whisky

23May

Bruichladdich Laddie Classic & Pedro Ximénez

Two more samples from what is quickly becoming one of my favourite distilleries.

Bruichladdich Laddie Classic

Colour: Amber, cider vinegar. On the nose: gentle peat, a distant sweetness, a touch briny. Classic Islay traits, though nothing unusual.

In the mouth: Smooth, ever so smooth. Great weight and feel in the mouth. Heavy maltiness. Spot of white wine on the finish. That distant sweetness is still there. Perhaps a little disappointing compared to the complexity of the others I’ve tasted from Bruichladdich, but it’s definitely a solid dram and probably a great one for newcomers to single malt whisky. Expect to pick a bottle up for around £35.

 

Bruichladdich Sherry Edition 1992 Age 17 Years “Pedro Ximénez”

Colour: a dark honey, almost treacle. On the nose: a blast of sherry and dried fruits. In the mouth: a wall of sweet fruits, and of course sherry. Really crisp, really clean, very thin and light in the mouth. A little chewy. A touch of wood on the finish, perhaps some spices. Surprising to think such a Macallan/Glenfarclas-esque flavour can come from Islay, and it’s still a fine single malt.

This isn’t on sale anymore, to my knowledge, but you would have been looking at £55-ish at the time.

17May

Bruichladdich Octomore 01.1

It was said at the time of release that the Bruichladdich Octomore 1.1 was the world’s peatiest whisky. The guys at Bruichladdich, one of the most experimental distilleries, have since surpassed that with later Octomore releases that have phenol levels of 140ppm. For context: the one I’m drinking is at 80ppm, an Ardbeg is about 54-56ppm and Laphroaig is about 35ppm.

Colour: light gold to straw, something deceptively mellow. On the nose: well, smoke, of course. Buttery, creaminess underneath. Sweet, charred fire. Bacon. Something earthy. A touch of lemon. Nothing that tells you it’s about to blow your head off.

In the mouth: Shit, but this has got some heat to it. It’s as if you’ve dipped your glass into a crofter’s fire and brought it to your mouth to drink the flames. The strength of this – an eye-watering 63.5% – combined with the amount of peat is beyond intense. This really is something else. Then, when you’re brave enough for a second attempt, there’s the faint promise of something syrupy mixed with overwhelming spice and afterwards you’re left with a warming, chewy maltiness.

This is, perhaps, one to drink on the coldest or stormiest night of the year. The Bruichladdich Octomore should come with a health and safety warning (but ignore that and drink it anyway).

4May

Bruichladdich Infinity 3

A word in your ear: look at the bottle. Look at it. Isn’t that design beautiful? Isn’t it so contemporary, bold yet elegant? It is made by Bruichladdich, who consider themselves to be Progressive Hebridean Distillers. Quite right, too: I’ve been following their blog for a while, and it’s refreshing, it’s progressive. They take no prisoners. They say things you think companies ought not to say. They turn whisky into biogas. They are their own people, and I respect their outlook very much. It would have been a shame if the first whisky of theirs I tried did not have the chops to back up that sentiment, but, oh my, it did…

At first, what a colour – a sort of ruby-esque, sunset Pimms; like no other whisky I’ve seen yet (that’ll be those Tempranillo casks?). On the nose: gentle smoke fires, treacle, sultanas, touch of Christmas cake, maybe even vanilla, just a touch of red wine, then on the back end something more savoury, perhaps a pastry, or a cheese. It’s a distinctive, pervasive aroma. Some whiskies you need to stick your nose in the glass; some you put the glass on the side and let the smell come to you. This is very much the latter.

On the mouth, it’s really beautiful, not too oily, not too dry, just a kind of pleasant, balanced middle ground. This is strong, 50% stuff, yet it’s not harshly overpowering. It’s blissful. Wonderful sweet malts, what an unusual experience and with a tangy, peppery aftertaste. There are all sorts of things going on here, and none of them dominate the palette. Surprised that the smoke wasn’t there as much as I thought it’d be, but the rest of the flavours more than make up for it – or perhaps that should be that the flavours balance it. All in all, it reminds me of the Glenfarclas 15, somehow, but there is more of that rugged, Islay spirit here.

