Friday, May 29, 2009

In the whisky cupboard ... Lagavulin 16 years old

lagavulin 16 years old bottleLagavulin (pronounced lagga-voolin) is a distillery on the western Scottish island of Islay. The majority of distilleries on Islay produce rich, smoky and complex single malt whiskies and Lagavulin is renowned as giving some of the best examples of these. The distillery is located on the south eastern coast of the island and is very close neighbours with two other well known Islay distilleries - Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Lagavulin was founded in 1816 and currently has a production capacity of just under three million litres per year. They have unusual pear shaped stills and they believe that a combination of these stills, a slightly lower peating level in their malted barley and one of the longest spirit distillation times in Scotland, give Lagavulin its own unique character and quality.

Lagavulin release a very limited core range of three whiskies - a 12 years old cask strength, this 16 years old and a 'Distiller's Edition' (a special release that is finished in specially selected Pedro Ximenez sherry casks). This 16 years old forms part of the 'Classic Malts' series. Diageo, the current owners, have chosen one distillery from within their portfolio to represent each Scottish production region and highlight whiskies that typify the style of each of these six regions. Lagavulin is the 'Classic Malt' representative for Islay.

The colour is a gorgeous golden amber and the nose just blows your mind, making you want to try the whisky. It offers a sumptuous and complex mix of sweet peat smoke (think of dried earth and moss), a hint of woodiness, something meaty (think of old leather) and some dried fruit (imagine sultanas and a bit of candied peel). There is also some vanilla and a burnt, almost antiseptic quality (many people say lapsang souchong tea but it reminded me more of cloves). On the palate, this is creamy, smooth, rounded and full bodied. The initial massive blast of smokiness (cross between thick bonfire smoke with a meaty barbeque) then gives way to other flavours. There is a distinct herbal element (like dried grass or maybe moss again), some sweetness (a bit fruity but mostly vanilla I think), hints of something oily, a refreshing saltiness and a menthol quality. The finish is long and dry in comparison to the sweetness and saltiness elsewhere, with the powerful peaty smokiness (think of wood ash this time) dying away very very slowly, leaving you warm inside.

This is a truly fantastic example of a smoky Islay whisky. It is easy to see why it has such a following of whisky drinkers around the world and why Diageo chose Lagavulin to represent Islay in their 'Classic Malts' series. This 16 years old retails at around £40-45 and can be found in specialist retailers and some larger supermarkets. A true 'try before you die' single malt whisky and an essential addition to any whisky cabinet.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Have just tried ... Laphroaig 10 years old 'Provenance' from Douglas Laing & Co

laphroaig 10 years old 'provenance'Laphroaig (pronounced la-froyg) is one of the most famous distilleries in the world. Located on the western island of Islay, the distillery was founded in 1815 and has been the best selling smoky malt worldwide for the last six years. Laphroaig is currently owned by Beam Global, who are one of the world's largest spirits companies, and it is running at full capacity (around 2.5 million litres a year) in order to meet the current demand for smoky single malt whisky.

Laphroaig is one of the peatest smoky whiskies in the world and this is produced by drying the malted barley over a peat fuelled fire for a longer period than at most distilleries - 18 hours. Over this time much of the acrid smoke gets absorbed into the barley grains and this gets carried through the whole distillation process. Prince Charles issued his Royal Warrant to Laphroaig in 1993, as it was one of his favourite whiskies. This means that they can display the Prince of Wales' crest on their iconic green bottles and white labels.

The core range from the distillery consists of two 10 year olds (one of which is cask strength), a 15 years old, a 25 years old and a quarter cask (which is matured in smaller casks). Other limited bottlings are released occasionally but are normally pricy. Laphroaig is popular with independent bottling companies and this one is released by the Glasgow based firm Douglas Laing & Co. It forms part of their 'Provenance' range and is from a single cask. A bottle should cost about £50 from specialist whisky retailers.

The colour is light and and the nose is pungent and full of character. There is an immediate hit of fresh green fruit (imagine apples and pears) that is mixed with a lovely sweet cereal note (think of a digestive biscuit or porridge oats) and powerful peaty smokiness (think of a cross between burning ash and fresh tarmac). On the palate, there is instantly some sugary sweetness (think of honey), followed by that ashy smokiness from the nose. It has a lovely rich feel with the potent peatiness being balanced with soft vanilla. The sweetness is balanced with some bitterness in the form of some cereal grain notes (imagine biting on the bitter husks), a hint of something herbal (think of damp moss) and iodine (a classic Laphroaig characteristic that reminds some people of disinfectant). The finish is long, robust and very enjoyable with the herbal mossy note complimenting the ashy smokiness very well. It burns away in your mouth for ages. This is an excellent dram and one of the best by an independent bottler that I have tried to date.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Have just tried ... Braeval 10 years old 'Old Malt Cask' from Douglas Laing & Co

braeval 10 years old 'old malt cask' bottleBraeval (pronounced bray-varl) is a Speyside distillery that many people are unfamiliar with. It is a large, modern facility that was built in 1973 by Chivas Brothers, who are now a subsiduary of the large Pernod Ricard drinks company. The distillery is currently mothballed - a process where the owners cease production but the distillery remains intact and ready to start operating when required - and has been since 2002. Braeval is one of four distilleries located in the famous and picturesque Glen Livet (Glenlivet, Tamnavulin and Tomintoul being the others) and lies at the furthest end of the glen in a remote area called Braes of Glenlivet (you may occasionally find a bottle labelled with this name instead of Braeval).

