10 Of My Favorite Smoky Whiskies

I’ve been an absolutely distracted sonofabitch of late. Every time I would sit down with pen and paper in hand something else would grab my attention and off I would go looking into that.

I think I was subconsciously telling my self to take a break from writing and simply enjoy the whiskies instead. So that’s what I did. Drank for the sake of enjoying my self. No notes. No discussions. Just a good dollop of my favourite poison in the midst of good company (dog included).

But I think I’ve had enough of a break. Plus I’m off to my favourite part of the world in less than two weeks time and I need to start getting into the groove of reporting. Which favourite part, you ask? Well, if you don’t know me by now I guess you never will.

And so, with that in mind and, as a tip of my hat to this remote South Western part of Scotland here are 10 of my favourite smoky whiskies. Spoiler alert, there’s a couple plus one more not from there but you know what I mean.

Also, in no particular order.

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01 Ardbeg UigeadailLet’s just start with my once all-time favourite. The disgustingly excellent Oogy. I had heard many a whisky drinker / writer mention their Eureka moment – that moment when a certain special whisky hits your palate and you lean back with your eyes closes and say what the actual fuck is going on here? Like it or not that’s an actual quote. I had it with this whisky one evening many moons ago. It was an earlier bottling (around 2007, I think), hence, not marred by the ugly taint of hurried production to meet demand. Just the right combination of thick and chewy smoky peat countered by the perfectly balanced sherry. Still my go to dram to finish off a long session of whisky drinking. Alas, later batches are losing their edge, I feel. Still a mighty fine whisky if you ask me.

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02 Laphroaig CSThe first distillery I visited. The most generous distillery I’ve visited. Staffed by some of the loveliest people I have ever met (though on Islay that’s not very surprising). One of the best tours on the island (if you haven’t then you must check out Water to Whisky). And, in my opinion, quite possibly the most consistently above average spirit produced at these quantities on the island. And the jewel in their peaty crown is their Cask Strength series. Bottled at 10 years old, matured in first-fill bourbon and served at cask strength this series has captured the imagination of even the most hardened of whisky drinkers. There is not a soul who has told me they don’t love this whisky. How can you? It’s just good old fashioned whisky making. My favourite of the lot (they’re up to Batch 008 by now) is Batch 003. Quite possibly the most balanced of them all. Sweeter than most. Though not as smoky as some of the batches (like the 006) but brilliantly preserves it’s Islay heritage of peat, seaweed, iodine and that lovely charred ashy smoke that wafts in and out of your palate as you indulge. The most affordable, as well as tastiest, of all the whiskies you can lay your hands on.

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03 Lagavulin 16Bruce Lee once famously said “I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once but the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee could not only punch you from an inch away and hurl you back 10 feet he was also a sage. And if I didn’t know any better I would have thought he was referring to Lagavulin 16. This is the right way of doing things. Perfect a formula. Never let it go. Keep at it till it becomes your second skin. That’s what the Lagavulin 16 is. It has defined the essence of the distillery. Lagavulin, thanks to this 16 year old, can do no wrong. The 16 is the Barack Obama of the distillery. The right balance of fun and seriousness. The swag. Universally loved. Easy to fall in love with. In fact that’s what I have in my glass right now. A buttery sweetness held together by it’s own unique dance of smoke and peat. Flawlessly balanced. Readily available. Relatively well priced. What more could you ask for? Maybe a Warehouse session with Iain Macarthur, perhaps?

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04 Kilchoman MachirBaySeldom does a distillery suddenly spring up out of no where (the first distillery on Islay in over a 100 years) and capture the hearts of so many whisky lovers. Kilchoman did just that. Hardly 10 years old it has brought back the forgotten art of hand-crafted whiskies. This minuscule operation churns out just enough whisky to keep us barely satiated. But what it does produce it produces with the sternest of eyes on quality. Top quality ingredients and a firm grip on the production process have resulted in some of the tastiest liquid to emerge from Scotland in recent memory. Proud to tell people how young yet incredibly tasty it is it has thrown the gauntlet down in front of brands that hide behind non-age statement whiskies scared to divulge any information on age. Yes, the Machir Bay is a non-age statement but all of Kilchoman’s literature will tell you there is four to six year old spirit inside that bottle. They don’t hide anything. Proving once and for all that age is truly a number. Good whisky, if made with care and passion, will yield stunning results in even five years. The Machir Bay is a shining example of that passion. Matured in first-fill bourbons and then finished off in sherry casks it captures the essence of the island with it’s hint of sherry sweetness and a lot of barley grist and lime shrouded in the most delicate of smoke. Later batches have older whiskies and are just as good as their younger cousins. If anyone wishes for a masterclass in whisky making head on down there.

