Month: May 2015

Ardbeg: a journey through time – the beginning

Ardbeg distillery, one of the true greats of Scottish whisky, is turning 200 – and may we add looking mighty good for its age! Whisky Waffle take this moment to celebrate by looking back at the history of this wonderful distillery in a new two-part adventure…

Ardbeg Day 2

Ardbeg: A journey through time – the beginning…

Posted by: Ted

1798
Fàilte traveller. You have been summoned here to witness the birth of a distillery, one that will become powerful and then dwindle to smoking peat embers, only to be stoked once again by the howling Ileach winds and rise even stronger than before. Look ye now to the peat bogs, for cometh the man, but perhaps not yet the moment. Duncan McDougall is his name, and he travels to rent the farmlands on the South East coast of Islay known as Ardbeg, Airigh nam Beist and Ardenistiel. Come; let us step forward in time to see what will be. I am sure one such as you knows the way of it.

1815

Now friend, the true moment. Here is Duncan, and with him his son John, and grandson Alexander. They have fashioned themselves as McDougall & Co. and raised a distillery on the land known as Ardbeg. Watch closely, ye silent observer, as they flicker across the years, crafting a dram with a heart of smoke.

1835

The fire that was Duncan burns no more, and John works the land in his place, while Alexander is tasked with tending the waters of life. Woe to the makers, insolvency falls, and Ardbeg changes hands. Let your gaze pierce across the sea to Glasgow, where the coffers of Thomas Buchanan Jr. now stoke the Ardbeg fires. But the McDougalls work on, leasing their creation from the new masters and tending to their amber child.

1853

Alexander is lost to time and the Ileach wind. Turn your gaze watcher, for new players walk the stage. Here is Flora and Margaret McDougall, sisters to the old wolf and distillers in their own right; Colin Hay, proprietor newly made; his son Collin Elliot Hay, distiller at the helm; and John Ramsay, great owner of not only Ardbeg, but Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardenistiel too. This small god of the Ileach tends his emerging villages and their vaunted distilleries well, ensuring that their leases endure long and the water flows unimpeded.

1887

Can ye feel the power in the air? The reek of the mash and the thrum of the industrious as they transform barley, water and yeast into more than a million litres of smokey whisky. These craftsmen are the kings of the island and their work a champion of the blend, although the true believers know to take strength from the untransmuted Ardbeg spirit. I see you watching me traveller, and seeking the nature of the fall. Step once again and we shall see.

1944

War. The venerable whisky makers of Scotland weep golden tears as their industry bleeds. On Islay, the once mighty Ardbeg is now only a shadow of itself. The distilling bans of this terrible world struggle are just another blow after the horrors of the Great War, and the harsh realities of economic depression. The old guard are no more, and a pall drifts from men who know how to be bankrupt or creative with bookkeeping.

1981
Here is the true nadir my friend. Ardbeg is closed and all but a few chosen gone. The village mournfully quiet and the air wrong, missing the tang of fermenting barley. The future uncertain. After the war life returned, but never recovered. The McDougalls passed their torch to the Ardbeg Distillery Ltd, and the distillery became a bauble for giants, a speck of smoked quartz tumbling in their collections. Your eyes betray you wanderer. What room is there in this bleak world for the distilleries of Islay they ask? Listen to the capricious Ileach wind my friend, for it blows from the east and whispers a name, Glenmorangie. I told you at the start of our journey that Ardbeg would rise once again, and here is its saviour. An amber crusader by the name of Bill Lumdsen will take Ardbeg and reforge it in smoke and fire into a legendary single malt famed across the world and even to the stars themselves.

But the how and why of that great transformation you must discover for yourself. Here our paths split and I must walk another road. I bid you farewell my friend, fellow watcher of the ages.

