Apr 242017
 

Caol Ila 34 y.o. (Cadenhead Small Batch)

60.1% abv

Score:  93.5/100

 

Yep.  Three and a half decades of sleep.  Gives my wife a run for her money in terms of affinity for dozing.  This one was tasted as part of an utterly mindboggling range of independent Caol Ila this past weekend.  Not only was it the oldest of the run, it’s actually the oldest of the 46 Caol Ila I’ve tasted to date.  Just shy of half of those have been older than 20, to be fair, so I do have some idea as to what we’d be looking for in older expressions of Caol Ila.  We certainly found it here.  And then some.

This is fantastic stuff.  Peat that is so far off in the distance it has faded into a seamless sfumato-esque haze that seems like nothing more than a suggestion.  Soft fruit notes and essence of mature old malt.  Hard to dissect, really. the integration is that complete.  And 60.1% at 34 years?  Wow.  Spectacular strength and delivery of flavour.

Sometimes you don’t need a lot of words to get the point across.  I think we’ll leave it at that.

Nose:  Spectacular nose.  Maybe the best Caol Ila I’ve ever nosed.  Old whisky to be sure.  Latex and soft, soft oak notes.  Melon.  Bordering on tropical.  Just hints of lemon pie.  Some orange.  Gorgeous tartness.  Vague industrial oiliness.  Slightly fishy.  Just the barest whisper of smoke.

Palate:  Awesome.  Maybe the oak is a little too strong, but otherwise everything is in check and firing on all cylinders.  Wow.  Great fruit tart enormity.  Thick and oily.  Grapefruit (flesh, pith and zest).  Licorice.  Hint of eucalyptus.  Gorgeous all the way through.  Nice finish on orange fruits and citrus.

Thoughts:  Great integration, great complexity.  This makes me think of old Samaroli casks.  Well done, Cadenhead.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:34 pm
Apr 182017
 

Laphroaig Lore

48% abv

Score:  82/100

 

I love Laphroaig.  It was one of my first and truest whisky loves.  I like to think that no matter what missteps the brand may ever make (and there have been a few; I’m looking at you, Select) I will still be there waiting.

We weight these things, not by the failings, but by the successes, and there is simply no comparison to the heights reached by some of the Laphroaig I’ve drunk (25 year olds, 30 year olds, 40 year old, cask samples, single casks, etc).  So it’s with a somewhat forgiving heart I’m going to try to talk about Lore.  I heard a while back that this one was to be a replacement for the 18 year old.  That was whisky shop talk, but there may be some basis in truth.  After all, we’ve watched 18 go the way of the dodo, only to be replaced by a limited edition 15 year old, which also abra cadabra’d its ass out of here.  Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs when we see a beloved and mature classic with a respectable price point (18 years and only about $100 locally!) disappear in favor of a $200 NAS offering.  Ouch.

The point has been made, so let’s not belabor it.  How about the whisky in the jar?  How does Lore stack up to the rest of the Laphroaig range?  In short…pale, flat and uninspired.  It’s slightly unbalanced and lacking in the oooomph I’m looking for in Laphroaig.  I’d drink it, of course, but only on someone else’s dime.  Probably best to take a couple bottles of 10 or QC over this, if you want my two cents.

Nose:  Lime.  Warm rubber.  Shellfish.  Smoke and peat.  Eucalyptus.  Vanilla.  Surprisingly restrained.  Salt and pepper.  Licorice and tar.  Dry, faint Lapsang Souchong.  Watered down, maybe.  Too heavy on the rubber notes.  Like bicyle tires in the sun or new Wellies.  Very dry and…flat.

Palate:  So muted.  Better than Select, but by nickels and dimes, not dollars.  More peat, smoke, and licorice.  Dry smoke.  Earthy and herbal.  Some pepper and chilis.  Everything dull though.  Slightly chalky and minerally.  Some green candy notes.  Not a lot in the way of finish.

Thoughts:  We went from 18 to 15 to this?  Ouch.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 7:02 pm
Apr 172017
 

Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve113

59.6% abv

Score:  84/100

 

Finally getting ’round to this one.  Odd considering this was one of those ‘jump the shark’ malts for me.  I remember a little too well a dialogue with a good mate of mine (a vested retailer) who was somewhat irked with my indignation at the nearly $200 price tag on this NAS unpeated Caol Ila that hit the shelves in late 2013.

