Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 1

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Distillery/Brand: Balvenie | Region: Speyside | ABV: 47.1% | Colour: Full Gold
Nose: 24 | Taste: 21 | Finish: 21 | Balance: 21 | Rating: 87

Balvenie is my go to expression when I’m not sure what I want to be drinking. I’ll normally pour myself one as I sit down and ponder. I find that their dependable and comfortingly familiar flavors help me get in the mood for a drink.

The Balvenie 17 Sherry Oak and the 21 Portwood were one of my first ever single malt purchases and what excellent purchases they turned out to be. A solid core range with classic Speyside flavors Balvenie doesn’t give itself a chance to go wrong very often.

The Tun series is quite a nice little concept where David Stewart (Master Blender of Balvenie) picks out a bunch of Sherry butts and Bourbon barrels and marries them in a much larger vessel (the Tun) for a few months before bottling them.

The first in this line was the Tun 1401 which was the name of the 2000 litre vessel in which Mr Stewarts selection was left to marry. So insanely popular was this series that Balvenie was compelled to knock out no less than nine different batches. Each one causing a minor uproar every time it appeared on auction sites.

The next was the Tun 1509 which is an 8000 litre vessel. For Batch 1 Mr Stewart went with a total of 42 different spirits; 35 from ex-bourbon barrels and seven from large European sherry butts. Each cask number written on the label – much to my appreciation. The whisky was left to swim around and get accustomed to each other for a few months before seeing the light of day.

The much larger output may have successfully killed the second-hand / auction market for the Tun series and for that I’m quite glad because the 1401 had reached prices of stupidly epic proportions. But that may not be the only reason for it’s relative lack of demand. For while the 1401 batches were by and large quite tasty this particular expression is not quite in that league.

My sample is from a brand new bottle with a strength of 47.1%

Nose: Intense sherry. Warming. Clove. Endearing honey. Peanut butter. Jam. Bread pudding. Soaked in rum. Stewed apples. Vanilla. Creme brûlée. Nutmeg. Cinnamon. Roasted almonds. Dried figs. Raisins. Hint of coal smoke. When I first nosed this I literally swooned. Such a beautifully harmonious balance of aromas. This is what whisky should smell like. (24/25)

Palate: Such a creamy mouthfeel when it starts off. But then an unwanted bitterness creeps in and layers all the flavors. Coffee. Cinnamon. All spice. Oak. Quite savory unlike the nose. Blood oranges. Unsweetened plums. Maybe the nose set it up way too high and the palate just could not compete. What ever the case I felt a little let down at the lack of complexity here. (21/25)

Finish: Medium. Savory. Oak. Cinnamon. Oily. Not the best. (21/15)

Overall Comments: I wish this whisky was sweeter. The nose promises a different ride to the one you actually get. Which is a little sad. It’s not terrible, mind you, but I was so looking forward to this blowing me out of the water. And at around 250GBP per bottle it had better.

Rating: 87


Kilchoman 10th Anniversary Release

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Distillery/Brand: Kilchoman | Region: Islay | ABV: 58.2% | Colour: Pale Straw
Nose: 23 | Taste: 18 | Finish: 18 | Balance: 19 | Rating: 78

Kilchoman is a quaint little distillery that has defied the odds and is fast becoming a name to reckon with.

Good quality whisky making that is leading the way in making people realize that age is but a number. And by that I don’t mean they’re churning out NAS statements like everyone else out there.

Quite the contrary.

They take pride in telling people the exact age of their whiskies. From the time of distillation to the exact day of bottling. They don’t hide behind fancy marketing jargon and instead let the whisky do the talking.

And for that they have my respect.

Their whiskies remind me of old school Ardbegs with their Islay grist and barley smokiness beautifully balanced with a woody sweetness. After an initial run-in with a couple of less than stellar bottlings I am now a fan.

I picked up a mini of the 10th Anniversary bottling when I visited the distillery during my Islay visit last month for the Festival. And since I’ve already made it clear that I’m a big fan this particular bottling comes as a bit of a disappointment.