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05 Port CharlotteSurprisingly the only distillery on Islay that doesn’t peat it’s whiskies is Bruichladdich. In fact they claim to be a ‘peat-free zone’ as per their website. However, Jim McEwan has turned producing peated whiskies into an art form. And this art he presents in the form of Port Charlotte whiskies. Born as a special project the PC series uses heavily peated barley (40ppm) and is served at cask strength. Of the lot (PC5 to PC12) my favourite is the PC6. Alas, now discontinued, this six year old whisky is a joy to behold (and imbibe). Served at a blazing 61.6% it promises to take no prisoners. The delivery is surprisingly fruity with citrus and green apple but it’s the strength and the perfectly balanced smoke that takes you places you’ve never been. This one is scarce on the ground and now only available to punters scouring auction sites only to be had at silly prices. Nevertheless, this is history in a bottle.

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06 OctomoreNo list of smoky whiskies is complete without the powerhouse that is the Octomore. Once again Jim McEwan has created a monster that will live long in the hearts of the brave for many many years to come. Peated at unfathomable levels of up to 258ppm the Octomore series is a kick in the teeth for the uninitiated. Served at cask strength it is like making snow angels in the dying embers of a once raging fire all the while being comforted by the perfectly balanced sweetness of vanilla and citrus. This is the by far the smokiest and most powerful whisky on this list. It is a testament to the genius of Sir Jim McEwan (he doesn’t have an MBE but I’ve given him one). It’s OK to be a little scared of this whisky. But once you get over your terror believe me it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. An iron fist in a velvet glove.

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07 Longrow 11Now peat and smoke are not the sole property of Islay. It is known for it, yes. But that doesn’t mean non-Islay whiskies are barred from peating their barley. And that brings us to this Longrow 11 R&K. Two hours from Islay (by ferry, that is) is the town of Campbeltown. Once a prolific whisky producing region it now has just three distilleries to its’ name. One of those distilleries is Springbank and this distillery is genius. It uses the same stills to produce three different types of whisky. The un-peated Hazelburn, the mildly peated Springbank and finally Longrow, the heavily peated nectar of the Gods (and my favourite of the lot). With an earthiness unique to this area Longrow creates some of the most lip-smacking whiskies I have ever come across. This particular spirit is 11 years old and matured in tiny casks known as Runlets & Kilderkins. These casks are barely 75 litres and were previously used to store beer. The small size means massive contact between wood and spirit, thus, imparting some seriously intense flavours. Ground coffee beans, tiramisu and it’s own version of Campbeltown smoky peat make this expression startlingly good. If you’re not afraid to venture out of your comfort zone then get your hands on this bottle.

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08 Balcones BrimstoneThe first time I tasted the Balcones Brimstone I pretty much fell off my chair. I mean there was no way a whisky was supposed to taste like this. Made by, then owner, Chip Tate at the Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas it broke all conventional rules. First of all it was made by burnt blue corn (yes, you read that right) and once distilled it was subject to some seriously severe smoking using sun baked Texas scrub oak. That’s right. Smoked after being distilled. This was followed by three years in a virgin oak under the blazing Texas sun and you had the makings of a monster. Imagine sitting next to a bonfire. No wait. Imagine sitting inside the bonfire. Actually, no wait. Imagine you are the fucking bonfire. This is what this whisky is. Peppery, hard-hitting and insanely smoky this one should come with a warning. And it’s own fireman. One of the most unique whisky tasting experiences of my life.

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09 Talisker 57NorthClose to Islay is the small island of Skye. And on it is one distillery. Talisker. That’s it. Maybe an inn, a B&B and some deer. But that’s pretty much it. The entire island depends on the distillery for it’s sustenance. Which is fine because it produces spirit like the classic ten year old and the one that stole my heart – the 57 North. Named because the distillery is located at 57 degrees Longitude the spirit is bottled at (and no prizes for guessing) at a lovely 57%. If you haven’t figured it out by now I am a sucker for high strength whiskies. And this one is no exception. Once again, as with all on my list, it’s the balance that reigns supreme. Sweet vanilla and the deftest of smoke. That combination of sweet and smoky is my melting point.

