Dec 232020
 

In 2013, a good bunch of folks, led by our revered pied piper, Andrew Ferguson of Kensington Wine Market infamy, stole away to the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains for a weekend of absolutely next level whisky tastings. The apex event of the weekend was a tasting of some of the most legendary 1964 Bowmores known to man- (and woman-) kind.

In a completely unexpected (though gratefully accepted) bit of generosity, a wee set of samples was brought back for yours truly. Obviously, whiskies like this require pristine conditions in order to really be able to properly assess ’em, so…seven years after these priceless vials landed in my lap, on an afternoon when the palate was clean, my personal desire was sky high, and the interruptions were kept to a bare minimum, I finally sat down with these precious drops of Islay’s greatest distillate and took a bit of a journey. My couch sipping session may have lacked the elegance and atmosphere of the initial event, but the malts are transportive, to say the least.

Listen. I wanted this post to be a poem of such epic proportion Yeats himself would have wept, but there’s simply no way I can throw commonplace nouns and verbs at these malts and have them ring true to just how special they are. Man’s limitations are pretty glaring most times. Fortunately, the whisky gods are verbose and have said all that needs to be said via the glass. I know that doesn’t really help here, but if you’ve ever had the chance to taste these drams, you’ll understand what I mean. And I happen to know that a rather substantial portion of you have actually tasted at least one of these drams. For those that haven’t, bear with me as I do my best to articulate just what these Bowmores are all about.

Before we dive into tasting notes, however, let me just say: tropical, tropical, tropical. Get used to hearing it. I’ll be throwing that word around a lot over the next few paragraphs. When we speak of those legendary vintages – the ones that make whisky folk weak-kneed and starry-eyed – 1964 Bowmore has to be right up at the top of the pyramid. There is something utterly magical about them. And I have to say, they are also some of the very best drams I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste.

Y’already know how I feel about the Black Bowmore (42 y.o.), aye? I think at the time I reviewed it, I scored it at 97 points, the highest mark I’ve ever assigned. I opted not to simply repost those notes and scores, but instead to revisit and reassess even that old favorite. So, without saying any more…let’s just dive in, shall we?

Black Bowmore 1964 42 y.o.

Five oloroso sherry casks. 827 bottles. 40.5% abv. Released 2007.

Nose: Beautiful clean chariness. Five Alive fruit juice infused with the cleanest and most elegant of smoke. Now we’re into a stunning mix of fresh and dried tropical fruits. A bit of peach with all those other to-be-expected notes of guava, mango, passionfruit, pineapple and more. A beautifully dark and rich cherry tang. Black currents. Pink grapefruit. A hint of cold coffee. Vintage sherry. Faint echoes of peat. Old oiled machinery. Ancient polished wood. This just reeks of majesty and age.

Palate: Slightly medicinal. More smoke than either the White or Gold Bowmore, and more earthy peat to boot. Hugely tropical. Sticky, oily dried mango, apricot, pineapple, peach. More orange. More pineapple. Brine and a much more profound Islay-ness than the nose suggests. Seared seafood. Charred grapefruit. Baked ham. Griotines. Cherry cough syrup. Figgy pudding.

Finish: Some decent tannins, but it’s that deep, dark oily, and rather bittering finish that steal the show. Just wow.

Thoughts: Does it get better? Honestly?

96/100

White Bowmore 1964 43 y.o.

Six bourbon barrels. 732 bottles. 42.8% abv. Released 2008.

Nose: Tropical heaven. Sweet pineapple. Mango, orange, papaya, grapefruit, passion fruit. Man…the parade of fruits is endless. Dunnage. A touch of marzipan and sugar cookies. Tropical fruit pie. Honey. Marmalade. Fruit flan. White chocolate. Truly stunning cask notes; almost hard to believe wood can do this.

Palate: Oh, dear God. Grapefruit, mango, passionfruit, papaya. Grilled pineapple rings. What a stunning sweet/sour tang. Can’t stop the flood of saliva. Oily. Only faintly smoky, but there’s a definite coastal element to it. This is all fruits, spritzed with citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit). Such clean, but rather indistinguishable, spice tones.

Finish: Those tropical tangy notes linger forever. Maybe longer.

Thoughts: Utterly incomparable.

95/100

Gold Bowmore 1964 44 y.o.

