Monday, April 30, 2012

Scotland, Day 8

This was mostly just a travel day. After breakfast, we packed up and drove across Islay to catch the 1:00 ferry back to Kennacraig. From there we enjoyed a beautiful drive south, down the Kintyre peninsula, and into Campbeltown. After settling in and a little dinner, I ventured out for a drink. I was actually starting to think I might have one single malt free day - the horror! A 10 minute walk through some heavy winds brought me to the Ardshiel Hotel, and its world famous whisky bar. I was awestruck. 

Later I learned that they had just reopened after a significant remodel, and many of the whisky bottles were still to be brought out of storage. The 450 bottles of single single malt on the shelves had another 400 waiting to join them. The owner would like the total to be over 1000 in the near future.

I went with the 10yr 100 proof Springbank, since it is being dropped from their product line soon and won’t be easy to get in the near future. Well rounded, nice balance and intensity of flavors. A great reminder of why I became enamored with this distillery some seven years ago.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Scotland, Day 7

I wanted to do something kind of special for my last full day on Islay (I know, I know, my first full day on Islay was pretty damn special). Bowmore is the only distillery on the island whose offerings that I’ve tried in recent years just didn’t impress me enough to inspire a visit. That leaves Laphroaig.

When I did my original research they had a tour that included walking to the water source, and then out to the peat fields to do some hand cutting, with tastings all along the way: sounded perfect. As the trip got closer, I started booking tours, and saw that Laphroaig had updated their website and changed their tours. The one that included cutting peat was now much longer and twice as expensive. But they had a new one called the Distiller’s Wares tour, which included samples drawn directly from several casks, after which you could fill a 250ml bottle with your favorite. I called and booked.

When we arrived at the distillery, I was quite disappointed to find out that they had some issues that need to be worked out before that tour would be available (perhaps paying duty on the casks that samples would be drawn from?). We were offered a tasting tour instead, which was less expensive than the one I had booked, but featured some very pricey bottlings. Sold!

We started with the standard distillery tour (photos allowed here!). I’ve come to learn that the smaller the group, the better the tour. With too many people, there is always someone in the way when you want to take a picture, the guides are harder to hear, and you feel bad asking a lot of questions while the guide is trying to corral everyone and keep them engaged. With a group of at least 15 college students on our tour, that was the case here, so I mostly hung back, trailed the group, and took pictures as everyone moved ahead. 

The stills at Laphroaig were quite small, but they have a lot of them (7 total, 3 wash and 4 spirit, but one spirit still is double the size of the others), giving them moderate capacity relative to the other operations on the island.

They also have a traditional floor malting for which they hand cut peat in the summer months. Of course this is still only enough to provide about 30% of the malted barley that they use.

The bit of info I was excited to pick up was regarding the Quarter Cask. It is aged primarily in bourbon barrels (Laphroaig use 1st fill almost exclusively), then finished in ¼ size barrels. I had always assumed these were made from new oak. That is not the case, they are actually made from normal bourbon barrels which have been taken apart, cut down, and re-fitted into these smaller casks.

At the end of the tour, everyone got a sample of the Quarter Cask. One of my favorites, dense, rich, creamy texture, pungent smoke, long, reverberating. I love it!

After that, my father and I split off from the group for our private tasting. We went to a well appointed tasting room with our samples already poured when we walked in. We would be tasting through the flagship 10yr (common, but a good frame of reference to start with), the 25yr cask strength (only available at the distillery shop for £240), the Cairdeas 2008 Feis Ile (a special bottling for the 2008 Feis Ila festival, limited release, pretty hard to come by), and the Cairdeas 30yr (they used the Cairdeas name to differentiate it from a previous 30yr bottling with a different flavor profile, this one retails around £500).

10yr, 40% abv, from first fill bourbon barrels, chill filtered (the 10yr is the only thing they chill filter). Smoke and sea spray on the nose. The palate starts off with a big wall of peat smoke and some sweetness which fades as the smoke builds and carries on. It finishes fairly dry, we were told this is a result of the chill filtering.

