Port Ellen 32 XOP

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Distillery/Brand: Port Ellen | Region: Islay | ABV: 53.9% | Colour: Pale Gold
Nose: 9.3 | Palate: 9.4 | Finish: 9.2 | Overall Score: 9.3

Review
We trudged in single file along the narrow road leading out of Bowmore and up towards the Gaellic school. The six of us, all wearing Malt Activist t-shirts in a show of solidarity, were headed to a Douglas Laing tasting by the name of Favourite of the Feis.

Having attended one last year we were eager to meet again the lovely Caroline and the affable Jan Beckers from DL. I had been in touch with Caroline over mail in the weeks running up to the event and had requested her to organise something special for our little group of first-timers. She accommodated with this stunning Port Ellen XOP.

Distilled in 1982 and bottled 32 years later I decided I was going to spring this as a surprise to the group once the official tasting was over. They had no idea and I couldn’t wait to see their faces.

As soon as the last dram had been consumed I motioned everyone to remain seated and with a flourish, from inside my bag, pulled out six vials of the precious liquid. I was immediately greeted with loud whoops, back slaps and even a spontaneous hug. That reaction was well worth keeping this little secret bottled up inside of me for more than two months.

We trooped outside to the terrace of the Gaellic Centre and, with the sea air blowing in our faces, toasted our trip to Islay. For some of us it was the first time tasting a Port Ellen and I could not have thought of a better backdrop to have it against.

Served at a natural cask strength of 53.9% our sample is from cask 10658 and one of only 115 bottles produced.

Nose: Delicate smoke. Beautifully understated as it lingers long. Very mild peat. Surprising to still find it there. Nuts. Wild green berries. Green apples. A nice green citric element to the proceedings. Malted barley. Gets sweeter over time. White chocolate brownie (Is there such a thing? If not then there should be!). Very well rounded. No jarring edges. Just beautiful. 9.3

Palate: Boom! Always big. Very nutty. A nice pinch of green tobacco. Coastal sea salt (not sure if the liquid or the setting, to be honest). A faint touch of smoke. That wonderful Islay grist – just good clean barley coming through. A profile that I admire the most and consistently use as a yardstick to measure quality. Coming out in spades here. Speck of dark chocolate. Lovely balanced liquid. 9.4

Finish: Nice and long. Drying with a touch of oak and spice. 9.2

Overall Comments: Well, what can I say. A whisky from a bygone era. The joy of being on Islay amid friends. We could have been drinking turpentine and it wouldn’t have mattered. The fact that the whisky was stunning was just an added bonus to the proceedings.

Overall Score: 9.3

Laphroaig Cairdeas 12

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Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 57.5% | Colour: Pale Gold
Nose: 8.4 | Palate: 8.6 | Finish: 8.5 | Overall Score: 8.5

Review
Every couple of weeks I wake up with a hankering for Islay and since I don’t have the luxury of being spontaneous I do the next best thing. I go over the hundreds of pictures and videos I have in my collection and try and re-live those moments.

Among the coveted memorabilia from that tiny island is my little notepad with the word NOTES scrawled across the cover. As you might have guessed it contains tasting notes on pretty much every single whisky I tasted while I was there. Thus, whenever I feel nostalgic I riffle through the ones I haven’t shared with you yet and bring them out.

If you know me you know Laphroaig is in my top two distilleries of all time – no mean feat given my overly critical personality and a penchant for theatrics. But they have more solid whiskies than duds and that’s enough to keep me satisfied.

We were in Islay for the Feis (Festival) and had a number of things planned for this day. Started off with a nice tasting at Bowmore after which we made our way to Islay Breweries to soak in the sun and drink some ales. After a couple of lazy hours at the brewery we headed over to Laphroaig to experience their famed Premium Tasting.

The session was conducted by our good friend James and we had a number of excellent whiskies on the menu. We started off with the 10 which was followed by the new 15 and then the softly understated 21 year old. A stunning 16 year old single cask from Warehouse 1 (not for general release) and finally this Cairdeas in question.

