My review of the Laphroaig Cairdeas 2020 Port & Wine Cask.
Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 51.7% | Colour: Pale Gold
Nose: 8.4 | Palate: 8.0 | Finish: 8.2 | Overall Score: 8.2
Back to back Ardbegs! That’s how we like to live our life. Especially if there’s not much to complain about. After the funny sounding An Oa it’s the equally ludicrous Kelpie.
Jackie, over at the visitors centre at Ardbeg, was kind enough to set aside a case of the Committee bottling before our trip to Islay on account of them disappearing off the shelves well before the Feis rolls around. We had a couple of wee sips while at the distillery but nothing formal.
Last night was the first time I actually sat down with it.
So what is it? To be honest it’s just another cool story that’s trying to conceal how young this whisky is. Really. Look, I appreciate all the endearing tales they come up with – who doesn’t – and more than that I appreciate each and everyone who works at the distillery. They are the absolute best.
And it’s because of that we all smile and nod our heads as they tell us tales about monsters covered in seaweed that emerge from the depths of the sea or listen attentively to brand ambassadors as they explain what virgin oak from the Black Sea is. I’m still not quite sure, to be honest.
But I don’t want the age of the whisky to detract from the fact that this is a perfectly acceptable tipple. Nothing much wrong. Nothing much spectacular either but then the industry has been letting us down so often that we’re rather happy when something is not absolutely horrendous.
Oh, the pain of living in a world where we crave adequacy.
“Stop being melodramatic” says my brain. “Shut up” says my heart.
Bottled at 51.7% my sample is from a brand new bottle.
Nose: Rather sweet and citrus-y. Custard like sweetness. Lemon like citrus. Then the signature tones. Ash. Soot. Seaweed. Wait! Not seaweed. Kelp. Of course I smell kelp. Grapefruit. Eucalyptus (finding a lot of this lately). Let it sit and it becomes more grainy. Barley. Quite a sharp and piercing nose. Not in a bad way. In a young way, maybe. Some olive oil. Some balsamic vinegar. My wife makes a salad dressing like this. I like the salad dressing. I like this nose. 8.4
Palate: Good delivery if a little thin. Ash. Soot. Charred banana leaves. Spices. Lots of spices. And here are some more spices. Nutmeg. Clove. Cinnamon. There’s something a touch bitter here. None of the sweetness found on the nose. With water it turns more grainy. More chalky. More limestone. I wish it was sweeter. 8.0
Finish: Decent. Oily. Citrus. And that soot. 8.2
Overall Comments: It’s an Ardbeg. It’s a good Ardbeg. I wish it was a smashing Ardbeg. But that’s ok. I’ll settle for a perfectly adequate Ardbeg. The story is cute. Something about monsters. The casks are weird. Black Sea and all. I’m just happy it doesn’t suck.
Overall Score: 8.2
Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 46.6% | Colour: Dirty Gold
Nose: 8.2 | Palate: 8.0 | Finish: 8.1 | Overall Score: 8.1
I’m going to use this whisky to signal a mini comeback of sorts. Of the two people that read my reviews I’m sure one of them noticed my lethargy of late. I have no explanation for that other than I felt I was doing more whisky writing than whisky drinking. And that really started to weigh in.
Also I think I need to work on a review format that I can sustain even when the riggers of life demand my time and energy. Let’s see how that works out.
But enough about me.
Let’s talk about this silly sounding whisky. Hey, I’m not the one poking fun at it; Ardbeg are. Just watch the video they’ve made about this one. It’s quite cute.
Named after the Mull of Oa, considered one of the wildest parts of Islay, this rather decently priced young ‘un (I mean, it has to be) is an addition to the core range joining the 10, the Oogy and the Corry.
It’s a combination of PX and bourbon matured spirit finished off in French Oak and let me tell you, I like it!
Flavour profile wise it sits right in between the 10 and the Oogy. Retains the signature Ardbeg twang of sweet and citrus in a somewhat curtailed manner. Not entirely a bad thing since it’s quite flavourful.
