Friday, January 29, 2016

Ardbeg, Airigh Nam Beist

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, distilled 1990, bottled 2008, 46%, $90

I occasionally have grandiose ideas about stringing together multiple blog posts in order to make thought provoking connections and paint a broader picture of the topics I’m exploring. When I recently uncorked the bicentennial Ardbeg Perpetuum I was keenly interested by its description, which stated that what was in the bottle “represented Ardbeg’s past, present and future”, and that it “took inspiration from the differing styles of whisky produced by Ardbeg over the last 200 years”.

The Perpetuum post focused on comparing and contrasting that whisky with Laphroaig’s 200th anniversary bottling; the 2015 Cairdeas. But before I wrote that piece, my mind had been set to pondering the bottles in my collection. I had squirreled away a bottled of Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist about three and a half years ago. Last bottled in 2008, it was becoming scarce when I snapped that one up and can likely only be found on the secondary market for a hefty price today.

A follow-up post focusing on the Airigh Nam Beist could include a comparison of all of the Ardbeg bottlings I had at hand; and Perpetuum would be the one that unified them all. A slight problem with this plan arose when I actually tasted the Perpetuum. It was one of the more disappointing bottles of whisky I had come across through the years, especially when taking price and expectations into consideration.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Ardbeg can currently be found from three distinct periods of production at the distillery. The first is from the early 1970’s through March of 1981, when the distillery closed for eight years. Much of the whisky from this era was made with barley malted on the traditional floor maltings, which were gradually phased out between 1975 and 1980. The lack of extraction fans in Ardbeg’s kilns and the fact that they harvested very old, heavily decayed peat from deep in the ground lent a unique character to their malt. This was also a period of particularly long fermentation times.

From mid-1989 through mid-1996 Ardbeg saw production limited to just two months a year. This was a period of neglected maintenance (the spirit still’s purifier was said to not be working properly much of the time during these years) and the use of very old casks, often fourth or fifth fill.

The third period, from mid-1997 onward, saw much investment in the distillery and is characterized by shorter fermentation times with a different yeast strain, fresh casks and an increased peat level.

The premise for this post was nearly scuttled when I was let down by Perpetuum. But I only had a last precious half-ounce of whisky from my bottle of Uigeadail. The production code on that bottle dated it to 2008, meaning that a good part of its older, sherry cask matured component was drawn from stocks distilled in the earliest production period mentioned above.

Airigh Nam Beist was a temporary part of the distillery’s core range for three years; 2006, 2007 and 2008. But those releases were all vintage-dated with a distillation year of 1990, making it a prime example of the middle period of production. I also have some current 10 year Ardbeg and a bit of Corryvreckan; both from the latest period of distillation, which started in 1997. Considering the rarity and expense of whisky made at Ardbeg before the 1981 closure, this would probably be my only chance to compare the three distinct periods of distilling at Ardbeg in the post World War II era.

When Ardbeg was purchased by Glenmorangie in 1996, they had to work around the limitations of and eight year closure followed by seven years of limited production and another year of being closed. That led to Ardbeg 17 year acting as their flagship bottling from 1997 until 2000, when it was joined by a new 10 year old. The 17 year, which was drawn primarily from stocks distilled in 1980 and 1981, grew older than its age statement as the years ticked by, until it was discontinued in 2004.

Viewed as a replacement for the 17 year, Airigh Nam Beist was a non-age stated bottling which carried its distillation year as a Vintage, as well as showing its year of bottling on the label. Over the three years it was produced, it would have been roughly 16, 17 and 18 years old.

Ardbeg’s source water travels a long journey, starting at Loch Uigeadail and following the Ardilistry River to Loch Iarnan before arriving at the distillery via the peat bogs of Ardbeg Burn. Loch Iarnan is locally known as Loch Airigh Nam Beist. This name translates from Gaelic as “shelter of the beast” and evokes legends of a primeval creature that is said to lurk there. The alternate translation, “resting place of the cattle”, is probably a bit closer to reality.

I’m going to start with the 46% abv 10 year old and work my way back.
The aromas are dense but uplifting, with a pine-like edge to the peat smoke and perhaps a hint of a floral note.
On the palate a touch of sweetness shows upfront. In spite of being a bit weighty in nature the character of the spirit is clean enough to give the peat plenty of room to express itself. The smoky intensity builds with plenty of char and a touch of bitterness.
Complex in a peat-driven sense, it evolves nicely as it moves through the long finish while a burst of iodine also appears.

The nose of the Airigh Nam Beist shows much less intense peat aromas, with a round character driven by soft, woody notes, coastal brine and subtle hints of spice.
On the palate, peat smoke and oak notes are deftly balanced and intertwined. Wonderfully complex spice notes come to the fore on the mid palate. The flavors seem to ride a fine line where they carry on with just enough backbone but don’t reach the point of being too sharply intense.
There’s a delicate, graceful evolution of the flavors as they move into the drying finish while maintaining sublime balance.

The Uigeadail bottling combines older sherry cask matured whisky with younger bourbon barrel aged whisky. At 54.2%, has a seemingly sharp, volatile nose but careful inspection reveals what it has to show; damp oak and dunnage floors, dry sherry notes and mature peat smoke.
Big and chewy in body, the palate shows great depth and range. The sherry casks express themselves with dry, dark fruit and a bit of oxidized nuttiness. Spice notes and maltiness join in enthusiastically and the peat notes bring great complexity, from bacon and tar to campfire and kelp. It holds a firm grip on the palate, evolving but refusing to fade as it moves through the finish.

Next up is Corryvreckan. This moniker was somewhat of a coup in terms of marketing; it was named for a notorious whirlpool which forms in the Sound of Islay and is easily visible from the Caol Ila distillery, on the other side of the island. Corryvreckan was introduced in 2009 as a replacement for Airigh Nam Beist. It is aged in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and new French oak and is said to be between 10 and 12 years old, though it carries no age statement.
At 57.1% abv, the nose is surprisingly less intense than that of the Uigeadail. Light and slightly floral peat smoke aromas stand out with just a hint of tree fruit and tropical fruit. On the palate it comes out of the gate showing a sharp, angular nature. Once it settles in, dry spice, leather and smoldering beach fire notes become the main players. Notes of sandy soil and subtle fruit come out as well.
The long finish mingles vanilla and warming spice notes with lingering peat smoke. As different as this one is, it still has more in common with the 10 year than it does with the other two.

And finally, a quick revisit to 47.4% abv Perpetuum.
The nose has a coastal, briny edge and somewhat restrained peat notes which are sort of vegetal in nature while remaining dry and earthy.
As it did on my previous tasting, the palate shows a Jekyll and Hyde-like nature, starting off sweet and malty before abruptly turning astringent with sharp, cutting peat smoke and jarring iodine.
On the finish it drifts further from the balance that it never really had, with overt notes of barrel char and burnt toast taking center stage.

While it was interesting to compare such radically different expressions of Ardbeg, it wouldn’t be particularly realistic to view this as an outright comparison of the brand’s different distilling periods. With such a variety of ages and cask types used in these bottlings, there were just too many other variable at play.

I’m fully aware of the fact that Ardbeg had to sell off most of the great quality whisky that came with the distillery after its 1996 sale in order to rebuild the brand and remain profitable. Consequently the timing for putting together a special bottling to commemorate their bicentennial was pretty horrible. Sure, they restarted operations in 1997, 18 years before the big event, but back then everyone’s attention was focused on the survival of the distillery. By the time success was assured, it was a little too late to plan a special whisky in advance.

