The annual Ardbeg Committee release has become an inevitability in many ways. Firstly, owner LVMH aren’t going to miss the chance to launch a special, limited-edition whisky to the Ardbeg fan club that will definitely sell out. Secondly, the members of the Ardbeg fan club aren’t going to miss the chance to complain about a special, limited-edition whisky released for them that will definitely sell out.
In a dance as old as time…
This year’s offering at the altar of whisky fan consumption and internet abuse is the most quirkily named yet: Ardbeg Blaack.
It’s impressive how quickly 12 months can pass by. This time last year, I was trying to work out how to both get to the Islay Festival of Malt and Music – Fèis Ile to its friends and about 50,000 Scottish gaelic speakers – and travel around the island once I got there. My companion during this ‘planning’ was a dram from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, their first bottled in celebration of the festival. This year I can’t make it to Islay, so instead I’m looking at other people’s plans with a new whisky compantion – the SMWS’s second festival bottling, 127.44: Cantina Mexicana.
Travel retail is a strange market. Not only are the shops in some of the strangest on earth – liminal spaces constructed with a strange dual purpose of quick movement and opportunities to spend cash – but it’s a hard market. Bruichladdich are no stranger to the vagaries of travel retail and they’ve just unveiled a pair of new whiskies – Bruichladdich The Laddie Eight and Port Charlotte 2007 CC:01.
Having rather foolishly double booked myself during the last Whisky Lounge event in London (a Springbank tasting that I was rather looking forward to that got dropped in favour of an evening of sherry) I grabbed a ticket to Mr Ludlow’s December extravaganza as soon as I could. This time the format was slightly different in that it was to be a blind tasting, with the whiskies revealed at the end of the night, focusing on whiskies from the whisky obsessed island of Islay.
There are currently 8 distilleries on the island (with a 9th in the planning/building stages), which isn’t bad for a piece of land less than half the size of London and inhabited by only 3500 people. While traditionally Islay is known for its peaty spirit the distilleries produce a range of whiskies, with Bunnahabhain producing unpeated spirit (most of the time) and Ardbeg producing face melting bottles of smoky mud (also, most of the time). A blind tasting of these is quite interesting, as while each distillery has its own style different bottlings borrow ideas from the other producers, making things all a bit muddled. There are a few bottlings and distilleries that I reckon I could pick out, but I was interested to see how many I could guess. In the end though this blind tasting wasn’t about guessing. Knowing where the spirit in my glass has come from will often prompt an attitude or tasting note that comes from inside my head rather than from the glass. Tasting blind removes all of that and hopefully lets us taste without preconceptions.
It was a full house in the upstairs room of The Red Lion in St James’s and the man behind the Whisky Lounge, Eddie Ludlow, led the group through the whiskies. The plan was simple – we were to taste the whisky, talk about it and then give him a tasting note from each table to add to a record of the evening and compare against the other tastings of the same whiskies that he’d done around the country. We were the penultimate leg on his tour of the UK and the room did well in coming up with yet another totally different set of tasting notes for Eddie to try and consolidate. I was sat next to Chris Matchett, one of my occasional whisky buddies, a man well known for his lyrical descriptions of flavours – he was the one who came out with comments about bacon at the unsmoky The Glenlivet tasting last month…
First up was a coppery bronze dram that Eddie let us know was between 46 and 50% alcohol. On the nose it was sweaty and muddy, with camphor, apple, sea salt, a hint of oranges and salted caramel. To taste it had vanilla and light smokiness (more woody than peaty), with a syrupy texture and a dry, spicy wood finish. Water brought out more sweet creamy vanilla and some perfume from the wood, as well as some sticky glacé cherry. The tasting note we ended up providing was ‘Soggy marmite toast with salted butter and golden syrup, all spread with the same knife’, although Chris’s ‘Birkenstock sandals that someone else has been wearing all summer’ as one for just the nose almost pipped it. As an overall description his note of ‘A speyside whisky on holiday’ pretty much nailed it – not your usual Islay fair. My prediction for this one was that it was a sherried Bunnahabhain and I was rather pleased to see that I was right – it was Bunnahabhain 12 years old. This is a new version of their standard whisky, bottled at a stronger than before 46.3% and made up of a mix of bourbon and sherry casks. Totally unpeated and quite rich, it was a tasty start to the evening.