Nose: Sharp citrus. Soot. Liquorice. Eucalyptus. Wisp of nice smoke. Milk chocolate. Becomes drier as you let it rest. Dry leaves. Lemon rind. Lime. Almost like a young Kilchoman if you ask me. Which is saying a lot. Good solid barley. Good stuff. 8.2
Palate: Off the bat, love the texture. Lately I’ve been drinking far too many weak whiskies; texture wise. So this is a welcome departure from that annoying trend. Lots of ash. White pepper. Super dry. Woody spices. Like cinnamon. Mid-palate becomes a lot more herbal. I know I’m drinking an Ardbeg and that’s wonderfully comforting. 8.0
Finish: Takes a while but comes back from the depths and stays with you. Again extremely drying. Woody. Hints of citrus. 8.1
Overall Comments: I think the French Oak is really coming into play here with the dry spices. I’m a fan of that flavour profile so call me biased. I like this spirit for what it represents. An affordable whisky that is well made. Maybe I’d hate it if this was an overpriced Festival bottle. But it’s not. It feels like it’s genuinely making the effort to be approachable and attainable. And for that I give it a tip of my hat.
Overall Score: 8.1
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.
Let’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.
The 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.
Bruce 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?
Seldom 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.
Surprisingly 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.
No 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.
Now 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.
The 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.
Close 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.
Now 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.
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.
I like making lists. Nothing OCD. Just helps me channel my thought process. For example if I have a number of people to kill I’ll probably make a list. Deciding who to off first. What weapon of choice to use. You know, the usual shit.
Anyway, the other day I was lounging in my recliner, cigar in one hand and the last of my Glendronach Cask Strength Batch 002 in the other, when I realised I hadn’t made a very important list. That of the sherried whiskies.
And not the usual blasé list that you see so many supposed whisky writers write about. Those who’s only method of research is scouring social media to see what other people are talking about.
I’m talking about a list that’s been put through the paces and means something. My criteria for this collection is simple: The whisky must be tasty as fuck (obviously) and should have spent a majority of it’s life being matured in sherry casks. I mean I could have insisted that it spend it’s entire life in a sherry cask but there’s one on my list which doesn’t meet that criteria and it would be unfair to not include that.
Anyway, it’s my list and I can decide what to put on it. Also I haven’t really looked at price and availability as my criteria, to be honest. Though most of them you can find quite easily and, still, at reasonable prices.
Here they are, in no particular order.
This is the one I was sitting with when I thought of putting this list together. Up to Batch 6 now I got the first batch more than five years ago. It’s without an age statement, which I’m fine with, as long as you don’t charge me an arm and a leg. Matured in a combination of PX and Oloroso casks this one has been blended together at cask strength and bottled at natural color. The ABV varies from batch to batch but expect it to be around the mid-50s which means it still packs quite a bite. I love the sweetness of the PX and the meatiness of the Oloroso. Together they work beautifully. A tiny drop of water will make this one sublime.
You can get this one online for around £56 / US$70
I’m a huge fan of the regular 105 which is roughly half the age of this beauty but served at an equally awe inspiring Cask Strength of 60%. I first had this at one of my clubs’ tastings and immediately went into shock. First the 60% hits you, then the pinging black peppercorns and, once your palate has gone numb in submission, the sweetness of the dark chocolate emerges. This one is not for the faint hearted. You could make a case for a couple of droplets of water but then you miss the sensational feeling of your tongue giving up half way through the dram. For that alone you must try it ‘as is’. Now there’s not a lot of literature on this regarding the type of sherry used to mature this but I will go out on a limb and say Oloroso. Seems the only legit fit here. This one is for the hardened among us.
