Sunday, 5 November 2017

What's The Point Of Ardbeg An Oa?

For more than two and a half centuries Scotch Whisky—I mean the industry, not the drink itself or the culture—has moved in cycles or waves of popularity, expansion, and prosperity for distillers, followed by slump and closures.

Some producers have taken advantage of the current upturn of the wheel to try and move their whisky up-market. In the (very successful) case of Ardbeg, this move began, I seem to remember, in the early 2000s, and over the course of a few years the price of Ardbeg Ten drifted upwards relative to other Islay brands. The invention of the annual Ardbeg Day release, and the introduction of Ardbeg embassies helped push the price increases, by building an air of exclusivity.

I suppose Ardbeg can't really be faulted for this. After all, corporations are obliged above all else to maximise their profits, and Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy operate in the luxury market, where the price and the utility of a good are but loosely connected, so why not see how far you can go?

So we have had a succession of releases of varying quality, some excellent, some anodyne, none sensibly priced, but one thing that all the previous Ardbeg Day specials did have was a decent level of the sweet smokiness that helps to place Ardbeg in the front rank of Scotch Whisky distilleries.

And this is where I found myself bamboozled by the new permanent addition to the core range, An Oa. It just doesn't have that same intensity of peat.

The nose in particular is very mild mannered, to the point of blandness. Honestly, it's faintly coastal, and that's it.

The palate is much better: sweet and smooth, with salty peat. It's very fruity too - lovely yellow fruits (yellow brambles, if they existed). The aftertaste is clean, peaty, and a little salty. But still and all, it's mild.


And there's when I realised what the point of Ardbeg An Oa really is.

It's the brand extension for people who don't particularly care for smoke. Just as Brockman's is a gin for folk who dislike juniper, or skittle vodka exists to hide the unpleasant taste of alcohol, An Oa opens up the world of peaty drams to a whole bunch of people who wouldn't otherwise buy them.

So there you have it. Mystery explained. LVMH aren't about flavour, and it doesn't make sense to think about their products like that, or to question the introduction of an Ardbeg which doesn't taste much like Ardbeg.

And with that question resolved, I'm off to drink a Ledaig.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The Royal Brackla Appreciation Society

Royal Brackla is never going to be a star of Scotch. The style of malt it produces—which these days is very sweet, like toffee pennies—whilst delightfully easy to drink, lacks the complexity of the truly great whiskies.

And the current owners, Bacardi, despite their supposed intention to raise the profile of their distilleries, seem to be somewhat indolent in their approach. They took over the "Last Five Great Malts" at least a decade ago, and the relaunch staggered on through 2015 and 2016, which pace is never going to set the heather on fire.

Despite these grumblings, I am a member of a small whisky club1 , the Royal Brackla Appreciation Society. The society was founded one night after we had a dram of the old 10 Year Old, and found in it a surprising—and surprisingly delicious—herbal/earthy/dirty note which we couldn't recall having encountered previously in a malt whisky. It was such an intriguing flavour that we were moved to try other Bracklas, but alas!, as yet we haven't found it again.

Last night's fine Bracklas did include one which hinted at the stink we are always looking for, and we also discovered a new whisky aroma note, as well as gaining a useful insight into how the Scotch Malt Whisky Society names its bottles.

We started off with a sample of 16 Year Old Brackla drawn in 2014 and intended for the US market, presumably in the run up to the launch of the range. This was pure toffee pennies, sweet, smooth, supremely easy to drink. If it were fruity too, then it's be easy to mistake it for VSOP Cognac, and I should think it's probably aimed at the same market; Christmas presents for clients, once a year whisky drinkers. For us, it was a nice wee palate warmer.

Next up was the most interesting dram of the night, a mini of whisky distilled in 1974 (and, according to the interwebs, bottled in 1990). It was much maltier than 90s/2000s distillate; maltier in a very toasty, flapjack, roasted malt fashion. And after a while, a hint of the elusive stink started to emerge - if only we'd had a bigger sample.

