Sunday, October 5, 2014

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin vs. Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin: single malt Scotch, Islay, 51.2%, $80
Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, £60

I have quite a few unopened bottles of whisky in the collection, and last week’s Laphroaig tasting served as a good reminder that I’d been meaning to crack open the bottle of Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin that I’d been sitting on for two years. While I was at it, the bottle of Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release that I’d brought back from Scotland in the spring of 2012 seemed like something that would make for an interesting comparison.

Since Laphroaig’s quarter casks play a prominent role in this story, I should address a few common misconceptions about them. They are re-coopered from fresh bourbon barrels, not made new. Also, they are not ¼ the size of a standard 200 liter bourbon barrel. They are 125 liter casks; ¼ the size of the 500 liter butts that were most common when the ¼ casks were originally developed for easier transportation.

Laphroaig has been a bit cryptic when describing the compositions of some of their past Cairdeas bottlings, so it took some research to get a solid idea of what I was dealing with. The Cairdeas Origin is the 2012 release, which celebrates 18 years of the Friends of Laphroaig. The description on the label states that it “combines some of the original liquid used to first create Cairdeas, further matured and complimented with newer Laphroaig spirit that has been fully matured in quarter casks”.

Additionally, I found a quote attributed to the “Distiller’s notes” which states “We specially retained some of our very first Cairdeas for the 'Friends' 18th birthday expression .This whisky is now between 13 and 21 years old. We then blended it (50:50) with some new spirit fully matured in quarter casks for 7 years and bottled it without any chill filtering for maximum flavour”.

The first Cairdeas was released in 2008; I actually tasted it when I toured the distillery in April of 2012. At the time, I was told that it was a vatting of 33 casks – two 17 year 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 four years. However, that information seems to have been slightly inaccurate.

There’s an interview with Robert Hicks, the master blender who created the original Cairdeas, where he talks about using barrels from an experiment that was done in the development of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. It appears they had started off entering new make spirit directly into the quarter casks for several years, likely starting in 1993. They eventually figured out that it was better to take whisky that had been aging in 1st fill bourbon barrels for several years and then finish it for seven to eight months in the quarter casks. At that point, in 2004, they transferred the whiskey from those experimental quarter casks into 1st fill bourbon barrels to see how it would develop. That is the whisky, along with the two 17 year 2nd fill sherry butts, that was used for the 2008 Cairdeas. It ranged from 9 to 15 years old total, so it was distilled between 1993 and 1999.

The most common production number for 2008 Cairdeas is 3600 bottles. I’ve seen higher numbers, from 7000 to 12,000, but I don’t think they are accurate. I did some calculations to account for evaporation losses, and found that if the 3600 number is correct, it would have been 31 quarter casks that were transferred into an unspecified number of bourbon barrels along with the two sherry butts to compose that bottling.

So, that brings us back to 2012. From the “Distiller’s notes” quoted above, they say that the whiskey from the original Cairdeas is now between 13 and 21 years old. That leads me to believe that there was more of the whisky that had started in quarter casks between 1993 and 1999, and that by 2012 it had been in bourbon barrels for 8 years. That would give it a range of 13 to 19 years old. If more of the sherry butts that were 17 years old in 2008 were aged until 2012 that would put them at 21 years. Of course, that’s just half of the whiskey in the 2012 Cairdeas, the other half is 7 year old that has been aged entirely in quarter casks.

Assuming a somewhat high evaporation rate with the quarter casks, roughly 80 of them would have been needed to represent half of the whisky in the 20,000 bottles of Cairdeas that were released in 2012. That leaves some interesting questions. Did they continue experimenting with quarter casks that were filled with new spirit after 2005? Did they fill quarter casks with new spirit between 2000 and 2004? If so, how many of these quarter casks were produced each year, and has any of the whisky from them been transferred to larger casks?

It seems like there are really interesting stories behind the creation of some of these Cairdeas bottlings. I just wish Laphroaig had chosen to tell us those stories and had been be a little clearer with the details of the composition of the whiskies.