Sláinte

Click for part two

Ardbeg day 1

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Overeem Port Cask Matured

Barrel Number: OHD-067

Reviewed by: Nick

Overeem Port Cask

Whiskies so often seem to reflect their creator. Bruichladdich whiskies display the passion and local ethos displayed by Jim McEwan. Variously finished Glenmorangie drams showcase that experimentation possessed by scientist Dr Bill Lumsden. Whiskies made at the Old Hobart Distillery, much like their creator, Casey Overeem, have true character. And much like Casey, this character is very likeable.

Old Hobart Distillery releases their whisky under the label ‘Overeem’ and is part of a growing collective of whisky makers from southern Tasmania consistently churning out a high standard of products. Overeem, like Lark and Sullivan’s Cove, use French Oak ex-port barrels cut down to 100 litres to mature a percentage of their whisky. The flavours created by this process, similarly to its contemporaries, are equally extraordinary. But there’s something a little extra special about the Overeem. It has an element of ‘handmade’ about it, something that suggests this whisky is crafted instead of distilled.

The nose is light but enticing. There are notes of berries and stewed apricots alongside faint traces of ginger and fennel. There are also some gloriously Tasmanian woody notes which call to mind a home-workshop stocked with Huon Pine.

The palate is richly flavoursome and offers many layers to discover. It is initially sweet and spicy, offering fizzy orange sherbet notes with a dash of pepper preventing it from becoming too sweet. There is also a degree of citrus and maltiness, combining to give the impression of a freshly baked sponge cake with lemon curd. The finish is lengthy and contains faint raisiny and caramel notes: finally, the much-vaunted fruitcake has made a subtle appearance!

This is a fantastic example of a Tasmanian Whisky in more ways than just flavour. It is the perfect illustration of a micro-distillery whose focus is on creating a well-crafted product. This is not done simply as a business venture, but instead as a way for one man to create the spirit that he loves. And Casey Overeem’s intent is certainly apparent when drinking the whisky which bears his name.

★★★★

Whisky Waffle Present: Whisky World!

Posted by: Ted

WWWWD edit

American Whiskey Week draws to a close: what we’ve learned

Posted by: Nick and Ted

And so after seven days, the Whisky Waffle boys finally stumbled out of the endless Kentucky cornfields. Many interesting facts had gone in one ear and out the other (must have been something to do with the corn), and much sippin’ of spirits had been accomplished.

We scaled the (Brokeback) Mountain of American whiskies, and came out safely on the other side. So what did we learn?

Bourbon-Back Mountain Whisky Waffle

The story of forbidden love between two men… and bourbon.

  1. Not all cowboys drink bourbon. We met one in a bar the other night (right in the middle of bourbon week of all times. You couldn’t make this stuff up), and he preferred the moon to be shining hard on his liquor;
  2. We won’t be tracking down the Jack Daniels or the Jim Beam again any time soon. As with most things, you get what you pay for;
  3. We prefer a bit of character over easy drinking in our corn juice;
  4. It is possible for a bourbon to take a subtle approach;
  5. Sometimes it is ‘really hard’ not to create innuendo;
  6. You can take American whiskey out of Kentucky, but you can’t take Kentucky out of American whiskey; and finally:
  7. When it comes down to it, bourbon still tastes a lot like bourbon.

Hudson Single Malt

Reviewed by: Nick and Ted

Hudson Single Malt

Start spreading the news, old New York is back doing whiskey business baby! But wait, the Hudson ain’t even bourbon! What we have here is a genuine single malt whiskey, the first non-bootlegged whiskey to be distilled in New York State since the end of prohibition.

The love child of Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee, the duo made a brand new start of it in 2003, founding Tuthilltown Spirits on the site of the old Tuthilltown grist mill, about 100km north of the city that never sleeps. Business was slow to start after the company’s inception, but now they are the king of the hill of East Coast craft distillers.

Being 100% malted barley, you would expect the Hudson to be distinctly different in flavour to its fellow Americans. And yet, somehow right through the very heart of it there is still a bourbon streak. On the nose the Hudson Single Malt is lightly sweet, with notes of vanilla, oak, dried apricot and a flavour of grape that is more likely to be found in confectionery than growing on a vine.

