Nov 302015
 

Head To Head – Bruichladdich Scottish Barley vs The Laddie Ten

 

I think I promised this one a long while back.  With the moratorium on NAS reviews I had to shelve the concept, but we’ve yanked the gag now and are moving forward unimpeded, right?  So…let’s have a go at two Laddies that absolutely merit comparison.  For obvious reasons.

Here’s the thing…some distilleries historically have had a more sound rationale than others for avoiding age statements at certain points in time.  This is by no means an endorsement of the concept, but merely an acknowledgment that I see why it was done when it was.  However…this was all prior to the current spate of endless NAS expressions driving consumer trust into the ground.

Gaps in production and new start-ups are the most obvious reasons for wanting to use NAS as a Band-Aid solution, whereby a mix of old and young stock may have been necessary, or because there simply wasn’t any older stock in existence.  I am a little more forgiving of this in retrospect for distilleries such as Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Glenglassaugh, etc.  Nowadays, however, I don’t think we need to be quite so lenient.

Could these brands now give us expressions with a label that reads something like ‘aged 7 years’?  Sure.  And for some of them it would be a maverick sort of move that would play right into their buck-the-trends rebellious mystique.  Bruichladdich would be a prime candidate.  I like to think it’s a more mature market out there now.  People are willing to accept young whisky, so long as the price is fair.

By now we’re probably all familiar with the story of the grand launch of the Laddie Ten, Sixteen and Twenty Two a couple years back.  These were to be the bright, bold (turquoise!) future of the brand.  Unfortunately it was only a blink of an eye before demand outstripped supply and these malts were pulled from general release and replaced with an NAS offering under the banner of ‘Scottish Barley’.  The alcohol by volume was tweaked upwards a tick (from 46% to 50%, which we appreciated), but the profile took a rather drastic change.  In some ways this was a lateral move, but in others it was definitely a step backwards.

The point of this post is not to say AS or NAS is better (because, of course, that argument has never been about quality), it’s merely to stack up an age-stated expression against its NAS replacement, as we discussed doing long ago.  The conclusion you draw from there is up to you.

I reviewed these both individually a while back, but stacking them side-by-side helps shine a light on some highs and lows in both.  Additionally, this is almost certainly a more contemporary batch of the Scottish Barley than that I reviewed back then.  Tellingly, perhaps, the scores are slightly different than when originally posted.  Here ya go…

120
Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten

46% abv

Score:  88/100

Nose:  Some farmy notes and some big familiar buttery Laddie-ness.  Definitely some peat in there in spite of the label stating ‘unpeated’.  And an earthiness.  Mild hints of Springbank, to be honest.  A touch of leather.  Creamy and rich.  Hay fields and far off prairie fire.  Creme brulee.

Palate:  Still farmy here.  Some polished wood.  Citric and salty.  Savoury pastry.  Leaves some over-toasted marshmallow notes and an almost winey tang.  Or maybe that’s tea.  Lemon and orange attack.

Thoughts:  Much more complex than the Scottish Barley.  And the old school charm has won me over much more with this visit than I recall in previous tastings (and there were a LOT of them).

 

Bruichladdich Scottish Barley

50% abv

Score:  85.5/100

Nose:  Less on the familiar Laddie, with louder grains and a more biting edge.  I think I’d guess Arran blindly.  Maybe that’s just ’cause I’m tasting it alongside the heftier Laddie Ten.  Fruitier than the that malt, incidentally, but faux fruits…like candy or something.  Lemon and orange.  A slightly sharp, underdeveloped edge.  Raw pastry dough.  A little bit floral and a little herbaceousness too.

Palate:  Same pastry notes here.  Definitely a more biting (read: youthful) attack here than the Laddie Ten.  Scones with fruit jam.  Lemon and freshly milled grain (or maybe just flour).  Grassy and apple-y.  Not bad, but…well…youngish.  Not too young, mind.  We like young malts when they’re this well composed.

Thoughts:  This IS a downgrade from the Laddie Ten, no two ways about it.  Not a bad whisky, but how ’bout just a ‘here’s a younger version (sans sherry this time, I think) for ya since we don’t have enough ten year old stock’.  I’d buy that.  Especially for the honesty.

 – Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 1:21 pm
Nov 262015
 

Very few in the published whisky world speak with such a balance of knowledge and conviction as Dominic_RoskrowDominic Roskrow.  It most often tends to be an either/or scenario of very informed individuals who elect not to question the status quo, or those that speak out with vitriol but lack the logic and reasoning to table bulletproof arguments.  And unfortunately when one does find someone that manages to straddle both tendencies they almost always have their initial say, then refrain from subsequent commentary.  In short; making a case and refusing to support the argument.  We’ve seen this time and again in this age of internet access.

I think maybe that’s why I find Dominic so refreshing.  He wears his heart on his sleeve, has years and years of experience from which he’s drawn his own conclusions and he isn’t afraid to ‘go to the mattresses’ when the situation dictates.  He’s built a bedrock of knowledge throughout the years and uses his spheres of influence to wield words that actually have staying power and heft.  His will be a voice that leaves a mark on the scene for years to come.

A journalist by trade, Dom’s always shown a flinty edge.  His candor shone through in our email exchanges even before he had the following questions in hand, by way of his response when I suggested there would be heavy-hitting questions thrown his way.  His reply?  “I like tough questions and won’t duck.  I’m a journalist after all, and hope to answer as people would answer me.”  Love it.  This is exactly what the big whisky machine needs more of.  As he’s said before, his definition of journalism is “someone writing something that someone somewhere doesn’t want written or someone else to read”.  I think you’ll find below he definitely lives this credo.

