Islands

Reflections on a visit to Islay

Posted by: Nick

nick-port-ellen-lighthouse

It is no exaggeration when I say that the isle of Islay is, without a doubt, my favourite place that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The quaint lime washed houses of Port Ellen, the spectacular coastline and beaches, the stark peat bogs and the friendly locals waving as you drive by all combine to create a coastal utopia. And then there’s the whisky. Ah… the whisky…

There is a reason that drams made on this Hebridean isle are famous the world over: they taste like nothing else on earth. Smoky, salty, oily and fiery as hell itself. On my first (gloriously sunny!) day upon the island I visited Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig: the worlds’ ultimate pub crawl. In the evening I lay down on the sand at Kintra Beach and watched the sun go down with a belly full of South-Ileach whisky. There  was not a more content man on the planet.

The next day I stood beneath the distinctive Port Ellen lighthouse, looked across the bay and felt more connected to a place than I have ever experienced in my life. I would go back today. I would drop everything. Just for one more whiff of that peaty air. Just for one drop of that liquid aptly described as the water of life.

nick-content

#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty

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Highland Park 18 Year Old

Reviewed by: Nick

Highland Park 18

As whisky fans, we regularly battle to be objective in our tastings to ensure our feelings don’t influence our perceptions of a whisky’s quality. And yet other times we simply say “screw it” and go with our hearts. The Highland Park 18 Year Old has a long list of awards to its name, but for me, it’s a little more special than that.

The distinctive (duck-egg) blue wallpaper gracing the background of our review photos is part of my recently built library (AKA whisky room) in my recently built house. And throughout the exciting building process the Highland Park 18 was there all the way. It was the first bottle cracked under my roof – before the walls were even finished! It was brought out again and shared with m’colleague on the night I moved in. Then at the house warming, surrounded by my best friends, it came out once more and toasted my new abode.

So with all these great feelings associated with the bottle how could I possibly write an objective review? Put simply, I can’t. But you know what? Screw it.

The nose is delightfully coastal and sherried. It is particularly dry, and bursts with raisins, prunes and smoked salmon. A dash of smoke hits you on the palate before quickly subsiding and giving way to grapes, cherries, peppermint and salami. The finish is long and contains an oakiness which calls to mind old wooden furniture.

If I was served this whisky blindly at a tasting then who knows if I would have the same sentiments towards it? What’s important for me is that now I’ve made these associations, I will continue to enjoy this whisky whole heartedly. And maybe you’ll love it too – especially if the happy memories you attach are your own.

★★★★

Lark Classic Cask

Reviewed by: Nick and Ted

Lark Classic Cask

It all started, as the best stories do, with a fishing trip. While waiting for some prime trout to bite in the Tasmanian Highlands, a man had an epiphany that would change the course of history.

The man reasoned that Tasmania has pure water, excellent barley and native peat bogs, so why then was no one making world class whisky there? That man’s name was Bill Lark and today he is revered as the godfather of Tasmanian whisky.

While Tasmania is now world famous for its whisky, the road was not an easy one. A ban on small-scale distilling had been in place for over 150 years, but that didn’t stop Bill from convincing politicians to overturn the law (presumably over a dram or two). Once the path was clear, Bill’s wife Lyn bought an antique 4 litre copper pot still and together they founded Australia’s first modern whisky distillery, the eponymous Lark.

While Bill has taken a step back from distilling duties, he remains to this day a champion of Tasmanian whisky. In 2015 he was justly recognised for his efforts by being inducted into the prestigious Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame, the first Australian distiller to achieve the honour.

Lark Distillery releases a range of products, including an excellent cask strength, a phenomenal distiller’s selection, epic special editions and of course, not forgetting their standard release, the Classic Cask.

If you know anything about Lark, you know that oranges is what it is all about and this becomes apparent as soon as you take a nose of the Classic Cask. The sweet citrus flavour blends with rich dark chocolate and vanilla, like a gourmet dessert in a glass. The chocolate comes to the fore on the palate, a mixture of milk and dark, followed by delicate oak, pepper and almond praline. The finish is medium length and slightly nutty.

