Islands

Scotland 2018: The Ultimate Whisky Adventure – Part Four

Posted by: Nick

In July 2018 I realised the ultimate Waffler’s dream and spent nine days travelling whisky’s motherland. I did not waste a moment.

9 days: 20 distilleries.

PART FOUR: Islay – the east and the north

WW 0 still

If I were to be completely honest with myself, I would admit that three of my top five distilleries in Scotland are just outside of Port Ellen. If I were to be even more completely honest then I would revise that to three of top three. And these three, the holy trinity of Islay, were to be my destination on my final full day in Scotland. As all three were within a short walk of one another I coined this day as ‘the world’s greatest pub crawl’. The only question was, where to start? Due to a combination of tour times and proximity to my accommodation (a three-minute walk, no less) I began my epic day at Laphroaig.

WW 1 Lap

The tour was in-depth and the tastings phenomenal – three barrels were lined up ready to be valinched into our glasses – the first a quarter cask on steroids, the next a 14 Year Old bourbon cask, before finally, the pièce de résistance, a 52% 14 Year Old whisky which had spent it’s time equally in bourbon and Amontillado sherry. I was fortunate enough to take home a 200ml bottle of the latter, and my colleague was suitably impressed. I also claimed the rent for my square foot of land and learned to pronounce Cairdeas (hint: think Steve Macqueen).

WW 2 casks

Fifteen minutes up the road was Lagavulin, a crucial distillery in Whisky Waffle history and I wasted no time ensconcing myself in their new tasting centre. While there are not many varied Lagavulin releases on the market, if you find yourself at the distillery then you’ll be treated to a range of rare special editions created for Feis Isle celebrations and Jazz festivals. The pick was the 54% Double Matured Distillery Exclusive. At this point of the day my tasting notes were starting to get creative. I have noted: “like sitting in a cart pulled by a noble steed. Or in a palanquin carried by muscular Persians sweating in the Arabian sun”.

WW 3 Laga

Unbelievably, the best was yet to come. Several things influence one’s enjoyment of a tour: the quality of the distillery (and therefore the whisky), the engagingness of the guide and the friendliness of the people on the tour with you. Well, once in a while the stars line up and you get all three, and that was the case with my Ardbeg ‘tour at two’, commencing, funnily enough, at two o clock. And it was one for the ages. Our guide, wee Emma (apparently there are two Emma’s who work at Ardbeg and we got the smallest – and the best!) was friendly and knowledgeable about peated whisky – an islander through and through. The tour itself was thorough but individualised – it didn’t feel like a re-tread of all that had come before. And the group was amazing. We settled ourselves down in a bond store for some tastings and when the drams started flowing (Grooves, Alligator and any number of single cask releases) we took it in turns to chat about our backgrounds, favourite drams and that first bottle that opened our eyes to whisky. We could have stayed there longer – but a knock on the door to the warehouse by the production boys alerted us to the fact it was 5 o clock and the tour was meant to have finished an hour ago. “Sorrynotsorry” was everyone’s response. It was a magical experience and one I feel truly reflects a wonderful distillery. I can say, hand on heart, it was the best tour of the trip and remains a fond memory in my Waffly heart.

WW 4 Ard

I woke the next day with a heavy heart. Partly because of the number of drams I’d consumed the previous day, but also because it was my final day on this spectacular island. My ferry left at 3pm which gave me just enough time to fill in the gaps I’d left. Despite feeling a little tender I could not resist tasting a few distillery exclusives at Caol Ila. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this giant distillery but what I found was a warm welcome and delicious whisky.

WW 5 CI

My welcome was just as warm at Bunnahabhain, who, despite building work preventing me from touring the distillery, gave me an extensive tasting (which I was able to transfer most of each glass into small bottles – my liver thanked me later) and fantastic conversation. It was one of the friendliest distillery experiences I’d had in the previous eight days and I cannot wait to go back and visit these guys again.

WW 6 Bunna

Then, before I knew it (after a sneaky couple of photos at Ardnahoe), I was back on the ferry and leaving Islay.

WW 8 Ard

I can say with certainty that my visit to Islay had been the pinnacle of my whisky journey. The people, the scenery and the peat gave it the edge, but despite the size of some of the operations it just felt like I was on a tiny whisky-centric island which hadn’t changed much since the first dram had been distilled there. Sitting on a small rise of land across the road from my Airbnb looking out at the view (Port Ellen on one side, Laphroaig distillery on the other) I felt as connected to a place as I ever had. The pun writes itself, but I truly mean it when I say it was a spiritual experience.

WW 7 Bunna

And thus my whisky journey was at an end. Despite Islay’s dominance in my writing, every aspect of the trip was phenomenal. As a whisky fanboy, the range of flavours across one little country inspired me. But the biggest impact was made by the people behind the scenes, making and promoting the drams I loved so much. Their warmth and generosity (and patience with all my questions) was a credit to the industry and made this Waffler very happy multiple times over.

So would I go back? Oh, you bet I would – in a heartbeat. I’d probably stick the anticlockwise trajectory – like the best tastings you’ve got to start with Speyside and end with Islay. I hit up some amazing distilleries and crossed off a few bucket list items, though left a few remaining (I’m looking at you Campbeltown, Orkneys and Edradour). If you’re about to embark on a trip to the motherland I absolutely recommend the anticlockwise direction and all of the establishments I found myself at – though I’m sure there are some wonderful places I missed (if so please let me know!). However, sitting on the train taking me towards Glasgow (Prestwick) airport I was a contented Waffler with a heart full of fulfilled dreams.