You can get this one online for around £200 / US$250
The darling of the sherried whiskies. What an absolutely awesome series this is. Sadly I only came into contact with it when it had reached Batch 32 (they’re up to 55 now, I think) and I’ve heard that earlier batches were just insane. Not to say that the later ones aren’t. The 45 is a peach. The 49 is gorgeous. But my favourite is Batch 37 (though to be fair I’ve only tasted around 15 different batches) so there probably is some stellar liquid in earlier bottlings which I’ve not had the pleasure of throwing down my gullet. They come in a short dumpy bottle with a huge red wax seal on top which I love. There’s something old school about that. Also served at cask strength after having spent it’s entire life in Oloroso sherry casks this what you call a sherry monster. A proper sherry monster.
Can be yours for an agreeable £56 / US$70
This is literally the first whisky I bought when I decided I was going to waste away my life and my money on this dastardly habit. I hadn’t even heard of Balvenie but, my word, that bottle and the color of the liquid inside had me transfixed. Released in limited quantities in 2007 it’s been matured it’s entire life in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks. How this whisky is not a piece of shit I have no idea given such an enormous length of time in such a strong cask. But I guess that’s the magic of Sir David Stewart. He really knows how to craft his whiskies. And this one is no exception. I still have some of it left after so many years and it’s really held up. They’re not making any more of this so I have it sparingly. There’s a few bottles lying around on sites here and there if you’re interested but be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for it. I paid £60 for it a few years ago.
Not easy to find but expect to pay around £300 / US$380 for it.
I must admit I have been extremely lucky in picking up whiskies without really knowing my ass from my elbow. Either 95% of whiskies on shelves were amazing or the whisky Gods had a plan for me. Nevertheless I ended up picking gem after gem with my eyes closed. This expression is one of them. To be completely honest I picked this up because it came in a beautiful presentation box with the shape of the Isle of Mull cut out in it. But it’s the liquid inside that is supreme. Matured in Gonzalez Byass Oloroso sherry casks it has the perfect balance of sweet and spicy. You gotta give this one a try. Super.
Not very easy to locate but if you do expect to pay around £120 / US$150 for it.
I have seen a bunch of these so called ‘Best Sherry Whisky’ lists and hardly anyone has this ultimate expression on it. Which confirms my hypotheses that all other lists are shit. I mean how do you not include this marvel of whisky making in your list you sorry buffoons? Made by the LSD popping folks over at Amrut, India, this whisky is called Intermediate for a reason. First matured in ex-bourbon and virgin oak it is then transferred to sherry casks for a fair bit of time before settling back into bourbon casks. Get it? Intermediate. And what is even more amazing about this maturation is that when the spirit is in it’s first phase of maturation it is shipped (cask and all) to Spain where it is transferred to sherry casks and then shipped back to India to complete it’s final two phases of maturation. This prevents the sherry casks from getting contaminated during transport or needing sulphur treatment as is the case with so many sherry casks plaguing the Scotch industry. Proof that if you love the whisky you make you will go through any lengths to make sure to shield it from the evils of the world. Get a bottle of this now and drink it immediately. Then come back to this page and thank me. Profusely.
Easily available for around £85 / US$106
Kilchoman are proof that if you really hone your craft, pick some stellar casks and pluck the spirit out at the right time you can flick a middle finger at age and bottle some amazing whiskies. With an average age of five years across the Kilchoman range it has been producing gem after gem for the last 10 years. In fact it was only late last year that they finally bottled their 10 year old. But enough about that. Let’s talk about the Loch Gorm. It has an average age of 5 to 6 years and has spent it’s entire life in an Oloroso sherry cask. Not sure whether it’s first or second fill but the young age and solid spirit means that it retains it’s integrity without letting the sherry overpower and that’s what makes this a super dram.They release a batch every year in fairly small quantities so snap it up before it disappears.
Can be yours for around £56 / US$70
This was the whisky that changed my life. I had no idea what cask strength meant. I didn’t know where sherry came from. And I thought Macallan was a luxury car. Oh to be young and naive again. Only to feel the thrill of discovering something that blows your mind. That’s what this Macallan did to me. Had at a tasting very many years ago I remember going home thinking ‘Holy Mother of All That Is Sweet & Spicy what was that whisky?’. Matured exclusively in sherry from Jerez it is one of the only Macallans you will find at cask strength. The one I had was 58.6% so to my tender palate it was like being shot in the face with a .44 Magnum. But in a good way. This was the bottle that told me whisky was not for pussies.