Chances are if you’re a whisky lover your bookshelves already boast titles with Dom’s name on the spine, and if they don’t let me suggest that “The World’s Best Whiskies” is a ‘must own’.

Dom BookWith no further preamble, let’s pour a dram and settle in for a bit of discussion…

 

All Things Whisky:  You’re a bit of a maverick – recognized for wearing your heart on your sleeve – so we’re going to pull no punches and tackle a lot of tough industry questions.  Hope you’re ok with rolling up the sleeves and wading in…

Whisky is hot right now.  It has been for years and hasn’t really shown a decline in demand yet.  In spite of global economics suggesting that this should be a time of belt-cinching, whisky seems to be just as feverishly sought out as at any time over the last couple of years.  Distilleries have increased production, altered maturation times and most importantly changed their marketing trajectory away from ‘older is better’ and more toward ‘let your palate decide and forget the numbers’.  In short, it seems a move towards younger whisky, while the brands push to fill warehouses with maturing stocks.  Do you think there’s a possibility we’re building up to another bust as we speak?

Dominic Roskrow:  The short answer to that is yes, I think it’s possible. I was talking to someone the other day who was ominously talking about a glut of unwanted 10 year old Scottish single malt a decade or so from now.

Firstly I would take issue with your statement that whisky ‘hasn’t really shown a decline in demand yet.’ Some of the figures for Scotch whisky haven’t been too clever recently, and some of the territories that were meant to have the greatest potential for whisky have stalled. But the picture is a confusing one. The bigger producers are introducing new markets to quality blended whisky rather than single malts and there are still big opportunities for them in South America, parts of Asia, and Eastern Europe. And who knows about Africa? There is a rapidly emerging middle class across the continent, and oil, so the potential is huge.

My view is there will be no general bust, but there will be a big squeeze, and the victims of it will be those who are compromising on quality and are no longer offering a value for money product. The likes of Diageo and Pernod Ricard will be fine, because in my view they haven’t dumbed down when it comes to quality. And at the other end of the scale we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to small ‘New World’ producers, and many of them will thrive at a more modest level. but there will inevitably be a fall out. Companies putting out Scottish single malts that are just not good enough will struggle, because whisky drinkers are noticing that some of the whisky they’re drinking isn’t fit for purpose – unless that purpose is to provide an over-packaged under-firing malt as a gift in travel retail. I was doing some research in to a distillery the other day and one book was saying that the output was well below capacity because the distillery insisted on a  lengthy fermentation time. But this year’s Malt Yearbook reports that the same distillery is now producing at capacity. There is only one way that could have been achieved – and it’s not good news. There will also be scores of victims among the so-called craft distillers, too, especially in America, because many of them are producing appalling spirit. This isn’t subjective – it’s not a case of some like roast chicken, some like deep fried chicken. It’s about serving up raw chicken and it’s just wrong.

 

ATW:  There is no greater hot button topic for the current ‘whisky generation’ than the discussions surrounding No Age-Statement whiskies.  This is firmly tied to the perceived ‘value for outlay’ debate and how our quest for information helps determine our buying habits.  Quite telling is the fact that there seems to be no middle ground on this one.  How do you feel about the concept of NAS whisky as it now stands and what is your prediction on the path forward for the industry?

DR:  I have absolutely no problems with Non Age Statement whisky per se. In fact, as someone who specialises in what I call ‘New World Whisky’ I find that Non Age Statement whisky depends to be the norm. I’ll come back to this in a bit. What you’re really asking about is the move in Scotland towards NAS. It’s not that new and some of my favourites whiskies don’t have age statements – various Ardbegs, Ardmores, Glen Gariochs and Highland Parks, Talisker 58 North, Glenmorangie Signet, Dewar’s Signature… I could go on. I think what is upsetting people  is the way some Scotch producers are clearly putting under-cooked and reedy spirit aged considerably less than the 10 or 12 years old and asking drinkers to pay more for it. And they don’t like being asked to swallow a lot of PR crap about improved casks and whisky makers having the freedom of no age constraint to make special malts for Travel Retail exclusives and the like. Go and listen to the absolute drivel the people in airports are telling overseas tourists about some over-packaged 40% seven year old malt priced £70 or £80.

The problem here is that there is no consistent message or story. You can’t tell people that it takes 12 years to make a quality Scottish single malt one minute, and then tell them that age doesn’t matter the next. My view is that very few whiskies can live with Scottish single malts above 10 years of age, but all bets are off at younger ages. The Swedes, Australians, Taiwanese, Indians and English to name but a few can trounce young Scotch whisky, and are doing so in awards across the world. This isn’t a conspiracy and it’s no good Scotland’s whisky industry burying its collective head and trying to shoot the messengers who raise such issues. Other countries are rightly drawing attention to different maturation times in their territories, and the role of climate, temperature extremes, type of oak and even wood used for maturation, the size of cask,  and so on. There are fabulous NAS statements being launched from Hobart to Helsinki, and I don’t think young Scottish whiskies can match them.

 

ATW:  That question sort of leads into asking if there is there still value (for money) to be found in whisky.  Which brands or expressions do you have no qualms about standing behind unequivocally, if there is such a thing?

DR:  There are scores of world whiskies that I would stand by. The whiskies of Zuidam, Distillerie Warenghem, St Georges, Penderyn, Mackmyra, Amrut, Kavalan. A lot of standard bourbons. I’d like to be unequivocal about a lot of Irish whiskey but it has become very expensive, and so has Australian whisky, due to demand and distance.