If I were to have a solid, dependable bottle to pour for visitors and say to them Stop what you’re doing, relax and take this seriously, then I have found such a bottle. It’s very reasonably priced at around £45, too.

For any newcomers wondering why a writer is reviewing whisky, see here. It’s all necessary.

11Apr

Port Ellen 27 Year Old Cask Strength

Old whiskies are not always necessarily good ones. Do not be deceived by age statements because, for the most part, they are marketing labels. Some whiskies taste good when young, some taste better when old. I am told (though have too little experience) that very old whiskies can be phenomenal. The years spent in wood bring out nuances that wouldn’t be there otherwise; on the other hand, the wood can ruin it, too.

This brings me to Port Ellen. A legendary distillery. It closed in 1983, though the maltings are still operational (and it supplies malt to many of the other Islay distilleries). This means it’s rare to get your hands on some, and there can’t be much left for release in bottlings either. You would not stroll past a bottle of this in Tesco. These tasting notes are actually from a sample bottle: the real deal would have cost me well over £100 (I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not I bought a full bottle of another variety – and even if I hypothetically did, I wouldn’t open it now).

On the nose: to be honest, I could smell the smoke from some distance. A mighty aroma indeed. A swirl of the glass and there’s a lot going on: less smoke than at first, which was unusual; moving to a deep, pungent honey, then numerous gentle layers – a hint of brine, vanilla, a touch of oak perhaps. Later something much sweeter that I can’t quite put my finger on. Sherry, maybe bourbon. Later still, a very earthy aroma.

In the mouth: tight, surprisingly not as oily as I thought; clean and powerful stuff. There’s an intensity that never quite delivers. Not as complex as I’d thought though it does have some interesting moments: the tradeoff between sugary notes and brine, but not as flavoursome when compared to Ardbeg or Laphroaig. There’s the bourbon-like sweetness, battling with the hints of Islay peat, but it never balances out fully. Was it disappointing? Of course not. I know it was not from one of the more esteemed independent bottlers and there are more to try, finances permitting, but that is not the point.

The thing with this whisky is, at all times I couldn’t help but think, It is almost as old as I am. This liquid has been sitting in a barrel for nearly 30 years, doing its thing until a bottler decided that now is the time to let people at some of its supply. It was made by one of the most legendary distilleries that will not produce its own whisky again. Perhaps this is where whisky goes beyond flavour. It’s about time, history and a sense of place. When you hold a glass of Port Ellen in your hand, you’re holding something more precious, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

19Mar

Recent Reading

Spot of non-fiction: Peat Smoke and Spirit is a wonderful portrait (it says so on the front, and it is) of the whisky isle, Islay and, more importantly, its distilleries. This is remarkably well-written: more so, in fact, than a lot of fiction I’ve read in the last year. The prose is so vibrant, so alive.

The approach to the book, too, is a good one: the author alternates chapters on each of the island’s distilleries with a history of Islay, right up to the present day, which shows the impact of the whisky industry (we’re talking a few hundred years here) on the islanders’ lives. This seems so important, because whisky means more on that island than in most places in the world (my house included). It is what it is, though, so it might not appeal to those without an interest in such a wonderful thing as whisky, but is just sublimely written and worth checking out if you like a few wee tales of Scotland.

Then onto The Ritual, by fellow Tor UK label-mate (and a lovely chap) Adam Nevill. Four old university friends head on a trek through some of Sweden’s most ancient and remote woodlands to get away from the mess each of their live’s has become. It doesn’t even start off that jolly: we’re straight in to the eeriness with a large animal corpse hanging from a tree, and then the four lads – lost, worried and caught in the rain – stumble upon an abandoned house in which they’re to shelter for the night. Shit then happens.