That still sits wrong with me, especially in light of subsequent age-stated variants in the line (as high as 17, I think, locally at least) that have come in cheaper.  Such is.  Let’s not regurgitate the old cud.

Unpeated Caol Ila.  Odd stuff.  The 10 y.o. was a monster.  Can’t say it was spectacular, but it was unquestionably singular, and there was enough behind it to make me an admirer.  This one?  Well…not as much, I’m afraid.  That 10 was about six points higher in terms of abv and still had a ghost of peat glimpsed at the periphery.  This one (seemingly quite young, I might add) is much more naked.  Wood and clean spirit.  Not a lot more.  Spirity almost, if I’m being honest.  Still a decent enough drink, but not even close to a bargain at these prices.

When a few of us visited the distillery in very late 2012, one of the distillery folks mentioned that Caol Ila had not done another run of unpeated spirit since (I believe) 1999.  Each each successive release in their “Unpeated Style” line was simply the next successive year of a slowly maturing distillate.  I don’t think that is the case anymore (if it ever was), but I’ll try to do some digging and follow up in the comments below.

If you can find it, stick with the 10 year old Unpeated from about eight years back (give or take).

Nose:  Citrus (mostly lime).  Minerally.  White chocolate.  Had a preconceived notion this would nose a little older.  Vanilla cake.  Touch of orange and melon.  Herbal tea notes.  Somewhat reminiscent of Canadian whisky in an odd way.  Overall…quite nice and approachable.  Not even remotely Caol Ila-ish.

Palate:  Whoa.  Big oily arrival.  Grassy.  Some Sauvignon Blanc notes.  Oak and vanilla.  Lemon.  Some creaminess here.  Still not Caol Ila.  Would never guess blindly.  Sharp woody notes.  Dries up.

Thoughts:  Better nose than palate.  Ultiamtely lacking personality.  Not bad, but almost too naked and lacking in character.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:29 pm
Apr 122017
 

Tormore 14 y.o. (Batch No. A1409)

43% abv

Score:  81/100

 

Man, this one is long overdue.  It was a gift from a really good friend of mine.  And not just any gift, but a ‘just because’ gift.  One of those singularly heartwarming occurrences that should have at least merited my having reviewed it in a timely manner.  Not that that was expected or anything, but the public acknowledgment kinda ups the ante on the sincerity of thanks in a way.  Or so I believe, anyway.

Moving on.  Tormore.  A distillery from which we see very little breadth.  In fact, to date, this is the only official bottling I’ve ever seen.  But 14 is a neat little gateway into the heart of this Speyside malt.  A little more mature than most entry level expressions.  We appreciate that.  We’d probably appreciate it a bit more if it was offered at 46%.  Alas, beggars can’t be choosers.  And ultimately – especially for the price point – this is a fairly rewarding dram.  Spectacular?  Not even close.  An evening session dram?  Unquestionably.  Pop the cork with a couple mates and toss it.  Call it a night when the bottle’s dry.

One last note…I love this packaging.  Crisp, clean and elegant looking.  I know that means very little in the grand scheme, but it pleases the hell out of the eye nonetheless.

Nose:  Quite pleasant on the nose.  Almost ‘Fiddich-ish, if I had to compare it to something.  A liberal dousing of citrus.  Hints of apple, orange and cranberry.  Toasted marshmallow, nuts and vanilla.  Sour hard candies.  A drop of rum and a jigger of orange liqueur over sponge cake.

Palate:  Fairly substantial arrival for a 43%er.  Tart and zippy.  Almost wine-y, but not overly so.  Apple, black currant.  A quick note of oily dried fruit right out of the bag.  Fairly malty.  A little too much oak in the mid to back half.

Thoughts:  More a noser than a sipper, but decent all told.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 7:36 pm
Apr 062017
 

Alright, Drammers and Dreamers.  something to talk about.

Let’s beat this dead horse like Negan on a noggin'(*).  It’s a subject that seems to be getting a lot of play in almost every whisky conversation I’m a part of lately.  Let’s talk about the price of whisky.  yes.  That again.  I kinda think everyone needs a public forum to air it out.  The comments section below, I imagine, is about to become just that.