It’s ironic that bottlings like Airigh Nam Beist and early (pre 2010) Uigeadail, which served to build up the reputation that Ardbeg enjoys today, would have been perfectly worthy of commemorating its 200th anniversary, but we got stuck with Perpetuum.

While I view the description of Perpetuum as being mostly marketing-driven hyperbole, I couldn’t resist looking for a deeper meaning. If it truly represents the future of Ardbeg, that could be viewed in two different ways. If high priced, non-age stated bottlings which bear the flaws of overproduction are the future, then I fear for this iconic distillery. On the other hand, if some link to the past is the way to the future, there is hope. Hope that at least for a portion of the production season some of the old ways could be revived; a resumption of floor malting and the use of the third kiln (the only one which hasn’t been repurposed yet) with hand-cut peat from those deep, ancient layers. Maybe even some lengthier fermentation times and long aging in refill casks. This distillate could be separated out for special limited releases. Ardbeg is just one of many distilleries that I think could find their future by looking back to their past.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Cragganmore 12 year vs. Craigellachie 13 year

Cragganmore, single malt Scotch, Speyside, 12 years old, 40%, $59
Craigellachie, single malt Scotch, Speyside, 13 years old, 46%, $55

Cragganmore and Craigellachie were both established in the late 1800’s (1869 and 1891, respectively), during a booming period of distillery construction and expansion in Speyside which was fueled by the penetration of new railroads into the region. With only 11 miles separating the two distilleries, one could be tempted to call them neighbors, but that might be a bit of a stretch as there are 10 other active distilleries between them, following the course of the River Spey.

While they started off with different owners, Cragganmore was sold in 1923, with the company that owned Craigellachie (partially on its founding, fully by 1916) acquiring a 50% stake. That company had full ownership of Cragganmore by 1966. The common ownership wasn’t always obvious on paper though as the parent company held its many distilleries through a variety of subsidiaries and licensees.

A complicated series of mergers and acquisitions between 1987 and 1997 led to the creation of Diageo, which became the world’s largest producer of spirits. The new company’s whisky holdings were viewed as a monopoly though, so they were forced to sell off the Dewar’s brand along with Craigellachie and three other distilleries. This group package was quickly picked up by Bacardi in 1998.

The 75 year period of shared proprietorship between Cragganmore and Craigellachie is an interesting bit of history, but there’s another commonality between these two distilleries which has prompted me to compare their flagship single malts; worm tubs. This old-style method of cooling the vapors produced by a pot still and re-condensing them back into a liquid is said to add a unique meaty quality to the whisky. While Cragganmore and Craigellachie are both in the minority group of Scottish malt distilleries that continue to use them, every time I read a piece on worm tubs I seem to see a different number stated for the size of that group.

Clearly, I was going to have to roll up my sleeves and put together a comprehensive list of active malt distilleries that continue to employ worm tubs. But first I’ll go over how they work and explore the differences of their more modern counterpart.

The worm part of the equation is just a very long (about 300 feet) copper tube which is fashioned into a coil roughly 10 feet in diameter and 10 feet in height. The tube itself starts with a diameter of about eight inches and gradually tapers down to two inches or so over its length. This whole assembly is submerged in a large vat of cooling water; the tub. The traditional tub is an open-topped wooden vessel. Cold water pours in from the top and sinks due to its greater density. As heat exchanges through the copper coil, the water warms and rises to the top, making its way to the drain which has an opening near the water’s surface. All the while, the vapors moving through the worm are cooled and liquefied.

The shell-and-tube condenser, which is the more modern equivalent of the worm tub, was actually invented in 1825, but its usage didn’t become widespread until the 20th century. This piece of equipment consists of a large number (upwards of 100) of straight copper pipes of relatively small diameter (half an inch or so) all running parallel and arranged in a circular pattern. These pipes are six to ten feet in length, and held in place by passing through a round copper plate at each end. This whole arrangement is contained in a copper shell which is two to three feet in diameter, with capped ends forming chambers that are separated from the center portion by the above mention round plates. Cold water is pumped into the bottom chamber, and forced up through the copper pipes, making its way to the upper chamber and exiting via an outlet pipe. The vapors from the still enter the central cavity, passing through the outer shell near the top of the condenser, but below the upper plate. Surrounding the water filled cooling pipes; the vapors turn back to liquid and fall to the bottom of the center chamber, where they drain out.

The picture below shows the back of the Springbank stillhouse, where you can see two shell-and-tube condensers working alongside a traditional worm tub. Well, it’s mostly traditional; the wooden tub has been updated to a more modern stainless steel version, but rest assured, the worm inside it is still copper. As you can see, the modern condenser takes up much less space. This allows the option of placing the condensers inside the stillhouse, while worm tubs are always located outside. I’m also under the assumption that the more efficient shell and tube condenser can perform the same job with less cooling water.

The important difference between the two types of cooling equipment, in terms of how the whisky will end up tasting, is a matter of copper contact. A worm tub, with its large diameter copper tube, actually puts the vapors in contact with less copper before it condenses. The small diameter of the tubing used in a modern condenser increases the ratio copper surface area to spirit vapor volume. More copper contact equals more refinement and purification of the spirit.

When the gaseous spirit comes in contact with a copper surface, chemical reactions occur and the heavy, undesirable compounds (primarily sulfur based) combine with the copper and precipitate out of the spirit. This happens both in the still and beyond it, during the condensing process . The pictures below show the spirit safe at Springbank, and all of the blue-green stuff you see is copper sulfate that has come out of the spirit.


Getting rid of these sulfur compounds is good, to a certain extent. There’s nothing wrong with producing a very clean spirit, but in the small quantities that are typically left behind by the use of a worm tub, these sulfur compounds can add a rich, meaty, rustic quality to the whisky.

To figure out which distilleries are currently using worm tubs, I took my recently composed list active malt distilleries and did Google image searches of each distillery name along with the terms “worm tub” and “condenser” to get visual confirmation of which method they were using. I then went a step further and did the same for the newest crop of Scottish distillers which have gone online over that last three years.

I came across some interesting bits of information along the way. As mentioned above, Springbank is unique in that it uses a mix of both methods. While traditional wooden tubs can be found at places like Glen Elgin and Talisker, there are several examples of rectangular shaped cast-iron tubs housing the copper worms. This is actually the case at both Cragganmore and Craigellachie. In this type of arrangement the worm can snake back and forth in the tub, or be set up as more of a squared-off coil.

As I searched, I realized that in most cases where shell-and-tube condensers were located outside, they had replaced existing worm tubs without any coinciding structural changes being made to the stillhouse. For newly built distilleries or a reconfigured stillhouse where shell-and tube condensers were being used, they would almost always be located inside. Bunnahabhain has a mix of these two scenarios; the original worm tubs were replaced with outdoor condensers but the second set of stills added at a later date have their condensers located inside the stillhouse. Most distillery tours don’t go out behind the stillhouse, so the condensers located outside are often unseen and infrequently photographed. My search for images of them was quite frustrating at times.

The traditional arrangement for a shell and-tube-condenser is to have it standing vertically, but there are a small number that are oriented horizontally. Glenallachie has all four of its condensers set up this way, while two distilleries employ a combination of both orientations; Dalmore having theirs outdoors, and Macduff with theirs inside the stillhouse. The condensers should work the same either way; these setups are simply dictated by the space that was available when the equipment was installed.