Three bourbon barrels and one oloroso sherry cask. 701 bottles. 42.4% abv. Released 2009.

Nose: Toastier than the White. I can only assume that’s the toasty, nutty influence of the sherry butt. Crème caramel. Still unbelievably tropical, of course. Tame those pineapple and orange notes just a wee notch (though they’re still huge!), and add some kiwi. Vanilla. Warm honey. A hint of fruitcake (made with ancient cognac). And yeah…maybe a hint of old Armagnac. Faint peat.

Palate: Slow to develop, then wham! Cold espresso. Twiglets. Grapefruit. Guava and passion fruit. Mango. Mandarin. A beautiful subtle smokiness. Glazed ham and pineapple. Prosciutto. Raspberry.

Finish: Deeper than the White, but maybe a tick less endearing. Still bittering and tropically tart.

Thoughts: Nose is more muted than expected, but the palate more than makes up for the whispered beginnings.

93.5/100

Black Bowmore 1964 31y.o.

Sherry butts. 1812 bottles. 49% abv. Released 1995.

Nose: Toasted marshmallow. Saville orange. Molasses. More smoke here. Oily and syrupy. The tropical notes are here, but not as monolithic as they appear in the trilogy releases. Polish. Old wet oak. Cherry, raspberry and strawberry with passion fruit, peach, pineapple, guava, etc. Tobacco pouch or snuff bag. Oiled leather.

Palate: Whoa. Syrupy, syrupy, syrupy. More of those reduced dark fruits – like a smoked cherry and raspberry reduction. That sweet/sour balance is incredible. Pink grapefruit. Passion fruit. Mango. Cold espresso. Tobacco. Seared duck. Seaspray. A stronger flinty minerality.

Finish: More tannic than the others, by far. But that bittering finish is, once again, to die for.

Thoughts: Denser, darker, somehow more syrupy than the 42 y.o. Stronger tannins, and less tropical notes. Though I’m sure it goes without saying…utterly stunning.

94/100

Bowmore 1964 Fino 46 y.o.

One fino sherry butt. 72 bottles 42.9% abv. Released 2012.

Nose: Candied sweetness. All those tropical notes smash head on in to a confectioner’s shop. Bubble gum. Salt water. More tropical juices (yes, yes…you’re getting sick of the word ‘tropical’). Scones. Heavy cream. Mandarins. Kiwi. Sour cherries. Key lime and blood orange. A hint of fill.

Palate: Oh, wow. Kiwi and guava. Lemon pie. A squeeze of lime. Grapefruit pith. Green curry. Dill. What the hell?! The tropical notes keep expanding as it develops. Love that gorgeous medicinal note that toes up against the tangy fruits. Oily and salty. Mango. Tiramisu. Honey.

Finish: Long and slightly drying. Cherry cordials. Tropical fruit skins.

Thoughts: This one shattered any expectations I had. Simply mindboggling.

95/100

 Posted by at 8:25 am
Dec 102020
 

This one came as a bit of a surprise in my circles. Normally we don’t get so hung up on color that it becomes the primary speaking point, but let’s face it…this stuff is about four shades darker than previous releases. It looks like medium roast coffee mixed with cherry cola. The usual light-to-dark color spectrum of the big three Kilchoman expressions – Machir Bay, then Sanaig, then Loch Gorm – was turned on its head with the arrival of this 2020 edition of Sanaig. It scrambled the wee rainbow and threw the darkest of ’em all smack dab in the middle of the trio. Quite frankly, the hue shames the fully-sherried Loch Gorm. And while Sanaig may be a marriage of ex-bourbon (30%) and ex-oloroso casks (70%), it’s unquestionably the sherry that stands center stage here. You’ll get some of the spice from those bourbon barrels, but the more subtle notes – coconut, vanilla, etc – are lost beneath the deeper wash of Oloroso.

Expect big spice, big dried fruit tunes and bucketloads of savory, charry, goodness. Oh, and quality. You’ll find it here in spades.

Sanaig is named for a rocky little cove off the northern coast of Islay where the cold, harsh waves of the Atlantic dash themselves time and time again against ancient metamorphic rock. Are we running out of geographical/geological features on Islay to name our beloved malts after? Asking for a friend.