So why is Braeval so unknown? The main reason is that no single malt whisky is officially released to the public by the owners. When it was operating, 99% of the whisky produced at Braeval (approx. four million litres a year) went towards Pernod Ricard's popular Chivas Regal blended range. The remaining 1% was sold to independent bottling companies and this remains the only way to buy whisky from this distillery. This bottling is released by Glasgow based Douglas Laing & Co. and forms part of their 'Old Malt Cask' range, where they bottle just one cask at a time and at 50% ABV. This one was matured in a large sherry butt, so is one of 761 bottles and should cost around £45 a bottle.

The colour is light and golden with a fragrant nose that is feels fresh and clean. There is vanilla, some cereal grains, dried fruit (especially think of sultanas) and a sweet, rich floral note (this reminded me of honeysuckle flowers). On the palate, there is less freshness and more instant sweetness. It feels thicker in the mouth than the nose suggests and is sugary on the tip of the tongue (think of caramel). A combination of elements battle away to get your attention and creates a bit of an imbalance - some dried fruit (sultanas again), some spice (imagine cinnamon or nutmeg), vanilla, something grassy (think of dried grass or hay), a citrus tang (imagine lemon zest) and just a hint of smokiness (this is a fairly unpleasant acrid type of smokiness that reminded me of burning rubber/screaching tyres!). Some water was added due to the strength with the nose becoming more floral (think of a floral perfume) and the smokiness becoming more noticeable and more acrid. The finish is fairly light and pleasant enough with sweet vanilla and some zingy citrus notes. Unfortunately, the taste of that burning rubber spoils everything afterwards.

Have just tried ... Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist

ardbeg airigh nam beist bottleArdbeg is a distillery on the western Scottish island of Islay. They produce some of the world’s peatiest and smokiest whiskies at the distillery and the island itself is the home of this style of whisky. The first record of a distillery on the current site was in 1794, although the official Ardbeg founding date is 1815. The distillery is currently owned by Moet Hennessey and despite its relatively small capacity (only one million litres per year), Ardbeg has an extensive core range that is complimented with regular limited release bottlings. Ardbeg’s whiskies have a worldwide cult following and boasts an interactive distillery website that is second to none. Take a look at

The Airigh Nam Beist (pronounced arrig-nam-bay-schst) is an expression of Ardbeg that is released at 16 years of age. The name comes from the Gaelic for ‘valley of the beast’ and refers to an ancient story of a monster that lived in the small Loch Airigh halfway down the valley and used to regularly terrorise local villagers. A stream runs from Loch Airigh and passes next to Ardbeg distillery and then out to sea.

The colour is golden amber with a dark earthy brown tinge to it. The nose gives an immediate hit of rich peaty smoke that turns quite meaty (imagine barbeque smoke and leather). Other elements that come through are gorgeous sweet grains, vanilla, something spicy (think of ginger) and some dried grasses (almost like burning grass or hay). On the palate, this is rich and robust yet rounded. It feels almost oily in the mouth with the earthy, meaty peat smoke having a warm peppery edge to it. The meatiness become very bacon-like, especially with water. The other characteristics from the nose are all present with the sweet barley and vanilla particularly prominent. They are joined by a nutty quality (think of toasted nuts or seeds) and an interesting citrus tang (imagine limes). The finish is complex and very long with the smokiness burning away for ages, complimented by the refreshing zingy citrus note.

Airigh Nam Beist will be replaced shortly in Ardbeg’s core range with a younger cask strength whisky called Corryvreckan. This is a shame as it is a very good example of a smoky whisky that has won lots of awards around the world. It is worth trying a dram or buying a bottle before it disappears and stocks should still be available from specialist whisky retailers for the next couple of months. The cost should be around £50 a bottle.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Have just tried ... St. Magdalene 1982 'Berry's Own Selection'

St. Magdalene is a Lowland distillery has been closed since 1983. Despite closing almost 26 years ago, the distillery buildings are still standing and have been sympathetically renovated into apartments. The distillery originally opened in 1795 in the town of Linlithgow, which lies between Edinburgh and Stirling and occasionally whisky distilled at St. Magdalene is also released under the name of 'Linlithgow'. It was one of Scotland's oldest distilleries until its closure. St. Magdalene was regarded as having one of the most perfect locations in Scotland for both whisky production and transportation links, being situated very close to some of the main barley growing areas, the main Edinburgh to Stirling road and the Union canal.

St. Magdalene and Linlithgow whiskies are now extremely rare and are running out, so are highly sought after by drinkers and collectors alike. The majority of the remaining dwindling stock is owned by drinks giant Diageo, who occasionally release special bottlings. The rest of the stock is held by independent bottling companies, who carefully select when to release it. This one is released by Berry Brothers & Rudd, the famous London wine and spirits merchant, and forms part of their 'Berry's Own Selection' whisky range. It is 25 years of age, having been distilled in 1982 and bottled in 2007.