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10 Highland PArk 18Now you might raise an eyebrow or two when reading this but allow me to explain. When I said I was going to do a list of smoky whiskies I didn’t just mean those that force you to put on a gas mask. If you recall I said smoky and not smokiest. Subtle difference in words but a huge gap in styles. The Highland Park 18 is the epitome of that difference. While drinkers imagine massive puffs of peat smoke every time someone uses the word smoky to describe a whisky the HP 18 takes the most delicate of smokes and weaves it intricately in between layers of sherry sweetness. I remember when I first really noticed it. It came a few seconds after I poured the spirit onto my palate. I was enjoying the sweetness of the sherry when suddenly, out of no where, it emerged. Like a genie. It caressed my taste buds and was present long after I had banished the liquid down into the deep chasm that is my gullet. While most whiskies on this list wear the smoky badge with a swagger this 18 year old reserves it for when you least expect it.
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As with all my lists this too is simply a reflection of my personal experiences. You may agree. Or disagree. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

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

Ardbeg 1975 OB 2000

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Nose: 8.2 | Palate: 8.4 | Finish: 9.2 | Overall Score: 8.6

Review
I think by now everyone’s read about my trip to Islay for the Feis Ile so I won’t bore you with the details.

What is pertinent, though, is our annual pilgrimage to the Kildalton Cross, a few miles ahead of Ardbeg, with the aim of toasting something special. This year there were seven of us. Which was both a good thing and a bad thing.

Good because more the merrier.

Bad because we decided to drive down to the cross in a single Volkswagen Passat. Let’s just say everyone had their privates mashed against someone’s rear at all times. There were violent complaints followed by uncontrollable bouts of laughter as we made the agonising 20 minute drive from Lagavulin.

The only person unaffected was my self. As the designated driver for the day I had the enviable position of sitting comfortably in the drivers’ seat and laughing at my friends’ discomfort.

I had procured this bottle in Dubai and gingerly carried it in my luggage all the while hoping and praying nothing would happen to it. Luckily the whisky Gods were on our side. The bottle was unscathed. The day was beautiful. Everything was perfect in that moment.

This vintage Ardbeg was released soon after the new ownership had taken over the distillery. Released in 2000 my sample is from a brand new bottle and served at 43%

Nose: A fading peat. Soft and in the background. Not as earthy as I thought but more coal smoke. Old leather shoes. Almonds. Walnuts. Organic kale chips. Salty kale chips. Yemeni honey. After a while becomes quite malty. Cereals. The tender oak is next. Becomes a touch floral over time. Dried lavender petals. Like potpourri. Heather. Such a distinctive old school style of spirit. No sharp edges. Everything married as one well rounded robust offering. 8.2

Palate: Feels better on the palate. So full. Extremely oily. Mouth filling. Lovely soft delivery. Faded peat. Cocoa powder. The oak here is supreme. Beautifully balanced. Same nuttiness as on the nose. Banana cake and almonds. Four cumin seeds. Not five. Not three. Four. 8.4

Finish: Bloody hell. This just keeps getting better and better. One of the more magnificent finishes I’ve encountered in a long time. Just stays in your mouth and refuses to dissipate. Hints of vanilla. The soft peat. And, of course, the divine oak. Love it. 9.2

Overall Comments: A truly world class whisky that harks back to a bygone era of whisky making. There’s an aged softness to these old school spirits that I’ve noticed that might never be replicated. There’s just too much time and care taken to produce these kinds of gems to make them successful in the modern world where everyone is impatient and has the attention span of a Jack Terrier on cocaine. And, frankly, even if they do I doubt us lesser mortals will be able to get our hands on it anyway. Such is the world we live in.

Overall Score: 8.6

Ardbeg Dark Cove Committee Release

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Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 55% | Colour: So dark!
Nose: 8.8 | Palate: 9.2 | Finish: 9.0 | Overall Score: 9.0

Review
Yes, I know. A million bloggers have already written about this one and I’m super late to the party. I have an excuse, though. I’ve been sick for a while and, frankly, quite busy with putting together my documentary Every Dram Drunk.

I’m calling it a documentary but, as my friend rather sarcastically pointed out, it’s actually just a pathetic attempt on my part to validate yet another boys trip. I can’t help but fear she’s right but, hey, you know what they say. Opinions are like butt cracks. Everyone has one.

Anyway, the whisky at hand.

Now Ardbeg have started doing this thing where they create two versions of the same whisky to release during the Feis. A Committee bottle and a Festival bottle. They did it last year for the first time with the Perpetuum and now this year with the Dark Cove. Usually the Committee bottle has a stronger ABV compared to the Festival release. While the Perpetuum had a 2% difference in ABV this years’ release has a whopping 8.5% difference!