Released back in 2009, signalling the appointment of John Campbell as the new distillery manager, this beauty is 12 years old and harvested from a host of first-fill Makers Mark bourbon barrels. My sample is from an open bottle and served at 57.5%

Nose: Brilliantly Laphroaig. Creamy. Buttery. But with a sharp citric quality typical of the distillery. Like a razor sharp lime. Let it breathe and it becomes a more rounded. Now a touch softer. Some minerals. Limestone. Meanders into a nice fruitiness. Cherry liquorice. Now a touch of rock salt. Soft peat. Wisp of smoke. Some wet wood. If you’re a fan of Laphroaig there’s nothing wrong here.

Palate: Crisp. Sharp. Bold. Quite drying. That mineral quality again. Limestone. Quite nutty now. Almond husks. That sharp lime is the dominant force now. Starts off sweet and then moves to a sea-saltiness. Lovely maritime flavours. Once again, as a fan of the distillery, you’d be hard pressed to find a lot wrong.

Finish: Long. Drying. And that lovely limestone again.

Overall Comments: This is my sweet spot for whiskies (as it is for a couple of other friends of mine); twelve years old, first-fill bourbon and bottled at cask strength. Sometimes I wish all whiskies were made like this.

Overall Score: 8.5

Glenlivet Cipher

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Distillery/Brand: Glenlivet | Region: Speyside | ABV: 48% | Colour: Gold
Nose: 6.2 | Palate: 6.0 | Finish: 6.1 | Overall Score: 6.1

Review
I laugh at whiskies like these.

Correction.

I laugh at marketing tactics like these.

All well and good for the casual drinker hurrying through Travel Retail looking to bring home a story. But grumpy bloggers like me, who have a point to prove, can only roll their eyes as far back into their sockets as they’ll go and emit distasteful snorts.

First up, let me tell you how I feel about Glenlivet.

They are the reason I drink whisky today. If I hadn’t accidentally picked up a bottle of the 15 year old French Oak Reserve I might still be stocking my bar with two litre bottles of Grey Goose. That whisky taught me about flavours, balance and above all a delicious subtlety that I could never have related to a spirit like whisky. It’s not the best whisky in the world, far from it, but I have a special soft spot for it.

I then fell in love with the 16 year old Nadurra Cask Strength. The old school release. I challenge anyone to defy this perfectly matured and wonderfully crisp expression that has my heart racing every time I take a sip. It is the reason why I’m such a sucker for high strength whiskies today. Once again the flavours and balance are spot on.

While the majority of their whiskies may be borderline boring (read classic Speyside) I give them their due for championing their easy-going brand of liquid among the masses. Alongside Glenfiddich they deserve a ton of credit for putting dependable single malt whiskies in the hands of the new generation.

Which brings me to the second time they’ve pulled this little trick. The first one was called the Alpha. A whisky with absolutely no information. In an era where consumers are increasingly asking for more information Glenlivet decided it would be a fun idea to do exactly the opposite. No age, no cask, no notes; absolutely nothing. Drink it and figure it out.

Sure, why not. I’ll come along. You have me intrigued. The fact that the spirit was barely average didn’t help but, hey, these things happen. I played along as did everyone else. Now if you could please go back and make some tasty whiskies that would be great.

Well, they didn’t. They started making some really bad whiskies. Discontinued the 12 year old and replaced it with the Founders Reserve; absolute piss. Bastardised my favourite Nadurra by taking away the age and corrupting it with over-oaked Oloroso. Generally taking everything they stood for and began running it into the ground.

And on top of that decided to re-hash the experiment that never worked in the first place and released yet another mystery malt. Come on! No one cares! Just because this time around it comes with a website where I have to guess the flavours doesn’t make this a good whisky. Because it’s not.

Had at a party, where my gracious host unveiled it for all of us to try it was greeted with clucks of disapprovals and shaking of heads. And that’s what my biggest peeve is. Customers who spend good money to buy marketing spiel in the hope of creating a positive experience by sharing it among friends. And imagine when it has the absolute opposite effect.