The colour is light and lemon yellow with a delicious nose that entices you to want to try it. There is a lovely sweetness that reminded me of a combination of vanilla and caramel (think of that combination as an ice cream and you will be close). Under this sweetness are lots of fresh aromas - some fresh fruit (imagine shiny green apples and cantaloupe melon) and freshly mown grass. On the palate, that sugary sweetness hits first and is then joined by the vanilla, fruit and grassy notes from the nose. The vanilla is more oaky (think of a waxy furniture polish) and there is also a refreshing zingy citrus note (imagine fresh lemon juice). Interestingly, there is just the faintest hint of peat smoke in the background, which is an ususual characteristic to find in a Lowland whisky. The finish is quite dry and grassy (more dried grass or hay this time), with the hint of peat and the vanilla oak coming through. It is long for something that is so light.

This is a superb whisky, that is light and refreshing yet highly complex. It just has to be tried to be believed. This Berry Brothers bottling is available in selected whisky retailers only for around £80 a bottle, although Royal Mile Whiskies currently have it for a MEGA BARGAIN price of £59.95! This would be a great opportunity to try St. Magdalene whisky before it finally runs out.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Have just tried ... Pikesville Straight Rye

pikesville straight rye whiskey bottlesPikesville is a brand of American straight rye whiskey that is produced at the Heaven Hill distillery. Heaven Hill is located in Bardstown, which is in the famous whiskey producing state of Kentucky. The distillery was originally founded in 1890 but was forced to close during the Prohibition period between 1920-1933. It was re-opened in 1934 by five brothers from the Shapira family, whose decendents still run the distillery today.

Heaven Hill takes its name from the Heavenhill family, who were the former owners of the farmland on which the distillery stands. They produce a range of whiskies using different traditional recipes (well known ones include Elijah Craig, Evan Williams and Rittenhouse), as well as gin and brandy. This help to make Heaven Hill the largest independent family owned distillery in America and the seventh largest in America overall.

Heaven Hill is one of the few distilleries that still produce rye whisky. Rye is seen as one of the most traditional styles of American whiskey, but was killed off by Prohibition. Its roots lie in the north eastern states of Maryland and Pennsylvania, with the recipe for Pikesville originating from Maryland. By law rye whiskey must contain a minimum of 51% rye grains in the mash and to be labelled as 'straight rye', this percentage must be a minimum of 65%. The rest of the mash can contain any other type of grains (such as corn, maize, barley or wheat) in any combination, with each recipe having different traditional combinations that give different flavours.

The colour is a rich golden brown (think of caramel or burnt sugar) and the nose is interesting. It has an initial slightly bitter sharpness, which may not be to everyones taste, but then a lovely sweetness comes through. This is very grainy in quality and is accompanied by loads of vanilla, coconut and warm spices (imagine ginger and nutmeg). On the palate, this is full bodied and has a great creamy feeling in the mouth. The sweet vanilla, coconut and grains are present, as are the warm spices. These are joined by an enjoyable bitter peppery quality (think of peppercorns or maybe a hint of red chilli) and some fruitiness (imagine sultanas). The finish is long and smooth with the slightly bitter rye grains rounding off the overall sweetness well.

Pikesville has a small production run each year and is hard to find as a result. However, it is worth searching out as it is very good and should cost the bargain price of £15-20. It is also becoming more popular in bars, as it lends itself to mixing well in cocktails, so it is definately worth trying some that way if you cannot find a bottle to buy. A very good whiskey.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Have just tried ... Caol Ila 28 years old 'Old & Rare' from Douglas Laing & Co

caol ila 28 years old 'old & rare' bottle and wooden boxCaol Ila produces some of the peatiest whiskies in Scotland and is located on the craggy north eastern coast of the island of Islay – the home of the world’s smoky whisky production. It is the largest distillery on the island yet remains relatively unknown to the wider audience. The capacity of Caol Ila is 3.5 million litres a year and much of this goes towards the popular Johnnie Walker range of blended scotch whiskies. The percentage of whisky released as single malt is increasing as the current owners, drinks giant Diageo, look to expand the core range to meet the world’s thirst for smoky whisky.

Caol Ila means ‘Sound of Islay’ in Gaelic. The ‘Sound of Islay’ is the name of the narrow, fast flowing stretch of water that separates Islay from the neighbouring island of Jura. The core range currently includes a 12 and an 18 years old, a cask strength version and a more limited ‘Distiller’s Edition’. Other very limited bottlings are occasionally released, including an unpeated version, and Caol Ila is extremely popular with the independent bottling companies. This bottle is released by Glasgow based company Douglas Laing & Co. in their ‘Old & Rare’ range. This range contains whiskies from all over Scotland and they are generally over 25 years of age, with some from closed distilleries.

This whisky is released as a 28 years old and is from a single cask, resulting in just 261 bottles being available. The colour is golden and the nose is very tempting. The initial impression is that it is quite light and fresh for something of this age, with some pleasant sweetness (think of vanilla and cereal grains) and some peaty smokiness (imagine damp earth and moss). On the palate, this has much more complexity. It feels light again but has more sweetness (that vanilla and cereals again) and more peatiness (that damp earth and moss but with more sulphury coal smoke). Added to these are a zingy citrus note (think of lemon zest), some tropical fruit (especially mango and pineapple - sounds odd I know!) and something bitter and herbal (imagine iodine). It is bottled at 54.2% ABV, so we tried it with water and it became lighter, less smoky but sweeter and more herbal (imagine dried grasses). The finish is long and enjoyable with lots of sweet earthy smoke and a slight antiseptic quality (this characteristic is common in some of the heavily peated Islay whiskies).