Next to impossible to find. If you find one buy it and mail it to me. You’re probably not worthy of drinking it.
I love falling in love. And this whisky did that for me. My first Kavalan and so I didn’t know what to expect. Once again the whisky Gods were looking down on me because I could have picked any Kavalan but instead was served this at my buddies house. It almost knocked me on my ass. One of the more scarce types of sherry Fino is from Spain and is the driest of all the sherries out there. Well, Kavalan thought it would be good idea to mature their young spirit in these barrels and the result is a a luscious dark liquid at 57% which smacks your tastebuds all over your palate. Sublime experience.
Easily available but can set you back £225 / US$280 a bottle
PS – don’t ask me why I didn’t put Glendronach 15 Revival on it, OK? I don’t like that whisky. Sue me.
There’s many lists, I know. But they’re all crap. They either have agendas or have been written by writers who’s only experience with this wonderful spirit has been watching YouTube videos on how to correctly pronounce the names of different whiskies.
I am the real deal. I’ve come up the ranks the hard way. I’ve been young and inexperienced and nearly poisoned my self by drinking an entire bottle of Vat 69 in under 10 minutes in one of the stupidest dares I have ever accepted. I have bought expensive whisky and been thoroughly disappointed. I’ve bought cheap whisky and been wonderfully surprised. I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks.
If you’re young, broke – well, somewhat broke cuz whisky aint cheap bro – and have a dream then these 10 whiskies are the ones for you to take on.
My criteria is simple. Cheap(ish). Easy to find. Lovely.
In no particular order :
One of the better mass produced blends out there. Genuinely consistent quality. Price hasn’t seen the stars. Sweet, wonderful flavours of toffee, butterscotch, milk chocolate and the tiniest tinge of smoke. Quality whisky that can be had straight, with ice, a dash of water or dunked in a cocktail. Available at every Duty Free in the world. If you don’t buy this you’re stupid.
Price : £52 / US$64
Similar to the Chivas Regal 18 this is another wonderful mass produced blend. A step up from it’s younger brother (the Black) this one has a much more sweeter profile which works better with the smokiness that the Caol Ila brings (Johnnie Walker’s main component is Caol Ila – the Islay single malt known for it’s restrained smokey flavours). Good whisky this. I prefer it straight. I don’t mind it with some ice. Water kills it, in my opinion and doesn’t make for very good cocktails. Another one to have on the shelf if you’ve run out of the Chivas 18. Once again available at every single Duty Free in the world.
Price : £36 / US$44
If you have’t tried this whisky then I have no idea which planet you’ve been living on for the last 10 years. Or have you been avoiding it because it’s too peaty? Well, then you don’t deserve to be drinking whisky. This is the best value for money single malt out there. It is also one of the best regardless of how cheap it is. Citrus, ash and a gentle smoke have made this a firm favourite among connoisseurs and newbies alike. This is Arbdeg’s greatest gift to the world. After that is Jackie (she runs the visitor centre at the distillery). Drink it straight like I do or drop an ice cube if the sun is still shining overhead. That’s it. If you don’t have this on your shelf I’m going to give you 48 hours to get off your ass and correct this mistake.
Price : £43 / US$53
You probably drink single malt whisky today because of Glenfiddich. If it wasn’t for them you’d still be proudly displaying large bottles of Grey Goose at your club table in the hopes of attracting young women instead of sitting with like minded friends at a whisky tasting and dissecting the finer nuances of this lovely spirit. They have put single malt whisky in the hands of so many people crack dealers go to them for sales advice. To have the most consistently above average mass produced single malt whisky is no small feat. And this fifteen year old is a testament to that. I won’t explain the Solera vatting system to you or your brains will explode. I’ll just remind you that the next time you’re picking up Peach Schnapps for your whiney girlfriend pick up a bottle of this. Blood oranges, almonds and dark chocolate will help you cope with her mood swings. Drink it straight, there’s no need for water. It’s 40% ABV. Any lower and you might as well drink breast milk. You fucking baby.
