut.  Touch of pineapple.  Vanilla cream.  Ginger and cinnamon.  Chewy red candy.  Danish pastries.  Toasted meringue.  Cranberry and white chocolate.  Clean warm suede.  Lightly toasted oak.

Palate:  Bold, but soft arrival explodes into flavours.  Grilled pineapple on wooden skewers.  Lemon bars.  Pepper.  Big bourbon notes.  Eucalyptus.  Dark vanilla.  White chocolate over apple slices.

Thoughts:   13 year old whisky has no business having notes like this.  The pseudo tropicals of pineapple and coconut are nuances that belong in much older whiskies from similar casking.  One of my absolute favorite sub-fifteen year old malts.  Glad I have one more bottle put aside for the future.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:13 am
Nov 072014
 

Port Charlotte Scottish Barley162

50% abv

Score:  87/100

 

We’re on the eve, so to speak, of the release of the newest run of Laddies.  This time, pure Islay Barley Port Charlotte and Octomore.  I’ve yet to try the former, but the latter really is a knockout malt (and peated to an unprecedented 258ppm!  Though, I’m going on record as saying it’s not necessarily any peatier or smokier than earlier editions, despite the boost in phenols).  At some point we’ll get ’round to reviewing these, but in the meantime let’s continue with one of our perpetually-late-to-the-party write-ups of an older edition.  Last year’s Scottish Barley Port Charlotte.

It’s always a treat to engage a new expression of Port Charlotte.  As many of you are likely aware, Port Charlotte is not a distillery, but a brand name under the Bruichladdich banner, produced for a good part of the year at this once-again iconic distillery on the western shores of Islay’s Loch Indaal.  Port Charlotte is the distillery’s middle ground malt, sitting somewhere in between the mild and unpeated (or nearly unpeated, depending on the expression) Bruichladdich spirit and the eyewatering bog beast Octomore.  Make no mistake about it, though, this is a heavily peated whisky. 

For this particular release, Bruichladdich has upped the abv from the previous version’s 46%, and – I can only assume – dropped the average age of the whisky in the bottle, as this certainly seems a bit younger than the Port Charlotte 10 y.o.  While I love that they made the first change, I’m less impressed by the move to NAS.  This makes no sense to me, seeing as how they proudly proclaim Octomore’s five year old designation right on the bottle.  Personal gripes aside, this is a fine dram.  Well-constructed by Mr. McEwan and the gang, and is certainly money well spent.

Bruichladdich has gone on record several times now saying that nothing would change subsequent to the Remy Cointreau buyout, and that they would be left to their own devices.  I’m not convinced.  Yes, they are still knocking out rather frequent releases in their inimitable craft stylings, but these releases seem to be nothing more than minor variations on a theme.  Tweak the abv, adjust the age, declare the provenance, different finishes, etc.  Though the distillery’s modus operandi of blitzing the market with uncountable expressions was often maligned in the ‘presses’ (and I use that term very loosely) I miss the days of infinite cask fuckery and shelves groaning under the weight of countless quirky Bruichladdichs.  It was just a little more exciting, to be honest.  While I think the whisky coming out of Bruichladdich is consistently better overall now, I do mourn the loss of artistic unpredictability. 

And man, do I miss the widespread availability of the untouchable PC cask strength series.  That was Port Charlotte at its apex.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is not the Port Charlotte I fell in love with.  It’s more like a really decent knock-off.  Think Zeppelin with John Bonham vs Zeppelin with Jason Bonham.  One was an absolute megalith.  Towering, thundering and taking the world by storm.  The other was making nearly all of the same sounds, but without the lasting resonance or element of monumental surprise.  

Nose:  Lovely downhome farmyard aromas.  Licorice.  Smoking rubber.  Cola with a squeeze of citrus.  Smoke and peat, of course.  Key lime.  Creamy, buttery caramel.  Port Charlotte is simply unmistakeable.  This is no shocker of a nose.

Palate:  Great, bold delivery (as we’ve come to expect from this range).  Licorice, cola and rubber again.  Wet, smoking piles of hay.  Salty pie dough.  Lemon meringue pie.  Buttery notes and oily mouthfeel.  Long finish.

Thoughts:  This is an end-of-the-night kinda dram.  An absolute sandblasting of the taste buds.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:58 am