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.

Port Ellen Tasting

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Distillery/Brand: Port Ellen | Region: Islay

Review
I’ve been sitting on these tasting notes for a few months now. Apart from the fact that I’m a lazy git I genuinely wasn’t quite sure how to put pen to paper. I mean how are you realistically supposed to write a review about five Port Ellens? That’s right, FIVE of them. At the same time. Sprung on us as a surprise tasting on a rainy Islay afternoon.

By now I’m sure you know of my short hop over to the peaty island a couple of months ago to meet up with some friends from the other side of the world. To say the five of us made some crazy memories is an understatement.

Distillery visits, NFL picks, bouts of arm wrestling, making friends, discovering Punk IPA, drinking 50 year old Lagavulin, scrambling up slippery ruins to gaze out over the Straits of Moyle, playing Guess The Malt with Jackie from Ardbeg – it’s hard to imagine we managed all of this in four days.

Yet none of that compares to one miserable afternoon we spent shut indoors thanks to a torrential downpour and gale force winds. Our planned journey to Jura on the day was aborted when we realised we couldn’t even walk without the wind knocking us off our feet so crossing over on a ferry was out of the question.

However, my buddy Curt Robinson had better plans for us miserable louts. He had, extremely generously may I add, carried with him all the way from Canada a number of Port Ellen samples for an occasion such as this. I mean it was Islay – we were bound to get rained in at some point, right?

So there we were, in our cottage in Bowmore, excitedly sat around the table, me with my note pad in hand, staring with gleaming eyes at this buffet of awesomeness.

Port Ellen Curt Guys

Granted we look like a motley gang of ex-cons planning a bank heist but that’s just you being judgemental.

We tasted them Right to Left with each one nominating a different favourite. I thought of rating each one but there’s really no need. They were all fantastic and there’s no point in splitting hairs.

1. Port Ellen 24 Years Old
Dewar Rattray Cask Collection
ABV 60.6%
Distilled : 13.10.1982
Bottled : 17.09.2007

Nose: Citrus. Green lime. Lemons. Some vegetal notes. Green herbs. I like the barley sugars here. Crisp. Dry hay. White pepper. Smells quite sweet.
Palate: Big! Thank you 60.6%! Quite spicy. Oily. Buttery. Dries mid-palate. Soft smoke. That barley sugar I got on the nose. The greens are back. Unspecified vegetation. Cereal notes.
Finish: Very long. Drying. Oaky.

2. Port Ellen
5th Special Release
25 Years Old
ABV 57.4%
Distilled : 1979
Bottled : 2005

Nose: Very oily. The smoke is quite faint. Just a year older than the Rattray but has an added complexity. Quite fruity. Soft melon. Sweet candy. Oranges. Similar unspecified greens. Quite earthy now. Damp dunnage. But in a good way. Pink grapefruit. Vanilla.
Palate: Drying. Again quite big. Settles down to a more fruity profile. Melons. Tropical fruits. Vanilla custard.
Finish: Long. Oaky.

3. Port Ellen
6th Special Release
27 Years Old
ABV 54.2%
Distilled : 1978
Bottled : 2006

Nose: Hmmmm. Immediately seems better balanced than the first two. Which is saying a lot since they were pretty top notch. The mix of fruits and smoke is perfect. Tangy oranges. Sweet lemon candy. Lime. Tangerines. A very citrusy notes counter-balanced by the smoke. Beautiful.
Palate: Sweet as well. Oaky. But a good oak. Again the balance here is lovely. The circus comes screaming through. Limes. Lemons. Oranges. Now red berries. The smoke is understated but apparent. Oily.
Finish: Long. Quite magnificent if you ask me. Dry. Love it!

4. Port Ellen
8th Special Release
29 Years Old
ABV 55.3%
Distilled : 1978
Bottled : 2008

Nose: Not as big as the first three. A little mellow if you ask me. This one has more dark chocolate. Oily. Butter. The smoke is peaty. But mildly so. The familiar citrus overtones but now with a touch of pineapples. And the tiniest of oak.
Palate: So sweet. Sweeter than all the others. Smoke. Oak. Quite dry. Sweet lemons. Fruity. Hint of cinnamon. Maybe. This one has big flavours but certainly not as complex as the 5th Release.
Finish: Medium. Dry. Toasted barley. Oak.