Another interesting example is the Royal Lochnagar distillery, which has worm tubs but runs them at a relatively warm temperature. This is done simply by having a slow inflow rate of the cooling water coming into the tub which has the overall effect of raising the average temperature of the water in the tub. In turn, the spirit takes longer to condense and remains as a vapor much further down into the worm, increasing the amount of copper contact.

Conversely, for a period of time the Dailuaine distillery had stainless steel shell-and-tube condensers connected to two of its six stills. I believe spirit was vatted together from all three sets of stills before being entered into casks, giving an overall effect similar to the use of a worm tub. Following that lead, the relatively new Roseisle distillery has some of its stills connected to two condensers; one copper and one stainless steel. This gives them the flexibility to create different styles of whisky, depending on which condenser they run the spirit through.

Surprisingly, some distilleries have changed the type of condensing equipment they use in recent times. Dalwhinnie went through a period of modernization in 1986 and switched from worm tubs to shell-and-tube condensers. After nine years it was decided that the character of the spirit had changed too much, and the worm tubs returned in 1995. The original tubs had been the rectangular cast-iron type, but the more traditional round wooden style was chosen the second time around, primarily for the visual appeal to visiting whisky tourists. With an even more recent change, Glen Scotia appears to have switched over from worm tubs to shell-and-tube condensers around 2011 or 2012.

Amazingly, 11 new distilleries have begun producing whisky in Scotland since the start of 2012. Only one of those, along with one other recently established (2008) distillery employ traditional worm tubs. I’ll start my list with these new outfits, followed by the other independently owned facilities and then move on to those owned by the big whisky groups.

Independently Owned
Abhainn Dearg


Inver House

Glen Elgin

So, 18 out of 110, or a little over 16% of the distilleries are using worm tubs. As for Craigellachie and Cragganmore, both distilleries spent much of their histories supplying whisky to blenders rather then being bottled as single malt. The first official bottling of Cragganmore was the 12 year old that we still see today, when it became part of the Classic Malts range in 1988. A Port Cask finished Distiller’s Edition followed in 1997, and several limited edition bottlings have appeared since 2000. The first official bottling of Craigellachie was a 14 year old that was part of the Flora and Fauna range for most of the 1990’s. That was replaced by another official 14 year old bottling which was produced between 2004 and 2007. Then, late in 2014 the distillery’s owner finally decided to capitalize on the brand’s single malt potential. They released a full range, which includes the flagship 13 year old, along with a 17 year, a 19 year (travel retail only) and a 21 year. A 31 year old bottling is also in the works and set to be released very soon.

Comparing the two visually they are similar, with a golden/honey yellow color. The Cragganmore does appear to be a touch darker though.

The nose is bright and fragrant, primarily showing tree fruit (pear and apricot) along with some floral notes (lavender?).
The palate is complex, with cereal grains, waxy fruit and a slightly perfumed floral character. Delicate nuttiness and just a subtle whisper of peat smoke add to the complexity.
As it moves through the finish the nuttiness intensifies and spice notes emerge.
Overall, this isn’t a style of single malt that I’ll ever love, but I’ve gotten to a point where I can appreciate it as a good quality whisky in spite of its strong floral notes and my aversion to them.

This one is weightier on the nose, with malty, gingerbread-like grain notes. Its tree fruit aromas stay more in the background, perhaps with a bit of that meaty quality emerging.
On the palate it’s more full bodied. There’s a complex mix of dark, weighty flavors; malt, Demerara sugar (but not in an overtly sweet way), roasted meats and a touch of fruit cake.
The finish starts off with sweeter notes before it evolves into a dry, slightly nutty ending that has much more intense spice notes than the Cragganmore.
Overall, it shows more depth and intensity, and I find it to have better integration, with its various characteristics tied more neatly together. I have to admit that it also has a flavor profile which I’m more agreeable to.

I’m under the impression that the heavier compounds left behind by worm tubs are more susceptible to being stripped out by chill filtration. Part of the difference in character between these two may be down to the fact that the Cragganmore is chill filtered where the Craigellachie is not. Tasting a higher proof, non-chill filtered example of Cragganmore is fairly high on my list of priorities.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tullibardine, Gordon & MacPhail 13 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, $70

My whisky purchases usually involve much planning and forethought, but every once in a while I do pick up a bottle on a whim. This is one such case. After having become enamored with the Edradour distillery while drinking the flagship 10 year old and researching their Morton’s Refrigerator, making my way there for a tour become a top priority for my next visit to Scotland, whenever that may be. The picturesque distillery is located near the geographic center of the country, roughly 60 mile north of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Of course if you’re planning to drive out to the center of Scotland just to visit a distillery, it’s only logical to visit a few others along the way. Looking at a map of the country, there are five distilleries running in somewhat of a north-south line, spread across 25 miles of the Central Highlands. Edradour is at the north end and Tullibardine is at the south end, with Blair Athol, Aberfeldy and Glenturret lying between them. Daydreaming of such an adventure kept these distillery names fresh in my mind, prompting me to pick up this 13 year old bottling of Tullibardine in spite of the fact that I knew very little about their whisky or where it was made.

That was a little over three years ago. While official distillery bottlings from Tullibardine did exist at the time, they were sort of hard to come by. I have, however, started seeing Tullibardine on store shelves with some frequency more recently. Let’s take a quick look at the brand’s history.

First, lest there be any confusion, there was a distillery named Tullibardine that operated from 1798 to 1837, which was also in the village of Blackford, but not in the same location as the current distillery. The modern Tullibardine distillery was constructed in buildings that had operated as a brewery dating back to the 12th century. There are records of King James IV of Scotland stopping here to purchase beer on the way to his coronation in 1488. That year is sometimes associated with the current operation even though work on the distillery began in 1947 and spirit first flowed in 1949.

That start date is actually pretty interesting. After a spate of distillery construction in the late 1800’s, primarily in Speyside, Scotland’s whisky industry entered an exceptionally long bust period. This was primarily caused by World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II. With a single exception in 1938, no malt distilleries were built in the country between 1900 and the post-World War II boom period. Tullibardine was the first of this expansion phase for the industry, but it was way ahead of its time. All of the other new distilleries constructed in that period came online between 1957 and 1975.

The original owner, William Delmé-Evans, sold the distillery to a Glasgow based whisky broker, Brodie Hepburn Limited, in 1953. That firm was taken over in 1971 by Invergordon Distillers Limited, who increased capacity by adding a second set of stills in 1973. In 1993 Invergordon was acquired by Whyte & Mackay, and by the end of 1994 they had closed Tullibardine. The distillery was finally purchased by a business consortium in 2003 and they had it up and running again by the end of the year.

While an official 10 year old bottling had been available in the 1980’s and 1990’s, most of the distillery’s output was sold to blenders during that period. The new owners switched to a series of vintage dated bottlings and non-age stated wine cask finished bottlings. The cask finished single malts started off with distillate from 1992 and 1993, but eventually they had to switch over to younger whisky made after the nine year period of non-production. This happened once the whisky made after 2003 was at least 5 years old, and there was a coinciding price reduction.

Finally, the Tullibardine was sold in 2011 to its current owner, Picard Vins & Spiritueux; an independent French company which also owns vineyards and four distilleries in France. In 2013 the entire range was relaunched with six new bottlings.

The example of Tullibardine from Gordon & MacPhail that I’m tasting tonight was distilled in 1993, bottled in 2007 and carries a 13 year age statement. Judging from the color I’m assuming that it was aged exclusively in former bourbon barrels.