There seem to be two schools of thought (of course there are more nuanced approaches, but for the sake of simplicity, bear with me).  The first suggests that whisky is a luxury item and that any price is fair on a luxury item.  Especially in light of the fact that many of the same individuals who are now complaining about the stratospheric (and still soaring) price of the precious fluid are the ones that have helped push it there via the laws of supply and demand (and disposable income).  The second suggests that no matter what your personal druthers are, there is no fucking way that the current climb is justifiable in light of the very small change in conditions that supported prices which probably came in about 40% lower (more in some cases) just a year or two back.

Are these two arguments balanced?  Do they offset?  Well…I think you know where I’m about to weigh in, aye?

Here’s the thing.  Shit gets more expensive over time.  We know this.  Just ask your parents who trudged uphill both ways in the snow to see a ‘picture’ at the cinema with no more n’ a few bits in their pocket.  Of course, that covered popcorn and a wee dip into the sweet shoppe on the way home too.  The reality is…the times they are a changin’.  BUT…typically this happens incrementally.  Small hops and skips that mostly go unnoticed by a population that progressively earns more and more and a dollar that continues to morph into an entirely different beast than back in the day when a home could be bought for tens of thousands.

As regards whisky though (before we start to ramble too much)…in the last couple of years where we’ve seen spikes that look like towering t-rex teeth or stalagmites in some Journey To The Center Of The Earth spinoff can we reasonably explain away such drastic increases?  Uh…nope.

Barley is about on par with 2010 prices (source); barrel shortages we heard so much about have been claimed to have been BS by many industry sources (forgive my refusal to name names of the good people who share insider secrets, but even so, let’s face it…much of the industry’s move to ‘sherry-seasoned’ barrels must be a cheaper option than the old ‘ex-sherry’ butts); fuel costs are on the decline (source) so transport should be cheaper; it would seem median salaries in the UK (home of all this glorious malted gold) have held pretty steady in recent years, right around £26k (source); and…let’s name the pet elephant in the room: “hello, Brexit!”

So…why the hell has the price of whisky shot through the roof?  It’s simple really.  Because it can.

Let’s return to the other argument for a moment.  The one that says whisky will cost what whisky costs because it is whisky, not bread.  The point: it’s non-essential.  It’s a luxury item that we don’t need, so if we’re gonna be that indignant about it, we can always just walk away.  At the end of the day, this argument really is sound as a pound when you think about it (a pre-Brexit pound, that is ).  Vote with your wallet.  Simple message.  We don’t need this stuff, so shouldn’t we be saving our breath to fight the good fight elsewhere?  Yeah, probably.  But life is rife with shit in so many ways.  That’s a simple reality.  In our few short rotations ’round the sun we hunt out the things we love (and that make our lives better) then we cling to them like life preservers.  The more we learn to love them, the more we become covetous and protective.  It’s only right that we should fight to hold onto what we hold dear, don’tcha think?

Anytime there is an illogical leap in expense, should we not as consumers question it?  Caveat emptor, aye?  If not are not implicitly responsible for the act of gouging?  Look what happens when fuel costs spike.  Or automobiles.  Or when Cauliflower doubled in price last year.  Or bacon.  The internet went batshit.  People wanted answers.  And for the most part, they got ’em (excepting fuel, that is…we’ll never get answers there).  Why, therefore, can we as consumers not question the rising tide of malt prices without being villainized?  It’s a bullshit old world mentality that is telling us to suck it up and not question the status quo.  And I, for one, will never buy into that (pun intended).

And here’s the real rub for someone like your faithful author:  I love this stuff.  I mean…I fucking love it.  I have dedicated vast tracts of my life over the last decade or so to pushing it to the fore.  To publicizing the greatness in it.  To sharing the word and helping elevate brands (even in my own small way).  I have started massive whisky clubs, written hundreds of reviews, shared countless experiences and bottles, led more tastings than I like to admit and supported businesses near and far.  And yet, I’m one of the ones struggling to stay in the game.  That is…well…lemme be honest here…it sucks.  A lot.  It’s caused me a bit of an existential crisis of late.  (I know, I know…sounds melodramatic, but do realize how much of my life I’ve dedicated to this.)

So where do we go from here?  Hard to say.  If you’re like me – and you maybe squirrelled away a bit of a store for rainy days – you hunker down and wait.  And you plug your ears when the bubble bursts.  You also scour for deals, share the word when you find them, and sew enough good karma that others share their hoards throughout these lean times.  Oh yeah…and you learn to fall in love again with the younger, cheaper malts you started with.  If you’re not like me…well…you pay grossly inflated prices and live large now, but recognize your dollar is working harder for you than it ever has before, and that you…are…being…fleeced.  If you’re okay with that (and to a degree, we all must be right now, or else we wouldn’t be drinking some of the drinks we do), let’s simply smile and move on.