This Caol Ila is a lovely example of a complex yet rounded older smoky whisky. It has a refreshing lightness and finesse that some of the younger Islay single malts can lack. The only way to get older versions of Caol Ila is through independent bottling companies such as Douglas Laing & Co. and they can be found in specialist whisky retailers. A very good whisky that will cost around £175 a bottle.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Explain about ... Whisky cask types and sizes

When you buy a bottle of whisky it may state the type of cask or barrel that has been used during maturation on the label. This is especially likely on an independent bottling company’s label. But what does the type and size of the cask really tell us? The most basic thing to remember is that the smaller the cask, the more contact the whisky inside has with the wood. It can be very confusing if you are not sure of the terms, so we have compiled a quick guide to the ten main types of cask used within the whisky industry, starting with the largest.

Gorda (capacity 700 litres)
A huge barrel used originally in the American whiskey industry. Made from American oak, they are occasionally used for maturing whisky but mostly for the marrying of different whiskies for blended or vatted whisky production.

Madeira Drum (650 litres)
A short, fat, dumpy barrel with a very wide diameter, made from very thick staves of French oak. As the name suggests, these drums are used in the Madeira wine industry and are occasionally used for finishing some whiskies.

Port Pipe (650 litres)
This is a tall, thin barrel made from thick staves of European oak. It looks like a regular barrel that has been stretched from each end. They are used to mature Port wine and are used in the whisky industry for finishing.

Butt (500 litres)
A tall, narrow cask made from thick staves of European oak and they are widely used throughout the sherry industry in Spain. Butts are the most common type of sherry casks used by the whisky industry.

Puncheon (500 litres)
There are two styles of puncheon cask. The most common is the ‘machine puncheon’, which is short, fat and made from thick staves of American oak. The second is the ‘sherry shape puncheon’, which is more elongated and made with thinner staves of Spanish oak. They are used in the rum and sherry industries respectively and are mostly used to finish whisky.

Barrique (300 litres)
These are the casks that are widely used throughout the wine industry. They differ from many other types of casks or barrels as they are bound with wood strips rather than the regular metal hoops. Used to give whisky a ‘wine cask finish’.

Hogshead (225 litres)
The word hogshead derives from the 15th century English term ‘hogges hede’, which referred to a unit of measurement equivalent to 63 gallons. Now made from American white oak, hogsheads are widely used for maturing bourbon and then sent to Scotland and Ireland. They are one of the most common types of cask used for maturing whisky.

ASB (200 litres)
The ASB (American Standard Barrel) is derived from the hogshead with the capacity rounded down to 200 litres for modern ease of use. Made from American white oak, they are widely used in the bourbon industry and then are very commonly used in Scottish and Irish whisky maturation. If you have a bourbon cask matured whisky, it will almost certainly have been matured in a hogshead or ASB.

Quarter Cask (50 litres)
A cask made to be a quarter of the size of an ASB, while remaining in proportion. Highly reactive with spirits as there is so much contact between the spirit and the wood. Used to give whisky flavour quickly. Also known as a ‘firkin’ by brewers.

Blood tub (40 litres)
A small cask used mostly in brewing beer, but very occasionally used by distilleries to mature special runs of whisky. They have an elongated oval shape that was designed to make them easy to carry on horseback.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Have just tried ... Bunnahabhain 18 years old

bunnahabhain 18 years oldBunnahabhain (pronounced bunna-ha-ven) is located in the northern part of Islay, an island which lies off the west coast of Scotland. The distillery produces the lightest of the all the Islay single malt whiskies with extremely low levels of peat influence compared to most of the other distilleries on the island. Islay is famous for it smoky and peaty whisky and Bunnahabhain the black sheep of the family. Bruichladdich is the only other Islay distillery that produces the majority of its single malt whisky in a non peated style. Bunnahabhain was founded in 1881 and has endured a turbulent history and a number of closures and part closures. The most recent of these was between 1999 and 2002 when it was closed for the summer months due to poor availability at its local water source.

The current owners are Burn Stewart Distillers and the distillery produces 2.5 million litres per year. Much of this goes towards the popular Black Bottle blend, which contains whisky from seven of Islay’s eight working distilleries but has Bunnahabhain as its base. The core range of single malts has three whiskies - a 12 years old, this 18 years old and a 25 years old. Bunnahabhain is a favourite amongst the independent bottling companies and through these you can occasionally also pick up some peaty expressions from the distillery.

The colour is a golden burnt amber with a nose that needs a couple of minutes to open up fully. To begin with it seems quite flat and one dimensional but becomes rich with a lovely sweetness (imagine a combination of dried fruits, especially raisins, and caramel) and an interesting saltiness (think of brine or seawater). In the mouth this feels creamy with a distinct buttery quality. It is rich yet fresh with a mixture of the fruit, brine and caramel elements from the nose and some sweet (almost sugary) cereal grains, a spicy note (think of nutmeg) and a hint of pleasant bitter woodiness (sounds odd but imagine waxy furniture polish). The finish lingers on and on and is much drier, woodier and saltier than the nose or palate.