The Committee release is bottled at a punchy 55% and the Festival release at a mere 46.5%

I wish I could understand the logic of it. I mean if the whisky is meant to be tasted at 55% let it be. Don’t go about watering it down to create more stock. Look, the Festival release is pretty darn decent by any stretch of the imagination but the Committee at 55% is a completely different animal.

And that’s what was sitting in front of me my first day on Islay.

After warming up our palates with the tasty Lagavulin 8 we ordered this one while sat at the Old Port Bar at the quaint Port Askaig Hotel.

There’s not a lot of literature on this one and even at the distillery everyone was quite vague. All they kept saying was this one has a lot of dark sherry in it. Apparently it’s a rare kind of sherry from Spain. But that’s all I know. Anyway.

My sample is from an open bottle and served at, as I mentioned earlier, 55%

Nose: Bam! Big big nose. Reminded me why I was in love with Ardbeg for the longest time. Touch mossy at first but then relaxes into a smoky haze. Wet barn. Wheat biscuits. Bung cloth. Cracking peat. Black fruits. Lots of toffee. Red peppers. Cinnamon. All-spice. Rather sweet on the nose. Love this bold approach. The peat and the dark sherry, whatever the hell that is, works beautifully together. 8.8

Palate: The true test of a whisky is on the palate and this is where this one comes through in spades. The 55% is the right strength for this spirit. Massive flavours. Solid oak. Cinnamon. Quite oily. Salty. Dark chocolate. Wait, bitter chocolate. Almonds. Toasted wood. Sticky toffee pudding. Liquorice. Dark fruits. This is unapologetic. Love it. 9.2

Finish: My hastily written notes say mad spice! So I’m going to have to go with that. Mad spice. Caramel. Smoke. 9.0

Overall Comments: Beautiful whisky this. While the Festival is nice in it’s own right the Committee is the one to beat. Reaffirms my faith in this distillery to produce knockout flavours. This one also marked the start of a memorable boys trip to the Festival and, thus, has a special place in my heart.

Overall Score: 9.0

Ardbeg 1815

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Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 50.1% | Colour: Dirty Gold

Review
It’s been exactly one day since I’ve been back after spending almost ten days on Islay for the 2016 Feis Ile. It’s a massive re-adjustment, I tell you. I was there last year as well but for half the amount of time and it took me almost six months to recover. Lord only knows how long I’m going to take this time around.

Add to the fact that I went with six other friends is only going to make the memories better and harder to get over. So here’s a tip of my hat to a very special boys trip!

Our last day on the island started off cold and windy. It was 8AM and we were stood in line outside the Ardbeg gates hoping to be one of the first to pick out one of many mystery tastings that were happening during the day.

Seems like Lady Luck was shining down on me as I ended up picking a Golden Ticket to one of the mystery tastings. The only thing they told us was that the tasting would be with Micky Heads, the distillery manager.

Ardbeg 1815 001
After solving the (rather easy) cryptic message on the paper we discovered the tasting was due to happen at midday, with Micky & Philco at the Not So Dark Cove.

We first collected at a gate behind the Ardbeg sea-view cottage and were promptly informed that due to unavoidable circumstances Micky would be unable to attend. In his place Philco would conduct the tasting. There was a collective groan by everyone but the promise of large drams brought out a big cheer proving once and for all that all whisky drinkers care about is whisky and nothing else.

As we made our way (around twenty of us) to a secluded rocky inlet by the water there sat Micky, dressed up as a funny looking smuggler complete with flowing black robes and a fake beard. Big cheers followed and we settled ourselves on the sharp rocks to saver some serious whiskies.
Ardbeg 1815 002

The first out of the chest was the Ardbeg Dark Cove, the Festival Release. Lovely dram and I think one of the better Ardbeg Feis bottlings in recent years. Accompanying the whisky were lovely black Ardbeg Night glasses produced specially for the day.

This was followed by the Ardbeg Alligator Committee Release and then a lovely and delicate bourbon single cask from 1974 – Cask 3498.

Ardbeg 1815 002A

Beautifully constructed flavours on the all the whiskies and, so far, things were going swimmingly well.

However, this all paled in comparison when the last whisky of the tasting was pulled out for all to gasp and whoop in joy. Philco stood proudly displaying it to a cacophony of clicking cameras and the occasional wolf whistle. For he had in his hand the Ardbeg 1815.