The color is pale golden straw.
The nose is delicate and quite grassy, with a subtle hint of clay. The aromas seem mature and well integrated, but not particularly oaky.
There’s some weight on the palate; it has a respectable amount of body. Hay and fresh-cut grass are the most obvious notes on the palate. Cereal grain, nuttiness, honeysuckle and dry oak notes all surface to a lesser degree, rounding it out with good complexity.
Warming, exotic (perhaps middle-eastern?) spice notes come into play on the finish.
This is an interesting whisky; it has a Lowlandesque flavor profile, but with a density more characteristic of the Highlands.

Most of the official distillery bottlings currently available go in one of two directions; nearly twice the age of this bottling, or non-age stated (but said to be less than half as old) and with various wine cask finishes. I’d be curious to taste any of

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ardbeg Perpetuum vs. 2015 Laphroaig Cairdeas

Perpetuum: single malt Scotch, Islay, 47.4%, $100
2015 Cairdeas: single malt Scotch, Islay, 51.5%, $75

A 200 year anniversary is a big deal, especially when you’re talking about the survival of a distillery on the rain battered, wind lashed shores of Islay. It’s even more impressive when one considers the challenges imposed on whisky producers by the geopolitical turmoil of the first half of the 20th century. The fact that Ardbeg and Laphroaig are both celebrating such a momentous occasion this year is quite noteworthy.

With the current state of the industry, no popular Scottish single malt distillery can really let a significant anniversary slip by without issuing a special bottling to commemorate the milestone. Such an event can certainly be capitalized upon by a distillery to help drive sales. More importantly though, devotees of the brand will be expecting the opportunity to experience a distinctive expression of the whisky they adore while toasting the affair.

Such a bottling should be special and somewhat unique, but it’s also important to keep its price in a range that won’t be off-putting to the average consumer. Along the same lines, a large enough quantity of said bottling needs to be produced so that it is readily available. Frustrated enthusiasts don’t make for a cheerful celebration. So, let’s see what Ardbeg and Laphroaig have come up with.

Both distilleries (as well as most of the others on the island) long ago started producing limited, annual Feis Ile bottlings for Islay’s music and whisky festival, which is held in May each year. These started off in very small quantities and could only be purchased at the distillery shops during or shortly after the festival. Eventually these bottlings from Laphroaig and Ardbeg grew in size and were also made available for online sales. In 2012, both distilleries further expanded production of their festival bottlings. They were still limited releases, but they could now be purchased from retailers around the world.

Rather than putting out two competing special editions for 2015, both Ardbeg and Laphroaig chose to make the festival bottling and the anniversary bottling one in the same. Both distilleries kept the pricing for these bottlings at the same levels as the festival bottlings that have come before them for the past three years.

Laphroaig also released two other limited bottlings this year. The first is a 21 year old which was billed as celebrating the 21st anniversary of the Friends of Laphroaig (the distillery’s official fan club). It was only available in 35cl bottles at £99, and could only be bought online, initially through a ballot system. The second is a 32 year old which was aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry hogsheads. 5880 were produced and they are retailing for $1200.

As for the festival/bicentennial bottlings, Ardbeg and Laphroaig took pretty different approaches. Perpetuum is supposed to pay homage to the different styles of whisky that Ardbeg has made over the last two centuries and represent the distillery’s past, present and future. Unfortunately the official description of this whisky is long on vagaries and short on specifics. The most detail that they give only reveals that this is a mix of old and young Ardbeg and a mix of Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels. They also mention that a tiny amount of the oldest stocks left in the warehouses went into the vatting.

You may remember from one of my previous Ardbeg posts that the since the current owners took control of the distillery in 1997, they’ve had three styles of Ardbeg made during three distinct periods of production to work with. I’d like to think that Perpetuum is a vatting of whiskies from all three phases, but I haven’t seen anything specifically indicating that to be the case. I’ve also seen rumors that Perpetuum was overproduced and its quality was compromised in order to meet quantity targets (I intend to taste with an open mind nonetheless). I decided to look for some numbers and found that there were 6660 bottled of Ardbeg Auriverdes (2014 Feis Ile) made and 72,000 bottles of Perpetuum made, plus another 12,000 bottles of Perpetuum at a slightly higher proof that were only available at the distillery.

Laphroaig, on the other hand, has told us very specifically how the 2015 Cairdeas was made. This whisky was distilled in 2003 and was an early project of John Campbell, the current distillery manager. Most significantly it is made entirely from barley malted on Laphroaig’s traditional floor malting. The distillery normally uses a mix of 85% commercially produced malted barley and 15% which is malted in-house. The latter is distinctive because it is dried by burning peat hand harvested by distillery workers, and that peat is composed primarily of lichens and mosses that grew in an area heavy with sea spray. Also, Laphroaig uses a cold smoking process in the malt kiln, where they start with a low temperature fire which produces a lot of smoke but doesn’t serve to dry the barley until the temperature is eventually brought up. Even just 15% of the malt being treated this way is enough to give Laphroaig its signature iodine-like medicinal character.

This whisky was also produced only using the small stills at Laphroaig. A fourth spirit still which is twice the size of the other three spirit stills was added in 1974. Distillate from all four is usually blended together, but not in this case. Furthermore, the 2015 Cairdeas was aged in first-fill Bourbon barrels in Laphroaig’s No. 1 Warehouse, which sits right on the edge of the sea. This whisky is John’s interpretation of what Laphroaig from 200 years ago would have tasted like. Laphroaig did make 28,500 bottles of 2015 Cairdeas (or 30,000, I’ve seen both numbers), which was barely up from the 28,000 bottles of 2014 Cairdeas that were produced.

The nose shows pleasant peat notes, but they’re different than expected; somewhat restrained and a little one-dimensional. The peat smoke aromas have a dry, earthy character, and if there are any fruit notes, they are very subtle.
The palate starts off going in one direction, and then makes an abrupt turn. It has a lush, sweet, malty character right up front, but that suddenly gives way to iodine and somewhat abrasive smoke notes.
It then goes out of balance while moving into the finish, with burnt toast notes coming to dominate.
Overall, the whisky is poorly integrated and has transitions that are less than graceful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a bad whisky, but it certainly isn’t worthy of the occasion it was earmarked to celebrate.

2015 Cairdeas:
The nose is defined by sharp peat notes, brine and iodine. A touch of vanilla adds depth. The lack of sherry fruit and maltiness makes it seem oddly lithe, in spite of the assertive aromas.
Exceptionally full bodied right up front, it follows with peat smoke that is dense but not sharp or biting. I was expecting a punch in the face, but got more of a giant bear hug; my palate gradually but forcefully enveloped. Laphroaig’s signature medicinal character is certainly present, but surprisingly doesn’t seem particularly amplified relative to their other bottlings.
Warming spice notes, mint and eucalyptus all come into play, mingling with a peaty campfire as it moves into the finish.
Depth and weight define this whisky, but it stays in balance and evolves gracefully.

I love the concept and truly enjoyed this whisky, but I’d like to see Laphroaig take this idea to the next level. Sure, using worm tubs and direct fired stills would be too big of a challenge logistically. But starting with a watered-down, lower original gravity wort to emulate the lower yielding barleys of yesteryear (as Springbank does) along with running an exceptionally long fermentation time wouldn’t be too hard to do for a limited edition whisky.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Old Overholt Rye, 3 year vs. 4 year

straight rye whiskey, 3 years old, 40%, $16 (2015 price)
straight rye whiskey, 4 years old, 40%, $16 (2011 price)

My last post looked at the recent revamping of the long-bottled Jim Beam Rye. This time around I’m going to look at Old Overholt, the other rye brand Beam has produced for many years.