This Bunnahabhain 18 years old is only released in 1500 bottle batches so is harder to find than the 12 years old. It is a nice rich and fruity whisky with the interesting salty twist. If you can find a bottle, it should cost around £50 and is pretty good value for that price.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Have just tried ... Black Bottle

Black Bottle is a blended scotch whisky. It is unique as it contains single malt whiskies from seven out of the eight distilleries on the famous whisky producing island of Islay. These are combined with a number of grain whiskies to produce the blend. Islay is famous for its smoky, peaty whiskies and can be found off the south western coast of mainland Scotland. The seven distilleries included in Black Bottle are Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. The exception is the new distillery Kilchoman which is small and has only been in production for a couple of years.

The brand is currently owned by Burn Stewart Distillers and the blending of Black Bottle is based at Bunnahabhain (pronounced bunna-ha-ven), its only distillery on Islay. It was first blended in 1879 by a company called Gordon Graham & Co (whose name still appears on the bottle and cap) and got its name as it was originally filled in to bottles made from black German glass. This was changed to the green bottle in 1914, due to the outbreak of the First World War and the boycotting by many companies of German products.

The colour is light and golden with an intriguing nose. It feels fresh with some dried fruit (think of sultanas), sweet vanilla, some cereal grain notes and a powerful whiff of peaty smokiness (imagine damp, freshly dug soil). On the palate, this is again light and refreshing with an interesting mixture of three main elements - sugary caramel immediately on the tongue then earthy smoke and gorgeous vanilla. Other notes that come through are some further sweetness (think of honey) and a strange hint of spice (reminding me of cloves). The finish is long with a herbal grassy note (think of dried grasses) joining the sweet cereals and vanilla, with the smokiness burning away and fading gradually.

Black Bottle is an extremely well rounded and enjoyable whisky. It is smoky but not a smoky as expected, considering a number of the world's smokiest whiskies are included in the blend. The balance between the non smoky single malts, the grain whiskies and the smoky ones is very good and gives a surprisingly light refreshing feel at all stages of tasting. An excellent dram, especially considering it only costs around £15 a bottle, and one of the best smoky blends that I have tried to date.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Explain about ... Coopering - the art of making whisky casks

whisky casksThe art of making whisky casks is a highly skilled and traditional practice called coopering. Nowadays, modern machinery aids the cooper (the name given to someone who makes casks and barrels) but it still takes years of training to reach the required industry standards. But how are these casks made? Here we will go through the process of this dying craft.

• Oak trees are only cut down when they have reached sufficient maturity. This is when the tree is roughly 7.5 metres (25 feet) tall and 1 metre (3 feet) in diameter.

• The trunks are transferred to a sawmill. Here they are sawn into planks from which the correct length of stave are cut. A stave is a small plank with a sophisticated curved surface that links together to form a circular barrel.

• Traditionally a cask is formed of 32 staves with 15 more being used to seal the ends.

• In order to bend the staves to the correct shape, they are exposed to fire. Also, most bourbon distilleries in America deliberately char the inside of the casks as a common practice. This is done to help with the penetration of the spirit into the wood.

• A cooper planes down the staves so that they fit together tightly without leaking. This is done naturally without the use of nails or any glue and the staves are held securely in place by metal hoops.

• Wood is a porous material and the distillers want the whisky to interact with the air. Therefore, no varnish or paints are used on the casks to allow the wood to ‘breathe’.

• A hole is then drilled in the side in order to allow easy checking on the progress of the whisky’s maturation and final emptying.

Have just tried ... Four Roses Yellow Label

four roses yellow labelFour Roses is an American whiskey distillery that is located in the town of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The state of Kentucky is at the heart of the whiskey industry in America with seven distilleries operating and producing numerous brands of whiskey and bourbon. Four Roses is owned by the Kirin Brewery Company from Japan and is one of Kentucky's largest distilleries, producing almost eight million litres of whiskey a year. Much of this is released under the Four Roses name, although as with many of the American distilleries they also release whiskies and bourbons under different names. These use different traditional recipes in production and the most well known example made at Four Roses is Bulleit bourbon.

For whiskey to be legally named 'bourbon', it must adher to four rules.
1 - the mixture of different cereal grains must contain at least 51% corn.
2 - the final spirit must be of an alcoholic strength of 80% ABV or less.
3 - the spirit must be matured in virgin American oak casks for a minimum of two years.
4 - no colouring must be added during any part of the process.
For further information on American whiskies and bourbons, then check out the America page on our new website.

This Yellow Label is a bourbon and is the biggest selling whiskey in the Four Roses range, being approximately six years of age. The colour is light and yellow brown. The nose is light also and has a lovely delicate freshness. It is loaded with vanilla, oaky woodiness, sweet cereal grains (think of corn/maize) and a citrus note (imagine lemon zest). On the palate, this offers heaps of vanilla and fresh coconut (imagine scooping out the flesh having just cracked the nut open). It has a medium refreshing body that also has those cereal and citrus elements from the nose and a delicious honey note (the clear runny variety). The finish is short but has an interesting woody bitterness to it that counteracts the previous sweetness well and makes the bourbon more balanced.