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Released last year for the 200th Anniversary of the distillery the spirit inside this bottle is quite special. A mix of 1974 first-fill bourbon and 1975 first-fill sherry it was vatted together in a glass container for six months before making it into 400 bottles. The younger spirit is approximately 33 years old and is quite a throw back to the days when Ardbeg reigned supreme.

I thought of pulling out my notebook and taking down some notes right there. I even thought about decanting the spirit into a sample bottle and trying it later at home. But both options meant that I would be unable to enjoy the spirit and the place that I was in. So, with a little bit left in my glass, I chose, instead, to sit on the grassy knoll overlooking the ocean to enjoy this fine spirit.

Beautifully oily on the nose. Quite sweet. Hints of nuts. A rounded earthiness that showed it’s character. Something salty and mineral – maybe because I was sitting on sea drenched rocks. Sweet coffee beans and milk chocolate on the palate accompanied that same oiliness I found on the nose. Those nuts again.

Again, it’s not the most magnificent whisky I have drunk or ever will, but it is certainly one of the most special. Yes, it costs £3000 pounds a bottle and there’s only 400 bottles of it ever produced.

But the fact that I sat amongst fellow whisky nuts savouring this special spirit with the highly likeable Micky Heads at one of my favourite distilleries was the real treat. Add to that this was the way I was closing off one memorable trip made the moment even more special.

The rest of the day went by in a blur as we drank more and more Ardbeg, danced in the open courtyard, made new friendships and cemented existing ones.

As one of our friends so rightly said on the trip : I don’t know what tomorrow will bring but today is a good day.

Ardbeg Supernova 2015

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Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 54.3% | Colour: Sunshine
Nose: 24 | Taste: 24 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 24 | Rating: 95

Review
The Supernova series is, in my opinion, why one should start drinking whisky. It is also one of the reasons I have tolerated Ardbeg’s nonsense of late. Because deep in my heart I, like all Ardbeg fans, know that hiding in those dank warehouses lie some stellar casks which, when expertly blended together, are going to set my soul alight.

And that is what the Supernova 2015 has done.

The fourth, and last, of the Supernova series this is quite possibly my favourite of the lot. The first one came out in 2009, then 2010, 2014 (which I had the pleasure of tasting at 9AM in the morning on a farm in Islay) and for the final time in 2015.

If you don’t already know it’s significance let me tell you real quick. In 2011 Ardbeg, with the help of a company known as NanoRacks, decided to send some new make and oak shavings inside a capsule into outer space to test what effects micro-gravity had on maturation. They kept an identical sample here on mother Earth and, once, the space sample returned Dr Lumsden released his findings on how the two samples differed.

Why would they do that, you ask me? Well, because they’re attention whores, that’s why. But not just any attention whores. Attention whores that can also create one hell of a whisky.

The 2015 version doesn’t have much literature but I know it’s a blend of ex-sherry and bourbon casks made from 100 PPM malted barley. There’s no age statements but you know it’s rather young. Which is fine as long as it tastes like this.

My sample is from a brand new bottle and served at 54.3% ABV

Nose: Very soft peat. It’s there but you have to fight for it. Touch of ash. More iodine and TCP in here compared to earlier ‘Novas. Almost like a delicate eucalyptus. Touch of the standard Ardbeg coastal salt. Rock salt. But then the sweetness. The really nice rounded sweetness which envelopes the smokiness and the saltiness and almost makes you swoon. Milk chocolate. Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks. Now there’s fruits. Citrus fruits. Not sharp citrus. But a softer, sweeter citrus. Pineapples. Lime. Orange candy. Stick with it and the earthiness is next. You can almost taste the barley. The wild mushrooms. The Islay earth. This is an essay in balance. 24/25

Palate: That ashiness again. Soft peat. Sooty. Great delivery. The first palate is surprisingly savoury. I mean it’s more savoury than I expected it to be. But then the sweetness breaks through mid-palate. Like sunshine. On an overcast day. Pineapples. That sweet citrus again. Lemon and lime. Touch of spice. White peppers. And in the midst of it all – some good quality oak. 24/25

Finish: Nice and long. Chewy. Oily. White pepper. Oak. 23/25

Overall Comments: Phew! What a ride. Absolutely loved it. Ran a head-2-head with this and the SN14 for a video review which made the differences and the balance really stand out. This is just a superb example of right cask selection to create something that will stand the test of time.

Rating: 95