The roots of the Old Overholt brand stretch all the way back to 1810. It was in that year that Abraham Overholt (1784-1870), a Mennonite of Swiss descent, took the family tradition of farm-distilling rye whisky and turned it into a commercial enterprise. He and his brother Christian Overholt (1786-1868) built their log cabin distillery in West Overton (in southwest PA) and began producing their Old Farm Pure Pennsylvania Rye brand. Abraham bought out his brother’s share of the farm two years later, and in 1814 a larger stone distillery with 10 times the capacity of the original was built.

Abraham’s two oldest sons, Henry Stauffer Overholt (1810-1870) and Jacob Stauffer Overholt (1814-1859), began working at the family distillery when they were quite young, and by 1850 they had both become full partners in the business. Demand for their whiskey was so great that in 1855 the family decided to establish a second distillery about 12 miles from the original, at Broad Ford; a site chosen for its river access. Jacob left the West Overton business to run the new enterprise and in 1856 took his cousin Henry O. Overholt (1813-1880) on as a partner. The whisky produced there was sold under the brand Old Monongahela Rye.

After Jacob’s death in 1859, his interest in the Broad Ford distillery was purchased by his father. The distillery was expanded in 1867, greatly increasing its capacity. In 1868 Henry O. Overholt sold his interest in the distillery to Abraham Overholt Tinstman, one of Abraham Overholt’s grandsons. After the deaths of Abraham Overholt and his son Henry in 1870, the company had a complex series of owners, most of whom were family members, but by 1881 the distillery at Broad Ford was owned by the famed industrialist Henry Clay Frick, another of Abraham’s grandsons. It was in the mid 1870’s that the distillery started to use the Old Overholt brand, in honor of Abraham Overholt and with his likeness on the label.

With Frick running the company, Old Overholt became the best selling rye brand in the country, and the entire plant at Broad Ford was reconstructed and enlarged between 1899 and 1905. Frick had sold a one-third interest in the distillery to his friend Andrew Mellon in 1887. As the executor of Henry Clay Frick’s estate, Mellon was able to take control of the distillery in upon Frick’s death in 1919.

The distillery at West Overton was closed at the onset of Prohibition and never reopened. But Andrew Mellon, as Secretary of the Treasury, was able to grant himself a medicinal whisky license which allowed the Broad Ford distillery to sell prescription whiskey and even occasionally produce more in spite of Prohibition. This asset made the company quite valuable during the ensuing period of consolidation in the industry. National Distillers, which formed in 1924, acquired all of the assets of Old Overholt in 1927.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, production resumed at the Broad Ford plant and Old Overholt once again became the best selling rye whiskey in the U.S. But Pennsylvania’s distilling heritage was on a downward spiral as Americans continued their previously established shift from rye to Bourbon, and eventually shifted away from whiskey in general.

National Distillers finally closed the Broad Ford plant for good in 1950 and moved production of Old Overholt to their nearby Large Distillery in West Elizabeth, PA. When National closed that distillery in 1958 they contracted the distilling of Old Overholt out to another Pennsylvania distillery in Schaefferstown, which went by the name Pennco at the time.

Somewhere between 1960 and 1980, National Distillers pulled out of Pennsylvania completely and moved production of Old Overholt Rye to their Old Grand Dad distillery in Forks of Elkhorn, KY. When Jim Beam acquired National Distillers in 1987, that distillery was closed and they switched Old Overholt over to the rye whiskey that they were already producing for Jim Beam Rye.

This was the low point of rye whiskey’s popularity and Beam probably only kept Old Overholt alive because there were still some pockets consumer demand left over from the brand’s heyday. There was no point in promoting Old Overholt, which had become a pretty mediocre product by that point, or trying to differentiate it from Beam Rye.

Fast forward to the current rye renaissance, and these two labels were suddenly fighting for the same segment (bottom shelf mixers) of the expanding rye market. As I mentioned up top, my last post examined the recent re-packaging of Jim Beam Rye and its boost from 80 proof to 90 proof. As a non-age stated straight rye it has to be at least four years old. At some point in 2013 a less noticeable but equally significant change was made to Old Overholt. The four year age statement, which was inconspicuously shown in small print on the corner of the label, was replaced with a three year age statement and made even less conspicuous by moving it to the back of the neck label.

Fortunately I have a mostly full bottle of Old Overholt that’s been in my collection for about 10 years, so I can do a little side by side.

Old Overholt, 3 year
The nose is kind of thin and basic. Some clay (maybe a hint of banana too) and gentle spice notes come through. There’s nothing offensive about it though.
There’s not much up front on the palate, but a burst of flavor soon pops up. The peanut-like “Beam funk” mixes with some Play-Doh notes and floral character.
As it moves into the finish, the rye flavors shift from being floral-based to spice-driven, while the other flavors linger on in the background.
Overall it seems pretty young and spirit-y.

Old Overholt, 4 year
The nose has similar aromas to the three year old, but with more oak, and more depth and intensity.
This one has more weight on the palate and seems better composed, with more continuity. The peanut-like note is much less obvious and there seems to be more tannic, oaky character balancing out the floral and spicy rye notes. The warming spice notes that characterize the finish aren’t too complex, but it winds down with more balance than the three year old does.

Comparing these two along with the two Beam ryes, it’s clear that the company has succeeded in creating more distinction between the two brands, both in terms of their flavor profiles and their packaging.

I wouldn’t rank either of these Old Overholts very high on a list of whiskeys to be sipped neat, but the four year old is better suited to such duty. The three year old is, however, perfectly capable of producing a respectable cocktail. It’s actually the mixing rye that we use where I work, so I’ll give a few examples of drinks that we use it in. One originated before Prohibition, and the other shortly after.

The Ward 8 has several origin stories, but the most likely one pegs its creation a bar in Boston in 1898.

2 ounces Old Overholt
1 ounce Grenadine
½ ounce lemon juice
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing tin, shake for a five count, strain into an ice filled rocks glass, top with a splash of club soda and garnish with orange and lemon wedges and a cherry.
We use fresh squeezed lemon juice and house made Grenadine (equal parts by volume of fine white sugar and Pomegranate juice at room temperature, shaken vigorously until incorporated), which probably makes a big difference in the quality of the drink.

The Vieux Carré was invented by a New Orleans bartender in 1938. The name is French for “Old Square”, an alternate term for the city’s “French Quarter”.

1 ounce Old Overholt
1 ounce Courvoisier VS
¼ ounce Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing tin, stir gently for a 15 count, strain over a single large ice cube in a rocks glass and garnish with a lemon zest.
The original recipe calls for equal parts (3/4 ounce) rye, Cognac and sweet vermouth. After experimenting with a variety of sweet vermouths, none of which he was happy with, our head bartender tried the above recipe and was finally satisfied, so that’s how we make it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jim Beam Rye, Yellow label vs. Green label

Jim Beam Rye, yellow label: Straight Rye Whiskey, 40%, $19
Jim Beam Rye, green label: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey 45%, $21

The lineup of whiskeys offered by the Jim Beam distillery has been expanding and evolving for several years now. When I recently noticed the new green label in stark contrast to the former yellow label on their eponymous rye bottling, I immediately looked to see if the liquid inside might be different or if they had simply updated the packaging. Two things instantly stood out: the proof had risen from 80 to 90, and they were now calling it “pre-Prohibition style” rye.