This Four Roses is lighter, fresher and more subtle than a number of the bourbons that are on the market. It would be a great choice to introduce someone to a bourbon whiskey and offers good value for the quality of product at £18-22 a bottle. It has been hard to find in the UK until recently but is now being distributed and promoted more. However, it can still largely only be found in specialist alcohol retailers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In the whisky cupboard ... Glenfarclas 10 years old

Glenfarclas is one of Scotland's last single malt whisky distilleries that remains under the ownership of the family of the original founder. Meaning 'valley of the green grass' in Gaelic it was established in 1836, close to the town of Ballindalloch in the heart of the Speyside region. It is owned by J&G Grant and the current company directors are George and John Grant - the great grandson and great great grandson respectively of the founder John S. Grant.

Glenfarclas has the largest stills of any distillery in Speyside and produces three million litres of whisky per year. The majority of this is released as single malt and although it is popular in the UK, its main markets are in southern Europe, America and the Far East.

Glenfarclas is well reknowned for their use of quality sherry casks during the maturation of their whisky. The core range is extensive and covers different ages - this 10, 15, 21, 25 and 30 plus the cask strength 105. Independent bottlings are available but cannot carry the Glenfarclas name as J & G Grant do not allow this. The bottlers therefore have to use some creativity, so the whiskies will be found named as 'Speyside's Finest', 'Secret Stills - Speyside' or something similar.

The colour is a lovely golden amber with a gorgeous nose that makes you want to try the whisky immediately. The nose is a combination of dried fruits (think of sultanas and candied peel, especially orange), sugary caramel (imagine brown sugar) and a hint of a warm spice (like nutmeg or cinnamon). On the palate, this is rich and feels creamy in the mouth but remains fresh as those dried fruits feel juicy and succulent. The caramel and the spice are still there and a sweet cereal grain note is also present. The finish is long, sweet and rich with a sugary note (that brown sugar again) turning slightly oaky and bitter right at the end. Sometimes, this bitterness can be unpleasant but here it works as the whisky is so well balanced.

This Glenfarclas 10 years old is a very good example of a sherry cask matured whisky. It is rounded, smooth with all the characteristics complimenting each other well. If you like your whisky or other spirits (such as cognac or rum) on the rich, fruity and sweet side, then you will enjoy this. It can be found in specialist retailers and some larger supermarkets for £25-30. A bargain price for such a good whisky.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Have just tried ... Blair Athol 12 years old 'Provenance' from Douglas Laing & Co

blair athol 12 years old 'provenance'Blair Athol is one of Scotland's oldest single malt whisky distilleries, having originally started production in 1798. The distillery is located in the central Highlands, close to the town of Pitlochry. Blair Athol is next to Blair Castle, which is home to the 11th Duke of Athol and is the most visited private residence in the UK. The Duke has his own army called the Athol Highlanders and they are the last remaining private army in Europe!

Blair Athol is currently owned by drinks giant Diageo and they use much of the two million litres of whisky produced there every year for blending in their popular Bell's and Johnnie Walker ranges. Only one single malt, a 12 years old in Diageo's Flora & Fauna range, is released from the distillery with a decent amount of ages and expressions available through a number of the independent bottling companies. This whisky is bottled by the Glasgow based independent bottling company Douglas Laing & Co. and forms part of their 'Provenance' range.

The colour of this whisky is a dark orange brown (imagine caramel) and the nose is full of fruity notes (imagine dried fruits like sultanas, raisins and candied peel). These come from the sherry cask maturation that the whisky has had. On the palate, these dried fruit characteristics are prominent but they feel more juicy and succulent. It feels quite syrupy and has a sugary caramel-like sweetness with some spices (think of cinnamon especially) and a citrus style tang coming through (imagine lemon zest). The combination of flavours is reminiscent of a good fruit cake or Christmas cake and this is the classic flavour profile of a sherry cask matured whisky. The finish is much drier and more woody than expected with an interesting characteristic that can only be described as cloves. The fruitiness is still there but it gets overtaken by the woody oakiness, which was slightly disappointing.

A decent example of a sherry cask matured whisky that would suit people who have a sweet tooth and prefer their whiskies rich and fruity. This will only be found in specialist whisky retailers and should cost around £40 a bottle.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Have just tried ... Ardbeg & Glenmorangie new make spirit

glenmorangie still roomNew make spirit is the name given to the liquid as it comes directly from the still. This liquid cannot legally be called whisky, as for this to happen it must undergo a minimum of three years of maturation in oak casks. The new make spirit is produced by heating an alcoholic 'wash' of 5-8% ABV in the bulb shaped section of a copper pot still. Copper has been traditionally used in distilleries around the world as it has excellent conductive properties.

When heated, part of the 'wash' evaporates with the alcohols separating at a lower boiling temperature (around 75 degrees Centigrade) to the water. These alcohol vapours rise vertically up the neck and get sent down the lyne arm, which goes off horizontally off the neck. As the vapours travel along the lyne arm, they begin to condense and reform into a liquid. This liquid is the new make spirit and is around 65% ABV. Normally, this is collected and then transferred to oak casks to begin its maturation.

Occasionally these new make spirits are released for sale, most notably from the new Kilchoman distillery on the island of Islay and the Bruichladdich X4, that is probably the most widely promoted. For a more indepth look at the distilling process, then please take a look at How is whisky made? on our website.