It’s worth stating here just how wonderful Nevill’s descriptions are. They’re precise yet surreal enough to let your imagination flare, and they’re deeply psychological. The depictions of the forest, too, are vivid, which brings the reader the perfect sense of alienation. For much of the novel there is a nice balance between the psychological and the visceral: which is one of the great rivalries of horror stories, I find. The not-actually-that-perfect lives of the four men seem to echo, or be brought out by, the increasing levels of chaos and the hints of ancient goings on. I think the last third of the novel didn’t sit all that well compared to the rest – mainly because I’m that kind of person that no longer feels scared once certain things are revealed to the reader. (Whereas, say, Dracula is a confronted-monster from the start, which allows the fear to build to a climax.) Anyway, all in all, a thoroughly splendid, scary book, by a very talented chap.

Next up, I’m hoping to re-read The Lord of the Rings. I know. I’m not sure how I’m going to do this – I’ll probably split the book up into three chunks and read others in between. Unless I’ve got my hobbit mojo really going throughout.

7Mar

Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Some pub trivia to kick things off. The little island of Islay is home to several distilleries (many of which are eco-friendly). Islay’s soil is composed largely of peat. During whisky production, peat, when burned at the barley-drying stage, gives an immense amount of smokey flavour to the barley. It is ultimately what makes the whisky taste of campfires and cigars, and most, if not all, distilleries on Islay use large amounts of peat in their production, which is why bottles of whisky from Islay possess such a unique taste.

Laphroaig is one of the more well-known distilleries on the island, and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask is an attempt to distill a whisky that tastes like it would have done 200 years ago – it does this by using smaller barrels as per the 18th century (when whisky was transported by packhorse). The theory is that with smaller barrels there is more contact between the wood and the whisky during the maturation process, which very quickly gives the whisky its flavour.

If you’re still reading now, thank you for sticking with me.

So then, on to the whisky itself. It smells, as you would expect, like a fireplace. A gently roaring wood-burning stove, to be precise. Damp earth. Charred wood. Something sweeter, fruitier. On the tongue the sweetness hits you and it’s not as smoky as you might first fear; you can really taste the malted barley now. The second sip and that sweetness takes a grip: there’s a burnt caramel edge to it. A smokey, blood-orange marmalade, and with less of a medicinal, iodine note than the Laphroaig 10. This is young and isn’t too complex. It’s got a decent weight in the mouth, though doesn’t linger too long afterwards – you’re just left with taste of smoke and spice. If this isn’t escapism, I don’t know what is.

Drink this, close your eyes. I challenge you not to dream of the rugged coast of Islay.

22Feb

Yamazaki 12 Years Old

First, a word from Bill Murray:

Indeed. The Yamazaki 12 is made by the Suntory distillery, as championed in Lost in Translation there. For those of you who are thinking, ‘WTF? Japanese whisky?’ you should be ashamed of yourselves: Japanese blends and single malts are well thought of these days. If you have insane amounts of time, check out this blog for a broader history (but only after you’ve read this post, okay?).

And for the Yamazaki 12, then – the only one of the Yamazakis that I’ve tasted so far.

On the nose: apples, floral notes, cut grass, grape juice. Quite sharp, quite fresh.

In the mouth: that freshness continues. This has a real Chardonnay / Viognier taste at first. A citrusy wine, taken over by peppery notes and other spices. More fruits a little later, then a hint of honey. It’s very clean and delicate indeed, and nicely balanced with a light finish.

An elegant dram. Something for spring. It’s also worth saying that I really do admire some of the design work on the bottle labels (as with many Japanese whiskies); they really are something quite stylish, without going overboard. You could pick a bottle up for around £35.

12Feb

Longrow CV

Last autumn, I went on holiday to Scotland (photos here – totally check them out and come back). It was a glorious week, perfect weather, amazing environment and, while there, I even managed to drag my girlfriend to a whisky distillery. We visited the Springbank distillery, in Campbeltown, which also has a very nice second hand bookshop specialising in SF and Fantasy. Anyway, Springbank is:

… the oldest independent family owned distillery in Scotland. Founded in 1828 on the site of Archibald Mitchell’s illicit still, the Springbank Distillery is now in the hands of his great great great grand son, Hedley G. Wright. Owned by Mr Wright’s J&A Mitchell & Co Ltd, Springbank is the only distillery in Scotland to carry out the full production process on the one site. 100% of the traditional floor malting, maturation and bottling is done at the distillery in Campbeltown. It produces the most hand made whisky in Scotland, with traditional production methods being used throughout the process, and human involvement at each and every stage.