(We did a quick search, and full bottles are going for £200-£300, which is rather more than we care to spend. We like Brackla, but come on, it's not worth that money. And that's why we don't just purchase endless bottles of the old 10 Year Old at auction. Prices are silly.)

Third dram was another Gordon & Macphail Connoisseurs Choice bottling, from 1997. Very much in the modern style of soft, sweet toffee, but we also found, after we'd tried the next one, that the 1997 had acquired a sweaty note.

Whisky number four was a Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling, numbered 55.22 and named Backstage at a Burlesque. It had the toffee pennies—half a crown's worth at least—but it also had a distinct hairspray note, and an equally distinct note of sweat. And as I say, after trying this one we went back to the 1997 only to discover that it too was sweaty.

You do have to applaud the SMWS for their cunning. Finding hairspray and sweat and accurately, if slightly disingenuously, reporting it as Backstage at a Burlesque.

We finished off with another SMWS bottling, In the Shade of the Fruit Tree. Which certainly lived up to its name, but was somehow unexciting.

All told, an interesting and varied set of Bracklas. I suspect that the reason I liked the last one least was down to it being the cleanest. It's generally the case that I like my whiskies slightly dirty, and I'd say that counts double for Royal Brackla. The search continues.

1. When I say, "a small whisky club", I mean that I comprise a third of the membership.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Tasting Note: Kilkerran 12 Year Old

I was very excited when the first Kilkerran Work In Progress was released. I bought a bottle, and was then rather disappointed by it. I've tasted every Work In Progress since, and I've come to the conclusion that Kilkerran shouldn't be drunk young.

Indeed, while I'm moderately keen on the 12 Year Old, I have a feeling that it'll be much better once it gets up to 15 or 16. Of course, this won't stop me drinking the 12, for reasons given below.

The nose is herbal or grassy. It's also sweet - somewhere between honey and syrup. I do find it a little bit spirity, alas.

Initially it seemed very grassy or hay-like, perhaps even barnyard-y, but over time it becomes less grassy.

There is a wee bit of iron or old engines (what I call the true Campbeltown goût). There's the merest trace of oak spice - these'll be refill casks by the taste.

The palate is rounded, easy going, not obviously peated in any way. There is a little woody spice, but it's very gentle, and really the grassy notes dominate.

In conclusion: I really like the texture, which is slightly mouth coating, although not quite what you could call oily.

It's interesting to compare this dram with my notes from a year ago. It seems clear to me that the legendary Springbank batch effect is in evidence. This year I can't find even a trace of peat, whereas last year I noted, "tangy sharp brown sugar smoke".

I like that this malt is not coloured and non chill filtered, and from a family owned distillery which does everything on site. Given the extra costs involved in the small scale production of Mitchell's Glengyle, I reckon it's a total bargain.

About Kilkerran
The distillery is Glengyle, but the brand is Kilkerran, for tedious legal reasons.

Glengyle makes lightly peated (except when it's not) malt by double distillation (except when it's triple distilled).

Glengyle distillery operated from Victorian times through to about 1930, when it, along with nearly all of the Campbeltown distilleries closed. It was refurbished and reopened in 2004 by J&A Mitchell, owners of Springbank, and staff from that establishment run Glengyle on a part time basis.

The ostensible reason as given by J&A Mitchell for the re-opening of Glengyle is that the Scotch Whisky Association was planning to introduce a rule that a whisky region could only be a region if there were three or more distilleries operating in that region.

This has always seemed like nonsense to me, and I've never been able to find any documentary evidence for it, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong. Anybody?

Monday, 26 June 2017

Whistlepig Farmstock Crop No. 001

It's fair to say that Whistlepig have had a few hiccups along the road, and the company founder, Raj Bhakta, seems to have a knack for getting himself into hot water. On the other hand they have also been very highly praised for some of their whiskies. While I'm definitely in favour of transparency, which arguably has been a bit lacking with Whistlepig, it remains the case that what matters most is how a whiskey tastes. And this whiskey tastes rather fine.