Many people say that you can learn a lot about the character of a distillery's whisky by tasting their new make spirit. Recently, we had the chance to try new make spirit from two contrasting distilleries - Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. Ardbeg from the western isle of Islay is world reknowned for having some of the smokiest whiskies around, while Glenmorangie from the northern Highlands is famous for its light yet charasmatic whisky. Many factors can influence the flavour of the whisky. The main one is the type of oak cask that it is matured in over time, but with new make spirit this factor is taken away. So what you have is the purest raw form of the spirit with the type of barley, the amount of peat influence and the shape and size of the stills all affecting the flavour. Ardbeg is heavily peated in the malting part of the process and is distilled in short, fat stills whereas Glenmorangie is hardly peated at all and is distilled in the tallest stills in Scotland (see image above). The results show the diversity within the world of whisky. Neither are available for sale.

Ardbeg new make spirit
This sample is 65.5% ABV and had been distilled just over one week prior to the tasting. It is virtually colourless with just a tiny tinge of yellow. The nose is powerful and fragrant (be careful when nosing new make spirit as the alcohol level is very high and will annialate your nostrils if not approached sensibly!). There is a pungent earthiness (think of damp moss) with a prominent sweetness (imagine sweet barley grains) and distinct herbal note (very grassy) underneath. On the palate, the sweetness was the most prominent feature with the smoky earthiness hitting you afterwards. It was slightly salty and had a weird flavour that I can only describe as potato. With water, something strange happened - it became lighter and grassier but more peaty and spicy (imagine this with a burnt edge to it). The finish was long, sweet and very peaty but actually felt very fresh.

Glenmorangie new make spirit
This sample is a different kettle of fish to the Ardbeg. It is 63.5% and was only distilled five days before our tasting. The nose is aggressive yet very fragrant with some lovely fresh notes coming through, most noticeably fresh green fruit (think of pears and apples), citrus (imagine lime juice) and something herbal (think of fresh cut grass). On the palate, this is very sweet with lots of cereal notes and peardrops present (peardrops may sound strange, but it is a classic new make spirit characteristic that dies away during the maturation process). It is hot and spicy also (imagine ginger or chilli). With water, a more tropical fruitiness comes through (think of pineapples and peaches) and the spiciness increases and becomes more peppery. The finish is long, sweet, smooth and light.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Have just tried ... Strathisla 11 years old 'Provenance' from Douglas Laing & Co.

Strathisla is one of Scotland's oldest malt whisky distilleries. While it is not the oldest (that honour goes to Glenturret, which opened in 1775), Strathisla is the longest continuous operating distillery, having been in constant production since its founding in 1786. The distillery is located near to the town of Keith in the Speyside region and sits on the bank of the River Isla, from which it gets its name. The original name of the distillery was Milltown and this was only changed to Strathisla in 1951, following some restoration work by the new owners Chivas Brothers. They are still the owners of Strathisla, with Chivas Brothers now being part of the larger Pernod Ricard drinks group.

Much of the 2.5 million litres produced every year at Strathisla goes towards the highly popular Chivas Regal blended whisky range, with only a small percentage being released as single malt. These single malts have a cult following of whisky drinkers. The core range released by the distillery is small (currently only a 12 and a 15 years old) and relatively hard to find. Releases by independent bottlings companies are more available and are a good way to explore this distillery.

This has been matured in a bourbon cask by the Glasgow based independent bottling company Douglas Laing & Co. It forms part of their 'Provenance' range that showcases whiskies from lesser known distilleries from all over Scotland. The colour is light (imagine a pale lemon with a slight green grass-like tinge). The nose is also light with vanilla as the predominant character but with something herbal (think of dried grasses) and some sweet cereals coming through also. On the palate, this whisky has a fuller body than the nose suggests, feeling quite creamy and coating the inside of your mouth. Again, the vanilla is prominent as are the grassiness and sweet cereals. These are joined by some warm spices (imagine ginger and nutmeg) and a hint of something sharp and citric (like lemon juice). The finish is short and sharp but quite refreshing, with the grassy note really coming out. A bottle should cost around £40 from specialist whisky retailers only. Perfect for a hot Summer's day!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Have just tried ... Glenfarclas 15 years old

Glenfarclas translates as the 'valley of the green grass' in Gaelic and is one of Scotland's last remaining single malt distilleries that remains under the ownership of the family of the original founder. It was established in 1836, close to the town of Ballindalloch in the heart of the Speyside region. It is owned by J&G Grant and the current company directors are George and John Grant - the great grandson and great great grandson respectively of the founder John S. Grant, whose name also appears on all their labels. Glenfarclas has the largest stills of any distillery in Speyside and produces three million litres of whisky per year. The majority of this is released as single malt and although it is popular in the UK, its main markets are in southern Europe, America and the Far East.

Glenfarclas is well reknowned for their use of quality sherry casks during the maturation of their whisky. The core range is extensive and covers different ages. Independent bottlings are available but cannot carry the Glenfarclas name as J & G Grant do not allow this. The bottlers have to use some creativity so the whiskies will be found named as 'Speyside's Finest', 'Secret Stills - Speyside' or something similar.