On mouth the feel is dusty, akin to taking a book down off the shelf in an old library. The grapes make a return, this time in the form of a sweet Riesling. The palate is intriguing rather than smooth, with notes of bourbon competing with dried floral components. This little town dram melts rapidly away, leaving a hint of orange peel.

Nick Ted and Hudson

Corn or no corn, there is no doubting that this is American whiskey. There is more to this than your average bourbon, and it makes an admirable attempt to bridge the gap between America and Scotland. It also put the State of New York back on the whiskey map. After all, if it can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

★★★

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve 120 Proof

Reviewed by: Nick

Knob Creek 110 Proof

We at Whisky Waffle pride ourselves on our light-hearted, satirical and occasionally even entertaining take on whisky. So when sitting down to review a bottle entitled ‘Knob Creek’… well, it’s almost a little too easy. So I did my best to refrain from the obvious jokes on this topic and tried to keep things above the belt. But this task proved to be a bit of a hard one…

Knob Creek comes in many varieties, but mine is clearly the biggest: 60% ABV, or as they say in America, 120 proof. They also make a 100 proof and a rye, but this is the one that really sticks out. It is named for the area of Kentucky where Abraham Lincoln (AKA guest reviewer Stretch) grew up. It is said that the creek nearly claimed his life as a boy while swimming (Lincoln that is, not Stretch), coining the phrase ‘dead as a doorknob creek’.

Knob Creek is part of the Jim Beam toolbox, and forms a quarter of their small batch range alongside Bakers, Bookers and Basil Hayden. Unlike the other three, Knob Creek doesn’t start with a B. It is also aged for a period of nine years, which as we have learned is a long time for American whiskey (though a blink of an eye for the Scottish stuff). Nine years seems to be a good decision from the Knob Creek crew, as the finished product is quite the package.

Nick and Knob 1

Alongside the usual bourbon notes of caramel, honey and vanilla the Knob Creek also contains scents of stewed apricot, cinnamon and candied pop-corn, although surprisingly there is no trace of banana. It’s a nose with some power, though the first sip is even stronger. The warmth from the alcohol is immediately noticeable: this is a whiskey that is seriously ballsy. Flavours of golden syrup, cashews, pepper and multigrain bread flood the palate and are followed by a bucket load of spice which truly throbs across the tongue. The finish is surprisingly easygoing, without being inconsequential or flaccid. It lingers gently with notes of vanilla, apple… and of course a whole lot of wood.

Nick and Knob 2

Knob Creek claim to be the ‘number one super-premium bourbon in the world’. While I am not entirely sure what the term ‘super-premium’ means, I am not unhappy with this claim. This is a bourbon to sip and to savour. It is not a whiskey I would always have in my pocket, but one that I would always be pleased to see.

★★★

Eagle Rare 10 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

Eagle Rare

On a scale of one to freedom, how symbolic is the Eagle of the might, majesty and democratic way of the US of A? Let’s just say that if you gave Captain America a nuclear powered cheeseburger and stood him on top of a NASCAR on the deck of an aircraft carrier while an Ivy League college marching band played Star Spangled Banner and F-15’s, Apaches and Chuck Norris with bear arms flew overhead, then you would probably come close. Therefore, calling your bourbon, that most patriotic of spirits, ‘Eagle Rare’ and slapping a bald eagle and some stars on the front probably isn’t the worst idea ever conceived.

Ted and Eagle 2

To tell the truth, while I have portrayed the Eagle Rare in a rather bombastic, gun totin’ fashion, it is actually a drink of some sophistication and refinement. Think Atticus Finch rather than Redneck Rambo. Eagle Rare is owned by Buffalo Trace, based in Frankfort, Kentucky, where it is part of their stable of sub-brands (or should that be aviary? Eyrie? I give up). Recently the distillery has courted some concerns by dropping the phrase “Single Barrel” from the Eagle Rare label (mine still has it) and moving the age statement to the back. Management has assured fans that the changes are the result of moving the production line to a different location and running on new bottling equipment, and that the ageing and barrelling methods will be the same as ever. Watch this space.

