Port Ellen

An ode to Islay

Posted by: Nick

port-ellen

Our week exploring the peated wonders of Islay has sadly come to a close. We’ve loved every drop and had some proper crackers. And lastly, we’ve reminisced about Islay itself – the beautiful Hebridean island which we would both return to in a heartbeat. To conclude our celebrations I wanted to share a poem I composed while on the island a few years ago. I was so taken with the place (and under the influence of several peated drams) that I thought I could only express myself in rhyme. Merry Christmas fellow wafflers!

Out in the Atlantic Ocean lies

an island of my hearts desire.

With salty air and peat smoke rife

the spiritual home of the water of life.

Its sunny skies and rugged coast

but friendly locals I’ll miss the most.

I’ll always long for that familiar burn

and hope one day I shall return.

A very waffly Christmas

#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty

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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

Whisky Waffle launch Islay Week

Posted by: Nick

port-nahabhain

Whether you live in Scotland or Australia, December is a good month to be drinking peated whisky. In the Northern Hemisphere the locals are battening down the hatches and preparing to ride out another winter with a smoky dram warming the cockles in the evening. Here in the southern reaches of the world summer is upon us and with it the scent of BBQ smoke drifting across the country.

With this in mind, Whisky Waffle are excited to announce our biggest event week yet, reviewing drams produced on that iconic whisky island: Islay. Throughout the week we shall fill in a few shameful gaps in our reviews catalogue, reflect on our respective trips there and celebrate the 200th birthday of a favourite distillery of ours.

It’s going to be a huge week and one that every whisky fan will need to check out. Log on each day leading up to Christmas for a new article – think of it as a peated advent calendar. So let’s raise a smoky dram and kick off Whisky Waffle’s Islay Week!

Fiddlers: A (Loch Ness) monster of a whisky bar

Posted by: Ted

Fiddlers and Ted and barrels

The village of Drumnadrochit, nestled on the shores of Scotland’s Loch Ness, is more usually know for being the hub of all things Loch Ness Monster related (and home to Aidrian Shine’s beard).

For the wandering whisky fan however, there is a beast of another kind lurking in Drumnadrochit, one that is full of golden fire.

Fiddler’s Bar, owned by the delightful Jon and Karen Beach, is a wondrous whisky paradise. A hint is given by the row of maroon and white capped barrels resting outside to the the real treasure hiding within.

Fiddlers

Inside the cosy bar room are dark wood shelves lined with what seems to be every dram under the sun. Common malts rub shoulders with rare drams, and foreign drops mingle happily with the locals.

Scottish distilleries encircle the space above the bar, ordered very helpfully from A-Z (although this doesn’t necessarily make the choice any easier). I was lucky enough to sample a William Cadenhead that allegedly contained 40yo Glenfarclas, a very refined and elegant drop.

M’colleague will wholeheartedly endorse my opinion that Fiddlers is a truly fine place to be, having found comfort within its warmth during a time of need and restoration in what he tells me was a truly remarkable glass of Port Ellen.

If you ever find yourself passing through Drumnadrochit and want to discover an authentic experience among the tourist holy-poly drawn by Nessie, then Fiddler’s Bar is the place to be.

Fiddlers and Ted

(Try the Mighty Burger if you’re there at lunch. It really is!)

Canada takes the Crown Royal of Whisky: Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2016

Posted by: Ted

After a year of watching the earth from his secret moon base, built from the old Port Ellen spirit stills (and featuring a mash tun jacuzzi), the golden-eyed whisky-reviewing alien that is Jim Murray has returned to earth, and it seems that he comes bearing a message for Scotland. He must think that they’re a pretty rough, uncouth bunch, as not only has he snubbed them in his top five for a second year running, but he has decreed that the best whisky in the world comes from a country universally famed for its politeness… eh?

Golden eyed whisky alien

That’s right, Canadians rejoice, because according to His Murrayship you are now owners of the best whiskey on the face of the planet. The Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye scored a cool 97.5/100 on the Murrayometer, the man himself noting that “Rye, that most eloquent of grains… reaches new heights of beauty and complexity.” The win marks the first time that Canada has taken out the top Whisky Bible gong, and already the internet is aflutter about the merits of the winning horse from Crown Royal, owned by global spirits giant Diageo. Even Jim thinks that the choice will raise eyebrows, but hopes that people will be ‘blown away’ by its ‘uncompromising and unique beauty’ when they taste it. Seeing that a nod from Jim tends to cause any available bottles to evaporate immediately afterwards, sampling the Northern Harvest may be no easy feat.