The colour is a gorgeous dark amber and the nose is fragrant and enticing. There are lots of dried fruit (think of raisins, sultanas and candied peel), sweet malted barley grains and just a hint of dark chocolate (many people say that sherry cask matured whiskies of this age remind them of Christmas or Dundee fruit cakes). On the palate, this is thick, rich and syrupy. It coats your mouth with the sweet fruit and cereal and the slightly more bitter chocolate from the nose mingling with warm spices (imagine nutmeg), a sugary caramel note and some oaky woodiness. The finish is long, smooth and intense yet it remains fresh with the dried fruit becoming almost more juicy with time. That oakiness from before comes through at the end, as does a hint of coffee beans. This Glenfarclas 15 years old is an excellent and sumptuous example of a sherry cask matured whisky and is a bargain at £35-40 a bottle. One that just has to be tried.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Have just tried ... Linkwood 26 years old & Glen Craig 34 years old from The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

linkwood and glen craig smws bottlesOn our recent tasting evening at the London headquarters of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we sampled another couple of whiskies in the members’ bar. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a members club that bottle single casks of whisky from distilleries all around the world. The majority are from Scotland with 126 distilleries represented. They use a numbering system for their labelling, rather than naming the distillery. In this system, the first number is the distillery ID and the second is the number of the cask that has been bottled from that distillery (for example, using one of the whiskies below – 39 is the distillery ID for Linkwood and 69 represents the 69th cask that the Society have bottled from Linkwood). We randomly picked two distillery numbers and this is what we got …

39.69 Linkwood 26 years old
Linkwood is a distillery from the Speyside region of Scotland. The distillery was founded in 1821 and is located in the town of Elgin. It is currently owned by drinks giant Diageo and they use most of the whisky produced at Linkwood for blending, especially in Bell’s which is one of the UK’s best sellers. Only about 2% of the annual two million litres of whisky produced there gets released as single malt. The colour is golden and the nose is light yet fragrant. There is lots of vanilla, caramel and herbal notes (think of dried grasses and leaves). On the palate, this feels thick and quite syrupy in the mouth. The caramel becomes more toffee/butterscotch-like and the grassiness is particularly prominent. This is counteracted by a zingy citrus note (imagine lemon zest) and results in a refreshing feeling. The finish is complex and reasonably long with the vanilla and malted barley cereal coming through. Finally, this becomes quite dry, tannic and woody but this is not unpleasant.

104.11 Glen Craig 34 years old
Glen Craig is a very rare single malt whisky that was produced at the Glenburgie distillery between 1958 and 1981. Glenburgie is a Speyside distillery that can be found between the towns of Elgin and Forres. It is currently owned by Pernod Ricard, who use it in their popular Chivas Regal blends. Some also goes to other best selling blends, such as Ballantine’s and Teacher’s. Less than 1% of the four million litres produced there every year gets released as single malt, with the only way to buy it being through independent bottling companies. Glen Craig was an experimental single malt developed in the late 1950s and produced using Lomond stills – a type of still that could produce differing styles of whisky by adjusting its components. Production was stopped when these Lomond stills were dismantled and the whisky is now extremely rare.

The colour is a rich dark gold and the nose is very unusual. It is very fragrant and floral (imagine a cross between a feminine perfume and a spring meadow!), with some gorgeous sweet vanilla and cereal grains underneath (think of a digestive biscuit). This nose just made you want to try it and on the palate this is creamy and full bodied. The sweet vanilla and malted barley are there again and are joined by a complex mix of caramel, warm spice (think of nutmeg), tropical fruit (imagine pineapple and mango) and that fragrant floral note (think more of roses this time – sounds odd I know, but its true!). The finish is long, sweet and enjoyable with a hint of nuttiness coming through at the end (imagine a bitter style of nut like a walnut).

Have just tried ... Penderyn

penderynPenderyn (pronounced Pen-derrin) is the only single malt whisky distillery operating in Wales. Located in the village of Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons National Park in south Wales, the distillery is one of the youngest in the UK. It is owned by the Welsh Whisky Company, which was formed in 1998 and production began in September 2000. Penderyn is the first distillery to produce single malt whisky in Wales for over 100 years with the last one, Frongoch, closing in the late 19th century.

The production at Penderyn is unique as they buy pre-made wash from a local brewery and then distil this in to whisky. This is illegal in the Scottish industry where the mashing and fermentation must happen on the same site as the distillation. Their range is small and consists of this regular bottling (which is around seven years old) and a lightly peated version of the same age. New expressions are being added regularly as more stock reaches maturation.

All Penderyn whisky is matured in bourbon casks and then finished in Madeira casks. There are not many distilleries that use Madeira casks, despite them being cheaper than port or sherry casks. The colour is very light and almost straw-like with an interesting nose. It is light yet fragrant with some vanilla, fresh fruits (think of apples and pears) and something herbal (imagine dried grasses). On the palate, this remains light but has an initial bitter woodiness that fades to give some sugary caramel and malted barley cereal notes. Then the vanilla, fresh fruit and herbal elements from the nose come through. The finish is reasonably long for something as light as this and is quite refreshing, although that enjoyable sugary sweetness gives way to that woody bitterness right at the end.

This Penderyn is light, enjoyable and refreshing and would be a good choice as an aperitif or on a hot day, although the herbal grassy note may not be to everyone’s taste. The bottle and packaging are tall and distinctive and should cost around £30. We tried it in Wetherspoon’s, the UK’s largest national pub chain, who have just introduced it for £2 a dram. Definitely worth a try for that price!