Sad.

My sample is from a brand new bottle and served at 48%

Nose: Don’t have to tell me it’s sherry. Lots of it. Immediate on the nose. You know it’s Glenlivet thanks to the vanilla. The strong green apple. Red berries. Now more chocolate. Dark. The oak is quite distinct here. Doesn’t bode well for the palate, methinks. 6.2

Palate: Just as I suspected. That oak has taken over everything. Very drying. Pencil shavings. Some ginger spice. Vanilla. Quite tannic. Dark chocolate. Dark honey. Those red apples again. But the oak’s made everything too bitter for me to like it. 6.0

Finish: Medium. Very dry. Very oaky. 6.1

Overall Comments: I think I’ve said what I had to say. Cool bottle, though.

Overall Score: 6.1

Macallan 12 Double Cask

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Distillery/Brand: Macallan | Region: Highland | ABV: 40% | Colour: Gold
Nose: 7.5 | Palate: 7.4 | Finish: 7.3 | Overall Score: 7.4

Review
First up, apologies for the radio silence (for the two people who may have noticed). A lot’s been happening since I got back from Islay last month. Mainly I’m running a 16km obstacle race in December and, thus, have no time to indulge in alcoholic activities. Most of my time has been spent running around my neighbourhood or lifting heavy objects in the gym.

But enough about my fitness regimen. Let’s talk whisky.

Mention Macallan to my group of whisky friends and it causes a minor uproar. Raised voices, gnashing of teeth and foaming at the mouth are just some of the things that happen. And for good reason, mind you.

The last five years have not been kind to the brand thanks to some, in my opinion, heavily flawed product development strategies. Absurdly positioned expressions coupled with NAS on top of silly prices really upset the loyalists. This whole thing with colors (Sienna, Ruby, Gold, etc) was a disaster. After years of preaching that color meant nothing they went out and played right into the hands of the stereotype. Dark whisky is better whisky. Terrible.

Select Oak and Whisky Maker were totally lacklustre. Travel retail meant for the casual drinker with no idea of taste.

This was followed by the Rare Cask release. This is the one that really irked most of my friends.Rare Cask? Shut up already, they said. Pure marketing spin with good PR and a snazzy launch should not detract from the fact that it’s an average whisky begging for much of your hard earned money. I tend to agree.

And so I was without expectation when I poured out a stiff measure of their newest release.

A vatting of European & American sherry oak it’s aimed to sit right in between the Sherry Oak (one type of cask) and Fine Oak range (which used bourbon, European & American sherry). So two casks instead of one or three. This just might be interesting.

I did note there was an age statement on it. Twelve years it said. Not bad, I thought. At least it’s not a bloody NAS.

What’s that? It’s only 50GBP? How the hell did that happen? Why am I not being milked? Surely it must be absolutely terrible and Macallan have realised that. There can’t be any other explanation for that.

And at 40% I was expecting the worst.

Nose: Hmmmmmm. It’s not bad. Quite delicate if you ask me. Light sherry. I like the softness which I think is coming from the American Oak. Honey. Lots of it. But very light. But lots of it. Raisins soaked in the same honey. Sweet lemons. Like a limoncello. Hint of oak. Vanilla. Now some tropical fruits. Mangoes. Touch of while melon. There’s not a whole lot to complain about. So I won’t. 7.5

Palate: Very light bodied. Again extremely sweet. Thanks mainly to the honey. Clove. Lots of it. More than usual. Definitely the European Sherry casks. Oaky. Very juicy now. Granulated white sugar. Late arrival of tropical fruits. Mangoes. Papaya. Touch of melon. And, of course, vanilla. It’s not magnificent but I’m not gagging either. 7.4

Finish: Medium. But then grows in stature. Sweet. Vanilla. Drying. Fruits. 7.3

Overall Comments: Let’s start with the good. Age statement. Good. Price point. Good. Overall experience; satisfactory. This is as adequate a whisky as you can find. It does not demand much from you. And so it expects that you don’t demand much from it either. It’s not the huge disappointment that I was expecting. But then I have seen Macallan scale some mind-boggling heights and this is no where near that. If I was on holiday and I had a bottle of this I would drink it first thing in the morning. And then go find something to challenge my palate.