Price : £31 / US$38
If it wasn’t for this whisky I might still be drinking Jack & Coke and proudly calling my self a whisky drinker. This is the ultimate first dram of the day whisky. Sweet, smooth & uncomplicated. When I’ve come back from work having closely avoided mowing down my co-workers with an M-16 this is the dram I turn to. Unlike my wife it doesn’t ask me too many damn questions. It knows what I want from it and it delivers. Tender, sweet flavours without taxing my brain. Once again there’s no need to mix this with anything. Have it straight like I do.
Price : £31 / US$38
The last of the great Taliskers. Most of the new ones, named after severe weather conditions, are pretty shit. Don’t bother with those. Get this. It’s 10 years old. Belies it’s age. As any good, young whisky should. Has a nice sharp bite. You’ll get used to that if you aren’t already. Rather like S&M. Hurts a little in the beginning but then becomes an addiction despite the pain. In fact the pain actually releases endorphins and triggers the pleasure cells. Or so I’ve heard. Are we still talking about whisky? I think so. Swirling smoke and citrus give this one a winter morning crispness. Available every where so you don’t really have an excuse.
Price : £28 / US$34
OK, so maybe not as easy to find as the others on this list but still widely available without being a unicorn. It’s from India. And it’s tasty as fuck. When I first heard of it I almost went insane finding a bottle (that was early days when it had just launched and hadn’t reached cult status yet). And when I finally did it was like making out with your crush of ten years. The satisfaction was unreal. This whisky is pretty much close to being perfect. In fact most from this distillery are. And the best part is they will experiment worse than Emmet Brown from Back To The Future. Barley from different countries, maturations on different continents, five flavour staves in one bloody cask. They’re the mad scientists of the whisky industry but instead of blowing shit up they blow our minds (and taste buds).
Price : £41 / US$53
This is the best whisky you will ever taste in your life. It is fucking beautiful. I had no idea it existed until I went to buy it’s weaker brother – the 10 year old at 43%. I noticed this sitting next to that one and thought Hmmmmm, same age but with a far more fiery temperament? What a no brainer. This one comes in at a lovely 57% ABV. Full of tasty tobacco, earthy peat and dark chocolate. I remember drinking this for the first time and thinking OK, I’m done – no need to accomplish anything more in life. This one is just staggeringly good. The flavour profile is a nod to the bygone era of Speyside whisky-making complete with coal-like peat. When you’ve accomplished something in life and want to feel good about your self come home and open this bottle, sit down by yourself, light up a cigar and feel the world thank you for your existence.
Price: £37 / US$45
If you want to feel like a man (or a woman – I don’t care) then this highly divisive whisky is the one for you. If you want someone who’s never had whisky to hate whisky then give them a cup of this in the morning. I guarantee they’ll either slip into a coma or refuse another dram for the remainder of their lives. For the rest of us this whisky is the bomb. Densely packed flavours of iodine, seaweed, salty fishnets, burning embers and vanilla sweetness transport you to the rough and stormy flavours that is Islay. Matured in a smaller cask to pack in more flavours this is a cult classic and many a weathered whisky drinker swears by this dram. As do I.
Price : £41 / US$50
Did you really think so? What an idiot.
Distillery/Brand: Port Ellen | Region: Islay
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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
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
Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 57.5% | Colour: Pale Gold
Nose: 8.4 | Palate: 8.6 | Finish: 8.5 | Overall Score: 8.5
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
Distillery/Brand: Glenlivet | Region: Speyside | ABV: 48% | Colour: Gold
Nose: 6.2 | Palate: 6.0 | Finish: 6.1 | Overall Score: 6.1
I laugh at whiskies like these.
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.
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