Unlike Scotch, which is usually aged for at least 10-12yrs, bourbons are for the most part not aged more than 6-8yrs, and quite often less than that. This difference in aging cultures can be attributed to the use of virgin oak barrels and generally warmer storage temperatures, allowing bourbons to mature faster, therefore meaning that they can be happily released at a younger age. Sometimes though, particularly good barrels are allowed to continue for a longer period, which is where premium expressions such as the Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10 Year Old come into play.

On the nose the Eagle Rare is unctuous, with a smooth feel that slides like a well oiled machine part. It’s body is as warm, fat and fuzzy as a newly hibernating bear, and filled with baked caramelised apples covered in buttery pastry. The first sip is light and sharp, like a sweet, crisp apple. The copper liquid sits on your tongue like a gentle warm thermal, allowing the eagle spirit to soar up to the roof of your mouth and down your throat. For a bourbon represented by such a big bird, it feels surprisingly delicate, especially considering the fact that it is bottled at 45%. Must be the hollow bones.

Ted and Eagle 1

The Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo claims to hold itself to the ideals of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. Not a bad mission really. This is the American Way at its best, not forceful and overpowering, but warm and welcoming, greeting you with grace and hospitality into the Land of the Free. As the great Steve Miller said: “I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea, fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me, I want to fly like an eagle, till I’m free…”

★★★

Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

Russell's Reserve

Amongst bourbon makers there seems to be an unwritten rule that as a mark of skill and dedication to the craft, a master distiller will fashion a unique spirit that reflects his own tastes and then slap his name on the front. Not that I’m complaining mind, as by and large this involves the distiller selecting the most exciting and tasty barrels to represent his eponym.

Case in point is the Russell’s Reserve. This premium small batch bourbon is a child of the well known Wild Turkey distillery, which in one form or another has been producing bourbon in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, since 1869. The man that we have to give thanks to is Jimmy Russell, who has worked at Wild Turkey since 1954, apparently making him the longest tenured active master distiller in the world. Well and away enough time to earn the right to his own expression.

Russells and Ted 2

As its name suggests, the Russell’s Reserve 10yo small batch Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey is selected from older aged barrels of Wild Turkey spirit (standard bourbons generally using younger stock), and then reduced to 45%. Interestingly this big bird likes to fly south for winter, for in addition to smooth gooey caramel and hot spicy oak, there are notes of bananas, cashews, cantaloupe and feijoas swirling around on the nose.

Once introduced to the mouth the Russell’s is hot, spicy and complex, rather like a latin dance (probably not the rumba though. Wrong drink). The feel is thin and supple, rather than oily and thick, and the finish is sharp and astringent, lingering across the tongue.

Russells and Ted 1

Jimmy should be proud to lend his name to this expression of the Kentucky craft, as in his wisdom he has created a bourbon that tastes of more than just bourbon, an emergent system of flavours that as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts. Rather than a scrawny corn-fed pot boiler, the Russell’s Reserve 10yo is a magnificent tom turkey wearing a Tom Selleck mo, a sharp Hawaiian shirt, Miami shades, and playing dirty 80’s sax as the sun rises across the skyline.

★★★

Makers Mark

Reviewed by: Nick

Makers Mark

Wearily, the Whisky Waffle boys trudged onwards through the corn-fields of Kentucky. They were on a quest to find the Holy Grail of American whiskey: a bourbon which tasted of more than just bourbon! There were those that called them foolish, others that declared them mad, others still that claimed it was just an excuse to drink whiskey (fair cop), but unperturbed they soldiered on. Finally, they stumbled upon a hooded figure, beckoning them into a distillery.

The dark wooden building with red colonnades looked nothing like its fellow American distilleries. Fire engines and statues of the Virgin Mary in bathtubs lined the path. Our heroes turned to each other thinking: could this be it?