Overall Score: 7.4

Glenfiddich Project XX

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Distillery/Brand: Glenfiddich | Region: Speyside | ABV: 47% | Colour: Gold
Nose: 7.7 | Palate: 7.7 | Finish: 7.7 | Overall Score: 7.7

Review
I previously wrote about Glenfiddich’s new direction, #Experimental, where they’ve taken it upon themselves to break the mould of traditionalism and appeal to a younger target audience.

Crazy bartenders, cool new graphics, an IPA influenced expression and ultra snazzy bottle designs are just some of the ways they’re trying to live up to this new claim.

And so it was in the spirit of experimentation that they brought together twenty Glenfiddich brand ambassadors from around the world, including the legend Ian Millar, to hand select casks from their warehouse which would then be blended together by Mr Brian Kinsman and named Project XX.

Cool name, I think.

We were lucky enough to be sat with Russian ambassador Denis Pankratov who brought with him spirit that he had selected for the mix. I don’t remember the age (I think 18 years) but it was a first-fill bourbon with a strength of over 60%. I have to tell you that was one of the most delicious whiskies I have drunk in a while. I would love for them to just bottle this and sell it as a one off. But we all know that’s never going to happen. Fingers crossed, though.

Project XX finally saw seventeen bourbon barrels and three sherry barrels make it to the mix. The exact recipe is a secret which no one other than Kinsman knows so we’ll have to live with that.

My sample is from a brand new bottle and served at 47%

Nose: This is more like Glenfiddich than the IPA. Quite fruity. Typical Glenfiddich fruits of figs and raisins. But then also darker fruits like plums. Berries. Oily. Little buttery too. And then again the familiar. Honey. Blood oranges. Malty too. I like the nose. It works for me better than the IPA. I shouldn’t be comparing but I did have it back to back and that’s a good reference point. 7.7

Palate: Still fruity. The same raisins. But now more stewed apples. A bit tannic as well. Those sherry casks must have been insanely strong. Treacle. Dark jam. Quite sweet. Hint of oak. Becomes a touch sharp mid-palate. But overall I like it. 7.7

Finish: Those sherry casks are back in play. But so are the apples. Figs. 7.7

Overall Comments: I like it. I think it works. Can’t be easy crowdsourcing a blend. Each one with their own tastes and preferences. But somehow Kinsman has made it work. There might be an off note here and there but by and large it does a good job. And like the IPA the price point is just fabulous (around 50GBP). In this day and age that’s got to be a plus. If not for my self I might just pick it up for a friend and impress him with the cool bottle. And the spirit’s not bad, either.

Overall Score: 7.7

Glenfiddich IPA

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Distillery/Brand: Glenfiddich | Region: Speyside | ABV: 43% | Colour: Light Gold
Nose: 7.1 | Palate: 7.1 | Finish: 7.1 | Overall Score: 7.1

Review
For those of you unfortunate enough to read my reviews you know that I have always given Glenfiddich it’s due praise as being the giant that truly champions the single malt cause among the fickle masses.

For someone who produces such vast quantities of spirt for them to maintain that level of above average consistency is quite remarkable. I have not yet met someone who has anything bad to say about them. Sure, they might not have the stunners we seek every now and then but I think to be on average above average is no easy feat. And for that they have the tip of my hat.

Which brings me to this interesting new direction they’re taking. I like that because they’ve decided to take the odd risk every now and then. Having been shackled to their core range for the longest time they’ve decided to step out of their comfort zone and meet the new world head on.

And that comes in the shape of their new #Experimental campaign. This broad direction is taking everything from bartenders with crazy ideas to expressions that push the boundaries. Should some boundaries be pushed is a different matter altogether but I’m in favour of this new attitude in general.