The fact that they upped the proof from its former anemic level was certainly welcome news, but what of this “pre-Prohibition style” business? Let’s do a little historical overview and at the same time dispel the widely believed myths that rye was the dominant style of American whiskey up until Prohibition and that Prohibition was entirely responsible for its demise.

Looking back to Colonial times (pre-1776), whiskey production was largely a secondary farming activity, and it was concentrated in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia (New England had a booming rum industry at the time which was fueled by the supply of inexpensive molasses from the Caribbean). Rye was the main ingredient of that early American whiskey because it was the grain that grew best in that mid-Atlantic portion of the colonies.

The trickle of settlers who migrated west of the Appalachians before the American Revolution had turned into a flood after that seminal event. When farmers (which most people were in those times) expanded westward, so did distilling. But the fertile, newly settled lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River were much better suited to growing corn than other grains. The style of whiskey that emerged from this new distilling frontier eventually came to be known as Bourbon. Its production was centered in Kentucky, but it was also made in surrounding states such as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.

Aging whiskey in charred oak barrels had become standard practice in the U.S. by the early to mid 1800’s, significantly transforming the product. By the middle of the 19th century whiskey distilling was transitioning into an industry in its own right, rather than simply being a facet of farming activity. This held true both east and west of the Appalachians, but most of the growth in the industry happened in the west. While the eastern distillers focused on supplying their nearby population centers, the western distillers had access to river networks that led to the Mississippi and ultimately the important New Orleans market. Later, the new railroads also gave them access to markets further west. Fertile soils supporting high yielding corn crops allowed the western distillers to take advantage of this growth potential.

Most of the commercial distillers in Kentucky and its surrounding states also made rye whiskey, but almost always in very small quantities relative to their mainstay, Bourbon. Overall, rye was the leading American whiskey style being made before the Civil War (1861-1865), but Bourbon production outpaced rye from that point onward. Rye’s share of production ranged from 60% to 85% between 1790 and 1810, but its share had dropped to 38% by 1878. While Prohibition wasn’t solely responsible for the near death of rye whiskey, it certainly expedited the process. That period was tough on all distillers but the eastern rye producing region was hit particularly hard, with only a handful of Pennsylvania’s 3000 distilleries surviving Prohibition. That thirteen year stretch and the following decades were a time of great consolidation in the industry. Most of the popular eastern rye brands were bought up by the few surviving companies and production was moved to their distilleries in Kentucky.

There’s in interesting point of distinction that I haven’t mentioned yet though. The rye whisky produced by the new distilleries west of the Appalachians was made in a fashion similar to Bourbon, while the eastern distillers held on to their old traditions and even refined the process in some ways, essentially leading to two distinct styles of American rye whisky.

The first difference was corn. Most of the eastern ryes being made by the end of the 19th century had no corn in their mashbills; they were primarily rye with some barley malt, and some had a bit of malted rye. If any of them did have corn in the mix it would have been a very small percentage. The western ryes were made in corn country and had quite a bit of it in their mashbills. Their rye content would have been at or slightly above the 51% minimum required and they would have had some malted barley (5% to 10%) for its enzyme content. But the remaining percentage was corn.

The next difference was the sour mash process. This was a technique that bourbon producers had come up with where some of the spent stillage from the previous distillation is added to the next mash. This is done to adjust the pH level making a more hospitable environment for the yeast that will be added. The western distillers applied this new method to their rye whiskeys while the eastern distillers stuck with the traditional sweet mash approach.

The third difference was the stills. When the western distillers scaled up and modernized, they switched over from pot stills to column stills. In the early 1800’s eastern distillers came up with a new still design that fell somewhere between the two mentioned above; the “three-chambered still”. This was an arrangement of three post stills housed within a wooden column. Live steam was injected directly into the pots to strip off alcohol, and each pot would feed the next.

While Bourbon took over as America’s prominent whisky after the Civil War, the western distillers were only making small amounts of rye, leaving the bulk of the country’s rye whisky production (and leading brands) in the eastern states up until Prohibition. One could easily make the argument that this late 19th century / early 20th century eastern style of rye is what actually defines “pre-Prohibition style” rye.

So, is this new Jim Beam Rye truly “pre-Prohibition style”? The short answer is no. The folks at Beam don’t disclose their mashbills, but it’s widely accepted that the one rye recipe they have used for many, many years is at or near the 51% rye mark. If they had done something so remarkable as coming out with a second rye recipe with little or no corn, or made a sweet-mash whiskey or set up a three-chamber still, any of those would be a huge selling point. It would also be something well worth screaming about in their marketing.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not saying that they’re lying. The term “pre-Prohibition style” isn’t legally defined anywhere. What I’ve laid out above is a historical perspective of what the term should mean. The Beam family has been making rye whiskey since before Prohibition (albeit primarily in the western style), making them somewhat entitled to put the term on their label. But it’s highly unlikely that the stuff in this bottle is any different than what was in the bottle with the yellow label, aside from having 5% more alcohol.

Why put the pre-Pro terminology on the label now? Craft cocktail culture is currently one of the prime drivers of rye whiskey sales. If you want to make an authentic whiskey cocktail from a pre-Prohibition recipe you’ll need a bottle of rye. A “pre-Prohibition style” rye will be that much more appealing.

Fortunately I’ve had a nearly full bottle of Beam’s yellow labeled rye kicking around on my whiskey shelf since some time in 2006, so I can do a proper side by side. I should also mention that at some point Beam had updated the “traffic safety” yellow label to a more easy-on-the-eyes, muted brownish-yellow label, but as far as I know the whiskey remained the same through that change.

Yellow label:
I really love the aromatics on this whiskey. There’s a lot going on, but it’s not very assertive – subtle complexity. Well rounded spice notes, a little bit floral, some clay and a hint of oaky sweetness.
Unfortunately the palate can’t keep the promises made by the nose. The flavor development just doesn’t come together. It starts off kind of flat, and then shows a brief moment of promise on the mid-palate with some gentle spice and subtle floral notes, before it goes out of balance and turns hot as it moves into the finish.
Some burnt toast notes stand out later on the finish. It’s not horrible, but comes across as being poorly integrated and is mostly disappointing because the nose showed so much potential.

Green label:
The nose seems to be less complex but fuller and still well composed. The spice and floral aromas have an interesting pine note riding along with them.
This one is a little more agreeable on the palate. The spice notes are complex with cinnamon red hots, pine and a touch of mint. The “Beam funk” that is a characteristic of their house yeast definitely comes through. I know that this is a polarizing trait and it’s one that I don’t love, but I find it less offensive here than I do in their Bourbon. I think the rye notes are able to balance it out to a certain degree.
The finish is lengthy with some nice spicy warmth. Everything is pretty well integrated here. Opinions of this whiskey are going to be very dependent on personal preferences.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kilchoman Tasting

In light of the loss of Port Ellen (1983) and the near losses of Ardbeg (mothballed 1981-1989) and Bruichladdich (mothballed 1993-2001), it was a pretty big deal when Kilchoman opened in December of 2005 as the first new distillery built on Islay in 124 years. My first experience with Kilchoman was their Spring 2011 Release, a bottle which I had purchased in the fall of that year and finally sampled shortly before my trip to Scotland in the spring of 2012.

I was quite impressed by this young offering, especially considering its age (70% 3 year and 30% 4 year). Making a pilgrimage to and taking a tour of the Kilchoman distillery had become a top priority of the four days I would spend on Islay. Fortunately their gift shop was well stocked with a nice variety of miniatures. In addition to the 700 ml Sherry Cask Release bottle that I bought there, I also picked up 50 ml bottles of the Winter 2010 Release and Inaugural 100% Islay (reviewed here) as well as the 2006 Vintage and 2012 Machir Bay (reviewed here).