Next was a very lightly coloured whisky which we were told was between 50 and 55%. On the nose it was quite a big difference to the previous whisky – woody/muddy peat, mulchy seaweed, mint, mushrooms, pears, strawberry, cracked granite, meaty butter, a hint of the farmyard and a floral centre (maybe roses). To taste it maintained the muddiness from the nose adding in some piney smoke. It had a minerally, grassy finish that lingered around with a hint of the sweetly syrupy middle flavour. Water tamed it nicely, adding orange, lime and a generic ‘fruitiness’ to the nose, pushing the smokiness back a bit. This revealed more stoniness and some sweet citrus hanging around in the middle. I didn’t have much of a clue on this one and put it down as maybe one of the peaty Bruichladdichs, focusing on the mineraliness. As expected I was entirely wrong – it was a Berry Brothers and Rudd 1989 Bowmore, bottled at 50.9% and 20 years old. Probably from a quite inactive cask and totally unlike any Bowmore I’ve tried before.
We then moved on to a darker dram, a nice yellow gold, which were told was 40-50%. On the nose there was sweaty salted butter, leather, marmalade, toast, lemon, mulch and Bisto gravy thickener (the brown cornflour rather than gravy granules). To taste it had a light caramel sweetness to start, with an oily mouthfeel, leading to a hot peaty finish through a core of creamy sugar and woody spice. Water extended the sweetness into the finish and softened the wood to a green twig sappiness. The smoke of the finish gave way to woodiness with orchard fruit and sweet and sour sauce. For this I guessed an Ardbeg, focusing on the peat/wood/sweet combination (which may not be general Ardbeg but for some reason sticks in my head), but was yet again entirely wrong. It was, instead, a bit of a ringer – Jura Prophecy. This has no age statement (although it’s probably 12-16 years old), is bottled at 46% and is the heavily peated expression of their range – a range of whiskies from the next island along from Islay, separated by a mere 250m of water. Eddie got round this ‘semantic’ argument by claiming that Jura was connected to Islay via an underwater causeway, and thus counted. There were murmurings…
Next up was a coppery dram that we were told was between 55 and 60%. On the nose there was turkish delight, dark chocolate, raisins, burned apple pie (very specifically listed by me as the burned bits on the top of the pie where the pastry cracks and the filling bubbles out, and by someone else as the layer between the filling and the pastry when the top has burned), bread and butter pudding, and a bed of meaty peat under it all. To taste it was very smoky, with a heavy coal smoke flavour almost obscuring vanilla and more apple pie. Water helped separate the flavours, leaving a spike of peat at the front leading to a sweet muddy mulch. The coal is calmed down to reveal vodka-like grain. Our note for this was ‘Apple pie and ice cream beside an iron coal stove’. This was the first whisky I was fairly certain of, writing down a definite Bowmore – the specific sweet smokiness is the flavour that I find in Bowmore and few other Islay whiskies, and this time I was right – Bowmore Tempest, a 10 year old whisky bottled at 56%. This one was from the second batch they’ve made of this and was matured in first fill bourbon casks.
