Month: June 2015

‘Big Peat’ or ‘The Perks of Random Conversation at the Bar’

Reviewed by: Ted

Big Peat

This story begins, as so many great stories do: m’colleague and I were at the bar. Admittedly not an unusual state of affairs. On this particular night we were chatting to our barman mate, and a friend of his that he’d just introduced us to. For the purposes of this story, let’s call him Doug. Doug was feeling in a rather celebratory mood as he’d just scored himself a job working as a pharmacist in sunny (and I mean that in the most ball-of-thermonuclear-fire sense of the word) Alice Springs, which is pretty much smack bang in the centre of Australia. Quite a change from little old Burnie on the NW Coast of Tasmania, which can occasionally be sunny if it really makes the effort.

After the usual necessary social preamble was out of the way, the conversation happily turned to that most mysterious, complicated and variable of subjects… women! No, wait, I meant whisky! Doug, as it turned out, was quite the connoisseur (and not just of whisky. On a side note he very charitably bought us a glass of Cognac from the highest extremity of the top shelf, an interesting experience to say the least). We all shared a common passion for peated whiskies, particularly those from what is arguably the spiritual home of the smoky dram: Islay.

These days people mostly talk about Islay in terms of its single malts, but historically the island’s distilleries injected popular blends with some much needed character (and they still do!). However, there is a theory that history works in cycles, and what was once old becomes new again (which probably explains the questionable return of scrunchies and chokers). Interestingly enough, what was getting Doug excited that evening wasn’t the single malts from one of the hallowed Islay distilleries, but a blend. An all-Islay blend. “It’s fantastic! You should track it down”. Fateful words readers, because a few cheeky drams relaxing the mind and the heady world of internet shopping instantly at ones fingertips is a dangerous combination. Let’s just say that I didn’t take much convincing, and moments later I was the proud owner of a bottle of this curious beastie.

Cut to a few weeks later and m’colleague and I were staring with anticipation at a large post box that we had dubbed ‘The Bunker’. With no little ceremony (mostly involving the humming of the tune from the start of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) we cracked open the box, and were greeted by one of the coolest bits of tube artwork this side of Eilean Mhic Coinnich. Meet the Big Peat, an all-Islay blend purporting to contain ‘a shovelful’ of single malts from the distilleries of Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore, and Port Ellen. The aforementioned artwork is a brilliant graphic-style picture of a hirsute gentleman standing in front of what I can only assume is the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse on a beautiful island day (which is to say that the sky is the colour of tea, and our man has his face squinched up against the wind, which is trying its best to blow his hair away).

Chuckling with glee we popped the top and unsheathed our prize from its scabbard. Gasps of surprise met the sight before us (don’t worry, we hadn’t been ripped off and sent a bottle of JW Red instead). You see, normally we would picture the drams of Islay as being dark and brooding in hue, but the Big Peat was filled with bright spirit the colour of pale golden straw. Some people just like to mess with your mind. Of course, there was only one sensible recourse to meet the conundrum before us, and it wasn’t hiding under the table. Bust out the glasses and crack that sucker open good sir!

A generous splash of whisky later and we were ready to begin uncovering the secrets of the Big Peat. There was no denying that it lived up to its name. The smoke was there as soon as we poured it into the glasses, infused with plenty of dark chocolate, malt, rich earth and those medicinal notes that Ileach whisky is famous for. We were in no doubt about the heritage of the spirit sitting before us, whatever the colour. A closer snort revealed thick sweet notes and perhaps a bit of overripe fruit, like a squashy banana. We eyed each other off; curious, but not too bad a start.

Slurp! Hot, woody, ashy smoke poured into our mouths and then… not much else. Sure, there was a light, sweet after-taste, but it was gone in a flash, and all that was left was spicy, medicinal smoke coiling around the tongue. It was like being on the edge of a bush fire; plenty of smoke getting all up in your face, but no blazing heat to go with it. Hmmm…

We could see what Douglas Laing & Co, the makers, were trying to get at; surely crafting a vatted blend out of the great single malts of Islay should be as awesome a combo as haggis with tatties and neeps! Yet somehow they’d got a wee bit over excited with the whole BIG PEAT malarkey and forgotten that it isn’t just the smoke that makes an Islay dram exceptional, it’s the bricks and mortar and the shape of the fireplace too. The way that sweetness melts into savoury, medicinal tang challenges the tastebuds, dark flavours are shot through with light, seaside elements help wash everything across the palate, and then finally the smoke that sits over them all. It’s a complex ecosystem that requires careful balance to work well.

Sitting back we mused upon the Big Peat. By no means did we think that it was a bad dram, far from it, just that somehow it deserved to be better. Perhaps the mix wasn’t quite right, maybe a dash of Bruichladdich or Bunnahabhain could have rounded out the flavours working underneath the smoke. Who knows? What we did know though, was that the Big Peat had challenged us, and that a random discussion in a bar can lead to interesting and unexpected places. So go on, strike up that conversation, you might just find something new.