25yr, cask strength of 48.6% abv, ½ sherry casks, ½ bourbon barrels (not sure if they meant the number of casks/barrels of the amount of liquid, sherry casks can hold twice as much, so it could be 33% bourbon aged and 66% sherry aged, but judging by the color I kind of doubt that). Dark fruit and shoe polish on the nose. Mild restrained peat smoke, smooth, nice balance of mild smoke and dark fruit flavors.

Cairdeas (pronounced car-chas) 2008 Feis Ile, 55% abv, made from a vatting of 33 casks – two 17yr 2nd fill sherry butts and 31 bourbon barrels. The bourbon barrels were 9 to 15 years old when the liquid in them was transferred into fresh 1st fill bourbon barrels and aged for another 4 years. Strong peat and oak spice, warm and bourbon like. Interesting, but not my favorite.

Cairdeas 30yr, 43% abv, 1536 bottles made, 60% first fill sherry, 40% bourbon, married together and finished in bourbon barrels. Very mild smoke as an underlying component throughout, complex, nice mix of bourbon / American oak flavors (spice, caramel, vanilla) and very mild classic sherry flavors of dark candied fruit.

Going from the 30yr to the 25yr, the smoke on the 25yr seems much more apparent. After going back and forth between the two, then tasting the 10yr again, it seems a bit uncivilized. As I sampled all four, the 25yr and the 30yr seemed to disappear much more quickly.

Scotland, Day 6

Even after yesterday’s mega-tasting, we still pushed on to visit three more distilleries today, all on the northern part of the island.

First off was Bunnahabhain, where we were scheduled for a 10:30 tasting tour. This is a quirky, out of the way distillery. For many years it was owned by a large conglomerate and kind of ignored, only able to put out a 12 year old single malt on a regular basis. In 2003 they were sold (along with the Black Bottle blend) to a much smaller company, which also owns Tobermory and Deanston. Production has gone up, the standard lineup has had an 18yr and a 25yr added to the 12yr, and many other limited edition releases have made their way to market. Two years ago they stopped chill filtering, and raised the proof of the 12yr, 18yr, and 25yr from 43% abv to 46.3% abv.

Most of what they make is minimally peated, around 2ppm, but they do make spirit from heavily peated (15 to 25 ppm) malt for a few weeks at the end of the year before all of the equipment gets an annual clean out.

The tour was fairly standard, photography was allowed, just no flashes. The biggest thing that stood out was the size of the mash tun, which was bigger than the new one at Caol Ila, where they have almost triple the capacity. The mash runs much longer at Bunnahabhain than most other distilleries, I think around 10 or 12 hours, where most of the rest seem to be about 4 to 6 hours. They also add water to the mash is 4 stages here, when everyone else does just 3. I’m guessing this is done do maximize efficiency and get every drop of starch and sugar out of the grain that they can.

For some reason the 4 stills at Bunnahabhain were quite tarnished, where all the others we have seen practically glowing for the most part. I didn’t want to ask there and offend, so I’m still trying to figure out the reason for that.

We eventually made our way back to the tasting room, for a run through two from the standard lineup (12 and 18), and two more rare bottlings: Darich Ùr, which is aged in new charred oak, and Toiteach, which is the heavily peated version.

Darich Ùr, no age statement, 46.3% abv. Warm, vanilla and other oak flavors, tastes like something that is half way between bourbon and scotch. It is missing the rich malty flavors that I love in the 12yr.

12yr, 46.3% abv. More sherry flavors, dark dry fruit, malt & biscuit.

18yr, 46.3% abv. Not a huge difference from the 12yr. Smoother and maybe a bit more oak spice

Toiteach, no age statement, 46% abv. Floral up front, then into peat smoke. Slow, mellow, long lasting peat.

I have a bottle of 12yr and a bottle of 18yr at home, and plan to do a more complete comparison of the two in the coming months

From here we journeyed down to Bruichladdich. It was bound to happen sooner or later – we had to visit a distillery but forgo the tour. No disrespect to the fine people here, we just got too tight on time and a tour didn’t fit in the schedule. But we did visit their impressive shop and taste a few samples before purchasing some miniatures and 200ml bottles. I’ll write up tasting notes when I try them again at home. The shop had an unbelievable number of bottlings for sale, and many of them were available to be sampled as well.