Our penultimate dram was very light and between 46 and 49%. From the nose I was certain I knew which distillery it was from – a strong smell of the farmyard, light alcohols, white cabbage, menthol, caraway, vodka, a light oiliness (the smell of ‘flavourless’ cooking oils) and white pepper. It smelled young and was quite thin and prickly. To taste it had a creaminess combined with the smoke, bringing to mind Bavarian smoked cheese tubes. It also had sweet root vegetables, lots of caraway and a pleasantly creamy mouth feel. A drop of water brought out tropical fruit, sour wood and mulchy peat as well as more cream. I was certain that this was Kilchoman, the island’s newest distillery, as the whisky tasted very young and similar to the new make spirit and not-mature-yet ‘whiskies’ that I’ve had from them. Yet again I was wrong – it was Douglas Laing’s Big Peat Batch 10, a blended malt bottled at 46% and made up of whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen (although as the latter is closed and bottles go for silly amounts of money we assumed that there wasn’t much of it in there). This is a really young tasting whisky and ones that makes me want to crack open the bottle of Kilchoman I have hiding at the back of my cupboard.
The last whisky of the night was a pale gold, and between 55 and 60%. On the nose it had golden syrup and salt, burning grassland, mint, white grapes and a stony minerality. To taste it was sweet with and almost cloying peatiness backed up by wood smoke. There was also sweet fruit (apple and strawberry?), fragrant tea and pepper. Water brought out lime and vanilla on the nose, and sherbert, wet carpet, cinnamon, lemon & lime, spiced orange peel and a tarry finish to the taste. Again, I was fairly certain I knew what this one was (especially bolstered by 6 drams as I was by this time) and both wrote down and called out Laphroaig Quarter Cask, focusing on the sweet peatiness and minerality that I find in that whisky. Predictably I was wrong again – it was a cask sample from Ardbeg. Drawn from the cask (a first fill bourbon barrel) quite recently it was at the cask strength of 56.3% and was distilled in 2000.
In the end I was quite pleased with two out of six, especially as most of my other guesses made sense (at least to me) and weren’t blind stabs in the dark. It was also nice to taste things without any foreshadowing, letting my subconscious whisky snob stay asleep and not jump in with its ideas. The evening was wrapped up by singer/guitarist/songwriter Tim Hain knocking out a quick rendition of his song One More Dram (last heard at The Whisky Show a month or so ago, accompanied by Colin Dunn in the Connosr Whiskypod) before Eddie had to run away to the snowy north again. There are already plans afoot for next year’s events and there is also a new Whisky Lounge dram appearing soon – Dram 101. It’s a blended malt with about 50 components and was put together by Eddie as a follow up to last year’s Whisky Lounge Festival Dram. It should be available from the Whisky Lounge website soon, maybe even before Christmas but so far the only evidence of its imminent existence are a couple of tweets and this video…
At the end of the tasting we all scored the whiskies out of 100 (something that I hate doing, hence the lack of scores on this site) and Eddie is now collating the results from all of the tastings ready for release to see which whisky came out top overall. My favourite of the night was the Berry Brother’s Bowmore, followed by the Big Peat, so I’ll be interested to see what the group reckoned.
Bunnahbhain 12 Year Old (new bottling)
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46.3%. ~£30 from The Whisky Exchange.
Berry Brothers & Rudd 1989 Bowmore
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 50.9%. ~£60 from BBR.
Single Malt Jura Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.
Bowmore Tempest 10 Year old
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.
Blended Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.
Ardbeg first fill bourbon cask sample
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56.3%. Not available unless you go to the distillery and beg or rob Eddie.
Bruichladdich are one of the most prolific producers of single malt whisky in Scotland at the moment. Based on Islay they opened in 1881, closed (as many did) in the mid-90s and then re-opened in 2001 under the eye of Mark Reynier, who led a group of private investors in buying and restarting the distillery. I first tried one of their whiskies shortly after the distilery reopened, but can remember very little other than it was the first whisky I tried that reminded me of the sea.
More recently they’ve become known for both their experimentation and for releasing of lots of their experiments – just looking at Master of Malt they have 68 distillery bottlings listed, which is more than one new bottling every two months since the distillery reopened. Everything from cask finishes and slight variations on the core range to their X4 quadruple distilled spirit (rather than the two that single malt scotch usually gets) and Octomore, supposedly the most peated whisky ever made at 140ppm.