46% abv

Tasting Notes

Nose: A hella big peaty dram. Beachside bonfire. Islay malt married to grape juice. Raspberry and orange. Fig spread. Ju-jubes. Seared scallops and bacon. Some sort of red wine-reduced savory meat sauce. A bit of unlit pipe tobacco.

Palate: A lot smoke, a fair bit of hickory. Fruit leather. Arrives juicy, develops some slight tannins around the mid palate. Purple grapes and plums. Figgy pudding. Sen-sens. Cough drops.

Finish: Long and smoky. A hint of smoked shellfish and some flinty notes as it fades.

Thoughts: A little top-heavy – or maybe just overly rambunctious – but well-built, nonetheless.

88/100

 Posted by at 12:43 pm
Dec 082020
 

I kinda get the impression that Hedley Wright wasn’t born with enough middle fingers. If you don’t know the gent I’m speaking of, rest assured that I mean this with the utmost respect for this nonagenarian. Confession: I absolutely adore the Hedley ethos.

Some of you are probably aware that I have an almost unconditional love for Campbeltown and Campbeltown whiskies. I love the place, the people, the history and the distilleries. I love the bars and the late-night strolls. Most importantly, I love all the memories I’ve made there. The clock seems to move at a different pace on this wee peninsula.

But I suppose we should be talking about the whisky we’re reviewing, aye?

Kilkerran, as many of you will know, is not a distillery; it is the brand name for the single malt produced at the Glengyle distillery.

So, here’s the tale as I’ve heard it told, for those that may not have listened to me sentimentalize this one in person: Back in the early 2000s, Campbeltown was in danger of losing its regional status in the eyes of the Scotch Whisky Association. The ‘wee toon’ ’round the harbour – once the world’s most famous and in-demand whisky-producing sector – had reached a point where only two distilleries remained in production. A mighty fall for a town (and region) that once boasted more than thirty producers.

Enter one Hedley G. Wright, a generational descendent of the Mitchell family (whose name you’ll still see adorning Springbank bottlings to this day), and his mad machinations to protect the regional status of Campbeltown. Hedley made the argument that the Lowlands only had three operational distilleries and were still a recognized region, ergo, if Campbeltown had the same number then they should reap the same benefits. The SWA agreed. So, Hedley bought the neighbouring corpse-distillery of Glengyle, cleaned out tons of birdshit (and who knows what all else), and tricked out the building with equipment purchased from the now-defunct Ben Wyvis distillery. All equipment, piping and possibly even the kitchen sink was procured for a rather paltry £300,000. And in 2004, the spirit began to flow.

Twelve years later we’ve reached the culmination of a lot of ‘work in progress’ releases, and if I’m being honest…this is one of the most impressive age-stated renaissance expressions I’ve ever encountered (Laddie 10 being another). It’s everything I wanted, and a whole lot more.

Batches vary, I understand, but this one was apparently 70% ex-bourbon, 30% ex-sherry. Bottled at 46% abv. Bottle code: 18/337. Bottled: 03/08/2018.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Awww, yeah. A heapin’ helpin’ of the Campbeltown funk. Love it. Smells of the farmyard. Oat cakes. A touch of pool water (chlorine?). A balanced salinity. I keep catching a fleeting whiff of blueberry. Lemon. Burlap, or hessian. Peanuts in the shell. A bit minerally, maybe slate or clay.

Palate: Love this distinctive peatiness. A nice clean citrus, both lemon and orange. Licorice Babies. Like chewing on a stalk of straw. Those oat cakes are back again. Overbaked – not quite burnt – pastry.

Finish: A nice lingering farmy funk. Salty crackers. A nice peaty fade.

Thoughts: Almost indistinguishable from Springbank. And that, of course, makes perfect sense.

89/100

 Posted by at 3:36 pm
Dec 042020
 

It never sucks to drink Brora. You could waterboard me with this stuff and I’d probably be okay with it. Ok…that may have crossed a line. Sorry.

We just reviewed a Clynelish, so how ’bout Brora? Sort of a VW/Audi thing. Or something. Unfortunately, I have less than a dozen bottles of Brora left in the bunker, so unless something drastically changes in the coming years, reviews of this Sutherland beauty are bound to be as scarce as oases in the Sahara. Recently, however, I had occasion to pop the cork on a special bottle to mark a celebration: I promised some mates that if Trump was booted from office I would open a Brora. I also promised myself a mental health break from the political divisiveness that seems be tearing civilization apart and a return to whisky jotting in my spare time. So…here we are.