The Vermont based company have only been distilling their own whisky for a couple of years now, so I guess it'll be a while before they can offer something which is 100%, grain to glass, Whistlepig. In the meantime, they have released Farmstock #001, which I'm told is a blend of their own distillate with bought-in Canadian and U.S. rye.

Nose: There's quite a bit going on here. The rye is mild and sweet, like beery rye bread, or rye and ginger biscuits (are they a thing?). It's also fruity, in a sappy green apple kind of a way, then there's an emulsion paint note. Before you stop reading, I should explain that "emulsion paint" is an aroma I often find in Scottish Grain whiskies and bourbons. It's not a bad thing, it's just a Quercus Alba thing that I haven't figured out the correct name for yet. I like it when I find emulsion paint in a whisk(e)y. The whiskey is very soft on the nose and not spiritous at all.

Palate: sweet, rounded, and mouth coating or slightly oily.  Mild nutty rye bread spice, burnt bread, well fired Scotch morning rolls. After a while it becomes much more fruity: specifically apples and pears. Towards the finish it dries out a little, and develops a prickly warmth. With time I also found a mineral quality in it, which I liked.

Conclusion: There's lots of soft rye spice, but rather less of the toffee, coconut, and caramel notes that white oak imparts to most American whiskies. It's also much fruitier than I expected it to be. Whilst it's not life-altering, it's a very enjoyable drop. I reckon that it's over-priced, but that likely reflects the hype surrounding Whistlepig. Perhaps Mr Bhakta belongs to the "There's no such thing as bad publicity" school of thought.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Bottle o' Ridge!

When I was starting out as a booze merchant sixteen years ago, Ridge was a popular 'fine wine' choice with punters who had learned wine via such gems as the Penfold's range of affordable, full-bodied, fruit-forward Australian wines, and who preferred their soft jamminess to the dryer, more restrained style of the Bordeaux Crus Classé . The junior expressions were affordable enough that some of our more affluent customers could float in of a Friday evening and casually utter—what had become something of a staff catch phrase or in joke—"bottle o' Ridge please".

So even though my tastes lean more towards the European classics, I have a soft spot for Ridge. Turn to whisky and matters become more complicated. Red wine finishes are most definitely not to everybody's taste. Fortunately, I do like them, and am therefore the ideal person to review this one.

What we have here is the Glenrothes Wine Merchant's Collection 1992 24 Year Old Ridge Wine Finish Cask #08, which retails for £200. It is bottled at a natural strength of 55.1%, and has been finished (for six months? A year? Who knows?) in a Zinfandel cask, although we're not told which vineyard. Yes, it very likely wouldn't make much difference to the flavour of the whisky, but I'd probably look more fondly on it knowing it was Geyserville rather than Lytton Springs.

As I understand it, Glenrothes' reputation stands higher in Europe and America than in the UK, but nevertheless £200 seems quite expensive to me, even allowing for the expense of the fancy-schmancy barrel. With that grumble set to one side, here are my notes.

Nose: Vinous, but also rather spirity. Berries (generic berries. Or perhaps I mean Genericberries). Not malty. Adding a little water makes it more spirity (as is often the case), and brings out oak top notes. More water reveals dry, earthy notes, and leaf litter (sous bois if you want to indulge in the sort of Wine Spectator vocabulary that wines like Ridge seem to provoke). There's definitely something of mushrooms and wine cellars going on.

Palate: Thick and sweet, fruity, ripe, and red. Rather port-like, but with a faint bitter note in the finish. Water brings out more red fruits, and an earth or mushroom note which wine barrels often give. After a while a lovely almond pastry flavour develops.

Yet more water makes it very soft and easy to drink, and brings out high toned, perfumed, oak spices, along with a faint reminder of Edinburgh rock. It's fortunate that this whisky takes water so well; after twenty-four years and at natural strength of 55.1%, I do think it ought to be a tad less spirity.