They’ve done a couple of releases of the Octomore, each with a different twist on the idea, and I recently grabbed a sample of their most recent release from Master of Malt’s Drinks by the Dram – Octomore 2.2 Orpheus. The tweak on this one is simple – they finish the bourbon matured spirit in red wine casks. However, just to make sure that this is a little bit more exclusive they used Petrus casks. It’s a bit older than the earlier editions, at 5 years, and has been bottled at its full 61% cask strength as part of a limited edition of 15000 bottles, which are now starting to rise in price as collectors snap them up. The earlier releases of Octomore inspired a lot of underwhelming reviews, going up against the first edition of Ardbeg Supernova as they did, but this one seems to have done a bit better, even if it has produced the expected love-it/hate-it reviews.
The first thing that you notice about the whisky is its colour – it’s pink. It may have only been finished in the wine casks but has picked up a lot of the colour from the wood. On the nose it has sweet peat, as expected, as well as vanilla, grain mulch and an underlying savouriness that I’ve noticed in most wine cask matured whisky (the flavour that I have now stopped calling ‘bbq chicken’ because it was starting to get me funny looks). It was cloying, with the peat and sweetness sticking at the back of the throat as I sniffed. To taste it started with mud and sweetness before moving through bitter lemons and spicy wood. It had a menthol quality that dried the tongue and this lingered into the finish with more peat and salty caramel. At 61% and with this much peat it could take a lot of water, and it’s the peat which gets hit most by the addition. The mud and peatiness mellowed, leaving the sweetness, spicy citrus and menthol, and the finish got a slab of butteriness, rounding out the caramel flavour.
I’ve not tried any of the other releases of the Octomore but even if this is the best of the bunch I’d like to go back and have a go – this is really rather nice. A touch of water brings out the best in it, mellowing the fire of the young whisky and some of its peatiness and bringing out its underlying richness. The wine casks add a bit of meatiness to the body, but otherwise leave the spirit to shine (which from my point of view is how it should be) and it’s definitely gone on my ‘nice to have in the cupboard’ list.
Bruichladdich Octomore 2.2 Orpheus
5 year old Petrus cask finished Islay single malt Scothc whisky. 61%. ~ £80 at Master of Malt
It’s incredible how important one’s sense of smell is when tasting things. I have, of course, heard from numerous people (including my anosmic mate John) about how taste is predominantly smell, with the tongue painting in wide strokes while the nose adds the detail, so it was rather annoying to discover the actual extent to which my own sense of taste is reliant on my nose on the same day as I finally made it along to a Whisky Squad tasting.
The Whisky Squad is a monthly meetup set up by Andy of Good Drinks Etc and Jason B. Standing to be more informal than most of the tastings out in the wild, with a focus on learning, talking about whisky in a small group and generally having a good time. With assistance from Darren, The Whisky Guy, as whisky expert (a title he veraciously denies, despite working for Master of Malt and having hours of whisky related anecdotes to roll out at the drop of a segue) and moustache wearer extraordinaire, they take over the upstairs room at The Gunmakers (thanks to Jeff the easily bribed with whisky landlord) on the first Thursday of each month to taste through a bunch of whiskies focused around a theme. This month’s was Islay, Andy having just returned from a weekend up there and thus laden with bottles.
Islay is one of the most concentrated areas of whisky production in the world, with 8 distilleries dotted around the 240 square miles of the island floating just off of the Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Famed for their peaty whiskies it’s a bit of a whisky connoiseurs paradise, with each of the distilleries a short drive from each other and each offering something quite different.
I wandered along certain that my worst day of hayfever in about ten years wouldn’t hinder the tasting of pungent island malts. However, within seconds of the first dram being placed in front of me my worst fears were realised – I could smell nothing at all. Even the strongest snort did nothing but hurt the back of my nose as the physical reaction to the alcohol remained, but no twitch of sensory cells to inform me of what I was sniffing. Luckily, Andy acted as my seeing nose dog, pinging me tasting notes, and I grabbed a couple of samples to take home and try later on.