But I guess you’re really talking about Scotch. I think Diageo do a  good job with NAS whiskies – Talisker Storm and Cardhu Amber Rock are good. Ardmore Port Wood Finish. I don’t mind Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve either.

 

ATW:  In tying this back to a piece here on this site (“Sins of Omission”) wherein I changed tacks on approaching the fight against NAS, do you think it’s more effective for individuals who are in opposition to outright boycott or blacklist them, or is it more effective to speak out about them and use all social media platforms as means to express discontent?

DR:  As I said, I’m not at war with NAS whiskies, and think each should be judged individually and on its merit, or lack of it. What I believe we should be fighting is the utter nonsense about young whisky being best suited as an entry level malt for an untrained palate so the view of experienced malt drinkers is irrelevant. Raw chicken is raw chicken, and over-priced raw chicken is even more indefensible – end of story. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think we should also challenge those who claim to be offering an objective defence of bad whiskies but are merely acting as an extended arm of the company’s marketing department and are regurgitating PR waffle either because they don’t know what they’re talking about or because they want to continue to get free supplies of whisky. Actually, the irony is that I’m not sure many people are listening anyway. I’d love to know how many bottles of whisky are sold on the back of a glowing review by someone no-one’s ever heard of.

 

ATW:  Whisky writer Ian Buxton alluded to a problem that is tacitly tied to the NAS trend when he spoke of the rising costs of Scotch whisky.  In his words:   “The dirty little secret of the Scotch industry is they’ve become addicted to high prices, but they’ve run out of old whisky”.  Do you see a time when older whiskies will once again be more widely available and affordable?  From what you’ve seen is the industry taking the right steps to avoid putting themselves in this compromised position again?

DR:  Ian’s right, though, he’s being a little bit melodramatic.  I’m not so sure it’s a secret or an addiction.

What it is is the economics of capitalism in action. Demand is outstripping supply and it would be a poor and unsustainable business model not to adjust price accordingly. As a Socialist, I am always amused by people who are surprised and angered when capitalists take advantage of economics to make profit. Greed is good, and all that. Let’s go back to the NAS argument. when Bowmore released its Mizunara cask malt at £650 there were those who argued that this was ‘the NAS rip off in full flow.’ But that was an amazing whisky and it barely touched the shelf such was the demand for it. If anything it was under-priced. So normal folk like us can’t afford it. I can’t afford a Ferrari either. Get over it.

To your question. Available, yes, affordable no. It’s highly unlikely that prices will fall for super premium whisky. And at the other extreme, you could argue that the rise in standard Scottish malts is long overdue and they’re actually where they should be. Single malts take years to make and shouldn’t be trying to compete with standard vodka. It is ridiculous economics to discount single malt whisky aat this time of the year, when the demand is at its highest, and it’s quite wrong that a quality blend such as Famous Grouse is on sale for £15 – the same price as Smirnoff.

As for the last bit of your question, is the industry really compromised? it’s selling lots of whisky at higher prices, and has put up the price of its rarest stock by eye-watering amounts. I imagine a lot of producers are quite happy right now. The real question is whether they will get too greedy and lose the many drinkers who currently treat a bottle of single malt as an affordable luxury.

Business Dom

ATW:  The shelves at our favorite spirit sellers have groaned under the weight of seemingly endless malts branded with clever ideas and graphics, Gaelic names and questionable historical ties.  There is a growing cynicism in the more outspoken contingent of the ‘whisky geek’ community to this approach.  In your opinion how does the industry make it original again?  How do they win back the disillusioned who may have jumped ship to other brands and styles?

DR:  Firstly the ‘whisky geek’ community is vociferous but tiny. As with so much of social media, the noisiest and nastiest like to think they’re leading from the front and bravely reflecting the views of the everyday drinker, but they’re not. I have no time for people who set themselves up as in some way superior to the rest of us. You can’t argue that demand is outstripping supply, prices are rising exponentially and old whisky is hard to find and then talk of any mass movement to jump ship to other brands and styles. Also I’m not sure where they would jump to. Let’s put this in perspective – most Scottish single malt whisky aged to a sufficient age is excellent, is superior to most other spirits categories, has a unique provenance and heritage that few other alcoholic drinks can match, and comes from a country that exudes friendliness, hospitality and beauty – and therefore continues to push the right consumer buttons.

 

ATW:  I’ve had some interesting conversations of late with very knowledgeable individuals who question the modern relevance of an organization like the Malt Maniacs.  The discussions ranged from whether or not ‘industry’ people should be allowed to partake as members, Ralfy’s short tenure and the long term viability of the organization that now seems devoid of all the enlightening e-pistles and such of the early days.  In your opinion do the Maniacs still hold sway?  Is there value in such a conclave of individuals, whether it’s them or others?

DR:  Haha, I was trying to avoid naming names! The Malt Maniacs have never embraced or courted me, or shown me any respect and I in turn have ignored them. I never read what they write and know virtually nothing about them. I heard something about a split because they accepted an invite to go to one of Diageo’s properties to enjoy the company’s hospitality. I didn’t even know you could join them, I thought you had to be appointed. I have no issue with them, but if they ever thought they were important or ‘held sway’ then they were deluded. I suspect they have got themselves in to the same naval-gazing mess that the Campaign for Real Ale did, getting involved with ultimately pointless arguments about what they stand for and what their values are.