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012):
The nose has a dry, earthy peat smoke character, but it’s also slight grassy. Imagine throwing straw and a small amount of fresh cut grass on a dying campfire. Oaky notes persist as well.
The palate has just a touch of vanilla up front which quickly gives way to stronger flavors. The earthy peat smoke seems mild at first, but it gradually builds in intensity. Dry, woody oak notes come into play as well.
Some warming spice notes emerge on the finish, but it’s really all about the peat and the oak, each of which has a very dry quality, vying for dominance.
Overall I was a little unsure of this one on the first sip, fearing that it was fatally over-oaked. As I took some time to get to know it however, I found to be an unusual but interesting face of Laphroaig. This is an instance where I don’t find the whisky to be terribly complex overall, but it makes up for that evolving nicely from start to finish.

I wasn’t too fond of the 2008 Cairdeas when I tasted it at the distillery, but maybe it didn’t stand a chance in the company of the 25 year and the 30 year. Compositionally, the 2012 Cairdeas is sort of an evolution of the 2008, so I wasn’t really expecting to care for it, but it has definitely grown on me.

After being quite impressed with Kilchoman’s Spring 2011 Release, I was very exited to visit Islay’s newest distillery while I was in Scotland in the spring of 2012. Their visitor center was well stocked with a good variety of miniatures, which I wrote about here and here. I could only fit so much whisky in my luggage, so I was very selective about the full size bottles that I purchased; no sense in buying anything I could easily get at home. The first bottle I decided to pull the trigger on was Kilchoman’s Sherry Cask Release, which had just become available. Production was limited, and even though some of it was going to the U.S., it was highly unlikely that I’d come across one of those 600 bottles.

Looking over Kilchoman’s website today, I was pleased to see that things seem to have been progressing nicely there since I was there two and a half years ago. In October of 2013 they completed a new, much larger warehouse capable of holding 10,000 casks. The beginning of 2014 saw the addition of several new pieces of equipment that would improve production: two new vatting tanks where batches will be married prior to bottling, a new corking machine and a bottle conveyor, as well as a malt conveyor to move barley from the malting floor to the kiln.

Kilchoman has released quite a few single cask bottlings along with an annual Feis Ile festival bottling and even a Travel Retail (Duty Free) offering. But the bulk of the distillery’s output is seen in four different bottlings. Each of the four carries either a vintage date or an edition number, as they are gradually increasing the age of each bottling year by year.

Machir Bay is their core expression and the whisky is matured in bourbon barrels to a variety of ages, and some of it has been finished in sherry casks. The Vintage series is aged exclusively in bourbon barrels, both 1st fill and refill, and uses some of the oldest stock they have on hand. The 100% Islay bottling is made from barley grown at the distillery which has been malted on their traditional malting floor, and is aged in bourbon barrels. It is peated to a lower level than all of their other expressions, which are made using malt from Port Ellen Maltings.

The fourth expression, Loch Gorm, is aged exclusively in sherry casks. It was introduced in 2013, but the Sherry Cask Release bottle that I have from 2012 is essentially the predecessor to the series. The three bottlings (Sherry Cask Release, 2013 Loch Gorm and 2014 Loch Gorm) are all aged primarily in Oloroso butts, but specific details beyond that are a little spotty. As best as I can tell, the Sherry Cask Release is all 5 year old, the 2013 Loch Gorm was aged 5 years and had an additional 6 week finish in Oloroso hogsheads, and the 2014 Loch Gorm was aged exclusively in Oloroso butts for 5 years.

Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release (2012):
The nose very sherry-forward, with aromas of dark candied fruits being nearly as dominant as the dense peat smoke, which is very full but not in a sharp way. Subtle floral notes add complexity on the nose.
On the palate, it is full bodied and richly flavored. It has an element of sweetness up front, which is quickly followed a big wave of peaty intensity, then sherried fruit notes (more sweet than oxidized).
The finish is lengthy, with the peat smoke subsiding and making way for malty baked goods and warming spice notes.

The flavors are bold and interesting, but they tend to dart around a bit. Overall it feels like a whisky that’s yearning to be more mature and refined, but it can’t quite find its way there. I’d call this a work in progress; it has elements of greatness, and while the individual components aren’t completely at odds with each other, they haven’t really come together yet. I’m really curious to see how the Loch Gorm series progresses as the age of the whisky creeps upward.

This was a very interesting compare / contrast, with two heavily peated Islay single malts that are near opposites in terms of how they are aged (younger Oloroso butts vs. older bourbon barrels and quarter casks). At the same time, a quick revisit to the 2014 Cairdeas revealed that it is quite different from both, with its lack of subtlety and an initial dose of sweetness followed by its dry nutty finish.

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