5. Port Ellen
9th Special Release
30 Years Old
ABV 57.7%
Distilled : 1979
Bottled : 2009

Nose: Quite tangy. Sour candy. Pink grapefruit. Quite sweet. Faint smoke. Sweet barley sugar – quite a common thread here. Tropical fruits. Red liquorice. The same generic greens. And, of course, the citrus. Lemons. Lime.
Palate: Very drying. The oak is king here. Sweet. Lemon. Limes. Sweet candy. Herbaceous. Smoke. Vanilla custard.
Finish: Long. Sweet.

Overall Comments: There’s nothing much to say here other than God, damn what a rush! Miserable afternoon turned into one heck of a tasting proving once and for all that whisky will solve any problem. All the whiskies were quite scrumptious but my pick of the session was the 6th Release. That one just worked for me. Each one of us had a personal favourite which, again, is another thing that never fails to amuse me. Another memorable memory to add to my growing list of Special Islay Moments.

Special thanks to Curt for hooking us up. Big time!

Lagavulin 50 1966

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Distillery/Brand: Lagavulin | Region: Islay | ABV: UNKNOWN | Colour: Pale Straw

Review
I’ve decided not to score this. Only because I will cheapen the memories by assigning it a score. And since there is no way anyone is ever going to drink this whisky a score is pretty much moot.

And don’t get me wrong. The only reason you’ll never be able to drink this is because it will never go up for sale and we pretty much scraped the bottom of the barrel to bring out a few drams to taste. It’s all gone.

OK let me start from the beginning.

I was in the midst of an extremely impromptu trip to Islay thanks to the persistent arm-twisting of my good friend Curt Robinson of AllThingsWhisky fame. He and three of his buddies had made the trip over from Canada and it just seemed like too good of an opportunity to share drams to pass up.

So there I was.

One of the things we were really looking forward to on the trip was the famed warehouse tasting with Lagavulin legend Iain Macarthur. Let me tell you if there’s one thing you do on Islay is attend one of his tastings. Regardless of the fact that we tasted some ridiculously gorgeous single casks ranging from twelve to 34 years it was his company and delivery that really made the session unforgettable.

Amid all the chatter and pouring of whiskies I happened to notice a lone cask sitting in the corner with 1966 stencilled on the side.

1966? Why, that must mean there’s 50 year old whisky sitting inside that dinosaur. I was completely distracted now, stealing sidelong glances at the cask much like a middle-school nerd would do to his crush in the school cafeteria. I kept wondering how it would taste. What would the color be like. What would it smell like.

As the session ended we tried hanging around for a bit but were politely asked to make space for the next group. My heart sank. There went my opportunity to beg Iain for a sip of that 50 year old. Oh, well. It would have made for a great story.

After the tasting we made our way behind the distillery to the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle to share some pre-packaged drams. The weather was excellent and we even managed to spot a couple of playful seals in the water.

As we headed back to catch the bus we, as luck would have it, ran into Iain as he was making his way back from another warehouse tasting.

What are you boys still hanging around here for? He asked in his strangely endearing high pitched Scottish voice.

We were hoping you’d share some of that 50 year old with us. I said shamelessly.

It took him all of one second to say Well, hurry up then! Your bus will be here any minute!

And with that, glasses in hand, we made a mad dash to the warehouse. Grabbing a valinche he plunged it into the depths of the cask and drew out 50 years of history and generously poured it into our glasses.

Happy now? He asked with a huge grin on his face.

We nodded vigorously with even bigger grins on ours.

Unfortunately we couldn’t drink it at the distillery or I would have missed the last bus back to Bowmore and consequently my flight back home.

As we sat on the bus sharing 50 year old whisky among us I was struck by the absurdity of it all. Here in our hands was almost priceless liquid, a piece of history and it was just casually shared with us by the nicest of chaps. And the fact that we were passing it around whilst using public transport seemed like the most natural thing to do. Such is the DNA of Islay. It’s what makes it what it is.

There is no ABV on this liquid. I suspect the cask was a second or third fill bourbon given it’s rather pale coloring.

Nose: Quite sweet thanks to the 50 years. Creme caramel. Toffee. Condensed milk. Spent sugarcane bark. The tiniest and I mean the tiniest of oak. Vanilla. High pitched aromas of milk chocolate. As it settles it becomes more grassy. More wet. More clay like. Red clay if you ask me. Still has some vibrancy after all these years.

Palate: Sweet. White granulated sugar. Mildest of oaks. The tiniest whisp of smoke. Milk chocolate. Hint of spice. Some fennel. Some cloves. Some aniseed. Dry spices. Changed nicely mid-palate without even us noticing.

Finish: Wonderfully long. Drying with some oak.