As for whether there is any value in a group like that, no of course not. Why would we want a group of individuals acting like Roman gods, sitting up on high and passing down nuggets of wisdom to us grateful mortals, and advice on which elixir of the gods it’s okay to like? For me whisky is a leveller, it’s not about elitism. It is the people’s drink, to be shared, discussed and enjoyed.  I often say that people in a position like me are no more gifted than anyone else, we just get to practice more. Put me in a shed with a guitar for 10 years and I’d be a very good guitarist, but I wouldn’t be Jimi Hendrix. I don’t think the Malt Maniacs are Jimi Hendrix, it’s just that they may think they are.

 

ATW:  You’ve come out in defense of bloggers before, in one of the most spirited pieces I’ve ever read (here).  Not only in defence of bloggers, I might add, but directly critical of some of the ‘professional’ whisky writers.  Do you still feel the same way you did when that post was written?  How have bloggers’ roles, responsibilities and behaviours evolved over the years?

DR:  To a large extent, I do, yes. I think most whisky writers have no right to call rank over bloggers, and I think the pros and cons for both sets of commentators are the same.  As I’ve already said, I don’t think any of us have the general right to claim superiority over anyone else. That said, I believe that there should be transparency about the relationship between any commentator and the whisky companies. I have often said that as soon as we accept free whisky, free dinners, free accommodation and then write nice things about the whisky we drunk, we have lost all right to call ourselves journalists and are effectively an extension of the marketing division of the whisky company in question. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as everyone knows and accepts that relationship. But there has been some blurring of the divisions. you can’t work for a whisky company and then claim to blog independently. I think bloggers and writers should be honest about how they’re making their money. I once asked a blogger to write up 20 whiskies for a book project I was doing. He did eight of them. When I asked him for the rest, he said he couldn’t because he was employed by a whisky company who prevented him from writing about rivals. It turns out the eight whimsies he wrote about belonged to his new employer.  That’s just plain wrong.

 

ATW:  A lot of criticism has been leveled at ‘industry periphery’ folks (i.e. bloggers, tweeters, etc) with questionable motives.  Labels like ‘apologists’, ‘sycophants’ and ‘shills’ have been bandied about with frequency.  This argument has almost always rested on the assumption that these individuals were in it for some sort of tangible personal gain, such as free whisky or event invites.  Do you see this as the problem it was once made out to be?  Has irreparable damage been done, wherein the industry would take less stock of the words of the ‘little people’?

DR:  I think I’ve answered this. I think it’s worse now. Yes irreparable damage has been done but it’s been done by both bloggers and established whisky writers. The worst example of it is on line tasting events. I was taught to sip and savour malt whisky, slowly and considerately. Online tastings are the whisky equivalent to speed dating, populated by people sycophantically repeating the press release which arrived with the free samples. That and the tendency to write utter nonsense (‘like drinking a florists’, ‘with the taste of the worn carpet at my granny’s old people’s home – good golly).

 

ATW:  With Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery about to make waves in Ireland, much as he was able to do with Bruichladdich in Scotland, do you foresee a future where Ireland gains a little more of a competitive edge against Scotland’s whisky dominance?

DR:  Oh it’s not just Mark Reynier. There are new distilleries springing up all over Ireland, Alex Chasko at Teeling and The Irishman’s Bernard Walsh are making some fabulous whiskeys, Irish Distillers has given a new lease of life to Irish pot still whiskey, which at its very best is up there with even the finest Scotch. Ireland is well and truly back in the game, is exuding confidence, and will deliver scores of wonderful whiskeys within a decade.

 

ATW:  Which other distilleries, brands or styles are you excited about going forward?

DR:  I love what is coming out of Sweden – Spirit of Hven, Box and the moments series from Mackmyra and Australia – Lark, Overeem and the wonderfully wacky independent bottlings from Heartwood. All the New World ones mentioned earlier, too. The new Naarangi release from Amrut is a beauty and in contention to be World Single Malt of the Year in my Wizards of Whisky Awards, which we’re currently in the process of judging. Watch the Alpine region, too. These guys have a long history of distilling but have only just successfully adjusted to the demands of malt production. I’m tasting some great whisky often aged just four or five years. I still love my Islay whiskies, and think Bowmore has released some stunning whiskies in  the last couple of years. I’m a big fan of Balvenie at the moment, too. But it changes a lot.

 

ATW:  A recent run-in between Compass Box and the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) regarding acceptable and ‘legal’ degrees of transparency rankled a lot of whisky lovers around the world.  Assuming you’ve been abreast of the discussions, do you think enough is being done at the level of the SWA and higher (British government??) to adapt to current public opinion?  Or are the loudest dissenters still a small enough faction to warrant an approach such as ‘ignore them, they’ll go away’?

DR:  To be honest I know nothing about this. Nothing at all. That’s bad, isn’t it? But in my defence I have my hands full with a book project and my work elsewhere away from Scotch. And ever since my illness I’ve made a point of turning off and tuning out after a day’s work and am off the pace with a lot of what is going on in Scotland  or with Scotch whisky. What i would say in general about the Scotch Whisky Association is that it was built as a fortress to defend Scotch whisky and it performs its role very well. The rules it has work for Scotch, and I believe it shouldn’t fix what’s not broken. I’m all for progress and innovation, but I don’t believe that the SWA should compromise on its standards or adapt to anyone.

 

ATW:  Another great and recent controversy has arisen with Jim Murray’s award to Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye of ‘World Whisky Of The Year’.  I believe you and Jim have a rather friendly relationship, so we’ll tread lightly here, but how do you weigh in on this?  Is it fair to question his integrity in awarding a whisky such as this with top honours?  And personally – whether you’ve tasted it or not – do you think the selection merits questioning?