They were handed a dram of the golden liquid, shimmering in the moonlight and wondered what complex and unique flavours they would discover. They drank. And the flavour! It tasted… rather familiar. In fact it tasted… like bourbon. The Whisky Waffle boys’ shoulders slumped. This was not the Holy Grail. Their quest was not at an end.

Nick and Makers 2

Makers Mark’s attempts at individuality – the wax dripping down the neck of the bottle, their use of wheat instead of rye alongside the corn and barley, even spelling their product ‘whisky’ despite American conventions – are all a cunning disguise to hide the fact that Makers Mark is, when it comes down to it, a Kentucky Straight Bourbon.

It’s by no means a bad one. The nose presents oak, cinnamon and vanilla which combine to suggest a nice dessert, perhaps a peach crumble – though possibly without the peach. Or the crumble…

The palate is even less like a peach crumble, instead elements of sweet caramel and cornflakes are present, combining to form something akin to Honey Joys. A less dessert-related tasting note is that this is actually a rather spicy drop; a much fuller bodied whisky than many of its fellow American whiskies, and being bottled at 45% surely helps this.

The finish is long and leaves a certain amount of lingering spice: like a half-hearted cinnamon challenge. There are also the more abstract and subjective notes of grass cuttings and saddle leather. You’ll have to take my word for this.

Nick and Makers 4

This bottle was intended by the makers of Makers Mark to be a whisky that appeals to people who don’t like bourbon. To that extent, it seems that they have failed. In fact, they have possibly achieved the exact opposite. This is a perfectly acceptable entry-level drop, and one that will keep bourbon drinkers perfectly content.

So if you see that hooded bartender beckoning you towards the Makers Mark on the top shelf, be warned. Look past the metaphorical wig and the fake moustache. Despite this wily disguise, the Makers Mark is not the Holy Grail – it is simply another bourbon.

★★

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Reviewed by: Nick and Ted

Jim Beam

When Jacob Beam first distilled some corn along the banks of Dicks River in Kentucky circa 1795, he probably cranked out some pretty rough and ready stuff. Well, it seems that over the years not much has changed. Jim Beam has its origins as a small family business plying their trade in the newly formed state of Kentucky, but since then the family has grown just a tad. In 2014 Jim Beam was involved in a shotgun wedding which resulted in it picking up the double-barrel name (geddit?) Beam-Suntory. And all this multi-national success only came at the low, low price of its soul. Well, it seemed like a good deal at the time.

Not that the brand was particularly struggling it must be said, as Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon is one of the most recognisable and consumed spirits on the face of the planet. Most often you can observe it in its natural environment being mixed with coke, or being shotted by teens trying to be tough (and then regretting it later).

The boys from Whisky Waffle are even tougher than that. They sipped it. Neat.

Ted and Beam

On the nose the Beam is surprisingly smooth. And sweet… you could be forgiven for the thinking that it’s a liqueur. Honey, pear and confectionery notes of red frog and fairy floss (“cotton candy” in Beam’s motherland) slide across the ol’ olfactory bulbs. Overall it’s not too bad actually.

But then like a Disneyland water-slide, things go down the tubes. On the palate the analogy is rather appropriate as the Beam is about as watery as the pool at the bottom of the aforementioned slide. It also tastes like quite a few people have been swimming in it before you. The quality is thin, with a hint of sour white grapes coated in a film of dish liquid. Once you’ve emerged from the murky waters, your mouth is left with the not altogether pleasant taste of ethanol, cheap Sav Blanc and tourists in Mickey Mouse swimmers.

In fact, drinking bog standard Beam is a lot like a trip to Disneyland in general. It’s exciting at the start, but at the end of the day you are left feeling hot, weary, annoyed, and like your personal space has been violated by hordes of Japanese tourists (Suntory joke). Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon is not a whiskey we would turn to regularly, but then again we’re not really doing it right. Coke anyone?