2013 has been a productive year for new whisky releases. Many companies are developing and releasing more products to meet or drive consumer demand, as the category continues to grow in both sales and consumption across the globe. We have reviewed over 100 whiskies this year, with many being new releases. It is impossible to sample every new release, but we have been lucky to try some of them through this blog. A huge thank you to all of the brands and PR agencies that continue to send us samples and invite us to events.
The four of us have been deliberating and have selected our Top 10 whiskies of last year. Some people like Top 10s, some don't. They are always subjective and therefore potentially contentious as a result - everyone has differing opinions at the end of the day. We have tried to select our Top 10 on a ratio of quality, value for money and availability to the public. Previous winners of our 'Whisky of the Year' include Benromach 10 years old, Bowmore Tempest and Great King Street.
Like last year we have not selected an outright winner. Basically the four of us each chose a different whisky that we felt was the best and we could not decide between them. Also each of our Top 10s were different, which made it impossible to determine positions for each whisky. To solve all future arguments and restore group harmony, we simply decided to present our Top 10 new whiskies for 2013 in alphabetical order.
We don't normally include independent bottlings in our Top 10 but this one was too good to ignore, both in terms of quality and exceptional value for money. Old Ardbegs, especially those from the mid 1980s/early 1990s, are steepling in price as stock becomes depleted and Ardbeg's reputation grows. So this single cask (ex-bourbon), cask strength offering from Cadenhead's seems great value at £79.50 a bottle. The whisky was pretty damn good too and mixed feisty medicinal, smoky and citrus notes.
Another Ardbeg, but this time released by the distillery as part of their annual Committee release programme. The bottling was named to pay homage to the peat bogs which give Ardbeg (and some other famous Islay whiskies their earthy smoky flavour) and was launched in June with a cavalcade of events worldwide. This included one that saw a herd of inflatable sheep cross London Bridge, of which we were part. The whisky was delicious and creatively combined ex-bourbon and ex-Manzanilla sherry casks, and sold out rapidly as usual.
Balvenie Single Barrel 12 years old
Amongst a number of new bottlings from Balvenie this year was this new 12 years old expression, which essentially replaced the old Signature in the core range. For this release, single first-fill ex-bourbon casks are hand selected by the Balvenie's legendary Malt Master David Stewart and then bottled. Each bottle is hand numbered and there are never more than 350 bottles per cask. This is much lighter and fresher than most Balvenies are is packed with lovely malty, vanilla, honey and zesty lemon notes.
Bowmore 'The Devil's Casks'
This was one of the releases that caught the imagination of whisky drinkers across the world in 2013. Some clever marketing whipped up such demand that many were left disappointed as retailers sold out in double quick time. Clever marketing is one thing, but it stands for nothing if the whisky doesn't back it up. Thankfully it did as the lovely Bowmore smokiness mingled with 10 years of maturation in first-fill ex-sherry casks to create a superb whisky, which was bottled at cask strength and sold for a very reasonable £50 a bottle.
This limited edition release from the famous Speyside distillery certainly caused its fair share of controversy in the early Summer. It was initially surrounded in mystery with details slowly released during a calculated marketing strategy. Alpha had a black bottle and no details or tasting notes - the idea was to judge the whisky blind and on its merits, rather than any preconceptions. The got some whisky drinkers and journos in a flap. Hype is one thing, but the actual liquid was stunning with a classy mix of honey, vanilla, lemon zest and coconut.
The fourth edition of Glenmorangie's Private Edition range hit the headlines thanks to a certain Panama hat wearing whisky writer. Despite being released in January 2013, we had Ealanta earmarked as a serious contender for this Top 10. The use of virgin American oak casks was slightly ahead of the market, which saw numerous other such expressions released by competitors throughout the year. Nineteen years of maturation in these casks created a wonderful mix of tropical fruits, vanilla, honey and intense wood spice.
Johnnie Walker 'The Spice Road'
We have always been fans of the Johnnie Walker range and this was one of the best blended whisky releases of the year. The Spice Road formed the first of a three part series called The Explorers' Collection, which was exclusive to the travel retail sector. The other two subsequent releases (The Gold Route and The Royal Route) were good, but this seemed to represent the best quality vs. value for money to us. There is a delicious blend of rich flavours - especially caramel, dark dried fruits, bittersweet cereals and bags of woody spices.
Kilchoman Loch Gorm
The small independent Islay distillery of Kilchoman continued to grow their excellent reputation with a number of good new small batch releases throughout 2013. However, the Loch Gorm was the most interesting and has already built up a cult following of drinkers. Named after the nearby loch, this whisky was the first from the distillery to be fully matured in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. This created a wonderful fusion of feisty expressive peat smoke, toffee, sultanas and cinnamon. We can't wait to see what 2014 brings from this distillery.
Lagavulin 37 years old
This is our extravagant pick. Many people think that just because a whisky is expensive, then it is of superior quality to a cheaper product. This whisky, which was part of Diageo's annual Special Releases, is one of the few whiskies that we have sampled to date that can actually prove this point. Our visit to the Lagavulin distillery on Islay was one of our highlights of 2013. This was the oldest one ever released and had a hefty price tag of nearly £2,000 a bottle - the result was a high class, velvety, stunning whisky that made us run out of superlatives. OK, so we have expensive taste ...
Talisker Dark Storm
With the huge marketing push that Talisker Storm received earlier in the year, its feistier travel retail exclusive sibling seemed to slip slightly under the radar. Dark Storm is marketed as the smokiest ever single malt to be released from the Isle of Skye distillery. The difference between Dark Storm and the regular expression is the maturation in heavily charred casks, and this has added extra intensity and spiciness. Rumour has it that there will be further adding to the Talisker range this year, so it will be interesting to see what comes out.
We would love to hear from you about what your favourite whisky of 2013 was. Please leave your comments below ...