When I recently received an email from the Burgundy Lion in Montreal detailing their upcoming tastings, the Kilchoman event hosted by Anthony Wills, the distillery’s founder, immediately caught my attention. As the distillery had started out selling some very young whiskies, I was really curious to see how their products had evolved over the last three and a half years. The average age of their bottlings has crept up a little every year, but they do have to sell a pretty good amount of whisky to keep the operation going, so they’re certainly not offering a range of 9 year olds as the distillery approaches the 10th anniversary of the start of production.

Before I get into the individual whiskies, I’ll touch on some of the insights that I gained from the man who established the business. Starting an independent distillery from scratch is no easy task. Mr. Wills knew this, but as an independent bottler he also knew that it was getting harder and harder to source quality whisky and that distillery ownership was the best way to secure a future in the industry. Understanding that the reputable name of an established single malt brand can be a big asset to an independent bottler, he also realized how important the Islay “brand” and location would be to a new distillery, and he wisely chose to locate there.

The biggest challenge would be finding investors; trying to start a brand new distillery was almost unheard of 10-plus years ago and the return on investment would come on a very long time scale. He was able to pull together £1 million; just enough to get the distillery built. Once the vision had a physical manifestation, it was a little easier to attract more capital to keep the place running and growing. The total investment to date has been £10 million. That’s quite a leap of faith.

Having a respectable product to sell early on would be critical to keeping the place going. Wills had the foresight to bring on Dr. James Swan as a consultant with the objective of creating a spirit that would mature quickly. They targeted a style that would be light, clean and fruity. I’m sure every aspect of the process was scrutinized, but the small stills with tall, narrow necks were chosen to maximize copper contact with this goal in mind. The almost exclusive use of 1st fill casks is also an important part of the equation (we were told at the tasting that Kilchoman only uses 1st fill Bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace distillery and fresh Sherry casks from the same source as Glenfarclas, but I know some of their early bottlings were aged at least partially in refill Bourbon barrels).


Kilchoman has charted a steady course for growth. Production in 2006, their first full year, was 50,000 liters of alcohol. I believe it was a little over 110,000 in 2012, and we were told that they were likely to come in at 170,000 for 2015 and were forecasting 200,000 liters for 2016. Production will max out at 250,000 liters per year with the current set of stills.

The original idea was for this to be a complete farm distillery, with all of the barley grown on site and malted in house. They quickly realized that this wasn’t feasible but kept the concept alive for one whisky. Their 100% Islay bottling is made from barley grown on a neighboring farm (which they have since bought, bringing that part of the process under their control too) and malted to 20 parts-per-million phenols on a traditional floor malting. The other 80% of their barley, which is used for all of the other bottlings, comes from the Port Ellen malting facility and is peated to 50 ppm.

Kilchoman also does their own bottling and 100% of the whisky they produce ends up as single malt; none of it goes into blends. Everything they bottle in non-chill filtered and natural color.

One of the big questions that I had (and it must be a common question because it was answered before anyone asked it) was “what is the end game in terms of the level of maturation they will eventually build up to?” The answer was 8 to 12 years. Until they have whisky in that age range, they won’t really know where the sweet spot is though. I did get the impression that Anthony was leaning toward the younger part of that estimate as being more likely though. This seems pretty reasonable to me considering how well their spirit performs even down around 4 years of age. Also, looking back to the 1980’s and 1990’s, 8 year old single malts were actually quite common before they were lost to an arms race of increasing age statements.

Of course we’ve now moved into unprecedented boom times and those higher age statements can’t be sustained, so non-age stated single malts are becoming the norm. While Kilchoman has never used official age statements on their labels, preferring to let the whisky stand for itself, they’ve always been very forthright with the age information on their website. Anthony made the very good point that it’s much better to have started without age statements than to have built a reputation around them and then find yourself in a position where you have to eliminate them and try to put a positive spin on the change, as many distillers are now doing.

First up was the 100% Islay bottling. The miniature of this offering that I got at the distillery was the inaugural edition, bottled in 2010 and aged just three years. For the event we tasted the 5th edition which was released in May of 2015. This latest edition is a 5 year old, coming from barrels filled in 2009 and 2010. In both cases the whisky was aged solely in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and bottled at 50% abv.

The nose is very aromatic, with fresh peat smoke, sea spray and fish nets.
On the palate there is a moderate peat level accompanied by tree fruit with a slightly floral edge.
The finish shows good length.
Overall it is clean and well-integrated, with good intensity but not too assertive.

Next up was the Machir Bay bottling, which is Kilchoman’s core expression and accounts for 20% of their sales. The miniature of this bottling that I picked up at the distillery was from the initial release that came out in 2012. Back then it was a vatting of 3 year (60%), 4 year (35%) and 5 year (5%), all of which was aged in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and the 4 year old having spent another 8 weeks in Oloroso Sherry butts. The 2013 bottling was a vatting of 4 and 5 year old Bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old being finished in Oloroso Sherry butts for 4 weeks.

For the event, I’m not sure if we tasted the 2014 or the 2015 Machir Bay (I never saw the bottle), but I believe it was the former. We were told that it was a 5 year old, 90% of which was aged in Bourbon barrels and 10% in Oloroso Sherry casks. The Kilchoman website describes the 2014 as a vatting of 5 and 6 year old Bourbon barrels and Oloroso Sherry butts. There’s no info on the site about the 2015 bottling but I did find a review online claiming that it is aged 5.5 years in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and finished for 6 months in Oloroso Sherry casks, giving a total age of 6 years. All of the Machir Bay bottlings have been at 46% abv.

Compared to the 100% Islay, the nose has fuller, deeper peat smoke aromas, but still with plenty of maritime character.
On the palate the peat is bigger and more robust, with the fruit character dropping into the background.
The smoky notes reverberate and evolve through the lengthy finish.
Surprisingly, this one came across with less apparent maturity than the 100% Islay.

The third whisky of the event was Kilchoman’s Original Cask Strength. This one is from a release of 9200 bottles that came out late in 2014, and as far as I can tell there hasn’t been a 2015 release to date. Aside from a small number of single cask bottlings, this is the distillery’s first cask strength offering, so it has no equivalent among the earlier samples I was able to try. At 59.2% abv, this is a 5 year old coming from a vatting of 35 Bourbon barrels that were all filled in 2009.

The nose has an intense campfire-like smokiness. It has somewhat restrained coastal qualities, with aromas of fresh, wet beach grass thrown on to burning driftwood.
It’s big and assertive on the palate. Pine and wintermint are mingled in with the peat smoke adding nice complexity.
The smoke becomes a bit sooty in nature as the flavors evolve into the finish.
Adding a few drops of water helps to reveal greater depth.

The fourth and final whisky we tasted was the 2015 bottling of Loch Gorm, which is the version of Kilchoman aged exclusively in Sherry casks. There were Loch Gorm releases in 2014 and 2013 as well. The Sherry Cask Release bottle that I acquired at the distillery was essentially the 2012 predecessor to the Loch Gorm series. These have all been bottled at 46% after aging exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks.

The Sherry Cask Release was aged for 5 years in butts with 6000 bottles produced. The 2013 Loch Gorm was a release of 10,000 bottles and was aged for 5 years in butts with a further 6 weeks in hogsheads. The 2014 Loch Gorm was a release of 17,000 bottles aged for 5 years in butts. The 2015 Loch Gorm is slightly older with a mix of casks filled in 2010 and 2009, all of which were at least 5 years old. 10,000 bottled were produced from a mix of butts and hogsheads.