In short…consider me on record as saying that the current state of whisky valuation is bullshit and it simply comes down to what the market will bear.  Supply and demand, and all that.  The question now becomes, are you ready to walk away or are you going to continue playing, knowing that the metrics have changed in favor of the other team and you’re playing on their turf?  Who knows…maybe it’s gonna be a true David versus Goliath story.

Either way…the next few years are gonna be hella interesting, I’d say.

(*shameless Walking Dead reference)

 

– C

 Posted by at 5:38 pm
Apr 032017
 

Old Pulteney 8 y.o.

40% abv

Score:  79/100

 

The most important thing I’ll ever say on ATW: whisky is about the stories.

Think about that for a moment.

It’s a drink that is built on stories that are years and decades and centuries old.  It’s a drink that is shared along the way to making memories and future stories with friends.  It’s a drink wherein the very fabric of its being is rooted in time.  And the passage of time – especially for an aged spirit like this – is where stories are born, live and grow.

This indie Pulteney from the good people at Gordon & MacPhail is a malt that has now become a piece of my story.  I love that.  The whisky itself?  Meh.  Not so great.  But that’s beside the point.  What matters is it that it takes me places.

That may seem counter to conventional thought, aye?  When you spend money you want good return on your outlay.  Completely logical.  But sometimes you take a leap of faith on something because the price is right (and it was for this one) and because circumstances dictate (which they did).

When a few of the good guys were over on Islay this past September one of the lads saw this bottle sitting bottom shelf in the Co-op in Bowmore.  It was intriguing enough that he cleared a little furrow in his bag just big enough to mule this guy home with him.  The packaging was retro and charming…the distillery one we typically like…the bottler one whose reputation is beyond repute…and quite frankly…it was a bottle we wouldn’t see back home.  It didn’t end up getting cracked open until a couple months later, but it’s since been passed around and shared with many more folks than just the initial contingent who were there when it was purchased.  And that becomes part of the story too.

Am I getting a little too cheesy here?  Probably for some.  Such is.

Nose:  A light nose.  Approachable and actually quite charming, straight off.  Faint hint of bubblegum.  Playdough.  Red berries.  Slightly perfumed.  Vaguely malty.  Uber light.  Not much more.  Higher strength may have helped.

Palate:  Ok, not sure what happened here.  Clayish.  Very flat.  Almost bittering.  Like under-ripe cranberries.  A bit cardboardy. In spite of the notes here…it’s not bad.  Just…not great.

Thoughts:  Very little in the way of balance.  Would score higher if on the nose alone.  But…holds a bit of a sweet spot in my heart nonetheless.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:20 pm
Apr 022017
 

I’d like to clarify something that sort of defies clarifying.  In other words…this will likely be a useless post that accomplishes none of what it sets out to do.  We refer to ‘the industry’ a lot.  Here on ATW, in discussion in and in other forums and venues.  It’s an easy catch-all term that speaks to the us and them mentality that so many of us feel, if not actually outwardly project.  It’s easy to think of the industry as one big evil empire, a machine deriving its fuel from the soul of whisky-man (much like the Matrix), but the reality is different, of course.  We like the ease of language the term affords, but it’s painting with a broad brush, and something I’d like to draw a bit of attention to.

Let’s talk first of local shopkeepers and sales folks.  Those individuals who are the purveyors of the malts we love.  They drive the local flavors by boosting or stalling certain sales, choosing the products that hit our shelves, arranging events and festivals, educating us when we visit and sharing their knowledge, secrets and tips.  Of course in some monopoly-driven markets these roles may be somewhat curtailed, but much remains the same.  These folks are the last stop.  Do they fall under the blanket appellation of ‘industry’.  Well, yes, but it’s a gray area.  I don’t want to get too deep into the nuance, lest I cast shade, but typically there is a set margin to be applied to what rolls in from the local agents and voila! Robert’s your father’s brother.  They hit the sales floor…you hit the sales floor.  Ultimately hard to fault these good people (more often than not friends of ours after a few visits), unless of course, they are the ones responsible for setting margins and are playing loose with the numbers and being dodgy.  Rarely the case, I would suggest.