Conclusion: This is an excellent 'sweetie' of a dram, with the proviso that you have to like red wine finishes. Glenrothes produces spirit of a very fruity character which in this case works well with the wine influence.

Zinfandel often has a character akin to Port, and that, I think is a useful comparison if you're not a wine drinker, but have tasted Port-finished whiskies. If you like such malts, then this one's for you.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Manzanilla of the North

The blessèd Michael Jackson knew how to turn a well formed phrase, and he was the writer I turned to when I was first trying to learn more about Scotch, but some of the things he wrote about whisky have never made sense to me. 

I've always thought that his description of Pulteney as the Manzanilla of the North was one such utterance, a phrase coined more for its similarity to "the Athens of the North" than for its aptness. And I am fairly sure that the phrase was coined by Jackson.

For example, in The World Guide to Whisky (1987) he says, "The whisky, called Old Pulteney, has been compared to a Manzanilla", but neglects to tell us who was doing the comparing.

But this bottle, a Cadenhead's 11 year old bottled at cask strength, from a bourbon hogshead, has given me pause for thought.

Initially it merely seemed like a whisky which had been bottled too early, a harsh raw dram lacking in pleasure, and very awkward alongside the handful of well aged malts also tasted that evening. But that brash, abrasive character is coming in my mind to seem more and more like the saltiness of youthful fino from Sanlucar. 

I recall that Jackson began writing about whisky during the last boom, at a time when demand was running ahead of supply, and before the filling of the whisky loch in the Eighties led to many producers promoting well aged expressions as the norm.

In the World Guide to Whisky many of the expressions he describes are fairly youthful - Highland Park, Strathisla, Rosebank, and Blair Athol all at eight years old, Balblair as a five year old, Glenfiddich Pure Malt without an age statement, and plenty of others.

The expression of Pulteney included in the Guide is the eight year old bottled by Gordon & Macphail. I wonder if the whisky I tasted last night - youthful, with little cask character, rather abrasive - is the modern equivalent of that early eighties expression?

I suspect that I'll never have an answer to that question, but at that time there wasn't anything like the same level of interest in cask management as there is today, and I reckon it's at least a plausible suggestion to say that the malt that Jackson tasted and described was dominated by distillate character, just like last night's dram.

And whilst I'm waiting for an answer, I shall go and reread Jackson in the light of my Pulteney revelation.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Springbank Private Bottling for Distillery Visitors 2017

So I just drank a £50 dram.

Which is more a reflection of the weird state of Scotch in 2017 than of the true value of this whisky.

But that's not the reason for this post, ho no missus. Nope. I'm writing this because Springbank seems to provoke logorrhea in a way that other drams don't. Look at this:

Can you tell that I really liked this whisky?

Here's the transcription, for those of you using Lynx or another text-only browser.

Nose: malt and iron. age-patina-ed old iron and brown sugar. If you took a handful of long grass (forage, destined to be hay) and held it tight to an old horseshoe until it had become damp. That. Grubby small children, but your own, beloved children, not anyone else's. Faintly, a curry spice (cumin?)

Palate: Sweet and malty, but somehow suggesting sweeties made from seaweed. A salty-sweet finish. Sweet round malt, beautiful brown sugar (muscovado, the darkest of sugars). Oh, and sherry.

Conclusion: the perfect dram for my mood tonight. A great Springbank.

I absolutely love it when this happens. To be honest, this is why I drink. I don't care for the other effects of alcohol, the drunken-ness or the hangover, but when the booze provokes me into wordiness, oh man, I'm so happy. I don't mind that these words likely don't mean much to most of you. The process of turning ethanol-plus-congeners into letters on a screen makes me unreasonably happy.

PS If you haven't already arrived at this conclusion, then let me say that the take-away from this blog post is that you need to get yourself to Campbeltown and do the tour, just so you can have the whisky.