DR:  We have a cordial relationship, and I am quoted on his Bible as saying that he is the best whisky writer in the world, and I think he is. Professionally I respect his honesty and frankness and I have stayed at his home for a few days and watched him work. He is extremely thorough and gifted. In my mind, he is a whisky Jimi Hendrix.

But Jim is highly opinionated, seemingly arrogant, blunt to the point of being rude, and he can be incredibly undiplomatic and insensitive, so he has made enemies.

Funnily enough, he contacted me over the integrity issue, and comments which appeared in the national press last week. I have a very clear view on this: to question a writer’s integrity and suggest that award selections were made for anything but altruistic reasons is bordering on libellous and is utterly and totally indefensible. Such comments were designed to damage Jim’s reputation. I think there are many who resent and envy Jim’s revered status among many whisky drinkers.

Okay, so once again Jim has produced a top five list with no Scotch on it. What exactly is the criticism of this list? Which one of the whiskies he has chosen isn’t excellent, including the Crown Royal one? And please name the Scotch whisky that should have made that top five but didn’t.

Of course the Scotch whisky industry is going to be affronted, particularly after all the criticism made against it this year as outlined throughout this interview. But Jim is entitled to his view, he knows more about the subject than virtually anyone I know, and he has a reputation to maintain. He’s hardly going to sacrifice it by compromising his integrity, is he? I think the people suggesting otherwise are gutless and contemptible.

 

ATW:  As a follow-up, is this a matter of ‘the ends justifying the means’ if Jim’s goal is to elevate Canadian whisky to the level of the public’s eye?  If so, is this an approach that you can support?

DR:  Jim has championed whisky from every part of the world for years. I rarely go to a distillery anywhere in the world that he hasn’t visited first. t have every copy of his Whisky Bible and he was scoring Canadian whisky in the mid 90s from the start. More than that, Canada has one of the most insular whisky industries on the planet and shows very little interest in growing its reputation worldwide. I think Jim tasted a great whisky, scored it highest, and made it his whisky of the year. That’s it. I doubt it even crossed his mind that it was Canadian and that the award would help boost Canadian whisky in general. Canada can make great whisky is hardly a news story is it?

 

ATW:  I recall hearing/reading not too long ago that you had a couple of ventures on the horizon, be they books or whatnot.  Can you share what comes next for Dom Roskrow?

DR:  I am three quarters the way through writing a book for publication in America and Asia next September, and the publishers hope to get a European and Australasian distributor in early 2016. I also heard last night that contracts are being drawn up for another book project with Gavin Smith for January, but that’s not confirmed. And there is another big project in the pipeline that will mean major changes for me. It’s very much under wraps right now but it’s big and if it goes ahead it will mean me returning to full time employment. Sorry to be so vague but it’s out of my control.

 

ATW:  And finally…given an open platform (right here and now), what message would you most like to see taken to heart by 1) whisky lovers and 2) the industry as a whole?

DR:  All I’d like to say is that all of us are part of a very big family and we have lots of different interests. there are millions of whisky drinkers who drink standard blends and adore them. And at the other end we are seeing regionalised whiskies adapted for the palates of the drinkers in the country that produces them. Whisky is a wonderful and varied spirit which most of the time hits the mark. We should be careful not to over-focus on the bits of it which are not as good as we might like. There may be issues within the world of whisky, but we are still enjoying the most exciting, dynamic and diverse spirit on the planet. Not only that, wherever I go I meet great people. Perhaps we pay too much attention to the internet and online commentary, and not enough time to the people who make it and the folk we meet when we share it. There’s a lot of wonderful whisky out there. Let’s celebrate that.

Golly that sounds glib. You can tell that the All Blacks are world champions and Leicester City are top of the league, can’t you?

Thanks, Dom.  Appreciate your taking the time out to answer these.

 

 – ATW

 Posted by at 1:42 pm
Nov 252015
 

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye125

45% abv

Score:  83.5/100

 

Let’s be timely for once.  I feel dirty just stooping to this, but we’ll do it anyway.  Lots of you out there are wondering about this one, so here goes…

A few days back some now largely irrelevant and virtually obsolete ‘prophet’ announced this whisky as his ‘world whisky of the year’.  If you were grabbing a few beer in a local pub and overheard some young ‘Crown and ginger’ types at an adjacent table make a comment like this you’d think ‘hyperbole’; a non-whisky geek who is simply enamoured with a new flavour.  No harm, no foul.  But let’s put this in context a little more.  This self-proclaimed expert – with nearly unlimited access to ridiculous numbers of old and rare, sexy and special malts – has bypassed all of the heirs apparent and coronated this generic Canadian expression above all others.  Really?  Really?  We’re to believe there weren’t dozens – or even hundreds – of better single malts…unique single casks…fabulous expression from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s…tropical fruit-rich bourbon barrel matured malts…stunning old sherry bombs…atrociously huge peat monsters…that crossed those lecherous old lips this year?  No repeat winners from past logic-defying selections?  What happened to the rise of Japanese whisky?  Where’s the Ardbeg or Pulteney love?  How ’bout taking the piss with another Ballantine’s award?  But Crown Royal?  Please.  Now you’re just insulting us.