Next up we have the local ambassadors and agents.  Ultimately responsible for bringing in the goods from the big distributors behind the brands or distilleries.  Here’s where things get a little harder to get a feel for.  But let’s look at this in two pieces.

First off, we have the ambassadors.  Charming (and usually good-looking) people on the frontlines, learning their stuff inside and out (we would hope), smiling and pouring you drinks at fests and shows (no matter how tedious…and trust me, it is, I’ve done it) and making the products known and approachable to as wide an audience as possible.  Do they have an agenda?  Of course.  They work for a company that has a portfolio.  It’s their job to sell that portfolio.  But here’s the rub, guys and gals…these people are human shields.  Really.  Whisky geeks, by and large, are good people.  But we’re all fiercely protective of the drink we love.  When things go wrong we question the closest representative we can target.  Do they set prices, determine allocations and such?  Of course not.  But guess who takes both barrels.  Our only real gripe here is how much stock you can put in the words of the guy or gal selling you something.  Caveat emptor.  But, hey…I’ve done it.  I’ve worked for brands that weren’t my heart and soul.  There are a lot of creative words to verbally sex something up even when you don’t believe it the new Ardbeg ’77.  Ultimately though…they are good and great people working in sales.  The enemy?  Hardly.

The other half of the this piece is the agencies.  Hmmm…very little visibility or accountability here.  I’m as in the dark as anybody.  What sort of slice of the pie they are taking is anyone’s guess.  And good luck finding out.  Lemme give you an example.  I recently found out that Aberlour a’bunadh is still retailing for just over £40 in many places.  That’s $66.80 Canadian at the time of writing.  So riddle me this:  Why is it $136.99 on shelves locally?  No matter how you spin it, it doesn’t make sense.  The dollar is low.  But so is the pound.  Production costs haven’t changed drastically.  Barrel prices are not much different than they were a few years ago.  Shipping…not a big change.  Anyway…time to start getting a little concerned we may be edging into that ‘enemy’ industry territory?  Maybe.  Tough to say.  A lot of people I know are in these positions and making a living from it.  They are good people.  Truly good people.  But I can’t speak to the finances.

Next up…the big companies.  The brands behind the local importers and agencies.  Entities like Diageo, Pernod, Edrington, etc.  Now THIS, THIS, I believe is where most of the vitriol is pointed.  Answerable to no one but owners, shareholders and the SWA and SWR (where applicable).  Is this where our prices are set?  Largely, I would imagine?  And where decisions are made to launch more and more products that shrug the ‘shackles’ of age statements in favor of names and stories.  Probably.  This level also has a lot of hired guns doing face time.  Love ’em or hate ’em, I won’t mention names here.  I would argue that this is where your animosity should largely be directed.  Not that I’m suggesting animosity is the recourse.  Just saying, let’s send our barb to the people that can ultimately answer back to them.

And finally, we have the makers themselves.  I don’t generally mean the Patersons and Dalgarnos and such.  (I think those folks sit in the tier above).  I mean the folks working at the homes of production.  The ones running stills and mashes, visitor centers and tours.  The ones working the maltings and warehouses and bottling floors and cafes.  The ones pouring samples on site, building and repairing casks, doing grounds maintenance and polishing stills.  The ones fixing boilers and spelling out washbacks and all the other heavy lifting that comes with it all.  These folks are darlings of us all.  Rightfully so, I’d say.  They’re not setting prices or creating marketing blurbs.  They’re making whisky and creating experiences.

Ultimately, no matter the level we look at, we’re talking about people.  I’d bet anything that I’d get along with any one of them if we met along the wood at some small tavern and shared pints.  Our agendas diverge, for obvious reasons, but none of us would be here if not for love of the game.  Logic tells us to separate business and pleasure, but this is one case where that is entirely impossible.  Having said that, we can still respect the man, if not the method, aye?

Yes, yes, this is a gross simplification, but the point wasn’t to draft pages of essay-like rigidity and dryness.  It was an attempt at humanizing something that gets distorted to the point of dystopianism sometimes.  I struggle with it myself from time to time.  As you’ve seen.

Cheers, friends.

(Note:  This little musing was triggered by a recent conversation with a friend of mine who works in the ‘industry’ and by a recent post the Sponge put up).

 

– C

 Posted by at 9:32 am