Brora has a reputation, of course, but Brora also has a complicated personality. Not only are there some nearly impossible ties to unknot between Brora and Clynelish (especially in the earliest years of tandem distillation at the neighboring sites, but also between the more heavily-peated outings and those that are more fruit/wax/caramel-driven. I’ve had both. And both can be utterly dazzling. And, though it won’t put this conversation to bed, it will at least allow us to hit ‘snooze’ for a bit and return to this rather big subject later on. Let’s just say, I have my theories.

This 34 year old is one of the more restrained Broras I’ve yet tried. The nose, especially, is a wee bit shy, but the palate is much more expressive. If you’re chasing big phenols, you’re looking in the wrong place. But at 34 years, you’d be looking in the wrong place no matter which expression you were tasting. There’s a nod to the peatier years here, but it arrives like the fashionably late party goer. Albeit…maybe a bit more well-behaved, when all is said and done.

This release was a part of Diageo’s Annual Releases back in 2017, before they nixed the inclusion of Brora and Port Ellen in those outturns. It was limited to 3,000 bottles. 51.9% abv.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Little peat to speak of. But of course, there’s some wax. A touch of milk chocolate. Orange juice. Warm chamois leather. Incredibly soft fruit mélange. Apple pie (easy on the cinnamon and such). Putty. Even a faint hint of capers. Clay. An unlit Cuban, where the aromas are subtle and pretty.

Palate: Oh, wow. Juicy and mouthwatering. Orange and tangerine right up front. There’s a bit of smokiness come the mid palate, but it arrives with vanilla, melon and much more wax. Some more citrus, mostly lemon. Now we have some peat, by way of a slight earthy funk. A touch of blanched almond.

Finish: Clean and long. Some honeydew melon and deeply herbal notes.

Thoughts: Not sure why this one isn’t held in higher esteem than it is. May take a wee bit more concentration, but peeling back the layers shows just how elegant and layered it is.

Score: 92/100

 Posted by at 10:07 am
Dec 022020
 

I sell whisky for a living. And yes, for the most part it is everything it’s cracked up to be and more – largely because of where I sell whisky, but that’s a story for another day.

I get asked all the time for recommendations that come in around that $100CA a bottle marker, and asked what I would drink in that price range. The Classic Laddie, Pulteney 12, Benromach 10, Johnnie Black (honestly), and Clynelish 14 are some of my immediate thoughts. There has to be both character and quality there to hold my interest. In my line of work, there is no shortage of great whisky at hand, so for a so-called ‘entry level expression’ to remain in constant rotation at the forefront of my grey matter, it has to be really damn good. And Clynelish 14 is consistently really…damn…good.

Part of it might be personal bias – I love the tangled and messy story of Brora/Clynelish – but there is more to it than simple infatuation with a distillery’s history. The fact of the matter is that Clynelish produces one of the best makes in the Diageo stable. It may not always turn out the way we’d hope in indie bottlings, but the brand’s flagship 14 is a winner. A bit waxy, a bit coastal; laden with citrus and a wee bit of a flinty edge. It’s hard to ignore inherent quality and singularity in a field that can sometimes (especially in younger OBs) feel a bit stagnant and one-dimensional.

46% abv.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Slightly boozy, without being spirity. Apples and barley fields. Linseed oil. Shale and salt water. A nice minerally underbelly. Dried ginger. Beeswax. Lemon Pledge furniture polish. Maybe a faint whiff of smoke back there somewhere.

Palate: Immediately waxy. Some apples and a squeeze of orange (and a decent dribble of lemon concentrate). Sauvignon blanc. A nice tannicity keeps things firm. Briny and coastal. Salted pasty dough. A puff of dirty smoke at the back end.

Finish: Love the tang and pucker as it ebbs. Leaves a bit of orange zest, salt water, and vanilla. Reminds a bit of dental gauze. Still rather drying.

Thoughts: Consistently one of the stalwarts of the <15 year olds. Some batches are better than others, but I’ve yet to find one I wouldn’t spend money on.

Score: 87/100

 Posted by at 9:19 am