Much like Ardbeg, Bruichladdich was brought back from the brink after a long closure, and they have also had many changes in their product line due to age gaps in the stock. In contrast to Ardbeg, they are big proponents of cask finishing, or Additional Cask Enhancement as they prefer to call it. This is the practice of aging primarily in one type of cask, usually bourbon barrels, then transferring the whisky to another cask (port, sherry, various wines) for a short period of time before bottling. Ardbeg does the opposite, they age in different cask types, but the whisky stays in one cask from start to finish. Then whisky from various cask types is vatted together to get the desired flavor. I don’t think there is anything wrong with either of these methods; they are just going by different philosophies to produce great end products.

In spite of missing the tour, it was still fun to wonder around outside the distillery and take photos of the many different, very specific cask types they had out there.

Finally, we made our way down the road a few miles to Islay’s newest distillery, Kilchoman, which began distilling at the end of 2005. Lunch from their café was excellent.

This distillery was started with the purchase of land and a few old farm buildings. Barley was planted, roofs repaired, and new distilling equipment installed. The intention here is to be a small scale farm distillery and do everything in-house, including malting and bottling. But even with a maximum capacity of just over 100,000 liters of spirit per year, they can still only produce 30% of the malted barley they need (this is moderately peated). The rest comes from an outside source (and is heavily peated). But they do keep the liquid produced from the two different malted barley sources separate, so you can know which you are buying a bottle of.

This tour wasn’t too different from the others, but it was very interesting to see everything being done on such a small scale relative to the other distilleries.

They have been doing limited releases of quite young whisky for a few years now, managing to generate revenue and interest in the brand. Many of these have been surprisingly good for their young ages. Tastings included in the tour were Machir Bay and 100% Islay. I picked up several miniatures here and will put together full tasting notes at home eventually.

I made one last stop on the way back to home base – Duffie’s Bar in the Lochside Hotel in the town of Bowmore. I had heard they have 300 single malts, that is impressive anywhere. When I got there and looked at the list I realized they had 300 Islay single malts. That is Crazy. I was hoping that the 25yr Bunnahabhain would be part of the tasting tour I did in the morning, but no such luck. I thought I might try it at a bar, but at £25 for a drink, and considering the minimal difference between the 12yr and the 18yr, I decided my money would be better spent in other ways. So I dropped down the price scale to £10.50 (which seems cheap when you look at the rest of the list) and tried a Bunnahabhain 16yr Manzanilla Sherry Wood Finish. A lovely dram enjoyed in a spectacular location.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Scotland, Day 5

Today was the big day, with extensive tasting tours at Lagavulin and Ardbeg. Fortunately they are both within 3 miles of where I am staying.

We started at Lagavulin with the standard distillery tour in the morning. Usually these tours are given by someone who is fairly young and has only worked as a tour guide / retail shop employee. The guides are generally well informed, but you just can’t get the insight and depth that comes from an old timer who has worked every job at the distillery through their life. Our tour guide this morning was Marjorie, and she was somewhere between those two extremes. Being a bit older and married to a former Lagavulin distillery engineer (as well as her father having been a malt-man at Ardbeg many years ago), made her a very competent tour guide.

As I explained yesterday, we were told that the size of the cut (of spirit coming off the still) is something that differentiates Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Today we were told that Lagavulin has a slower distillation, which helps it retain its full peat intensity. They likened it to slow cooking food at a low temperature to retain flavor, where Caol Ila has a hotter, faster distillation, sort of cooking off some of its smoky character. I assume they are both correct, and the combination of those two differences in process is what gives the two whiskies their individual styles.

As expected we were banned from photography during the tour, although I did manage to get a shot of the stills through an open door while wandering around outside later in the day.

But the real treat came after the standard tour, when we took the warehouse demo tour with Iain McArthur. This is the real deal, an employee here for 42 years who started off painting the ends of the casks at the age of 15, and he has done nearly every job at Lagavulin. He is a walking, talking history book. No question is too tough, and every answer is honest, not to mention his great sense of humor and wonderful character. Iain leads this tasting demonstration which starts with new make spirit, and goes through samples drawn directly from four casks, progressing in through a range of ages and barrel types.