The nose has lovely, rich 1st fill Sherry cask notes beautifully integrated with the aromas of smoldering peat embers.
The palate has a nice back and forth between the peat smoke and lush Sherry fruit.
Overall it shows good depth, complexity and length.

I mentioned above that I had sampled the Winter 2010 Release and the Spring 2011 Release. I was curious what had happened to this series, so I did a little research and learned there had been four other bottlings. The Inaugural 2009 Release was the distillery’s first general release and had a total of 8450 bottles. It, along with the Autumn 2009 Release and the Spring 2010 Release, was aged about 3 year in Bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks (6 months, 2.5 months and 3.5 months, respectively). The Summer 2010 Release and Winter 2010 Release were each aged for more then 3 years, solely in Bourbon barrels. The Spring 2011 Release was a vatting of 3 year old (70%) and 4 year old (30%) aged in Bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old portion finished for an additional 5 weeks in Oloroso Sherry casks. These were all bottled at 46% abv. Looking back it is quite obvious that this series of bottlings was the predecessor to the Machir Bay offerings.

The 2006 Vintage release was another of the miniatures I picked up at the distillery, and that series has continued on. These are aged exclusively in Bourbon barrels and bottled at 46%. They have been released every other year, but the age of the whisky has gone up by a full year with each new release. The 2006 Vintage was bottled in 2011 as a 5 year old, the 2007 Vintage was released in 2013 as a 6 year old, and the 2008 Vintage was released in 2015 as a 7 year old.

A good variety of single cask bottlings have come from the distillery over the years, but each is quite rare by their nature. Aside from everything discussed above, the only other general releases to date have been the Port Cask Matured bottling (fall 2014) and the Madeira Cask Matured bottling (fall 2015). These were both distilled in 2011 and aged exclusively in their namesake cask types. Each release was at 55% abv with a yield of about 6000 bottles.

It was a pleasure to revisit the Kilchoman whiskies almost four years after seeing the distillery in person. Their offerings are progressing nicely and the nearly-10-year-old distillery looks like it is on the path to fulfilling its potential.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Upcoming Scotch Tasting

I'll be hosting a Scotch tasting at Doc Ponds restaurant in Stowe, Vermont, on Sunday, November 22nd at 6:00 PM. The $40 price includes food, five single malts and me talking for two hours. I'll be discussing Scotland's distilling regions, their historical origins and their significance in the modern era.

The malts that I've selected to represent the five regions are:
Auchentoshan Select (Lowlands)
Oban 14 year (Highlands)
Glenfarclas 12 year (Speyside)
Springbank 10 year (Campbeltown)
Ardbeg 10 year (Islay)

All of the tastings that I've conducted to date have been private events; this is the first one that is open to the public, but we are limiting it to 20 people. As of a few days ago, only eight spaces were still available. If you'd like to sign up, sending a message through the Doc Ponds Facebook page is the preferred method, but if you're not on Facebook you could also call the restaurant.

If the response is strong and all goes well, this may turn into a regular series of tastings (I'm guessing once or twice a month with a break during the busy summer season).

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Glen Elgin, 16 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 58.5%, $110

While I was exploring the whisky bars of Montreal earlier this year and making tasting notes for what would eventually become a three part series of posts on those establishments, I ended up including several whiskies that aren’t available in the U.S. One of those, Glen Elgin 12 year, was a single malt that I knew very little about until I did some research on it after the fact. I was pretty excited when I realized that this bottling was primarily distributed in Europe and that it wasn’t exported to the States at all. I also discovered that it is the only regularly available official bottling from Glen Elgin.

Then, as I was working on the relevant post, something caught my eye when I looked over a picture of the whisky list from Else’s. Not only did they too have the 12 year Glen Elgin (I had tasted it at Le Boudoir), they also had a 16 year listed. The price for a drink wasn’t too bad at $17 and I had a feeling this might be somewhat of a rare bird. It wasn’t listed on the SAQ website anymore, which means the bar was unlikely to get another bottle, so it went to the top of my list of whiskies to try next time I was in the city.

That “next time” happened a few days ago when I travelled up to Montreal for a Kilchoman tasting (details on that coming soon). I had done enough digging to learn that this was a fairly limited, cask strength bottling from several years ago which had been aged in European oak Sherry casks. I’m pretty confident in saying that the 12 year bottling (at 43%) is aged primarily, if not exclusively, in Bourbon barrels, so I expected this expression would be quite different. Needless to say, Else’s was my first stop after checking into the hotel.

The nose shows ripe fruit, stewed berries and subtle butterscotch. The aromas are actually somewhat restrained in spite of the high proof.
It is, however, much bigger on the palate. There’s big Sherry fruit and some sweetness right up front with a touch of vanilla. It expands and evolves as it progresses with some grain notes joining the fray as the heat and bold flavors vie for dominance.
Intense spice notes, vanilla bean and butterscotch amongst them, come to the fore as it moves into the finish which is incredibly long.

The 12 year by comparison (yes, I did follow up with one) is brighter, more floral and shows more stone fruit, less berry fruit and less spice. Once again, this is great example of extra age and sherry cask maturation taking a single malt whose house style I’m somewhat indifferent toward and really transforming it into something special. The higher proof of a cask strength bottling never hurts either.

In my review of Glen Elgin 12 year I mentioned that it had been available for about 15 years. That wasn’t completely accurate. There was a 12 year bottling from the distillery, also at 43%, available in the 1970’s. It continued on into the 1980’s, though with a revised label design. The 12 year seems to have gone away in the 1990’s, but there was a non-age stated bottling at 43% for the Japanese market during at least part of that decade. The official 12 year, still at 43%, came back as part of the Flora & Fauna range around 2001. Then it moved to the Hidden Malts range for a few years before finally becoming part of the Classic Malts in 2005.

There have been a number of independent bottlings of Glen Elgin over the years, but those are fairly rare. Equally hard to come by (and unavailable in the U.S.) are the few limited releases that the distillery has put out in addition to their mainstay 12 year. As far as I can tell, the following are the only other official bottlings to date.

There were three bottlings that were only given to staff and friends of the distillery, but some of those have ended up on the secondary market so they are worth mentioning. Each was likely a single cask bottling, so probably 200 to 400 bottles of each was produced. In 1988 there was the Manager’s Dram 15 year old at 60.2%, in 1990 there was a 14 year old Christmas bottling at 43%, and in 1993 there was a Manager’s Dram 16 year old at 60%.

In 2000 they released a special Centenary bottling to mark the occasion of the distillery’s first 100 years of operation (Glen Elgin was founded in 1898, but production didn’t commence until May of 1900). This was a 19 year old at 60% and only 750 bottles were produced.

In 2003 they bottled a limited edition 32 year old. It was marked as being distilled in 1971 and was at the relatively low cask strength of 42.3%. Just 1500 bottles were produced.

The 16 year old that is the subject of this post was bottled in 2008, at 58.5%. It is much more plentiful than the other limited releases, with 9954 bottle produced, but still pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. I was lucky to find this seven years after its release.

The only other official bottling I could confirm was from the Manager’s Choice series, which showcased a single cask from each of Diageo’s 27 functioning malt distilleries at the time. The one representing Glen Elgin was bottled at 61.1% in 2009. It carried no age statement, but was distilled in 1998. The rejuvenated European oak cask produced 535 bottles.