Launched at the World’s Most Experimental Bartender competition, which I was fortunate enough to judge, we sat down with Dennis Pankratov, the Russian Brand Ambassador, to go over this anomaly. Matured first in bourbon, followed by 12 weeks in barrels that previously held an IPA and then back to bourbon for another few years. Notice the conspicuous lack of numbers here. Obviously pretty young.

My sample is from a brand new bottle and served at 43%

Nose: Starts off similar to the 12 year old I feel. Youngish. But at the same time retains the signature green apples and pears that you find in the entry level. The similarity is quite strong. Vanilla. Custard. Also the barley is prominent. Not sure if that’s because of the IPA influence. Quite malty. It’s not a nose I look for in a whisky but it’s enough to keep me interested. 7.1

Palate:
I think the beer influence is stronger here. I don’t know if I have a great palate or it’s simply the power of suggestion. Again quite malty on the palate. But now with a touch of spice. Peppercorns. That dry ginger that I normally associate with Glenfiddich. Vanilla. Some more custard. Again, not something that’s going to blow me away but enough to keep me intrigued. Slightly better with a couple of drops. 7.1

Finish: Hint of bitterness. Citrus. 7.1

Overall Comments: What do I think? I think why not. I like it when traditional tries harder. It’s a good sign. It reflects in the bottles which are by far the trendiest I’ve seen in a while (after Compass Box, that is). And the price point of 40GBP is almost a no-brainer. They’re obviously appealing to young voters thanks to the IPA touch and chic bottle style. And they’re the ones they have to impress. Not us irritating snobs pretending to have lofty standards.

Overall Score: 7.1

Ardbeg 21

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Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 46% | Colour: Wheat
Nose: 8.6 | Palate: 8.8 | Finish: 8.7 | Overall Score: 8.7

Review
It’s seven in the morning here in Islay. The sun refuses to rise. It’s been spitting for the last 24 hours. The wind is auditioning to be in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. And I still can’t get the taste of the Ardbeg 21 out of my mouth.

It took me three flight connections, an overnighter in Glasgow and a bumpy plane to Islay to make this impromptu trip. I’m normally not spontaneous but when my buddy from Canada said he was going to be there, along with three other friends, I began thinking. And when Ardbeg sent me a mail inviting me over to try the new Ardbeg 21 I knew there was no way I was going to be able to refuse.

I was at Ardbeg twenty minutes after my plane touched down in the morning and the sign on the bench, as you turn into the distillery, couldn’t have rung any truer for me. Rest and be thankful for you have arrived.

I love that saying.

As we milled around the visitors centre we were greeted by the supremely kind and generous Jackie who poured for us, among other absolutely magnificent old-school Ardbegs, this hugely anticipated release. We sat in the Old Kiln Cafe and took our first sip of the 21 year old.

Matured exclusively in bourbon my sample is from an open bottle and served at 46%

Nose: There’s first the unmistakeable smoke and peat bacon that you can only attribute to Ardbeg. A sweetness but it’s not entirely from fruits. More from a sugared barley. Quite salty. Mussels. Fishnets. Let it relax and it starts to curl open. Green lime. Now there’s some green apples. Melon rind. Red liquorice. And a hint of purple flowers. I love it. Solid. And on point. 8.6

Palate: Still savoury as the nose suggests. But with more citrus this time. The green lime is bigger. As is the lemon. But it all comes on the back of a sooty, charry coal smoke which completely puckers up your taste bud. It’s a warm arrival that coats your mouth and forces you to chew. Dries mid-palate with just the slightest hint of pineapples. This is really working for me. 8.8

Finish: Medium to long. Drying again. Touch of green chillies. 8.7

Overall Comments: I had been constantly second-guessing my self all along my journey here. Was the whisky going to be worth it? Was this trip a good idea? But the allure of Islay and the opportunity to meet friends was strong. Besides Ardbeg had somewhat redeemed themselves with the Committee bottling of the Dark Cove so it was their game to lose. And guess what. I think they’ve hit it out of the park.

Overall Score: 8.7