To mark 10 years since it opened it’s doors the distillery, along with it’s official single cask Feis Ile bottling, released a special expression with whiskies from each year starting from 2005 until 2012 from both bourbon and sherry barrels.

My sample is from a 50ml mini purchased at the distillery and bottled at 58.2%

Nose: Sugarcane. Quite tart. White wine chardonnay. White pepper. Hint of fruit. Dried apricots. Green limes. That lovely Islay peat. Fine grist. Lots of barley. So close to the old school Ardbegs. Brine. Hint of cottage cheese. Whiff of grass. I quite like the nose. (23/25)

Palate: Good weight. Initially the mouthfeel is great. But then you get this wave of bitterness. I have never tasted a whisky this bitter ever. I try and get some fruits but, my word, there is something wrong here. (18/25)

Finish: Bitter. Spicy. Bitter. (18/25)

Overall Comments: Such a shame about this expression. There is definitely a bad cask in here somewhere and there’s lots of it, too. A great idea marred by a miscreant. But that’s not going to stop me from being a fan. In fact it tells me the guys over at Kilchoman are human.

Rating: 78

Ardbeg Kildalton 1981

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Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 52.6% | Colour: Pale Straw
Nose: 24 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 93

After much planning and fanfare I finally managed to make a trip to Islay for the famed Islay Whisky Festival. It was a long overdue trip made even better with the company of two of my whisky buddies.

While each Islay distillery had a certain allure for me it was definitely the mystique behind Ardbeg that I was most excited about. Of course, once I visited it I realized there was no real mystique behind the name any more. It was just another company that had now taken to producing slightly above average spirit dressed up in marketing glitter.

Quite sad really.

However, that’s the story today. But go back a few decades and you realize why this distillery commanded such awe. Before it closed doors in 1981 there was some real magic happening behind those doors.

Old stock released after it’s re-opening in 1997 shed a giant spotlight on the work that was done during that era. Sadly that era doesn’t seem like it’s going to be revived any time soon.

One of those old stock releases was the 1980 Kildalton and then subsequently the 1981 as a mini as part of the 2005 Story of Peat pack which included the new 10 year old, the Uigeadail, the super rare 17 and this 1981 Kildalton.

I took this very pack with me to Islay hoping to taste it at an opportune moment and it was my friend Nitin (@trailingTheMalt) who had the splendid idea of heading down to the Kildalton Cross, just ahead of Ardbeg, to open and sample the 1981 Kildalton.

The weather Gods were against us that day not giving us more than five minutes of sunshine but finally the sun broke through and for an hour it turned out to be a bright and beautifully sunny day.

And it was right under the Kildalton cross that we each raised our glass and toasted this whisky.

My sample is from a 50ml Mini bottled at 52.6%

Nose: Vanilla. Soft fruits. Honey. Hint of heather. Quite floral. The faintest of smoke. Extremely delicate. Hint of oak. Pineapple. Almost like nosing a fruity white wine. I’m pretty sure this whisky is unpeated or even if it was lightly peated has lost all of it’s peat reek resulting in a sweet delicate fragrance.

Palate: The fruit continues. There’s the hint of smoke again. Vanilla. White spices. Very delicate again. Milk chocolates. Melon. Pineapple. Delicate citrus. And the tiniest of mocha. Very smooth, sweet and fruity.

Finish: Oily. Mouth coating. Touch of oak. Touch of spice. Nice and long.

Overall Comments: I read that this whisky was originally commissioned by a private entity or individual but was instead bottled as a distillery release. May explain the departure from the original Ardbeg house style. Nevertheless this is a wonderfully delicate spirit which simply shows the softer side of Ardbeg. An experience made even better by the symbolic trip we undertook to taste it.

Rating: 93

Laphroaig 14 Years Douglas Laing Feis Ile 2015

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Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 48.4% | Colour: Pale Straw
Nose: 23 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 92

As part of my trip to the Islay Whisky Festival a couple of weeks I tried to get into as many tastings as I could. One of them happened to be an interesting session with the guys over from Douglas Laing, the independent bottlers.