Overall Comments: How this spirit managed to retain it’s flavours is beyond me. It should have been tired and spent a long time ago but against all odds it’s not. I believe it might have been an absolute corker had it been discovered a decade or more earlier. But I’m glad it wasn’t or we wouldn’t have been lucky enough to get free pours of it that fateful day on Islay. Here’s to you Curt, Steve, Danny & Tone.

Overall Score: Who cares?

Chivas Regal Ultis

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Distillery/Brand: Chivas | Region: Scotland | ABV: 40% | Colour: Deep Gold
Nose: 6.4 | Palate: 5.4 | Finish: 5.6 | Overall Score: 5.8

Review
2016 has not been a stellar year and few will disagree with me on that. From beloved icons to hairy primates we’ve lost a lot in the last 350 odd days. Many people I know, my self included, will be glad to get rid of ’16 much like a corrupted tooth that’s been making your entire head hurt.

Notwithstanding the troubles rife in all the world there is also the alarming downward tailspin that is the whisky industry. And I don’t mean that in terms of commercial worries.

Oh no. Quite the contrary.

The giants have enjoyed this resurgence immensely. There’s not enough whisky to go around and distilleries / blending houses are struggling to meet with demand.

That’s all good.

What is tailspinning out of control is the unabashed pandering of, and I say this with the largest grain of sand that has ever existed in the history of the world, luxury whiskies to an unsuspecting public. A public that, in the midst of all these crises, still manages to loosen their purse strings in the hope of deriving value. A public that does not know any better. And a public that is routinely being hoodwinked.

It’s a shame.

I’ve written so many of these rant type reviews of late that it almost feels like it’s becoming my signature style. And I don’t want that. Because that’s not who I am. That’s not why I decided to start this little site. It was, in fact, to discover great whiskies and share them with the world. Not to put down the ones that didn’t meet with my satisfaction.

But this year has been harsh. Everywhere I’ve turned I’ve seen expensive suits, flashy invites, stunning venues, beautiful packaging, brilliant PR and, in the midst of all the fanfare, bullshit spirits devoid of any depth or complexity.

It’s almost as if they’ve latched on to a formula for success. Brand ambassador – check. Expensive venue – check. Entertaining distractions – check. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

And the really sick part is that, despite knowing all of this, people like me still latch on to the hope that this time, maybe this time, they won’t take us for a ride. That the heavy price tag genuinely reflects the quality and craftsmanship that the brand so proudly boasts about.

When I first came across the press release for the Chivas Ultis I was immediately drawn. I love vatted malts, thanks in large part to Compass Box, and was really curious what was being done with this. It had a nice story – five malts for five blenders – as a homage for their services. Nice. Comprising of five whiskies from five Speyside distilleries, Tormore, Longmorn, Strathisla, Allt A’bhainne and Braeval, it had the makings of something special. The packaging looked sleek and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

I sent out a mass message to all my friends to pick one up if they encountered it during their travels. And it was not a small favour to ask given it’s US$200 price tag. One of my close friends happened across this at Heathrow and put down his hard-earned money to do me this favour.

And as I sat at his table unboxing the bottle and poured my self a drink the only thing I could think of was Please don’t suck.

That’s it. Not I hope this blows me away. Just Please don’t suck. We are literally in that sorry stage of acceptance that it if it’s simply average we’re relieved. Of course, that wasn’t meant to be.

My sample is from a brand new bottle and served at 40%

Nose: Lots of sherry. Butterscotch. Vanilla. Toffee. Soft red apples. Some cinnamon. Christmas fruit cake. Becomes a touch dry after a bit. Blood oranges. Black liquorice. Cherries. A very strong minty aroma now. Close to spearmint. Quite strange. As it settles stale coconut oil. Started off promising but somehow failed to keep me impressed. 6.4

Palate: Light bodied. Extremely weak delivery. Was expecting velvet to quote my mouth. What a let down. Peppercorns. Cinnamon. Bitter chocolate. Trouble getting any flavours out thanks to the low ABV. I tried, believe me. 5.4

Finish: Medium. Woody. Touch of limestone. 5.6

Overall Comments: What do you want me to say? Unbalanced. Devoid of any real depth. Weak. When I first read about this I made a little joke about the name. You see Ultis in Hindi means many vomits and I observed that this was probably not the best name to go with given the penchant that many Indians have for Chivas Regal. But in hindsight it seems like a fitting name given the state the industry is. Don’t waste your money on this bullshit.

Overall Score: 5.8

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