In the event you’re wondering if I shouldn’t just be pleased to see a dram from my home and native land scoring accolades and bringing attention to the Canadian whisky industry the simplest answer is: no.  Ridiculous is ridiculous, irrespective of provenance.  This is an ‘ok’ whisky.  But unfortunately the reality is that Canadian whisky as a category is so far behind the world whisky movement that even the best examples are sort of like being the smartest idiot.  Crown Royal is simply not on par with the best of Scotland, Japan, the US, India or even Ireland.  This is like replacing the Stones with a local bar band and thinking people will still fill the stadium.

I hate to make this seem as though I’m ragging on Crown here.  That’s not really the point.  It’s a situational observation.  Unless, of course, as has been speculated, some Benjamins traded hands in order to ratchet this one up a few points, in which case we certainly will rag on all involved.  But we’ll assume not.  Benefit of the doubt.  It’s more likely the biblical blowhard simply needed a controversy to help propel sales of his book, which in recent times is about as relevant as VHS and cassette tapes.

At $35 (or thereabouts, if you can find it anymore) not a bad deal.  Having said that…I’ve tried it.  I can move on now.

Nose:  Very soft nose.  Rich in spices and smells like fresh-baked cinnamon buns.  A little ginger.  Much more refined than the standard Crown Royal.  Toffee.  Apple.  More cinnamon.  A touch of eucalyptus.  Creme brulee.  Wood is loud here.  Dark jams.  I like this nose quite a lot.  I really wanted to reject it at first sniff, but I’ve gotta be honest.  Fruitier and more down-home appeal than I expected.

Palate:  Yep…it’s Canadian whisky.  Huge letdown after the comfortable familiarity of the nose.  Thicken this up a bit into a syrup and it would be great over ice cream, where the cream would temper the sharper woody notes.  Too much wood spice (no, not just the typical rye spice, though there is that too).  Some apple.  Some orange oil.  Far too biting and zippy for something that smells this soft.  Thin and short on finish.  I do think, though, that with another ten years in a very dead barrel this could be a stunner…if at cask strength.

Thoughts:  So…what more should we say?  Hmmm.  Not bad, to be fair, but WWOTY?  You have got to be kidding me.  I think we’ll stop now.  We’re just feeding the troll.  He’s fat enough, I’d say.  At least his fedora-hatted head, anyway.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:03 am
Nov 192015
 

Octomore 7.1006

59.5% abv

Score:  85/100

 

One of the latest Octomore releases, and Jim McEwan’s swan song, from what I understand.  This one just hit our shores a couple weeks back.  I tried it in a range of eight other Octomore releases at that point, and have since tried it paired with another two (the recently reviewed 4.1 and 5.1).

By now you all know the Octomore story.  One of the only 5 year old age stated malts out there…cask strength…uncolored…non chill-filtered…the world’s most heavily-peated spirit.  An iconic whisky, if ever there was one, with early releases (and a couple of the one-offs) reaching ridiculous sums on the secondary market.  This is a drinking whisky though.  Meant to be a cornerstone in any drinking man or woman’s sense-library.  Trust me…there is a pre- and post-Octomore understanding of whisky.  You’ll understand what I mean once you’ve tried it.  This is a whisky that becomes a yardstick for everything after.

7.1 is a wee hop backwards in terms of smoky strength from last year’s behemoth 6.3 edition, which weighed in at 238 phenolic ppm (parts per million).  This one is a mere(!!) 208 ppm.  If those numbers seem like gross novelty, rest assured that the whisky is actually really good.  This one shines a little less brightly than others in the range, but it’s still a good malt and will knock the knickers off the neophytes, if you’re so inclined to show the noobs what real phenols are.  Just don’t expect polish here.  This one is a little more rough and tumble.

Nose:  Cola and chocolate.  Peat and smoke.  Pie crust.  Vanilla coke.  Somewhat creamy, but notes of tar and rubber sharpen it up a bit.  As do the hints of lemon.  Gets beautifully soft with a bit of time in the glass.  As soft as an Octomore can be, that is.  Pepper and cinnamon hearts.

Palate:  Sharp and green on the palate.  A little bittering actually.  It’s kinda like tart uncooked greens through the development.  A slight burnt note.  Burnt pastry, I think.  Coffee and cola.  Lemon rind.  A lot of smoke and ashiness.  Kinda herbal…maybe tea-ish.

Thoughts:  A little less depth than some of the other Octomore releases, but still a rather special malt.  Great soft nose, but the palate doesn’t live up to it.  Tastes young (and, of course, it is).

 

 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:37 am
Nov 172015
 

Octomore 5.1029

59.5% abv

Score:  88.5/100

 

Let’s do another Octomore today.  A few days back we looked at the 4.1.  I was going to post this one right after that one, but then…well…Paris happened.  Posting anything at a time like that seemed insensitive, to say the least.  But today…a few days removed…let’s have a drink to celebrate life and the pursuit of better things to come.  Another Octomore.  Today, the 5.1.

With this release Bruichladdich have ratcheted up the phenolic ppm a couple ticks (to 169 this time), but the abv has come down a couple of notches.  Can we call that a wash?  A point up or down on either side isn’t gonna make much difference, I’d argue.  These are big, big drams.

5.1 boasts the same credentials we discussed in the previous post.  Young, age-stated and offered up in all its natural beauty, blemishes intact.  We (being myself, and some of the most consistent and vocal contributors here on ATW) are big fans of this approach.  Quite frankly, it’s a whisky lovers dream.