Douglas Laing are an accomplished whisky bottler claiming to stay as true to the original spirit as possible. The result is some fairly popular expressions.

Big Peat, Double Barrel, Provenance, Directors Cut and Old Particular are some of the names under which they market their wares. However, what I did not know was that they, too, release a festival bottling every year to mark Feis Ile and it is, of course, always something from Islay.

This year they chose to release a single cask Laphroaig aged for 14 years in a Refill Butt (Ref DL10694) under the Old Particular label. Distilled in February 2001 and bottled exactly 14 years later in February 2015 this is one of 636 bottles released.

My sample is from an open bottle and served at 48.4%

Nose: Touch of peat. Lime. Lemon. Walnuts. Hint of oak. Hardboiled lemon sweets. Raisins. Ginger. Warm tangerines. Quite fruity too. Peaches. Then the signature Laphroaig flavors come rolling in. A little medicinal. Seaweed. Cherry licorice. This is a wonderful nose. Adds a bit of restrained fruitiness over the traditional house flavors.

Palate: Citrus. Smoke. Barbecue. Peat. White pepper. Spicy. Iodine. After the initial sting of Islay the spirit mellows out towards the sweeter side. Caramel. Milk chocolate. Raisins. Salt. You know this is a Laphroaig but this one has a gentler side to it.

Finish: Sea salt. Char. Citrus. Touch of oak.

Overall Comments: This is quite a fantastic little dram which I’m sure will simply fly under the radar amongst the masses. Also because there’s only 636 bottles floating around for consumption. Which is a pity because I feel amid all the distillery fanfare where some of the big names are content to churn out whiskies that are barely decent there are little gems thrown in the middle that don’t get the attention they deserve.

Well I hope my millions of followers are listening and pick this lovely little whisky if they have the chance.

Rating: 92

Ardbeg Supernova 2014

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Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 55% | Colour: Pale Straw
Nose: 23 | Taste: 24 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 24 | Rating: 94

The Supernova is one of the whiskies that made me fall hook line and sinker in love with Ardbeg. Specifically the 2010 Release. I had just started drinking single malts and had a brief glimpse into the world of Islay peat monsters.

But there was really nothing that prepared me for the onslaught of smoke and peat that greeted me when I first dipped my nose in the glass. What the bloody hell is this sorcery? I’m certain I said out loud.

And there began my love affair with high strength, phenolic, smokey powerhouses. I managed to procure the increasingly rare 2009 but have yet to give it a go. I’m still waiting for the right moment to uncork that.

So it was lovely news when Ardbeg announced the 2014 release (or SN14 as it is known). After much waiting and haggling I managed to pick up a couple of bottles wanting to open them on a special day. And that day came in the form of my first trip to Islay for the Whisky Festival. So I decided to try it for the very first time on Ardbeg Day sitting by myself on a bench somewhere on a farm in Islay.

The setting could not have been better.

Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation at Ardbeg, went through some of his peatiest whiskies in the warehouse and pulled out a mix of ex-bourbon and some ex-sherry to put this 2014 release together.

My sample is from a brand new bottle and served at a strength of 55%

Nose: Peat. Lots of smoke. Salt. Brine. That gorgeous Islay grist. Green grapes. Pomegranate. Some type of licorice. Melon rind. Guava. Cut grass. Mixed herbs. Garden peas. Black pepper. Bitter dark chocolate. A touch of cherries. This is, as promised, a smoky powerhouse on the nose. But thanks to the sherry influence has a touch of something sweet too.

Palate: Rolls over the palate nicely without causing any pain. By the way I’m drinking this at around 10AM in the morning and it’s still going down smoothly. Lots of barley. Hint of oak. Smoke. White pepper. Greens. Melon. Mild sugarcane sweetness. Green lime. Tobacco. Brine. Linseed oil. Red chili chocolate. Deceptively smooth and balanced to drink.

Finish: Comes back up again to stay. Peat. Soot. Ash. Powerful.

Overall Comments: This is a great study in balance. The 125ppm works wonderfully well with the sweet. The soot is complemented by the fruit. This is, not to put too fine a point on this, one of the great Ardbegs of late.