★★★

 

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The Glenrothes 1995, 1998 and Select Reserve Box Set

Reviewed by: Ted

Glenrothes trio

Vintage. It’s not really a word that you associate with whisky. For the overwhelming majority of drams the process is to lay down some spirit in a barrel, let it age for a pre-determined number of years and then bottle it as, say, a 12yo or an 18yo. The whole concept of releasing the product of one particular year, a vintage, is smack bang within the realms of the wine makers, hence generally seeing wines labelled with the year they were made.

However, there is one whisky maker that has very firmly gripped the concept of vintaging by the proverbial horns and run like mad with it. The Glenrothes distillery, founded in 1878 and located in the Speyside whisky region (and not in the Scottish Lowlands town of the same name), has carved out a niche for itself by taking this unusual approach to aging whisky. Perhaps we should not be too surprised by this as The Glenrothes is owned by Berry Bros. & Rudd, one of the oldest and most respected wine merchants in London.

While only around 2% of its stock actually goes towards the making of vintages, with the majority of production helping to create blends such as Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse, The Glenrothes distillers make no bones about the fact that the single malt range represents the apex of their art. One of the inherent problems with releasing product from a single year is that it can lead to inconsistency, as one release in all likelihood will taste different to the next. Not necessarily a negative, just that it’s not like purchasing a 12yo and then buying another later on and knowing that what you get will be exactly the same regardless of the year of production.

The Glenrothes counters this idea by claiming that whisky is in reality just like wine and should be allowed to mature at its own rate, with bottling only occurring when the spirit has reached, in The Glenrothes own words, its ‘peak of perfection’ rather than at a pre-selected age. As you might imagine, The Glenrothes crew take a very active approach to checking their casks, determining the readiness of a vintage by looking for a unified ‘personality’ across a range of casks from that year.

Speaking of casks, The Glenrothes has a very strong wood policy and the deepest of respect for their barrels. They say that the effect of the wood on their spirit is far more important that the length of time it spends aging, and that the careful selection of cask sizes and timber types is vital for achieving perfection. The Glenrothes use a mixture of first and second fill bourbon and sherry woods, and carefully marry them together to create the unique flavour profile for a vintage.

For this review we will be sampling not just one, but three releases from The Glenrothes! Their marketing team has very helpfully created a box set containing 100ml bottles of three of their more accessible drams: the 1995 and 1998 vintages, and their Select Reserve, a vatting of casks from different years created to be the holotype of The Glenrothes flavour profile. But wait, there’s more! The box set also contains three mini Glencairns monogrammed with The Glenrothes logo, a handy set of info booklets and cards describing the range, and of course the box itself, elegantly crafted from sturdy buff and copper coloured cardboard.

Glenrothes SR

All three expressions are quite light and spicy on the nose, which is probably in part thanks to the very tall stills and long distillation times used by The Glenrothes. The Select Reserve is quite broad and fat, with notes of fudge, old leather (from a classic car say), orange and almonds. In comparison the 1998 (bot. 2014) has caramelised pear, boiled caramel sweets and, rather oddly, perhaps a touch of engine grease (that’s not a bad thing. It’s a nostalgic smell that reminds you of your father working on a car when you were young). Finally, the 1995 (bot. 2013) is filled with hot, spicy and slightly sour grain mash, clover honey and curiously, a bit of melon.

Glenrothes 95

The very first touch of the Select Reserve on the lips is creamy, and then it bursts in a big ball of heat and spice inside the mouth, probably helped by the 43% used for all three of the drams. There is a hit of marzipan on the follow-through, while the finish is tangy and lingers gently on the tongue. In contrast the 1998 is smooth and creamy, and slides evenly across the tongue. The finish is fairly short and has a slight floral air to it. Again, the 1995 is sour and fruity, with green apples, pears and plums, finishing up with a nice fresh herbal zing at the end.

Glenrothes 98

The ‘ready when it’s done’ approach works out well for The Glenrothes. Each of its vintages is skilfully crafted and captures some special quirk that entered the distillation for that year. The clever and considered use of barrelling no doubt also helps to imbue each expression with its own character. Drinking a dram of The Glenrothes is a bitter-sweet thing; a happy encounter, but all the time you know that one day the vintage will run out, and never again will you meet that particular personality. So go, find that experience and capture it in your memory before it is too late.