You could argue that the differences from one Octomore to the next are but ‘variations on a theme’, and for the most part you’d be right.  What might surprise, however, is just how bold those variations can be.  Of course all whisky is essentially putty in the hands of the cask so there will always be variance, but peat this massive tends to mask a lot of the subtleties we usually suss out rather easily in unpeated (or lightly peated) malts.  What I’m trying to say is that personally I would sort of expect to see a smaller range of differences between Octomores than we do, simply due to the peaty smokescreen.  The reality is, however, that the Octomore expressions I’ve tried (nearly all of them) swing wildly from sweet and creamy to bone dry and ashy.  I love that.  The quality is high, but there is an exciting array of profiles within the expression.  It keeps Octomore fresh and on the radar.

Nose:  Rather sharp and aggressive at first.  A nice farmy, old school Octomore.  Dry and ashy.  We’re closer to Port Charlotte territory with this one.  Lemon.  Some lovely creaminess too.  Kinda earthy and boggy…beautifully so.  Smoky, of course.  The barley shows through somehow.  Impressive.

Palate:  Dark chocolate.  Licorice.  Smoke and medicinal notes.  Very dry and ashy.  Sen-sens.  Lime zest.  Something that reminds of polished wood.  The smoke grows bigger and bigger and explodes in char and wood notes.  More licorice at the back end.  Bold, not to understate matters.

Thoughts:  Nice ‘balance’ of smoke and sweet.  A lopsided balance, of course, but held at a point of teetering without actually going over.  I like this one.  A LOT.

 

 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:08 am
Nov 122015
 

Octomore 4.1016

62.5% abv

Score:  87/100

 

Let’s discuss good young whisky for a bit, shall we?  As the whole NAS argument rages on, one of the periphery issues has been drawn kicking and screaming into the spotlight as well: can really young whisky actually be good enough to sell at the elevated prices that support the brands’ push for profit (the very essence of the NAS debate)?  If the answer is yes it effectively negates any argument in support of the validity of hiding information from the consumer.

This discussion, in turn, leads down the rabbit hole of ‘is older better?’, but we’re not going that far in 500 words or so, lest we turn this into another firestorm of an essay.  Let’s just say here that generally speaking, more mature whisky is better than young whisky.  Octomore is one of the exceptions that proves the rule, so to speak.  This brand has always been (excepting the one-off 10 year old) a 5 year old malt – clearly stated on the label – and is indeed a killer dram.  There’s no denying that the juice is good and it’s borne out by a broad sweep of positive reviews in all sectors of the whisky world.

Wait…so a five year old whisky – clearly labeled – can still retail for high prices and satisfy both consumer and producer?!  Weird.  Exactly what we’ve been saying for a long time now.

Octomore 4.1 is knee-buckling 62.5% abv bog beast of a dram.  It is as sharp and jagged as obsidian to the newcomer, but as warming and comfortably atmospheric as a beachside bonfire to those of us like to bask in the fires of hell.  Phenolic heights in the malted barley of this one soared to a stratospheric 167 ppm (prior to distillation, of course), but you’d be hard-pressed to say this was any smokier than an Ardbeg or Laphroaig.

And for those suffering from a wee bit of intimidation…interestingly enough it is possible to find softer, safer versions of Octomore (ignore the abv and phenol counts, and simply rely on the creaminess you’ll discover by the senses), but I do concede a soft spot for the more rough and tumble expressions such as this one.  Beastly and not of this earth.

Finally…though Bruichladdich plays on both sides of the NAS field, let’s give them kudos here for being ballsy enough to shove a five year old malt into the forefront of the whisky scene.  Love it.  Team turquoise…if you’re reading this please take note:  You’ve always been the ones to buck the trend.  Please do so again.  Stick with age statements.  We like your whisky young and will buy it.

Nose:  Smoke.  Candy sweetness, like green Jolly Ranchers and green Ju-Jubes.  Citrus (lemon and key lime).  A BBQ note brings a slightly tangy edge to it.  Earthy and dry.  I get a slight ‘weedy’ note (and yes…that IS what I mean).

Palate:  Whoa.  Smoky.  Rubber.  Burnt rubber.  The smell of barley smoking abovbe the kiln (if you’ve experienced it, you’ll know).  Sweet, with some salt licorice notes.  Grilled scallops and lemon.  Lemongrass.  There’s a bit of chocolate with fruit candy too.  Quite a workover for the palate.  Leaves a slight barley note and a touch of seafood.

Thoughts:  A sweet example of Octomore.  Not the best of the bunch, but great nevertheless.

 

 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:51 am
Nov 022015
 

Let the shit hit the fan…

 

Let’s recap how things have been playing out of late:

NAS whiskies are still hitting the market with no signs of slowing.  Our mate and stalwart voice of reason, Serge, has taken NAS whiskies to task time and again on whiskyfun via little throwaway comments that aren’t so throwaway after all.  Glenfiddich – and in particular Ian Millar – had won me over big time by coming out in vocal support of age statements on whiskies in an interview with our mate Tabarek Razvi on The Malt Activist (until the recent Original 1963 NAS, that is).  The ever-candid Dom Roskrow has offered loud and resonant disapproval of the NAS principal on his blog.  Compass Box has locked horns (albeit rather gently) with the SWA again.  And more and more individuals are utilizing the comments sections on reviews, features and social media to express their disdain for what is quite rightly perceived as industry interests directly contrary to their own.

And on the flipside?  Well…here’s the thing…there’s an unbelievable silence from some of those that should be speaking out.  Those that have a vested interest in seeing the spirit retain its integrity and quality.  People who seem to have accepted the Matrix as opposed to the ugly reality of the machine that runs it.  Instead of fighting the machine, so many seem scared shitless that the wellspring dries up and perhaps their spheres of influence will shrink.  For shame, I say, as it is a disservice to themselves, us and the spirit.