Rating: 94

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2015 Feis Ile

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Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 51.5% | Colour: Pale Straw
Nose: 23 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 92

Laphroaig will always have a special place in my heart for me. It is constantly fighting for a top spot with Ardbeg for my affections. And I think I’m finally ready to accept that Laphroaig consistently produces better whiskies than Ardbeg.

I am, therefore, officially announcing that Laphroaig is now my No. 1 whisky of choice. Sorry Ardbeg but you’ve let me down far too many times of late.

So it was quite symbolic that the first distillery I ever visited was this one when I traveled to Scotland last week to attend the Islay Festival. We went straight from the tiny airport to the distillery to take part in the festivities.

After standing in line for over an hour we managed to enter the shop and picked up our bottles of the 2015 Cairdeas. With those in the bag we managed to attend a couple of tastings while there.

One of them was called 2015 which included three expressions all released this year. There was the new 10 year old Cask Strength Batch 007, an unreleased 21 year old (delicious!) and of course this years’ Feis Ile release.

This years’ release is different from the others since it uses floor malted barley as opposed to regular malted barley. It’s been distilled using the small stills at the distillery which means it has a lot of fruity characteristics. And matured in first-fill bourbon barrels in the famous Warehouse No1 by the sea.

Distilled in August 2003 my sample is nearly 12 years old and bottled at 51.5% (the last two digits are a nod to the year by the way).

Nose: Typical Laphroaig. TCP. Iodine. Sea weed. There’s a hint of char. Some toasted barley. But then comes the sweetness. So much of it. Lots of fruity citrus. Pineapples. Lemon. Lime. Blood oranges. Tinge of honey. Vanilla. Quite nicely layered.

Palate: Hint of smoke. Touch of peat. Again very sweet. The pineapple is back. So is the vanilla. Warehouse No1 comes into play with all the saltiness. An interesting sweet and salty combination. I really like it.

Finish: Nice and long with a hint of oak.

Overall Comments: This is an interesting Laphroaig which goes back to the old ways of whisky making. The peat is different because of the floor malting. The maturation quite interesting thanks to living in the damp dunnage warehouse by the sea for almost 12 years. Good stuff!

Rating: 92

Bowmore SMWS Feis Ile 2015

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Distillery/Brand: Bowmore | Region: Islay | ABV: 57.1% | Colour: Copper
Nose: 23 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 22 | Balance: 22 | Rating: 90

The SMWS bottlings have held a certain level of mystique over me for some reason. The way they don’t put the name of the distillery on the bottle and ‘hide’ it behind numbers and fancy descriptions.

The minimalism of their packaging. The near brilliant consistency of their whiskies. Everything ticks the right boxes for me.

I remember my first SMWS. It was a seven year old Ardbeg and, my word, it was delicious. Since then I’ve been on a quest to get hold of as many as I can get my hands on.

Which is not always easy.

And this I found out the hard way during my trip to Islay last week for the Whisky Festival. Because this release was no where to be found. Of course, missing their open day didn’t help!

However, I did manage to snag a dram at the Ballygrant Inn.

The SMWS 3.243 is a 17 year old Bowmore matured in ex-Sherry butts served at a cask strength of 57.1%. My sample is from an open bottle.

Nose: Lots of toasted barley. Lots of it. Touch of peat. Hint of char. Like a toasted papadum. As the smoke clears the honey shines. A mild dark honey. Almost bitter savory. Jute bag. And a sprinkle of black salt. Complex nose this. Wonderfully layered.

Palate: Black pepper. That same dark honey. Banana. Rum toffee. Butterscotch. Berries. Hint of dark chocolate. Cinnamon. The spirit is quite full bodied and the oakiness settles in the open cracks of your mouth. Makes sense?

Finish: Long. Oak. Spices. Chocolate.

Overall Comments: A tasty whisky this. Quite chewy and nice. Another reason to drink SMWS.