1995 ★★★

1998 ★★★

Select Reserve ★★★

Talisker 57˚ North

Reviewed by: Nick

Talisker 57 degrees north whisky waffle

Whenever I pour one of my non-whisky drinking friends a wee dram (watching in amusement as they splutter noticeably and their face flushes a conspicuous shade of red) I tell them to picture themselves in a small rugged hut on the west coast of Scotland as a fierce Atlantic storm batters the walls and ceiling. That, I proclaim, is the ideal location to enjoy whisky. While a fireplace may sufficiently heat your extremities, a dram of whisky will warm you from the inside out. And if I were huddled in this rugged hut on such a night, the drop I would turn to first is the Talisker 57˚ North.

This whisky, made on the Isle of Skye’s sole distillery, is named for two reasons: firstly (and I may be biased, but I would claim foremostly) because the spirit is bottled at a practical 57%. Secondly (and perhaps more poetically) because the town of Carbost, home to Talisker, is found at 57˚ North of the equator. In this part of the world, your insides are quite often in dire need of warming.

To put it into perspective, Canada’s 2010 Olympic Winter Games host, Vancouver, is situated at a mere 47˚North while my often freezing home state of Tasmania is at just 42˚South. Talisker Distillery is only two degrees further south than notoriously icy Scandinavian capitals Stockholm and Oslo. So it stands to reason that a warming dram or two is created there.

On the nose, there’s no doubting this is an Island whisky. Smoke wafts liberally out of the glass, although possibly more subtly than some Talisker expressions. Other elements are noticeable too: pepper, chorizo, and cured meats. It is like inhaling deeply at a gourmet barbecue.

There is certainly a woodiness about this whisky on the palate – although not reminiscent of your standard oak notes. Instead the flavours are dustier, earthier, more akin to a tree’s bark than the wood underneath. Elements of honey and marmalade hint at typical Talisker sweetness, though it is more toned down than the 10 Year Old. Instead, wonderful new flavours are present such as bacon and buttery toast, as well as some less pleasant bitter sappy elements which give the impression of burning wood that is slightly too green.

The good news is, this whisky leaves the best until last: the finish is undoubtedly the highlight of the dram. It is long – so very long – and hot and lively. After the spiciness fades, the smoke returns gently, bringing your tasting full circle.

Drinking this whisky, I find that I take my own advice. I close my eyes and picture the howling gale, the bucketing rain and the crashing thunder. Scotland is no stranger to wild weather. And in the eye of the storm, the Talisker 57˚ North is the dram you need.

★★★★

5 Whisky Waffle Winter Warmers

Posted by: Ted

I said, brr, its cold in here, there must be some… low pressure systems, high precipitation rates and perhaps even the formation of snow caused by the seasonal polar tilt of the earth away from the sun, creating wintertime meteorological phenomena in the atmosphere. What, you weren’t expecting ‘Bring It On’ were you?

Yes folks, it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and while for the most part that may not entail quite the same level of bone aching crazy cold that our Northern kin have to endure, it’s still enough to send us shivering. Well, what better way to beat the winter chills than a nice warming dram of whisky? And there’s one class of the amber stuff that does it better than any other: cask strength. So without any further ado, here are five cask strength whiskies that will help spread a warm glow inside your belly this winter:

 

5. Glenfarclas 105

glenfarclas-logo

If you need to get warm in a hurry, then why not have a giant gorilla sit on you? Well, not really, but that’s what the experience of drinking a drop of the Glenfarclas 105 is like. Bottled at 60%, this family-owned drop from Speyside is big, bold and will cause you to beat your chest like a silverback as its powerful sherry-driven flavours rampage through your veins. Drink while entertaining thoughts of scaling tall buildings.

4. Glenlivet Nàdurra

Glenlivet-Logo

Meaning ‘Natural’ in Gaelic, this 16yo dram from Glenlivet is the logical solution for warming up on a frosty night. Indeed, I can vouch for its efficacy, as I sipped a dram of it while watching a meteor shower on a cold, clear night (the shower was a bit of a damp squib, but the whisky was certainly good). The Nàdurra is taken from the barrel at a 54-55% strength guaranteed to put a rosy glow in the cheeks. Drink while pondering the natural order of the cosmos.

3. Nikka from the Barrel

Nikka logo

Japan certainly sees its share of cold weather, but not to worry, the gods saw fit to create a dragon spirit to fight the frost. It may come in a small package, but the Nikka from the Barrel packs a big dragony punch. Bottled at 51.4%, this fiery little blend is packed with hefty dollops of sweetness and spice backed up with a wicked sherry kick. Drink while watching ninjas fight in a snowy forest (well, at least it will keep you occupied as you fail to spot any of the combatants).

2. Talisker 57° North

Talisker logoWant hot coals to smoulder and smoke away inside you? Then what you need is some peated whisky, and what could be better than a ‘special strength’ release out of the wind-and-rain lashed Isle of Skye? As its name hints, the Talisker 57° North is bottled at… well… 57% and is full of Talisker’s trademark mixture of sweet and maritime flavours. Drink while wearing a blue knitted fisherman’s turtleneck in front of an open log fire.