Canada takes the Crown

Once again North America was well represented in the top five, with Maryland distillery Pikesville taking second place with its Straight Rye, while Kentuckian distillery Buffalo Trace returned for a second year running, moseying into fourth place with the 2014 bourbon from its premium William Larue Weller line. Potentially causing yet more angst in Scotland was the bottle standing in third place on the podium, with Irish distillery Midleton claiming success with its cask strength Dair Ghaelach expression. Like Canada, this is the first time an Irish whiskey has found itself swinging from the top of the Whisky Bible tree and shows that modern palates (or at the very least, Jim’s) continue to extend beyond the traditional stronghold of Scotch.

Last year the Big M gave the top spot to Japan’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, creating ripples in Scotland’s zen, and rocketing the distillery into the limelight. Well, the sun has risen on Japan once again, with Yamazaki’s Mizunara Cask sliding into fifth place. If you want a bottle though, you’ll need to travel to Japan as it is only available on the local market. Whether Whisky Bible hype changes this situation is yet to be seen. Mizunara, the native Japanese oak, has been rising in popularity the last few years, and the Murray effect should help cement its place as a legitimate casking choice.

While absent from the top five, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Scotland, with the (most definitely expensive) Glenfarclas Family Casks 1957 #2110 not only awarded Scotch Whisky of the Year, but also claiming the overall Single Cask Whisky of the Year. Other notables in the Scotch category include Single Malt of the Year Glen Grant 10yo and Scotch Blend of the Year The Last Drop 50yo (seriously, again, who has that kind of money!?). European Whisky of the Year (Multiple) returned to the English Whisky Co. for their Chapter 16 Peated Sherry Cask, while the (Single) category was awarded to the delightfully named Kornog Taouarc’h Chweec’hved 14BC from the ancient Celtic French region of Breton.

Closer to home (at least for me that is) Australia took the Southern Hemisphere Whisky of the Year crown back from the Kiwis, with Tasmania’s very own Heartwood distillery coming through strong with its Good Convict bottling. Strong is certainly the right word when it comes to Heartwood, with mad genius Tim Duckett mixing up an astounding array of cask strength creations in his laboratory. As Heartwood is an independent bottler, all of its releases are limited; once an expression has sold out it is consigned to the pages of history and fond memory. So if you happen to own a bottle of the 71.3% Good Convict, you are one of a lucky few.

The Convict was definitely Good

Of course, you are always welcome to take any Murrayitic pronouncements with a pinch of salt, but for a roundup of the who’s who of whisk(e)y in a given year the Whisky Bible is hard to beat.

A full run down of the winners can be found here.

‘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

Laphroaig 10 Year Old

Reviewed by: Nick

Laphroaig 10 whisky waffle

Peat. One of the biggest, strongest and most divisive flavours found within a dram of whisky. The smoky, medicinal notes send some people running to the hills with just the merest of whiffs. But to others, there are no better flavours in the entire world of whisky. These flavours are most strongly associated with one place: Islay.

The early Ileach distillers did not set out with the intention of creating such iconically flavoured whisky. The use of peat to smoke the barley was born out of necessity rather than creativity. Islay is as remote as it is boggy, and getting coal to the island on a train was simply not an option. So the locals turned to a resource they had in abundance: peat. It kept them warm in their houses against the wild force of the Atlantic Ocean, so burning anything else in their kilns was never a consideration.

The most famous example of peated whisky is made by the Laphroaig Distillery. As far as standard releases go, nothing is on the same extreme level in terms of the peaty intensity of its flavour.

In their 10 Year Old expression it is immediately noticeable – before it has even come close to your nose. Smoke. Ash. Medicinal iodine notes, all there smouldering together. This is the scent of a bonfire at the beach.

The palate is legendarily akin to licking a burnt log. Maritime notes are present; briny, seaweed flavours ebbing through gently. Other, more obscure elements are there too, such as leather and sawdust. The bourbon cask imparts only small amounts of vanilla; and what comes through is particularly dry and slightly bitter.

The finish is disappointingly short and contains several soapy, chalky notes, before the smoke gently comes rolling back, leaving a warm, lingering ash-like flavour.

While it is not the best Islay, or even Laphroaig has to offer, there is no doubt this dram showcases some amazing peaty flavours. It is, however, something of a one card trick, let down by the flavours that accompany the smoke. This does not disappoint me too much. If this is merely the entry level, how good must their other expressions be?

★★★