New Make Spirit, 68-69% abv. Big, hot, interesting mix of floral and smoke. Tastes like Death’s Door with peat smoke added.

12yr, 55% abv, 2nd fill bourbon barrel. Mild up front, with sweet/fruit flavors, then building, evolving peat smoke flavors, burning embers and campfire.

15yr, 52.4% abv, 4th fill bourbon barrel. Mild nose, pale color, mild up front, bigger blast of peat, mixed with mild floral notes, flavor comes in waves.

19yr, 53% abv, ex-sherry butt. Smooth, complex, dark fruits, long finish, wonderful balance, sublime.

46yr, abv not specified but claimed to be over 40%, bourbon barrel, fill # unknown. Wonderful mild palate, smooth and easy to drink, very little smoke left at this age, turns too woody on the finish. According to Iain, if they were to bottle this whisky, it would retail between £2000 and £3000 per bottle!

From there, we made are way down the road to Ardbeg, where we had lunch at the Old Kiln Café, which is in their old malt building (outstanding food by the way). Next up was the Old Ardbeg / New Ardbeg Tour.

Ardbeg was shut down in 1981 for what they thought would just be a few weeks at the time. This turned into a long term closing, and the distillery was almost lost forever, but it did come back with limited production from 1989-1996. In 1997 Hiram Walker sold the distillery to Glenmorangie, who restarted production and went to full production a year later. With a long period of no distilling followed by years of minimal activity, they had some huge gaps in the age of their stocks. Because of this, they have had various bottlings run out, and new variations of Ardbeg have replaced them over the recent years. This tour provides a tasting that explores the new varieties versus the lost ones, a rare opportunity indeed.

The tour started off in a former malt building, with a taste of the 17 year, which was an Ardbeg icon before it vanished. The company had found a forgotten surplus of 17yr miniatures that they chose to use for this tour’s tastings.

Ardbeg 17yr, 40%. Bright fruit, light smoke nose. Wonderful back and forth from fruit to smoke through several cycles. Very long finish. Peat flavors are intense but soft.

From here we ran through the typical distillery tour, exploring the various parts of the operation. And finally, we were on a tour where photography was allowed. Distillery photos abound!

At the end we were taken to a tasting room where the rest of the sampling took place. We tried an interesting mix of cask samples, current bottlings, and two more “no longer available” bottlings, one from another stash of rediscovered minis.

10yr, cask sample, 54.7%, 2nd fill bourbon barrel. Campfire smoke, tar, coal, intense long fiery finish.

Kildalton (generally not available, from minis), made from very lightly peated malt, 24yr (distilled 1981, bottled 2005), 52.6%. Tropical fruit nose, fruit on palate, feels like peat coming on, but quickly gives way to nice mix of fruit (pineapple, mango, etc) and oak flavors which dance around with cask strength intensity.

14yr, cask sample, 53.9%, 2nd fill sherry cask. Big nose of dark fruit & smoke. Great intensity. Fruit up front followed by a blast of fiery smoke, long smooth finish.

Airigh Nam Beist (a limited edition bottling, almost impossible to find for the last two year, but the distillery still has a few bottles), distilled 1990, bottled 2006, 46%. Mild nose, soft burning peat builds slowly in intensity. Long, lovely finish.

Next we were given a choice of current bottlings – Corryvreckan (aged in new toasted French oak) or Alligator (aged in a mix of bourbon barrels and new American oak with a #4 char). I went with the latter, since I have a bottle of the former at home.

Alligator (no age statement, claimed to be a mix of 10yr to 12yr) 51.2%. Mild nose, sweet vanilla and caramel flavors followed by strong peat which builds in intensity through the long finish.

That was the end of the tasting, but a few guys that were lingering around at the end convinced the guide to give us a small sample of the Blasda, their current mildly peated offering. I didn’t take tasting notes at the time (my palate was pretty much fried by that point anyway). However, I do remember it being enjoyable but not nearly as special as the Kildalton.