First up was a sample from Master of Malt to keep us going while Andy and Darren kicked off the evening with some talk of Islay and the makings of whisky. The Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay is a blend of malts from the island and is peated to about 15ppm. On the nose it has bitter-sweet peat, a touch of sweet wood oil and digestive biscuits. To taste the peat is more subdued and joined with a hint of woodsmoke and wet cardboard. There’s a bump of malty sweetness in the middle, with a touch of orangey citrus, before a it trails off into a subdued, short caramel orange finish. Water brings out some vanilla sweetness to fight against the wood smoke, adding a prickly damp bonfire edge to the taste. It’s smoky and peaty, with a hint of citrus and some sweetness – a classic example of what is thought of as a ‘typical islay malt’, even if such a statement doesn’t really mean anything, as the whiskies to follow will demonstrate.
As a special treat before we started the tasting proper was a very small amount of Master of Malt Bowmore 26 Year old, accompanied by a parma violet. Unfortunately I didn’t get anything off the glass other than a burnt nose, but it was quite obvious to everyone else why a parma violet had accompanied it – it has a distinct sweet violet smell sitting in amongst the other flavours of a sweet shop.
The whiskies that are put on for the tasting, excluding random samples and donations, are tasted blind, with paper wrapped around the bottles to obscure labels and details, in an attempt to remove prejudices and prejudging of the flavours. Unfortunately for me I recognise the bottle shapes of most Islay distilleries, but having no sense of smell this was my main way of trying to work out what everyone was drinking before the big reveal.
Next up was a bottle that I didn’t recognise, the Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old. The Bunnahabhain (bunna-har-ven) distilleryis unique amongst those of the island in that its standard expression is pretty much unpeated , coming in at 1-2ppm. They do, however, produce a good quantity of peated spirit but other than for special bottlings this generally goes to other companies for blends, including Black Bottle which it makes up a significant component of. Andy had picked this up at the distillery, along with an armful of leaflets, maps, tasting note cards and other assorted propaganda, and had really liked it due to it being so different to the peat heavy assortment that he tried up until then. From everyone else’s tasting notes it had cheap chocolate brownies, honey and sherry trifle on the nose and was dry and woody to taste, with a salty buttery finish.
To follow this we moved on to the Bruichladdich Peat, a whisky that was difficult to tell from the bottle shape alone due to the distillery’s habit of doing so many releases – it was suggested around the room that it’s almost as if whenever Jim McEwan, the production manager, has a crazy idea they drop what they’re doing and make a batch of it. The Peat is a back to basics version of Bruichladdich – peated to ~35ppm, matured in bourbon casks for an unspecified amount of time and bottled without any of the finishes that have become their trademark in recent times. The notes I have for this are that it combines peat and wood smoke on the nose, with a nice balance of the two combined with some sweetness and dry vanilla wood to taste. One that I want to revisit, as I’ve been a fan of all the ‘Laddies I’ve tried so far.
This one brought up a point for discussion – the difference between peat and smoke. As peat is introduced into the malt by way of smoke people often assume that the two flavours are the same, but there is a distinct difference. In addition to peatiness there is also smokiness in the flavours introduced by the barrel used for maturation and this is a different kind of smoke to that introduced by the peat. Generally the peat will bring in more medicinal flavours, such as the TCP-like tang that Laphroaig is known for, or a sweet smoke, such as with Bowmore, whereas the wood will bring in more campfire tastes and smells. As ever, the various different bits of the whisky making process, from water to finishing, all have their effect on the finished product, all working together to produce interesting flavours.