1. Lark Port Wood Cask Strength

Lark logo

Need to feel your toes again on a chilly Tasmanian night (which to be honest, can happen in high summer. Thanks maritime climate!)? Well, how does drinking hot, spiced orange sound? That’s certainly what it feels like sipping some of Lark’s 58% Port Wood release. If Lark can revive the Tasmanian distillery industry, then it certainly shouldn’t have any trouble getting you back on your feet. Drink while huddled in a wooden hut in the Tasmanian highlands.

Slàinte mhath!

Ardbeg: a journey through time – the coming of age

Welcome back fellow Wafflers to the odyssey that is Ardbeg through the ages. We left our tale at a perilous standpoint, with our hero of a distillery surely doomed to closure and eternal obscurity. We resume the story in 1986 and Ardbeg has been shut for five long years. But the whisky community did not forget…

Ardbeg Day 2

Ardbeg: A journey through time – the coming of age…

Posted by: Nick

1987

Some hope emerges for our protagonist in the form of new owners, Allied Lyons. Could this be the salvation for the distillery and the wider community? Sadly, no. It is a false dawn, and Ardbeg is run merely to become one hundredth of a bottle in AL’s blends. No one has the foresight to recognise this was 99 parts too few…

1996

The distillery is neglected and once again it is unjustly left to dwindle to nothing. Surely this time, it really is the end for our hero.

1997

Finally, just when all seemed lost, someone sees the light! The folks at Glenmorangie realise that one day this quaint little establishment in Port Ellen could actually become one of the greatest distilleries in the world. It could even have a go at producing one of these new-fangled single malts! Or at least this is what Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation believes. And when you have a title as impressive sounding as his, anything is possible.

The new owners open the creaky doors to the old bond store to reveal… barrels – housed there since the 1970s! We can only imagine the size of the grins on faces that day. This vintage product marks the beginning of many special one-off releases.

1998

The new owners begin work as if they want to make up for lost time. Progress is made remarkably quickly. Renovations to the visitor centre are duly carried out and the now famous Old Kiln Café is installed. More 1970s bottlings are released. And our hero is starting to get noticed. It doesn’t take long before there is a shiny award on the wall of the renewed visitor centre with the words ‘Distillery of the Year’ emblazoned on the plaque.

2000

One-off releases are doing their job. But what Ardbeg really needs was an identity; a main character. This arrives in the form of the 10 Year Old, young and fiery, peaty and heavy, and yet balancing seaside elements with oak and vanilla. It is quite unlike anything else on the market. And the world approves.

2001

With its standard bearer firmly realised in the form of the 10 Year Old, Ardbeg decides to push the boundaries further. The one-off bottlings have been very successful, so why not release one every year? This trend begins in 2001 and continues to this very day. First is the Lord of the Isles, followed by bottles such as the Airigh Nam Beist, Serendipity, Rollercoaster, Gallileo, and the much sought after (at least by us Wafflers) the Alligator.

2003

Another regular release joins the Ardbeg stable, this time an even more fascinating drop, the cask-strength Uigeadail (or Oogie as we Wafflers affectionately call it). Spending part of its maturation in sherry barrels adds another layer of complexity to this already multifaceted drop.

2007

The baton changes hands once again. From Duncan McDougall via fifteen others, Michael (Mickey) Heads becomes the latest distillery manager for Ardbeg.

2008

Worldwide recognition is only a matter of time for our hero. The famous Ardbeg 10 year old wins Jim Murray’s world whisky of the year award, and brings greater renown to the growing brand.

2009

Ardbeg makes it back-to-back when the Uigeadail follows in the footsteps of the 10 Year Old and reclaims the world whisky of the year award for the distillery!

Buoyed by this success, Ardbeg expand on their main range with the heavy and blazing Corryvreckan and the light and restrained Blasda.

The 2009 special release, even by Ardbeg standards, packs a peaty punch. It is appropriately titled the ‘Supernova’, and it goes on develop cult status among the ever-expanding legion of Ardbeg fans.

2014

Finally after years of yearning, this particular Waffler’s dreams come true, and Nick stumbles into Port Ellen, first stop: Ardbeg Distillery. He has a magnificent time, checking out the stills and the bond store before settling down in a comfortable chair to sample the wares and chat about the history of the great distillery. He could not be more pleased for the establishment that they near their 200th year as distillery and continue to make one remarkable drop after the other. He decides that Ardbeg truly is a hero and vows to one day chronicle the saga of its tumultuous, but ultimately highly successful life.

0182

2015

Ardbeg officially turns 200. The party begins.

Sláinte!

Click for part one

Ardbeg day 1