Now, silence is one thing, but there’s more to it than silence.  There’s an undercurrent of actual industry apologism that I simply can’t wrap my head around.  I mean some of the whisky industry periphery (writers, bloggers, etc) who actually come out in defense of the industry in the face of criticism from the consumer.  If it’s simply vitriolic amateur mudslinging, I get it, but time and time again we’re seeing eloquent, intelligent, reasoned and impassioned arguments made only to be rebuffed by those one would logically assume to be on the same team.  Ok, so be it.  We’ll make it an ‘us and them’ thing if need be.

So where does that leave us?

Well…I know this might disappoint one or two of ‘the resistance’ out there, but I have to change tactics.  My initial approach was to talk about the issue as loud and long as I could, but to draw no attention to the whiskies themselves, either via reviews or purchases.  A boycott, in other words.  While I stand behind not giving the companies money for these whiskies that I stand in moral opposition to, I think I was wrong to stop talking about them.  The proof is in the pudding, they say, and I see time and time again that debates and comments are rife beneath reviews of the malts themselves.  So…can I have more influence by not talking about them at all?  Or can I swing a heavier hammer by writing them up and using the opportunity to state time and time again why we stand in opposition?  To me the latter seems like a more effective way of getting the message out there.  It also allows avenue after avenue for you, the reader, to engage in debate and to allow the brands a window into what we truly detest in their M.O.

Is it almost like an sin of omission on my part if I don’t use my voice properly?  Does it suggest I’m doing less than I should?  Maybe.  Think about the finale of Seinfeld.  You can watch the shit going down and not speak up (and be as tacitly guilty as all the rest for the decline of our beloved blood of Scotland), or you can raise a voice and let the brands know we don’t cotton to this fleecing…and why.

They are listening.  If you’re at all doubtful, have a hunt for the absolute horseshit that Diageo’s ‘Head of Whisky Outreach’ Nick Morgan spouted a while back.  I refuse to link to it again here, as the last thing I want to do is give a voice to such utter rubbish.  I’ve always disagreed with the idea that everyone is entitled to an opinion on any given subject.  Instead I believe that everyone is entitled to an informed opinion, and the fact of the matter is that Morgan’s opinion is nothing more than brand propaganda and condescending ‘contrarians are simply ignorant’ hogwash.  In fact…we’re done talking about him here.

Effective immediately, you will see reviews of NAS malts here on ATW again, but you can bet your ass they will not be politically correct little snippets that the brands will want to use for their marketing departments.  Sorry.  Such is.  Even if the marks are fair (I have to do that) the commentary will not be an endorsement.  It couldn’t be.  I simply can’t agree with the philosophy that supports the concept.

There are simply too many NAS malts on the shelves nowadays to stay silent on them.  Effectively we are giving the brands a pass to continue if we don’t speak out against them at every opportunity.  Let’s face it…I cherry pick my reviews anyway.  My silence on a subject means curious parties will find the info elsewhere.  In which case they’re likely being fed press releases, distiller’s official notes and apologist drivel.  I’d prefer there was a contrary opinion online somewhere than nothing touting the negatives, wouldn’t you?

As to how I spend my own money…no change.  I won’t be stocking my shelves with Talisker Storm, Oban Little Bay, Pulteney Navigator, etc.  This will keep me firmly in line with exactly what many of you are still doing.  My money will be reserved for age-stated whiskies and brands I don’t feel are taking the piss.  What I’m saying is that if some of these NAS malts come my way via tastings, friends, events, whatever, I may review them.  I WON’T, however, buy them.

So has my stance softened?  I’d argue not.  My financial actions are consistent, my weapon of choice is changing.  In the words of poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.”

What do you think?  Am I right?Vendetta

 

 – Curt

 Posted by at 9:56 am
Nov 022015
 

Highland Park Loki 042

48.7% abv

Score:  90.5/100

 

Loki was the second release in Highland Park’s Valhalla series, following on the heels of Thor.  When word started trickling down the pipeline that these releases were imminent some of us historically-bent, Norse god hailing whisky bums began salivating in anticipation.  We knew the prices would be prohibitive, the whisky would be middling (in terms of age statements, not quality, that is) and the outturn would be quite limited.  Enough to deter many of the great unwashed, in other words.  But c’mon…a cask strength HP packaged up in a mini Viking longship?  That’s pretty badass.

Gimmickry and inflated price tag aside, Loki is a really, really good whisky.  Quite different than its forerunner Thor, but about par in terms of inherent quality.  This one wears its 15 years well, seeming maybe even a little more mature than that, and man…what a palate here.  Great late evening malt for nights when the wind is howling and the fire is roaring.

Nose:  Floral notes.  Spice and tobacco.  Some peat and pepper.  A little bit of orange, and just the faintest hint of peach.  A whiff of very dry smoke and an earthy, organic edge.  Beeswax and honey.

Palate:  Great delivery.  Some peat and smoke arrive early.  More of those orange fruit notes here too.  Sugar cookies.  Poached stone fruit with spice.  Lemon and warm honey.  A nice smoky linger over great rich fruit notes.  Thick and oily.  Probably even better on the palate than the nose, and gets fruitier with time.

Thoughts:  I recall initially liking Thor more than Loki, but I think I’ve swung back the other way.  Let’s not split hairs over scores.  Different malts, but we’ll give ’em the same marks.

 

 – Reviewed by:  Curt

 – Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:44 am