Rating: 90

Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015

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Distillery/Brand: Lagavulin | Region: Islay | ABV: 59.9% | Colour: Pale Straw
Nose: 22 | Taste: 22 | Finish: 22 | Balance: 22 | Rating: 88

I missed the Lagavulin open day during the Islay Festival. Which is a shame because I am genuinely a fan of this distillery. We did swing by on one of the off days and managed a distillery tour.

Though the first thing that greeted us as we made our way to the visitor centre was a large printed sign informing us that the Feis Ile bottling was all SOLD OUT!

Fine, we get it!

It was raining on and off with the wind threatening to push us off the pier as we stood staring at the LAGAVULIN written on the distillery wall. I managed to get some nice panoramic pictures before we decided to head on to see the Kildalton Cross. But that’s another story.

Since we couldn’t taste the Feis Ile bottling at the distillery we had to find one some where. This we managed to locate at a place called the Ballygrant Inn. Manned by an extremely anti-social bar tender it did have quite a wonderful whisky collection including the entire Feis Ile releases for this year.

And sitting among the lot was the Lagavulin. Triple maturation this expression. First in bourbon, then PX and finally a slow finish in old oak puncheons.

Distilled in 1991 my sample is from an open bottle and served at a stinging 59.9%

Nose: Burnt toast. Char. Smoke. Vanilla. Custard. Citrus. Green lime. Oysters. Gets fruitier over time as the nose adjusts. Pears. Lemon sorbet. Opens up a touch with water.

Palate: Intense. Maybe too intense. Spicy. Burnt toast. Char. Have to coax the sweetness. But it comes. Vanilla. Custard. Lemon tart. Hint of fruits. Gets fruitier and more lemony with a few drops of water. Certainly more palatable.

Finish: Long. Very long. Spicy. Lime.

Overall Comments: This is a solid dram. Not for the faint hearted. Reminds me a lot of the 12 Cask Strength even though it’s twice the age. I’m a sucker for high strength whiskies but even I feel that this needs to be mellowed out a touch. May have been perfect at around 55% but that’s just me.

Rating: 88

Bowmore Feis Ile 2015 Virgin Oak

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Distillery/Brand: Bowmore | Region: Islay | ABV: 55.7% | Colour: Light Gold
Nose: 22 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 22 | Balance: 22 | Rating: 89

To be honest I’m not a massive fan of Bowmore. I really like their Tempest series but other than that there’s not a whole lot that really makes my heart pump. Even as a distillery it doesn’t have much allure for me.

I have friends who differ, of course. By a lot. And that’s fine. Just doesn’t cut it for me for some reason.

So when I walked into the distillery on it’s Open Day during the Islay Festival I was just in the mood to nose around and see what was happening.

First up there was a hundred person line waiting to get into the visitor shop for the festival bottling. Bowmore released three this year. A NAS matured in Virgin Oak, a 12 year old First-Fill Sherry and a 26 year Sherry Matured.

I couldn’t be bothered to stand in line so wandered around looking for free drams.

Came around the back to a man with four bottles of Bowmore atop a folding table selling a dram for five pounds each. After giving him a dirty look we decided to head out some where given we couldn’t even secure a tour or a tasting.

The same evening as we sat down for dinner at the Harbour Inn, across the road from Bowmore, they had on their menu the Virgin Oak. Having missed it at Bowmore I decided to give it a try.

My sample is from an open bottle and served at a cask strength of 55.7%

Nose: Cold cuts. Charcuterie. It’s quite sweet. Vanilla. Coconut. Waffles. Milk chocolate. Hint of citrus. Almonds. Mild eucalyptus. Walnuts. Quite a crisp and arresting nose. Very clean.

Palate: Quite robust. Creamy mouthfeel.Fair bit of spices. Oak. Leather. Tannins. Red apples. Clove. Cinnamon. Brown toast. A touch rough in places but in a way that gave it character. Quite chewy.

Finish: Oil. Clove. Red berries.

Overall Comments: This is quite a beautiful little dram. The most affordable of the three at just 55GBP. I tasted the 12 year First-Fill Sherry and thought the Virgin Oak was a touch better. The only disappointment was the boring arrangements at the distillery on the day.

Rating: 89