Tasmania has waited a very long time to be able to drink this whisky. We will be forever grateful to Bill Lark for having the foresight and courage to take a step into the unknown and found a movement that is now respected and celebrated world wide.

Cheers Bill!

★★★

Lark n Ted

One state. Three ingredients. Unlimited flavour.

#TasWhiskyWeek

Talisker Dark Storm

Reviewed by: Ted

Talisker Dark Storm

Thunder crashed and wind howled across Skye as the Taliskerians prepared to bottle their new whisky, a non-age statement barrelled in extra-heavily charred oak casks. Keith glanced at Nev and shouted over the noise “what do you reckon we should call this stuff?”

“Dunno… Sunny Skyes?”

“Nah, that’s the name of Mark Lochhead’s villa on Majorca. What do you reckon Taranis?”

Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder, had started working at the distillery after a bit of a slump in the smiting business and a failed attempt to break into Hollywood. After a moment’s pause, he reached into Nowhere and pulled out a bronze goblet covered in spoked wheel designs that made the world spin if looked at for too long.

Plunging the goblet into a barrel, he scooped up a god sized dram and breathed deeply of the captured spirit. Rich stewed fruits, heavy spices, grilling meats, chocolate, banana and curling sweet smoke rose up to meet him.

Planting his feet, Taranis took a mighty draw, amber liquid spilling down his braided moustaches. Sharp, crackling salt on burning driftwood burst across his tongue, followed by dark honey and cured meats. Over the top rolled curling smoke, like a forest fire seen on the horizon. The finish was bright, sharp and lingering, yet somehow contained it’s opposite, the void.

Keith and Nev looked at each other nervously. The brooding 8ft tall figure in its leathers and woad was a forbidding sight. Suddenly Taranis stirred, his eyes sparking with distant lightning, and spoke in a voice like far away thunder rolling across the hills:

“DARK STORM”

And so it was.

★★★

Dark Ted

How it compares

The Dark Storm is quite raw and robust compared to the 10yo, which is (slightly surprisingly) smoother and lighter. The Dark Storm makes big leaps and bounds over its other Talisker NAS stablemates, the Storm and the Skye. We’ve had the Storm and found it to be lacking in guts, a bit… bland, and from reports the Skye is even lighter. If you’re looking to try a NAS Talisker, the Dark Storm is definitely the way to go.

The Arran Malt Amarone Cask Finish

Reviewed by: Nick

Arran Amarone Cask

Traditionally, the world of Scottish whisky is very – well – traditional. When popping champagne for Ardbeg’s two hundredth year, we somewhat neglected the rather less impressive twentieth birthday of the Arran Distillery. But distilleries are only as good as the products they are currently creating, and there is a lot to like about the bottles presently leaving the Isle of Arran.

As well as a range of age statement whiskies they have a variety of cask finish expressions, and the one I happened to get my grubby little mitts on was finished in Amarone barrels. For the uneducated, which I will freely admit to being one of before buying the bottle, Amarone is a dry Italian red wine made from grapes such as Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Yup, me neither.

I’ve had an up and down relationship with wine-matured whiskies, though one aspect I universally love is their amazing colours. The Arran is no exception – this whisky is the coppery orange of traditional creaming soda. The nose is alluring, giving the impression of alcohol soaked fruits eaten at Christmas time. There are cherries and strawberries as well as honey and syrupy cola.

The palate is rich and spicy, aided immensely by the higher bottling strength of 50%. It is delightfully creamy with large dollops of toffee, oranges and Turkish delight. The finish is dry with notes of oak and dark chocolate, and is pleasingly long and warming.

While the Arran Malt does not boast the long history of many distilleries, this should not in any way be held against it. A glorious Scottish past does not always equal quality in the present. Just ask Rangers Football Club.

★★★★

Highland Park Svein

Reviewed by: Nick

Highland Park Svein

Highland Park have one clear advantage when it comes to marketing their whisky: Vikings. Nothing can drum up some interest liked a horned hat on the front of your bottle! Of course, Highland Park can quite rightly look to the Norse raiders when branding their products, as the Orkney Islands where the distillery is located have a proud Viking heritage.