After this I threw my contribution to the evening into the ring – the remains of my young Kilchoman sample, which Darren identified as having been in wood for 6 months. Kilchoman have recently produced their first 3 year old bottlings to quite a lot of acclaim (I have a bottle of an upcoming Royal Mile Whisky single cask bottling reserved, as recommended by Jason, which I’m very much looking forward to) and their new spirit is a great indicator of how Islay whiskies mature in the barrel. I usually describe this as tasting like ‘cattle feed and death’, but with a bit more delicacy it has lots of malty grain with sweet peat and a hint of woodiness that isn’t particularly developed in this young sample.
After that interlude we got back on to chosen whiskies with a Caol Ila 10 year old ‘Unpeated’ expression. Strangely for an evening of Islay malts half of the whiskies we tried weren’t heavily peated, with this one having little or no peat in at all, rather than the usual ~15ppm that the distillery uses. I grabbed a dram of this to take home, Caol Ila being a whisky that I’ve been intrigued by in the past (with a cask strength Tokaji finish being one of the most orangey whiskies I’ve ever tasted). On the nose there’s candy floss, a wisp of smoke and something almost toffee appley. To taste it has dry prickly wood, orange juice concentrate (a flavour that I’ve found to be especially strong in the Caol Ila’s I’ve tried) and sweet wood smoke. It’s cask strength, at 65.8%, so can happily take some water which opens the nose to add more oil and sweaty socks and a slab of sweetness to the taste, along with some coal dust, bitter oak, sweet butter and orchard fruitiness. A fearsome dram neat, but one that mellows nicely with water.
The citrus nature of many of the Islay whiskies seems a bit strange, but Darren explained it as coming from the saltiness inherent on being matured on the island. The salt interacts with the wood of the barrels creating citrus-like flavouring compounds which are picked up by the wood, thus introducing not only briney notes into the whisky but also the lemon and orange flavours that are often present.
Next was the last of the night, which by a process of elimination was the distillery only edition that Andy had promised us – Lagavulin Distillery Only 2010. This is a cask strength bottling that you can, as the name suggests, only get from the distillery. 6000 bottles were produced and it was released in time for this year’s Feis Ile. Along with the limited nature of the bottling it’s also quite special as it was finished in port casks. On the nose it’s pure Lagavulin, with seaweed, brine, a background of sweet peat and a hint of meatiness. To taste it’s spicy, with the port wood very obvious at the back of the mouth. It has seafood risotto, seawater, caramel covered twigs and a mixed spice tail. A drop of water takes the edge off of the prickle, bringing out big sugary sweetness, revealing the background woody savouriness and adding a chunk of smoky sweetness, like burned sugar. This is a really rather special dram and one that it’s worth going to the distillery to grab.
An interesting array of whiskies, with only 2 of the 4 actually being particularly peaty, showing just how big a range Islay actually produces. The guys know how to run an evening and having finished the tasting the conversation continued in the Gunmaker’s bar until the pub closed. I’m signed up for the next one (and am even missing a day of the GBBF to make sure I can go) which should be an evening of summer whiskies with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, who led the Talisker tasting I went to last year, which promises to be an event – putting Colin in a small room strikes me as a recipe for enthusiasm overload, in a good way.
Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay
Islay Blended Malt Whisky, 40%. £34.95 from Master of Malt
Master of Malt 26 Year Old Bowmore
Single cask Islay malt whisky, 53.4%. £99.95 from Master of Malt
Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old
Islay Single Malt Whisky, 43%. £48.95 from Master of Malt
No age statement Islay Single Malt Whisky, 46%. £31.95 from Master of Malt
Caol Ila 10 Year Old ‘Unpeated’ 2009
Islay single cask single malt whisky, 65.8%. £51.95 from Master of Malt.
Lagavulin 2010 ‘Distillery Only’
Port wood finished Islay single malt whisky, 52.5%. Only available from the distillery – £70 for one or two for £130.
If you want to come along to a Whisky Squad tasting then keep an eye on their website and sign up when they announce the next event. The group is small (~15) and it’s first come first served, so you need to be quick. They do run a waiting list so it’s worth letting them know even if they have run out of spots.