This was a really good tour, with the chance to taste whiskies that are now almost impossible to obtain. But I think it could have been better if it had been structured a little differently. We worked through a lot of samples fairly rapidly at the end, and the order in which we tasted them didn’t make much sense. When I do big tastings, I find it best to start with lower proof and less flavor intensity (peat levels in this case), and work your way up. I think this tour would be improved by spreading out the tastings and changing their order. Maybe start in the old malt room with Blasda followed by Kildalton, then tour most of the distillery, and go up to the tasting room for the 17yr, followed by Airigh Nam Beist (which is unavailable now, but was introduced around the time supplies of the 17 tapered off), then follow that with a choice of Alligator or Corryvreckan. At the end, down to the warehouse / cask filling room for a short talk about the work that goes on there, followed by the two cask samples.

After dinner, I somehow managed to wander over to the local pub for one last drink. I tried the Bruichladdich First Growth Cuvee C: Margaux (Chateau Margaux) 16yr. This was a very nice way to finish the day after endlessly bombarding myself with peat monsters.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Scotland, Day 4

We had a long travel day today, but still managed to squeeze in some whisky activities. An early drive across Mull put us on the first ferry off the island. After bumbling about Oban in search of a petrol station, we finally started the drive south toward the Kennacraig ferry terminal. Half way there, we whittled away a spare hour with a stop at Kilmartin to check out some carved stone relics and a museum dedicated to the area’s rich ancient history.

We arrived for the 1:00 ferry to Islay with perfect timing. The 2 hour ferry ride was pleasant all along, but the last 30 minutes through the Sound of Islay provided stunning views of both Islay and Jura.

I took my first dram of the day on the ferry, sampling the Black Bottle blend, which is heavily peated, containing many island malts. I’ve read about it and wanted to try it, but never had the chance at home. In this part of the world, it’s hard to find a place without it. I even had time for tasting notes: mild nose with an odd note that I can’t place. Smooth up front, then moves into moderate peat levels on the palate. It builds a bit before turning warm on the smooth finish. Probably the most heavily peated blend I’ve had, but still quite easy drinking.

Finally, we landed on Islay (please pronounce it correctly – eye-luh). This is it, the dream destination of all lovers of heavily peated single malt, the Mecca to which they must make a pilgrimage. Straight from the ferry, we made the short drive to Caol Ila and caught the 3:30 tour. Caol Ila is owned a large conglomerate named Diageo (they also hold Oban and Lagavulin in their portfolio of 20-something distilleries. And “no photography” during a tour seems to be corporate policy. Oh well.

This is the company’s workhorse distillery, with a massive capacity of nearly 6.5 million liters of spirit able to come off the stills each year and 95% of production going to blends. They just reopened after a 6 month shutdown for improvements, adding a massive new mash tun and two new washbacks complimenting the original 8. This upgrade is likely pushing the 6 enormous stills to nearly maximum capacity.

Now the interesting tech bits – most single malts are double distilled. The first (wash) still brings the alcohol level up a bit, and the second (spirit) still finishes the job. But whisky is only made from the “middle cut” of liquid from the spirit still, not the stuff that comes outl first (foreshots) and last (feints). But that liquid is collected and put through the spirit still with the next batch.

During the tour, it was claimed that Caol Ila tastes less peaty than Lagavulin, even though their malt is peated to the same level. This is because Caol Ila takes a tighter cut (less liquid from the center portion of what comes out of the second still), causing less of the heavier peat notes to be carried over.

Also we learned that the feints and foreshots being carried over to the next distillation is very important to the flavor of the whisky - so much so that when Caol Ila closed for repairs and upgrades, that extra liquid from the last batch was collected, pumped into a tanker truck, and sat in front of the building for 6 months until the work was done and it could be added to the next batch through the stills.