The details of their arrival in the ninth century are told in the Orkneyinga Saga, a historical narrative with more twists and family betrayals than the best soap opera. Among the characters were a series of ‘warriors’ immortalised forever in travel retail by Highland Park.

Svein Asleifsson is the legend behind the entry level of the range – which is perhaps unfair to a man dubbed the ‘Ultimate Viking’. Svein was a charismatic chieftain known for his generous and hospitable nature, and the folk at Highland Park have attempted to create a whisky that mirrors these traits. While I cannot claim this to be exactly the case (it doesn’t pour generous nips of itself into your glass!) it is certainly a very drinkable drop.

While there’s definitely some smoke in there, there’s less on the nose than you’d expect from a Highland Park dram. Instead there are ripe oranges, red apples and plenty of malt. The palate is lightly spicy, with oak, strawberries and… burnt toast? The finish is creamy, malty and slightly bitter. All up, it is a light whisky, threatening to be inconsequential but with just enough to enjoy.

Highland Park have created an interesting series here. While Svein doesn’t stand up when compared to the wonderful 12 Year Old expression, it certainly gives you a greater picture of the flavours captured by the Orcadian Distillery. Sadly I have not got to sample any of the other warriors to broaden my mind!

★★

Highland Park 12 Year Old

Reviewed by: NickHighland Park 12

Single malts. They’re a varied lot. Some people like peat monsters. Some like sherry bombs. Others enjoy their whisky light and floral. Others still prefer their drams sweet with hints of vanilla. Pleasing everyone with one drop, however, is a much harder task. Unless, of course, you happen to have a bottle of the Highland Park 12 Year Old on your shelf. This bottle truly is the great all rounder of Scottish whisky.

Highland Park also has the distinction of being Scotland’s northernmost distillery, located on the largest of the Orkney Islands, pipping its neighbour Scapa by under a mile. As the island group was settled long ago by Vikings, it should come as no surprise that the flavours on offer are a veritable smorgasbord.

Up first comes a nose with many varied elements: a whiff of grapes and malty biscuits. There is chocolate, so dark it is mostly cocoa, mingling with notes of pear and bubblegum. Finally is the smoke: far subtler than anything from Islay. It brings to mind smouldering vegetation, an attempt to create a fire from damp leaves on a drizzly day.

The palate is equally varied. It initially suggests a roast meal: beef, parsnips, even gravy, before giving way to mandarin, brown sugar and chocolate milk. The smoke lingers gently, now mostly burnt out and close to charcoal. Finally this all gives way to a long spicy finish with salt, tobacco and mint combining with flashes of caramel.

The Highland Park 12 Year Old is unlikely to be anyone’s number one whisky. It is not weighted in a particular direction to please one group of whisky fans over another. Instead, it sits squarely in the middle, a dram to be enjoyed by everyone no matter their preferences. This is a whisky that brings people together, and if that is not a glowing endorsement, I don’t know what is!

★★★

Whisky Live to Hit Melbourne This Weekend!

Posted by Nick and Ted

Whisky Live promo pic

Scores of whiskies, two boys, one room… sounds like a decent weekend!

That’s right, the Whisky Waffle boys are making their way across the pond to the Melbourne leg of Australia’s premiere whisky festival. The session features whiskies from and home and and away, ranging from the Glenlivet Founders Reserve, the Hibiki 17yo and the new Laprohaig 15yo to the Starward Wine Cask Edition 1, the Dry Fly Straight Wheat Whisky, and the NZ Whisky Co 1987 27yo Single Malt. The boys are also very excited for the opportunity to meet Eddie Russell of the Wild Turkey distillery and Russells Reserve fame.

Stay tuned for increasingly creative tweets as the day wears on, and give us a shout out via Twitter or Facebook (or the blog) if you want a personalised on-the-spot review or musing about something on the day. We will be attending the (sold-out) Saturday (25/7) afternoon session starting at 1pm, although we believe there are still tickets left for Friday (24/7) and Saturday (25/7) evenings (don’t quote us on that).

For more information, including the full whisky list, you can visit the official event website here.

See you on the floor when the Whisky goes Live!

‘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.

★★★

 

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