Crossroads WW

Read PART ONE here

Read PART TWO here

Read PART THREE here

Complete distillery list:

Glendronach

Balvenie

Glenfiddich

Aberlour

Glenfarclas

Cragganmore

Glenlivet

Macallan

Glen Moray

Benromach

Talisker

Oban

Bowmore

Bruichladdich

Kilchoman

Laphroaig

Lagavulin

Ardbeg

Caol Ila

Bunnahabhain

(Ardnahoe)

Scotland 2018: The Ultimate Whisky Adventure Part Two

Posted by: Nick

In July 2018 I realised the ultimate Waffler’s dream and spent nine days travelling whisky’s motherland. I did not waste a moment.

9 days: 20 distilleries.

Fiddlers WW

PART TWO: Highlands and Islands

Whoever said that Scotland is freezing, windswept and rain-lashed has obviously never been to Speyside in the summertime. I was a little sad to leave what was clearly a sunny paradise and head further north, so decided it was not possible to get too much of a good thing and called into two more distilleries on my way out – and boy, these two could not be more different.

Macallan have recently opened a new visitor centre in the heart of Speyside – and it is an architectural masterpiece. The walls were all glass, revealing vistas of the distillery beyond or encasing infamously rare and valuable bottles. All this was sealed beneath a dramatically curved green roof (although in the height of summer it was more of a… well… brown roof). The whole complex was breathtaking – and yet I didn’t like it. Not one bit. It lacked the soul and warmth I love about Scottish distilleries. It was stunning but cold; glamorous but unwelcoming.

Macallan Wall WW

The complete opposite was the case at my final Speyside stop: Glen Moray. While the buildings themselves were nowhere near as spectacular as what I’d just seen at Macallan, the staff (master-distillers wife Fay, champion drinks pourer Kier, and tour guide extraordinaire Caitlyn) were among the nicest and most welcoming in the whole of Scotland. And the whisky? Wow! If you considered the Glen Moray range to be cheap and cheerful, then a visit to the distillery would reveal a few stunners that have been left a little longer in barrels. A personal favourite was the 1988 port cask matured, however the 1998 PX cask was also exceptional. I’ve always had a soft spot for Glen Moray – and this visit just made it softer.

Glen Moray paddle WW

Just as I thought my Speyside journey had come to an end I spotted a sign for Benromach and duly turned off the main road. Though I had not booked a tour the kind staff showed me around and let me try some of the varied wares.

Sadly, though, this was all I could squeeze into my Speyside trip; it was time to travel to the opposite side of the country. A trip to Scotland would not be complete without the compulsory failure to spot Nessie on the shores of a certain Loch, so I called into Drumnadrochit on my way to the west coast. While there was no monster to be seen, I was able to stumble upon a Whisky Waffle favourite whisky bar: Fiddlers. While there I sampled some local drams: a 25 Year Old Tomatin (business class whisky – you can taste the extra legroom), an Edradour matured in ex-Port Ellen casks (who could resist such an intriguing combo?) and finally a Balblair so dark is could have been black (so sherried it was almost undrinkable – naturally I loved it).

Black Balbalir WW

No filter. That really is the colour.

Before leaving Fiddlers, owner Jon Beach arrived and called me over for a chat – whilst pouring me a dram of Port Ellen as casual as can be. Seriously, this bar – cannot recommend highly enough.

Jon Tweet WW

While the west highlands of Scotland are absolutely stunning, there is one region of the country which is even more spectacular: the Isle of Skye. And this island is home to Talisker Distillery – a Whisky Waffle favourite from our early days of whisky tasting. On my only previous visit to Scotland, I was prevented from visiting Talisker by a freak hiking accident (no whisky was involved) so I was in no way going to miss out this time around. My guide, David, was not only a whisky fan, but also a chef and shared his Talisker BBQ sauce recipe with us while we had a dram of the Amarosso finished Distillers Edition. It was a tasty drop – certainly a step us from the Talisker NAS releases and even pipped the 10 Year Old. I was also able to revisit an old favourite and get my palate roasted by the winter warmer that is the 57 Degrees North.

Talisker WW

Upon leaving the Isle of Skye I had a long drive ahead of me. And yet I couldn’t resist making it even longer by stopping into a beautiful town along the way – and it just happened to contain a distillery!

The town was Oban and I slotted onto a lunchtime tour to check out yet another stillroom. What struck me about Oban was its size – or lack thereof. Of course, it’s miles ahead of the Tassie distilleries I’m used to seeing, but compared to the rest of the Scottish establishments it was rather quaint. This is demonstrated in their cask usage – Oban are the masters of the refill cask – everything they use has been already used by one of Diageo’s other distilleries to mature whisky in for ten or more years. When it gets to Oban it is re-charred, repurposed and ready to go. This is partly why a whisky 14 years old was for so long this distillery’s staple – and partly why the Little Bay is pretty light on for flavour. The real x-factor for Oban is its coastal location imparting a delicate salty layer upon each bottle in their range.

Oban WW

The cherry on the top of my visit was one final dram – from under the bar came an unmarked bottle containing promisingly dark liquid. I was sure it had been aged for longer than most Oban whiskies – and sure enough, it was a 20 year old: straight from the cask. I was assured by the friendly Oban staff it would be unlike anything I’d tried so far on my trip – and they were right, it was absolutely phenomenal. Sadly, though, after concluding this warming and delicious tasting I had to leave Oban in a hurry. You see, I had a ferry to catch…

z Ferry WW

I wonder where this could be going….

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

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!