At the end of the tour two drams were offered from a selection of three – the standard 12yr (which comes from 2nd fill bourbon barrels), Moch (a “no age statement” bottling from bourbon barrels picked specifically for their flavor profile), and a cask strength that is only sold in the distillery shop and is made from a mix of American and European oak. We asked about the unpeated 12 year that they were selling (which hasn’t been made for 7 years), and an open bottle appeared for us to sample. The shop also sold the standard 18yr, 25yr, Cask Strength (from all bourbon barrels) and the Distiller’s Edition (finished in Moscatel casks).

After dinner I did manage to walk over to the local pub in the Ardview Inn, which has an amazing selection of hard to find Islay malts. I took it easy on the first night, just sampling the 15yr Bruichladdich and a 16yr Isle of Jura from Murray MacDavid which was distilled in 1992 and finished in sherry casks after starting in bourbon barrels.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Scotland, Day 3

I only planned one full day and two overnights on Mull since it has but one distillery. Now that I’m here, I’ve fallen in love with the island and could easily spend a week here alone. After the traditional full Scottish breakfast, we made our way down to Tobermory distillery for an 11:00 tour. For a brief history of the distillery, see the third paragraph of my G&M Ledaig post.

Right in the heart of town, the distillery is a large triangle of connected buildings with a courtyard in the center. We started with a short video in the little tasting room which is connected to the distillery shop. The first question I asked was if the malt for the Tobermory single malt was slightly peated. The tour guide told me it is not, but the water they use does run through peat and picks up some of its flavor, giving the final product a subtle peat note. She said some can taste it, others don’t pick it up. Nice to know I was on point with the tasting notes I made last night.

As we moved into the distillery, we were again told no photography. Hopefully this trend doesn’t continue. The tours all follow the same basic pattern of grist mill – mash tun – wash backs (fermenters) – stills & spirit safe. But as you go along and ask a few politely prying questions, some interesting details usually emerge. The one that got my attention here was that they run a much longer fermentation for the peated Ledaig than the unpeated Tobermory. The former running close to four days, and the latter going about two days. We also learned that most of the aging is done in former bourbon barrels (I think exclusively for the Ledaig 10yr and the Tobermory 10yr), but the Tobermory 15yr spends 14 years in bourbon barrels, and is then transferred to sherry barrels for one year. (I’m not sure if I was misinformed by the tour guide or simply misunderstood her, but I have since learned that the 15 year is aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks which spend 14 years on the mainland before coming back to Mull for a final year of maturation.)

Toward the end, we learned that in the late 1980’s, the distillery was close to going bankrupt after being mothballed since the mid 1970’s. When it was bought, the new owner had to raise capital to get it going again. They chose to sell of the warehouse building across the street to a real estate developer who turned it into apartments.

The whiskey is now aged in the warehouses of Bunnahabhain, on Islay, who are owned by the same parent company. They do still have a tiny warehouse space on site where we got to see something special. They have several barrels (sherry butts I believe) of Ledaig from 1972 that will be bottled later this year as a 40yr, probably selling for upwards of £1000 a bottle. A few years ago they did a similar release of a 32yr Tobermory, with just 902 bottles released, it sold for about £200 a bottle.

Finally back to the tasting room for a dram, we were given a choice of either 10yr. I went with the Ledaig, a well made heavy hitter of peaty island character. I picked up a miniature to take home, detailed tasting notes to follow.

We spent the afternoon on a long driving tour of the island – glorious tight twisting single track roads surrounded by stunning scenery. I could ride my bicycle here for days on end.

After dinner I opted for a 15yr Tobermory for dessert, and took notes. Rich candied fruit nose, same heavy body as the 10yr, but a little deeper, darker and more richness on the palate, with fruit and spice notes emerging later, and the spice notes eventually taking over on the finish. The finish is slightly delicate compared to the 10yr. It evolves well, showing nice complexity.

After dinner we popped into the Aros Lounge (the pub in a hotel on the waterfront with close to 100 single malts) for a few drinks. No tasting notes as we were enjoying a chat with a few of the locals, but I did try a Tomatin 12yr and an Old Pulteney 12yr.

I had noticed floor to ceiling windows facing the street in the still room during the tour, and was told that they ran a night shift at the distillery, so I went back after dark to get a picture of the stills when they could be seen from the outside. I’m persistent, what can I say?