And it was all you’d expect of a independent operation: full of character and charm. As an aside, TV Food and Drink connoisseur, Oz Clarke, actually visited the same distillery a few days after we went there, and I was rather chuffed to see it again on the TV. (Yes, I’ve turned into one of those sad old men – so what? )

Longrow is one of three whiskies distilled at Springbank (the other two being Springbank and Hazelburn), and this is the heavily peated single malt they produce.

So, the Longrow CV, then, which was the one we tasted in the shop as part of the tour.

On the nose: a whiff of the harbour, gentle coal fires, something buttery and syrupy there, too, and with the faintest touch of Pernod. The peat hits on the mouth in the most silky of ways; that butter is still there, a little creamier. Medicinal, perhaps, but not quite like the Laphroaig 10. A warming, peppery spice. The smoke stays with you afterwards, certainly, but it never dominates the experience.

All in all, a very nice dram – especially for £30. It’s just the kind of thing to have when you can’t quite look an Ardbeg in the eye, and you could easily mistake this for one of the finer Islay malts.

7Jan

Glenfiddich 18 Year Old

We’ve already established the links between writing and drinking whisky right? Good. Then I’ll continue.

There is snobbery even in the world of whisky. Glenfiddich, one of the world’s largest brands, can occasionally receive a hint of distain for being just that, but it has won plenty of awards on the world circuit. I’m not much of a fan of the 12 Year Old, but the 18 Year Old has intrigued me.

So, a bottle of the 18 Year Old will set you back between £35-40, and I think it’s worth it. On the nose: Briny. Oranges. Woody spices, though nothing Christmassy like the Glenfarclas 15.

In the mouth: this very well balanced, with a little barley, salt and fruit. An echo of white wine, grapefruits: Sauvignon Blanc. The faintest tang of smoke. Though not at all oily, it hangs in the mouth nicely, leaving a thoroughly warm and calming aftertaste. This one is silky smooth and clean – that’ll possibly be the chill-filtering (something a little out of vogue these days) – and there’s something very dignified about this whisky.

One thing I’d noticed from perusing the snazzy Glenfiddich website was just how much of a consumer brand Glenfiddich is; and when you look about, you can see it’s heavily marketed, especially abroad or in magazines. Though it doesn’t effect the taste whatsoever, one can’t help but feel brands of this size lose a little charm when compared to folk like Ardbeg or even at Springbank distillery, which I visited in the summer and which prides itself on being more rustic. It seems there are two very different markets, one about image as much as authenticity, though they’re not mutually exclusive by any means.

13Dec

Glenfarclas 15 Years Old

Continuing the trend of whisky posts, and in the vague hope that one day I’ll be sent freebies, here’s a whisky review – I’ll keep it brief, don’t worry.

The Glenfarclas 15 is a beast of a whisky – what’s more, it smells and tastes absolutely like Christmas cake (I wafted it under my girlfriend’s nose and she’s insistent that it’s with the icing on top). When you taste it there are plenty of dried fruits and sherry; the peat isn’t that prominent, but then again I have recently been drinking Laphroaig and Ardbeg, so probably wouldn’t notice. It has a real weight in the mouth, too, treacly and oily, and it just hangs on your taste-buds while you dream of a warm fire and distant, rolling landscapes. Delicious. It’s Christmas in a glass.

Jim Murray, guru of whisky reviews (and who uses a points system – nose, taste, finish and complexity – that I wish to be adopted by book reviewers), awarded the Glenfarclas 15 a stonking 95 points in this year’s Whisky Bible, which puts it up there with some of the best single malts in the world at the moment.

Glenfarclas is located here, in Speyside, and has been making whisky since 1865. I hope they keep at it for many years to come.